by Gheorghe Recheşan
Finalist of the HBO-Tiff 2010 Competition
Translation from Romanian by Adrian Ioniţă and Alina Blănaru, MTTLC student
pentru versiunea română click aici
Every time I rode my bike on that peaceful street, the houses sheltered by the chestnut-trees with whitewashed stocks would align themselves quietly along the sidewalk and I would see Guido sitting at the window. I did not know his name at that time, but I had been shocked by the unnatural pallor of his face, an immaculate piece of paper lividness, which, in contrast with his dark eyes and his short hair’s anthracite whirling, seemed even whiter, almost ethereal in the glass’s reflection.
The street was leaning on a smooth slope, and I would stop pedaling in the front of his house, slightly slowed down by the waves of the asphalt-paving punctured by the chestnut’s roots grown underneath.
With slow motions, he would open the window, and each and every time, his pale, long and thin fingered hand would take a fruit from the windowsill: a cold red apple, a golden pear, a ringlote plum with shimmerings of imperial purple, even a small scented orange during wintertime, and he would offer it to me. I would get off my bicycle, greet him, take the fruit and walk away followed by one of the saddest looks I had ever seen in my life.
That is all our meetings came down to: I would receive alive, scented, meaty fruits, offered by that wax like hand, and he would smile and watch me walk away with bouncy steps, pushing the bicycle. While I ate Guido’s fruits, I would promise myself that the following time I passed by his window, I would give up my timidity and talk to him, but something stopped me every time; I would greet him, then I would take the apple, pear or plum and leave.
One day, it was an early October morning, Guido was sitting at his window as usual, but there was no fruit on the window sill. I greeted him and he told me in a white voice: „Why don’t you come in? The door is open, you must only press the handle hard for two times, because the lock is old and rusty, and the latch impedes a bit.”
The clouds bellies were swollen with rain, the ants sandy polygon was waiting for me, unless I hurried, the underground tunnels would be flooded, but his searching and sad look made me give up. I strongly pulled down the brass handle of the lock, pushing exactly the way he had instructed me to, the door creaked like a fortress gate, and I found myself in the emptiness of an alleyway. On each side of the corridor, up to the height of my head, the walls were covered with mazy drawings, carved with the tip of a black pencil in the chalk coating. There were three doors painted in the color of antique ivory on that corridor, the fourth one was wide open and from beyond it, I heard Guido’s voice: „Come on in, I am here, in my room!”
I stepped into the light quadrangle formed by the sun rays flooding a completely white room with dazzling walls. The air smelt of melted snow, that icy perfume, moist and cold, mixed with the meliferous odor of the roots, bulbs, rotten leaves and the damp soil underneath it. In an armchair placed underneath the window, was sitting the palest boy I had ever seen, paler than the hollowwort dried petals pressed between a book’s pages. „My name is Guido,” he said and his voice floated between us like the fluttering of an invisible wing, „ what is yours?”
I watched him in silence, he was taller than me, almost as tall as I am now, but his fragile limbs seemed crushed by gravity and life seemed to throb only in his big, intensely black, shiny and feverish eyes..
That week my name was Fabre, and two weeks before it had been Nansen. Do not laugh. Back then, my names did not last for very long. At the beginning of the summer, when my journeys through the fantasy jungle were in full swing, I was simply called Stanley and the year before,I was only Robinson. I do not know why, but Guido’s occurrence filled me with unlimited faith, so I told him my real name.
„Filip”, he said with a voice like a breeze that slowly touches the window, „thank you for helping me eat all those fruits!”
I thought he was making fun of me, but he continued:
„I must eat many fruits, an enormous amount of them, because of the vitamins my body is lacking… look, I want to show you the strangest fruit I have ever seen!”
Slowly, he began to get up from his chair, and the continuity of his moves was as sluggish and clumsy as a sloth’s walk alongside the branch of a Cecropia tree. When he was finally standing on his foot, he went towards a low table towered with books and took a small cardboard box out of its drawer. In a cotton wool bed, there it was half of a pericarp, tiny as a child’s fist, dried and full of spikes, sheltering underneath a brownish shell, three shiny seeds, intensely colored in deep purple and dotted with white spots.
„What is this, where did you find it?” I asked.
„It’s a caracuas,” he enlightened me smiling so certain of his statement, that I did not dare to ask him anything else, „but I would not advise you to taste it, it is highly toxic!”
He took out one of the seeds the size of a chestnut out of its tri-septic seating, and put it in my palm:
„Can you feel that it is warm? A fractal of Mu’s energy is stored up in it…”
I wanted to ask him about Atlantis and the missing continents, but the phone rang, someone in the house started talking with a strong, angry voice, and I, abashed by that unexpected presence, told him I had to leave.
