Tess Gallagher

The Dogs of Bucharest

Their invisible city of cries and threats
builds in the air, thrives briefly, then
falls away to a fresh oblivion. What do they protect
so fiercely, as if they had several lives to sacrifice?
Yesterday a mastiff the size of a small pony
bashed against the wire mesh
of its narrow yard just because we were passing.
While we ate fish at the restaurant-a guilty stolen meal,
mindful of those who can’t afford even an egg-
the dogs began another alarm, their chuffing
like black shovels full of earth tossed
into an open grave that is everywhere
when fear is the predominant language.

We ate anyway, two poets disguised by a room crowded
with businessmen, cell phones pressed
to their ears: “communication, not communion,”
Liliana says. But it’s catching. We
want to phone someone too. We ask the surly waitress
with eyes like a drowned cat if we
can use the restaurant phone, but her answer is No.
Ditto for the male waiter who passes too close
to where we work on our translations
of each other’s poems, trying to convert
one heart’s currency to another,
without spiritual loss.

And shouldn’t we bark and show our teeth
here where so much is against
what we want the world to be? Not men whispering across
borders, across continents, buying and selling
the cheap labor of their countrymen and women⁠—
converting, for profit, little into less, so
the deft hands of the bread-makers we glimpse
through an open doorway can never keep pace
with a nation that survives on bread.

“Ask to borrow that man’s cell phone,” I tell Liliana,
and she does. He hands it over, after dialing
for us. It rings and rings in an empty house,
so we pass it back like the dead thing
it is. We are not connected. No one
expects our call. But in that empty room
where the telephone rang and rang
poems were written; the poet’s son studies
for exams in a fan of light
in the corner; friends drank champagne
made from raspberries, ate together and told
of the pilgrimage to Mejdugore
where the Virgin Mother appeared.

Strange, Aurelia said, how the pilgrims
weren’t looking at the sky when they got to
that mountain top. Instead they scoured
the ground, searching for small stones
to carry away, to extend her blessing.
But only boulders were left, or sand ⁠— too much
or too little ⁠— the law of this land, so torn by opposites
it insults both ends of the human spectrum.
The rich have stolen and the very poor
are left to beg, steal or die.

Aurelia hands me the small rust colored stone
wrapped in the handmade linen
of her grandmother ⁠— “So it won’t seem too lonely,
too strange ⁠— to hand you a bare stone.”
The stone in my palm, her gift of belief
and safe passage. I pass it hand to hand
around the table where each one
sees an oval face carrying its tiara of light.

We are drunk on poetry and can’t find our car
when we leave the restaurant.
For an hour we stumble in the labyrinth, passing
the same newly painted metal fence with the warning:
“Danger of Electrocution.” No one believes it, but
they don’t test it either.
Not in anger, but curiosity, in childlike daring,
I pick up a stone and fling it until it clangs
like a Chinese temple gong. A dog ignites
behind the fence. Its rage is monumental, solid,
implacable as the marble banks
outside which people cue to exchange their lei
for dollars, because their currency is quicksand.

We are deranged with the freedom of friendship
and the little Dutch cigars we smoked
so we could stain, could penetrate the lungs
of those silk-shirted men in the restaurant.
And probably they are no worse
than killer bees, doing what they do
with the special ferocity of opportunists
anywhere. They will never read our poetry, that
is certain.

But the breath of poets spreads its own happy
contagion, even if our voices reach only as far as
the next ear in a room where Helene has sent
three roses she couldn’t afford, but gave anyway;
where Paula has painted two dream horses in a frozen
forest of white mesticcini trees⁠ — horses that shatter
our autumn air ⁠— one head arched as if carrying
a burden we can’t see, the other raised in an inaudible,
cadaverous whinny. Jagged Bruncasi boulders border
their prancing, sharp as the steel prongs of the fence
surrounding the former waiter’s house, a man
who buys and sells the fur of the Romania’s animals
with impunity, growing so rich
he’s just another unsavory bandit
in the neighborhood, a man no one dares stop,
as entire populations of forest creatures are turned into
coats and hats and rugs for the great consuming
abundance elsewhere.

How different from the poorly paid Professor of Chemistry,
my temporary neighbor across the yard, Rodica,
a widow living her life out in one room, a shared kitchen,
the bath a floor below. How valiantly the light
into light glow of her candela flickers, even in daylight.
Its insistent halo in the window is a beacon
after yet another insomniac night, my sleep
riddled with inflamed skirmishes of wild dogs
against captive dogs, or as if their disconsolate howls
warned of thieves more invidious
than even a dog knows how to confront.

I go to my borrowed window
that faces Rodica’s casement and stand, gazing out
to drink hazelnut coffee brought like a smuggler
in my luggage. Suddenly she appears, throws back
her curtain, lifts her bare white arm and waves-shyly,
sweetly, like a small girl, then strongly with a thrust
that is unmistakable. My arm raises, as if
it has always known the language of arms ⁠— two widows
greeting, saluting each other. Just that. A sign
across this chasm of life⁠—
where to recognize the suffering of even one other,
that alchemy of reception, is a gravity
that fortifies against despair.
Then that inevitable, necessary moment
when we drop our arms
and turn our backs to the window.