One summer, when I told Aron that I needed a diversion, a refuge to sit alone for a few weeks and put my mind and papers together without access to technology, he provided me a solution so fast that he gave me the impression he was waiting just for that: to share with someone the existence of that very place. Somewhere not too far from The Golden Springs, an old manor stood hidden into the forest.
I knew Aron since I was a student at the University, when I didn’t dare dreaming to become his faculty peer. He was middle-aged, with brown hair parted on one side and a thick neat beard; he always wore grey pants with sharp crease, a white shirt and a tessellated jacket smelling of tobacco. He was a bohemian, and extremely dull at first sight. Time spent with him was different, either we chased away the spleen of looking out the windows talking about the last books we read while losing the coffee count, or we vented our literary frustrations after the Tuesday book club meeting in the yard of an old tavern, forgetting the count of beer pints. Only thus – by talking with him on and on, years on end – he turned into an interesting, sympathetic man to me, even a mysterious one. Somehow, he found the place. He didn’t tell me in what circumstances and I wasn’t curios to find out either as I was then reaching a new peak in my misanthropy. When he started to describe to me the house and its whereabouts, saying about the amenities it had to offer, I told him without rising my eyes from the glass:
“I just want loneliness.”
“More loneliness you’ll never get elsewhere,” he answered, his hand on his heart. “Believe me, there’s no other better place to rest and write. You can stay as long as you want, as long as you can. When you’ll get back from there, you’ll either be healed from the world, either you’ll knock on the sanitarium’s door in the valley; in such a wondrous place, wise men thought of building a sanitarium for those who can’t cope with this world. Those like you and me.” He chuckled.
I was in a moment of my life when I didn’t need too much to be convinced.
I got there with a bag that contained a few changes of clothes, around ten books, mostly English literature, and the manuscripts I was working on. It was a midday in July. Irrelevant. The house was old and it seemed abandoned a long time ago. It was an alpine house, simple structure with mostly wood, not at all majestic like the lofty buildings in the area that were designed by Ernest Doneaud; still, it had a distinct shape and personality. There wasn’t even a need for keys as all doors to the yard were unlocked. Inside, apart from the layers of dust, mold and dampness, reigned a neatness that seemed eerie to me, like a waiting for something that might not come. Lizards crawled the walls and spiders wove their webs in the corners. The long yard gave off a sinister charm and was bordered by an old wall covered in moss, snails and slimy slugs and had near twisting tulip trees and dry roses. A rotten-wood gazebo, chattels with locked doors and a little glade surrounded by a creek with bluestone water on whose bank potter wasps built scheming nests made of mud. A rusty swing with violets twisting around its chains stood still and waited down the time-worn steps. I think it was that very stillness that bewildered me, more than if it were moving.
That place suited me, as I didn’t need much. A bed, a table, a lightbulb, a kitchenette and a bathroom would have been more than enough and, by way of proof, I used nothing else during my staying. The house was big, labyrinthine, and had three floors, narrow hallways and little useless corridors, many doors and endless rows of steps made of rusty iron connecting various parts of the manor. After a few nights and several unsuccessful attempts to explore the house, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I was alone there. Sometimes I found things that were moved or open doors that I was sure I’d locked up. I blamed these on the wind, the draft that blew out in the hallways and my everlasting torpor. Even if sometimes I thought I sensed another presence around me due to my chronic fatigue, I never found any relevant proof. I was in such an isolated and quiet place to immerse myself in total loneliness that I felt like a refugee, a last survivor of the apocalypse, left alone after the whole world had perished.
My befriending with the house, a deed I deem necessary every time a man gets inside the intimacy of such a place, wasn’t accomplished in full, partly because of my psychical inability to discover it in its entirety, partly because of the hostility I sensed from the portraits of the boyars that frowned at me from the walls, from the shadows that I only glimpsed at or from the wounds I got myself from the protrusions of the old furniture and its creakings. Tearings, cracklings, poppings, snortings, heavings, pipe hissings, wailings that came from the innumerous rounded air shafts in the ceilings combined with the noise from the surrounding nature: the ripple of the creek, the distant barking of the wild dogs, the droning of various insects, the slurred mumbling of the forest poked by screeching sounds or thumped noises, all undiscovered, being either fox whelping, deer groaning, owl hissing or who knows what else.
