Tales From No Man's Land


He flew off the rough wooden bench, hitting his back against the wall, oozing off together with the day’s sunlight that was disappearing from the cheap cardboard panels of the train compartment, slowly dissolving from the heat.

            The train had skidded on its tracks for a long time and was suddenly frozen still, trying to stop the same way a madman who cannot feel his legs anymore does, roaming and howling through the wastes; and he was still dreaming underneath his eye-lids, dreaming of planes passing over a sky painted by someone in the colors of monastery walls, painted in the blue of saints’ eyes.

            He could hear the hum of motors and he saw the silhouettes of American and British bombers and the siren was wailing, cleaving people’s thoughts in two. From below the airplanes seemed like flies or bumble bees, and he was dreaming of himself in the bombardier’s turret of one of the aircraft, watching the world from above with insect eyes, seeing people the size of ants swarming below; and he had pushed the button knowing the belly of the bomber would pop open, and he suddenly remembered that once, as a child, it had snowed with pieces of paper over the town of his childhood. And on the pieces of paper that had set over the town and over the streets and the houses and the people, there were neatly printed in capital letters the words: ”SEVERIN, YOU DARLING CITY, SATURDAY I’LL BOMB YOU PRETTY!”; and he slammed to the floor with a dull thud, seeping out of the dream, being thrown back into reality.

            The locomotive was giving out labored puffs onto the plain. For a moment the smoke from the coal fire licked the compartment window, which he had cracked open before falling asleep. Long black strands of smoke entered, caressing the flaked walls, escaping quickly and spreading somewhere towards the horizon that was being slowly swallowed up by darkness.

            He started coughing while his ears were still ringing from the sound the brakes had made while stopping the metal snake into which he had huddled up two days before, trying to get to where he had been sent. He had left Bucharest with the tail between his legs. But was used to be wasn’t anymore, and what was to come was taking its time, while he was somewhere in the middle of nowhere, in the plain, somewhere in the Banat, on a train that had suddenly stopped, making its steel wheels grind and spout sparks over cracked earth.

            He put his head out the window when he heard voices. The sun was low, going back into the earth, and everything seemed about to catch on fire.

            Somebody was arguing with somebody else and the swear words were in Russian.

            He took his knapsack, exiting the compartment and going down the train car steps. The locomotive was bleeding smoke and the wind was still.

            It was hot.

            By the locomotive, the mechanic, the stoker and the conductor were exchanging swear words with a short individual dressed in black overalls. The train tracks were being blocked by a Russian T34 tank with a broken tread. The tracks themselves were destroyed and the wheel mechanism of the tank was broken to bits. Nobody was going anywhere.

            The train was long, turning black with each passing moment, about to be swallowed up by the darkness from head to tail, while the Russian seemed to have caught on fire from the last slivers of daylight.

            The stoker was hitting himself over the head while the mechanic and the conductor were trying to talk to the tank man in broken Russian, interspersed with hand gestures and Romanian swear words. The Russian was silent, watching them and puffing on a makhorka cigarette, tired and not in the mood. The other tank men had gotten out to stretch their joints, and these could be heard popping dryly in the silence that suddenly fell over them.

            It was clear to him now that he wouldn’t be able to reach the place where he had been sent. The others were paying no attention to him.

            He had been the train’s only passenger. It seemed they had forgotten about him. Actually he wasn’t quite sure if they actually knew they had taken him along all this way, because no one had bothered to ask him anything or look after him since he had shown them his papers. They had all accepted that he was there in the train car, or that he had disappeared upon them first noticing him, swallowed up like a dream vision that leaves the underside of eye-lids after blinking; further than that nobody asked him much, wanting to forget and believing that he never actually existed. It happened when you were carrying travel papers signed and stamped by a Colonel of the Security. If only they had known what something like that actually meant. But nobody asked themselves those kind of questions. It was healthier to shrug, keep your mouth shut and see to your own business.

