When I sold the first piece of land, I didn’t even tell my old man. I forged his signature on the papers.
My older sister Maria had left the village ages ago, she had a husband and a two-bedroom apartment in town, with hot running water, she wanted for nothing, so I was sure my mother would cover for me. In fact, I was sure I’d have her blessing by default, after all, that lot had been part of her dowry and she was nowhere as obsessed with land as my old man. It was on the far end of the lake, and no good for farming, what with that cloggy soil and the worthless coppice wood growing on it. I sold it to some bigwig from Cluj, who wanted to build himself a fishing cabin there and didn’t bother much with the formalities.
I didn’t ask permission because I knew my father would never give it and because I despised him. I was a grown man and I knew what I wanted. I wanted things. I wanted to be somebody, too, I wanted to get out of that village for good.
My father had been consumed with that land. Consumed by it, too. Plagued and possessed by it all of his life, like his father before him and like his father’s father before that. For them, land was the only way to make a living. A living and a name for oneself, in that little world of theirs. My grandfather had paid with an arm and a leg for his land. Literally. He’d fought for it in the Big War, the First One, the one Romania had joined late but on the winning side. Its peasant soldiers were poorly equipped, untrained and disorganized, but they were spurred on by the promise of land ownership, that was their pot of gold at the end of the battlefield, and so they fought for that land like lions.
Yeah, Grandpa had been a lion, too. In 1918, he’d been the village representative – one of the many simple folks converging upon Alba Iulia to take part in the Great National Assembly there, the one that voted enthusiastically for Transylvania, Banat, Bukovina, and Bessarabia to be reunited with Wallachia and Moldavia and make up one big country for all Romanians. Like, they literally made Romania great. They made it big. A big Romanian kingdom with a German-born king and a British-born queen... As big as it’d ever been, probably, since the Dacians. Imagine all that land. No more toiling, ignobly, as serfs for Hungarian lords, no more second-class status in an Empire not their own. It was homecoming. The Transylvanian peasant’s dream come true: land. A land and a language all his own.
Little by little, with his smarts and endless hard work, my grandfather amassed a small fortune. He became one of the more prosperous farmers in our area. He made my father marry the daughter of the second-wealthiest man from the neighboring village because her dowry was fabulous and he saw a real opportunity there. Half a dozen oxen, five pigs, three horses. And land. Lots of land. More than fifty hectares.
Of course, soon after, the Communists swept in and took it all away. Poof, just like that! The ink had barely dried on the marriage certificate when collectivization began. By 1963, the year I was born, there was no private property left. History can be cruel. But that’s history and you have to know how to handle it. You have to know that life is now.
Giving up all that land nearly killed my grandfather. It did kill him, too, in the end. He didn’t give it up willingly. He didn’t believe in the benefactions of the State Cooperative. I guess he was a student of human nature. He slew his oxen first, the ones he’d used for plowing, he slew them by his own hand, tears streaming down his face, cursing and spitting. Then, before the uniforms reached our village in the hills, he instructed my father to free his horses. He sold everything he could still sell. He bought rifles and hid in the woods with a few of his buddies, hid from the Communists, fought some more, waiting for the Americans to finally come marching in and win the day. Restore some common sense. Well, not in our part of the world, they didn’t. We’d all been sold out by then.
In the end, it was the neighbors who betrayed Grandpa. His neighbors, the ones he’d always helped. The ones that had borrowed his tools. Envy, too, is human. They gave away his hiding place to the military police. He was captured, beaten, questioned. Hung by his hair, nails pulled out, questioned some more. In vain. They didn’t get a peep out of him. A tough nut, that’s what he was. His buddies remained in hiding, where they eventually starved or were shot one by one as they came out in search of food under the cover of darkness.
Much good it did him, too. He was taken to a terrible prison up north, then a forced labor camp in the southeastern plains. They broke him there after all. Cracked him right open. He came out five years later with TB, a ghost of a man, unable to talk about any of it and barely able to walk. The fire in his eyes was all but extinguished. He lived for another six months after that, never leaving the house. He couldn’t bear to pass by his lands and see the ugly barracks of the Cooperative on them. He kept coughing, cursing and spitting the whole time. Spitting and cursing at the empty stables, cursing and spitting at my father’s resignation. He couldn’t bear to see that either.
But it was my father who’d been stiffed worst of all because he was stuck with a wife he couldn’t bear to look at. And every month when he cashed in his measly salary from the Agricultural Production Cooperative, he’d drink half of it away. Right away. Like he couldn’t stand the sight of it. Or of us. He didn’t have much spare time, but the little he had, he’d spend carving wood. Usually by himself, drinking. Drinking and carving, carving and drinking. Sometimes, on his day off, he’d rummage in the pantry for some milk, some corn, or some beans to sell at the farmers’ market, and head to town to drink it all right then and there with some other people. And every year, once a year, he’d clean up nicely and go to the big city. ‘I’m going to the doctor,’ he’d say and act like he was looking forward to it. For the three days that he was gone, my mother wouldn’t stop crying.
He’d stay in the big city for three days, never longer. When he returned, he was fine for a while, he’d pick me up and tousle my hair like he was happy to see me, take me with him to his shed and show me how to work wood. Yet, every single time, my mother cried. I didn’t understand her, at first, and it sure annoyed the hell out of my old man because she’d begin with the wailing even before he was gone. That would make him angry, angry and sad, so he’d take a swig of brandy and tell her to be quiet or else, and then he’d walk out without so much as raising his voice. And when she wouldn’t stop, he’d take another swig and walk back in and slap her, slap her into submission without saying a word. But the slapping only made her cry harder, so then he’d guzzle the whole bottle and go into the barn to spit and curse and cry by himself over his damned carvings.
‘Why you crying, Momma?’ I’d ask, as a child. ‘Are you afraid the doctor’s gonna find somethin’ wrong with Daddy?’
