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Chernobyl, Late Report.

I am driving on the Queens Highway, rushing toward the hospital where I'm on call. The radio is blasting, as usual, set to my favorite classic rock channel. Then the eight o'clock news. The stock market plummets every day, the votes are being counted endlessly in Florida, and the Ukrainian nuclear station in Chernobyl has finally closed. Fourteen years after the infamous explosion, the estimated number of victims is 30,000. I doubt that figure includes my grandfather, and to this day, I'm sure that's what led to his end.

I work with Vladimir, a Russian resident, and I mention the radio report to him. The news leaves him indifferent, as if nothing had ever happened. Many Russian immigrants are skeptical when it comes to the events that took place in their country. I'm not sure if they do it out of decency, some kind of shared guilt, or as a reflex of silence reinforced over several generations.

In the spring of 1986 in Chernobyl, some atoms escaped Soviet authority and rose to the sky. From then on, catastrophe plagued that part of the world. If the wind had blown eastward, it would have probably been another well-hidden nuclear disaster. But the wind blew west, where the Geiger-Muller counters got jerky and nervous. In Romania the media finally reacted, warning the population. We were surprised, because mystification was part of the regime's routine. This time it was their fault entirely; those Russians, the ones we'd always feared, were to blame. We had always been prepared for a potential imperialist attack--if a very generic one. But this time we knew it was about them, our neighbors to the east, the ones who, after shoving communism down our throats, amused themselves by watching us surpass their own fanaticism and absurdity.

Now the evil came from above. Uncontrollable. Trapped in radioactive clouds, without a visa, hovering above Europe. Romania found herself a couple of steps away from the disaster. I took a few days off from the hospital where I worked in Brasov and drove north to Bistrita where my parents lived.

It was hot, I was sweating profusely but I didn't dare open the car window. I was traveling through an area with an increased level of radioactivity, according to the radio, and I sped up, as if I could outrun the danger. Almost nobody on the road. Not unusual, since gas was being rationed again. A few goats and cows peacefully grazed the radioactive grass at the side of the road; they were tied to a tree with ropes long enough to reach the road and the passing cars. Old German villages with large stone houses, their mortar crumbling off for ages, churches from the Middle Ages with slanted towers, geese, bicyclists, carts, a toddler crossing the street on all fours, the screech of brakes, which, thank God, worked well and stopped the car in time.

The elderly couple motionless on the porch, waiting to see who passed by. The radioactivity drifting high above was of no concern to them. At the edge of each village, or wherever you expected it least, old propagandistic billboards, featuring the most idiotic and unexpected slogans. On one you could still make out the ridiculous protest, "Say NO to the neutron bomb!" A goat, tied to the pillar of the ad, foraged. Many posters dating back to the triumphant days of communism had been removed, outdated by reality. "Not one day of the week without milk" or "Milk, dairy--a fountain of youth and health!" The milk had long disappeared from the dairy shop on my street. With no milk for sale these slogans sounded like a call for rebellion.

In Bistrita, I find the door locked. My neighbor tells me that my folks are in the country at my grandfather's village. That means twenty more kilometers of narrow highway, other villages, and cows grazing on the side of the road. The area is full of vineyards and plum orchards. That translates into wine and brandy--another fountain of youth and health. After all, who knows what these neutrons will taste like, distilled in the fall?

Finally, at the top of a hill, I glimpse my grandfather's village buried in greenness. One more turn to the first house. At the border of the village, the same crucified Christ made of tin zinc painted with faded colors and rattling with every breeze. I glance at it and just like each time I drive by, I end up telling myself to try and remember to ask my father what the initials INRI stand for, above the Savior's head. I never do it, of course, because I know what will follow. My ignorance of religious matters would only exasperate him.

"For Christ's sake, you don't even know that!" he would say with a sigh. "Your generation was raised completely outside of God. You have no basic notions of faith and religion:' Then his tone would change and he would add: "After all, it's not your fault. This damn system...'

After the war he studied theology, training to become a Greek Catholic priest. Romanians from Transylvania were Orthodox until the end of the seventeenth century. Encouraged by the Austrians they switched to Catholicism, just to belong to Rome. Then they were called Greek Catholics, because they kept the old Orthodox rite and tradition. Had my father succeeded in becoming a Catholic priest, I would still have been born, however, because they still let themselves get married, just like Orthodox priests. The communists threw him in prison, where he was stuck for almost a year--until Catholicism, forbidden overnight in Romania, was abolished entirely. He hated to be reminded of that period and didn't talk about it.

