All Quiet on Volga River

Perhaps she was a fantast. She lived on the second floor and a half. The garbage and the elevator were half a floor above or below. Anyway it wasn’t a room of secrets where you can get taking the train on platform nine and three quarters, as in a famous story with little and big wizards. The old cinema hall on the ground floor had been abolished a long time ago. The space had been refurbished and turned into a club for party, music and dance.

Miss moved there as a lodger in a year when the club had gone bankrupt. It was quiet. Her rent was payed by a benevolent gentleman with whom she had no connection. Money was her main lack, the tree of her life hardly ever had such leaves. She was that kind of fat and quiet spinster, keeping her roots visible and close to the soil line. Miss Martha did not forget a thing, she always took into account every detail and believed that things can only go for the better, but without her dreaming, without her trying to imagine something. Therefore she was a fantast. She didn’t enter the world of witchcraft and was not accepted in that peaceful or idyllic world of teachers and educators. In fact so she thought, that that world was like a little prairie house where every useful object is in place and where’s a reading corner with an armchair and tea with brown sugar on a table. She only believed that the world was what she had seen once in childhood, and remembered that some people said about her father that he was like a big child. Alone, in the peace of her thoughts, she was like an asylum with too much love for children and helpless elderly; she felt like a mother and certainly didn’t understand that it was her now that big child.

At her new job located near her apartment, the children called her ma’am. Sometimes Mrs. Martha. She suppressed the pain that at her age that all the teachers can only be ladies. In fact she was never thinking about this. She tried to forget that some girls told her in the recess times that she needed a child of her own to sway in her arms and to care about. She didn’t know what to answer. Always finding something to work from morning till night in the house, she thought only about theses, quizzes, examinations or interesting lesson projects. Se hoped to succeed like this, again without a hint of fantasy. She consumed a part of her small salary on paper and printer ink for teaching material that seemed necessary for school hours, or that were strongly requested by her chiefs or inspectors. She often went to mandatory meetings and heard a long memorial of names and possible future school activities, as the long list read in church services. Once the meeting was held at a boarding school for theology students, where the chef generously offered lent snacks, which had a great success among participating teachers. She went round the feast table pinching something here and there, then leaving the meeting before its end. Sometimes she attended training courses and find with bewilderment, a constant feeling in her life, that other lady teachers were playing like children with different more interesting learning materials, that they danced a dance of capitals and markets where prices were shout aloud, experiencing the law of demand and supply. She got out a little sad in the hall room between lessons, and lit mechanically a cigarette, a habit that usually helped her forget that the world is more fantastic than anything she had seen before.

For instance, she did not understand the point of mandatory service over school hours, when some teachers sat all day in a small, clean and quiet room on the top floor and had a student as a kind of camp aide, effectively wasting their time. She opened the register on the table and discovered that other teachers had more fantasy and joked about the hours spent in that guardian tower. Martha did not understand why she had become Head of Department or why they were asking her many cards and projects and endless tables that she could not have filled from her empty fantasy world. What on earth was she supposed to write there, when she counted only what he saw in front of her and did not guess at all what was hidden behind any wall?

In fact she did not understand many things. A colleague, much more popular among students, tried to open her eyes and said : “You are a materialist. Do you really think that this table in the teachers’ room is simply just a table ? Do you really think it exists as such here and now ?” She answered simply yes. She didn’t like Hegelian dialectics or sophistry of any kind. She was not an attractive person in conversations. The other lady teachers talked about the glass bead game and usually about the books she hadn’t read. She felt sad and alone, but still she did not lose hope. She knew, even before becoming big child, that she always was an outsider regarding society models. She vaguely remembered a well known Romanian poem about some kind of Miss beyond fashions and time. All that she planned was in vain. The fact that logic is not enough in life was a lesson that she couldn’t understand. First she had success, then everything tumbled down. Exactly like when as a child she was among the first at a long run test for sport class, but among the last the second time, when the other girls understood how to run. Once, when her teacher colleagues were smoking in the teachers’ room (smoking was forbidden to students), one of them joked that there are too many witches for one pot, that single ashtray on the table. Martha did not fit such kind of humor, she really did not understand others’ jokes and for a moment she thought maybe it was her the cauldron, but then she quickly shook off the ashes, and the world seemed the same again. She also did not quite understand why they stayed so long in the schoolyard, both teachers and students, after a mere fire simulation, but probably with true firemen, climbing up and watering the roof and the walls in plenty.

