The crowd was thinning more and more. Its excess, draining somewhere in the distance, had suddenly taken along those on duty as well, and the town seemed large and empty.
On her way to the station, especially in the morning, Laura found the boulevard deserted and sad. With the men gone, life had lost its dual purpose: the pursuit of love and money. All that was left was the need to survive.
Often, down the broad alley lined with withered chestnut trees, a small child would stand in the middle of the road having wandered off from his back yard, on one of the little streets that poured out of the boulevard towards the railway gate.
He'd stand there naked, sunburnt, dumb and unaware, with his thin hair and his swollen belly, his skinny, crooked legs propped apart in the dusty street. He didn't please the eye with his childish frailty; didn't offend with his daft impunity; didn't invite compassionate thoughts of motherhood and mourning. In the sordid emptiness of the street he looked like the last catastrophe survivor on an island whose inhabitants had perished, forgotten there for the slow resurrection of the lost tribe. An anatomical morsel, a hurried and barbaric blueprint for the grave necessities of the future.
Dismal trains now passed through the station, with carriages open to sun and rain, chockfull of furniture and, next to it, refugees.
Decent people, chased away at the last moment by the fear of the invasion, grabbed as much as they could carry. In their house or street clothes, as immediate chaos or notions strangely twisted by the turmoil of the new circumstance had dictated, they formed long convoys hauled along by once retired locomotives, toothless dragons. Makeshift transport obtained not without sacrifice, the carriages paraded slowly and grotesquely, like a travelling circus.
At times, someone in the station would recognize a friend or a relative—Is that you?. . .What's new in T.J.? Is it under occupation?
Bad news there. Here, in the town not yet surrounded by the enemy, the refugees seemed to regain a perspective they had lost in the face of danger, and appeared ashamed of their humiliating adventure.
People would hear stories about the various stages of the evacuation—each with its own misery— and the immediate contact with those travelling misfortunes gave them a better idea of the collective devastation. In this way, the obsessive cycle of events intensified.
One day, through the rain that poured down the streets like a dense network of diagonal lines that had turned even the sand of the embankment to mud, Laura noticed, amidst such a convoy, a young woman in a white, organdy suit, wearing a white hat, and white gloves, stockings and shoes, who must have fled the provincial elegance of Caracal during a sunny stroll. She hopped gracefully from puddle to puddle and reached the platform like a shipwrecked roll of white cotton, wiping, with her wet suede gloves, her antelope leather shoes ravaged by the mud.
By what absurd or ironic turn of events had she decided on these clothes as her exile and hardship outfit was difficult to explain, but also difficult to accept.
"Madame took a little water," laughed the poor soldier whose wound Laura was dressing and who, just a little while ago, frowning, had complained of pain. Happy breed of people, the Romanians! Good stock!
"Let the flood take her," Laura thought, a little hurt in her feminine pride.
At times the carriages revealed whole rooms laid out exactly as they'd been in the house with the little garden, left behind in some small town. A housewife in a n�glig�e made after-dinner coffee on a hot plate, like a character on the revolving stage of a travelling town, while the captain, in shirtsleeves and suspenders, watched.
Usually, the military families benefited from these comfortable relocations. Orderlies helped dry the dishes while children ran around, in everyone's way. These trains didn't have a fixed schedule. They crawled from station to station unloading their cargo gradually, as needed.
From the train windows, one could see endless rows of cars that wore down the muddy roads, followed eagerly by long lines of people on foot carrying bags and anything else they'd managed to gather together, their most prized possessions. They were travelling up north, driven by the fear of future sorrows, or perhaps, by the impulse of freedom.
Obsessive rumors one couldn't ignore circulated, that the ditches along the roads from Bucharest to F. were full of the bodies of exhausted travellers.
The troubles of the refugees on the trains touched Laura so deeply she felt she had lived through them herself. Such misery carried a profound understanding of similar suffering everywhere, but this version, the horrible image of the dead along the road, was not yet real for her. But she was soon to experience the horror and despair that accompanied the storm, and people's cruelty towards each other in the face of a ruthless destiny.
One brutally cold morning, Laura arrived later than usual and kept on her gray coat, her large gray hat. There was nothing to do at the infirmary, and she didn't feel like knitting. She looked like someone ready to leave or receive a visit . . . But where could she go? Who would come by? She didn't know. It wasn't a distinct wish either—she wasn't thinking of anything or anybody in particular. Still, she was waiting for somebody, and someone was waiting for her. Not here, in her well-ordered life. Beyond its boundaries.
She wasn't sad today, as the times and her own mood often dictated. A message had reached her from the obscurity of the unknown; the future was sending her a sign she could not yet decipher.
There was a small mirror in the infirmary. The same mirror that had reflected the strange, pale, lifeless face of a nurse, her own face, on the evening of her first encounter with the Dragon. She looked in the mirror. Today her cheeks were powdered with the bright and rosy blush that only cold can summon. She felt like singing, but her voice, overwhelmed, unused to such a strange request, lost its melodic path.
