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Valeria's Last Stand

Valeria never whistled. Nor did she approve of people who did. In sixty-eight years, what Valeria had learned to be a truth about character was that people who whistled were crass. Whistlers were untrustworthy and irresponsible. They were shiftless. They were common. Butchers whistled. Peasants also. When they were supposed to be tending to their fields or completing any number of tasks peasants are meant to complete, Valeria was certain she could find them instead with their chins wet from a half liter of beer, sitting in the village’s tavern, whistling at the slutty proprietress, and telling off-color jokes.

As for the butcher, he was the worst kind of whistler. He whistled right into his customers’ faces. Blew his fetid breath right into the nostrils of anyone who visited him. Certainly, a visit to the whistling butcher on Monday was a trip to the health clinic by midweek.

Valeria thought about it while scrubbing the grout of her portico floor early in the morning. She was certain that the queen of England did not whistle. The Hungarian president did not whistle either. She followed a line back through Soviet history: Trotsky may have whistled; Lenin, certainly not; Stalin only whistled in madness. Subsequent leaders of the Soviet regime never whistled, not even Gorbachev. Yeltsin? Valeria’s stomach turned when she thought about Russia’s head of state. Yes, Yeltsin probably whistles, she decided.

And prior to the Communists, or reformed Communists, or whatever they called themselves these days, the aristocracy they had replaced had never whistled either. The Hapsburgs certainly never had. Valeria scoffed just imagining it. A whistling Hapsburg!

She brushed away a stray leaf with the back of her hand. She remembered hearing the village’s mayor whistle and she swore. True, it had only happened once, and in his defense, he did not know he was being spied upon. Still, Valeria was watching him. She did not like him. She did not approve of his flashy German car and flashier young bride. She considered the mayor to be nothing more than a cleverly trained chimpanzee, though more gauche and obtuse than any chimpanzee could possibly be. Valeria sighed. The mayor was who he was, like everyone else of his generation. The young were all too gauche these days. Since the Soviets had exited Hungary --- unceremoniously, she might add --- the country had sidled up to the West like a cheap moll. In fact, self-respect seemed to have deteriorated. Adolescent men appeared from nowhere. They drove expensive cars and kept company with expensive, long-legged women, women who were useless in all capacities save sex, who lacked any apparatus that might make them useful to society’s betterment. They certainly were not revolutionaries, these women. What with their narrow hips and small breasts, these simple-minded, androgynous-looking sexpots could not even breed tomorrow’s revolutionaries. Valeria thought of the mayor’s bride giving birth and laughed. Ornaments! That’s all the new woman was good for these days --- decoration. Why, just imagine it, Valeria thought, allowing oneself to be treated with the same disdain children have for holiday ornaments when they are rushing to get to their sweets and presents. Just imagine it --- allowing oneself to be set aside casually, or thrown to the ground violently, or shattered against a wall, or, at best, if they were very, very lucky, to be stuffed in a box until the next holiday season. Valeria shook her head. Imagine it! A generation of women reared to turn off everything within them except the capacity for easy compliance to wet sex.

Valeria scrubbed more vigorously. Her face flushed. Meanwhile, she thought, meanwhile, the mayor and his cronies slapped one another on their backs. They filled their bank accounts... blew smoke at the citizenry... had the nerve --- the audacity, really --- to call the whole stinking flea circus a democracy. Why, the Communists were philosopher kings when compared with the backslapping capitalists in charge of Hungary’s new and improved free-market system.

Valeria spat at a speck of white bird shit and scratched it with a short fingernail.

She wiped her brow. Nothing was sacrosanct anymore. Ultimately, that was her problem with this new system. It bred contempt. The masses need the inviolable. Even Stalin knew that. The proper care and feeding of the masses requires and demands opiates! But the capitalists ran roughshod over everything. They left nothing untouched or undefiled. Even the insignificant succumbed to market pressure. Things as inconsequential as her favorite Brazilian soap operas were being interrupted with screaming ads for French douches and toilet paper! Why? Who allowed that? What was the point of it? How did screaming commercials --- decibels louder than the program itself, so loud she couldn’t escape them even when she went to the wash closet (yes, she even heard them in there) --- how did screaming commercials (four times during her last program) make a democracy? It made no sense...

And then to top things off, the mayor was a whistler!

