from “The Good Life Elsewhere”

Mingir, a village in the Hincesti region, was famous throughout Moldova for its residents, who habitually trafficked in kidneys. What’s more, the kidneys were their own. There were already thirty such people in the town. Once in a while a correspondent for the BBC, Radio Liberty, or Der Speigel would come to town, since every six months their bosses would demand a scandal. So they’d do a story on Mingir. For a bottle of cognac, reporters filled each other in on the town and its main attractions: there was Vasily Myrzu, who’d sold both kidneys at the same time for three thousand dollars and a Soviet clunker; Georgii Styncha, who traded his kidney for a horse and four hundred pounds of oats, and many others. The villagers lived in poverty, and what’s more, they lived in pain. As the doctors say, without a kidney you’re headed downstream . . .

The old-timer Jan Sandutsa gave a wink to his friend. “Predictions are for fortunetellers, Sunrise. The world is in for another surprise when they see how a simple Moldovan outfoxed them all. That’s what our people’ve always stood for, and always will: street smarts and cunning. What do you say, pal?”

Jan’s friend looked at him approvingly, but didn’t say anything. In any case, he couldn’t have: Sunrise was a pig, and pigs can’t talk. At least not when they’re being watched. But that didn’t bother Jan. He viewed Sunrise from a strictly practical point of view: as an organ donor.

It all started one fine day in 1999 when some visitors from Israel came to town. The guests, two of whom claimed to be doctors, convinced the villagers to put their kidneys up for sale. Everyone knew it was a raw deal, since two years earlier four Mingir residents had sold their kidneys and instead of the eight thousand euros they’d been promised, they each walked away with just three grand. The villagers knew: out-of-towners are swindlers! They unanimously decided not to give in to temptation and to sell their kidneys no more.

But late at night, one by one, fourteen souls in all, the villagers crept into the house where the Israeli troublemakers were sleeping. Among the creepers was old Jan.

They were all taken to Romania that same month for an operation. Old Jan woke up to the smell of ether, just like Doctor Zhivago atop a bed sheet white as an early spring snowfield. But Jan had never read Doctor Zhivago, so to him, ether was just ether. Someone shoved crinkled banknotes in his hand, dragged him out of bed, sent him unsteadily packing and slammed the door in his face.

“Four thousand euros!” said the old timer ecstatically. He was seeing double. He counted the bills in his hands right there on the street, not afraid of anything, seeing how he was still under the influence of the ether. “But they promised eight. They nearly robbed me blind!”

Once he emerged from his drug-induced fog, the old timer realized that his eyes really were seeing double, and the money was less than he thought: two thousand euros. But even that was pretty good! Glancing at the grubby cockroaches milling around the passengers’ feet at the Bucharest railroad station, Jan mentally crossed himself and sang a hosanna to the Lord. Who was, without a doubt, from Moldova.

“Of course, God’s Moldovan. Otherwise why would he give me so much help?” Jan whispered.

Just then, a policeman walked up and fined him three hundred euros for who-knows-what, which the old-timer coughed up so as not to lose his entire stash. Jan realized that God is not only Moldovan, but also in some sense Romanian, too. The contradiction resolved itself when Jan recalled the close blood ties between the two nations.

He forfeited fifty euros to the conductor for a place in the luggage rack on the train to Chisinau. He greased the palm of a Moldovan customs agent with fifty big ones, and another hundred went to three glowering toughs at the Chisinau train station who were demanding money from all the arriving passengers. The station was dark and the policemen were still sleeping, so old Jan prudently decided to pay. At home he counted what remained of his money and crossed himself for the nth time that day.

“Fifteen hundred euros!” gasped Jan quietly. “Enough for a lifetime!”

In three months, the old-timer had paid for his granddaughter’s wedding, the christening party of his nephew twice-removed, and buried his sister. The money had run out. Jan’s back pain grew worse. In one year’s time Jan had aged ten, and he went to Chisinau to get himself an artificial kidney. As a recipient of the Veteran of Labor medal, he thought the government ought pay for it. In Chisinau they laughed at the old man and advised him to buy a coffin and a cemetery plot. Back in the village, Jan spent the pension he hadn’t touched in half a year ordering all sorts of medical literature.

