I was the only diner in this tiny restaurant on the eastside of town, and the only thing that irritated me was the mirror behind bottles. Every time I looked up, I saw myself looking like a portrait of one of my own ancestors: Lazarus Trubman, deep in thought, in a gilt frame. I had circles under my eyes and a few scars on my face; apart from that I looked all right for a man who was liberated from the labor camp in Northern Russia five months ago.
“What would you like?” asked the barman.
“A cognac,” I said. “How’s your fish today?”
“Was caught a short while ago.”
“I’d like it deep-fried with some new potatoes.”
The barman conveyed my order to the cook in the back, uncorked a bottle of “Yubileyny,” a cognac created in 1984 for the 50th anniversary of the October revolution, and said filling up the bottom of my glass: “I haven’t seen you in a long time, professor.”
“Almost five years,” I said. “And I really shouldn’t be here.”
As he rinsed the glasses, he said: “We went through some horrors too, my son in particular, but it wasn’t as bad as being in the Soviet labor camp though…”
I nodded, sipped my cognac in silence and listened to his story. When he finally fell silent, I said, “Sorry to hear what happened to your son.”
“He’s alive, thank God, but will probably use a cane for the rest of his life.”
“Alive is what counts.”
“Here’s to those who are not,” said the barman, pouring a shot of cognac for himself.
He was a man of forty, tall and a bit round-shouldered, with a pair of sunken sad eyes. My recollection of him as a younger man was somewhat blurry, but I had no doubt that he was the same person who served me drinks five years ago. His son tried to set fire to the military barracks, was caught, tortured, but let go.
“Yes,” he said again, “that’s how it was when you were away.”
My glass was empty.
“Another one, professor?” he asked.
“I’ll wait for my fish,” I said.
“Then a cigarette,” he said, pulled one out of the packet and clicked his lighter.
While I smoked, he dried the glasses. I was about to leave my country. Behind were dozens of blood transfusions, dental tortures, and some scary talks with a cardiologist. Finally, I was given a so-so bill of health and was waiting for the slow-moving Immigration Office to approve my visa. This restaurant had been chosen as a meeting place by an old friend of mine, who agreed to keep my personal library, 300 tomes of Russian and European classics, until I could settle in America and save enough money to pay for the shipment, and that friend was late.
Now my fish arrived.
“Here’s to you and your friends, professor,” proposed the barman. “You paid for our freedom.”
We touched glasses, and he left me alone to eat in silence.
The fish was excellent, but I didn’t enjoy it: my mind was elsewhere.
The barman noticed.
“This is the best deep-fried fish in town…”
“It’s not the fish, Kostake,” I interrupted, “it’s me.” His name appeared in my memory suddenly, and I was really glad it did.
“You remember!” he exclaimed, and a wide smile lit up his face.
“But of course, my friend: sooner or later everything comes back.”
“Would you like some coffee? I’m about to start a fresh pot.”
“I’ll have it outside,” I said. “I’m waiting for someone.” I pulled my wallet out of the chest pocket, but Kostake forestalled my attempt to pay.
“It’s on me, teacher, and the drinks too. It seemed that we both needed some hard liquor this afternoon.”
We shook hands, I went outside and occupied a small table next to the lilac bushes. The rain had stopped, leaving behind small puddles everywhere and a light breeze from the south. I checked the time: three o’clock on the dot. I smiled. Three in the afternoon always seemed like a terrible hour, an hour without slope, flat and with no outlook. A time in my childhood came to me, when I was ill in bed and it was three o’clock in the afternoon, picture books, stewed apple, eternity.
“Your coffee, professor!”
“Thank you, Kostake.” I inhaled the smell of freshly brewed coffee. “Why don’t you join me; it’s quite beautiful after the rain.”
“I’d love to, but I must go,” said Kostake pointing at the approaching couple.
I watched him holding the front door open for his customers and was about to try my coffee, when someone’s light hand touched my shoulder:
“What are you up to these days, Lazarus, what are you up to?”
