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Fiction: The Night Somebody Died for You

0 Comments 🕔15.Jul 2016

“What about you, what did you do in the revolution?” Sergeant Mafalda asks.

I tell him the truth. I didn’t do anything. My contribution was zero. I had no idea what was going to happen. To be honest, I never believed anything would happen. On the evening of December 21st, I was studying for an exam. Geometry. I mean, I knew that there was an alert and that Father had been on alert since December 16th, the same as you. I hadn’t seen him since. The first time I took to the streets was in Dorobanți Square on the evening of December 22nd. I’d seen Father on television that afternoon. I had a feeling he was going to do what he did. I tried to reach the television station the next day, but on that route there was gunfire. I couldn’t make it.

I reached the University on the morning of December 23rd. That was doable. On foot, the whole way, now behind the housing blocks, now dashing across the street. You know how it was; you saw it, after all. I got close to the Central Committee building on the 23rd. The gunfire was fierce. I was caught in the crossfire. I went again on the 24th. They confiscated the film in my camera in the underpass of the metro station. I also made it to the university on the 25th. I was on the barricade at the American Library. I slept in the university last night because I couldn’t get back home. The gunfire in University Square was too fierce; you couldn’t get to the entrance to the metro. For the past few days, I’ve been running around till I was fit to drop. I saw people get shot.

Yes, that’s my story. What I saw is what everybody else saw. No, the story I’ve told isn’t special. It’s an ordinary story, because right now, all the people of Bucharest are in the streets. Anybody will tell you the same. Each has his own story, his personal connections with the world of the Communist Party. Each has his own personal relationship to the world of the shooting, the bursts of machinegun fire, the unexpected hiding places, the absurdities of the last few days.

But Sergeant Mafalda isn’t listening to me any more. Instead, he is looking around him. “Do you really believe they shot Ceaușescu?” he asks.

“Yes, certainly!” I answer. “I saw the pictures on television.”

“I didn’t see it. I heard they broadcasted it. I was up on the roof. I returned fire.”

“They shot at you?”

“Yes.” He mops the sweat off his brow. Cold beads of sweat in December.

“Where from?”

“From the opposite direction.”

“Who was shooting? Soldiers?”

“I don’t know. It was dark.”

A moment’s silence. I am thinking that maybe he killed people without knowing it. He knows what I am thinking.

“Our lads?” I ask, meaning all the lads in grey-blue uniforms, along with their lieutenants, captains, sub-officers, and sergeants. I think, by now, all of them ought to be our lads. But are they? Are they, damn it?

He replies. “Our lads aren’t here. We’re the only ones in the area by the Central Committee. The rest are assigned elsewhere.”

“Did you hear that the terrorists are at the Emergency Hospital?”

He looks at me in surprise and says, “I didn’t. They don’t stand a chance. They haven’t even had as much training as you, and that’s not much.”

“Greenhorns, you say?”

He bursts out laughing. A bitter laugh. As if it were blindingly obvious, a laugh that said, yes, hardly any training at all. “They marched up and down the parade ground, all day long for months and months. When do you think they had time to learn how to hold a gun?”

I give an irritated smile. “Right, but it’s second nature for them. They’ve had orders to fire at will for days on end… By now, they know more about battle than any Romanian soldier has for the last half a century.”

Mafalda rubs his chin. “Last night, with my group, we polished off a crate of ammunition in half an hour. I emptied five magazines in ten minutes. On the firing range, a crate like that lasts us more than a month.”

They’re just doing their duty, aren’t they? Armed with Kalashnikovs, they went to war on the streets of the capital. My father told me a few years ago, back when I wasn’t able to pick up on the nuances—he told me that his only duty was towards ordinary people. He repeated those words to me dozens of times. He meant it. Every military man said the same thing. The moment came when my father had to choose. When he had to choose between his duty to Nicolae Ceaușescu, and his duty to ordinary people. He chose. And lots of other officers were like him during those days. Nobody defended Nicolae Ceaușescu because nobody felt any sense of duty towards him, no duty greater than towards the million people in the streets. A strange idea, that—the idea of duty. Military, honour, duty. They are big words. Words unintelligible to me. But what duty do I have? I’m not a soldier anymore. Or does each and every one of us have a duty? What are we when we aren’t anything any more?

“I’m going to talk to the captain,” I say.

