by Bogdan Mureşanu
translation from Romanian by Simona Sămulescu [MTTLC student]
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I think I was about six years old, and I just starting first grade when, on a Sunday, my father took me with him to see the animals in Baneasa. It was an early spring day and the light was stretching over the houses and the road as if it was a thin layer of jelly and, through the windshield, it was trickling along my father’s face, in clear wisps, from him high forehead to his unshaven beard. Behind the wheel of our car, back when we had a Volkswagen Beetle and on its dashboard there was a tiny metallic image of Saint George spearing the mouth of the dragon, my father was driving with his eyes peeled on the road, but once in a while searching with his look, the ashtray. The truth is I always remember him surrounded by a halo of cigarette smoke, like the aura of the moment. He was such a heavy smoker that he counted everything in cigarettes. If there was no traffic, a road trip to the seaside was a quarter of a pack, or a full pack if there was. The drive to work meant two cigarettes, the walk to buy bread, one. I distinctly remember with what pleasure he once observed – and this was years ago – that the complete works of Shakespeare had been edited on thin sheets of paper just like the ones cigarettes were made of. He said it with such joy as if that thing would have doubled the value of the collection. He wouldn’t just pull at the cigarette; he would drink its smoke, stirring it around his mouth, before exhaling it with a certain sadness.
I do not know if it was a family trait or a refuge from a downcast reality, which lacked the colourful tones that his heretic soul needed, but my father lived in a world with its own mythology, filled with inventions and fiction, enriched with fantasies and dreams. My father was a banker of illusions, who self-financed his own fantasies, never ceasing to amaze me with his way of seeing things. His penetrating gaze saw through the conventions and habitualness, reaching the essence and there, he would dig deeper, stopping at the quintessential to contemplate the subtle, alchemic elements of the Universe. In the biology lab from the mental hospital he would study through the microscope the sick tissue of a world in continuous decomposition, gathered in the aleph, illuminated from below by a small electrical light bulb. Through the microscope he would research, with each eye, the spit from a god with rotten lungs, gathered around on thin layers of glass on which shiny surface rose and crumbled forever liquid constructions, see-through cathedrals of saliva with decaying gargoyles around the lurid cornices, whole cities of mucus encircled by an immense void. I picture my father surrounded by the abysmal blackness of the lab, while he is digging deeper into the intimate layers of reality, with his face illuminated by the sun at its lowest point. The ray of light started from the light bulb beneath the glass blades, it shone through this watery world and it would focus on my father’s forehead, blooming into a lotus flower with rainbow-hued petals, in the middle of which a third eye would open, the mind’s eye. Leaned over the workbench, he would assist the birth and death of microscopic worlds which recreated in detail and smaller still, going for a nothingness they would never reach, the microscopic world of my father in such a way that he would observe himself observing another humoral self and so on and so forth to an infinity he yearned for, without being able to ever pin point it on the glass blades. This perhaps explains his inclination from weird stuff, quirkiness, for the grammar mistakes from when the world was written. From this, his fervour with which he would hunt down the blabbering from the Book of Making out of which he only wanted to escape from the dogma of the pages where everything was written down and the terrible fear he felt whenever faced with an ordinary book. He trembled with fear that it might be That book. He detested its omniscient Creator. He hated the Author of those despotic pages against which he schemed like a true conspirator. He weaved in silence all types of treacheries against his enemy: the all-knowing God who demanded blind obedience to all laws of nature. He couldn’t get enough to slander the Universe through all the means at his disposal. Through all his actions, my father called to rebellion against tyrannical causalities. He wanted miracles, he wanted free will, and he marched for anarchy in the face of the abusive laws of the universe. He didn’t like to die and he actually never planned to do it, always busy with finding an exit out of the maze. He felt humiliated for not being consulted on the circumstances of his birth and considered that the actual state of things has to be urgently rectified. On his demands list there was also his desire to change the course of life: from death – going from old age diseases to the pleasures of adulthood, only to discover sexuality in adolescence and your identity in childhood – to birth and comfortably floating around in amniotic fluid. Going out of this world would be done through the membrane of the placenta instead of the shroud of decay. The parental orgasm would have coincided with the honourable retreat out of life, but as an affirmation of vitality and not a denying of it. Now I can only agree with him, knowing that I have useless humiliations in old age, from which he had retreated just like he had planned all his life.
