A cube of glazy cured pork fat and a piece of dense, heavy, almost black bread. It is sourish. It tastes well, as if it were fine. A waiter brings breakfast, the ration in the hotel. Romania, summer, 1984. We are talking more quietly than at other times. Almost as if we were not talking at all. As if I were not a child and they were not my parents, and she next to me were not my sister. The waiters stand some distance away, as if they were not there at all.
We are staying in a hotel, one street away from our relatives. It’s as if we had not come to visit relatives. As if we had not come at all. At the border crossing my father gets out of the Trabant as if there were no pill packs hidden in his thick, knee-high socks. The border guard slams the boot as if it were not full of tins, huge loaves of white bread with their undeniable smell, flour, sugar, soap, cigarettes and chewing gum balls. We set off as if they had seen nothing. We arrive at the relatives’ as if no one were standing on the other side of the street. Yet, someone is pinned there, as if he were not watching us at all. The news comes implying milk was available in the shop. Uncle Gyula sets off as if the news were definitely correct. When someone rings the bell we remain quiet, as if we were not there at all. We are eating stuffed cabbage. There is plenty, as if there were plenty at other times. When we step out of the gate we don’t look at the man standing on the opposite side, as if he were not there at all. The lights are not on in the street, as if they, too, were not there at all. Plants in the window of the hotel room. Sansevieria. Long, pin-pointed, green forest of swords. I peel off the foil covering the pot, the ridge of the flowerpot crumbles to dust, as if it had never existed. I look out to the main square. It’s as if there was no one, anywhere.
Pale leaves had been painted green before he arrived. Apples had been tied to the branches in the fruit gardens along the road, maize ears had been fastened to the stalks and all the potatoes were dug out to be exchanged for larger ones. Ceauşescu was to arrive. Paper flags and carnations were ready to be waved. Children freed from a two-day quarantine were waiting for an embrace. Cows bathed shiny, with hoofs polished, and secret policemen dressed as cattle tenders were lined up. He was celebrated when he arrived and celebrated when he did not.
Then during his visits to China and Korea Ceauşescu was startled to see what a real celebration was like. He became embarrassed when, as a guest, he could see a portrait, a slogan, tractor, factory chimney and a rippling cornfield depicted by a sea of people. Then he had his own portrait, slogan, tractor, factory and cornfield – from his own mass of people. And he had his peace dove taking wing from girls in white dresses waving white kerchiefs. A dove of peace was fitting for the one who forced out the Russian occupiers from among his own people. Then, alone in the communist bloc, he stood by his Czechoslovak comrades and condemned the Russian tanks invading Prague in revolt. He became the reliable and good communist, whom the western part of the world was also curious about. In America both Nixon and Mickey Mouse warmly shook his hand. In Britain Queen Elisabeth invited him to ride in her gilded carriage and in Paris it was not even mentioned that Ceauşescu and his wife Elena took home as a keepsake every movable object encountered in the presidential luxury hotel. The British politely refused when he offered strawberries in return for their airplanes. However, after some convincing, the king of Jordan surprised him with a copy of his luxury yacht. Garlands were hung on Ceauşescu’s neck. He was awarded France’s Legion of Honor and was knighted in the British way. Meanwhile Elena was showered with honorary doctorates by the world’s most prestigious universities, which turned a blind eye to the fact that the scientist-chemist, at most, had achieved something appraisable only in embroidery, PE and music during her few years of elementary schooling. The school reports remained buried in a village school. There were some who were marked out for burying, some to rewrite, some to put into verse and some who were to paint.
