Don’t you hear – how the door of the next compartment has just opened? It must be a ticket collector. Who else raps the words out like that? Everything so clear and distinct :
“Gutten Tag, geben Sie mir bitte!”
Feverish, tense, you try to calm your rapid breathing. Your glance fastens sideways on the dark, shining window. Except that you can’t see the landscapes coursing into the night. You’re in an express, an intercity.
“Den Fahrschein Bitte!”
You pat your pockets as though you wanted to go out into the corridor to smoke. The people in the compartment keep their eyes trained – on you. Are they looking? Aren’t they?
“Bonjour, mesdames, messieurs! Vos billets, s’il vous plait!”
Rising slowly from the bench, you glimpse your petrified face; it flashes in the emptiness of a mirror. Is it your face? It seems not.
“Your ticket please!”
You squeeze past overcoats, suit jackets, hats; past shoes – look! as shiny as the moon – that you try not to tread on; you try hard; you ooze along the corridor; your shadow slides past motionless faces behind compartment windows – rhythmically slides – and you hope those motionless… are convinced you’re going to the restaurant, the buffet, the toilet, quickly, quicker, even quicker, quicker still, yet…
“Den Fahrschein Bitte!”
The speed of the train buffets you against the walls; you’re in an express, a train de grande vitesse. Tgv. You are in the Drăgăşani train, third class – puffy black curls : they clog your throat, and a bee buzzes around for a long time. But look, two steps away, the railway clerk’s uniform, the conductor’s cap, his hand held out to punch you ticket.
“Good morning, sir! Your ticket, please!”
Now a trapdoor will open beneath your feet and still explaining, shame‑faced, sweaty, jumbled among pronunciations, declensions, conjugations, you’ll summersault between the rapidly turning wheels until you hit wet darkness.
How lucky : the conductor didn’t notice you when he was two steps away! Luckier still, no one sees you struggling under the mound of clothes, heavy overcoats, uniforms, smoking jackets, rustling trench coats, white sheets, the shroud from which rises a cloud of moths. No, it’s always the same bee…
“Den Fahrscheine bitte!”
Only now it seems… You’ve sprung out of the closet and taken off pell‑mell… you hear the soldiers’ boots behind you, your pajamas have come undone and your cheeks are full of lather, only half‑shaved, running, at a gallop you knock against the walls, the compartment windows : shining, smoky, dark. You’re in a tgv, in a freight train, in an intercity and foreign faces watch you in a strained way ; you run, run, run ! Look an empty compartment… someone opens the door with a decisive hand, utters flatly :
“Gli biglietti, prego!”
So that the suspicious faces in the corridor should believe that the one you watch has entered the empty compartment… his face flashes in the emptiness of the mirror – it’s his cap, it’s your face; hide quickly – where?
Calm down. It’s the same dream; this happened before at… you have experienced this before – where? You don’t remember when, you don’t remember where, ah, how tedious… You rummage in your pockets for blood pressure pills. You come up with cigarettes, drops, crumpled pages. Only you don’t recognise the language in which the text for conference is written – you don’t recall the alphabet. What will you read to the audience then? You don’t know. But now you’ve got up from your place at the window of the tgv, of the intercity. You’re well hidden in this freight train. You clean your pipe ostentatiously as though getting ready to go out in the corridor, but why this disapproving silence? Ah, yes! It’s a non‑smoking compartment – it’s forbidden to smoke in the train – you’ve crawled under the bench, you crouch, you make yourself small, smaller, even smaller among the turning wheels. You squat on all fours and you hold your breath, from there, from the luggage rack where you’ve clambered, you see the shadow that darkens the glass.
“Good morning, bitte! Vos billets mesdames, messieurs s’il vous plait !”
Now the door of the compartment is going to open and crouching, scared, you’ll somersault into the darkness cut by blinding wreaths of light.
Above, on the overpass, look there’s a soldier with rifle at the ready, motionless, a statue.
“Who are you ? Where have you come from ? Where are you going ? Show me your papers ! Answer !”
You’ve sprung out from under the bench, your horrified face flashes in the emptiness of a mirror.