Passing through each room, I wouldn’t be surprised to bump into someone, to wake somebody from a long slumber, to intrude. I had have been scared, but not surprised. I spent my days strolling through the resort a few miles away from the manor, in the shadow of the forested wall of the Skull Mountains; the resort was full of relics from the communist era and already – so soon – of remnants of the capitalism and I was going up along the river that I found out later had the name of the boyar whose house was my dwelling, then further passing by healing springs and booths selling colored knickknacks where all the sales ladies looked the same, until I reached the barred gate of the Sanitarium. Old men were shuffling the alleys, burdened by illnesses, suffering and lunacy, carrying in their hands quaky limp cans with healing water or medicine bags.
I would eat fresh trout at some tavern terrace, drink beer, read on a bench at the edge of the forest, make some notes then, tired of the aged energy of the place I was easing off toward my home, to the place I could call home for a while. I found out that the resort had a water spring that could’ve healed my ulcer that pestered me for years, but I didn’t taste it once while I stayed there. Even more, the heaviness of the place made me drink beer and spirits more than I used to, and I, as writer and professor at the university, confess that I didn’t deem proper to stay away from the bottle.
At night, I would write on the porch, distracted all the time as I couldn’t ignore the noises from the forest. The beetles hummed and smashed violently into the bearing poles, the fireflies flickered into the little glade and the night butterflies swarmed around the dim lightbulb that lighted only half my table. It was fascinating and terrifying seeing fat spiders descending on their web. I had an interest in entomology from a while and I can say that I saw no bigger webs, spanning between trees, eaves, poles and electrical cables, nor spiders that could weave so fast. I discovered new things by the hour, engulfing me slowly, like a shroud.
I had constantly a weird feeling of drowsiness or fear, of drifting into unconsciousness. After a few days I gave up drinking water from a nearby fountain, a water of amazing relish, thinking that I could recover this way. When some noise reached me from the forest or from the entrails of the house, I flinched and had the feeling I had fallen asleep to wake up from a short slumber, out from a dream. I never before questioned my mental health and, by God, I questioned it so many times throughout my life.
I found that loneliness did me good. I didn’t feel the absence of people. I realized at some moment that I became weirder and wilder with each year that passed. I was tired of the Capital, the crowd, the colleagues, the students, all the kids, the old men, the editors, the book launches and literary circles, the whole tumult of survival. I was teaching universal literature for ten years already to some young people who searched in vain their way, I was engulfed in a uselessness I was aware of each day of my life but which annoyed me terribly when it was chalked it up against myself. I wrote some novels and a stack of novellas were published in various literary magazines, but I couldn’t feel whole.
I read many years ago Thomas Mann and Ken Kessey, also the Eliade’s novels and a few books of Stephen King. They weren’t at all my favorites, but there, on that magic mountain, near some cuckoo’s nest, in a sinister house, I lived their novels, unfortunately without being capable to write anything matching them. I wrote so much during my stay at the manor, but my writings were rambling, whole stacks of papers without rhyme or reason that one could’ve jumbled up and read in any order without losing their meaning, without having one. I was crawling like a limax on the old wall that surrounded the yard, slobbering on the paper without even hoping that my trail would be someday found and called a work of art.