Then came the conflict with one of her student groups. She had categorically refused to be a form master, since she already had too many papers to administer. She remained only a teacher, but only as an honorific title. The reality was that in the classroom, some of those students so cute, that she loved too much with her heart too round, did not even listen to her. So she saw, so she thought. Young people, 16-17 years old (actually she thought they were not really children, like other teachers called them) made loud noise over her weak voice and when she turned to the blackboard to write down and explain some formula, a rain of large and small paper balls or even chalk pieces aimed to her outfit pretty faultless otherwise. After several such unsuccessful small wars she complained to other teachers, who were also form master teachers, and they told her with a peaceful tone that she has the bread and the knife and she should understand this. Martha then tried desperately to admonish her students, to lower their grades if they were deserved of course, but it was worse. A school psychologist intervened and children wrote on anonymous notes complaints that their teacher … one note (she knew from whom) said that she looks like a well-intentioned person, but … , someone else (she did not know who) said she was too fat and the great majority of students wrote that she does not know how or she cannot communicate, have a dialogue with them. Martha was sad, this was the most unacceptable thing for her, because everything she ever tried was the dialogue. Another lesson she did not understand was that the dialogue does not appear when someone wants it.

After two years of apprenticeship, Martha left that job for various reasons. She remained alone with a rent to pay, like a broken cuckoo clock. That benevolent gentleman did not help her anymore and her money from an unexpected inheritance dwindled. Moreover, that nightclub was re-established with fresh horsepower and her nights became real nightmares. What I wrote here are excerpts from her diary that got by chance into my bag. It was an interesting reading for me, being myself another kind of Martha. On the third floor and a half, above her apartment, appeared a law firm with young ladies treading the floor on high heels even in weekends and off-hours. After Martha managed to move to another part of the town, I cannot say what happened there because her diary ends there with the words: “it remains to be seen”. It seems that she moved somewhere near the old Fire Tower where she would eventually visit the firemen museum, fantastic like any other museum .

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The Black Chest of Drawers

Many ordinary people undergo dark moments in their lives and can never get the privilege to relate them to others, in order to feel less burden or to let a clean sun ray slither and clean the dirty floor on which they walk barefoot.

I am an ordinary person and, like many others, I had my somber moments when only the awaken light of conscience and my purest thought could bring me some relief. Because if the man gets asleep, demons dance close to the purest flowers. And some places predispose the human being to dark dreams, places created as if to give birth to illusions and deformities. One of those places was the house I rented in the years 2003-2006.

My parents decided, after long talks, to pay me the rent in a two-room flat in Bucharest, somewhere on a noisy and dusty boulevard, quite central. Those times they payed 170 euros, a too high and unjustified price for the misery I had to endure there. I lived alone, but in a crowded place, because the kitchen was small, with a minuscule and old fridge, the cooking machine the same, surrounded by a small table and a cupboard with old porcelain cups, all of them extremely insalubrious, like the rest of the apartment. The pantry was unworkable, full of old and dirty stuff. The closet room filled with a helter skelter of old books.

The landlady was a real termagant, she did not allow any accommodation in that flat, for example she refused to get rid of the moth-stricken bed mattress, although it was impossible to fight those moths. She had her theory that those mites come from the neighbors. The windowpanes were not tightly clasped so they allowed cold and dust to enter the room at God’s will. After a while I shut them up with some sort of adhesive band. The balcony did not allow me to dry my laundry like a normal housewife, being occupied with old iron pieces, which the proprietors told me they couldn’t get rid off. The bathroom did not have a laundry machine and at first I had to pay someone to get rid of some sort of boulders blocking the sewerage system. My only luck was that in the living room there was a quite comfortable and newer couch, on which I rested my bones at night after each day of work. There was also a very small, but good TV set. A neighbor told me that before me there were lodged some prostitutes, a fact that puzzled me. Upstairs lived a cancer-stricken woman, that committed suicide, said my neighbor. After all it was a quite somber environment.

But the utmost of it all, what created the dark mystery of that apartment was the furniture in the living room. There I brought my cage with two budgies but the female died soon afterwards. The furniture was old and repulsive. Heavy and black, the sideboard and the table from different sets. I glued on that sideboard some of my watercolors and the black paint with some wood shriveled and got stuck onto them.This inspired me something rotten and toxic. I used to call that furniture “the black chest of drawers” after the title of a novel. It was almost empty, apart from some silvered objects, resembling church sacred cups, which fact accentuated the lugubrious impression of that apartment. But the greatest mystery of all was the heavy and grey concrete pedestal or socle covered by a kind of thick lace, reminding me of the screenplay of Arsenic and Old Lace. The landlord told me he never understood how they brought that object inside, because it was so heavy that he could not move it. Maybe raised with a crane, he said.