The image succeeded brilliantly – apparently. In Romania the Leader smiled on the first page of all the school textbooks, front pages of newspapers and office walls. Nor was his comrade-in-arms, Elena, absent from the banners or the idyllic oil paintings. The two of them could not be absent, even from where they had never been. If required, their committed followers wrote history using glue and retouch brushes. That’s how they recolored Ceauşescu’s early years, depicting the idealized character of a smart peasant boy born in a small village, whom the others kept electing their leader and who, defying the thought of the wolf, even dared go in the woods. They started him off barefooted to Bucharest to try his luck, but did not mention that the young, short-tempered cobbler’s apprentice was prepared to be Stalin’s successor in the world of gentlemen with bowler hats and walking sticks. Gheorghiu-Dej, Ceauşescu’s predecessor and former cell-mate, from whom he took over the country after twenty years, was simply rubbed out from the beginning of the story. Even Elena’s rebirth was arranged on paper so that she would not precede her husband by two years, but bide her time and be born rather a year later than him. The two birthdays turned into national holidays and the system solidified as a dictatorship. The two god-like creatures bathed in the light dispensed by copies of Versailles chandeliers and a gold bathtub. Elena donned a jaguar fur coat and Ceauşescu hunted down price-winning trophies to his liking. Sometimes bears drugged by honeyed sedatives, sometimes several thousand pheasants and sometimes the moufflons of his own reserve were driven before him. When finished, he inspected the animals shot down in great numbers several times and took delight. He took delight when he viewed the maquette of his Bucharest palace under construction. He took delight because the six thousand rooms and a million tonnes of marble promised eternity. He took delight in the trees covered with apples, the high-yielding maze and potato fields, in the mines that incessantly poured out raw materials, and in the abundance of factories that overfulfilled plans.
An experienced illusionist, he stood over Romania as if it were a huge model train table. In order to repay the state debt, Ceauşescu sold everything and everyone. Apples, maze, potatoes, coal, oil, iron, machines, Saxons, Jews. He exiled those he disliked to nearby prisons and distant labor camps. He did away with ways of existence he deemed unnecessary, together with whole villages. He had the historic centre of Bucharest, several hundred-year-old churches and several thousand homes bulldozed to create space for his palace. Claiming to have realized civilization’s highest mode of existence, he ordered people to live in infinite grey blocks. Then when in his plane he flew over the concrete boxes and became irritated by the spectacle of some airier spaces they were filled by further concrete blocks.
Everything seemed different from above. The motionlessness of winding queues in front of empty shops. The lack of food embedded in the rationing system. Electricity with long power cuts, the lack of gas and gasoline. The lack of medicine. The absence of banned words and banned thoughts. The lack of trust in the system based on informers. The lack of honesty for those obliged to keep their spouses under observation. The lack of childhood for children who were obliged to keep their parents under observation.
It took place between 1965 and 1989. It was called the Golden Age.
Christmas. Budapest. 1989. Television broadcast. Romania. Shots. Broadcasting failure. Crowds of people. Tanks. The dead. Revolution. A courtroom. Nicolae. Elena. They protest. A list of sins. They deny. Sentence. Soldiers. A bundle of ropes. Tying up. The wall of a house. Shots from a firing squad. A cloud of dust. Blood. Faces. Corpses.
Pears were tied on a poplar in the main square of Timișoara in December 1989. According to Romanian belief, when a poplar bears pears the impossible happens. And it did happen. Crowds gathered in the square and surrounding streets. Countless portraits and books of the dictator turned into ash. The compulsion of cheering changed into anger, and anger was answered by an order to fire. Men, women and children died. Those who occupied the balcony demanded food and rights, demanded freedom for the imprisoned, and demanded their dead who had been made to disappear. Meanwhile, Ceauşescu demanded respect as well as silence from another balcony, in Bucharest. But confusion reigned there, too. Ceauşescu was fleeing and so was Elena together with him. They fled on their own plane and in a stolen Dacia. Ceauşescu trembled and wept. They fled because the workers of the steel factory, which was chosen to hide them, pelted them with stones and because the TV and radio had already broadcast the revolution live. Instead of empty propaganda, resistance, the army’s change of sides, the organization of political forces, chaos and euphoria were broadcast live all day.
The death of the dictator, as well as the birth of something new, were broadcast live.
