After pulling aside the grill with a fire iron, I stirred up the embers in the oven. I took a swig of brandy, fed another piece of wood into the fire and looked at my nephew, Alexe, who stood there waiting to hear more. I was tired, so I asked him to let this wait until tomorrow night. In truth, I had another reason. The memories of my youth─some of them precious and worthy to be shared, some painful─carried me through hidden nooks of my mind. Amongst all, the most hidden one was shut with a big and heavy padlock, concealing the greatest terror I’ve ever experienced that no man could ever be able to speak of. Unless the disgruntled souls of the dead have something to say about it. I’m not easily frightened at my sixty six years of age, but when I remember that night, my soul freezes, my emotions turn to a dread that lashes out bitterly throughout my nights.
It was a December night of the year 1957, exactly six days before Christmas. In the summer of that very year, after a few months of solid training, I finished a film school, then started my new job as a “crowd instigator”. As such, I had to go from village to village and gather the people─all from cradle to white beard, as I was fond of saying─for the arrival of the caravan which consisted of a cart or a sled, a power generator and the camera that was not yet using the narrow band until later. The electricity was lacking at the time, or found only in some places; it was not until the end of the sixties that the power network was set up for the rank and file. I was frantic that night and I had a strange sense of foreboding, of helplessness in the face of destiny, of fate against the inconsistency of time. While my brother-in-law was readying the sled and the horses, I loaded the commie propaganda materials into the cart and pulled the thick canvas over it. A light snow started to fall and we knew we mustn’t linger if we were to pass through all the villages on our checklist in the following days. The order of the party secretary was clear enough and we didn’t want to disobey his words. So we set off merrily, rested and brave, the sled gliding and hissing like a sword blade over the surrounding white expanse, the horses letting out steam through their nostrils while we sang the famous “Party In Our Hearts” to warm ourselves.
I didn’t know the road too well, nor did my brother-in-law. We’ve already passed through almost half the villages marked down on the map and though we always found food and shelter in the villagers houses, time was bearing down on us like sand pushing into the walls of an hourglass, so we hastily decided to travel at night, too. I wouldn’t touch the drink at the time, my wife can back me up on it, as the bottles of drink sat for years inside a glass cabinet in our guest room. I started drinking when I retired and after my children settled down, but that’s another story. The cold from that night, the frost that nipped like the claws of an eagle and that gentleness between the dark and the whiteness of the snow made the road hard to handle and I regretted not bringing a bottle of booze with us. Wrapped under layers of canvass and clothes, I was shaking like a dog haunted by nightmares with dog-catchers and I regretted my resolve to leave the warmth of an oven or that of a benevolent christian family. Radu kept chattering. He didn’t say nothing of import, of course, but I liked listening to him talking about his wife, my sister, and his most comical and cosmic secrets. Every time we did a husking bee or any other social gathering, I would spill out everything my kind brother-in-law confided in me and it always drew laughing amongst those present. Radu was aware that all he revealed to me was going to turn against him, that it was not wise a decision to share with me the secrets of his conjugal life, but he acknowledged my talent to sustain a pleasant feel suitable to the work we did together. Besides, what was truly under wraps was just kept between the two of us—our lips were sealed. Radu rattled on while the horses took some forest road and it seemed that we got lost. There was no forest on the map near our route. In despair, we searched the nearby counties, but with no avail. Either the map was old, or that forest wasn’t mentioned anywhere. To our left and right, the towering trees waved their branches menacingly, but the crivetz lost its power under their shield. Snow was slowly falling as though God touched the chords of a guitar with his fingertips. Our track wasn’t before trodden by the feet of a man or animal in the last few days, and the snow settled in a soft layer our sled buried within, but without endangering our journey. Not even boar tracks were there. Still, when we reached the edge of the woods, we were presented with an unnerving sight into the dim light of our camp flashlight: a child-like shape leaning onto the trunk of a tree. The closer we get, the more erratically my heart was beating, like a broken drum. I was having a hard time reining in the horses as they wouldn’t want to stop at all, they only wanted to get round that place. I trained the flashlight beam on that shape, but the horses were snuffling and neighing, anxious and eager to put that place behind us as fast as possible. They were pulling on the reins as if they were warning us of some danger. The shape moved in the spotlight, proving out our fears: it was a human being. Dressed in a black afghan, a red kerchief with blue floral prints covering her blond hair, a girl stared languidly at us with eyes of an infinite sky-blue. Her arms was crossed and she was shivering from the cold, but she didn’t evince any feeling of despair or fear. Quite the contrary, she seemed to wait for someone, her face inhumanly innocent. A sinister thought crossed my mind like an arrow: she was waiting for us! I smiled. It was impossible, it was stupid! My brother-in-law called her out, but she seemed not to hear, though she looked our way, through us, somewhere into an endless horizon. Only when we got near and our feet started to squeak loudly in the soft snow, she suddenly moved, breathlessly, happy to see people around that land. Shaking off the snow on her shoulders, she moved off and climbed into the back of the sled, amongst the boxes full of posters. She sat there without a word, closed her eyes and fell into a fitful slumber. We sat on the box seat and started whispering. Who was she? Where did she come from? Where was she headed? What she was doing there, alone in that wilderness? I was watching her out of the corner of my eye and I had the feeling that we’d sunken into the swampy ravine of some unknown events. The rustic clothes under the thick afghan, her frost-cracked lips…all these were strange. Every now and then, we stopped our whispering and looked at her sleep. Only angels possessed such a slumber, a slumber where they fought the evil, the evil that carried the day. The horse-drawn sled came through the forest out into a silvery field. Slow but sure, we were nearing the next village. Nearby, we could see the lights of some village houses, shaped like a life line. I was very glad. I turned to share my joy with our traveler, but the lass wasn’t there in the sled. My brother-in-law stopped short the horses. We looked for her at the back of the sled using our flashlight, but she vanished as if never existed. It was no way she could’ve got off while moving because she’d have had to pass by us. We looked around and the snow was untouched, laid down as it was by the wind over the frozen ground. When I looked under the tent, my heart froze as if I’d found myself lying alive inside a coffin: melted snow tracks and steamy blood stains could be seen where the girl slept!