            That’s what Colonel Fulga had told him when he was handed his marching orders after the investigation was concluded:

            ”Should anyone ask you something about the whole matter, you shall shrug, be silent and see to your destination. Now disappear!”

            And that’s how he left Bucharest, off the hook, relieved of his position and sent into the middle of nowhere in the Banat, where everything was haunted by empty trains, Russian tank formations and the wind howling on the open plain.

            There was no use staying with the train. Night had fallen on them like a lid and the Russians were smoking in silence, passing a bottle. Shortly afterwards the conductor, stoker and mechanic joined them.

            He thought about saying good-bye:

            ”I’m going”, he told them, but the others did not reply, or maybe they didn’t know what to say, or maybe they were afraid of replying to the darkness that had suddenly decided to speak.

            Those were strange and sad times. But nobody was asking themselves questions. Or maybe everybody knew the answers without needing to ask. They felt it somewhere deep inside, and fear was clamping their mouths shut, locking their thoughts away, letting their minds swarm in the night on tiny bug legs, not letting them sleep, forcing them to dream, eyes wide open, of a reality that did not belong to them anymore, giving them insomnia, leaving them with sunken cheeks and black rings around their eyes, like sleepwalking children. All lost somewhere far from home. Nobody knowing the way back.

            He had no idea where he was supposed to go.

            He just decided to head out into the plain with the knapsack on his back. He thought about taking out his flashlight, but the stars started coming out in the sky and he could see pretty well where he was going.

            He was heading nowhere under a sky over which the light had exploded in a stream of white foam the color of milk, and he was walking along under galaxies hiding his face in the collar of his military jacket, tiresomely treading the dust of the plain.

            The moon was watching him, big and silver-gray, lighting everything up in an unsettling blue hue while the heat of the day was seeping out of the ground, and somewhere in the distance something like a fog was appearing, reminding him of stories about ghosts and strigoi, but he was too tired and fed up to think about fear.

            His thoughts grabbed a hold of him, jumping on his back like a legion of devils that were coming out of the sun-burnt cracks of the earth he was walking on, feeling the dry weeds that had almost been turned to ash under the soles of his boots. Before him was a dried up river bed, more like a scratch done with a fingernail or a stick that had dug into the dry and ancient flesh of the world, the work of a bored child, and the thoughts would not release him, becoming voices, whispers that were entering his ears together with the night wind that had started blowing, making the weeds and grasses of the plain rustle.

            That’s when he saw the boy, on the other side of a river that was long gone, staring at him with eyes like chasms in the ground.

            ”What are you doing here?” he asked the boy.

            ”But what are you doing here?” the boy replied, although the boy’s lips had not moved, swaying like a vision between moon rays that were licking the approaching walls of fog. The boy’s eyes lit up all of a sudden, throbbing, and the traveler hid his face from the apparition, waiting to be melted away by the light.

            He blinked, finding himself trapped inside the fog. Having no other choice, he dug into his knapsack looking for the flashlight, which he turned on, trying not to think about what he had just seen, forcing himself not to believe what he felt to be true – that he had gone mad.

            The boy was dead, that was a certainty. Even the investigation committee had established that much, the evidence was there. The boy had shot himself with a 9mm pistol.

            ”The blame, comrade, it not yours to bear”, Fulga had uttered, using a parental tone, informing him that he would not be charged with anything, but that he would also not be a military fireman anymore. ”Smile comrade! It could have been so much worse”, Fulga added while he stuck a filtered BelomorKanal cigarette between his grinning teeth that were heavily stained with nicotine. ”This new world that is being built has no need of cowardly types”, the Colonel added sighing while he was exhaling blue smoke, letting himself be enveloped by an aura inside his small and stuffy office that smelled of male sweat, cheap perfume and fear.

            On the wall, above the epaulets of the Security Colonel’s uniform, above each one of his shoulders, there loomed Comrade Stalin and Comrade Dej, nicely framed, watching over the construction of the foundations of a new world being built out of diverse paperwork, travel orders, lists with the arrested and informative notes that were flowing in unending streams that reeked of ink, chemical pencil and blood, flooding small offices found in certain semi-basements of the city of Bucharest.

