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Contents
Augustin
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Poiana
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Iaşi
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GoingHome
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Acknowledgements
ANoteontheAuthor
BytheSameAuthor
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Augustin
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1
Thoughhehasseenphotographsofcitieshehasneverbeeninonebefore.Inthedusk
asthetraincameinitlookedmonochromeasthephotos:blacksmearsofroad,grey
walls,greybuildingsangledacrossthesidesofhills.Thebuildingsappearedsinglyat
first then massed, most of them solid but some hollow so that he could see through
themtotheskyasitdarkened.Betweenthebuildingstherewerethebareoutlinesof
trees – still there were trees – but the forest was gone. He had been sitting with his
backtotheenginesohehadhadasenseofthelandscaperecedingratherthanofthe
cityapproaching.Hehadseenthelandbecomeforest,andthentheforestbecamecity,
andthenheclosedhiseyes.Thatwayhecouldkeepthelandwithhimforlonger.He
heldthememoryofthatlandinhismindandhepicturedhimselfdisappearingintoit,
vertically,notmovinghislimbsbutonlystandinglikeapost,sinkingdownintosome
longbrownfoldbetweenthetracksandthewidehorizon.
Hehadknownallalongthatthetrainwouldnotbestoppingthere.Inlandlikethat
trainsdonotstop.Theyonlypassthroughpouringoutcloudsinribbonsabovethem.
Hehastakenthistrainbecausethisiswherehemeanstocome,tothiscity.
Hedoesnotopenhiseyesagainuntilthelastoftheotherpassengershasgone.The
carriageisquitedifferentnow,devoidofmotion,ahollowspacefilledwithstalegrey
air.Helooksabouthimatthefloorlitteredbythejourney,thebottlestilledatlastthat
hadforsolongrolledbackandforthbesidehisfeet.Theemptinessseemsetchedwith
agrimethatmatchesthatonhisfingertips.Herubsthelengthofeachthinhandonthe
roughclothofhistrousersbutthatdoesnotmakethemanycleaner.
Therearetwoobjectsleftontherackabovehishead:hisrolled-upcoatandasmall
bundle. With an effort he draws himself up, reaches for the coat and puts it on,
knotting the belt where it is far too big for his slight figure, then takes down the
bundle.Hestartstogo.Stoopsasecondbeforethenextrowofseatsandpicksupa
crumpledpaperfromthefloor.Itisalabelfromapacketofbiscuits,ascrapofwaxed
paper printed in yellow. A sunflower, a ring of petals, bright yellow lettering. He
pausestosmooththepaperout,tofolditpreciselyintohalfandhalfagainandputitin
his trouser pocket. Then he goes on to the open door, down the steep steps to the
platform.
Somanypeoplethereareintheworld.Thetracksruntogetherlineuponlineand
people pick their way across the lines or huddle on narrow platforms where they
divide. There are many people going different ways. The passengers from his train,
spilling away along the platform. Others coming from the opposite direction, where
thetrainonthenextlinestandswithsteambuildingreadytoleave.
There is a great hall. Its roof is so high that the people seem small and dark and
animalwithinit.
There are soldiers breaking through the crowd, running. He shrinks back beside a
kiosk. The soldiers must be running after someone. No, they are running after the
steamingtrain.Thepersontheyareaftermustbeonthetrain–orperhaps,possibly,it
isthetrainitselfthattheymustcatch.Theyjumpon.Thelastoneispulledupbythe
armsandtheyaregone.Theyarenotthekindofsoldiersheisusedto.Itissomeyears
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sincehehasseensuchuniforms.Heisgladwhentheyaregonebecausehedoesnot
liketheimagestheybroughtbacktomind.
Hegoesoutfromundertheroof.Thesmellofthecityissootyandbitterasthatof
the station. There is a dark height of sky but no stars, and the people split off in
differentdirections.Heselectsastreetatrandom,walkingalongatthesideofitwith
his shoulder close to the walls. Sometimes the walls break down into rubble and he
huncheslowerandfeelsanurgetoscuttleacrossthespace.Hecomestoacrossing,a
street that goes up a hill. Though he is beginning to wheeze with the effort, some
instinctmakeshimchoosetoclimb.Hecomestoamonumentalflightofsteps,starts
uponestepatatime.Halfwayhestopstorest.Nopeoplehere.Hedropshisbundle
andsits,hollowwithfatigue,holdingwithonehandthecoldstoneofthebalustrade.