Somehow, the quietness and the rest I had hoped to found there were slipping away. In those few weeks spent in silence and recluseness, I couldn’t sleep one whole night. I was either falling asleep late – even at dawn sometimes – or waking up when it was still dark outside, frightened and sweating without reason, without understanding as I so felt for so much things. I couldn’t remember most of my dreams, except for the two recurring ones. In one of them, the house appeared to me as it must have looked a century ago, along with its old tenants: a boyar with a rich moustache and harsh eyes, wearing a long shirt, a vest and a belt, then a plump frowning lady in a knee-length gloomy dress, her hair cut short and lipstick on her lips, and a maiden with freckles wearing a flounced dress, her hair long and pointy ears, having her hands entwined on her belly; she wasn’t taking after neither of her parents. They were standing still in front of the porch, and the boyar seemed to scold me with his eyes as if I’d done something wrong, as if I’d been some uninvited guest. I couldn’t leave, though.
I hadn’t learned their names or history, but I knew they were them as in one of the rooms there was a daguerreotype who pictured all three of them in gala attires, seemingly before going to a ball. Another picture was there on the entire length of the wall depicting an enormous herd of black horses. I used to like horses, but since one bit me in the chest when I was a child I couldn’t muster the courage to get near them.
In the other dream I was hospitalized in the Sanitarium and doctors with magnifier-like glasses and Neanderthalian nurses subjected me to agonizing treatments, telling me it was for my own good. Sometimes, Aron was there with me, too. The dream was so vivid that when I woke up I’d check myself for needle marks and thought in horror that I escaped and they were looking for me, and I struggled choosing to run as far as I could or return for fear of retaliation in case the nurses caught me.
One of the nights – sitting on the porch and writing the same hogwash, feeling and knowing I wasn’t good at it, tormented by a full moon that stole my sleep – I found that I couldn’t concentrate because of the flickering of the fireflies in the little glade. I don’t know what made me followed them. It was like a call that my confounded will couldn’t resist. I staggered down the steps and followed the receding little lights. I followed them foolishly, like in a B movie, until I entered the forest. I wasn’t too long until I heard a noise in the underbrush, somewhere to my right. Trance-like, without thinking of the dangers lurking there, I set out in that direction, not having at least a stick for protection. A creature shot out and vanished into the trees. In the moonlight, I could make out a small and thin human shape, a boy or a girl maybe. It ran eerily, like a man on stilts in carnivals, in spite of its small built.
It could’ve been anyone, any kid or girl from the village in the valley, drawn by the light in a house they knew it was deserted, or some belated tourist, lost on his way back from some healing spring, thinking he was trespassing or that I was some villain stalking in the night at the edge of the forest. It could’ve been a nut that escaped from the Sanitarium. A few years back I taught some ethnology courses, so it came only naturally to think of the females of the forest: wood nymphs or rusalkas. Some were fantastic creatures from their birth, others were human beings who by various reasons became spirits of the forest. The stories were many, even the sightings. Although I had a clear understanding of how the fantastic creatures came alive in the folk minds and so I didn’t believe in them as like a child I stopped believing in Santa Claus, if there was a place where these sort of entities could exist, it would be this place. In that night, the dreams that troubled me most started.
It was that during my nocturnal toss and turn I stumbled upon a naked woman body, always with her back at me, round full buttocks, alluring and rock-hard. Nothing ever happened as, from the first touch, I dived into darkness and when I woke up the other side of the bed was empty and cold, without the shape or heat of another body. I told myself it was my loneliness, the man’s eternal craving for a woman’s body.
The bathroom window looked out into the little glade, and one afternoon, when I was taking a cold shower as I hadn’t the luxury of a hot one, I saw a tawny girl watching me from the bushes. She vanished without me even having the impulse to cover my limax-like pale and limp body. The same night, while I was on the porch arranging my papers, I heard footsteps on the steps behind me and when I turned there was no one there. Terrible neighing broke out somewhere on the creek shore that kept until late in the night. I didn’t see a single horse while I stayed there, but then I couldn’t found the courage to learn what fantastic herd, worthy of the Greek myths, could produce such a symphony.