The tragic event happened in my second year there. In the rental documentation is was written that the lodger doesn’t have the right to expropriate or change something from those rooms. Yet I couldn’t bare anymore that dirt. I called and payed a woman to clean my house, but the same neighbor told her not to insist too much and she cleaned very superficially. And took my money. So I decided to do it myself, cleaning everything in detail, except for those moths which I could not get rid off,regardless of how much toxic spray I used. When it is bad luck, no one can avoid that … falling into the pit. I cleaned the walls, the fridge, the cooking machine, I rubbed the dirty floor and even the broken ceiling lamp. I got to the socle and my worst idea was to wash even that lace. I soaked it in a basin with some detergent and, to my disgust and surprise, it began to unwind more and more and from it flew out, because it had an interior pocket which I did not see at first glance, a sort of reddish-yellowish substance with small particles in it as if it were a dead human’s cinders or a sort of poison. I got very scared but it was nothing more to be done…I was afraid to threw it away in the garbage. It was very frail and I put it to dry on the balcony, to avoid that horrible smell inside. I thought that maybe those were really human remains because a socle suggests something sepulchral and because the same neighbor,after a day, came to me with tears in her eyes telling that in the old days, in that apartment dwelt a very good lady,may God rest her soul wherever she might be now. Then I got into the hospital because I felt ill and I had a red eruption on my hands and on my face. I cut with the scissors a small piece of that lace, just in case someone would need it for analysis and I put the rest in the pantry.I still have it.

But who could be interested in the memories of an ordinary woman?

Meanwhile my own father passed away and the termagant raised the rent to the amount of 300 euros, diminishing my financial inherited resources, because for one more year I could not find another apartment for sale. Today I sit in my own two room flat and I look in my apartment at my green plants that survived since those times. Even the budgie lived well another 5 years or so. It is maybe my only dark and detective-like story in my past but those demons are no more alive. Because I simply don’t ask any more questions which cannot be answered…

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The Dam

The Dam

All well and good, I lived between childhood’s charms and temptations until I was raised up as a girl of about thirteen. Then some people began to build the dam in our village. From it came all trouble in my life, I used to think with bitterness. Life has not been the same since then, and death moved from the city to mow at its own will among the elder or younger people in the village.

Before the dam was there, the river was impetuous and foamy like a horse ambling fast, getting loose from its balk. Almost every year floods covered up the entire lawn and even a small tributary creek puffed, bursting out of its otherwise gentle nature. When I had to go to the station, my grandfather piggybacked me, almost always joking that I held his neck too tight, for fear of slipping, and passed me over the waters. Village elders said that fifty years ago the river froze more than a meter wide and in summer they washed hemp crops into the river and caught big and sweet fish there. Those were story-like times before chemical plants blackened river, when waters were clear. Many years until the dam has been completed, villagers and others passed over the narrow bridge swung between two poles, sometimes making one shiver of fear. In time planks rotted, a few could be missing, and the iced ones in winter were a real danger to step upon. From time to time rumors came that someone had drowned there. The river also took its toll in lives of horses lost on an islet when their master could not find them. Wagons and cars went on a cable ferry gliding on a thick rope of steel. One Gypsy man was hired to spin the crank, guiding the “ship” from one bank to another. He slept in a mud hut on the village’s shore. The last one, Nicholas, was lost in the world from that village after the dam was raised. An additional victim.

Two engineers belonged to my family. One working in the hydropower area visited the village when I was still small. The second was my father. My father was a road engineer. One evening, sitting with us around the table, he revealed what he learned as a secret government plan, the fact that a dam was supposed to be built on the river and that the village there was to be demolished. My grandparents did not believe, but all of us were a little scared. The years passed and I found that somehow my father was right, nothing was there like before; the hidden paradise of my childhood is gone and gone are the locals and their orchards stretching towards the riverbed.

In the summer of 1984 there was the traditional “village sons meeting” and small, young and old, villagers and guests or children of the village gathered together, people willing to talk, listen to music and dance. We walked on a sunny day on the river’s meadow; I was among the youngsters. Dam works were already underway; I remember piles of gravel and rare green grass. But we, the children, had no worries. It was the first time I tasted beer, only a little, because they did not sell juices. The next meeting of this type came just after 27 years, when people, much less in number, came to the village on the road built over the dam. There was neither the boat, nor the footbridge where the boys used to annoy the girls by swinging it, from where some of them jumped into the river to swim. Our house located in the village’s end, was among the last ones to be reached by the old way; today is one of the firsts after climbing down the road from the dam. Once the cars did not reach until there, only traces of old wagon tracks got dry, together with cattle dung; children often walked barefoot there or made “cakes” while playing from road dust and water. After the dam was built, the wooden wheeled chariots were replaced by cars bringing relatives in the village, passing in front of our windows.

