The boy was dying and she had gone from one doctor to the other, mixing up their faces as time went by, and their mouths had moved as if in a void, and their clotted voices had breathed bits of words linked clearly, unemphatically, and their glassy eyes were silent, and all mouths were saying the same thing:
”Madam, it’s no use. We can’t do anything. Go see the old babushkas. Or just wait. However it might be, he’ll end up in the same place. And then the priests will do the rest.”
She had been on the road for 7 days, had forgotten the last time she had eaten and her mouth was dry out of fear, not thirst. Her boy was dying, hit by a curse.
It wasn’t like they had been a very lucky family, but slowly, day by day, week by week, month slowly by slipping into a new month, merging into a white ball that was gleaming slowly in her mind’s eye, and years had melted under the sun like candles that had been lit for no good reason, turned into nothing else than time that had cut ridges into her flesh, crisscrossing her face chaotically, like train tracks drawn on the face of the earth by a child on the verge of madness, drawn without any sense of haste, jammed in; and she had accepted. And although she had accepted, she kept on fighting. Maybe she had gone mad as well.
Her husband was the first one to go insane. But he went insane in the only way men those day knew how – by slowly drowning in silent anger, work and drink.
When they reached the Banat around 1940, shooed away by the Treaty of Craiova and by the Bulgarians that had chased them off with staves and hounds to the train station in Balgarevo, that was the first time she had gone off on her own, with small children in tow. He had stayed behind to see to the property they had left behind. He came back 6 months later, alone, empty handed. Silent. Maybe that was the moment he had started to slip, but she was too tired and busy with her own slipping to be able to notice.
When they put him against the mill’s wall so that a bunch of drunkards, Romanians and Hungarians from the village, could shoot him, while he was standing there facing the brilliant sun, watching the dark muzzles of the rifles, while she could do nothing more than blink as the children were howling, maybe that was the moment in which her husband went insane, right before her uncle could step in and save her man from the bored drunks that were in the mood for a killing on that day.
Maybe then, in that instant, her man had seen something, there, between the rays of the sun and the darkness that seemed to leak out of the gun barrels into the golden light of a late summer afternoon. Maybe he had understood something, like all mad-men that can see what the others cannot. And then they fall silent because they cannot grasp how a mouth could form the words used to explain to others that which cannot be comprehended except by using words that had not been invented yet. And that would never be invented. And maybe in such a way, somewhere, in some hidden recesses of his mind, found while wandering, her man had understood, choosing silence.
Her husband had changed. She couldn’t recognize him anymore.
But maybe she had changed as well. She hadn’t looked in the mirror since 1941.
At a village festival, in 1950, someone had put a mirror up to her face. She couldn’t remember who she was supposed to be seeing, and anyway she did not see herself. She saw someone else. Because she had turned into someone else. But she had no time to think about that. The children were small, work was hard and seemed endless. The hunger was great.
The war had ended and the Communists had arrived and the world was changing. Along with its order.
She could care less. She had her own worries.
She didn’t think of it as a curse. She thought that’s the way life is. And for some life is easy. For some it’s the way it is. And for others, like them, life was hard. But it was life.
When they got them on the train in 1951 to take them to the Bărăgan, they had gotten used to it.
”Take what you can fit into a suitcase”, the Militia officer told them.
She took the biggest suitcase she could find. And then she dressed her children in as many layers of clothing as they could wear. She did the same. And then they took them away.
Her husband was silent, watching the dawn shedding its light on a chicken coop that seemed to have sprouted up in the middle of nowhere, a scraggy tree and the plain. Her man was watching the tree. And she was watching him, trying to listen to his silence but not knowing how although the train had stopped for a while now; it was only that her mind was still filled with the sound of wheels clunking over the tracks.
They traveled for days that seemed to her no more than moments. And some of the moments in those days’ nights seemed to drag on longer than years could.
At one stop, during the night, between the gentle sighs that rose up from sleeping children, she felt something in the silence that had set in over them, and it seemed to her she could hear her husband thinking.
”Yessssss…” he sighed without looking at her, putting out his cigarette, laying down by the children and falling asleep instantly, as the train started moving again.