I was terrified of doctors back then, all stern in their white robes – so white, so intimidatingly clean. And they always came at us with stethoscopes and syringes. My dad’s frown could be feral, but I wasn’t sure it could intimidate doctors.
‘Oh, your daddy’s got somethin’ wrong with him, alright...’ she’d reply and sob some more. ‘How should I not cry, my boy, when I consider where your daddy’ll be sleeping in the big city?’
I knew we didn’t have any money for room and board. Even then I knew it. I have always known it.
‘Is the big city so dangerous?’
‘Oh, what can you understand, my boy, my little Ovidiu... You understand nothing.’ she’d caress the top of my head and her hot wet tears would drop on my auburn hair one by one.
What I could understand back then was that she was terribly worried. But of what? That he’d be robbed blind, or hurt, or picked up by police for loitering or dozing off on a park bench? The Communist police were fierce back then. Another thing to be scared of. Not like these wimps today. Today they’re a joke.
It took me twelve more years to understand why my father’s sleeping arrangements in the big city always made my mother cry. And that put venom in my veins.
The big city was where my old man’s childhood sweetheart was living, the one he’d hoped to marry, the apple of his eye. But she’d been a poor girl, dirt poor, and when he wedded my mother there was nothing left for her in our village, so after she’d cried her eyes out for a week, she moved away to find work in a factory. And that’s where my father was going, once a year, every year, without fail. Clean-shaven and in his best-smelling clothes, which he’d made my mother iron for him. So, you see why I figured my mother would stick up for me for selling that damned land.
Later on, when he was nearing fifty, she’d plead with him, ‘You’re old now, what will the neighbors think, you have a teenage son now, I gave you a son,’ and he’d just reply, ‘I have one thing in the world that is keeping me alive, let them think what they will.’ And he’d still go. And every time she’d worry he wouldn’t come back.
I never had anything from all that land. No gain, and certainly no connection with it. Occasionally, we’d receive some flimsy crops, which I never got to see, let alone touch, because it was all on paper and stored somewhere else, and we still had to keep a vegetable garden to survive. I grew up poor, sharing that poverty with a much older sister until she got married and moved away too, and then that poverty remained all my own. So, in the nineties, when we had democracy again, or something they called democracy although it felt more like anarchy to people, and the lands were finally distributed back to their rightful owners, I began to grasp that getting “the land” back could be a good thing. They only gave us ten hectares at first. Still, better than nothing. I helped my father dig up the old papers, his deeds for it, I helped him file his request, we petitioned and petitioned again, I greased the right palms, I paid for everything from my salary at the timber factory. Used to be a furniture factory, but crafting things took time and skill, exporting lumber was more expedient. Because time was something none of us had. If anything, we were in a hell of a hurry to make up for all the time we’d lost.
You could say I fought, in my own way. The new way. But what I fought for was not the land, it was the stories of wealth I had heard every single day growing up. I fought for that promise. The land itself was foreign to me. The land was currency, that’s all. And my father wanted to keep it all. Maybe even buy some more. Inconceivable. Appalling.
I sold that piece of it to the hotshot from Cluj for his fishing cabin while my father was in the big city. And I promised half of what was left to our biggest rival upon his return. And what I did with the money? What any man in his right mind would have done at the time. I bought myself a girl’s body for a night – and a car to get me more girls. A BMW. A used BMW and a girl. Sixteen years old, both of them, but at least the wheels were German class. Like in those movies I kept watching on TV.
How my boy was happy, how he was proud to show me that new car of his! I had never seen anything so handsome! Sure, it had some rusty spots, but he’d buff that right out, he said, whatever that meant, and I just stood there and reveled in his eyes as they glistened.
‘Look at you,’ I said and kissed his forehead, ‘a real man! Why, you can marry now!’
I was so proud of him, my heart swelled and nearly jumped out of my chest with joy. He’d made something of himself, my boy. Sure, he’d left school early, in 10th grade, he wasn’t much for reading, but he was smart and hardworking and he told me the job in town would pay well... but now, this was more than even a mother can expect! That he was doing so well! My dear boy! He deserved it. Why shouldn’t he have a good life, at least? God knows it was too late for us...
‘How you saved up so much so fast, I’ll never understand,’ I said to him. ‘You hear nothing from all the others but complaints, how low the pay is and so forth, why, Floarea’s son from down the road complains about it day in day out...’
‘Work is for suckers, Momma, I found another way, but you’d better not tell Pops just yet. Don’t tell him about the car either. Let it be our secret for now. I’ll keep it in the parking lot at the factory.’
I was surprised. Why, surely his father would be as proud of him as I am, wouldn’t he?
And then he told me about the land. The land and the sale and the papers and all.
‘You signed for him? Is that allowed?’
‘Like heck it’s allowed, Momma, keep it down. I forged it.’
‘You forged his signature? Where did you learn to do a thing like that?’
‘At work, in town, at the timber warehouse, what do you think? Everybody does it. Why, a day doesn’t go by that we don’t sign or stamp some fictitious bill or other. White paper notes go out, green paper notes come in. Banknotes, you understand? Paper likes to change hands. It needs hands.’
‘But your father’s hand... And he always signs his whole name, too...’
‘I copied it. Piece of cake. You didn’t send me to school for nothing. Besides, who’s gonna know? It’s not like they have his signature on file at the notary’s or anything.’
‘What if he should find out? My Ovidiu! He’d disinherit you, at least! Or worse...’
I put the hand up to my mouth and gasped.
‘Well, he ain’t gonna find out from us, is he now? Otherwise, God knows I’ll never see a dime from all that land he fought to get back.’
‘Oh, I worry about you, my son...’
How dashing he looked. So daring and courageous. He’d always liked to defy his father. But my heart ached.
‘Are you still afraid of him? He’s an old man now, he’s growing feeble. Takes an hour from here to the village store and his limbs are all gnarled like knotted little trees from all that toil on the land. That land is nothing but torture, slave labor, and you know it. I did him – and you – a favor. Freed you from it. You can ride to town with me now. Or to the big city if you like, Momma. And there ain’t nothin’ he can do about it either, I have it all figured out.’
