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Mr Sofian.

From the far-flung depths of memory you arise, Mr Sofian, and lo, you reappear before my sight and I feel your ever so ironic, but also condescending, gaze enveloping me. A troubling, never-to-be-forgotten encounter! How late and in what dismal circumstances it was destined to occur... I had been away from home a number of times before I finally met you and knew you. Those times were as follows: 1) when I was taken to hospital by my parents, with a high fever and yellow circles floating across the walls, wracked by tears as I looked at the door closing behind them; 2) when, amid the flames of war, families of refugees set out in two trucks, mothers and uncomprehending children, trucks driven by men whose minds were addled by drink and Stalinist agitprop; 3) when, on the road to Odessa in the summer of '42,1 saw spreading across the hills of Dalnic endless forests of iron crosses, each topped by a helmet, after which I viewed the harrowing immensity of the Black Sea through the eye of a brass telescope fixed to a tripod on the upper terrace of the port, near the famous opera house, for which a little old man with a pince-nez, perhaps a former sea captain in the Russian fleet, charged one green German mark or a few pfennings; 5) when, in autumn, I travelled by cart to Kishinev, crossing the Dniester by the pontoon bridge at India (Butur), saw the skeletons of burnt-out trucks, the twisted cannon barrels planted in fields rank with weeds, after which came the crest of a hill soaring up into the heavens, which the horses were barely able to climb, and then the descent to Mereni in the valley, the village of Father Malai, who had been ordained in Slavyano-Serbka under the Romanian administration and officiated the wedding of my parents' godson; seeing my father approaching in the cart, he had hidden himself and only emerged when he was sure that he was coming not to take him away to Siberia, but to say a good a word. Mr Sofian ... So many things were to swirl and then sink into the turbid waters of the past that you must have thought all was forgotten, washed away forever. What force caused you to surge from the depths, to emerge hale of face and young in spirit, rather than the 'Old Man Sofian' of whom we always used to speak: 'Let me take you to Old Man Sofian,' my father would say in that torrid summer, 'you'll see what a special man he is. He has books you'll like. I've told him about you and he wants to meet you ...'

Before I came to you, I had to travel a road long and hard and full of adventures, a road in both space and the reaches of the soul. The terrible famine had barely subsided (I do not know how aware of it I was at the time), but even at its height, in winter, in February '47, as the yellowing pages now stand witness, I cobbled together the following lines, from a lengthy, egregiously confusing, but nonetheless vibrant poem, with the enigmatic, mysterious title 'The Apparition':
    In the dead of tranquil night
   When all the world is sound asleep.
   When the night beast has emerged
   To seek its prey, when the yellow moon
   Wends its way ever higher.
   Then I love to draw to the light
   All the things that are in my soul.
   All that I have long been unable to wear
   Around me like a harness. 

In the small hours of the night I built new worlds, from my dreams I created new universes, into which I transplanted myself, although obviously they were nothing but insipid strings of words. How much I then knew of the inexhaustible treasure of the Romanian language, which was all my literary culture at the time, is not even worth mentioning, my beloved Mr Sofian. But even so, I had a glimmer of self-awareness, I had the least confidence that I knew one or two things, that I was apt, that I was good at something... I was mistaken, Mr Sofian, it was of course just an illusion, but how beautiful was that illusion of mine! Let me narrate in chronological order how I came to you, Mr Sofian, let me narrate all the things I had to undergo before I finally met you ...

That year, my father was transferred (he worked as an accountant for a cooperative) to one of the southern raions of Bessarabia. His parents were elderly and the times were hard, and so he took his father, my grandfather, with him for a time. Then, his mother, my grandmother, went to visit him. On her way back, she pulled the red emergency handle, causing the speeding train to brake in the middle of the plain. In the holidays, my turn came to visit Father.