They unloaded them onto another plain. But they managed. They kept quiet. They accepted. They worked.
They came back in 1956 and she still didn’t think it was a curse. And it didn’t seem to be one. The children were growing. The family came back with more than when they were sent into the Bărăgan. She was pregnant.
The people in the village had changed.
Now there were others.
There were some left from before, but not much.
The ones from before seemed as if they really weren’t there anymore. Something like ghosts. They passed her, stepping into the dust of the road while she was working in the garden, and it seemed to her that they had become see-through, uncertain, the sun passing through their pores, weakened, in danger of disappearing into a gust of wind.
Her husband walked here and there, keeping quiet, among the ghosts.
She wasn’t sure of her material presence either. Or of what she is anymore. Or who.
The children were the ones who always reminded her.
”Moooother?!” they called her, laughing, playing in the dusty yard.
And the child in her belly was moving, turning in its sleep, growing daily, reminding her that she existed.
She didn’t believe in the curse. Until the moment her 6th child was born – a girl – and her biggest boy fell ill. That’s when she felt it.
A thought came over her in the night and it wouldn’t let her fall asleep until the following morning. And then, while at work, she felt something pressing inside her being, or perhaps not inside, but really close. And she felt that something was about to pass, and the cursed thought whispered into her ears that the only thing that she could do about it was to wait.
It started with a cold, but in a few weeks the boy was bed-ridden. The weeks turned into months. The boy was weak. He could barely talk. He turned blue and started stinking. It looked as if his flesh had begun to rot on the bone.
Her husband was quiet, understanding that one cannot disturb what is with sounds that cannot explain something that will forever escape explanation.
The children were sometimes scared, sometimes curious, sometimes bored because, although they did understand that their big brother is very ill, being still too small, didn’t quite fathom the implications. Or the meaning of death. And everything that comes with it.
She didn’t know either. But she could imagine. She also knew that death was similar to life. That death can grow inside a being as life does. And seeing her boy getting weaker, she started believing they were cursed. Something had loomed over their family, slowly gnawing in the night on the soft thin veil, similar to a golden butterfly’s wing, that stands between peace and unhappiness. And that worm had kept gnawing, all those years, until it could make its way through, carrying with it through the gap all the unhappiness it could take with it, infecting everyone.
”He will die,” she told her husband.
”Take him to the doctors,” he said, leaving the room in order to go to work, or wander about the village until night and hunger and the cold brought him back. He hadn’t spoken so much in over a year.
Doctors. A word that filled her with dread. Because doctors meant money she didn’t have and answers she didn’t want to know.
”Let him go”, the neighbor lady told her. ”Mine passed as well. We shall all pass. Better than to stay here. Can’t you see how bad the weather is getting?” and the woman started stripping corn, forgetting the world. Maybe she had gone mad as well.
On the uncaring sky above, clouds were gathering and the wind was blowing, dried up by the heat.
She was committed to saving her boy. And nothing could discourage her.
”Take him to the old hags”, the last doctor told her and it wasn’t quite clear to her if he had meant it or he was just making fun of her.
The doctor had black rings under his eyes, and in the light that was barely getting through into the silent office, he seemed about to become see-through, wobbly. She felt that if she sneezed in his direction, he would disappear in a cloud of dust.
The doctor was not joking. He meant it.
The boy was getting worse. For a few days now he could barely open his mouth, and no sound was coming out, and he was soft and covered in sweat. He was fading. She had no more time.
She would go see the old hag.
She knew of one that people said was a witch. Some claimed the old woman was insane. Others didn’t really know what to think of her – the village drunks told she was just an old lady that lived in the yard of a manor, inside a wooden shack, surrounded by hens and cats.
She left the house with a neighbor lady after she breast-fed the girl and went on foot across the field toward the next village so she could reach the crone.
The road seemed endless, and in the featureless plain she lost her way, feeling she would soon be gobbled up by the horizon. But as she kept walking there was still so much more walking to be done, the horizon running away from her, keeping its distance.
She reached the village by sunset. A passer-by told her how to get to the witch’s house.