‘Still,’ I said, ‘I worry about you, my son,’ and my eyes welled up.
Of course, my father was livid when he found out. Foaming at the mouth. For all his posturing about how he was still head of the family and in control of everything, he was clueless for weeks. Floarea’s son told him. Saw me cruising in that thing with a waitress I’d picked up at the hash house in town... How was I to know he’d had his eyes on her for a long time? Keeps his mouth shut about the girl – she wasn’t top meat anyhow – and then rats me out to my old man. This whole stroke business is on him, that loser, that snitch.
That night, my father sent my mother away to the neighbors. He lurked and lurked, planning his move, like an injured beast, until he finally cornered me in the kitchen. It was dim, as usual. It smelled damp and stale, like the dungeon that it was – lopsided cracked walls, uneven dirt floors. But for both of us the air inside had taken on an electric quality, as well: I had a vision that a single spark could blow those low ceilings right open. When I entered to grab a bite and a beer, he slammed the door shut and actually lunged at me. I tried not to laugh. I was twice his size now. I could have put him down with a single blow.
‘You sold our land,’ he yowled, ‘you snake!!! You couldn’t wait to see me dead at the bottom of a pit to take what’s yours, huh? Well, just you wait!’ he threatened. ‘If you think you’ve heard the last of me, you’ve got another thing coming! I’ll prosecute you all the way to heaven and back, you no-good small-town trash!’
‘Oh yeah? What are you going to do? Turn in your own son, your only son? Let me rot in jail? Huh, Dad, you’re gonna do that?’
I saw him waver. I was emboldened by his helplessness. He could not, would not.
‘Come on, call the police!’ I dared him. ‘Who the fuck paid for you to get that land back in the first place, huh? Who pays the taxes on it, too? You? With your measly pension from the Cooperative? Mom? A housewife?’
I was lord of the manor now.
‘Undo the sale, you traitor!’ he screamed. ‘Undo it right now! That deed’s useless without my signature on it, anyway!’
‘Oh, it has your signature, alright. Don’t you worry about that. I forged it.’
‘You what?!’ he roared and started pulling his hair out. You forged your old man’s signature? You bite off the hand that feeds ya? Is that the viper I have nurtured at my bosom?’ The deflagration in his voice rattled the windowpanes. His face had taken on a deep purple hue. ‘Well, un-forge it! Un-forge it right now! Get my land back! Your land! Get it back!’
‘Can’t do. Doesn’t work that way. Besides, where am I going to get that kind of money? I spent it already.’
I went for a clueless look, but deep down I felt elated. I guess he couldn’t call the shots anymore.
‘You spent it all?’ His eyes went blank with disbelief.
‘How much do you think it was, anyway?’ I sneered. The naivety of these old folks.
‘You idiot,’ he bellowed, ‘that land could have fed you and your kids for generations to come!’
‘Fed us? How? That land does nothing but sit there and eat people alive. I ain’t burying my life in that land the way you have! I’m gonna have me a real life, Pops, and some real money, you hear? And this here ain’t where the money is. The money is in the cities and farther, out of the country, out West. That’s where the money is. And that’s where I’m headed! Anywhere but here!’
‘What do you know? What are you talking about?’ he was trembling with spite, with anger, with horror.
‘Well, now that I have a car, I’m finally leaving this shithole. I got myself a job abroad.’
‘What? Where?’ he whimpered.
‘Hungary, if you must know,’ I retorted calmly, ‘they’ve got more civilized conditions over there and Laci found me a job at a butchers.’
‘Hungary?’ he stared, ‘but that’s...’ He was speechless.
‘Oh, yeah, the archenemy,’ I scoffed. ‘Cut the patriotic crap, I know that old nationalist drivel by heart! Don’t you people ever learn? It’s all about ancestors to you. Ancestors this, ancestors that. Ancestors and enemies and prejudice, that’s all you know! What about the future?’
‘We fought against them in the war to get our land and our sons back, and you’re going to Hungary?’ he repeated in dismay. ‘Willingly?’
‘I’m going. Willingly.’ I put my foot down and stared him right in the face.
‘You don’t speak the language!’
‘I’ll learn.’ How hard could it be, after all? There were lots of Hungarians in town, I had a few phrases down already.
‘For what?’ he raised his hands to heaven. ‘So that you can slaughter pigs all day long? Every day for the rest of your life? Somebody else’s pigs, in a cold room full of blood and entrails? For Hungarians?’
‘That’s just the first step. In five years, I’ll be driving a newer BMW. Later, maybe even a Rolls-Royce. Whatever it takes.’
‘But why? What BMW, what Rolls-Royce? What’s a tin can on wheels got to do with your life? You’ll drive it into a tree before too long with your beer cans and your cigarettes and your sluts! But this,’ he said pointing downwards, ‘this is a house and a home! And homes sit on land, not on wheels! This here is your country, we are your people! Us! Why do you loathe your own country like this, your own family?’
‘What has this country ever done for me? What’s it ever done for you, huh? What has it ever produced but misery and more misery? Look at this disgusting mud! It’s everywhere! We don’t even have roads, Dad, but we’ve sure got plenty of mud! That’s what your precious land is: slime, dirt, mud!’
‘You’ve lost your mind!’ he bellowed. ‘Have you no love, then? Nothing sacred, no roots? Who’s gonna take over the farm when I’m gone? You gonna let your childhood home cave in and crumble to dust? Or maybe sell it, too!’
‘I don’t know, what difference will that make to you once you’re gone, anyway?’
‘And your mother?’
‘Oh, that’s rich! Like you care about Mother. Why don’t you ask my sister Maria? Maybe she and her lame husband will be happy to take over the household. Why don’t they invest their savings here, if it’s such a bargain? Hm? After all, you helped her leave this godforsaken place, and a good thing she did, too, before some poor sap knocked her up and ruined her brilliant future... Isn’t that what usually happens around these parts?’