There is silence. Silence swallows up the intermittent clanging of cowbells, the ringing of church bells and the distant sound coming from the opposite mountain. Everything has remained unchanged for centuries – the ladder leaning against the wall of the house beside the tied-up, rust-colored herbs dried weightless and a horseshoe, a pan and an axe hung on nails. All are lined up. By now the horseshoe, the pan and the axe have left imprints on the wall of the house, discoloring on the old wooden boards and indentations preserving the memory of human motions involving hard work. The house is empty. No one comes, not even when the tiny plums fall to the ground in the garden. By the neighboring house they are plowing. The land was here, they were born here and they did not want to leave, they say. They were born quietly, in the field, during work or, as it might happen, in the corner of the room in the evening. Then they soon went to the field to toss the hay, tend to the animals, instead – if fate willed it – of attending school. If so, then in the afternoon they would secretly lie down in the grass with a book. If no toys or time were found for playing, pebbles and pieces of earth acquired their stories. The pinched matchbox shunted as a locomotive, and even a ball came along when they mixed some water with the cow’s brushed out hair. They are already showing how. Otherwise, there is no one to show it to. There is no longer a single child here, they wave their hand. There was a small shop and a school long ago, even a priest lived here. Then they were left on their own. The shop and the school have closed down and the priest comes only every other week. He lives somewhere distant, in the town. They rarely go there, only on market days and when ill. They drive the animals down, just as they, dressed in their best, go a fair distance on foot to see the doctor. If it is more serious, at best they are no longer taken in a hand-tied sheet, as in days gone by when there was no road, but on a shaking cart. As they say, over the hill. Otherwise, they do not go. What would they want there, they say laughingly, and where would they put the animals? Up here when they let the cow go where she pleases in the morning she wanders about in great freedom, but returns for the evening. They no longer have many, but still list the stock by name even from the time when they had plenty. And they list the nearby and more distant neighbors, and siblings who settled farther away. Of course, not farther than a few hours on foot, thus they remained neighbors despite the woods, pastures and grassland separating them. They then list those who went even farther. The children who went to increasingly distant schools and then stayed there, and the grandchildren who only come here visiting, mostly on red-letter days. And perhaps not even then if they went to work as far as another country. Perhaps not even on Christmas Day.
The holiday is simple here. Sweet bread is baked, but the pine tree remains outside in the forest. It has a better place there. Perhaps, if at all, a single branch will be in the room, pinned to the picture just like that, on its own. Not much is anyway around, and that is everything. A few photographs, in frames, the children together, in their best, a rare occasion. Then a well-focused old photo of a harvest, very tiny, with almost unrecognizable small figures. And a portrait from bygone days when she was unmarried. How much resemblance it bears, I say. Does it really? She asks searchingly, taking the picture in her hand for a moment, pondering over the features. No, it does not resemble, perhaps it is not even me, she says, and while the photograph gets back on the wall she secretly casts a glance at the palm-sized mirror above the wash bowl. The damaged corner of the mirror has been repaired, like the ladle fixed with wire, now lying prepared on the table, and the much carried rucksack and the thinly worn socks tightly patched up with dense stitches. Here everything has a different time and a practical approach preserves everything. The sack and the socks were made here, a generation ago, the thread was twined all winter. It was twined by hand and held by the teeth. The fabric was woven for clothes, nappies and the thick blanket for the cold at dawn, as copied from the older people. Wool appears in fluffy balls, as does the thread from a box, in blue, green, purple, red and yellow, in abundance. The colors produced the pattern, several hundred embroidered birds, the moon, the sun and leaves on a vest, a skirt. Clothes were made here for others, too, for those who were unable to sew, but only good people could get them. If I want, a dress can be found for me, too. The one made for the granddaughter has remained here. It rests rolled in paper at the bottom of the wardrobe, no good for the city. And her own dress is there underneath, also carefully rolled in paper, ready for the burial. The coffin with the shroud inside is up in the attic. Everything is ready. The stable is cleaned, wood is arranged, hay is sold. The radio is on. When it was not because it needed a battery, they knew nothing for weeks. They didn’t even hear about the revolution. But then the news arrived. Of course, afterwards the plough still had to be held in the same way, they say. The land is theirs, as it has always been, together with the stones, dust and twitch grass – it is meager, but produces some crop. Fresh pumpkin seeds are drying underneath the stove, while on the top soup with potatoes is cooking. There is enough for those who only happen to pass by.