            ”The world is changing”, Fulga said after a few moments of silence that seemed capable of swallowing up entire ages. ”And those that cannot grasp this aspect have no business in this world. Smile. All is well.”

            But nothing was well. He felt that he was going insane. And the world had gone insane in the same instant.

            He felt like crying, not knowing how to escape the fog. He started yelling without realizing he was doing it:

            „Help! I am lost!”

            The only reply was the plain’s echo, mocking him:

            ”…ost, …st… , …t…”

            He kept on yelling. Until he couldn’t anymore. Then he went at it again. Without noticing, he suddenly started screaming. And he screamed until he thought that he had managed to mute the echo with his screaming.

            Silence fell over the plain for a moment.

            Then the wind started blowing softly again, making the fog move. The traveler stopped screaming, slumped to the ground, staring moronically at a gap that had begun to tear itself out of the fog. The beam of the flashlight started flickering and the traveler started noticing something.

            It seemed to be something like a tunnel and he was left speechless, when he was able to finally wipe away his tears, blow his nose and gather himself back up. The tunnel was long and dark. No sign of moon or stars. He blinked trying to attune his eyes, seeing that the flashlight’s beam was unable to cut through the black. Then the flashlight went out. Or maybe he had turned it off without realizing he had done it, obeying some unknown thought that had popped into his mind.

            He was watching the gap in the fog.

            Someone had cleared him a path, and the traveler thought again of the apparition he had seen on the other side of the dried up river, somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

            The way was winding through the fog and the darkness, but the traveler was not convinced he should move. He could have just stayed right there and waited for morning.

            Whispers started circling his ears again, blossoming from among the weeds and the dried up plants of the field, rising up together with the wind that had taken on a voice of its own.

            The tunnel seemed to start shivering, and while the traveler was watching the darkness, he thought he saw inside it a flicker of light.

            He started walking without realizing he was doing it and he continued walking while the flicker was growing, and the tunnel and the fog started melting, going back into the earth, joining all the other visions that had escaped for a moment from the land of those who do not return.

            Someone had lit a fire in the wasteland, and the man was now sure that it was not an apparition. The fog had dissipated completely and the plain was once again enveloped in the light of the moon and the stars. In the distance, in the middle of the darkness, he could see the yellowish light of flames escaping through tree trunks. The wind started blowing violently, all of a sudden bringing clouds over the clear sky, and the man was getting ever closer now, noticing the shadows being thrown all around by the fire that moved with the wind. He saw the trees being lit up by the blaze, as if someone had thrown a bucket of gasoline over the flames.

            The small grove exploded into sight, lighting up the horizon, swallowing up all the surrounding darkness for an instant, shining with a crimson glow that was abating now, little by little.

            He stopped in front of the grove, smelling gasoline and ţuică, hearing men’s voices and the sound of a harmonica, violin and accordion.

            He really didn’t know what to think.

            It seemed to be a fair of some sorts. Empty chairs with worn down upholstery that had suffered cigarette burns, and a table filled with left-overs, half-drunk glasses of red wine out of whose rims someone seemed to have bitten chunks out of, and all sorts of dirty tableware, all under a tall and very old linden tree.

            A large fire was lighting up the whole scene from a pit that had been gouged out, more out of spite than anything, using trench shovels and picks that had been thrown away in the middle of a paved walkway, lying among pave stones that had been torn out of their places and had been thrown every which way in a rock throwing contest played by drunken giants that had disappeared from the face of the earth long ago; empty wooden boxes that were broken, torn-up, used as firewood, bits of furniture and shards of glass. Old picture frames had been stacked on the side by a big clump of canvases that someone had used as rags for ass-wiping.

            Big flower pots were lying broken everywhere, with earth bleeding out of them. The flowers had been ripped out and thrown away. Some pots, it seemed to him, had bullet holes in them.