Damn right I was jealous. There was no stopping me now.
I could see him change colors. He went pale as a corpse before the blood rushed back into his cheeks and clouded his eyes. The furrows in his brow grew deeper, like earth under the plough, and his lower lip started trembling as if some secret poison was getting ready to squirt out of him at long last, but he bit it bloody and swallowed it back. His hand grabbed a half-empty plastic bottle from the old wooden table, raised it at me and squashed it in helpless fury. It crackled like broken bones.
‘You leave your Mother and Maria out of this!’ he thundered.
Incensed, he grabbed me by the collar of my shirt. I could smell his sweat, it was acrid. ‘You’re not going anywhere, do you hear me? Nowhere! You’ll live here with us and take care of me in my old age...’
‘Why don’t you ask your paramour to do that for you, huh, Pops? I’m sure Mother would like that, since you’re so worried about her,’ I countered.
The purple of his cheek darkened and his lips turned violet.
‘What goes on between me and your mother doesn’t concern you one bit, boy,’ he hissed menacingly. ‘Know your place! You are my flesh and blood and you’ll obey your father just like I obeyed mine and like God intended, or by God, I’ll...’
His eyes were bloodshot and inflamed, the veins in his neck and forehead all bulging.
‘You’ll what, Dad? You’ll strike me down? Like you struck her so many times?’
He looked shell-shocked.
‘I never struck your mother. Not once!’
‘At least once every year, for as long as I can remember! At least once every year! Of course, you were drunk, maybe that’s why you can’t remember!’
I had no idea why I was doing this, it wasn’t really serving my purpose, but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop attacking. I looked down at my hands and saw them balled up into fists.
‘I may have been drunk, but I was a peaceful drunk. Ask anybody. I drank to forget and to be left alone,’ he said.
‘Forget what? Us? Your family?’
‘Three hundred sixty-two days a year I worked for that woman! Three hundred sixty-two days a year I labored for this family! For you! Plowing, furrowing, breaking stone, sowing like a goddamned slave – on land that had been mine, mine, you understand? Felling trees, hauling, pruning, clearing dung, whatever they sent me to do, I did it! None of it for me!’
His eyes exploded and so did his brain. He fell and hit the floor with a thud. My palms went clammy. My mother barged in screaming from next door, ‘What have you done? What have you done to him?’ She kneeled and hugged his head and I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that she still cared about this man, this drunk who’d married her for her money, eaten the food she’d cooked, and then cheated on her with cyclical precision, like a yearly ritual.
We huddled together and packed him into my car. I rushed him to the nearest hospital, which wasn’t very near. I drove as fast as I could, but it had rained and we had no proper roads. The hospital was all run down and in bad shape. It had only one doctor and no medicines. I had to buy some in the big city. Urgently, they said. I almost punctured a tire on the potholes and a pebble sprang and nearly cracked my windshield. The police stopped me for driving too fast. I did not have enough money to bribe them. They had me blowing into the breathalyzer. I’d had a beer. I lost my driver’s license for thirty days. I gave them my last pack of cigarettes to let me drive back to the hospital with the medicines for my father.
My son sold our land. My own son. My flesh and blood. Sold his father’s land, the one I’d wedded his mother for. I had half a mind to kill him right then and there, had I not read it in his eyes that he was ready to kill me first.
Kill me, oh, doctor, kill me. I can’t move, I can’t move my tongue and the ceiling of the hospital ward is so cold, dingy white and ugly, some of it is peeling off, falling on top of my head and all over my blanket, like mulch and like snow that doesn’t melt, and nothing I can do about it. My thoughts ain’t my thoughts anymore, they’re homeless tramps and I’ve got wall peeling on my face and drool escaping my mouth, and nothing I can do about it but cry until the pillow is wet, wet, wet, and then the pillow is cold too...
My poor Petre, lying there in bed like a stammering statue. A blood vessel burst, flooded his whole head with blood, the nurse explained everything. The doctor said he was lucky to be alive. Said he’d have to learn to talk again. My Petre... He was never much of a talker. Rarely ever raised his voice, but when he did, you knew there was trouble...
I brought the good doctor a rooster for his care. I told him, we also have turkeys, if he should fancy a turkey next time, and eggs, and some butter. Mighty expensive this life in the city, he says, and do I have some homemade sausage? I do, doctor, I’ll bring some next time. The ones in the supermarket aren’t natural, he says, not healthy. Well, we eat healthy, doctor. I’ll make a healthy soup for my Petre and feed it to him, spoon by spoon by spoon if it’ll help him get better, but I fear he has lost his will to live. Our son sold the land.
‘All of it?’ he asks.
‘No, not all of it, doctor. There’s still some left. When them authorities finally hand it over.’
‘Where is it? Someplace nice?’
‘Over there by the lake,’ I say.
‘I’ve always wanted a lake house,’ he says.
I didn’t know what he meant, so I went silent. He looked at Ovidiu and Ovi looked right back at him and nodded like he understood.
‘We’ll make you a good price, doctor. Please do all you can.’
‘Not much I can do if he won’t fight. He needs something to live for.’
I knew right then it didn’t look good for him. I had to do something for my Petre. I had no one else but him to keep me company in this life.
In the beginning, it didn’t look good. Not good at all. After all that talk about the doctor and the lake house, my father took a turn for the worse. I knew we shouldn’t have discussed it in front of him. We should have taken it outside. I was sure he could hear. I was certain he could understand.
I drank half a bottle of brandy to calm my nerves and I called my sister. I wasn’t used to my father’s brandy, it was strong.
‘Marie,’ I said, ‘prepare some black clothes. I don’t think it’ll be long now.’
‘You just can’t wait, can you?’ she blurted. ‘What has he ever done to you that you had to stab him in the back like that?’