“Your papers!” shout the customs officers, the border guards, and they beat the door of the empty compartment with their rifle butts.
“Your papers ! Who are you ?”
“Where are you going ?”
“What are you doing here ?”
“Answer, or I’ll shoot !”
* * *
Don’t be afraid, relax, it’s the same tormenting dream. In order to wake up, you’ve dug your soft nails into the soft flesh. You try to make a fist of your flaccid hand, but you’re still here. Whatever you do, forget it, you can’t escape… you run madly – look, there’s the conductor’s uniform at the end of the corridor – you race toward him like a lunatic, it’s too late to turn back now, it’s too late…you can’t pretend not to see him any more, he’s in front of you, two steps away.
“Your papers !” the words come from behind.
* * *
How many times have you not sat like that, in the deserted station… getting ready to leave… coming from school ; with a trembling hand, you wipe your brows, your damp cheeks… good : you’ve managed to escape from that train full of conductors and armed soldiers… if only the red spots – like blood – would disappear for once from the wet cement and the ringing that pierces your temples, the back of your neck… you look randomly at the young, reddish fur that is sliding across the sleepers under the train… how much this dog looks like your Federigo at home, that way of arching his bushy tail, his tensed legs.
“Fede ! Fede !” you cry out, but the dog growls under the train and starts sniffing. What trail is he following ? Could it be yours ? Only now you’ve turned your back so as not to be recognised by the two sullen soldiers – rifles clenched in their fists.
“Your papers !”
“Where are you going ? Answer !”
“Where have you come from ? Show us your papers !”
“Halt ! Halt or I’ll shoot !”
* * *
You move hurriedly, you run, quickly, quicker, even quicker – you sense the station behind you growing smaller, ever smaller, and the red stains, like fresh blood, throb on the fogbound footpath where you advance on weakening legs, your shoes wet with dew. There’s a sudden change of sounds, of colours, of light. The intense green of the fir trees climbs up toward the mist‑swathed slope beneath : the tender green of the meadows, the viscid footpath where you crush fibrous tufts of bride grass with boots that pinch you, be careful not to slip ! Careful not to…
How many times have you been this way, this way, like this… at the same time, with you, at every step, countless legs climb the cement steps of the bridge below – the water : three tiny strands, sucked by sandy tongues… great, rounded boulders with run‑of‑the‑mill, seasonal tourists on top. Soft, whitish corpses waiting in vain for the sun to come again over the shadow‑studded land. Thus came we to the bourn of deep‑flowing Ocean. / There the city of the Cimmerian tribe doth lie, / By fog and darkness enveloped. Never upon them / Doth the radiant Sun cast down his rays.
* * *
Here is the DRY CLEANER’S, the signboard attached to the dirty, white wall, stuck in the sandy earth, here is the sheeting case for the eiderdown – rough whitish‑yellow shrouds, hung up to dry – above them puffy black curls flow over the heads of the ones who ceaselessly debark. They take down suitcases, satchels, sacks, valises, candles adorned with paper flowers, big wooden boxes, coffins. You pant. You wipe your damp cheeks with your tremulous hand, you clench your hand on the balustrade, you don’t dare to look into the astounding emptiness for fear of slipping off the cement steps into the cold gloom. Who had you make such a trip, stranger, through fog and darkness ?
* * *
Precisely because you know the verse very well, you realise that you’ve made a mistake, who had you make such a trip, stranger, through fog and darkness, but what follows ? Your bench is right near the open window, a flowering apple bough touches the sill, bunches of puffy bees and pink flowers heap up among the little green leaves.
“…hey, come in,” you whisper to your bee, “come in and sting Mr. …”
“…than talking to yourself in your corner, come up and recite in front of the class,” says the teacher, arming himself with the ruler from his desk.
You’re not afraid of the teacher’s ruler. For 20 lei you make cheat sheets for ancient Greek and Latin, for the lads in the upper classes, but your memory lapses right now; that’s why you repeat the poetry to yourself in a whisper on the way to the head of the class, but is there anything harder in life than the road that you have chosen alone through fog and darkness ?