The voice and the short laugh sounded unfamiliar.
I turned around to see the man.
I didn’t recognize Professor Oliescu as he suddenly stood there in front of me. It wasn’t his voice, but his face; it wasn’t just pale – it was utterly different! All I knew was that I knew this face. Some of it could not ever be changed.
He must have noticed my confusion.
“Don’t you remember me?” he asked with the same short laugh. “Yes, they can do this to you – they and their newly invented millstones! But your camp wasn’t a vacation either, I’ve been told.”
I kept looking at his face, in silence. In reality, it was no longer a face, but two cheekbones with thin skin over them, sticking out like miniature mountain peaks. The muscles that formed an expression, an expression that reminded me of Professor Oliescu, were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for a long time, that’s why his laugh was short and much too large; it distorted his face; it seemed huge in relation to his eyes, which were set far back in his skull.
“Professor!” I exclaimed, stopping myself from adding: I was told that you were dead! Instead: “Well, well, how the hell are you?”
“I’m great, my friend!” he put up another short laugh. “It’s spring in Chisinau!”
I tried to make out why he kept laughing. I knew him as a serious man, as Professor of Electromagnetics at the Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth, his face formed that uncanny expression of mirth. To ask seemed impossible.
“Yes, yes,” he laughed, “I’m better now: those millstones roughed me up quite a bit, but I got lucky.”
He paused, and I had a chance to take another look at him. Actually, he wasn’t laughing at all, any more than two cheekbones with skin over them is laughing. I apologized for not recognizing him at first.
“You’re not alone, but I’ve gotten used to it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I feel embarrassed.” I felt an impulse to leave, but he began coughing suddenly and couldn’t stop, and he finally did, I saw two bloody spots percolating through his handkerchief.
“Scary, isn’t it?” he said. “But it’s not as scary as a few other things I’m hiding under my clothes.”
“We all have our scars to hide, I guess,” I said. “Some deeper than others.”
“Don’t we, Lazarus? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”
His skin looked as if it could crack at any moment, like old leather or clay, and he had a belly that looked like a small party balloon held up by his thin ribs. His eyes were the only thing unchanged since I last saw him, lovely, but sunken.
I glanced at my wristwatch.
“Why are you suddenly in such a hurry?” he asked with his short deceptive laugh. “How about a drink for the occasion?”
He was a colleague of mine back in the old days at the university; I looked up to him and respected him more than any other professor in the country, but I really had no time for a drink.
“My dear professor,” I said because he was holding me by the arm, “I do have to go: a few things must be attended urgently.”
“Then some other time, right?” he said, and I knew in that moment that this man was really already dead.
“Yes, I should like that,” I said finishing up my coffee.
“I hope you still remember my old apartment,” he said. “They gave it back to me, those imbeciles, so I can die under a roof – instead of a starry sky.”
Maybe it was a laugh, I thought, while checking the street for a taxi, maybe he kept laughing all the time because he was still alive, standing in front of me in downtown Chisinau, despite the rumors that he had cancer of the stomach and died in the camp.
As luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to us and a young couple paid and got out. I occupied the back seat, lowered the window and said:
“It was nice to see you alive and laughing…”
“We should meet again, my friend!” he interrupted. “I have a lot to tell you, enough for a thick book, and I hope you’re still a good listener.”
“I’m always up for a good story, professor,” I said, “always up for a good story.”
I tried to distinguish the color of his eyes and couldn’t.
“In the meantime, call me,” he said stepping back from the taxi. “It is allowed now.”
I promised and gave the driver my friend’s address.
“You can take a nap,” he said moving into the traffic. “It’s quite a ride.”
“Can you make it in twenty minutes?”
“I can certainly try.”
“You’ll be rewarded,” I said, closed my eyes and just like that, my memory brought back a meeting, which took place many years ago in the Orhey Forest, a huge mass of trees not far from a small town of Orhey, Moldova. A story of a murder I didn’t commit.