Reaching the Zoo, he quickly slams the door of the car to cravenly light up a cigarette, a little moisted with saliva. He puffs satisfied for two or three times in a row and we head towards the ticket booth.
– One adult and one child, he says to a casher fat as a whale.
I imagine we’re going to receive a father ticket and a son ticket, but I see that both tickets are equal in size. That’s just how it is in ticket world. We hand them to the porter who rips them and we enter the Zoo. Father takes my hand warning me that I am going to see something I have not seen before, but only if I open my mind’s eye – he slowly taps me with his finger on my forehead – the third eye or the Cyclopean eye, which people keep shut out of stupidity, he continues. I listen to him and wrinkle my forehead trying to get a new eyesight.
– Lad, says my father laughing, it’s good that you are trying; it shows you have good will, but it’s not enough.
I shut my eyes so hard until I see two spots of light behind my eyelids. I open them and he’s right. I have three eyes and I proudly show my father that I can see all the wonders of the World Beyond. We head on the main lane out of which smaller ones are spreading. Right in front of us I see a few pelicans in a giant cage hanging from the ceiling of the clear sky. These birds have something funny, like they’re out of cartoons, with their beaks resembling lidded buckets. You step on their claw, they open their beak, you throw a fish inside. Even their name is funny. Pelicanus, as it is written on the plate. But what is that being, seen in the cage in the back? What’s with those birds with such tall legs and pinkish feathers? Flamingos or Phoenicopterus ruber, says the plate, are an aquatic migrating bird, the same size as a stork.
– And the stork is the size of a crane, and the crane is the size of an aigrette, and the aigrette is the size of an egret, and the egret the size of a heron, and a heron can be big, medium or small sized, my father finishes and we both laugh at the clumsy description from the iron plate.
We go by a number of water birds and we end up in front of a pile of ash. I look to my father and then to the smoking pile of ash and my confusion keeps growing. I don’t make any noise. I hardly dare to breathe feeling that we have reached something unseen before.
– This is it, whispers my father, we’ve reached the fire birds.
I remember that suddenly thousands of incandescent suns blinded me with their brightness until my optic nerve coloured to the colour of heated filament. It was as if a star had been born under my skull, drilling its way through my frontal lobe until a third eye was opened on my forehead out of which I saw how out of the ashes tiny bones were forming, slowly covered with meat, fluff and feathers.
– You are very lucky, said my father, what you see now only happens once in 500 years!
It says on the plate that the magnificent bird with gold plumage is a symbol and a proof of the immortality of the body. Crushed Phoenix egg shell is recommended in affections caused by fear of dying and depressions caused by mal di mondo.
– Sickness of the world, translated my father scholarly, of being sad to be alive, but this is something you know nothing of yet. You will find out later on.
We move further along whistling because we don’t want to attract attention to our pockets filled with egg shells hot from the scorching ash. My pants are really warm but my father whispers to hang in there and I’m ready to do it come what may.
We walk along the alley among all the bird species that my father knew, from the paradise bird, bird of wonder, stormy petrel, fly bird, lyre bird and death bird to the mundane chickens. My father stops in front of the next cage and thoroughly scans it with a knowing attitude. All of a sudden, he tenses up and then he stays still as a rock, barely breathing as if not believing his eyes, muted with wonder. I close in to see and what my eyes behold surpasses any imagination. Inside there is a formidable animal with an eagle’s head and the body of a lion. I ask my father what it is and he, leaning down, whispers:
– It’s a Griffon.
On the plate says that the Griffon is part of the winged monsters class and that they symbolize at the same time the mystical ecstasy and the power of belief. The following words: “winged monsters class” sounds like the words of a promise. I tremble with excitement and I pull my father’s sleeve but he makes no move, sitting like a statue.