The huge leaves of burdock are letting off steam. The roofs also emits steam into the air and the large stones suddenly dry to pale grey. The storm has blown over. The birds come out again and the outlines of some giant pine trees can be seen. Then the entire forest and the nearby mountain side appear. A flock of sheep move slowly in a group, dogs dart up and down at the side, as if there could be the shepherd there, and finally the distant mountains appear. The village is not visible from here, not even in clear weather. The sausage and pork fat hanging in the church tower for when there is calamity cannot be seen from here. The tiny plaques nailed to the walls of the houses which have a bucket, pickaxe or ladder indicating who should take what in case of fire cannot be seen, nor can the wife or the elderly who have stayed with her at home. Their child is anyway already far away. He did not want to come up the mountain, no way. It is a long time from May to September and payment is little. The journey alone takes hours along mossy banks of streams, across marshes, clearings of woodcutters and grass that’s grown high. And then you just have to go with the stock, day after day, from dawn until evening comes. There are still some hundred cows to tend to and a few of your own. A long time ago, there were still a thousand up here, sheep, cows and buffalos, whatever it happened to be. After Saint George’s Day the village became empty, they say, and it became full again only on Saint Michael’s Day. But then there were four hundred chimneys smoking in the village. Since then there have been increasingly fewer. And where the fire is not burning in the stove, as is said, the house will soon collapse. Up here they are also collapsing, those that the community built for the shepherds, hardly a few of the dozen still stand properly. What has become a pile of planks is grown over with grass. Two chimneys produce thin smoke. There are two beds pushed tightly together in one of the huts. There is only one in the other, which is even more cramped. The table, or rather four pales covered by a worn wooden board, reaches the bed. On it there are knives, a tin plate, mugs, fresh curd cheese and stale bread. In the corner there is a pile of onion peel, homemade cheese enveloped in tree bark rests in the opposite corner. The paraffin is running out. They will still pick the young ends of the pine tree branches, the cranberry, and the hog’s fennel for tea in the winter. They will return again next spring. And if they don’t come, they say, there will be nothing here.
Salted fish is curling on the stretched string, drying in the sun. The empty strings divide the garden in a jungle of geometry, casting shadows on the sparse vegetables, onion, cabbage, wilted potato. The boat is moored, resting in the shade. Beside it on the bank there is a large heap of carefully repaired nets, a hungry cat forages nearby. It is the time of Lent. Inside, a fresh silvery fish, one of the early morning catch, is on the table. We shouldn’t, he says, while carefully lifting a row of scales with his penknife. No eggs, milk or fish during Lent, but here in the Danube Delta there is hardly anything else. Fish in the morning and evening, fish on weekdays, and fish on holidays. It has always been thus, but at least it was plentiful when elsewhere there was hardly anything – and even what could be found was minimal. They set off at dawn then, several of them, friends, he says, and they were away for quite a few days, on the water. They slept far away, in huts on small islands. They rowed all day long, but it was no trouble. One learns to row here before learning to walk. Just like other children, he also got a boat and a fishing rod for playing and learning the movements, even before getting shoes, of which there was only one pair for the three siblings. Thus they shared the shoes and whoever had them on Sunday would go to church. What God gives, we must catch. After all, there is no one to quarrel with. He puts the fish attentively into the hot oil. It was thus, he waves his hand, when the Party called the fishermen to a meeting on Sunday so that they wouldn’t go to church. It was thus when he worked on the large industrial fishing boat, the Red October, and also when he had to give most of his own catch to the state. How much he handed over is today indicated by enameled medals hardly larger than tiny fisheyes. He keeps them pinned in order, according to each year, under a plastic sheet. Perhaps only one other person who received them is alive today, but he is very ill. The master shipbuilder moved far away, the son moved several nautical miles away and the wife is dead. There is no one to arrange the fish in the pit, to cut the reed, to tend the garden, repair the net in wintertime. And there is no one to wait for him with food at home. He has cooked for himself for a long time. The morello cherry wine is also his own, translucently red, a bite of fish to accompany it. We clink glasses. Then he immediately sets off, taking the fish basket and the long old pole he uses for pushing himself away from the bank. Dogs are barking in the distance. He gets in the boat, the thick water silk parts and a startled pelican flies up from the reeds.