It was 1978, a Sunday in the end of February or in the beginning of March, I was in the Army reserve and we were stationed in the vicinity of Orhey, a cloudless day. I had a weekend leave, but I didn’t take a bus to Chisinau to see my girlfriend; I wanted to be away from people and went into the Orhey Forest. Actually, reservists were strictly forbidden to go there, but I went nonetheless. I spent the night in an abandoned hay barn; clear starry night. I wanted to avoid open country roads, because there were probably military patrols there to whom I, a simple gunner, would have had to report my destination, which was just what I didn’t want to do. What I wanted was a real leave, a leave from any compulsion to report. Since it was really cold outside the barn, I slept longer than usual and was up and about way after the sunrise. I walked very quickly, deep into the forest, where the snow was still crisp and hard.
I rested right before the path became quite steep, not a soul in sight. I breakfasted. I had a military knife with me – that was also why I didn’t want to be seen by anyone in the valley, a lone soldier with a knife. I had taken off my army sheepskin coat and hung it from the belt; every now and then I stopped and peered around to see if anyone was coming, a patrol with an officer perhaps. Once I was deep inside the forest, they couldn’t stop me anymore, I thought, at most they might ask if I didn’t know the regulation and then say no more about it, moved by the friendship between fellow soldiers. But I saw no one and I heard nothing either. Soft noise of the snow falling from the branches because of the light wind, nothing else.
Later, when the path reached the highest point in this part of the forest, I felt tired. It was getting warmer, and after I put up a shelter made out of loose stones and branches, behind which I was out of the wind, I actually took off my sweaty shirt and rolled my soldier’s blouse into a pillow. Then I slept, I was really tired, I don’t know how long…
The man, who had suddenly spoken to me, a civilian, obviously Russian, didn’t want to disturb me, as he said, when he saw my amusement, but naturally I immediately sat up. He had evidently been here for some time; he had put down his rucksack not far away. I said good morning, as I rose to my feet so that we were now standing side by side. He wanted to know, a pair of field glasses to his face, how far the Orhey Forest reaches east and west. “You’re a soldier, you might know,” he said with a certain smile, and as I showed him what he wanted to know I soon noticed how well he knew the district. He was carrying a map, although, as we were told, maps were not allowed to be carried by civilians in the area or war games. A lot of soldiers here, yes… He was trying hard, I could see, to take my military uniform seriously. He offered me his field glasses as he happened to have another pair, and in return I offered him my military water bottle filled with grape juice. I saw through his field glasses that he used my tracks. No one else came. He stayed for about an hour, and we chatted above all about the life of an army reservist, the conditions of the barracks and the quality of the food, and also about the flora, of which he spoke in a tone of great appreciation. Not knowing why actually, I had an inhibition against looking him in the face, as though prepared for some tactless remark that embarrassed me in advance. He kept asking questions, casually somewhat, not really insisting on immediate answers. And this is what got stuck in my memory better than anything else: the more fluently the conversation now went, the more urgently I waited for the moment when he would pick up his rucksack. I left it to the wind to answer his question as to whether we were trained in surviving in extreme environments. That he would make it back to town before 4:00 p.m., he left me in no doubt. Now he picked up his rucksack, not without offering me an apple. I felt somewhat ashamed. An apple this deep in the forest was something. No conversation for a while. Finally, he disappeared between the trees with a cordial wave and wishing me a good time in the army…
For some reason I felt angry. I didn’t see him again until he reached the small treeless spot some two hundred yards below me, so that all I could see using the gifted field glasses was his green hat. He slipped, but managed to steady himself; then he walked more carefully. I shouted to him, to make him raise his face again, but he heard nothing. Then I whistled through my fingers; he probably took it for the whistle of a marmot and looked around. I stood still until he disappeared behind the trees, a little man in the forest… Suddenly I resolved to go back to town and catch up with him, but what for? I remained still, imagining him having a drink at the hotel bar.