I arrived at Tighina with Tanase Cohan, who was accompanying me. There were no tickets left, of course. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of people wishing to travel. And so, when the train set off, we clambered onto the roof, along with some others. You can imagine what an experience it was for a lad who had just turned sixteen when beneath him the metal boomed hellishly and the wind whistled in his ears, while he clung to the ventilation duct of the carriage lest he be blown from the roof like a feather! Dusk falls, darkness, tiredness, you are sleepy ... Your arms are numb, you do not even think about hunger, because you are hurtling, borne along, but you do not even know whither: you have set out, but will you arrive?

Suddenly, in the middle of the night, it grows light, as if myriad minuscule suns had flared to life. Rays of light shine from every direction, all of them pointed at the train, which creaks and then comes to a stop. Why has it stopped? Why so many lights? What is going on? Railwaymen in uniform and armed soldiers appear around the train. They shout at the people on the roofs of the carriages to come down. Here they are, streaming down like ants, their knees knocking, standing on the gravel of the embankment. We climb down. We find ourselves shoved into a huge, poorly lit hangar. Arrested! Both Tanase and me. Fare dodgers-criminals! Identity papers are inspected. Fines are dished out. A fearful hullabaloo! I cling to Tanases arm, so that we won't lose each other. I hear him whisper to me: 'Try to run away ... Slip through that door ... I'll come after you ... Otherwise we'll miss the poyezd.' I sneaked away. I used all my guile and I escaped from their clutches. As soon as I was outside, I ran to the train. Tanase came not long after. This time, I didn't climb up on the roof but boarded a carriage, because Tanase had spoken to the conductor (he had probably given him some money), who had told us to hide so that the inspector wouldn't see us ... Now we were travelling separate from each other, but before we parted he had told me to make sure I got off at such and such a station, where he would get off too and we would meet up again. But where? I got off the train, not in the station, but in a field. When I found myself all alone, I was terrified, I was about to get back on the train, but as it happened he saw me, bending down and peering under the carriages, and so we were reunited. I should mention that the brightly lit station where they arrested us was called Basarabeasca, and the other station, where we had now arrived, was Taraclia.

Meanwhile, day had broken. It was hot, sultry. Different places, different people, but the same drought, the same poverty, the same misery. We went into the village, found the house where Uncle Isak and Auntie Maria lived crowded together with their numerous daughters, my cousins. They had brought them back to save them from the famine. They were living in a low hut of bare clay, crowded together, ragged, hungry, foul-tempered, niggling each other with nasty words. Imprinted on my memory is a curious phrase of theirs: dai malku lyap! That is what one or my cousins would say, elbowing another in the chest. Then another would say: dai malku lyap, poking her younger sister in the forehead, and so it went. I realised that they were mimicking the starving locals, who wandered around begging in their own language: give me some bread! In Bulgarian lyap means bread.

The next day I set off with Aunt Maria, on foot, barefoot, along a country road, an endless valley, scorched by the blazing summer sun. We went from one hamlet to another, all of which were named after things to do with eating: Aluatul (Dough), Lingura (Spoon), and so on, which only made my hunger worse. We were going to the town where my father worked and where, after I ate something, I would be able to rid myself of the worm gnawing away inside me. Few were the people we met on the way. We asked them whether we were on the right road. I cannot remember whether they answered or merely pointed. They too were faint with hunger, they had no strength to utter a word or perhaps they were surprised, if they were still capable of surprise, at that small, scrawny woman, who had set out on a journey with a young lad, he too small and sunburned, the two of them travelling alone over hill and dale ... Another saying has imprinted itself on my mind, all my life: at the edge of a dead village, a skeletal, vacant-eyed old woman was sitting by the gate to a house, waiting for death. Aunt Maria asked her where such-and-such a village was, at which the old woman lifted her cloudy, unseeing eyes and muttered a single word: Turtzia ... Turtzia ... What did she mean? That she did not understand the language my aunt spoke? Or that she was Turkish?