Mafalda looks me in the eye and shakes his head, as if to say that a talk with the captain is a serious matter. He points to the room behind us, where you can see a curtain made of scruffy, light brown velvet. The room behind the bar. I go and move the curtain aside. On a table, a soldier is sleeping, his head next to a half-empty bottle of water. And next to him—the crumpled wrapping of a now empty packet of biscuits. Between the chairs another soldier is visible, fast asleep, his arm lolling on the floor. An automatic rifle is slung over his shoulder. At one of the tables sits the captain, taking deep drags on a cigarette, a cup of coffee in front of him. He has aged five years in the last three days. The wrinkles have spread upwards towards his thinning hair. He has black bags under his eyes. His unshaven jaw emphasizes the outline of his face. The corners of his mouth droop asymptotically, in no particular direction.

He stands up when he sees me, more a reflex reaction than out of any intention to greet me. He stretches his hand towards me, making a rapid movement, as if slicing the air with a scalpel. He gestures me to take a seat. I sit down. The militia cap on his head is pushed back and sits crookedly. He no longer has a helmet. I know where he lost it, when he flung it to the ground.

“Cristi is dead,” he says, by way of a greeting.

I don’t answer. I don’t say anything. I don’t. salute him. He probably realizes that I have found out.

“The only fatality in our unit. We also have four wounded, all of them from the platoon doing reduced national service. They’re at the Emergency Hospital.”

“If I had been in the army now,” I say, “given how lucky I am, which of the two figures do you think I would have added to?”

He gives me a look that holds all of the unstated meanings of the situation. No, I’m not smiling. Had it sounded like I was joking? He is afraid of me. He doesn’t trust me. He doesn’t trust anybody. A slight tremor of his lips. One of his eyes is half-closed, flinching at the cigarette smoke. He takes a deep breath.

Then I look him in the eye and tell him what I think. Cristi is the most poorly trained soldier in the entire unit, and I for one would never have put him in the firing line. The captain doesn’t answer, but looks at me as if I’m not making sense. He has looked at me this way in the past. He looks like a man who was heading somewhere, and my remarks have interrupted him. Without blinking, he tells me, “Forty soldiers received the order to take up positions. I gave that order. It could have happened to anyone. Didn’t you see what happened here?”

The captain jerks his head in the direction of Victory Avenue. “Our lads were firing at our lads. They were firing at us because of the colour of our uniforms. Even though they’d been told. They’d been told.”

He waves his hand, but I don’t understand what he means by the gesture. Suddenly, he leans towards me and says. “What your father did was very important. When I saw him on the television, next to those officers. I’m positive he’s saved the Ministry apparatus. He’s saved us all. If it hadn’t have been for him, it would have been a disaster. The Army would have hunted us down to get themselves off the hook. They would have said that they were the ones who defended the revolution.”

I look at him mistrustfully. He’s just saying it. I wonder what he would have done if that faction at the top of the militia hadn’t managed to turn things around. What if they hadn’t managed to reach the television station? What would the captain have done? How would he have fought? I know very well that he’s not a fanatic, but just a man who wants to survive. In the end, I was the one who botched together his politico-ideological instruction ledger for him. There is no reason for us to lie to each other. Between ourselves, we know that Nicolae Ceaușescu was just a cardboard portrait. True, a cardboard portrait that could give military orders.

He knows what I am thinking.

“The kids are in shock,” he says. “They all knew Cristi.”

You couldn’t help but love the big kid. That’s what he means. The most placid man in the world. It had to be him.

“He had less than a month till he finished his national service,” I say.

The captain frowns. He is remembering Buzău. The town. Past years. Images. The promise. The one he made to Cristi’s father. He knows very well what he promised. “Of course, no problem,” he would have said, “we’ve known each other a lifetime, the kid has been assigned to us. I promise I’ll look after him, I’ll make him my clerk, send him on errands to the post office, on my word, it’s easy work.”

Is that what he would have said? Probably something of the sort. And he remembers what he did after that. When Cristi got depressed and wasn’t any good as a clerk any more. He assigned him to the squad. Was that it? Was that how it was? Did he remember everything he did after that?

“Yes,” he replies. “He had less than a month left.” Then, suddenly, as if continuing an old story, “On December 21st I was in the reserve at the rally.”

It strikes me that on the 21st he was still a Party secretary. It was only after that that he was made the commandant of a company.

He goes on. “After the crowd turned against Ceaușescu, I received the orders to intervene and make arrests. We got off our buses. Then we received the order to get back on the buses.”

But why is he telling me this? What does he mean by this story?