At the post office he lied and told them he was trying to get into medical school. Everyone was quick to rag on him.

“Keep laughing, you chumps,” he whispered, gripping the weighty packet of books in his arms, “This old-timer here’ll be laughing at you when I got my two kidneys again, both healthy and strong. When you’re pushing up daisies, I’ll still be here to mow the lawn!”

The old man was planning to get his kidney back in an unusual way. Somewhere he’d heard that animal organs could be transplanted to humans, so he decided to transplant a kidney. In choosing a beast for this honorable mission, he settled on a pig. As the well-informed Jan already knew, pig organs were very similar to humans’. True, there was a “but . . .”

“People who receive transplants from pigs sometimes acquire the physical characteristics of these animals,” some quack in a lab coat had mentioned on the TV program Health. “Such are the results of my many years of experiments. I conducted one experiment with our biological ancestors, monkeys, that involved the transplant of various pig organs. Afterward, in some monkeys we observed a change in behavior toward porcine habits. Specifically, they became less discriminating in what they ate. They began to gorge themselves on anything and everything. I postulate that something similar can happen with human beings.”

Jan the old-timer very nearly despaired. Then he got to thinking, it’s better to be a living dirty pig than a dead gentleman. The enterprising retiree undertook an inspection of his personal means and, combining the capital from his pension with the money he brought in by selling his last sack of corn, Jan bought a piglet.

“I’ll call you Sunrise, since you symbolize a new life,” he said proudly to the sweet little piglet oinking around the small pigsty. “Just as the sunrise conquers the night, your kidney will postpone my death and prolong my life!”

Unsuspecting of his noble purpose, Sunrise happily gobbled up the buckets of slops the old-timer gave him and dropped off to sleep. He liked it in Jan’s pigsty. The old man fed him well enough, and on top of that, he let the pig drink wine.

“Why not?” Jan reasoned to himself. “I’m going to be using the damn thing’s kidney. Might as well get him used to my usual portion while he’s still a young’un.”

Sadly, the piglet never learned to smoke Jan’s crude cigarettes, but he did guzzle wine with pleasure. Jan’s future kidney was clearly acclimating with no problems. This made Jan happy. In time, the piggy boy became a piggy man. Everything was going according to plan. Only a few details remained. The most important one, Jan understood, was to cut open Sunrise’s belly without harming the pig’s kidney. And then—the transplant. Jan liked to dream about this moment while he stood there, watching Sunrise at dawn.

“As for the kidney, I’ll slip it in there myself. No big deal. I’ll drink a hundred grams of vodka. As an anesthewhatever. It’ll give me courage. I’ll make the incision and slip it in. It’ll grow fast. Christ, the body’s no fool. It feels and understands. I mean, bones grow along with people!”

The old-timer understood the risk was great but he had no choice. An operation cost an absurd amount of money, and the only place to get one done was in Switzerland. Even if the old man sold another of his kidneys, the money would just be enough for a preliminary medical exam. He could only count on himself. And on Sunrise.

One morning in June, Jan the old-timer realized the time had come. Notwithstanding the chill in the air, the day promised to be impossibly hot. Nary a cloud floated across the sky, blue as the cobalt teapot that belonged to Jan’s wife. With each day Jan grew weaker. As the doctors explained, it was especially taxing to be in the heat with only one kidney. Patting Sunrise on the snout, the old man fed the hog no more. He didn’t want to strain the kidney. Right there in the barn he began preparing for the operation, which would take place in the evening. He put a decanter of strong moonshine (from up north, near Balti), and two glasses on a table he brought in. There wouldn’t be anybody to drink with, but to have only one glass would be somehow inhuman. Jan spread a towel across the table and took out a jar of pickles, to help the medicine go down. Then, he took out an expertly sharpened knife and undertook to slaughter Sunrise.

“So long, friend.” Showing no emotion, the old-timer quickly slashed the pig’s throat. “Hello, kidney!” The pig, expecting breakfast, was unsuspecting.