Acoughrisesinhim.Hetriesnottocoughbecauseheknowsthatitwillhurt.After
hehastriedtoholditdownthecoughwhenitcomeshacksathimallthemore.
Hestandsagain,bendingslowlybackdownforhisbundle.Whenhereachesthetop
ofthestepsheisstillinthecity.Ifanythingheseemstobedeeperintoitsincethe
buildingsarelargerandmoreimposing,theairascoarse,thestarsashidden.Streets
fanoutbeforehim.Oncemoreheselectstheonethatcontinuesmosttorise,asifin
climbing he will find more to breathe. And here he seems to be right in his choice.
Thiswaytherearebigbuildingsbutclearspacesbetweenthem,openingsforcarsto
be parked or people to walk, grass and sometimes trees. It is good to step on to the
softnessofturf,ontorottedlayersofanotheryear’sleaves.Hefindsabenchandlays
himself down with the bundle beneath his head. Tomorrow he will start his search.
Whenitislighthewillwriteouthernameandgetoneofallthosepeopletoshowhim
wherehemightfindher.Hepullshiscoattightabouthim.Hedoesnotsomuchsleep
as fall into a suspended state, body and breathing slowing, time fading, like a small
creaturechillingforhibernation,thechillbrokenatpointsthroughthenightbyfitsof
coughingthatcomewithaninternalsearingheatbutmakehisouterbodyshiver.
Consciousness returns with the dawn, with a vague yellow streak in the sky that his
eyescatchlikeahope.
Withdeliberateeffort,asifitweresomeobjectapartfromhimself,heliftshisbody
toanuprightpositiononthebench.Justashedoessoagirlwalksbeforehim.Thegirl
wearsadarkcoat,anurse’swhitecap.Sheappearstolookhiswayforjustasecondas
hemoves.Hehasonlyaglimpseofherbutheretainstheimage:aglowtoher,the
longeyesofanangel.
Isshereal?Ifsheisreal,thendidshenotseehim?Hehasthefeelingthatshedid
notsomuchasseehim.Ifshehadseenhimhereyeswouldhaveshownitsomehow.
Shemighthavecometohimwithcareinhereyes,lipsmoving.Orshemight,seeing
him,haverunaway.Perhapsnobodyinthiscitycanseehim.Perhapshecannolonger
beseen.Perhapsthatiswhatthisnumbnessis,thatspreadsrightacrosshisbodyand
intohisbrain.
Athreadofdeterminationpullshimtohisfeet.Hiscoatissoddenwithdew.Sucha
weightofdew.Thecoatwasalwaystoobigandnowitistooheavy.Heuntiesthebelt,
shrugsitoffhim.Itissostiffwiththewetthatitsitsuponthegroundlikesomehalfmeltedfigureofwax.Hefeelslightwithoutitsload.Hedoesnotattempttopickup
hisbundlebutleavesitthereonthebench.Eyestotheground,armsacrosshimself,he
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shufflesthewaytheangelhasgone.
They find him on the steps of the hospital just as the nurses are coming in on their
morningshift.Itisclearbythedampnessofhimthathehasspentthenightoutbutit
mightbeanyone’sguesshowmanypreviousnightshehasspentoutdoors.Certainlyit
does not appear, from the state of him, that he has lived a settled life or even fed
regularlyforalongtime.Heisfrailasafallenbird.Didsomebodybringhimordidhe
find his own way? In these days it is best not to question such things. However the
poormanhasgothere,hehascomejustintime.
Thefirstfewdaystheydonotevenattempttoaskhimwhoheis.Formostofthose
daysheiseitherunconsciousorsofeverishthattheycannotexpecttogetsenseoutof
him. In his delirium he moans and cries out with strange animal cries, covering taut
eyes with hands that seem too big, out of proportion with his emaciated body,
scrabblingbonefingersacrossthesheets.Butthenthefeverpasses.Hishorrorsappear
toabateandgivewaytovacancy.Thenursescometohisbedandseehiseyesopen
andcalmlystaringbeyondthem,wherethereisnomoretoseethanthecracksinthe
paintontheceilingorthemotesinthesunlight.Goodmorning,theysay,orhoware
you today, but his eyes do not budge, as if the ceiling or the motes were of more
interestthantheythemselves.You’relookingbetternow.Youwereinabadwaywhen
you came in. It was touch and go there. We were afraid for you. But he does not
appeartocare,doesnotsomuchasshifthisstaretowardsthem.Where’syourfamily?