„Call on me again,” he said from the threshold of his room, „in one of these days when it does not rain or it rains too hard!”
„Of course, I will come, one of the weekdays, except for Wednesdays and Fridays when I have basketball practice!” I told him and I quickly went out into the street, convinced that I would never visit Guido again.
The following week, when returning from school, I did not pass by the house he lived in. I was busy, I would throw my satchel behind the door, eat something in a hurry and run to the ants’ farm. The weather was unusually warm. A warm wind blew on the calm streets, scented with cinnamon, pollen dusted by the thistles and raw chestnuts, which brushed away the rusty carpet of leaves towards the drains and the building’s corners..
Bent over the sand quadrilateral, I would watch for hours on end the ceaseless labour of the small red bodied workers, the alertness of the Polyergus slave-makers armored with dentate mandibles, who guarded martialy the entrance to the galleries, and I would admire the cortege of monarchs robed in translucent wings, long like some gossamer mantles. The metropolis life, with its dozens of rooms dug in the brittle land absorbed me so much, that I spent hours on end there, far from the oversized world encircling me.
One afternoon, I was just watching the agony of a spider cornered by a battalion of black fighters in the arena of the sand coliseum, when heavy and warm drops, pierced the dust like some liquid bombs and began to fall. While I quickly covered the ant hill with burdock leaves in order to save it from destruction, I remembered the promise I had made to Guido.
The rain grew, the blasts were hitting with flat slaps the pavement, the roofs, the naked chestnut-trees and dribbles accumulated in the gutters gurgling like some torrents in the downspouts pouring onto the streets. I rode my bike without minding the storm, and I split the grey curtains of water, like a nautilus surfacing the vastitude of a sea.
I hesitated for a few minutes in the front of the massive wooden gate, with triangles and diamond shaped patterns cut across the strand. The door was locked, but on the right side of the doorframe, I glimpsed the button of a doorbell. The door was opened by a tall woman with long, blonde, curly hair, and a sprinkle of ruddy freckles on her face. She was wearing a red dress, fastened with buttons up to her waist.
„I am Angela… Guido is expecting you, but do not stay for too long, he is very tired today!”
I greeted her while she was smiling and I remained at the entrance of the corridor, waiting for the water to drain off my drowned shoes. A bronze three-arm chandelier was shedding a yellow light across the hallway and this time I carefully looked at the drawings on the walls. There were pictured hunting scenes with surreal animals, lions with human faces, dragons with flaming tongues, camels with eagle limbs and claws, winged elephants attacked by hunters as small as a nail, who assaulted them with bows and tiny spears. I was drawn in particular by a large drawing, where a giant long snake, crept through a wide thick as a rock ring, adorned with arabesque letters and intriguing symbols. The woman was looking at me, still smiling for no particular reason:
„Guido made them, but we cannot paint the hallway because he cares for them deeply!”
Then, off the point, she asked me:
„Is it raining hard outside? Oh no, you’re soaking wet, let me get you a towel so you can dry yourself!”
While she disappeared in one of the rooms, I walked into Guido’s room. He was as pale as the last time I had seen him, bluish dark circles covered his eyelids and the skin underneath his eyes, but he brightened when he saw me. He barely got up from his chair and we shook hands. His palms were hot and dry like leaves withered by frost.
Looking closely now at the tall blonde woman, I noticed that the strands of the curly hair were grey. She offered me a towel and a large woollen sweater, with buttons.
„Dry up quickly lest you should catch a cold… I would never forgive myself if you fell ill!”
Guido’s voice, colorless and slightly wheezed, chipped in abruptly:
„Mother, leave Filip alone, stop spoiling him!”
We were left alone. Embarrassed, with the jacket that smelt faintly of mothballs in my hand and to digress from the cold, I asked him:
„What school do you go to?”
He answered by showing me his notebooks and school books scattered on the table:
„I study at home… my parents made a deal with the highscool’s principal, so I could be tested invididually…”
A clay flower pot with a white scentless geranium towered over the windowsill. He grubbed the damp soil with a pencil and revealed a little box, out of which he took out a bronze signet ring.
„It is the ring of the last great Arhonte… if you look at it closely you will notice the emblem with the crowned eagle and the dolphin which holds a diamond-shaped crystal in its mouth!”
The lines engraved into the blackened metal were so faded, that I could not contradict him. I gave him back his ring and he buried it back between the geranium’s roots.
„Wait… I will show you the map so you can understand better!”
He took out a bulky book from the desk’s drawer, and then a folded sheet from underneath the shiny, brownish cover. All over the sheet, there were thoroughly drawn the outlines of an island- vaguely resembling an arched Porpoise- with shores, gulfs and peninsulae, with yellowish hills and light green plaines crossed by sinuous blue coloured rivers.