I would not have remembered so many details of that unforgettable journey if I had not met you, Mr Sofian. How had I ended up there, a boy avid for books, whose only previous journeys, day after day, unswervingly, like a metronome, had been to the library and back to my lodgings ... A notebook bears witness to those times, recording each book read each day. Random, uninteresting titles, in Russian, of course, obscure authors ... Oh, the junk I have read in my life! But Mr Sofian, I could not say that the days passed monotonously, pointlessly, there in the village where you lived, and I did not even know you yet! The woman with whom I was lodging had a daughter younger than me, whose eyes were so dark and lively that they cast a deep spell on me. I had just turned sixteen and images of fays, from fairy tales, from dreams, were beginning to dance before me ... But they were figments, whereas that young girl was there, alive, in front of me ... Once, I caught myself gazing at her and felt a warm pang in my heart... Another time, while reading, I saw her eyes swimming up from the page in place of the letters .. . So? I began to learn Gagauz with her. I crook one finger, Anisoara says: bir! I crook a second finger, Anisoara says: iki! I crook a third finger, Anisoara says: uc. And so on up to on. Not to mention the fact that in a little while, apart from otuz (thirty) and uz (one hundred), I also learned a whole host of other words, but from the three grown-ups: su (water), ekmek (bread), sarap (wine), var (is), yok (is not) ...

But my memories have carried me away with them, Mr Sofian, and I would be a liar if I did not recount in these pages the harrowing things I saw during the days I spent in Kongaz. Merely to utter the name stirs in me painful, unspeakably painful, associations. I can almost hear my mother, filled with anger and bitterness at my fathers sojourn there: at that time, people were dying of hunger, dropping like flies, while the Soviet functionaries partied and had fun, like men possessed ... In the winter of '47, those dead of hunger were taken into the fields and laid in the snowdrifts, without coffins, and when spring came and the snow melted, they all came to light, black corpses strewn over the whole expanse ... What chronicle, what document records such apocalyptic images, such unheard-of savagery, committed by the Stalinist regime, which engineered the famine, exterminating tens upon tens of thousands of innocent people, particularly in the southern districts ... This from what I heard, but my memory has preserved the following terrifying image. One day I was returning to my lodgings, it may have been a Sunday or a feast day, since that was the atmosphere, and I was walking through the middle of the village, where the local administrative building was, and as if captured in a snapshot, there loomed ... a row of human spectres, precisely that: spectres, shades, rather than people, a row of human semblances, indistinct, disfigured, sitting in unnatural postures, bent double, on a long fence, one next to the other ... I try to discern them more clearly, based on the image in my memory, to see them as they were, but I cannot. All of them have bizarre, sinister outlines: thin arms, thin legs, hanging down, and enormous bellies ... As for the faces, they are vague, the eyes watery. From afar, it is as if they were saying something among themselves, some were even gesticulating, pointing at the official building over the road, but nothing could be heard, nor was there anything to hear, for they opened their mouths, but had no voices ... 'They're dystrophic,' said a voice next to me. 'Dystrophic,' I whispered, without really understanding what it meant. It was not until later, years later, that I understood what I had seen. But not even then to the extent that would have been appropriate ...

Oh, Mr Sofian, Mr Sofian, what painful associations and memories are connected with your sacred name! I offer you my sincerest apologies, I know that you bear no blame for any of this, I know that you too were a victim of those times and that if you escaped with your life, it was ... But did you escape? In '49 a new wave of arrests and deportations arrived, and you have remained in my memory as you were in the summer of'47 ... As I was saying, Mr Sofian, my mother was furious and revolted at my father: "The poor people are dying of hunger, and you shut yourselves up indoors, drunk, having a party, playing music on the gramophone.' And later, after I entered university, I came home once and she said: 'See this bracelet--' it was a gold-plated bronze bracelet, engraved with vine tendrils, and it opened with a key '--your father brought it from Kongaz--' by then he had been sentenced to twenty years, taken to the Urals '--it's gold ... the cause of all our misfortunes and troubles ... take it and throw it in the Dniester.' And that is what I did: I wrapped it in a rag and when the train crossed the bridge in Tighina, heading toward Parcani, I tossed it out of the open window of the carriage into the waters of the Dniester, obeying my mother's command.