Istheresomeonewecancontact?
His clothes were burned because of the lice in them. All that he has left are the
boots he was wearing, holed, broken-laced, the leather worn with his history or
possiblythehistoryofsomeothermanwhohadthembeforehim.Theylookasifthey
were good military boots once but this man does not look like a soldier. He carried
nothingelsethatcouldtellthemanythingabouthimbutonlyanumberofpiecesof
paperfoldedintoatrouserpocket.
ItwasthewardsisterAdrianawhosupervisedhisadmission.Whenshefoundthe
paperstheyweresoneatlyfoldedandbundledthatshethoughtatfirstthattheymust
havesomevalue,asiftheyweremoneyorletters.Butwhensheopenedthemshesaw
thattheywerenothing–nomorethanoldticketsandlabelsandtornscraps–soshe
threw them away. In the other trouser pocket she found an acorn and a purulent rag
thathehadusedforahandkerchief.That,too,wasnicelyfolded,eventhoughitwas
gummed together with phlegm. The handkerchief was the first thing to go into the
incinerator.Theacornsheputdownontothedutydesk.
Adrianahadcompletedthedetailsonhisadmissionformasbestshecould.Name:
unknown. Address: unknown. Comments: carries no identification documents. No
possessions, not even a coat. Date of birth? Hard to tell when a man was in his
condition,butayoungmanstill.Bythethingsinhispocketsshewouldthinkhimonly
a boy. She rolled the acorn beneath her fingers. Recalled the pockets of her son’s
trouserswhenhewaseightorten:howwhenshedidthewashingshewouldturnthe
pocketsout,theintimacyoftheactionlikefeelingintoaburrow;andtheniftherewas
anythingthatmatteredshewouldputitdownbesidetherestofthelaundryandtrynot
toforgettogiveitback.
Adriana stops beside his bed when she passes on her round. He is asleep, wheezing
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softlybutbreathingbetterthanhehasindays.Orperhapsheisnotasleep,orhehas
beenwokenbyherpresencesocloseby.Heopenshiseyesandlooksather.
‘Canyoutellmeyourname?’
‘Doyouhaveamothersomewhere?’
‘Don’tyouthinkyoucouldeataspotoflunchtoday?’
Bythelookinhiseyesshethinksthatheunderstandsyethemakesnoattemptto
speak. He seems to watch and yet his lips are clamped tight as if they were only
paintedonhisface.
Thismanwillbeabouttheageofherson.Shehasseenhisbodyasoncesheusedto
seeherson’s,everyinchofit.Twoofthemhadwashedhimafterhecamein,when
she was showing a student nurse how to wash a man. They had shaved him and
disinfectedhimoflice.Thenwithsoapandwatertheyhadgentlyspongedhisneck,
his chest, his back, his crotch, his frail limbs one by one, as if he were a baby or a
corpse.Histhinnesswaspitiful.Thereweresoresandbruisesonhim,butthesewere
superficialmarksthatwouldhealbeforelonganddisappear.Nowhereonhisbodywas
thereascar.Shehadnoticedthat.Thathasbeenararethingforher,inherprofession,
toseeayoungmanwhohasgotthroughallofthewarandtheseyearsafterwithout
onescar.
Ifshehadtime,shethinks,iftherewerenotsomanyheredemandingherattention,
shewouldsitonthebedbyhisfeetandtalktohimawhilesothathegotusedtoher
voice,andgivehimtimetotalktoher.
‘Tellmeifyouneedanything,won’tyou?I’llbebacklater.’
Atleastshehasmadetheofferbutheisquitemotionless.Shecannotpicturehim
askingforanything.
Sheputsherhandontohis.Reallyheislikeaboythere,huddledonhissideasthey
hadlaidhiminthenarrowbed.