On the floorboards blackened by diesel oil, between the two rows of benches pink stains throb under your boots; there are pink flowers from the flowering apple tree outside, a light breath of wind cast them through window ; febrile, you walk tensely over the shiny floor, the mirror, be careful not to slip, be careful not to slip ! You clear your throat ; you arrange your face that flashes in the emptiness of the open window. Is it your face ? It seems it’s not. You recite: hapless man, better abandon the road to rocky Ithaca rather than wander for years through darkness and fog toward the place where no one awaits you any more.
* * *
You’ve made a mistake. The word is on the tip of your tongue, but you don’t remember it any more, you have a lapse and your tongue cleaves to the roof of your mouth… you search hurriedly in your inside pocket, where you keep your wallet ; it’s empty, only a bit of change, small and black. A little hole in the middle – a Mycenaean coin, Assyrian, Egyptian – you hold it in your clenched fist… they’ll ask you for it in the car park, then when you cross the bridge. You don’t find the crumpled sheets with the text of the conference to see where you made your mistake, but what luck ! The teacher is deaf : he doesn’t hear; he too has grown old in the meantime.
“Good morning, mesdames, messieurs, vos billets, s’il vous plait,” intones the teacher in a melodious low baritone.
Rapping the door with the ruler, he’s put his cap on his head and gone out. You stay alone in the empty classroom ; you can’t leave, if you don’t remember the verse, even if they’re waiting for you at home with the table laid. Will they still recognise you… won’t they recognise you any more, after so many years of wandering over the seas, through storm and fog ?
* * *
There’s the spire of the church in the valley. Once you have arrived next to them, nothing will remain except to cross the street, and then you’re home. What astonished faces they’ll have, what shouts of joy they’ll give when they see you ! Will they recognise you ? Won’t they recognise you, after so many years of wandering alone in darkness and fog ? So many years have passed since you left… it was only yesterday that they drove you to the station.
You try to make out something through the old fence laths: you stand on tiptoes trying to look in the courtyard, but the fence is too high and the green paint sticks to the tips of your fingers. The fence has just been painted ; you painted it yourself yesterday before leaving for the station. The house is red, made of brick ; they didn’t get to finish it because the bank went bust. The banks were nationalised, all of them. The bank won’t give them credit any more because you’ve left home.
Now you’re under the cypress at the gate, and you ask yourself : should I draw the bolt ? Shouldn’t I ? Look what a table they’ve laid in the courtyard, a wedding repast, a baptismal or funeral repast. I told them that after his many adventures and after he lost his comrades, after twenty years, he’d get back home, unknown to all, and all that is fulfilling itself now.
* * *
How tedious, how excruciating! How many times you have not stood here under the plum tree with you hand on the barely opened gate, ready to give it a shove !
A child with a dirty face and a bare bottom rises near the fence and pulls up his trousers. Whose child might this be, with snot shining silvery on his cheeks like the sun‑dried slime of a snail? You’ve lost sight of him in the courtyard full of the buzz of bees, of sunlight… it’s summer, it’s spring… And this child, left to sprout up on his own like a weed, you know him… you’ve seen him somewhere before, where ? Ah, yes ! Your mother always carried a picture of him in her purse, a sepia photograph, with coffee or oil stains and dog‑eared corners.
* * *
Heavy, deliberate steps on the gravel with your stiff, shrivelled footwear, you would like to have all eyes raised toward you, to see you, to hear you. They sit at the table, and the shadow of the pine covers their faces, but is there a pine ? Was there a cypress in your yard ? A pine in the yard brings bad luck, it’s well known, whereas you saw the cypress in Rome.
You tramp over the pebbles in your dusty, worn‑out footwear, heavy, deliberate steps – only you see them, their eyes turned toward you… so that you can tell them, “I’m glad to have found you ! Enjoy your meal !” Except that they keep eating their meal, they don’t even look at you.
