- The Paprika Ewer
The Paprika Ewer
Valeria never whistled. Nor did she approve of people who did. One thing she had learned in her sixty-seven years was that people who whistled were crass. Butchers whistled. So did peasants. Gypsy ragamuffins—with nothing better to do than corrupt God’s silence—whistled. Valeria thought about it while scrubbing the grout in her portico floor. She was certain that the queen of England did not whistle. She was convinced that the Hungarian president did not whistle. She had seen the mayor in her village whistle, but that was only once, and theirs was a small village, deep in the Alfold, three and a half hours from Budapest, two hours from the Ukraine, and not connected to either by train. If the mayor—really just 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 somehow happened to hear the peasant-mayor whistle, they could easily write it off as wind stirring a distant crop of sugar beets. The mayor’s whistle would be as insignificant to their ears as leaves falling on forgotten hunting grounds.
It was not surprising then that Valeria became alarmed when the urge to purse her lips and whistle a love song overtook her. She stopped what she was doing, put her brush into the pail of sudsy water resting beside her, and wiped the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. Then she breathed a long and deep breath. She smothered the urge to whistle under the weight of her tongue. She barricaded the emerging melody behind a wall of clenched teeth.
Valeria retrieved the brush from the pail of water and resumed her housework. It was inattentiveness that caused her mind to wander. Nothing more. She had only experienced a momentary lapse of concentration, a momentary, uncharacteristic disregard of self-control. But she had regained it, and now her heart did not flutter and her lips were no longer puckered. [End Page 158]
Valeria was preparing her portico for the arrival of a new pitcher later in the day. The potter was making it especially for her, in thanks for the large canister of fresh milk she had bicycled the ten kilometers out to his workshop three days ago. Valeria couldn’t explain why she did that. She saw him at market early that morning and watched him as he pinched the heads off wild mushrooms.
“How darling,” she whispered to herself.
Valeria hurried straight home. She pulled a milk pail and stool out to her cow, grabbed the animal’s teats, and attacked them. The cow’s head lolled about in discomfort, but after a swift hard twist of its tail, the cow settled down. It managed to spurt enough milk that would keep a family of six. Save for an apprentice in his workshop, the potter was a widower who lived alone.
Once the milk had been sealed in a canister, Valeria transported it across the village on the back of her bicycle. Villagers marveled when they saw her on the other side of the Centrum. They stopped and pointed, surprised to see their harsh misfit so far away from her garden. Even more surprising, though, were the flowered skirt and kerchief she wore.
“Did you see that?” they asked.
“Was she smiling?” they remarked.
“Where is she headed?” they wondered aloud.
“Why is she pedaling so fast up that hill?” they asked. “She’s going to give herself a heart attack, for certain.”
The village dogs chased after Valeria, lunging at her back tire and barking at her. Young boys threw chestnuts and laughed. Valeria ignored them all. She rode the ten kilometers to the potter’s with her knotted legs pedaling as hard as they could; she never broke into a sweat.
When she arrived at the potter’s home, she unfastened the cords that held the milk canister fast and hoisted it off her bicycle. She let her bicycle fall to the ground, and she carried the...