A freezing horse, a rug on its back, is standing motionless, a few stems of hay before it. It begins to snow. It settles on the rug, finely covers the botched up cart and eventually everything, including the pile of bricks, a lump of concrete and fallen tiles. Muted hammer strokes can be heard from far away, then also closer from behind a derelict building, then another from the direction of the ditch, and another stroke from under the ground. The factory is being demolished. Or what has remained is being demolished. The concrete basin is covered with reeds, the canteen is overrun with weeds, only the frame of the industrial hall remains standing. In this neighborhood the other factories closed down a long time ago, as did the power plant and the mine. Of those nothing remains. Here there are still tracks in the snow, the mark of a rickety bike, parallel tracks of a hand-drawn cart with footprints alongside them. Everyone takes what they find, in a team or perhaps alone. The iron appears from the concrete that is reduced to powder after the heavy strokes. Iron is the most valuable. Cracked bricks and damaged tiles can also be useful for something. They take the plastic helmets left there in piles, and if they find wood, that’ll be good for the winter. The cart is slowly getting full. There is a tangle of thinner iron wire. The hacked off longer pieces are arranged on top. We are also rusting away, he says, with a bent piece of iron in his hand. Life was hard in the past, but we were young. Today no one needs us. They came from many parts, he tells us, the new concrete blocks built near the factory quickly became peopled from the mountains and smaller villages, and now they are going in many directions, wherever they can. Having demolished where they themselves worked, they leave and go on to demolish another derelict factory, a plant. They don’t pay much for iron, lucky if it’s enough for bread. He spreads his thread-worn coat on the horse and returns for another lot. The iron deposit closes early in winter, he must hurry. A sulfuric smell oozes from the ground. The puddle, now covered by a membrane of ice, smells metallic. By the entrance the old poplar is bare. In spring when it melts it may still grow stained leaves. Elsewhere, in the past the sooty smoke blackened everything, even lambs, their pasture, the shepherd and the child. And then there were places where the river was diverted farther away, or where the dismantled church was placed farther away, and sometimes the church happened to stay but after opening the dams it sank together with the local school, shop, houses and cemetery, such that hardly anything could be seen of its spire. There were more and more factories and mines, industry was growing all the time. Now it’s only the geranium that grows, crawling upwards and over the airless window space of the guard’s stuffy cubicle. You cannot see out very much. He who watches over the factory day and night does not look towards the gate. He stokes up the fire at dawn and then just sits on his own. Before the factory closed down he also worked there. The barrier is let down, he hasn’t had to open it for a long time. No one comes. Those who do enter through the broken concrete fence or go round and through the deserted back gate. In the past thousands came in crowded trains and packed buses day after day. The factory didn’t cease working even on Sunday. Today the bus stop is empty, and stray dogs bark at the station. On the other side of the road a fire is burning, a piglet is being singed for Christmas between the run-down houses. Among the many empty, broken windows one has a curtain flap. Someone still lives there. If they look out they can just see the chimneys, still standing, and the distant factory building with a few tiny silhouettes moving on its bare metal grid. The monotonous sound of the hammer can be heard inside the room. Then it falls silent and the silence envelopes everything. It turns dark early.