And now, let me recount my visit to you, Mr Sofian. 'Come on, I'm taking you to see old man Sofian,' said my father one day. 'I've told him about you. He'd like to meet you.' To meet me? What could be so interesting about a young lad such as myself? Can you have been interested in the fact that I tried to compose poetry? I am not sure my father told you about that, because you never asked me to show you any of my poems or to read you anything. Can you have been intrigued by the fact that I came from Transnistria, which is to say, the region from which the Soviet regime invaded, and you wanted to meet a product of that system, a young man, a child, since you had already met plenty of adults? Or by virtue of your vocation as a teacher, did you want to converse with the pupil that I was? All these are possible, in whole or only in part, but I shall never know. I know only as much as I know.

Namely, I know that when I arrived at your gate and walked down the sand-strewn path, your house looked to me like it was a fairy-tale palace. I felt as if I were entering another world. It was in that house, with its fruit trees and shrubs of every variety, green and well-tended, as if drought and famine did not stalk the land, it was in that house that you lived all alone, Mr Sofian the teacher. You appeared before me ... But I catch myself waxing lyrical and effusive and so let me take a different tone. Your appearance was that of an ordinary country teacher, a middle-aged man, but to me you looked like a little old man. You were middling in height, grey-haired, freshly shaven; I cannot remember whether you had a moustache or not. What I do remember for certain is that you proved to be agile in both your movements and your speech. It seems that your dog informed you of our coming and when we set eyes on each other you were telling it: 'Hush! Hush!' You opened the gate to us and conducted us to the back door. The front door had not been opened for a long time. The times were hard, desolate, and the front door, for use on special occasions, was jammed. It was not until later that I found out that you, Mr Sofian, lived in your own house not as the master but more as the caretaker, the caretaker of your own household. You did not have a housekeeper; there was no sign of a woman's touch. You were alone there, just you and the dog. We entered by the back garden, a garden bathed in the bright light of the summer sun. From the stifling heat we suddenly stepped into a world of shade and coolness, from a small passageway into a narrow room, then into another, and finally we came to a large room with large windows and a table in the middle, surrounded by numerous chairs, there was also a sideboard and ... I cannot remember what other furniture there might have been, for my eyes were drawn to the shelves, on which there were books, many books, standing upright ... It was the books, those wonders of human existence, that excited my fascination, called to me irresistibly, it was books that I sought, dreamed of saw before my eyes even when there were none to be seen ... There, in your house, there were books ... Naive child that I was, I was unable to conceal my passion, I displayed it openly, I do not know whether you observed that vice of mine. While you conversed with my father about everyday matters, things that you had discussed so many times before, you probably noticed the expression that had imprinted itself on my face, one of huge, boundless curiosity, and you decided to put me to the test, to see what kind of child I was: What did I think? What did I believe? How did I judge? How did I react? Permit me, Mr Sofian, to describe those few moments that my memory has preserved (more than five decades have passed since then!), but I shall do so with all the precision and sincerity of which I am capable.

'My daughter has gone to Romania,' you said, finding it difficult to say those words. 'I have stayed behind, here, to look after the house ... To guard it ...' And saying that, you indicated with your eyes all the things around you.

I admit that at the time I did not grasp the pain in your soul. I lived in my own world, the world of my sentiments and dreams. How could I have known what a father separated from his child felt? I do not know whether your daughter was married, whether you had grandchildren, where your wife was, whether she was alive or dead. I do not know. All I know is that you were full of energy, agile in speech and movement, and that you were not at all what might be described as an old man. How old was my father at the time? Forty-two. You must have been fifty-five. Your absent daughter would have been between twenty-five and thirty. But what importance do such suppositions have now?