            Books were burning in the fire. A lot of books. He hadn’t seen so many books gathered in the same spot in all his life. And he didn’t know that books could give off so much heat.

            Someone had lined up statues some distance away from the fire. Behind the statues he noticed the manor that the paved walkway was leading up to. It had somehow fallen in half-shadow, as if the world had broken in two, one side – the dark one – slipping towards someplace else, a place where the light of the burning books could not reach into.

            He saw shapes moving frantically in front of the manor, heard some yelps and the clear sound of verses of a song sung by someone in a thick and deep voice accompanied by violin, accordion and harmonica:

            ”Up the hill from our house, a blue flower grows, my dear! My dear little flower!”

            All of a sudden one of the statues’ heads exploded in a plume of gypsum. He went prone. Two other shots rang out and now all the statues were headless. The song went on, spiked with the shouts of the revelers that started marching, coming towards the fire.

            They reached it without even bothering to acknowledge his presence. Behind them came a barefoot lad dressed in a tailcoat that was too large for him, wearing a worn beret on his head and a scoped Russian Nagant on his shoulder, pushing along a wheelbarrow full of books. The man who was singing vocals was dressed in a German skirt and was wearing riding boots and a pistol holster. He was a giant.

            Nobody bothered with the traveler, as if he was invisible. He got up and walked towards the one who seemed to be in charge – a soldier, giantesque, similar in stature to the one wearing a skirt – trying to hand him Colonel Fulga’s paper, but one of the revelers, reeking of ţuică, shoved him, slamming him to the ground once more.

            The lad wearing the tail coat dumped the wheelbarrow filled with books over the flames as the gathering cheered. A fat one dragged a bucket along, throwing the gasoline inside it over the fire. The liquid exploded, almost blinding the traveler.

            ”Boy, they sure do burn hard!” yelled one of the bunch over the moans of the books whose heavy leather spines started popping, spreading a smell of singed paper and library dust.

            In the light of the blaze that was going up, the traveler noticed that by the manor, a group of individuals were loading pieces of furniture into some horse drawn carts, disappearing with them into the darkness.

            The giant wearing riding boots and dressed in a skirt took out his pistol and fired off a few shots. The others bellowed. The fat one drank a glassful of wine dry and then bit on its rim, crunching placidly while stuffing his face with bread.

            The traveler got to his feet and went towards the manor. In the reddish glow of the fire, the building seemed to be weeping. Its windows were all broken and someone had hoisted a red flag over the heavy wooden doors at the entrance.

            On the gable of the door one could still make out the marks left behind by the letters that had made up the former owner’s name, before being turned into rubble, but the darkness that had fallen was too deep, so that they could never be read again. On one of the doors someone had nailed a cardboard sign on which there stood written in big and unsure letters:


            It was pitch-black inside, but the traveler entered leaving the light of the satanic fair behind, losing himself in the empty chambers of the manor. Shortly, all that he could hear was the quiet and the small moans of the house as it was gasping from all its joints, the wooden floors and the door-frames cracking softly in the cool night air.

            He took out his flash-light, and to his surprise it still worked.

            The manor had been emptied. He was stepping on broken glass as he passed the flash-light beam over the walls that still kept the impressions of the paintings that used to hang there not too long ago, the traveler noticing the empty squares and rectangles had kept the original color of the wallpaper while all the rest of it had been discolored by the passage of time.

            He was walking around the house aimlessly, not knowing what he was looking for, out of reflex, going from one room to the other. In one of them someone had used red paint to write with Cyrillic characters on the walls, but he didn’t know how to read them.

            He found a spiral staircase and climbed to the floor above.

            The staircase led into a huge and empty library in the middle of which stood a metal framed bed and nothing else.

            The bed didn’t even have a mattress.

            He sat down for a moment at the edge of the bed, to catch his breath. The flashlight was illuminating the empty shelves and it seemed to him that he was in the middle of a tomb, covered in dust and whispers.