Thank goodness, she thought to herself. Thank goodness they lived in a small village, deep in the prairie, in the middle of nowhere --- and oh how Valeria was thankful for this point. She could rest assured that even the mayor’s whistling, loud as it was, would fall on deaf ears. If the mayor --- only the cleverest of peasants --- wanted to whistle, it did not matter; no one of importance would hear him and think less of the village. In fact, if, from afar, the queen of England or the Hungarian president happened to hear the mayor’s whistling as they were writing one another letters, they might look up for a moment and wonder, but then they would shrug and write the faint whistling off as wind stirring a distant crop of sugar beets; the mayor’s tinny whistle would be as insignificant to their ears as leaves falling on forgotten hunting grounds — as insignificant a sound to their cochleas as the candelabra flickering in their studies.

Except lately, the mayor himself had started bringing foreigners in. As though he had intuited that he needed an audience. Investors, he called them. Hardly any outsiders had ever come through their village before, and it had been that way as long as Valeria had been alive. In fact, Valeria remembered watching German tanks as a young girl along with her friends as the machines sped along the horizon making their way to Russia. Then, later, on the horizon again, she watched as British tanks arrived. The phalanxes hammered one another for days. And still later on, as a teenager, she watched the horizon for three days as a parade of Russian tanks made their way to Budapest. None of the tanks ever turned in their village’s direction. They were always heading toward coordinates more valuable, toward more interesting or important places to occupy. While this should have been cause for great relief, to some it was almost an insult. Indeed, it damaged the psyche of the villagers so much, this sheer disinterest by the tanks --- by anything really --- that when the new expressway was built, the villagers insisted that the signs not mention their village at all.

“Reaching us isn’t really worth anyone’s petrol,” some said.

“We only have one thermal spring anyway,” said others. “Tourists would be better off at Balaton.”

The Gypsies working on the road crew shrugged and offered the villagers the blue road-sign, which was quickly mounted in the village’s tavern.

Things change, however, and the mayor had his hand in all of it. Foreigners were visiting all the time now, it seemed. Valeria looked at her handiwork and nodded. The blue tiles were clean. They sparkled. The grout was bone white. She moved her bucket to the concrete steps. A child had offered to paint them for her, but she had refused. Clean was good enough for her. She pulled her brush from the sudsy water and attacked them. She couldn’t help but think of the mayor, and she cursed again.

It was the people’s fault, what this village was becoming. After all, they had voted the mayor in. The people of her village had put him where he was. Her neighbors! The most immoral, unreliable, uninformed, uninspired, and insane group of has-beens, alcoholics, pedophiles, perverts, unwed mothers, sissies, and Gypsies she had ever known. Her thoughts on this point were not exaggeration. She had lived in the village her entire life. She knew the village’s citizens intimately for what they were — a shiftless group of malcontents, maladroits to the last scruffy-necked man, overweight woman, and unclean child. And all of them smiling and nodding as they pulled the lever that put in power a man she would not have trusted with her trash.

She washed up.

Valeria did not consider herself a killjoy. Not in the least. In fact, she kept a ring of keys at her side, like a jailer, and sometimes she liked to shake them. When she felt pleased or content, instead of whistling or smiling she just tugged at the string around her hips until the dangling keys --- nearly one hundred of them --- started to shake. She felt this act to be supremely appropriate to a woman her age. It was fun.

She left her cottage and headed for the market while it was still dark out. As she had for many years, she reached its entrance with her chin jutted forward and her eyes owlish just as the sun was peeking out. She clutched her basket ahead of her like a battering ram. She marched through the throng of shoppers and thought nothing of ramming her meaty elbows into the ribs of other women, or against the jaws of loud children, or against the backs of slow old men. If it meant she could save a few forints on the last of the tripe, or if it meant she might be able to purchase a fresh carp, so fresh that its tail still smacked against crushed ice, she would elbow her way through a crowd or ram them with her basket and then shout in her victims’ astonished faces to boot.

She ignored the mongers hawking junk on the sidewalks out front. She had no regard for Chinese boom boxes, Polish electronics, German cassettes, or aluminum pans. She ignored the counterfeit sneakers piled high in assorted colors. She preferred to pass them as quickly as she could and head, instead, into the belly of the market, toward the stalls, where her neighbors displayed their fruits and vegetables.

Inside, she was like a raptor. She scanned the great hall, walked about, and investigated each and every cranny. The market was a place of commerce and Valeria acted accordingly. She allowed herself even fewer pleasantries while there. She haggled and harangued like a magnate and then bought little or nothing. She jabbed her fingers into her neighbors’ stockpiles, poking and handling their orange carrots, white carrots, turnips, rutabagas, tomatoes, parsley, pears, and asparagus. Most of these foodstuffs Valeria grew herself. She had no reason to buy anything. She was merely inspecting, checking for quality.

Her neighbors shook their heads at her. It was the same scene every day. Some even shooed her away.