The manor was dilapidated and swallowed by darkness, eaten away by time and weeds. Someone had stolen the iron-wrought fence and after the theft only the brick pillars and a rust-eaten gate remained, the gate barely hanging on by one of its hinges. It stood open, propped up by a stick.
It was pitch black in the yard and at first she couldn’t see anything. Maybe the babushka was an invention.
”Is anyone home?” the woman raised her voice in the darkness.
Nobody replied and she was thinking of turning back when she saw a light. Someone had lit an oil lamp and all of a sudden she could see the square of a window cutting away the darkness, the head of a babushka appearing in the gap gouged out by the light.
”What do you want?” asked the babushka. Her voice was strident and old.
Shivers went down the woman’s spine, but she told the hag what she wanted. The babushka came to the threshold of the shack she was living in. And did not invite the woman in.
”No room”, explained the old woman, hunched over and small.
From inside the shack came the smell of old age and basil. The babushka took out a chair and lay the lamp on it. She went back inside and came out holding a small wooden box, sitting on her haunches on the threshold of the door and laying the box in front woman who sat in the dust of the yard.
The light of the lamp was weak and the crone’s features were not easily visible. Her hands were deformed by old age. She opened the box and took a large and long deck of cards out of it.
The women thought they were playing cards, but they weren’t.
”Shuffle the cards”, the babushka told the woman while she was rummaging inside a time worn apron, coming out with a short pipe she filled unhurriedly with tobacco, lighting a match and patiently puffing while watching the woman who was shuffling the deck. The cards were old and greasy and they had strange pictures on them, pictures that said much to those that knew how to decipher them. The woman could not decipher them. She could barely see them in the light given off by the lamp.
After she was done shuffling, the hag took the deck, cut the cards, shuffled them some more and took out a single card she put on the wooden box, face down.
The tobacco was giving off an aroma the woman had never smelled before. It was a soothing smell.
The babushka raised her gaze and tried engulfing the woman with it. Her eyes were green.
“What is it you want?” she asked the woman.
”I want my boy to live.”
The old woman watched, her green eyes taking their time.
”You have other children?” the old woman asked.
”Yes. Four more. And a girl. A baby.”
”Something small for something large”, the hag muttered.
”What?” the woman jumped.
”Let’s see what the card reveals,” the old woman said, turning the card over.
The card showed a boat passing over troubled waters. A woman and a child were inside the boat. Behind the woman there stood 6 swords whose tips were inserted into the floor of the boat, tall and firmly stuck into the wood. The boat was heading towards a distant shore where the waters were calmer.
The old woman took a fingernail and set it on the head of the child in the boat.
”Who do you see here?” asked the old woman.
The woman watched closely, forcing her eyes in the light that the lamp threw into the darkness, and it seemed to her that the boat had started moving across the waters, and she could hear the sound of the waves coming on like the clanking of train wheels, turning inside her head under the great ball of time the tangle of her life had woven. She blinked and as she watched even closer it seemed to her she could see the face of her baby girl in the boat. When the old hag took her fingernail off the card, everything went quiet in the woman’s mind, and now she could only see the face of a random child, the image on the card turning greasy and washed-out again in the weak light of the lamp.
”I saw the girl.”
”Well…” muttered the hag emptying her pipe. She rose slowly blowing over the lamp’s flame and the darkness flooded over them in the sleeping village.
The woman didn’t know what to think.
”There’s nothing to understand,” said the old woman, reading her mind.”Go back home. Your child will call out for you.”
The woman stood there motionless and when she came out of it there was no one beside her in the dark.
She went home.
She arrived in the morning.
Someone was calling for her.
”Mother! Moooother?! Motheeer?”
The boy was on his feet, propped up against the bed. He seemed to have come back from the threshold.
Her husband was out. The other children were sleeping.
The neighbor woman was in the other room. The baby girl was crying, running a high fever.
It didn’t take long. The baby fell silent all of a sudden, as if she had fallen asleep.
The woman understood, knowing the wait was over, and that it wasn’t a curse. She understood that it’s just the way life goes.
And she understood many other things, so many that she had nothing left to do, traveling through silence over the troubled sea of her life, hoping the shore she had seen in the darkness of night would bring her peace.
This story was initially published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2019 book.
Photo credit: Diana Bilec