And yet they must have known that you were coming, otherwise they wouldn’t all be here, all of them, all. So they’re all living… no one has died. So the letters, telegrams, announcements of death were all untrue ! What happiness, what relief, Oh Lord ! Mother and father, look at them sitting as usual at the end of the table. And Mama, who keeps getting up as she always does for a glass of wine or a breadbasket ! So they are living, so they’re alive ! Lord God, what a miracle, what joy, how good ! The rest was all a lie, dream, illusion… All you believed, all you suffered all these years, for nothing…
* * *
You go closer – smiling broadly, happily – even if they go on talking among themselves in low voices, as if they didn’t see you, as if they didn’t hear your steps… No one raises his eyes to you… all they do is pour wine, water into each other’s glasses.
And you, who made such a long journey to get here… for so many tortured nights, you ran through trains full of ticket collectors and soldiers… you’re too tired to savour the joke. And if they don’t understand, then at least she, at least she should be able to understand.
“Mama !” you cry in a low voice.
But it’s clear she hasn’t heard you, she’s old, poor thing, her senses have dimmed.
You try to cry louder, but you strain your voice in vain, your straining vocal chords emit only an indistinct throaty sound.
You strive, you strain desperately, but you can’t hear your own voice, and you cast no shadow on the grass. How can it be ? Not even she turns her face toward you. And you, who spent all night jumping from one train to the other, hiding under the banquettes, in trains guarded by armed soldiers, you came all the way here in pajamas, barefoot, with your cheeks full of lather, only half‑shaved! As though from another life, as though from a dream, you remember all that you suffered on this endless journey, and she doesn’t even ask you, “is that you, my dear ?” Or else shout: “It’s him, Him, it is, Lord God, how can I thank you for having lived to see this day, to see him here, with us, among our own? Come to me, you, my dearest. So many people have been waiting for you for so long, after all ! Come on, say something ! Are you thirsty ? Are you hungry ? Are you tired ? Say something !” Only there is nothing more difficult than to come hither, through fog and darkness…
But she remains silent. She sits stock‑still, with her head turned, the shadow of the cypress tree covers her face, and what else can you do then but call out one more time:
* * *
She looks at you in astonishment.
“What do you want, stranger ?”
Have you really changed so much that even she doesn’t recognise you anymore ?
“It’s me, Mama! It’s me, your son! Why do you call me stranger ?”
How ill you must look if her gaze fills with pity and her voice softens all of a sudden :
Hapless man! Who knows where you come from ? How much you have suffered, if you don’t even remember your mother. Come on, sit down, have a glass of wine, a piece of bread ! No one will die if before leaving you pause awhile to catch your breath.
“Leave to go where ?” you whisper exhausted.
“What do you mean, where ? To your own country, back to where you came from. After all, it’s obvious you’re not one of us…”
“What makes it look like that ?”
“What do you mean, what makes it look like that ? Your walk, your coat.”
“Come on, stop joking, Mama ! You can see that I’m too tired, and I don’t feel like joking !”
“Hapless man ! Maybe you were in prison and you lost your mind there because of all you suffered if you keep thinking that I’m your mother for good and all.”
No, she’s not joking! She really didn’t recognise you, poor woman! To what state has old age reduced her if she doesn’t realise that this is your voice that trembles now, impatient and irritated ?
“What else do you want me to call you ? I’ve never called you anything but Mama !”
“You must be ill, very ill, hapless man, if you have no idea of when you’re awake, of when you’re dreaming, things so simple that even a child knows them! It’s a terrible illness not to know who you are any more.”
* * *
“Who else could I be ? I’m me !”
They’ve all raised their heads ; they look at you.
“It’s me, for God’s sake ! Can’t you see it’s me, me, me, me !”
They remain silent.
“It’s me, your son, brother nephew, uncle, brother‑in‑law !”
The tense faces around the table look at you as though through glass. She smiles sadly ; she waves her hand in disgust :
“How good it would be if you were you, but you can’t be ! If you were you, you wouldn’t be here with us, you’d be far away ! If you were you, you’d have gone to the realm beyond ; you’d be with the dead.”