            The noises of the party outside were dying down, and soon everything had fallen silent.

            A clock could be heard ticking somewhere inside the house, but in the end it fell silent as well, realizing it was no use measuring something that is infinite and flows after its own desire.

            He slowly laid down on the bed, looking for a position that was somewhat comfortable, using the knapsack as a pillow and his military cloak as a blanket. He was watching the shadows the flashlight was throwing on the empty shelves and he blinked, falling asleep without even noticing.

            He might have been dreaming when he shuddered, getting out of bed, lost somewhere at the end of the night. It took him some time to clamber out of the dream and back into reality.

            The darkness was almost total. The moon had set and the flashlight’s battery was dead. He went to the window and watched the horizon, where the darkness was turning milky, predicting dawn. All the rest of the world was still steeped in darkness though.

            His back ached. And he could feel something pressing on the back of his head.

            He turned around and it seemed to him that there, on the empty shelves of the bookcase, something was moving. He could hear little bug legs going quickly-quickly over the wood that had been eaten away by time. And something had opened its eyes in the darkness, watching him.

            Something was watching him with insect eyes from one of the shelves of the bookcase, and it started scratching at the wood, trying to leak out of that emptiness so that it could make its way, clawing along the lengthy path it had to go, patiently, through the dust of time, in order to get him, coming out of the realm of insects back among those it had left behind, back into the realm of men.

            He thought again about the boy’s apparition and froze still, waiting for the strigoi to come get him.

            Someone touched him then, and the traveler couldn’t even gather the strength to scream. But he hadn’t been touched by the boy’s ghost. He was being gently caressed by a giant. Wearing a military uniform.

            ”What are you doing here?” asked the giant.

            The traveler shrugged and handed over Fulga’s paper. The giant lit a match and had one eye on the paper’s official stamp while the other one was fixed on the end of a cigarette he was bringing near to the flame. He had a blunt face, sun-burnt and covered by an ugly scar. The giant had a squinting eye, and smelled strangely, of earth and silence, and big hands and dirty fingernails.

            ”Piss off!” he curtly said. ”You have no business being here!”

            He went down the staircase like a sleepwalker, drunk, staggering, and went out of the darkness into the light of dawn that was dragging the sun out of the bowels of the earth. In front of the manor it smelled of immolation and sleep, and it was quiet.

            He could see a road embankment winding through a row of poplars and in the distance there were some flat-bed trucks coming, throwing dust and closing in on the manor.

            He took to the road, walking mindlessly, looking straight ahead, clutching Fulga’s paper. He couldn’t feel his legs anymore.

            The trucks passed him, and from their platforms the faces of men with close shaved heads, wearing striped clothing, were watching him. They were all standing up straight, some of them sleeping where they stood, huddled up, like sheaves of wheat that were gently fretting in the wind, while the sun had started burning the features of their faces off and out of the traveler’s memory as he kept to the road, egged on by something that he could not name.

            He walked until the sun had risen some distance into the sky, and morning had erased the last remnants of night from the world.

            Event before he entered the village, he could hear the wails. And the dogs were barking.

            The old ones and the children had all gathered on the train tracks in front of the station. And the train was long, so long that the fatigue of the last days spent on the road made the traveler incapable of perceiving its end. And the people were being pushed into cattle cars while the children were crying and the old people were silently watching, some of them lost in the interior worlds that are only revealed to silence.

            It was the summer of 1951 in the Banat. And trains full of people were departing. And empty trains were returning, passing through the barren plain, howling in the mind of the traveler that showed his paper to the station chief. That one wiped his greasy hand off his jacket before touching the document.

            ”You have arrived”, he declared.

            And the traveler was now just standing on the platform, lost, watching the train being loaded up, noticing the face of the boy among the ashen faces of those about to depart, about to be forgotten the moment the locomotive shrieked, starting towards the Bărăgan, throwing its smoke around, into the vastness of the plain.

This story was initially published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2019 book.

Photo credit: Diana Bilec