God's ways are hard to grasp, and a few years later he began to teach history and social sciences. Though he remained religious, he didn't walk into a church again for many years. He prayed at home with my mother. A professor could lose his tenure if he was caught in any church, including an Orthodox one, despite the fact that the leaders of the Orthodox Church had reached an agreement with the communists, and even granted the regime an honorable mention during each Sunday mass.

On my twenty-first birthday, my father finally told me I wasn't Orthodox, but baptized a Greek Catholic. My conversion as a child had been his last "heresy:' One night, assisted by my mother, they hid me in diapers and took me to a priest who baptized me according to the Greek-Catholic rite. The revelation of this secret, carefully guarded for so many years, didn't change my life. It didn't make it more Catholic or more Orthodox. Even at that age I didn't know what INRI meant, and I continued to make the sign of the cross in the Orthodox way, from right to left.

Only my grandparents, who had nothing to lose, continued to try and instill some religious education in us. At school, some teachers had tried to get God out of our heads, but I felt early on that wherever the cross began, it ended in the same place. And instincts shaped in childhood are difficult to change.

The year I was baptized, Stalin's corpse was just then growing cold in the Kremlin wall, filling his subjects with a false sense of freedom. My grandfather got drunk when he heard of the dictator's death. The rest of the world, brainwashed and still paralyzed with fear, sent letters of condolences and ridiculous telegrams addressed to the Kremlin. The great Russian people mourned their vanished godfather. My grandfather wrote a poem exulting with joy, even tinted with streaks of premature hope--dangerous during those times. Luckily, my grandmother could read and stopped him from sending it anywhere.

Born in 1900 under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my grandfather had outlived two world wars and many more uprisings. He didn't much blame the Hungarians or the Germans, but the Russians, who, in '44-'45, had come to Romania as liberators but behaved like savage invaders. Hardened by the war, communism, and vodka, their every step was marked by disaster. The soldiers confiscated all the wristwatches they could find, a complete novelty to them. They seized all the animals, gold, and silverware from the households, and executed people for no reason.

That same year, my grandfather lost all his pigs and livestock. "If the Germans or the Hungarians camped in the village and needed meat or wine, they would buy them. When the Russians arrived, an officer with ten watches on each hand entered our courtyard with two soldiers, opened the door of the stable and gunned down all the animals. They almost shot your great-grandfather, who had climbed up to the barn loft for hay. The officer went into the storeroom and fired a few shots at the wine casks. The wine spilled out through the holes and they filled some canisters with it, even their helmets, and then left the rest flowing over on the floor. They were angry because he had no vodka."

When I was a kid in Bistrita, on Freedom Day we had to stay on duty by the Soviet heroes' monument. We wore a red tie around our neck and carried a wooden rifle. No fight had taken place in the area. By the time the Russians arrived in 1944, the Germans and the Hungarians had withdrawn. The five Soviet hero soldiers buried there had died in my high school from methyl alcohol intoxication. They had burst to the schools small natural science museum and gulped down all the alcohol in which the lizards were preserved.

On that radioactive day of 1986, I found my grandfather in the garden. It was beautiful and warm and he was on his knees, gathering spring potatoes. Nobody could convince him to stay inside.

"What are you doing?" I asked, watching him from behind.

He seemed to be half-buried in the ground. I'd forgotten that he had trouble hearing, and I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and smiled at me blandly, as if we had just seen each other yesterday.

"Why are you collecting potatoes on your knees?"

"I have a hard time bending. It's easier this way, though I sink into the ground little by little," he said with a chuckle.

"Go inside, the air is filled with radiation from the Russians"

"I couldn't care less about their radiation! I know what happened. That is why I'm outside plucking these raw potatoes, before rain comes and spoils them. We have to eat something during the winter--otherwise we'll all go into the ground."

His ancient instinct for conservation was still functioning properly. After the death of my grandmother, with whom he had lived for sixty years, life didn't mean much to him. It was just a holy necessity that had to be carried out until the end.

"How have you been, my son? I heard you've become a ladies' doctor" he said with a mischievous smile. "I don't think you made a bad choice, if that's what you like. Anyway, I'm still sorry you didn't become a priest. You would have had a much easier life. Since these communists took over, even the priests don't have much to do with God. You could have joined our parish, sang a little in the church, and spent the rest of your time working with me."

As far as he could remember, his ancestors had bred sheep, cows, and horses. He himself had added bees to the tally. Now he had given up everything, had sold the animals and beehives and filled the stable with an odd system of small water basins where nutria--those furry rodents recently introduced into Romania--swam. People from surrounding villages gathered as if drawn to a zoo, to see my grandfather's "rats"--the first Romanian livestock to break the tradition of the ruminators!