WhenitishernightshiftAdrianasitsatherdeskandknits.Thereisenoughlightto
knitbybutnomore.Sometimeswhenshecomesintothiswardatnightshefeelsthat
theairisheavywithdiseasedbreath,asifitisthesickthemselveswhoarethesource
of darkness; as if that is what they exhale when they cough and even when they lie
still,thedarkexhaustfromusedbodies.Sometimestherearepatientswhodieinthe
night, quietly, their souls slipping away in the darkness with their breath. She finds
them after dawn. Thin light penetrates through the half-curtained windows, and the
atmosphere in the ward seems to thin with it like an escaping mist, and she finds a
bodylaidoutwithafacepaleaspaper.
Thisnightthestillnesshasbeenbrokenbytheyoungman’snightmares.Everynow
andthenshefeelsshemustgotohim.Sheputsdownherwoolandneedlesandgoes
to calm him with soothing words and with a cool touch on his brow that seems to
soothebetterthananywords.Thecrieshemakesinhissleepsoundtoherlikemoans
fromatimebeforespeech.Theyresemblenolanguagethatshecanunderstand.
Anideacomestoher.
Inthemorningattheendofhershiftshestopsatthedoctor’sofficealongthecorridor.
Thedoctorhasjustcomein,astoutmantrimandfreshlyshaven,puttingonhiswhite
coat.
‘Themaninbednumber43,theonewhodoesnotspeak–’
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‘What about him?’ The doctor has a thousand things to see to: the sick that he
alreadyknows,afailedsuicide,newadmissionsundiagnosed.
‘Doyouthinkhecouldbemute?’
‘It’s possible. I wouldn’t know.’ If it is so, it is not his sphere. Not a medical
condition.
Thereisanursestandingatthedoor.Sheisanewnursehere.Sheisslight,dark,
young, and yet she says that she has been a nurse since the start of the war. That is
hardtobelieveassheseemsjustagirl.
‘Excusemeforinterrupting.Icouldn’thelpoverhearingwhatyousaidjustthen.I
havenotseenthisman.Iwonder,ifheisamute,mightIperhapsgoandseehim?I
mighthelp,perhaps.Ihavesomeexperienceyouseeofmutes.’
WhenSaftagoestothewardsheiscarryingsomeblanksheetsofpaperandapencil.
‘Whatarethosefor?’Adrianaasksher.
‘Incasehecanwrite.Hasanyonetriedtoseeifhecanwrite?’
‘Shouldn’tthinkso.’
‘Ordraw.Hemightliketodraw.’
Sheputsonamask.Shehasnotbeenintothiswardbefore.Itisonthesouthsideof
the hospital and long. A long high cold white room, the light in it like chalk on a
winter’sday.Achillyordertothisward,moreorderthanshehasseenelsewhereinthe
hospital. There are no visitors here, no milling about, no patients sharing beds, only
herselfinwhitegownandmaskwalkingdownthelinelookingatthenumbersonthe
metalframes.
Hisbedisagainstthewallfacingtheopenwindows.Heiscurledononesidewith
hisbacktohersothatshemustgoroundtoseehisface.Somehowitdoesnotsurprise
herthatsheknowsit.Itisnolessthanshehadexpected.Shehadcomeonanimpulse,
becauseasshesaidshehadonceknownamute,butalsooutofakindofsuperstition
thatshewouldbarelyhaveadmittedeventoherself.Shestandsaminutelooking.His
face is known to her though it is so long since she saw it last. Not a muscle in it
moves.Itisthin,awfullythin,likethestrippedskulloftheboysheusedtoknow.His
eyes are closed, either because he is asleep or because he has chosen to cut out the
world. How complete the blackness must be when a deaf man closes his eyes. The
worldexiststhenonlybytouchandsmell:thesmellofthehospitalthattellshimwhat
kindofplaceheisin;hershadowfallingonhim;herfingernowsolightlytouching
thehandthatclaspstheedgeofthesheet.
Heopenshiseyesbutthereisnosigninthemthatheremembersher.
Ofcoursehewillnotknowherinthemask.Shetakesitoff,placesitinherapron.
Thenshebendsandtakeshishandclosetoherlips.‘Tinu,’shesays,speakingalmost
withoutsound,thelongsecondsyllableablowingofairacrosshisskin.
Thereisnosignthatheknowshisname.