I was three weeks there when I received my first visit. I was tossing in my bed after a night in which I was exaggerating with the booze until I stumbled upon the same woman’s body and I woke up. She was there, now facing me. The light from the porch let me see her. It was a pale girl, lithe, long tawny hair falling upon her shoulders, covering her little breasts. She gave off a strong odor of wet soil and young sapling, sap and raspberries. She smiled thinly and her green eyes flickered from the outside light. She turned her back to me, revealing the hard skin of her round buttocks. I entered her without saying a word, without thinking. I was in a moment of my life when I didn’t need too much to be convinced. She welcomed me warm and wet inside her body of a primordial woman, made for mating and breeding. I would lie if I’d say I lasted. The release of the burden of my seed that grew in me for so long made me shudder and I stayed awhile with my eyes shut, waiting for her to disappear when I opened them.
But she was still there and through the short-lived lucidity of a relieved man, looking at her as she was again facing me, I realized how much she resembled the boyar’s daughter, the same freckles and pointy ears. Her back had a deep curve and her feet were strangely bent as though they were like deer feet without fur or hoofs. Little wonder if I could see even a tail, short or waving, hidden until then to my eyes that only wandered to the sweet spot I wanted to enter, heedless and without questions. Inexplicably, as it may have been from the booze, I didn’t frighten then. I frighten more now, as I remember. The girl smiled and I fell into a slumber even before smiling back.
When I awoke, it was lunch time. The door was locked and there was not even the smallest sign of any other presence in the room. My one-night mistress hadn’t left the least track. Vainly did I caress and sniffed at the sheets, I touched myself and flustered.
Vainly did I wait many nights for her to come back. It may have been a dream, but it was so different. Maybe all that happened before was just a prelude to this great dream, this stately cathartic dream. Or maybe she was real, some peasant girl form the village, full of insatiate urges his drunken man with callous hands couldn’t slake, maybe she was a nun that ran from one of the monasteries nearby, some tourist woman looking for a fling, some nut that escaped from the Sanitarium, some ghost or spirit, a lady Christina, a Clavdia for a Hans, a succubus… Whoever or whatever that was, it didn’t return, and after a few nights of loneliness and waiting on the verge of despair, feeling her like a drug I was being given just a taste and wanting it more now, I decided to leave.
Back in the city, I stopped by at the University, looking for Aron. I knew he was often there, even during holidays, drinking his coffee and working in the silence of some empty amphitheater. I couldn’t find him. He left me a note with the secretary, instead:
“I hope you enjoyed it. As for me, I found another vacation home. See you in the fall.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if he was there, too, in that manor and had the same experiences, and I was troubled for feeling sort of jealous thinking I wasn’t the only one who shared the bed with that wild creature, that I wasn’t the only one who tamed her for one night. I searched the libraries all the rest of my summer, wanting to learn as much as I could about the manor, the boyars that built it, but I only found little aside from the names and some dates. I found some papers documenting the first attestations of the place, bearing the date of 1760 and some others from the opening of the first healing establishments a century later, then some time-worn papers among which there was a water analysis signed by the doctor Carol Davila, a letter from Tudor Vladimirescu to the mysterious Marcu Olar, also a court paper that says the boyar was accused by his wife of witchcraft as he had the habit of summoning the forest spirits, and finally a testament stating he had an illegitimate daughter to whom he left the manor.
There may have been some connection between my ghost and the history of that place? The girl resembled so much the one from the daguerreotype that I stared at, maybe too much? Was she an entirely different person and I saw her like that in the darkness just because I was a man full of needs and fantasies, exhausted and drunk? Did she existed?
Aron never came back, never wrote to me again. When the academic year started, looking forward to see him, to share my experience with him, to ask him, I found out that he’d sent in his resignation letter. I missed him sometimes. I never came back to the manor, though I felt like many times. There are things you live only once.
That refuge blown to pieces, I can only crawl on, leaving my limax trail on paper, looking at the irony of my existence with exophthalmic eyes on the tip of the tentacles. Some time ago, I got explanations and denied them, now I am looking for them and there is no one to offer.
Translated into English by Dan BUTUZA