by Alexandru Potcoavă [Romania]
translated by: Alina-Olimpia Miron [MTTLC] & Philippa Lawrence
pentru versiunea română click aici
The poplar leaves were rustling gently, spun by the warm July wind. Beyond the row of tall trees, the stone-faced embankment, topped with gleaming railway lines, ran like a rampart from Timisoara to Şag Timişeni. On this side of the spindly tree trunks lay the cherry orchard belonging to Adel Halle’s sister, known as Auntie Juliska, the last rays of the year’s sun ripening its fruit.
Auntie Juliska and Juliana had arrived by bus early that morning so they could prepare everything for lunch when Adel and old Lanyi were supposed to arrive. Juliana had started by gathering armfuls of brushwood and building it in to a pyramid to make a bonfire in which she would bury the skewered potatoes to bake in the embers. For desert Auntie Juliska planned to serve the cherry cream she was now beating in a huge bowl.
‘What’s taking your mother and grandmother so long? Lunch will be ready soon,’ Auntie Juliska mused, feverishly whisking her mixture.
‘They’ll be here,’ the girl assured her, ‘as soon as Mother’s finished making the apple cake.’
‘What cake? Didn’t I tell her I was making some…’
‘Of course, but she said she couldn’t show up empty handed!’
The peace in the orchard and the dull murmur of the poplars turned towards the sun and wind was disrupted occasionally by the muffled voices of a few Romanian soldiers who were supervising a group of Soviet prisoners of war digging up potatoes.
From a faint sound in the distance came a continuous drone which grew louder and louder until it was an all enveloping roar. Hundreds of little crosses had filled the cloudless sky, trickles of condensation showing they had come from Belgrade. In their path Timişoara awaited their coup de grâce like a majestic prehistoric animal, its reflexes too slow to take evasive action, lying ready for them amidst the sun scorched bowl of the surrounding hills. The area had held out stoically against the British bombers who had completely obliterated Timişoara’s main railway station, and the surrounding areas but, compared with the attack predicted by the U.S. flying fortresses soaring across the sky in broad daylight, the solid patterns woven by the exhausted Lancaster Squadrons might seem flimsy indeed.
The sirens kept screeching above the streets but the people in them only vaguely registered the call to shelter as if from one world to another. However, the Soviet prisoners immediately flattened themselves on the ground while their guards sat on their haunches, one eye on the Russians and the other on the show about to begin. Auntie Juliska gazed in terror towards the road to the City. It was deserted, no sign of a bus. Juliana fixed her eyes on the cathedral’s steeple: unfinished but already an easily recognisable landmark in Timişoara. Between the cathedral and where Adel Halle hid, her house still stood, the kitchen and oven where she had put the apple cake to bake turned to ashes after she ran to the shelter with her mother.
The next moment the scene in front of Juliana came to life, monstrous towers of black smoke rising in to the air, among the distant, motionless silhouettes. Havoc reigned, the ruins turned topsy-turvy as the Iosefin neighbourhood near the railway track’s gate in to the city crumbled into burning smithereens. The Prohasca Mill was grinding out flames, the Nord Hotel’s guests were dispatched in to its underworld; trams skidded off their rails, splitting open as they crashed like thin skinned, dried up pumpkins, their seeds sprayed on to the hot plate of sizzling asphalt. One crater blasted out next to another creating a lunar landscape at the speed of the aeroplanes, their shadowy eclipse of the sun at ground level faithfully following their progress above. Beyond the Bega Canal on Calea Şagului a half ton bomb dispersed the deposit of iron, throwing splinters everywhere.
Gizela Halle’s husband, Franz, who had bravely gone to the undercover printing shop to leave a manifesto to be printed had taken refuge under the gateway arch of a house nearby when a sliver of iron chopped off his nose. Mad with pain he dashed in to the street spinning round like a top, his severed nose in his hand. It took the paramedics an hour to reach him and sew it back on but they could not find the piece of metal which had buried itself in his skull. A week later Franz suddenly dropped down dead among the rows of onions in his garden. To save money on his coffin Gizela had the thick fir tree in her back yard chopped down to use the wood, and tied the washing line to the plum tree instead.
Juliana did not have time to think straight or realise the huge scale of destruction in the city although the ground beneath her feet was still shaking. She had taken shelter under a poplar where Auntie Juliska joined her, pop-eyed with horror and still mechanically stirring the cherry cream. In the field the soldiers stood up again among the potato plants and started furiously poking the prisoners of war with their gun stocks, telling them to get on with their work. It took a while to rouse the Russians as they had managed to have a cat nap but the moment they picked up their hoes they were cut down by two fighter planes escorting the American bombers, searing the sky above them, their machine guns red hot.
The pilots’ cheerful faces shone through the Perspex cockpit. This merriment, which must have reminded the Yanks of the fairground shooting competitions of their childhood, trying to shoot down the highest possible number of the tin cans lined up and win the big prize, was brief as the two cowboys pranced their Mustangs towards the sun. Below and behind them these young sons of Uncle Sam had only left a few cans still standing for a final round.
The rest lay squashed on the ground, their contents gushing out amongst the disembowelled potato plants. Feeling exuberant and invincible the young men from overseas had won not the plush teddy bear for their childhood sweetheart but a lifelong memory to recount endlessly to their children, grandchildren, fellow veterans and anyone else willing to listen over a double whisky – granted, of course, that they survived the war and did not become the tin cans of the enemy’s memory.
Their engines roaring, revved up to maximum speed, the silver stallions made the gruelling leap over the row of poplars and abruptly galloped back to their stud farms in the sky.
Beyond reacting, Juliana pressed her back to the tree trunk until she felt her flesh fill up every crevice in the bark. She leant silently in the fierce rain of small splinters of wood and hacked off leaves, sent into orbit by the propellers which, in the planes’ effort to reach the high sky had chopped off the tops of several poplars. Juliana allowed this debris to enshroud her completely, and when she came to, shook them off frenziedly and, turning to her aunt, let out a scream and put her hands over her eyes. Auntie Juliska did not even bat an eyelid: she had held the bowl of cherry cream tightly to her until the contents had spilt on her, drenching the front her blouse with a dark red stain. A dumbfounded expression on her face, she was scooping the mixture from various places with her finger and putting it in her mouth. She sucked her finger, smacked her lips distrustfully, then tried another spot. Suddenly she stopped, looked at Juliana as if for the first time and nudged her:
‘Taste it! I’m not dead! C’mon, love – taste it, won’t you. If I’m dead, so are you or we wouldn’t both be here! Yeah, yeah, I know what I’m saying! Never mind now – it doesn’t matter!’