That night, on the 21st of December 1989, I was late but I rushed madly to be in the apartment before six pm, because every night they cut off the power at six pm. With the candle and the matches in hand, I sat at the kitchen table ready for two hours of staring into the flame and thinking about our lives. The light in the ceiling, yellow and shy, stayed on but I couldn’t move, paralysed by surprise. Maybe they are just late. I went to the sink to get a glass of water, but my shaky hand turned the hot water tap instead of the cold. The water was hot. We have hot water. I put both hands under the tap and let the boiling water pour into my cupped palms until they turned red and I couldn’t stand it anymore. We hadn’t had hot water in many years. That’s why the water was reddish, from the rusty pipes.
I dashed into the bathroom and let the hot water run into the tub. I didn’t turn the light, I took off my clothes, I knew my way around the tiny apartment blindly, I sank into the water, I was used to the dark. There was so much water around me. I was skinny, we all were. I got dizzy and closed my eyes. In a long time, a warm feeling seeped through my veins. Happiness? I was scared to be happy. Fear was there, in every cell, in all of us. I remembered that on the train, coming home, people were smiling and talking to strangers. God is on our side, someone said.
I lay in the water until it went cold and then I dried myself still not believing that we had hot water. Loud voices in the stairwell froze me in my tracks. Let’s go. We all have to go. Hard knocks on the doors, including mine, but I didn’t move and I didn’t breathe. Normally the raids were at the early hours of the morning, but now it was evening. I heard a few more noises, doors shut carefully, then quiet again. I looked through the peephole: it was dark and quiet. I put on a bathrobe and waited.
I learned the tiny apartment as though it were part of my own body. Even now, after many years, in the world behind my eyes, I can still see all the drawings made by paint patches and smoke on the walls. I knew every cut in the linoleum and every spot where the paint peeled on the window frames. Till the day I die my toes will feel the cold from the gap under the front door and the mould in the cupboard will for ever dwell in my nostrils. The toilet seat had a screw missing so I always sat on it carefully. The skin on the tips of my fingers still dreams at night about every crack in the paint of the radiator for I touched it billion times to see if it was warm (it wasn’t). When hot tears I couldn’t hold in welled my eyes, they clung to the bathtub rust that looked like flowers and clouds and angels.
I stood motionless, my back against the cold wall, my hearing magnified that I could hear people breathe in the other apartments. They, too, were motionless in their cold empty kitchens or huddled together in their cold empty bedrooms. A thick silence swabbed the houses and the blocks. Something happens somewhere else. I couldn’t feel my legs. My body was alien to me. All lights were off but, in the kitchen, a friendly light was spilling through the short curtain onto the table. The moon is on our side, too.
I looked outside: from the fourth floor, everything seemed deserted. The small houses on the other side of the street were even smaller that night. Timid lights here and there. The road was wounded by dark potholes. The sky was close. At this time of the year, it should have been cold and snowing, Christmas was just a few days away. At the thought of it, a cold hand reached inside me and switched something off. We were not allowed, there was no food, there was no joy, there was no Christmas.
I remembered then the first Man who couldn’t endure beauty: the sky in the spring was too blue for him; Eve’s smile was too beautiful; even the clouds and the flowers were too pretty. Crushed, he confessed to God that so much beauty hurt his eyes and he wished to be blind. God listened and, in his infinite wisdom, gave the Man tears, many tears.
I looked at the sky again and my tears dried away. Behind the blocks and the houses the sky was lighted. I opened the window and I heard gunshots. I hadn’t heard gunshots before then, but the chill down my spine told me they were real. People are dying out there. I shut the window and cowered on the floor. Then I crawled to the bathroom. I need the radio. At eight, Radio Free Europe had a Romanian language broadcast. I scuttled into the room, grabbed the radio and went back into the bathroom. With trembling fingers I turned it on. The revolution has started jumped out. The voice was excited and scared. My heart jumped into my mouth. Hard hammers drummed in my ears. My hands startled and dropped the radio. It smashed on the floor and shattered into a million pieces. I stared at it in disbelief. I had saved for months to buy it. It was my only connection with the world outside. What am I going to do now?
I know. I am going to make cabbage rolls. I thought it was a good idea. I had some mincemeat from a neighbour who had woken up in the middle of the night and waited in a line at the shop with a lot of other people, for five hours, to buy meat or whatever they brought in. She gave me some, not much. My mother from her village sent me cabbage pickled in brine and a few eggs, so I had everything I needed. I was lucky.
I went into the kitchen, put a blanket over the window and lit the candle. Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. I took the cabbage leaves one by one and carefully cut out the thick midribs and veins. Thy kingdom come. I mixed the mince with spices, a cup of rice and one egg. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth. I snuggled one leaf of cabbage into my left palm and, with my right hand, I scooped mixed mince enough to fill the little nest. Give us day by day our daily bread. I folded the side edges in and started rolling the leaf from my wrist toward the tips of my fingers. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. My hands were covered in mince and brine trickled to my elbows, but the shiver had stilled. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
I carefully rolled many cabbage leaves that night, for I-don’t-know-how-many hours. Only when, through the walls or from outside, from time to time, did the word ‘li-ber-ta-te’ echo in the deep pitch of history, I had to step back not to let tears drop into the mixture bowl. I laid the rolls on a bed of finely-diced cabbage with a cup of water in a small pot on the stove. The gas was high. I had fallen asleep on the kitchen table. The flicker had drowned into a shimmering puddle. I woke up, removed the blanket and saw a few blotches of light in the sky. There was a glitter of hope on the roof tops and skeletal trees. I opened the window and gasped. The air bloomed into my lungs. I felt it.
Down in the street, a man in a pink short-sleeved shirt just burst out from between two houses. He smothered something red, yellow and blue at his chest. His face was worried and exhausted but it had a glow about it. He glanced around cautiously then bolted. He raised his treasure above his head and flew it like a kite. It was our flag and it had a hole cut in the middle. The coat of arms, symbol of the communist regime, had been cut out. I cried. It was over.
I live in Australia now. There is a neighbourhood watch sign on my house and palm trees line the street. At Christmas, neighbours wrap huge red ribbons around the palm trees. Looking at them, I ask myself: what happened to yellow and blue? Like me, perhaps, they are lost in the gap of history.
Florina Enache was born in Romania and she now lives in Australia. Her first story, “Three Days in the Life of a Translator” was published in Caliban online in April 2016. “Rite of Passage” was published in the annual issue of the Green Hills Literary Lantern and a third story, “Mademoiselle” was published in October 2016 by Caliban online.
© 2017, Florina Enache