Fiction by Laura Bota
“Wake up, Laura. Wake up!”, a timid voice whispered in my ear.
Her again! Heart fluttering under my skin, my brand-new black velvet dress drenched in cold sweat, I wipe my forehead that feels like a mushy snail. I instinctively check my phone; I always keep it next to me. Just in case. 03.57 and one Belated-Happy-40th-Birthday-babe-heart-emoticon.-I’ll-make-it-up-to-you-wink-emoticon message from Dan. Finally. He must have sent it when his wife was nursing the baby. My body is shivering on the couch, so I wrap myself in my old blanket like in a cocoon, trying to smother a head-splitting migraine.
It’s been years since I last saw her. Why now? What deeply buried stories is she bringing back to life again? The first time she visited me was just a few days after I first laid my eyes on her. I didn’t recognise her at first until I saw the boots. Red lacquer boots. The kind I would beg my mother to buy me, but the answer I would always get - especially after my father fled Romania in '87, no one ever knew where, in search of a better life - was “money doesn’t just grow on trees, Laura!” After that first visit, she would come without a warning. She would just approach, her fragile body wrapped in a duffle coat as white as snow, splattered with blood-like polka dots that matched her stockings. And her spectacular scarlet boots: as shiny as a mirror. Her little face remained unrecognizable, veiled in an air of mystery.
I vividly remember the day I first saw her. December 16th, 1989. I had just turned eight.
Like every Saturday, my mother and I left home in the middle of the night to make it in the first half of the line when the old state grocery in Maria Square would open at seven thirty. Armed with the coupon in her hands, my mother was hoping to buy what she had saved from the monthly ratio for the holidays treat: 1 kg of chicken, 150g of watery butter, a whole litter of sunflower oil, 10 eggs, 500g of cheese, 700g of coarse whole-wheat flour, and 400g of caster sugar. Enough to even bake a small cake for the holidays. “They’d better leave something for us as well”, my mother muttered to herself. “We might even get bananas, mama!” I exclaimed, filled with hope, awakened from my sleepiness. Although green and hard, they’d be perfectly ripe by Christmas. I had never tried them, but Cami, one of my classmates had once: “Out of this world!”, she said.
When we arrived at half past four, an overfed line was already twisting in the darkness all the way around the corner, as an inexplicable energy was hovering in the streets of Timișoara. At eight the shop was still closed, and there was no sign of movement at nine either. The line had turned into an obese snake that was wiggling its tail in hunger.
By ten, it had become obvious that there would be no food provisions again. Like a numb bear waking up from hibernation after a long cold winter, the crowd was slowly coming back to life, a fattening restlessness nesting in their empty bellies. A veil was lifting from their eyes. A murmur here, a whisper there, until lively conversations were sparking between strangers united by absence and by hunger. If we listened carefully, we could hear forbidden words like rights, oppression, and even the long-forgotten word of freedom, the meaning of which only the old ones could still remember.
A current was blitzing through the crowd, bringing about with it the stench of fear infused with the fresh perfume of change. The thirst for it was palpable in the tremor of the growing mob, which was turning into a common voice. As though fear had been sucked in by the holes in people's souls and devoured by the craving in their guts.
We didn’t wait to see what change the current was bringing, and mother rushed us home empty-handed again. That energy, however, followed us, and the whole morning and afternoon continued under its reign. Something so new that my mother didn’t know exactly what to call. If she hadn’t known better, she would almost call it hope.
At home, when there was no risk of unexpected visits, my mother turned the little battery charged radio on to listen to România Liberă. I would never be allowed in the kitchen when the radio was softly playing in the background. I never understood what the fuss was all about, but I did know that I was forbidden to speak of this to anyone. Ever! So, when my mother turned the radio on, I was sent to hide in the living room, but not before I could hear the word “revolution” uttered with effusion.
“On the roof. The terrorist is on the roof!”, a man roared with a ragged voice in the growing mayhem in the street.
“He’s running away!”, another man barked out of breath.
The voices seemed to be coming from under our apartment’s window in Iosefin. I didn’t know how close they were because my mother had instructed me to hide and lie still under the dining table. My left cheek was burning from the coarse rug, its tiny needles stuck into my reddened skin. Despite the warm turtleneck rolled up to my chin, and the two wool jumpers tucked into cotton underpants and a pair of thick wool trousers, my whole body was shivering uncontrollably. Not even the old fur hat, or the newly knitted one-finger gloves could stop the violent shaking. Not even the jaw clenching could stop the teeth from chattering. The city heating was off - hardly a rare occurrence. The ten-year old Electro-Argeş heater that we used to dry our hair after the weekly bath each Sunday was not of much help either. The electricity was usually back on, late at night, with some intermittences during the day, but this time, it had been out since Friday.
The mercury thermometer on the wall barely touched the mark of 11°C, but it was dropping fast, as evening was setting in. It was only a little after four in the afternoon, but light was dying quickly, melting into a wintery darkness engulfed in foamy snow. It wasn’t long until white dotted lines stabbed the air, lighting up the sky with a deafening roar: ra-ta-ta-ta, ra-ta-ta-ta. From the kitchen, I could hear my mother's strained voice - I would learn soon enough she had been hit in the leg - "Don't move. Stay where you are!" Trying to ignore the shiver in my bones, I focused on the growing growling in my belly. The can of sardines blended with onion and a drop of watery sunflower oil I had shared with my mother wasn’t enough to keep the stomach rumble away for too long.
New rounds of bullets ripped through the dusky air. Ra-ta-ta-ta. Ra-ta-ta-ta. Plaster cracked into more wounds, windows shattered nearby, splinters crashing on the ground. A lost bullet stumbled upon a sack of flesh and bones, followed by the muffled sound of a body reaped like wheat in summertime.
“Help!”, a woman shrieked.
Trembling under the table, unable to utter a sound, I was waiting, ears perked, for what felt like hours. The shotguns stopped, replaced now by the woman’s wailing: “Wake up, Aura. Wake up”. Car brakes squealed, doors smashed open but they quickly slammed shut: bang, bang. What was happening outside? Plucking up my courage, I crawled to the window and, with a firm grip on the windowsill, I craned my neck to take a peek. The street had been abandoned. The façades of the buildings where my classmates lived - the twins Alin and Alina, Dani, Cami - were now looking like an old woman’s face with a toothless smile, eaten away by ailment and sickness, and riddled with long crevasses and deep chickenpox holes. Where was everyone? Where were the voices coming from? On my toes, I leaned forward for a better look. Right under the window, on the side of the road, a white two door Beetle. It was only when the car squealed back onto the road that I saw her. Or better said them. Through the trunk ajar, two short legs covered in red-stained white stockings and a pair of shiny scarlet lacquer boots were dangling on the edge, fat ruby blobs of blood trickling in the snow.
Aura, the little girl who has been reigning deep inside me, is back again and to what end? I look around to try and chase away the memory of her. On the coffee table, a bottle of Montalcino - I had saved it for a special occasion - is standing empty and alone. Like me.
“Wake up, Laura. Wake up and live!”, the voice is growing restless inside me.
Laura Bota is a Romanian who has called The Netherlands home for the past six years. With an education in foreign languages (French and English) and a strong passion for reading and writing, she has attended multiple international creative writing courses. The main themes she addresses evolve around the human condition, existential crises and social injustices, mostly situated in a troubled pre- and post-communist Romania.
Published 29th March, 2023.