„It is not finished yet… it is very hard for me to remember all the topographical details from the dream!”
I asked him what country was depicted on that map and he smiled mysteriously:
„ You are my friend, so I will tell you the secret: it is an island that you will not find in any atlas, not even in the most detailed ones, it is a land that existed for real, but, which continues to exist only in my mind!”
„Interesting”, I mumbled at a loss, „but how is it called?”
„Guidonia, of course!” he enlightened me and then began to explain me each detail of the map.
I was curious what the drawing of the snake from the corridor’s wall stood for, but then he started to tell me about the sunken continents, about Mu’s world and about the power of pure crystals. His knowledge of the worlds beyond reality seemed inexhaustible. Listening to him, I realized that he had never seen a squadron of green dragonflies attacking fly larvae, the cruelty of cannibal wasps or the back and forth of the mud cockchafers consolidating ditches and pools of slime with dried blades of grass, and I set myself to bring him an ant lion the following time. I had a savage specimen, with a shiny, metallic blue breastplate, which I kept in a large jar filled with sand. I would watch him for hours on end dig its traps and wait for its prey, clanking with his huge sickle shaped mandibles.
When Guido’s mother showed up carrying a plate of cookies, I pretended I had homework to do for the following day, and got ready to leave. However, I could not turn down a slice of golden sponge cake garnished with nuts and raisins and a glass of bland lemonade. After I promised that we would see each other again in three days, I went out into the street and suddenly, I do not know why, I felt myself relieved.
The rain had stopped, muddy streamlets were wrinkling the sidewalk, the chestnut-trees branches were weeping and my bicycle- a faithful stallion tied to a thick stock- was waiting for me helpless like a missionary tied by savages on the torture stake.
When I got home, the sun was triumphantly streaming through the shreds of clouds, and I was happy to discover that the metropolis of ants had survived, with insignificant damages, the great flood.
I started to see Guido daily. I would pass with the bicycle underneath his window, stop and talk at large, and if he was not at his observation point, I would notify him through the repeated clinks of the bell from the handle bar. We resumed the habit of sharing the fruits, but in a whole new ritual, I managed to make him eat as well half an apple or pear, which I would cut with my pocket knife. I might have got used to his pallor, but it seemed to me that lately, something from his anaemic blood was flowing quicker underneath his skin and his cheeks no longer had the colour of dried Corydalis petals pressed between the pages of a book. I had gained another habit. I would bring him something from outdoors every time, even if it was just an empty snail shell, a feather, a frosted leaf or some irregularly shaped stone. They all added to his collection of strange objects.
On a chilly autumn day I stopped in front of his window. He held out to me a time-stained piece of paper full of small peculiar signs written in black ink.
„I have invented a coded language, a new alphabet for us to write messages to each other, but promise you will not reveal it to anyone and that you will burn this paper once you have learned the signs!”
It was one of the few promises I had made to Guido that I did not keep, and now, twenty five years later, I am happy I did not keep it and that I can reproduce that alphabet. It was actually a simple grid, formed of 16 squares, numbered horizontally with Arabic numbers, and vertically with Latin numerals, each square containing a consonant from B to Z, while vowels had different signs: A =Λ, E=#, I=~, O= Ð and U=Π.
On the sheet there was also a sentence written in Guido’s alphabet, which looked like this:
I4 ~ II 4~III3 III3 Λ IV1 IV2 III4 # Λ IV4 Λ 3 IV1# I2 III4 # IV2Π
II4 . II1 Π ~ I3Ð
Deciphered, it meant: „Filip keeps the secret. Guido“
In the exterior corner of his room, the years had digged a deep crack between the wooden window case and the masonry. I covered it with a rock and we agreed to slide our messages in there. The idea was practical, his feeble hand could reach that hiding by opening the window, and I could find the note and leave an answer when returning from school.
Guido’s first message surprised and cheered me:
IV 2# ~III2IV3~IV2 IV3~III2#III4~ II4Λ IV4~ΠΛ III1#Λ
I immediately answered:
IV3~III2 III2#II1III4# IV1~IV2
I knew he had been born on late November, but he had never told me the exact date, and the fact that he considered me his friend and that I had been invited to his anniversary, worried me all the more. My bugs were sleeping benumbed in the jars, the entrances of the anthill were sealed with dust consolidated with formic acid, so I worried my brains about what present to give him. I remembered that he had shown me a large disc-shaped rock, with a hole in the middle, from the things in his collection.
„It’s Mu’s ring“, he told me, „the stellar gate to Atlantis! Unfortunately the key is missing, a spar, the pure Island crystal which should reflect a ray of spectral light exactly in the middle!“
The only Island spar I knew of in our town was in the school’s natural sciences study.