“Leave my food alone,” they said. “Why are you touching that?” Valeria ignored them and continued inspecting.

“It is always the people with the worst-looking vegetables who complain the most,” she answered.

When Valeria found something she did not like or that she felt should not have been sold, she looked up at the vendor, focused on the sheepish face staring back, and shook her head.

“You’re not selling this, are you?”

The vendor turned red. Whether out of anger or embarrassment one couldn’t say.

Regardless, they all responded the same way.

“You’re crazy. Get away from my vegetables.”

“But you can’t possibly mean to sell this?”

“Why not? Go away.”

“I wouldn’t feed this to my pigs,” Valeria said. “You’ll poison somebody with this.”

A few shoppers would stop and listen. The vendor would shake her head and smile at them.

“Valeria, there is nothing wrong with my vegetables. I’ve grown them all in my garden. I eat them myself.” The vendor smiled. Her eyes were full of rage.

Valeria then sniffed the vegetable in question and shook her head. “How old is this?”

The vendor was speechless.

“Why does it smell like urine?”

The vendor shrugged.

“Are you letting your cat pee on these? You should be imprisoned,” Valeria said and tugged at her keys.

She ruined sales. Villagers, though they didn’t like Valeria, never questioned her knowledge. Every morning word traveled quickly through the market about who was selling rotten produce.

It was rare when Valeria found a fruit or vegetable grown better than one she could grow herself. In those instances, her eyes again focused on the vendor. Then she nodded her head in appreciation before asking, “Who are your parents?” The vendor answered and Valeria nodded, trying to remember. Then she congratulated the vendor, bought the vegetable, took it home, and examined it. When she could, she would save the seeds and crossbreed them with her own near-perfect vegetables.

Valeria was just as knowledgeable about the fish and meats. In fact, no one in the market was safe from her. Even the women who sold spices made sure to hide their older bags of seasonings when Valeria was walking by. Since the country had opened up to the West, even in Zivatar, new fruits and vegetables had been introduced. In what was once a room of potato browns and spinach greens, colors like orange and red stood out like Christmas lights. In the first heady days of capitalism, when exotic fruits were still a novelty, people who hardly ever went shopping made special visits to the market just to look at pineapples. Valeria wasn’t interested in foreign fruits and vegetables, mostly because she could not grow them, but also because of their blatant sensuality. Tropical fruits were swollen with flesh and juice. They were sticky. They were uninhibited. The first time she held a banana, Valeria was offended.

“How can you sell such vile things at the market?” she asked.

“It’s a banana, Valeria. You know that. Taste it.”

Valeria peeked at it and shook her head.

“I will not. It’s for monkeys.”

“It’s not. The mayor buys them all the time. It’s good. Here, just have a bite.”

Valeria tasted it. She had to admit that it was good. Still, tropical fruits disturbed her and, except for the occasional banana, she left them alone. Besides, they were ridiculously expensive. Only the young capitalists could afford them. Valeria noted that besides the mayor’s love of bananas, the mayor’s bride was always buying bags of oranges. Bags of them. Ostentatious is what it was. In the old days, families only shared an orange at Christmastime. One orange. It was a treat. Valeria was certain that for most families that was still the case. How long would it take a stick-like woman to eat a bag of oranges, Valeria wondered. And how could the mayor allow his wife to leave the house wearing more makeup than clothing? A woman with a slippery mouth, long legs, and no hips to speak of, carrying an expensive bag of Valencia oranges... what had the world become?

Even American vegetables were suspect. Valeria examined the vegetables from America closely. The label on one crate read: CALIFORNIA RED PEPPERS. She bought one, just to see what an American pepper tasted like. She wasn’t impressed. The pepper looked nice enough, it was big and clean, without a mark on it, grown in a hothouse, no doubt; but when she took it home and cooked it in a stew she was disappointed with its blandness --- no tang at all, nothing but nitrogen.

Sometimes, when Valeria had an abundance of anything in her garden, she would arrive even earlier in the morning, set up a stall of her own, arrange her vegetables by color, and sell them at a fair but high price. She always sold out. Though the villagers didn’t like Valeria, when it came to the quality of her goods, they could not question her. Her fruits and vegetables were never too soft, never tasted like rot had just set in, and never, ever smelled like cat urine. Valeria grew them on her two hectares of land. That was three hundred hectares less than what her grandfather had owned before the Communists took everything, but it was more than enough land to carry her through the winter and support her livestock. Everything else was profit. Valeria felt she could afford to be caustic. She was often caustic.