After the Chernobyl explosion, vegetables in the garden had to be thrown away because of the radioactive contamination, but people didn't take the radio announcements all that seriously. Nobody cared about air pollution. Ecology was seen as a pretention. Even so, back then in the markets, fruits and vegetables were tested with a radiation detector every morning and thrown away if they exceeded the limit. It broke the peasants' hearts because the radiation caused their products to swell nicely, and made bright colored, attractive shapes. The women waiting in lines or swarming in the market had become experts in nuclear fusion overnight, offering informed comments about the half-life of plutonium.

Something had finally happened! In Barla, my grandfather's village, nothing had ever really happened. The era between the two world wars glided over the village like a tasteless, homogenous paste. Only marriages, births, and funerals interrupted the boredom of the collective ... a word that hadn't yet made it into the local vocabulary.

Whenever something big happened in the world, if the shockwave eventually reached the village, the peasants figured the end of the world had come. They had a curious intuition for the apocalypse, although I'm not sure if they thought it would actually include them when it came. Collectivization had cut the deepest wound, when the land the peasants were joined to from birth was taken away by force. They suffered fiercely for this, as if they had been completely cast aside by history.

For them, the end of the world would have been liberation, almost a revenge against fate. Instead they had to come together, build brick houses, bring electricity to the village, and form some sort of connection with the world outside. They didn't buy into the news of Gagarin's flight because it came from the Russians. Only the landing on the moon in 1969 made them wonder. The Americans, whom they had waited for for so long, didn't seem that much more convincing than the Russians, on the face of it, but television had altered the villagers' hermetic world. Half of them believed the landing was a lie, half a blasphemy that infuriated God, who would smite them all for the Americans' presumption. Likewise, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 had been a clear sign of the approaching apocalypse.

My grandfather didn't care about the moon landing at all, but he had already come up with an evacuation plan for the animals in his stable, in case of a Russian invasion. According to him, the final end would most probably come in the year 2000, and there would be no escape.

I think that, next to the villagers, only the Vikings--after being baptized--were ever more convinced the end of the world was due, exactly one thousand years ago. That year, nothing other than beer hops was planted. Then, at the end of the first millennium, they withdrew peacefully, patiently waiting for the inevitable event. They drank all their beer, sacrificed all their animals, and got most of their women pregnant. Nothing made sense anymore. They had no Chinese or Jewish people around to tell them that time had started well before Christ. What an enormous farce; there was a strange feeling of liberation when they saw that nothing had happened. They went back to work, thanking God for postponing the end of the world for another thousand years.

In the year 2000, nobody talked about the end of the world. Just the fear that a few old computers, messed up by too many zeros, would ruin the world order.

In 1986 nobody saw the Chernobyl explosion as an apocalyptic event. Communism had soured in its own juices to such an extent that people stopped believing there would be a dramatic conclusion. They had a feeling of gradual, lamentable defeat, lacking any drama or glory.

In the year 2000, I wasn't in Barla to hear the old men predict the inevitable. My mother told me that they acted more or less like the old Vikings, except that the peasants hadn't worked the land for the past twenty years. Instead, I was in New York, in Brighton Beach, at the edge of the new Russian neighborhood. At sunset, when the beach had emptied, a black man carefully walked a metal detector over the sand. When his device signaled something, he sifted the sand in search of lost golden necklaces and earrings. The man was performing the same actions as the people who had walked the Geiger-Muller counters above the irradiated lettuce and radishes in the vegetable market in Bistrita.

A year after Chernobyl, my grandfather got sick. His ganglions swelled and the biopsy diagnosed a malign lymphoma that would soon grow. It was a form of lymphatic cancer unusual for his age. I saw him one last time before his death. He waited peacefully and resignedly for the end, as he had always expected it. Individual, personal, not collective and apocalyptic. I and many of my family members had used up most of our energy trying to escape the communists; our dream back then was a passport or a miraculous escape.

"My passport has arrived, son" he told me with a smile.

He passed away that winter, during a terrible cold snap. The earth had frozen, and six people took turns to dig him a big enough space to be buried in. If he had lived for two more years, he would have seen the end of communism, and his beloved land returned. It was the last funeral I witnessed in the countryside. Nothing in the ritual had changed for centuries. That last evening, the old men in the village came to the mass to say their good-byes. They arrived one by one and whispered to each other, raising their shoulders with a studied resignation:

"What can you do?"