If Guido had not been so ill, it would never have crossed my mind to steal it. The evening before the birthday, I hid my bicycle in the geometrically cropped bushes which surrounded the school’s fence. I sneaked in, mousier than a Sioux, to the gate in the back which opened to the gym, but the door was locked. That is when it occured to me to climb upstairs, where the laboratories and the science study were, using the escape ladder. A snow scented wind was blowing, my body was shaking from the thrill of the adventure and from the cold, but the image of the crystal resting on its dark velvet dwelling inspired me. I climbed cautiously, step by step, hoping that one of the windows was half-open, but I had no luck. I began to burst open the wing of a window, using the blade of my pocket knife with its handles shaped as a fish as a leverage and suddenly I lost my balance, my feet helplessly looked for the steps of the ladder and I fell down. I stood up dizzily, I felt my forehead, my knees, my arms, I was hole, but when I wanted to walk I bit my lips so I would not scream… A deep bolt of pain drilled out my right heel, I was wobbling like a shot in the leg thief and I felt like crying out of pique because the Island spar was sitting in its holder, and the astral gate stayed locked.
I did not make it to Guido’s anniversay, in the meantime a thick snowfall had spread, it had snowed with tiny ice crystals all night long and I hardly dragged myself home, resting upon the bicycle’s saddle. My parents quickly took me to a hospital, I had fractured a bone with a mysterious name, I think it is called astragalus, and the doctor on duty from the hospital made me a plaster boot that I wore for two months.
It was the ugliest winter that I had ever experienced, the weather alternated between crazy snowfalls and unexpected melting downs, the grey stained by the rain snow reached across pale grass plots and muddy ditches, and I was limping, using a curved handle cane, in the space between the bed, armchair, door and window, sad because I never had the chance to wish Guido happy birthday. I had explained to him on the phone, without my parents hearing, what had happened, his voice sounded more stifled, more distant than spring and I was afraid he did not believe me, even if I, his friend, had sworn to him that I had wanted to open Mu’s gate.
When I was finally allowed to leave the house, my first trip was to Guido’s house. His window was blind. I looked in the deep crack between the window case and I found two or three notes written in our secret language. The dampness had softened up the paper, the numbers and the signs mixed in a pale blue crumbled paper and I could not decipher anything. I rang the doorbell, a tall, thin, pale, grey haired man answered. He was wearing glasses and he had a very sad face, which looked like Guido’s.
„Guido is not home“, he told me, „we had to admit him into a hospital from another town. I do not know to tell you when he will be back, the doctors are evasive…“
I left followed by his look that limped and hurt me more than the astragalus.
After the doctor removed my plaster, I began building Guido’s island.
I chose the place after an extensive research. It is an almost rectangular slope, integrated between the live fence of the cemetery, the built with concrete alley between the blocks and the poplars margin that surrounds the whole quarter. It is an almost flat space and pretty secure from the passers-by looks. First, I charted the outlines, exactly the way they were on the map: the lacy shores, the deep gulfs which dented moodily the line of the shore, the peninsula like a three fingered hand. The most insignificant details came to my mind at night, and during daytime I would draw them with a spade in the soil that sprang damp and nude from underneath the dirty snow. I would put up hills, plateaux and crests scattered around the entire perimeter from the clay removed from the ditch that separated the island from the rest of the world.
Every day, after I returned from school, I would eat something in a hurry and then run on the vacant lot, Guidonia was waiting for me to help her come into the world. My parents did not ask me anything, I would return at night filthy with mud and fagged out, they might have understood that I had an important mission, beyond their understanding.
I carried several wheelbarrows filled with rocks and pieces of concrete from a near-by construction site and I built the branched frame of the mountains. A soaking rainfall filled the sinuous channels of the rivers, which are now flowing frothily towards the ocean of daily certainty, exactly like the rivers on the map. The wind, the rain and the sun shaped Guidonia’s outlines naturally. In March, when a frail grass sprang which clothed the plains, I planted shrubs of cornel trees and nut trees and I sown wheat grains, having the feeling that the island had born itself from the middle of waters. I would have loved to transplant the caracuas seeds and watch day after day the way the offshoots of an unknown tree spring from them.
For now, its only inhabitants, apart from me, are a few families of earthworms which have migrated from the muds of the vacant lot, some black and small cockroaches which have built shelters underneath the rocks and the colony of ants transfered here. The days have stretched their body. A warm smell of sweet fruits caresses the air. Summer is drawing near. Every night, while I lay down in the fresh cut grass in the centre of the island, its familiar outlines kindly encircle my shadow. I sit and wait. I am waiting for Guido to come and visit his island.