I remember he was looking in the cage with such happiness as if he had discovered the welcomed error in the Making’s matrix. The impossibility of the Griffon’s existence made him hope in the existence of other mistakes of the Creation, but on the other side this made him hope in the existence of free will. The light of the afternoon became then more metallic, a sure sign that rain was not far behind but my father didn’t seem to pay any attention to it and he went on admiring the magnificent display out of his personal mythology. He was in a sort of mystic ecstasy, something the long ago patriarchs must have known only when they has angelic visions, only that my father searched for the errors of the Creations and not its wonders, because through errors he could set himself free from the terror of reality. Where other parents showed their children only snakes and crocodiles, he saw dragons with rainbow-hued wings or the dreadful sight of a basilisk. Where visitors gathered around the cage of the lion, my father searched the truth and showed me the sphinx with a woman’s head and the body of a lion. Where there was a wolf, he showed me a werewolf or a loup garou. Where a coyote was menacingly showing his teeth, we admired a Cerberus with three heads, out of which only one was sitting quietly. He was so enthusiastic about what he was seeing that to the child from those times it was near impossible to resist them. He made me see an Uroboros snake forever swallowing the tip of his tail, the elephant which predicted the birth of Buddha, the behemoth and the satyr, centaurs and the minotaur, the harpies and hippogriffs. I saw everything that went on in my father’s head, captured by the frenzy of evocation of the most impossible creatures. He was drifting away like a demiurgic impetus like a scribe who, in a scribendi furore, scribbles down the words on a sheet of paper without caring about their meaning or if they match. He was unstoppable.
A while later, we ended up in front of a cage with staying rods so further apart from each other that any beast could have come in and out, on its free will. Actually they were so further apart that they didn’t seem there. Inside there was the strangest monster that my father’s imagination could conceive: a chimera with a lion’s head, the body of a goat and a snake’s tail. Out of its mouth, the lion was spitting fire which my father used to light up another cigarette. I was so frightened that that terrible monster could have gotten out of its cage, but my father assured me that there was no danger. The chimera, he said, is the only animal that doubts its own existence. And because of that we don’t even have to cage it like we do with the other animals, because, although it seems terrible, it’s completely harmless. The chimera is so preoccupied by its own existence that this takes up the whole of its time, forcing it to always live at the border of existence and non-existence. His words have stuck with me up to this day that I often wonder that, if in my adult life, I had not become, in my turn, a sort of chimera. But back then I looked at my father as a sort of scientist doubled by a gifted magician. I trembled with delight and I wished we never left that place, even though small and cold rain drops started to fall slowly. My father coughed annoyed a couple of times because he didn’t like smoking in the damp air and he took me by the shoulders. We started hurriedly towards the ponies and winged horses’ paddock. The place was surrounded by a willow fence, interrupted by a small booth where the ticket seller for riding sessions stood. The booth was as small as if constructed by a dwarf, and father told me that it was for a jockey, and that all great jockeys are small in size. And then he laughed by himself as if he heard a good joke and he had a puffed at his cigarette. I didn’t know which pony to choose… the black one, no, the white one with a star on its forehead.
– But that is not the way you chose a horse… pick a skeletal nag, the thinnest and the most downcast because that is the magic horse, said my father.
He was right. I saw with my own eyes how a tray of embers was placed in front of a nag. As the nag was swallowing the embers, its hide was getting smoother, its mane was growing in silky waves and wing buds were growing out of its back into a giant pair and it flapped them, whining happily.
– What’s its name? I shout at the keeper.
– Burak, came the answer from the man who was not in such a mood for conversation due to the rain that had started.
– Burak is the horse on which the Profet Mohamed flew up to the Sky and came back with the Koran, said my father. The Muslim worshipers also call it the Book, Al Kitab, he said, crushing the cigarette bud under its foot.
That was the only time during that day that I felt my father had become sad. While we were heading towards the exit I saw terrified how his imagination was populating that space, under the impression of a mood once altered by an unwelcomed thought, with creatures less successful than the present ones, almost hideous if I had taken the time to study them closely. But we hurried towards the gate, and then, on our left, towards the Baneasa forest, until we found our car which seemed, like never before, like a safe haven.
– I’m as famished as a canis lupus, he said. And you?
– As a werewolf.
All the way back home he did not say another word. In front of the house, he lighted his cigarette the other way around. He tried to smoke it but he realized it on time and he threw it away, annoyed, and crushed it under his sole. We stared for a while at the tobacco filling scattered in a puddle until mother called us in to eat.