‘What do you care?’ I snapped. ‘You have your house and your property! Don’t expect to be welcome to half of mine!’
‘Half of yours? That was my mother’s land you sold! Mine, too, you know!’
‘Yours, too? Haven’t you made a fortune tutoring? Still not enough for you?’
‘You try living from a teacher’s wages with a cripple whose pension won’t cover two weeks’ worth of medication!’
‘You’re fleecing those kids’ parents!’
‘At least I’m not going around cheating people like a common criminal!’
‘You’re selling grades for money! How’s that different from fraud?’
‘Well, I don’t go around selling other people’s property behind their backs, do I? At least I finished school and made something of myself!’
‘You finished school because you got full hampers from Mother for your teachers, eggs and cheese and fresh pork, and an ass-ugly husband twice your age who couldn’t give you any children so he put you through college instead! I went out and got a job when I was barely seventeen! I’ve been paying bills ever since! Their bills! I’m pushing thirty and still living with my folks in a godforsaken village! And he won’t sell a shred of that worthless land! It’s more important to him than his own son!’
‘How can you be so shortsighted?! Are you drunk?’
‘And why not? Like father, like son,’ I yelled.
‘You ungrateful drunk imbecile, you’d better pray he gets well! You’d better pray he doesn’t die! Because if he does, it’s you that will have killed him!’
I did better than pray. I put in double shifts at the timber factory, made some extra bucks, gave half of it to the doctor. That settled my conscience. With the rest, I bought my bus ticket to Budapest.
The boy came by to take his leave. I did not let him into Petre’s room. That woman was in there. When she came out, I did not let him ask any questions. It was my time to speak now.
‘How is he?’ I said.
‘Not good,’ she said back to me. She had cried, I could tell.
‘Will he fight?’
‘I hope so. I hope to God he will.’
‘Did you beg him to fight? Did you caress his forehead the way he likes?’
‘I did, Angelica, I did. Thank you for calling me.’
I was thankful too. She hugged me quietly and she left.
‘Wait, is this...? You called her?!’ my Ovidiu asked.
‘Oh, my Ovidiu, what do you know? What do you know about life...’
‘How do you even know her?’
‘We grew up in the same valley, didn’t we? Her name is Ileana.’
‘So you’ve known her all this time? All this time you’ve known exactly where he goes?’
‘Why do you think I was crying? But now, let him live. Oh, Lord, let him live,’ I whispered and raised my hands in prayer.
My mother’s forgiveness spread through that decrepit establishment like fresh paint or a healing touch. Pretty soon she was cooking for the nurses and pretty soon my father was sitting up and eating by himself.
She’d made up a timetable so that both she and the other woman could know what days to come and be alone with their Petre. Ileana was married too, and she lived farther away, but she was there at least once a week. It fixed my father right up.
I was in Budapest by now, I heard the news from my buddies who’d joined me. The job had turned out pretty much the way my old man had predicted: sawing animals apart all day long in messy, cold halls, cold as the fucking North Pole. Blood everywhere. The stench of it on our clothes, in our nostrils, in our hair. You couldn’t get it out. Time pressure. Bunking with five other Romanian blokes in one cram-full room at night. The pay was better than anything back home, but food had to be bought now, no more free meals at my mother’s house, no more hens in the backyard, or free vegetables from her prolific garden. Each night I was deadbeat. I had cramps in my arms and my back, my feet were swollen. We were working twelve-hour days, weekends included. Except for Sundays. That was the only day I could still take my BMW out for a spin. Laci had brought it over. But no girls ever looked at us there. Any local loser was better than us, there. I could barely strike up a conversation, the words would get jumbled in my mouth, I had an accent and anybody could tell I was a foreigner. Any local loser had better cars, too. The rust had seeped all the way through on both of the back doors. For the first time, I looked at it and saw a clunker.
I couldn’t speak with my mother. She didn’t have a phone. One day, Maria called to let me know they’re discharging Father. He was able to hobble around a little, and he could string a few words together. Could I come to take him home? It would only take a couple of hours and I’d have a chance to replenish my food supplies too, she said. I didn’t have a couple of hours. I had scrapped my car and was saving up for another. I wired them a few bucks through the post and told them to hire a taxi.
When I had enough money together for a car, I decided to move to Germany instead. Same job, bigger pay, and only four blokes to a room. Still no papers, though. A little while later, I fell ill. Came down with a hell of a fever, but had no health insurance. My sister cried, told me to come back home. I couldn’t. I was still feeling woozy from hunger and I had hospital bills to pay. The doctors said an untreated infection almost poisoned my blood. Maria called some friends of hers from back home who called some friends of theirs from back home who had emigrated to Germany who talked to a Romanian lady at the immigrant assistance center in my area. The lady got me a lawyer, a free language course, and a decent employer. ‘We do our best to help our own,’ she said when I thanked her. ‘After all, we all hail from the same place, and we know what it’s like. We have to stick together.’
And so, before I knew it, I was back at farming. Asparagus. Had to learn the skill like any other beginner. There I was, up to my elbows in dirt again. Doing work none of the locals wanted. But this time, legally. One hundred percent.
I later found out that a week after I had left the slaughterhouse, a guy was stabbed on my shift. Stabbed to death by another distraught conational.
I am happy. The doctor comes to visit every chance he gets. He comes and he checks my blood pressure and that of my wife too. Sometimes he buys eggs and bread from us when he is here with his friends. He likes our eggs and our bread. And especially our butter. He says he has never tasted dairy like it. I cannot milk the cow now, I am not strong enough.
I sold the good doctor the piece of land my son promised him and he has built a pretty house over there by the lake. He has connections and will help us get all of our land back. I never knew they could print those deeds so fast. His house is pretty and the house next to it is pretty and many people from Cluj now want pretty houses like that by our lake and the prices have begun to soar.
I have forgiven my son. Maybe he was right. We are growing smaller and smaller, and someday we will be no more. We are old, he is away, who is going to work the land? Why burden our children with it? Still, it is good to see something pretty grow on that land...