“The firemen were there with their hoses, soldiers from the army, militia officers from Sector One. Plus a company of anti-terrorism fighters—you know the ones, you’ve probably seen them in field eight, the ones trained for missions of maximum strategic importance, who couldn’t believe that they were now being deployed to disperse civilians who were chanting and singing. There were also civilians who threw various things at us. I arrived near the end; I didn’t see everything because the reserve had orders to remain at Băneasa airport. Do you know something? Your lieutenant, Cojocaru… ”

How could I forget him? Yes, he is the one he is talking about.

“He’s a wild animal,” the captain says. “He jumped on one of the demonstrators without receiving any order. He grabbed him, punched him, and when he was down, he started kicking him. I had to drag him away. He was screaming, asking why they weren’t satisfied and what they were demonstrating about, that kind of thing. He’s an animal. Do you know what kind of man he is?”

I knew he was unhinged. That was obvious. “I probably also knew that he was capable of violence, beneath that easy-going air of a lad from the country who’s new to town. I saw the way he smiled after he lost a game of chess. I saw how he behaved under pressure, after sleepless nights. I remember the night he was on duty and somebody put three drops of caffeine in his tea. The next day, he had us crawling all over the field. He hated us. Made us ran up and down. Had us rolling in the mud. Do I know Cojocaru? Yes, I know what he’s capable of.” Then, I say, “Lieutenant Cojocaru is a man who could kill without thinking about it.”

The captain pushes his cap back on his head, rubs his eyes with the back of his hand. It was then that I noticed he had broken his wristwatch.

Almost in a whisper, I ask, “Comrade captain, what is going to happen now?” I would have liked him to tell me that he was not going to do any more shooting. Although I can very well hear the bursts of gunfire outside. I can’t speak any more. My throat is dry. My head aches; my throat aches. Since he provides no answer, I ask, “Why do some die and others survive?”

He takes a drag on his cigarette, inhaling with a fury. His yellow fingers are trembling. His lips are cracked. “I know what you’re saying,” he answers. “When I was in the square, holding my rubber truncheon and wearing my helmet, I thought we would have to wade into the crowd and break up the demonstration, make hundreds of arrests. No matter how much training I’ve had, do you know that my legs went limp? Do you know what it was like in the square? There were people from every walk of life: students, pensioners, women, men with glasses, old men with white beards. There was even a priest. I was waiting for an order to cling to, an order that would make me not have to do it. I was desperate for such an order. Because who was I? I was nobody. The only thing I wanted was a reason not to do it. It paralyses you to see a crowd of people like that, turning towards you and shouting: ‘Down with Ceaușescu!’ Do you know what it was like? They were all shouting. There were thousands of people. Down with Ceaușescu. You feel it here.” He points at his stomach, taking another deep drag on his cigarette. He shakes his head, as if to say, “No, no way, not me. I can’t comprehend the enormity of it,” or else, “I don’t know.”

Then, pointing at what is happening outside, he says, “From the strategic viewpoint, it’s a matter of hours. If there is anybody stupid enough to go on resisting, then it can’t be anything bigger than a small unit, without any supply lines or logistics. There’s no way they can hold out. But I don’t think there’s anybody left. All we can hear now are units on our side, firing at each other.”

I don’t say anything else. I stand up. For an instant, I want to wish him success, but I remain silent. I look at him. The captain. His image. With his furrowed brow, he is the representative of an army that changed sides twice in one century: once against Adolf Hitler’s army, in August 1944, and the second time, now, against Nicolae Ceaușescu. There were numerous collateral victims on both occasions. An army that left a broad margin of error wherever it operated.

At the same time, I have a strange thought—it was a good thing that Ceaușescu didn’t have a suitcase with a nuclear button when the whole thing started, because given this was Romania, there was a good chance that the precious cargo carried by the supreme commander would have ended up in some ditch.

As I stand up, I instinctively raise my hand to my brow to salute him, forgetting I am in civilian clothes. I say, “Sir!” and leave the bar.

It’s as if I can’t breathe. I stand next to the light brown curtain. I feel like clinging to it. The thought that a young man died in the battle is driving me insane; I find it horrifying that he died for nothing. Accidentally. By pure chance. Because of a mistake, a misunderstanding, a lack of co-ordination.

 

by Bogdan Suceavă, translation from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth

Noaptea când cineva a murit pentru tine (The Night Somebody Died for You)
Iași, Polirom
Hardcover / 304 pages / 2010
ISBN: 9789734617340

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