“Take a good look at me,” you cry out to them. “I am still me, except that seven years have passed, fourteen, twenty, since I left ! I couldn’t stay the way I was in the photographs ! I’m weaker, older, it was a long journey to get here, I’m unwashed, in rags, unshaven. I couldn’t look at myself, not even by candlelight! And I can’t even tell how much I’ve changed because here, at your place, the mirrors are covered, all of them…”
* * *
How tedious, how excruciating! How many times has he not lived this scene in the same way ? Those around the table set for a baptism, for a funeral repast, for a marriage – smiling in embarrassed silence – and you crying out nervously :
“It’s me, except that I’ve put on weight since I switched from cigarettes to pipe‑smoking. But I haven’t got that fat either, not so fat that you wouldn’t recognise me !”
They’ve got up from their chairs: they make as though to come closer, they whisper among themselves, they all cry out, their voices all overlap at the same time.
“Who is it you say you belong to ? What family do you come from?”
“He claims to be one of the family !”
“But where are you suitcases ?”
“If you were he, you wouldn’t have turned up unshaven and barefoot at the wedding !”
“Whose relative did he say he was ?”
“If you were he, you’d be wearing a Rolex and you’d have a huge Mercedes at the gate !”
“It’s not him. Don’t you see his shiny shoes ? Don’t you see the expensive coat ?”
“An impostor, mind your own business !”
“Who do you belong to ? What are you doing here ?”
“Who do you belong to ? Answer.”
“Sssst! Let him go. Don’t you see ? He’s from Securitate !”
“A hapless madman ! Look at the state he’s in! A hapless madman, escaped from a madhouse !”
“A dangerous madman !”
“Be careful, I’ve told you who he’s with !”
“They sent him here to test us ! He wants to hear what we say, what we talk about, so that he can inform on us !”
“Ssshhhh ! We don’t have any foreign relatives over there !”
“We only have one, who’s been dead for a long while !”
“We celebrated his seventh anniversary !”
“His fourteenth !”
“His twenty‑first !”
“An impostor !”
“An informer !”
“Don’t you see how he’s looking all around ? How…”
“None of our people went abroad. Understand that, stranger !”
“We have no relatives over there !”
“We don’t need to leave the country !”
“We’ve never been further than our garden gate !”
“Be careful ! He’s only playing the madman so he can hear what we say and report it afterwards !”
“If you were he, they wouldn’t have let you cross the frontier !”
“If you were he, you wouldn’t be carrying suitcases with a broken zip all tied up with rope !”
“If you were he, you’d be dead in Donbass !”
“What the devil, after all, we all agreed to say he’d died on the western front at Tatra !”
“Did anyone see you, stranger, when you came through our gate ?”
“He should leave and mind his own business ! Don’t you see the people gathering on the street by our fence, as if to see a bear !
Come on, give him something for the road, and stop dawdling ! Here’s a plastic bag, apples, bread… take what you want from here and go !
* * *
They’ve turned their backs on you. They eat quietly with eyes fixed on their dishes. Well‑disposed, they pour wine, water into each other’s glasses.
It’s me, I’m one of you ! Take a good look at me, you cry out to them ; I am your son, your brother, your nephew, your cousin ! We were all together three months ago, thirteen years ago… We’ve known each other since the cradle after all, since we were little, we slept in the same bed, we ate from the same pot, we were in love with the same girl… I’ve come such a long way to tell you that if I had known what I would endure I would never have left our yard. I’ve come such a long way only because I promised you I would return ; otherwise, I would never have set foot here in the yard !
You move only your lips. A rattle comes out of your throat, a bee flies above you and the shadow of the cypress tree covers your face. Your voice can’t be heard, and your body doesn’t cast a shadow on the grass. Relax, let it go, it’s only a dream, the same bothersome, tedious dream…
– Wake up, come on, make a little effort and get up ! Do you want to make me fall asleep too ? Wake up ! We’ve had a slight delay. We took the wrong exit, but now we’ll turn right, and in two hours, at the most, we’ll be in front of the town hall where the hotel is ! Wake up, and take the way back through fog and darkness…
Translated by Jean Harris