Every time we need some money, for medicine or for the stove or whatnot, we sell another plot. Next time I go into the big city to see Ileana, I will bring her flowers from my garden and when I get back I will buy my wife a mobile telephone, so she can talk to Ovidiu. I hope he is happy too, in his Rolls-Royce.
I met a woman here on the asparagus farm. She is new and she needed some help. I had to teach her how to handle the plants when she pulls them out of the soil, they’re very delicate. She is also from my region, so we started talking. I like her. I have been alone for such a long time, I feel like a savage around women. But she cooks well, reminds me of my mother’s cooking. And she makes it easy for me to talk to her. She doesn’t care much about cars, she’s very practical about these things. Is it safe and will it do the job? That’s all that matters to her. Last weekend I took her out and she made herself all pretty, I was almost embarrassed at my Volkswagen.
We went to a decent place for dinner. She said she’s always dreamed of having a farm just like that someday, like the one our boss had, or maybe a nice big orchard (she’s also worked in an orchard, in northern Italy), or even a camping site for caravans – she worked on one of those in Spain, she said they are all the rage now, especially with German tourists. The Dutch and the Brits, too. They have such bad weather in their countries, they are always on the go, chasing the sun.
‘I want to be my own boss,’ she said. ‘You know, stay in one place, watch it all grow.’ Then she started to reminisce about her village and she described it so beautifully, even I wanted to go.
As she was talking, I felt a sudden flame inside and I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, but it made me reach out for her hand. She didn’t mind. She smiled. We kissed. I thought I was going to catch fire, it felt so good. We went back to her apartment and she asked her roommate to wait outside for a while, and then she tore the clothes off our bodies and we fell into each other like teenagers.
Her name is Doina.
I finally talked to my Ovidiu today! Oh, his voice was so strange on that phone! That is one weird contraption! He sounded so old...
He told me he lives with a woman from Bihor county now. ‘We moved into a nice trailer together, Momma, we have space here and windows with flower pots,’ he said, and I said, ‘I’m sure you do, my Ovidiu, I’m sure you do, and are they treating you well?’
‘Yes, Momma, very well.’
‘Well, you always were a good boy...’
‘I don’t know about that, Momma,’ he laughed.
‘You know, your daddy would like to see you once in a while.’
‘I know, Momma, maybe next summer.’
‘You are his only boy, you know... and we’re not getting any younger.’
‘I know, Momma.’
‘Come, we’ll fatten a turkey for you, my son.’
‘Okay, Momma, I’ll try.’
Sometimes I watch Doina sleep. She looks so beautiful to me, so serene. I don’t know what she sees in me, but she says she sees potential. She says I should go back to school, get my Baccalaureate at least. She wants to help me, but all I want is to make love to her all day long. I think I want to marry her. I’ll ask her when she wakes up. I think she’d like that too. I keep thinking about my old man. I don’t know what I’d be capable of doing if somebody pried Doina away from me. Nothing in the world could force me to take another bride. It’s like my soul rests in her. My soul hasn’t rested in a long time, but it rests in her.
I have no secrets from her, but when she starts talking about buying land in the old country, I simply fall quiet.
Maybe we’ll take a trip to Italy next summer. You know, see the world.
‘Oh, how I wish I could meet her, my Ovidiu!’ I said.
‘I’ll put her on the phone for you, Momma,’ he said.
‘Kiss your hand, tanti,’ said the voice.
‘Thank you, dear girl, for loving my son,’ I said. ‘You kids take care of each other, now.’
‘We will, tanti.’
It is so good to have someone to love. It is even better to have someone to love you back.
And then Ileana had a heart attack and died and my father stopped getting out of bed.
‘Come soon, Ovidiu,’ my sister urged. ‘He’s slipping away fast, wasting away like a candle he is, not eating, not drinking, just asking about you the whole time. He so desperately wants to see you. You two never made up, but he forgave you, you know, and he is desperate to see you. His only child!’
‘You mean son.’
‘Well, yes, yes, of course, his only son,’ she stuttered.
I took a couple of vacation days and I went. Doina insisted on coming with me, said it’d be only proper. Did I dread that reunion? Did I dread him or did I dread the presence of death in him? I made it home in fourteen hours. I barely recognized my country, the cities, the towns, so gaudy, so colorful, cranes everywhere. So many nice houses. So many ugly ones, too. Still dusty, though. And deep among our hills, autumn was falling, auburn and pretty, and the roads were in no better shape than when I’d left.
When I arrived, he barely had a pulse. Doina had been quiet the entire trip, I left her with my mom and my sister in the other room, I wanted to spare her.
‘My son, my only son...’ he whispered when he saw me and his face lightened up.
‘We have a lot to talk about, you and me...’
I didn’t know what I was feeling. I could sense it was time to let go, but of what? Of him, of my anger? Is there a clear line between loathing and self-loathing?
‘You were my only one and I wanted you to be just like me. I had no right to.’
‘I had no right to sell your land. Our land. Not like that.’
‘I loved this land and I wanted you to love it too, but you can’t force people to love what they hate.’
‘I don’t hate it. I hated the work, but I don’t anymore. It’s honest work.’
‘These hands, you know,’ he wheezed and made an effort to look down and move his fingers, ‘were made to fondle and caress. Not to shoot, not to strike humans down. Not even to dig the soil. God knows I didn’t want to hit anyone with them.’
His hands were trembling. I could tell he wanted to lift them to my face and couldn’t, so I picked them up for him. I put them to my face, to my hair. He smiled.
‘God knows I didn’t want to hit your mother. I never even hit an animal when I was a lad. But then... then there was the war, and then there was the land, and I found myself a married man.’
‘Forgive me those three days a year, my son...‘
‘Why three days, Dad? Why always exactly three days?’
‘You know what they say: No miracle lasts longer than three days... And I didn’t want to destroy the miracle. The tenderness. Two loves I had in this world. Her and you. But now she is gone and so I must go too. Forgive me, son.’