She thought she might prepare a sublimate solution for the infirmary—she'd run out. She walked briskly by the steamed-up windows of the ruined waiting rooms crammed with restless crowds. In the glass, she caught a glimpse of her old silhouette and was surprised. She had forgotten about it. She thought her figure would reflect the tiredness of her soul.
Cheerful as never before, she entered the restaurant to ask for some hot water from the boiling samovar. The owners were good people. She admired them for their hard work and their honesty. Their children were diligent students who did their homework at the counter, amidst the daily bustle of commerce.
She: a tall, statuesque woman with distinguished features and expensive tastes. He: a small Greek man, scrawny, gentle and awkward, humble in her presence, burdened by the happiness of such a union and his daily hardships. They had two beautiful daughters, very proud and well-behaved.
The woman had told Laura her story. She was the farmer's daughter, brought up in boarding schools, with piano and French lessons. He was the bailiff.
A great love affair! They got married without her parents' consent and they'd cut her off without a penny, but she'd been happy and never regretted a thing. Happiness is so relative, and it relies so little on appearances.
The hero whose seduction had succeeded was a simple man, humble and poor, and happiness had settled behind that damp counter. An illusion or an unexplained mystery.
So much the better if there still were happy people in the world to prove true the doubtful myth of love in poverty.
As usual, Laura walked through the restaurant without glancing at the crammed tables, all taken. Acquaintances or complete strangers, nobody mattered unless they revealed a preoccupation with the war.
As she waited for the hot water she glanced around, absent-mindedly. Her attention was drawn by a strange group. In a corner, at a table, between the wall and the busy entrance, three people sat slumped on chairs in a state of drowsy weariness, stronger than any sense of place or time: a man, two women—their clothes crumpled and worn—and two small children in equally absurd poses, oblivious to the presence of those around them.
They were surrounded by torn boxes, old trunks, bundles—a sad picture of dismal exile.
Suddenly their faces seemed familiar. She did recognize them: they were friends, important people—Mrs. Damian and her husband, his sister and her children whose names Laura knew.
She started towards them, but the air of misery that isolated them from the rest of the world stopped her.
They saw and heard nothing, slept with their eyes wide open, dropped on those chairs by chance, like victims of a shipwreck.
Mrs. Damian sat on a chair placed in everyone's way, with her back to the table and the leg of the rickety chair, which she didn't bother to level out, caught in a bag. Exhausted, her husband sat on the edge of his chair rocking back and forth, like a drunk, pushing the back of another chair with his knees, absent-mindedly, not at all bothered by that unnatural pose.
The children were bundled up in their winter coats, with scarves tied over their caps.
What could have happened to those people? They seemed out of place even in those unusual circumstances. They looked like lunatics escaped from an asylum.
She reached out to them as she would to any people in need:
"What happened?" she asked cautiously. Only the sister-in-law answered.
The others didn't seem to notice her.
"We left in a hurry . . . The Germans were coming . . . the cannons . . ."
She stopped as if trying to remember the real reasons for their departure.
"Parts of the town were on fire . . . we decided to stay . . . but one day, around noon, Iancu came running and told us to leave . . . there was room in the prefect's carriage . . . couldn't pass up the chance . . . we barely made it to the train . . . Iancu was so anxious . . ."
Mr. Damian got up and passed a hand over his forehead.
"The children were sick . . . came down with diphtheria . . . Lambkin was in bed . . . I had to carry her . . . she got worse . . ."
"Where's Lambkin now?"
"She died on the train . . . she suffocated . . . the others had children too . . . protested . . . wanted us to get off, so we had to . . ."
"They threw her off the train . . . in a ditch . . . that's all!" the father said in a hoarse voice.
The mother hadn't moved. The sister-in-law bent over the children and tightened their scarves.
"How dreadful! . . . And what are you going to do now?"
No question about it, these people were in need of charity. She couldn't leave them there with sick children dozing on top of luggage.
"We want to stay here! This town is not under occupation!" Mr. Damian said with the same stubbornness that had precipitated their fatal flight and caused the death of his little girl. Caught in the sickly daze that surrounded him, he seemed to lack the clear conscience of his responsibilities.
Laura offered to be their guide. She changed the tone of the conversation, tried to refocus their interests on their social status—a detail they had forgotten in the brutal transition from man to beast.
She talked to them as a friend ready to show them around town. It was at that point that Mr. Damian took off his hat, thanked her and, regaining some of his old composure, placed himself entirely in her hands. Laura avoided the mother skilfully, sensing the potential danger. She felt the woman wasn't ready for contact. She was like an abscess. Little by little, the damaged tissue was going to heal itself, but for now, she was on the edge of insanity, rocking back and forth, ready to fall in.
It took Laura a while to have the child admitted into the civilian hospital. She found a cab for the father and the sick child—a huge accomplishment—and set out on foot with the others.
Next to Father Cristea's house there was a new corner building, a small tavern with two clean rooms upstairs, but the place had gone out of business, and the merchant—a nice old man with a wife—was renting out the rooms. They were Laura's neighbors and she visited from time to time.