"Nothing you can do!"

They drank boiled plum brandy, played cards after midnight, as usual, remembering the wars, the collectivization. The next day they took the coffin out to the courtyard and drank over it, again for the soul of the dead. Professional mourners from three villages started crying loudly, shedding frozen tears, scaring away the crows watching from the trees, as well as the angel of death, encircling the village.

Before we got to the cemetery we stopped ten times, listening to the wailing of the priests and the dogs barking in the neighbors' yards. At every stop I had to deposit ten lei under a cross. I should have deposited a hundred at a time so we could move ahead faster. My grandfather's body was light, but the whole village had to observe the funeral procession--and especially observe us, the city folk. Once we arrived, the snow was so high that it covered the crosses, and we barely found the grave.

Back at his house, two long tables were set underneath the fir tree that my grandfather had planted when I was born. Next to it the old beehive lay abandoned. The people wore long traditional peasant coats made of sheepskin, and the men wore heavy fur hats. They ate the homemade noodle soup and cabbage rolls in silence. Warm steam rose from the pot and from the people, melting the snow on the branches of the fir tree. The sweep of the old well began to shift by itself, and some old women saw a cloud of bees which rushed out of the frozen hive and flew over the garden.

"They carry the old man's soul" they whispered.

The number of people suffering from cancer grew. Everyone forgot about the clouds of radiation that had bit into our chromosomes and genes. Nobody saw the effects more vividly than us, the gynecologists. The most affected ones were travelers caught on the road by the explosion during that spring of '86. Nature dealt with its anomalies by eliminating many troubled pregnancies, therefore raising the number of spontaneous abortions. The phenomenon passed unnoticed, because at that time any abortion was suspected as deliberate.

The full effects appeared only seven to eight months later, when cases of malformed newborn babies reached a worrisome number. The ultrasound existed only in theory for us then, rendering prevention impossible. We couldn't treat the fetus as a patient. We could only pronounce it dead or alive by listening to its heartbeat with a tin funnel.

Increasingly, we saw encephalic fetuses or those with spina bifida, and other rare deformities. The birth of a child with two heads and three hands, actually an extremely rare case of conjoined twins, led us to believe that there must be some connection between Chernobyl and what we were seeing more and more often.

We all needed something extreme and out of the ordinary to drag us out of the lethargy and loathing into which we had been gradually plunged. A child with two heads was truly something shocking. The housekeepers in the hospital had interpreted this as a sign from above. Many nurses had joined them. The party secretary skimmed through an old edition of Materialism and Empiriocriticism, while we, the doctors, tried to explain it scientifically, reading our dusty old medical books.

Any notion of gathering statistics, or doing continued research, was put to a stop by a party secretary who refused to see the connection between cause and effect. I'm sure that she knew about the "drawer of death" but this didn't concern her.

In fact, we all knew about the drawer in the ward for newborn babies, and nobody doubted the judgment of the ward's chief. A critically malformed newborn, with lesions that made survival impossible, was not only refused the incubator, but also placed in a hermetically sealed drawer, helping it to die faster. Rumors quickly spread in the hospital, though I never heard about the drawer being used in a case where there was some chance for the newborn. Then I saw many fetuses with anencephaly--lacking a brain. Some could still breathe and survive at the vegetative level for a few hours.

One of them already occupied the drawer when another was born. They wrapped the newborn in more diapers, and then abandoned it, to agony, on a table in an isolated room. I went there one night while on call, to smoke and finish my case notes. It was a quiet space, and I was taking a break for a few minutes, away from the madness of the delivery room. It was so quiet that I could hear the ticking of my watch. Then I heard a strange hiccup. I looked around. Just me. Another spastic hiccup, like that of a man about to choke. In front of me, on a table, I saw a hand stretching from a pile of diapers, revealing its malformed body. It breathed loudly one more time, and then it withdrew forever into the pile, like a mummy embalmed while alive.

We had all heard about euthanasia, but nobody talked about it. We felt like mere guinea pigs ourselves, victims of a huge experiment, in which several methods of annihilating an enemy were being tested. In 1987, our lives had reached a peak of poverty and frustration. Deprived of heat, light, water, and food. Freedom had disappeared along time ago, and hope was just a useless word in the dictionary. But dark humor flourished. It was our defense mechanism.

"Why don't you try cyanide, Mister President?" one joke went. "Your people are very resilient:'

Translated by the Author with Ehren Schimmel
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Author:Sangeorzan, Adrian
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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