Encounter

Don't you hear—the door of the next compartment just opened? It has to be a ticket taker. Who else gets 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 fixes sideways at the dark, shining window. Only, 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 if you want to go out in 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 pla—t!

Rising slowly from the bench, you watch your petrified face; it flashes in the emptiness of a mirror. It's your face? Seems it isn't.

—Your ticket please!

You squeeze past overcoats, suit jackets, hats; past shoes—look! shined like 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 dashes 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 trap will open beneath your feet and still explaining, shame-faced, sweaty, mixed among pronunciations, declensions, conjugations, you'll somersault between the rapidly turning wheels till you hit wet darkness.

How lucky: the conductor didn't notice you when he was two steps away! More luck that no one sees how you struggle 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 open and your cheek 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 . . . one opens the door with a certain hand, utters flatly:

—Gli biglietti, prego!

So that the suspicious faces on 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 lived this before—where? You don't remember when, you don't remember where, ah, how boring.

. . You rummage in your pockets for blood pressure pills. You come up with cigarettes, drops, crumpled pages. Only you don't recognize the language the text for the conference is written in—you don't recall the alphabet. What will you read to the audience then? You don't know. But now you've gotten 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 if getting ready to go out in the hall, but why this disapproving silence? Ah, yes! It's a nonsmoking compartment—it's forbidden to smoke in the train—you've shoved yourself under the bench, you crouch, you make yourself small, smaller, even smaller among the turning wheels. You stay on all fours and you hold your breath, from there, from the luggage rack where you 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 crouched, scared, you'll somersault into the darkness cut by blinding wreaths of light.

Above, on the overpass, look there's a soldier with rifle presented, unmoving, a statue.

—Who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going? Show your papers! Answer!

You've sprung out from under the bench, your horrified face flashes in the emptiness of a mirror.

—The 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 harassing dream. To wake yourself, you've stuck your soft nails in 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 your 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 haven't you stayed like that, in the deserted station . . . getting ready to leave . . . coming from school; with a trembling hand, you wipe your temples, your damp cheeks . . . good: you 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 slides across the ties under the train . . . how much this dog looks like your Federigo at home, that way of arching a bushy tail over tense 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 not to be recognized by the two sullen soldiers—rifles clenched in their fists.

—Your papers!

—Where are you going? Answer!

—Where do you come from? Show your papers!

—Halt! Halt or I'll shoot!

*

You move hurriedly, you run, quickly, quicker, even quicker—you feel the station behind you grow smaller, even smaller, and the red stains, like fresh blood, throb on the fogbound foot path where you advance on weakening legs, your shoes wet from dew. There's a sudden change of sounds of colors of light. The intense green of the fir trees climbs up toward the peak wrapped in mist; beneath: the tender green of the meadows, the viscid foot path where you crush fibrous tufts of bride grass with boots that hurt you, be careful not to slip! Careful not to . . .

How many times haven't 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, season tourists on top. Soft, whitish corpses waiting in vain for the sun to come again over the shadow-studded land. We had come to the end of the water / on the depth of the ocean, where the Cimmerian city is, the people forever/ wrapped in fog and dark, for the luminous sun never sees it.

*

Here is the DRY CLEANER'S, the name of the firm attached to the dirty, white wall, stuck in the sandy earth, here is the sheeting case for the eiderdown—rough white-yellowish shrouds, hung up to dry—above them puffy black curls flow over the heads of the ones who debark ceaselessly. 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 in 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 dark?

*

Precisely because you know the verse very well, you realize that you made a mistake, who had you make such a trip, stranger, through fog and dark, 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 twenty lei you make cheat sheets for ancient Greek, for Latin for the guys 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 dark?

On the board floor 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 threw them through window; febrile, you walk tensely on the shiny floor, 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: better give up, unfortunate man, the road toward rocky Ithaca than wandering 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 sticks to the roof of your mouth . . . you search hurriedly in your inner pocket, there 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 parking lot, 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's gotten old himself meanwhile.

—Good morning, mesdames, messieurs, vos billets, s'il vous pla—t, intones the teacher in a melodious low baritone.

Slapping 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 with the table set at home. Will they still recognize you . . . they won't recognize you anymore, after so many years since you've been wandering over seas through storm and fog?

*

There's the dome of the church in the valley. When you have arrived at their right, nothing remains for you to do but cross the street, and you're home. What wondering faces they'll have, what shouts of joy they'll bring out then when they see you! Will they recognize you? They won't recognize you, after so many years since you've been wandering alone in dark and fog? So many years have passed since you left . . . just yesterday they drove you to the station.

You try to make out something through the old fence boards: you go up on the tips of your toes to look in the courtyard, but the fence is too high and the green paint sticks to the tips of your fingers. The fence is freshly 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 failed. The banks were nationalized, all of them. The bank won't give them credit anymore 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 table is spread in the courtyard, a wedding table, for a baptism or funeral meal. I told them that after his many adventures and after he lost comrades, after twenty years, he'd get back home, unknown to all, and all that is fulfilling itself now.

*

How boring, how excruciating! How many more times haven't you stayed 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 pants. Whose child might this be, with mucus shining silvery on his cheeks like the slime of a snail dried in the sun? You've lost sight of him in the courtyard full of the buzz of bees, of sun . . . it's summer, it's spring . . . And this child, left to grow 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 gravel with your stiff, shriveled footwear, you would like to have all eyes lifted 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 courtyard? A pine in the courtyard brings bad luck, it's well known, while the cypress you saw in Rome.

You tramp over the small stones in your dusty, worn-out footwear, heavy, deliberate steps—only 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 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 bread basket! So they live, so they're alive! Lord God, what a wonder, what joy, how good! The rest was only lie, dream, illusion . . . Everything you believed, everything you suffered all these years, for nothing . . .

*

You get closer—smiling widely, 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 lifts his eyes to you . . . they only pour into each other's glasses, wine, water.

And you, who made such a long journey to get here . . . you ran so many tortured nights through trains full of ticket collectors and soldiers . . . you're too tired to taste 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 weakened.

—Mama!

You try to cry louder, but you strain your throat in vain, only an indistinct throaty sound escapes your strained vocal chords.

—Mama!

You force yourself, you strain desperately, but you don't hear your own voice, and your shadow doesn't spread on the grass. How come? Even she doesn't turn her face toward you. And you, who jumped all night from one train to the other, you hid under the banquettes, in trains guarded by armed soldiers, you came all the way here in pajamas, barefoot, with your cheek full of lather, only half-shaved! As from another life, as 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 shout: It's him, Him, it is, Lord God, how should I thank you that I have lived to see this day, to see him here, with us, among our people? 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 one word! Only there is nothing more difficult than to come here from there through fog and dark . . .

But she keeps quiet. She sits petrified, 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:

—Mama!

Translation of a section of Antâlnirea (Bucharest: Cartea Româneasca, 2003). Copyright Gabriela Adamesteanu. Translation copyright 2007 by Jean Harris. All rights reserved.