But then one day, as she was checking brown spots on a young woman’s cucumbers, something made her look up. Two aisles across from her, standing directly in front of her, facing her, she spied a man whose face she recognized but had never looked at. It was the village potter — a widower. He was eating a banana. He was holding it in a strong hand with long tapering fingers. With his other hand, he was snapping the heads off of mushrooms and handing them to the vendor, who dropped them into a brown paper sack and weighed them. Valeria nearly gasped when she saw how gallantly he carried himself. She wondered why she’d never noticed that before, why she’d never noticed him before. “Darling,” she said too loudly.

The woman selling cucumbers breathed a sigh of relief. “Did you hear that, everybody? Did you hear what Valeria thinks of my cucumbers? The price has just gone up five forints.” Valeria scowled. “I said noth—”

“But you did,” the woman interrupted. “I heard you. You were holding it. You were looking at it. You looked up. You said, ‘Darling,’ just like that. Like you were in love.”

Valeria glared at the woman and cleared her throat. She dropped the cucumber and walked toward the potter, examining every inch of him. His hair was white and crept out from under his hat. It covered his ears. His moustache was also white... and clean. He looked like an old Prussian officer. He even carried his satchel with the strap crossing his chest. Valeria felt her face flush. She thought herself ridiculous --- a blushing spinster. The potter looked up. His eyes caught hers. He nodded his head and smiled widely. He must have recognized her, she thought. She held her breath when he headed in her direction, but then he brushed right past her. Valeria stood still for a moment. Afraid he would disappear without her having said anything, she decided to follow him out of the market. In doing so she left early. It was the first time in twenty-five years. People noticed.

“Well, did you see that? She’s gonna have to polish up a bit to get her claws into him,” one woman said.

“You’re right about that, but there isn’t anything wrong with her that couldn’t be fixed with the right wardrobe, curlers, and some cold cream,” another woman said. This was true. Over the years, Valeria had made herself unattractive. Villagers were accustomed to seeing her grimace, seeing her sneer, and then hearing her curse before being pelted with a handful of chestnuts or whatever else she could get her hands on. It would have taken a stranger to town to appreciate any beauty Valeria might have had hidden behind her scowl or underneath her apron. It would have taken someone without the slightest knowledge of her history. History was really all that stood between Valeria and the people of Zivatar, after all. Over the years, Valeria had made herself an easy target of contempt by being so contemptible. It was said, for example, that Valeria had cut down the church bells in a rage. This would have made an outcast out of anybody. Nobody knew this for certain, but most everyone agreed that it could not have been anyone else. The incident occurred in the late forties, just after the war had ended. In fact, they had only recently started ringing again.

It was said that the reason why she cut them down was because of her battle with her young lover --- the butcher’s son. “She was a beautiful girl,” the old men remarked with a wink when they told their grandsons. “With a reputation, if you know what I mean.”

Most of the young men in the village, having never seen a young Valeria, didn’t believe the stories. They couldn’t believe that the old hag who had stung them with chestnuts and curses had been as attractive or lively as their grandfathers insisted.

“I don’t believe that,” one young man or another would say.

“She was a lovely young woman,” their grandfathers insisted.

“Valeria? You must be getting senile in your old age.”

“It’s true. It’s true. She was a lovely girl. She had rosy cheeks. She was healthy and long limbed. She had a firm bosom. She had the butcher’s son arrested when the war just began. Who knows? He might have been conscripted eventually, but Valeria wouldn’t even allow him the chance to die honorably in battle as cannon fodder against the British.”

“That’s right,” another grandfather said. “And somehow, the Soviets got to him.”

“The Soviets?”

“It was horrible. They sent him away to a gulag with Poles, Czechs, and Germans. That poor whistling butcher suffered terribly and he never returned.”

“Imagine having to slurp down bowls of greasy soup and fight over crusts of bread,” said some of the older men. “When you were raised on the choicest cuts of meat.”

“Those were the same prisoners who repaired the railroads after the war.”

“All because he wouldn’t marry her.”

“I heard it was because he had killed her grandfather in the old tavern.”

“No, no, you are both wrong. Her grandfather found out about their affair and became furious. He went to the butcher and insisted that the two lovers get married. The butcher agreed, but his son refused. He was a handsome boy. He boasted all the time. I remember. Finally, Valeria’s grandfather confronted him. He was so furious he was shaking. He pushed the butcher’s son. The butcher’s son pushed him back. The old man

had a heart attack right in the middle of the pub.” The men stopped speaking and shook their heads. They listened to the wind far off in the fields and thought some more about the butcher’s son.

“Hard labor,” someone whispered.

“He liked to dance those goddamned Italian tarantellas, remember?” said another.

