by Ștefan Bolea
translation from Romanian by A.C. Clarke and Alina-Olimpia Miron
Another day, as dark as invisible ink on black paper or the shadow that lurks in the mirror after one’s features have faded from view. Horatio went out to return some books to the British Council and it looked as if all his fellow townsmen were aiming to compete with Tod Browning’s Freaks, though perhaps not openly. Horatio said to himself ‘perhaps not openly’ as it wasn’t clear whether everything was in his head, whether, in other words, his inner world was messed up or whether this was actually real. There was something drooling and insistent about people, like invalids who seem to want to blame you for their infirmities. Watching them, Horatio thought he could be looking at a carnival of madmen from the middle ages. Nevertheless, there was nothing really out of the ordinary in their behaviour: they were the same pensioners whining for the sacks of food offered by OTV1, the same greasy, unshaven and sleazy day labourers cadging a cig in false humility or, by contrast, the so-called gentlemen with their sheer arrogance, who seemed to be saying “My tombstone will say Pr. Dr. Eng. Pedrescu and my epitaph will be in Latin.” A stark arrogance which proclaimed that, in their eyes, the battle had already been lost.
The day had something unusual in it, even though it seemed the same as any other day. On the one hand, Horatio was used to urban toing-and-froing and to the sheer aimlessness that directed the crowds with an almost mathematical precision. Everyone seemed to be carrying a briefcase, speeding towards an unknown destination. Where to? Nobody knew… On the other hand, the young man felt the all too familiar (to him) symptoms of a panic attack which he tried to counter by rationalising his growing inner turmoil. “What am I so afraid of? If I get angry, I’ll thwack everyone, just like Beethoven with his cane!” Apart from the fact that tachycardia is extremely irksome (instead of a heart you feel like you have a butterfly with 50,000 wings flapping inside you), he felt a raven’s claw grab his neck, then dig into his larynx and drill a hole in it so he could breathe. “That’s it! Breathe through your nose! Slowly count to 10, then pause and then count again from 1, as Zen monks do.” The breathing trick worked for a while, until he arrived at the British Council. He returned the books, looked around a bit and decided not to borrow anything.
When he was out in the street, anxiety seized him yet again. Nightfall proved no comfort to his state of mind. “They have it in for me, they want to kill me…” he heard himself think. They’re all talking about me and they know who I am. They all know me, they even know these thoughts. My thoughts. Nothing belongs to me anymore”, he went on. Although he realized that only a tiny fraction of these thoughts was likely to be true, he couldn’t help voicing his real fears, however deluded they were. “I have to hurry home”. He searched his pockets. “Where’s that Xanax when you really need it?”… Once he reached the boulevard, something in people’s mood seemed irretrievably altered. Horatio was aware his perception was probably affected by his heightened anxiety, as it hit a deeper level, but … was that really the case?
Besides, his fellow townsmen seemed more aggressive, often elbowing him aside or throwing him hostile looks. Usually, when this happened in reality, adrenaline would take over and the young man would try to overcome a fundamental contempt and to “elbow his way”, like Cătălin2 or the ill-favoured wanderer who, to be blunt, had Darwinian skills and would have got by in any type of jungle. Now he felt powerless, as if his hands were tied, as if a voodoo quack had him on a leash and were walking him around, calling “Here, boy, here. Good boy! No, no, don’t do that, you idiot!” It was crystal-clear: the world was looking at him with hatred, a hatred stemming from the simple, normal man’s feeling of solidarity when faced with a lunatic, a hatred confirmed by thousands of chains whipping his face. “This time I’m really going insane. Perhaps a word should be invented for madness after madness”, the man said to himself, allowing himself a philological diversion once he had arrived in Matei3, right next to the cathedral. He probably realized that anxiety is multi-layered, but what comes next when you keep on going down?
Troubled by his horrible state of mind, but even more by the staggering metamorphosis of the crowds, Horatio thought he should hurry home. He went past Sora4, towards Mărăşti5, on 21 decembrie6, which, surprisingly, wasn’t that busy. An old lady with a kind face was as close as possible to smacking him with her handbag. The boy had overheard her talking to her partner: “Awful…awful drunkenness”. – “This isn’t drunkenness, dear, it’s something much worse…” Somebody threw a flower pot from a balcony. It landed right in front of him. When he looked up, he saw only a curtain fluttering. “Curfew, I don’t think I’m going to reach home”, he whispered. He sheared off to Iuliu Maniu7, an almost deserted street, thinking he was more or less safe, “unless the elements themselves start attacking me”.