‘Go, Dad, go,’ I said, weeping.
‘Take care of your mother, will you?’
‘I will. We will. Don’t worry about us,’ I said.
‘Because she loves you and she got stiffed worst of all...’
‘Heck, she even loved you, Dad.’
His eyelids closed shut, pressing out a tear.
‘Lord, my Lord, that accursed land! It ain’t gonna weigh us down no more,’ he sighed.
The tear rolled down his sallow face that had already taken on the color and texture of death.
He died that night and it was only after the funeral that I learned he had sold it all. The land was all gone now, neatly converted into green paper notes. He’d made two deposits, one for me, and one for my mother, who went to live with Maria. Each of our shares amounted to no more than three months’ pay at a German farm.
I withdrew it all, in shiny one hundred-lei bills, and placed it in Doina’s lap. ‘This is towards your dowry,’ I joked.
‘Or towards college,’ she winked.
‘Doina, I’m not going to college,’ I said. ‘It’s too late for me.’
‘Not you, you fool,’ she smiled.
When she told me she was pregnant, I had to stop the car because my eyes filled up with tears.
Petre didn’t tell him, after all. Not even on his deathbed. He’d always said it would be up to our mother to tell him when she felt good and ready. That man can keep his word.
Christopher was born in spring. A healthy little boy, looked a lot like me, and a lot more like my father. At least according to Doina. He’s five now, and he’s beginning to look a lot more like his mother, which isn’t at all bad if you ask me. We’ve had a good life so far. We moved into a nicer part of town, we do less physical work, I’m the employer’s right hand, he appreciates loyalty, and Doina retrained as a kindergarten teacher.
We’re renting a two-bedroom apartment. It’s a house, and it’s not on wheels anymore, but I’m not sure it’s a home. We’re trying to save up. For our son, for his future. We hardly take any time off. Sometimes I think not even breathing’s for free here. Doina misses her family, especially around the holidays, and I try to talk to my mother on the phone as often as possible, but sometimes I can’t help remembering our house in the hills and feeling homesick. I was a happy kid there. Sure, I was poor. But we were all poor. And then those rolling hills, those animals, that life! We’d bathe in that lake of ours like happy seals all summer and jump in the hay until we’d trample it all down and Mom would still laugh it off and say, ‘my Ovidiu, he is such a good boy’... We’d roam the woods searching for mushrooms in autumn, go sledding in winter in that old sledge my father had fixed up for me, the only one with carvings on the backrest, for luck, he said... Or we’d go caroling for Christmas, then scaring people silly with our whips and drums on New Year’s Eve... The roofs thick with snow like a postcard and the larder shelves heavy with pickles and sweet bread and smoked sausage. Each Christmas, Dad would grab me by the hand and we’d walk all the way to where our lands used to be and pick out the nicest fir tree to bring home. And as he’d swing his axe, his face would brighten up and I’d be all frightened and ask, ‘But Dad, are we allowed? Isn’t it illegal to steal from the Cooperative?’ ‘Fuck the Cooperative to hell and back, this is my land. Besides, I’m just making room for the smaller ones to grow,’ he’d reply with a smirk. And then he’d walk home carrying that majestic tree on his shoulder and looking two inches taller. I used to love those moments, they became our ritual. Each year I’d ask if it wasn’t illegal and each year he’d screw the regime to hell and back and walk home proud and upright like a human being...
I don’t know what’s coming over me. Perhaps it’s age. I start to reminisce. And then the phone rings.
There was no easy way to break the news.
‘What do you mean, Mother’s gone?’ he asked incredulously.
‘She slipped and fell when we were at work. I found her breathless when I got home.’
‘Christ, Marie! Mother’s dead?’
‘She’s gone, Ovi. May she rest in peace. May she finally rest in peace.’
‘When is the funeral?’
‘I found a note in her clothes. With instructions. She wants to be buried at home, in the village, next to your father. It’ll probably be easier anyway. I’ll talk to the priest. Please tell me you’re coming.’
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t utter a word. Just like that, I was an orphan in the world. I called up Doina and I just wept into the receiver. I told her I had to leave right away. She couldn’t come. The kindergarten needed her, two of her colleagues were down with the flu, she was indispensable.
‘But I need you there,’ I pleaded.
‘Take Christopher,’ she said. ‘He’s family.’
‘Isn’t he too young?’
‘One is never too young to learn about life. Plus, I know you’ll drive more carefully with him in the car.’
We packed our things and left. My son was gurgling, singing, drawing, kicking the whole way. There was life in him. It made me feel good. By the time I reached the border, I had made up my mind to keep the house no matter what. I’d fight Maria for it if I had to. I didn’t know what shape it was in. Terrible, terrible shape, I realized upon arrival. The roof had warped and was leaking, tiles were missing, the windows were all smashed in, the garden nothing but weeds, ransacked by boars, a jungle. I had to rent a hotel room in town.
My mother’s face was rigid and taut, her mouth slightly open despite the bandage they’d wrapped around it trying to force it shut. She’d been in rigor mortis by the time my sister had found her. I didn’t make Christopher look at her, I did not want him to remember her like that. What a primitive custom, I thought! I begged the priest to close the casket. The old instincts kicked in, and I slipped him a ten-lei note before I could realize it.
‘No need,’ the man said, ‘but I will use it for the church,’ and placed the money in the alms box. He talked up a storm after that, about his parents and his children, and his plans for the future, but I couldn’t listen. All I could see was that casket, her cross, my father’s cross, and my child. My vision grew hazy and blurred, my hearing patchy. A viscous veil of silence enveloped everything, and I had the impression everything was unfolding in slow motion.