“When you think on it, it probably served him right.”

The men imagined hard labor: laying railroad track across the country or digging holes and standing telephone posts upright, even during winter, even when the earth was cold, the wind was cold, the men were cold, and the sun was cold. All of that backbreaking work done by hand, with hammers, shovels, and pickaxes, and when those things broke, spoons, sticks, and fingertips. All the while Mother Russia standing over them with rifles at the ready: Comrades! You will learn the value of our revolution. Valeria had placed her own young lover, a boy from their village, under the Russians’ inhospitable care, sent him to a work camp far away, on the outside. And after the young man was sent away, after her grandfather had died and she was free to see whoever she wanted, there was not a man left in the village who would visit her, nor one that she would choose to see herself, her reputation notwithstanding. She cut the church bells down after that and sealed her fate as the village’s outcast.

“What a waste of a woman,” the old men muttered.

“Come on, Grandpa. You forget yourself.”

Their grandfathers shook their heads. “You’re not listening. I’m not talking about today. I’m talking about during the forties, before she became bitter, before she went crazy and cut those bells down. She was always in the fields watching her sheep... and those pigs. Do you remember those pigs? Before her grandfather died?”

Another old man would look up and nod.

“Do you remember how rich they tasted? How sweet? They had the sweetest-tasting pigs in the village. I don’t know how they did it. We had a roasting every October. We let the fat drip onto our bread. The whole village went out to her grandfather’s field. Right up to the cottage steps. We fried the skin, seasoned it, and feasted right there. The same place where she lives today. Ah, the bread dripped with fat in those days. Don’t you remember? The fat? And Valeria, in those days?”

“We did that every year until her grandfather died. He kept the village out of plenty of troubles in his time. Sold all those pigs to the British when they first appeared on the horizon. They rode those pigs out for two days. Remember? But after he was gone, if we wanted fat we had to find it ourselves. She would not share a thing.”

The young men shrugged.

“She’s a hag, and you’re crazy.”

“I’m not crazy. In fact, I should have asked her to marry me. The butcher’s son really was a horrible man. Dancing goddamned tarantellas. A grown man. Who could trust a man like that? Maybe I should have asked her to marry me. She would have been livelier in the sack than your grandmother, that’s for certain. Isn’t that right? She would have been livelier than all our wives.”

The other old men nodded. They smiled wickedly and licked their lips.

“She had hips!” someone shouted.

“And a bosom like a fat pigeon!” shouted another.

“Enough. Grandpa, really, how can you speak about Grandma this way?”

The old men would shrug. “I’m only telling the truth. Why do you think the women hate her so much? Why do you think they’ve let her remain an outcast all these years? Believe me, they’re not so innocent. They prefer it this way. Valeria was a firework and they know it. Just take a look at her now. It’s still there. A firework. She’s safer when she’s smothered. I tell you one thing. I tell you this honestly, my boy. Had the day happened when I was out on a field and Valeria called me over to the poplar trees where she sat in the shade singing songs --- yes, that’s right, she used to sing songs in the shade of a poplar tree. They weren’t Italian songs either. I swear, had that large-breasted woman ever beckoned to me that I should put down my pitchfork... leave my wife... abandon my children... cut off my legs... I tell you now, as certain as I am that your precious grandmama is a loudmouthed shrew, that you would not exist today. I would have left your sweet grandmama and your unborn father. I would have left them all to rot, if only for a day under the poplar trees with Valeria.”

Grandsons at this point would shake their heads and either storm away or look around for help. But their grandfathers would not be still.

“And for years after,” the old men concluded, “for years, that boy’s family tried to appease her, to get her to help them get their boy released. Even during the height of the regime, when it seemed like they were counting every sliver of gristle, they gave her extra slices of pork. Extra slices! They even gave her knucklebones for her dog. Nothing. If you ever see her at the butcher’s shop today, just watch her. She remains chilly with the entire family, right down to that fat toddler who’s always playing in the freezer. “If any of them smiled at her, she told them not to. When one of his relatives, while out hunting, came upon a parachute and a crate and opened it, only to discover U.S. dollars, sawdust, guns, and steaks --- the first person they offered the meat to was Valeria. She refused, and then sent a letter informing the authorities in Budapest... that, my dear boy, that’s the luck a man will have when Valeria falls in love. I just wish it could have been me.”

Valeria’s Last Stand © Copyright 2012 by Marc Fitten. Reprinted with permission by Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved.

Valeria's Last Stand
by by Marc Fitten

  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • ISBN-10: 1608192091
  • ISBN-13: 9781608192090