He calmed down a bit and slowed his pace: it felt as if fear was leaking out of his body in waves. Fear of fear of fear of fear… After the psychological stress he had suffered in the middle of the crowds which seemed to want to lynch him, he now felt something like a crown above his head; as if he had gone through hell and had somehow succeeded in overcoming it. He saw a desolate summer garden in a yard, close to Avram Iancu8 and stopped for a smoke, looking in fascination at the ivy. He didn’t realize how much time had actually passed (he had smoked two, perhaps three cigarettes?), but when he began walking home again, night had already fallen. He was much calmer, almost serene even, and his gait had something light-hearted in it.
Suddenly, he realized he was lost. Here I was supposed to exit Avram Iancu Square, but, hell if I know, it seems as if I’m in Mănăştur9 or in another town. He had heard of senile people getting lost in town, but not of a 25-year-old from Cluj10. “Keep going”, he told himself, “at least out of curiosity”. He seemed to be on a street headed westward, towards Oradea11, in the opposite direction from his destination. “Then I should go back”. After a highly confusing half hour, during which he smoked almost the entire pack and passers-by were either absent or completely indifferent (which allowed him to think the whole incident, except this stupid wandering, had been only a figment of his imagination), he finally got to Iuliu Maniu St. “But that’s where I started off. I can’t figure this out.”
He passed by the bookshop, the electronics store, the summer garden where he had calmed down (and also got lost!) and he arrived in front of the Church in Avram Iancu Square. Utter stupefaction. The entire square was chockfull of people armed with candles (just like those for Easter, but the next day would be the first of November!) and they were all staring right at him. The crowd exhaled a heavy, fetid breath and Horatio stopped dead: in front of him were no people, but demons reincarnated in people. Their eyes were all black, not just the iris, but also the whites and when they grinned, you could see their sharp fangs suppurating with slime. At first, Horatio couldn’t work out the source of the rumbling he heard. But soon he realised that it came from this mass of people, not growling like a pack of wolves, but humming like a swarm of locusts. Suddenly, silence fell. All at once, the eyes of the crowd turned towards the church. Very calm, Horatio took advantage of the fact that the flock of people hadn’t ganged up on him and slowly retreated back to his starting point, the intersection with Maniu. A brief gasp came from the loudspeakers and a smoker’s voice intoned: “We have gathered here, in the heart of the necropolis, in my name. Bring thy offering, brothers”. The masses lifted the candles above their shoulder and sang such a hearty Amen! you could feel the pavement shaking. “In my name”, continued the chain-smoker on a less formal note, “get that bastard!”
The crowd threw down the candles and prepared for the attack, in a frenzy like that of U Cluj12 fans, when they hit CFR13’s goalpost. The young man – his frame of mind quite rational, considering the circumstances – darted from Maniu towards Matei (a route he had become accustomed to). All he could hear behind him was Get him! Smash his face! Bash it in! and the pestilential smell catching up with him seemed to give him wings. He passed Matei, then BCU14 and in a few minutes was in Mănăştur. At one point, he felt a blow to the shoulder and fell to the ground. Another one: “Stand up, you hobo! And get the hell out of here”. He was in the summer garden, where he had spent the night, and the gatekeeper was poking him with a broom: his backpack, wallet, library card were all gone; all he had left was an empty cigarette pack. “I’m going, I’m going”, said Horatio, a bit light-headed, “Give me a cig.” “Haven’t got any”. Cigarette butts lay strewn around him. “Man, what were you smoking here?” “Oh, give me a break” – Horatio cut him short and at last headed for home. It was a sunny, even a hot day for autumn and the cheerful scene seemed to dispel any nightmares. He hastened towards Avram Iancu, failing to notice the gatekeeper’s growl and his pitch black eyes.
1 OTV – is a Romanian TV channel owned by Dan Diaconescu.
2 Cătălin – is a character (a cupbearer) in Mihai Eminescu’s poem, Luceafărul (The Evening Star).
3 Matei (Matei Corvin) – is the central square of Cluj-Napoca.
4 Sora – is a shopping centre in Cluj-Napoca.
5 Mărăşti – is a district in Cluj-Napoca.
6 21 decembrie – is a boulevard in Cluj-Napoca.
7 Iuliu Maniu – is a street in Cluj-Napoca.
8 Avram Iancu – is a square in Cluj-Napoca.
9 Mănăştur – is a district in Cluj-Napoca.
10 Cluj (Cluj-Napoca) – a town in Romania.
11 Oradea – a town in Romania.
12 U (Universitatea) Cluj – is a Romanian professionalfootball club from Cluj-Napoca, founded in 1919 by Iuliu Hațieganu.
13 CFR – is a Romanian professional football club from the city of Cluj-Napoca in Transylvania, Romania (‘CFR’ stands for Căile Ferate Române/ Romanian Railway Network).
14 BCU (Lucian Blaga Central University Library) – is an academic library in Cluj and one of the oldest and most important libraries of its kind in Romania.