After we put her in the ground and I helped my sister hand out the alms gifts for the soul of the departed, people came up to us to offer their condolences. Every single one of them had a memory involving my mother, my father, or both. They had memories of us kids. I wondered what it would be like for me to die and be buried in Germany. A more sterile experience, certainly. Would my neighbors even know I was gone? Would they even know I’d existed? I realized one needs land to be buried in, at least. Something to keep existing under a wooden cross. You need the soil to receive you back in it. When all is said and done, you need to settle on something. Like the priest said: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. I walked back to my car hand in hand with my son. Where to? I felt lost. I did not have a home there anymore, our home was a ruin. To the empty hotel room? Maria was headed back to the city. I looked at my sister and realized she was all I had left of that past, and even of her I understood so little. I barely knew her, she was so much older than me, she could have been my mother.
‘There’s just us left now. Of this whole intergenerational struggle, just two people left, and we barely see each other,’ I said.
‘That’s true,’ she replied.
‘You know, it struck me what you said on the phone. That she wanted to be buried next to my father. As if you were disowning him. As if he’s not yours, too.’
‘I’m not disowning him. Your father was one of the best men I knew, and I respected him tremendously. But he was just that, your father.’
‘What do you mean?!’
‘Didn’t you ever ask yourself about the big age difference between us? Didn’t you ever wonder why I left the village so early, why they were eager to pay for my schooling to get me out of there? In a hurry to marry me off? You envied me, but your inheritance wasn’t mine to squander.’
‘What are you getting at?’
‘When did you ever hear of children being born at six months and surviving, especially back then?’
‘I thought you were born at seven!’
‘No. I wasn’t. Do the math.’
‘What math??? Marie, for Christ’s sake!’ I shouted and panicked. ‘I always thought you’d been conceived right on the wedding night – after all, they had to have had consummation, Grandpa would have been adamant about that and he must have gotten his son just drunk enough for it... And then I assumed that Mother had you early because he’d beaten the crap out of her or something...’
‘No. I was a normal child at full term when I came into the world and your father paid for the best midwife in town. It was a difficult birth. I was surprisingly big even for nine months.’
‘What are you saying, Marie?’
‘Mother had been three months pregnant when she married your father.’
‘Wait, by another man?’
‘Yes, by another man. Some slicker who went around flaunting his war injuries knocked her up and dumped her soon after. Didn’t you ever wonder why Mother’s dowry had been so substantial? She was damaged goods. Something needed to be done fast.’
‘Jesus Christ, Marie... Jesus Christ Almighty!’
The air went out of my lungs and I had to bend down and wait for it to return.
‘How long have you known?’ I asked.
‘All the time,’ Maria said quietly, yet her voice startled me. ‘Everyone knew.’
I felt dizzy. My father’s face appeared in an endless loop, my father’s face during the argument that nearly killed him, right before his sad brown eyes imploded, my mother’s face as she was picking him up off the floor, so full of desperate affection, a muted scene at first, and then the sound of the past caught up with it too and I could once again hear his voice bellowing, ‘You leave your Mother and Maria out of this...’ These two people, my parents, both of whom were now distant memories, gone, gone back into the earth that made them.
‘Especially Father. You think that was easy on him? Having a “premature” daughter that was as big as a watermelon, with a woman he’d never even touched? Bear in mind he was nineteen at the time. Emasculated for property. And people talked. They never stopped talking until I left. Everyone except him. He never said an unkind word to me. He’d done it all for his father. For this land, for that man’s sacrifice, for some kind of future. He picked up his cross from his old man and carried it as best he could. And it nearly crushed him, I can tell you that. Couldn’t bring himself to be a real husband to Mother. For more than a decade they slept in separate beds. Every single day he went about his work, said hello and good night, did nothing but his duty. Sometimes, when it all got too much for him, he drank. I don’t know if he hoped he’d ever be free again, I don’t know if the thought of killing her ever crossed his mind, a little domestic accident – such things happened back then, anything was better than the shame of divorce or of having a bastard child – but even if it did, he restrained himself. He’d just pick up once in a while and go visit his sweetheart in the city, and Mother would weep because he was such a good man – and a handsome one he’d been too – but he wasn’t hers. He remained Ileana’s up until she married that foreman who was away on construction sites all the time, building the country’s dams. And even after that. He’d visit her every chance he had. After you were born healthy he counted his blessings and cut it down to once a year. You know, people say Ileana miscarried once and that it had been your father’s and that he was crushed, but I don’t know for sure. Mother never wanted to go into that. What I do know is he never gave up hope that he’d have a child of his own. That’s why he and Mother had you, in the end. So he could pass something on to someone. Even just some land to plant that damned cross on.’
My eyes began to burn and the tears came in billows. They burst out of me through my mouth, through my nose. Three days for himself, three short days in the whole goddamned year, and even those I’d begrudged him! Three days in which to walk like a man, talk like a man, be looked at like a man! Three days to love like a man... Enough to last him for all those other three hundred sixty-two in which he couldn’t breathe!
I needed to sit, I needed to embrace that land that had raised us up and torn us down. I picked up my boy and we ran, we ran all the way down to the lake and we lay down on that land and we touched it with the palms of our hands and we kissed the moss on it and let the grasses tickle our skin. We threw sticks in the water, we threw pebbles and I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t stop thinking this is my land, this is my son’s land, this is the clay we are made of, and I couldn’t stop loving it.
And then the guard came and told me it was private property and I was trespassing and if I wanted to stay on it, I’d have to rent a bungalow. I’d have to pay to tread on my land, he said, and if I wanted to bathe in the lake or row on it, I’d have to pay and use the landing stage over yonder, and I could feel my hands ball up into fists and I could feel the rage rising in my throat and blood shooting right through my eyes, and I realized I could kill for that land or be killed for it and I tried to call the guard my brother, my cousin, my friend, but he would have none of it so I ran, I ran with my boy, I ran to that car that wasn’t even a BMW, and certainly no Rolls-Royce, and I cowered behind it and howled.
‘What is it, Daddy?’ my son said in a language not my own and I replied, ‘I am fatherless, I am motherless, I am homeless.’