At one point, Mr Sofian, you picked up a newspaper, unfolded it--it was a broadsheet--put it on the table, and jabbing it with your finger, said to me:

'Do you see here what the Russians have imposed on us?'

It was the official Bolshevik newspaper. Socialist Moldavia, printed in Cyrillic. I discovered later that at the beginning of the occupation of Bessarabia, in '44, it had been published in Latin script for a time. That was probably when they were making the transition to the Russian alphabet. I listened to what you said and remained silent. Can I really have not understood that it was a protest on your part at the actions of the regime? I believe I did intuit it. That one sentence you spoke transformed you from an ordinary country teacher, from a little old man, from old man Sofian, into Mr Sofian. And Mr Sofian was no longer the same man I had seen on my arrival, the man who had led us to that spacious room, in which he had vanished for a few moments while my gaze was stolen away by the bookshelves. Mr Sofian suddenly grew before my very eyes, became a giant. All the things around us faded for an instant; there remained only your face, gazing down from on high, your glittering, piercing, ironical eyes.

'How are you supposed to read something like this, with these foreign letters?' he exclaimed and tossed the odious rag away, making a gesture of disgust and contempt. Could it have been then that certain associations were awakened in me? Whenever a Romanian book written in Latin script fell into my hands--there were still a few that had survived the flames of war and evacuation--in my heart was reawoken the unforgettable enchantment of the books I read when I was in Romanian school. And so, Mr Sofian, without knowing it, you made my soul quake inside me, my pure soul thrilled, drunk on the music of my mother tongue, as noble and uncorrupted as it was when it was first forged by our classic writers, who handed it down to us. My answer was again silence. Can you have been waiting for an answer from me? Or were you merely unburdening yourself of your sorrow and pain in front of a child? That child was to remember what you said and many years later he would share with others what he had heard. For, a seed once cast will sprout even decades later ...

But the aforementioned detail is but a corollary of what came next, of what I was to hear from your lips, Mr Sofian.

'What can you expect from those Russians? They weren't even capable of founding their own state by themselves. They had to invite the Varangians to rule them, Ascold and Dir ...'

Having been stuffed full of chauvinist communist doctrine, I had never heard such a thing before. Perhaps I had heard of it, but I had not had any sense of the meaning of those historical facts, which revealed the fundamental weakness of a nation that teaches others how to live, but has not been or is not capable of ruling itself I admit, dear Mr Sofian, that what I heard from your lips descended on my soul like a bolt of lightning, penetrating deep into my memory. It was not until years later, having in the meantime recalled your words from time to time, that I was able to understand how profoundly you were right. But also you had had the great courage to give voice to the truth. And where? When? In what times did you speak those words? Were you not afraid you might be betrayed? Did you have so great a trust in my father? Or were you unable to tolerate the lies and the silence that were imposed by force and, seeing yourself in the presence of a child's mind, did you decide, teacher of genius that you were, to cast the seed of truth? Did you suspect what was taking place in my soul, through the ardour in my eyes, still fastened on the bookshelves?

'I can see you are looking at them hungrily,' he said. 'They're my daughter's books. I won't give them away, not to anybody. But I'll lend you one or two for a few days. Choose ... for yourself ...'


It is absurd, I know, but permit me, dear Mr Sofian, to pray to God that you were not arrested and deported in '49 or in '52. Let me pray to God that you saw your daughter again, from whom you were so brutally parted. Let God remember you for what you were in life, a teacher and a guide, the same as I piously preserve you in my memory. Finally, let me thank you, dear Mr Sofian, for your kind gesture, for serving me fresh honey, not in the usual way, but spread with a knife on slices of pickled cucumber, something I tasted then for the first and last time in my life. What was it? What was that gesture meant to symbolise, dear Mr Sofian? The sweetest of the sweet laid over the sourest of the sour ... A lesson? An initiation into the mysteries of life on this earth?
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Author:Besleaga, Vladimir
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:4EXMO
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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