We entered the village agonizing in fear, whipping the horses over the flurried snow as if followed by a strange presence from another world. Behind us, the wind hissed like the frosted breath of a monster, and my hand shivered on the flashlight pointed toward the back of the sled. The presence, though not seen, was there with us, and both me and Radu knew it as we almost could hear that entity breathing in our necks while the terror gave us a feeling of panic and made us cry desperately for survival. Pulling hard on the reins, I stopped the sled and ran to the first house in sight. We started pounding the wooden door, warped by seasons and time, but no one answered behind it, on the contrary, the door opened itself from the blows. We barged in unwelcomed and shouted for the master of the house. It was an old house built up from clay, wood and dung, that had a stove for two rooms; the stove was halved by the same dividing wall and continued with a hearth plate into the room that seemed to be both a kitchen and a room for summer. In the stove the fire died and on the plate sat a cast-iron pot giving off steam that smelled of meat balls. We shouted for the owner of the house, but the house was empty and the silence deep, only the flame of a lamp was smouldering in the dull popping of the fuse resembling the sound of a match being lit in the dark. We headed to the next house, but it was empty, too; so was the next, and the next…the whole village was deserted. Smoke was coming out from the chimneys – an indication that someone had made the fire – but there was no one home, neither the women, nor the men, even the kiddies were not to be seen. While we pondered and made assumptions about what could’ve happened to all those people, a strange humming was heard from the village church, barely audible through the raging screams of the wind. Heavily burdened, we headed to the church. We experienced an unpleasant feeling of fear and remorse like when you know something bad is going to happen, still you aren’t able to stop. Like in a train, when you lean over the window, ignoring the warning E pericoloso sporgersi, though you know this could cost you your life. Our survival instinct shouted desperately at us, but we didn’t listen, as the fight between the neocortex and the limbic brain was won over by reason and curiosity. Were I alone, I would have run like hell after the trials of that night, but we were two, friends in need, and nothing could vanquished us.
The church edifice was imposing, the tallest in the village. At the entrance, over the iron gates, the year of its erecting was written, slightly faded: 1822. At the time, the prevalent faith in the area was the catholic one, so this church was built by the catholics, then turned into an orthodox one with walls painted on the outside. The saints were barely visible through the blizzard and the crivetz was blowing recklessly and listlessly. When we entered the church we were stunned to see that the whole village was gathered there. The priest, a bald fellow with a generous belly, dished out incense smoke to his right and left while the rest of the parishioners prayed on their knee with a fervor worthy of Guiness Book. I couldn’t understand a jot of their babblings. I was looking at the crowd and wondering why there were only old people, as if all the children and the young of that village would have vanished, drawn away into the cities. Aside from this strange detail that could’ve been missed by someone not accustomed to the throngs, the way they looked at us made my scrotum crinkle with fear. Their eyes were empty and blank, colder than the ice outside. They watched us surreptitiously until they finished their prayers, then the priest stretched his hands toward the altar and menacingly shouted for us to run. In that very moment, all parishioners rose from their knees and started to run toward us. I turned my head to Radu, who was paralyzed with fear, and tugged at his sleeve. We were hearing voices behind us which demanded that we don’t move while some people were hooting and others were laughing in an indescribable chaos of oppression. We couldn’t fathom what those villagers wanted from us, we hadn’t done any harm to anyone, we journeyed through so many places but we’ve encountered none of this before. On the steps of the church, Radu slipped and went rolling into the snow. I was faster than him and I’d put some distance between us; I wanted to turn back and help him, but Radu was too far from me and too close to the merciless vulgus. As soon as they caught with him, they hemmed in like a fox pack would corner a duckling, then they jumped him. All I was able to see through the circle of vampires and the cluster of bodies just coming alive was how Radu was sucked dry of blood like an animal slaughtered during celebrations. I was thinking like an idiot that the scene resembled that of The Last Supper for a cannibal tribe. It’s strange how our mind is playing with our thoughts when we are close to death. Some of those devils, for I don’t know how to name them any other way, raised their heads like a pack of African lions straightening their manes at the sight of the prey, and into the beam of the flashlight their eyes were black like the tar from hell and their mouths hungrier than the mouths of one thousand ventriloquists amazed by the Scheherazade’s tales. I knew I was next on their menu, the cream of the crop, as they were now sated, so I kept on running with my heart bursting, over the fences, through the yards, over white fields, I kept running until my blood yielded, until the pain smashed my liver to pieces and I started to retch, I kept running without looking back, until I forgot myself and passed out. I ran my whole life, but I couldn’t get away from it. I’ve never heard of that village again.
“Mommy, just a bit more, pleeease!” beguiled Alexe, pulling with both his hands at his mother’s skirt.
“But it’s late, dear, and you have school tomorrow. Did you made your homework?
“So, why don’t you wanna tuck in, then?” asked her, kissing his sweated forehead.
“I want grandpa telling me a story!”
“What are you saying? Your grandpa’s dead since you were two! You never met him!” answered Cristina with a cracked voice. She pulled the duvet gently over the child and just when she started to leave, she saw out of the corner of her eye as the wicket of the stove began to open by itself…
Translated into English by Dan BUTUZA