Back inside the tent, I fell asleep again, now for good…
When I woke up, probably because I was cold, I was dismayed by the thought: I could have stabbed him in the back with my military knife. I knew I didn’t do it. I hadn’t dreamed it either; I merely woke with the waking thought: a stab in the back as he bent down for his rucksack would have killed him instantly.
Then I ate his apple.
Of course, I am glad I didn’t do it. It would have been murder. I have never talked to anyone about it, not even to my close friends, although I didn’t do it. I saw no one far and wide. No eyewitnesses. Not even an animal. Light wind and no listening ear. Next evening in the garrison during the roll-call I would have stepped into the back row, head to the right, hand on the seam, at attention, good and straight; afterwards I’d play some chess with my neighbor. No one would ever have noticed from looking at me, I don’t think...
Since then I have talked to a lot of murderers, at the university, during concerts and soccer games; you can’t tell by looking at them! When I had eaten his apple, I would’ve turned him on his back to look at his face, to make sure that he was dead…
I glanced at my wristwatch: time to go down. I picked up my belt, put on the sheepskin coat. The snow felt now much softer, the wind stopped. By the time I got out of the Orhey Forest, I had actually forgotten the man already. I had thoroughly real worries which were more sensible to think about, begging with the beast of a sergeant major, who would try to put me on guard duty again, but above all, the profession that had been left home, my profession wasn’t soldiering…
I refused to think which hungry animal would’ve gotten to him first, and I didn’t know why I was worried about what hadn’t happened anyway. It was getting warmer, and not for the first time I cursed our army’s uniform. As I walked, I noticed: the sky overhead looked violet; the snow more like milk; the little rocks at the end of the forest like amber. Everything motionless…
Although I slowly became convinced that the man in the Orhey Forest was no harmless tourist, I said nothing about it. I was put on guard duty, had hellish sunburn, fever. The guard duty was usually four hours long, so I had nothing to do but look and see whether a green hat suddenly comes into my view. Naturally my belletristic hope was not fulfilled. I walked: fifty steps this way, fifty steps that…
Why was I suddenly remembering all this?
Because at that time, 1978, there really weren’t any fucking tourists!
In the following years, as everyone knew, a lot of things happened. Real things. I never thought of it again; it was certainly no time, God knows, for imaginary murders, when, as I soon knew, there were enough of the other sort every day. So, I thought no more about it and never told anyone about that Sunday in the Orhey Forest; it was too ridiculous. And, after all, I didn’t do it. The hand of the law will not descend upon my shoulder…
Not till much later, while reading a newspaper, did I suddenly think of it again. I read there, among other things, that the Moldavian government, with a nod from the Soviets, of course, had planned to build a labor camp in the Orhey Forest, a one-hour hike from the town of Orhey. The plans were ready, and it’s safe to assume that such plans were not prepared without a thorough study of the terrain. Who reconnoitered the terrain around Orhey? Perhaps it was the man who, on Sunday in 1978, also made an excursion to the Orhey Forest, and whom I didn’t stab in the back…
I don’t know. I shall never find out who he was.
We just chatted the way people do in the middle of a huge forest, like comrades so to speak, two men who are the only ones for a few kilometers around. Without formalities, naturally, a handshake without introductions. Both of them have reached this point; both have the same wide panorama. Handshake or no handshake, I don’t even remember that for sure now; perhaps I kept my hands in my pockets. Later I ate his apple and used his field glasses to see him in the trees. I know for sure what I didn’t do. Perhaps he was a good fellow; perhaps I actually met him again, without knowing it, many years later, dressed differently, and so that with the best will in the world we couldn’t recognize each other again… Only sometimes I’m so uncertain. Suddenly. And yet it’s forty years ago! I know it’s ridiculous. Not to be able to forget an act one never performed is ridiculous. And I never tell anyone about it. And sometimes I completely forget him again.
Only his voice remains in my ear.
Only a lot of deaths.