‘Ican’tstaywithyoulong.Ihaveworktodo.I’llcomeback.ButI’vebroughtyou
these.’Sheputsthepencilandthepaperonthelockerbesidehisbed.
‘Maybeyou’renotwellenoughyet,butI’vebroughtthemanyway.’
Sheensuresthatherfaceisinfullviewallthetimeshespeaks.
‘I’llcomebacklaterifIcan,ortomorrow.’
Whensheleavesthewardshefeelsthewhitenessoftheroomstillinsideher,asif
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sheisbleachedoutinside.Itistheshock,shetellsherself.Shefeelsthewhitenesslike
adamholdingbackallthecolouredfloodofmemory.Shewalksdowntheflightsof
stairs,oneaftertheother,withoutseeingthepeopleonthem.Sheholdsthewhiteness
toher.Outthroughthegatesandontothestreet.
That evening she writes a letter to his mother. She has heard no word about his
mothersinceearlyinthewar.Shedoesnotknowwheretofindhernow,onlythatshe
cannolongerbeatthehouse.Sosheaddressesthelettertothepriest,assumingthatif
Paraschivaisaliveshemustbesomewhereinthevillage.Itisashort,simpleletter,a
practicaladministrativeletterfromanursedirectedtoapriest.Thepriestwillsurely
beabletofindParaschivaandreadherwhatitsays.
Thedoctorplacesthecolddiscofthestethoscopeontheyoungman’schesttolistento
hislungs.Heisthintoanextreme.Hischestliesbareasthatofasmallpluckedbird,
everyboneinitshowing.Butthereisawirystrengththere.Sometimesitislikethat:
thosewhoarethintostartwith,builtlikebirds,haveabetterchanceofrecoverythan
thebiggermen.Theirslighterbodiesseemtohavelessneedforfood.Theyarethus
lessbrokenbythemalnutritionandhavemoreresistancetothedisease.Yes,thisman
istougherthanhelooks.Ifheisrested,andfed,hehasachanceofrecovery,evenif
they cannot get the drugs. The doctor is pleased, rolls back on to his heels, puts the
stethoscopeaway.
Adrianahelpsthepatienttositup.Sheletshimleanforwardontoherasshefirms
up the pillows behind him, in the small of his back and behind his head. Her arm
reachesacrosshischest,hisheadfallstohershoulder,andshesmellsthesournessin
thenapeofhisneck,thehollownessofhimthere.Heisstillsofeeblethatthereisa
longwaytogo.
Whenheisuprightshebringsthefood.Sheplacesthebowlontheblanketandputs
herarmaroundhimasshefeedshim.
Stillhehasmadenoattempttospeak.ThegirlSaftaisprobablyright.Heisamute.
Perhapsheiscompletelydeaf,sincehedoesnotturnwhenshespeakstohimorlook
whenoneoftheotherpatientsinthewardcriesout.Ifheisdeaf,thatwillnotprevent
herfromtalkingtohim.Shetalkstohimallthetimethatsheiswithhim,asifheisa
babythatmustbetalkedtoifitistobecomeattunedtothehumanvoiceandlearnthe
patternsandthesoundsofspeech.Itdoesnotmatterwhatshesaysanymorethanit
would matter what she were to say to a baby that she was feeding. The message is
thereinthetoneofhervoice–orifitisreallyasshethinksandhecannothearher
voice,thenitisinhertouchandhermanner,intheshapesmadebyherlipsandthe
warmbreathfromthemsocloseuponhischeek.
‘Youshouldhaveaname.Westilldonothaveanameforyou.MayIcallyouby
myson’sname,wouldthatbeallright?Iamsurethathewouldnotmind.Hewould
notmindsharinghisnamewithyou.Hewouldnotmindatall.Yes,I’llcallyouIoan
like my son. It’s a plain, true name. There are lots of Ioans. Perhaps you were even
called Ioan before? Wherever you were. Whoever you were with. Wouldn’t that be
strange,ifyouwereIoanbeforeandthenwenamedyouthatagain?’
She is talking rubbish, she knows that. But she is speaking softly. Even from the
nextbeditwouldsoundasnomorethanamurmur.Andthepatientisgonenowfrom
the bed on the other side. He has pushed aside his lunch and shuffled off to roll a
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