I saw her often when I was little. She was our deaf neighbor. She took water from the street well because she did not have one in her yard. With her largely open smile, stretching to the corner of her headkerchief and talking loudly. She wore the traditional folklore blouse. Sometimes I felt repulsion; I did not like her to kiss me on the cheeks. She was warm and generous, coming unexpectedly to our gate with her apron full of luscious and sweet golden pears, so wonderful. Our neighbors were few in number. Among these was the German cobbler, in whose house I tasted maybe too many sweets prepared by his wife. When I grew up, some village children, with whom I played in the evenings, proposed once an “adventure”: to go “stealing” pears from another neighbor. As a kind of joke, not in order to damage. I did not agree, but I could not spoil the mood of the others or renounce to their company. I watched them skipping the stone fence and running back scared of some dog and disappointed that the pears were too raw.

Then I heard the shocking news. One of that neighbor’s sons, a foundry worker, died boiled alive in the factory’s boiler. I remembered that death my whole life, it was an accident which can impress the mind of a child. I thought to myself the poor man must have suffered a lot.

The dam was completed after many years, in the nineties. My mother’s generation had left in great majority for living in the city. Only a few new folks have come from other places to settle in the village. One after another, old houses with crosses marks on the wall concealed the nests remained empty, with the windows shutters closed. For unknown reasons, the Gypsies robbed and killed the village priest. Another gang of thieves walked through deserted houses and looted the church. Then it was renovated and restored. One day I heard something that overshadowed me again: the river demanded its rights back. The old woman, our neighbor, who brought me luscious pears when I was a child, drowned in mud near the dam. God knows what she gathered there, maybe brushwood for fire or maybe she was lost thinking about the old world, where that place was filled with dry gravel and a wonderful backwater. I remembered the other neighbor drowned in the boiler of the factory where he worked. Both were folks from the village of the yesteryear, like us. And both drowned in something else, not in water.

Flooding did not stop after the dam was built, but now more trouble hit the Gypsies of the village, with their small huts and houses around another tributary of the river. Waters also destroyed completely the house of the former cobbler, where now dwelt someone else.

What have I left for myself? From what was there before, nothing. My grandparents are resting in the small cemetery. The area around the dam became a protected fauna and flora reserve. The riverbed is enclosed with barbed wire. On the shores of the lake came fishermen and they continue coming from different places. Unknown people bought land and raised new homes outside the village, near the lake.

Our house is one of the few houses built in between three wells. Now the cellars are dry, waters don’t get there anymore. I tend to believe that one day everything will dry up, except the river tamed now. The world is there quiet again, free from car engines or other sources of noise and dust. More clean air, the blue mountains in the distance growing bluer.

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Sometimes I forget about the rest of my life, reminiscing beautiful moments of childhood. Usually I live in the present, I always considered the present more important than the past. Anyway, it is hard to explain, some memories are bringing a kind of peaceful joy into present days. I am remembering good old days, going where my heart is dragging me.
My memories invaded me because a few days ago I saw in the middle of the city a refuge especially made for pigeons. And they were flying over my head today. My family had an old house, a real refuge for pigeons. When I was playing in the yard or reading lounging on a chaise longue or a folding bed, I was listening to the hustle and bustle of hundreds of pigeons, nesting in the attic. Sometimes they were falling down from the roof (where they had their „living room”), before learning to fly and my uncle was throwing them back. Other times some of them were hurt or poisoned with chemical products scattered in the fields and we were doing our best to save them.
Then I moved in the city and for a long time I didn’t notice any pigeon. They reappeared in my sight in the 90’s. Some people in this city became very hospitable and attached with them, feeding them for example with wheat germs in different places on the streets or in the parks. Even me,  I did that once, happy to see them coming around me, having their lunch together with sparrows. But what seemed a little strange for me was the fact that seagulls (a natural enemy for pigeons) appeared in my city located far from sea, in the same time. They were flying on different boulevards, although the canal of the river was dry in the center of the town. The seagulls have been a constant companion for me until today, they are exploring every day the nearby roofs. I think that some cities have pigeons without hosting seagulls. I have seen many pigeons in Vienna or in Paris, where they were landing in front of the cathedral Notre Dame, among tourists. My city, Bucharest, doesn’t have the same tourist attractions those cities have. Anyway I was only a passer-by there for a few hours, I didn’t pay too much attention to these facts. And the ecological system in my city is in equilibrium with these vagabond pigeons on the streets. Near my apartment I noticed also magpies and crows.
But something more unusual happened when I  visited my grandfather in the countryside last year. A lost pigeon came into our garden. First, I watched him from a distance. He was alone and so sad… Then I noticed he had a green ring on his left foot with an inscription, a matriculation number on it. I understood that he belonged to some kind of nursery for pigeons, but who knows why he was lost there? My family gave him fresh water and food, but we could not save him. We did not know where to call for his rescue. In the village we did not have internet or other sources of information. Maybe no one would have come there for one single pigeon, but I felt so much pity for his fate…He slept in our courtyard one night. After two days he disappeared. I was really sad, the poor lonely one could not adapt in the wilderness, like other pigeons there. 😦

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