And with a mighty blow he pricked the convulsing, dying Sunrise in the heart. The hog twitched a while longer, then went still. The old man carefully extracted the pig’s kidneys and laid them in the icebox. He threw the carcass in there too, so the meat wouldn’t spoil. According to the scientific literature on the subject, the kidneys had to cool off now. You couldn’t transplant them warm. After washing his hands, Jan crossed himself and went to work in the fields. In the evening, when the heat had fallen off, he walked past his house and headed straight for the barn. He picked up the knife, took a deep breath, drank a glass of moonshine, picked up the knife again, exhaled and stabbed himself smack in the side. Pressing the wound with his hands, he ran to the icebox and . . . couldn’t find the kidneys.

“Jan,” his wife Nastya yelled to him from the doorway. “Come inside this minute. I cooked up those kidneys you carved out. They’re still warm, come quick, you’ll lick your fingers! Jan! What the . . . Jan, what’s wrong? Jan!”

Leaking blood, guts, and tears, the old-timer was crawling toward Nastya so he could stab her, too, but halfway there, in the middle of the yard, he died. The autopsy revealed that Jan Sandutsa, b. 1927, died from loss of blood and shock, but both kidneys were in place.

However, his gallbladder, half of his liver, one lung, two heart ventricles and for some reason his appendix simply weren’t there . . .

***

The winning entry in the recipe contest at Moldova Suverena (Sovereign Moldova), timed for International Women’s Day on March 8, was a letter from the Hincesti region. The result was even more remarkable since the very same item had also won the newspaper’s literary contest, for being the most lyrical letter from a reader.

“Take two pork kidneys, a spoonful of vegetable shortening, two cups bouillon, 1/3 cup moonshine strong as a man’s heart, plus half an apple, a tablespoon of flour white as a shroud, and a touch of antifreeze, to taste,” wrote the reader, Anastasia Sandutsa.

“Steep the kidneys in five cups of water,” Anastasia wrote, “like a newborn baby in the tears of your heart. Rub salt into them as you would into the wounds of your heart after recalling an offense, and let them gather pity in the kitchen. Don’t forget to cover them with cheesecloth. When the second hour chimes, sentence them to death or baptism, depending on your perspective. Drown them in clean water. Drown them without remorse, for they will be resurrected in the deluge of boiling water on the burner. When they are boiled and become as soft as you were a week before your wedding, ruthlessly cut them with a knife sharp as fury, cold as ice, gray as steel.

“Spread the bits of boiled kidney on a plate, just as the bones of the innocents who were put to death by Herod the Great were scattered around Jerusalem. Weep over them and do not suppress the sorrow in your heart. Better to light a candle and scorch the fresh greens with the flame to kill any disease. For there is baptism by fire or baptism by water, but baptism by fire is quicker.

“And while the kidneys cool, prepare the sauce,” continued Anastasia Sandutsa, from the village of Minzhir in the Hincesti region, in her letter as sad as the cries of a little shepherd girl from the folk legends. “It will be thick as a river in high water, pungent as the foul smells from the farthest regions of your body . . .

“Anoint the saucepan with a touch of sunflower seed oil. Grease its scars, and as soon as the oil heats up, sprinkle with flour, pour on the bouillon and the moonshine strong as the heart of a village man who knows not how to love with his words, only with his actions, and add the chopped apple.

“When the sauce begins to bubble, add the kidneys and let them swim, let them cool, let them melt away.

“And then,” wrote Anastasia, “kiss your own hand for cooking so well, and burst into tears.

“And since there is nobody who might devour it while singing your praises, who might eat it up so greedily, barely noticing the hints of flavor—eat it tenderly, eat it by yourself.”

The reader’s first submission was called “Recipe for kidneys in a strong sauce.” The second—“Cry for your beloved husband, who left you.” Having been chosen the winner, Anastasia received—for both contests—one first prize.

A live pig.

© Vladimir Lorchenkov. Translation © Ross Ufberg. From The Good Life Elsewhere, forthcoming 2013 from New Vessel Press. All rights reserved.