Mrs. Damian was now working feverishly in the house. Everything was so difficult! An exaggerated labor her body demanded in an attempt to regain its equilibrium and avoid the workings of her mind and soul.
The catastrophe that had left her homeless and had killed her child had instilled in her a sense of malice, a new hatred against all those who surrounded her, triggered by the smallest things.
She wouldn't talk to anyone about the tragedy, not even her husband. She didn't consider the terrible dilemma of hate and responsibility. He, like a maniac, shut himself inside the idea of refuge like a fortress; he persevered in listing the dangers they had avoided by leaving; he made strategic plans he never abandoned for fear he might be confronted with the barbarity of his infanticidal conscience.
The two of them were still united in the concern for the sick child, the threat of the imminent invasion, and the hardships of exile. But they fought often, with obstinate hatred, over small things. These terrifying confrontations allowed a glimpse into the silent, tenebrous, dark abyss that had swallowed Lambkin.
She had never heard them complain about people's cruelty, about the friends who had accompanied them and who had turned judge, jury and executioner.
They didn't regard those people, like Laura, from the outsider's point of view, but from within, from the feverish core of the clash.
Laura was obsessed with the image of that cruel deed . . . How could it have happened? What words had been exchanged? What did the mother say, do? What did she feel when the child died? . . . and later . . . when they threw her body off the train . . . that image!. . .
The questions kept reality at a distance. What had happened was unimaginable. Why didn't they get off at the next station to bury her?
The sister-in-law told her the quick story: they'd kept the child's illness a secret. When she suffocated and died suddenly, the mother didn't cry. She called her husband and they talked, quietly. They sat by her side as if she'd still been alive—they were hoping to get to F. with the dead child. But the others found out. There had been a brief, furious mutiny. The train was in motion. Because they'd been lied to, exposed to danger, they refused to wait. Their survival instinct prevailed and, after reckoning that the dead are no longer useful and the living have to be protected, they threw the tiny, useless body off the train.
And the parents didn't protest? They too had watched and plotted. The times unleashed in all of them the same dormant instincts of survival and attack.
The dragon with poisoned breath upsets the order of the world. Instead of a final tribute, instead of the respect, the self-abandonment the living feel before their beloved dead, the selfishness stirred by the war had taught them to scheme and plot their flight and salvation.
Even the parents, in the darkest corners of their souls, must have thought: we must save ourselves!
Having reached the first station, the executioners must have regarded one another with the complicitous look of criminals; they must have turned to their victims who licked their wounds like defeated beasts.
Then, the grim court of law must have regained its righteousness, the selfishness that loves even its sins. That was the selfishness the father displayed now.
That's how it had happened. Then they had gotten off at F. as Mr. Damian, in his role of husband and father, had decided. That's when Laura found them, like victims of a shipwreck washed ashore.
Laura didn't know how to judge their behaviour either. Against the backdrop of the stormy ocean somebody had shouted, "Man overboard!" Only there, the ceremony would have been more dignified, the grave more grandiose, the gentle journey into the abyss more compassionate.
The ditch felt too close, the ground too shallow, too public. The dogs! The crows!
Laura tortured her imagination because she felt like an outsider, but there, inside the turmoil, the spasms of the imagination disappeared and an elementary notion prevailed: the dead and the living!
How much things had changed since a soldier and his girl, oblivious of the world, had braved social decorum on the platform alive with departures! The frightened dragon swallows up everything the genius of man has fought for. All the principles of social morality, all the harmonious instincts built upon the basic one.
Beast! Hideous beast! Who will sever its monstrous heads which keep growing back?
War! Now every man was a soldier and every place a battle field. The enemy was waiting somewhere in the shadows, his thoughts and movements turned to battle, the world ruled by carnage.
Lambkin was a casualty of war, a soldier fallen in the field, during the attack, and left behind, because the duty that marches the others forward is governed by strict laws. A little soldier left there for dogs and crows, with a white apron on which to pin a new toy, a small cross with a green ribbon.
Laura tried to remember Lambkin's face and couldn't. Instead, she saw her own reflection in the shop window, gray and lively. That day she was filled with an absurd joy.
Misery had touched her soul in vain; in vain had the dragon disgorged the bodies of women and children from its greedy entrails. Terrifying fatalities and merciless disaster surrounded her in vain. She smiled at the gray reflection in the window. She remembered her true being, not from a past filtered through self-denial, but from the way she used to feel before.
Where did it come from? From far away, from across and beyond the trenches of time, where life began anew. But that distant, future joy touched her now, and her spirits were lifted by an unseen presence.
Streets! Air! Laura looked towards the small, transfigured, place. The boulevard opened up secretly, lined with golden chestnut trees. She passed a large, white house with blue window trim. That place! The life that will house the future.
The Dragon's heads will weaken and, one day, the reign of human genius will no longer face its bloody enemy. There will be Peace! Peace and Love!
Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu is one of the most important Romanian authors of the first half of the twentieth century. She was thirty-six when her first published work appeared in the Bucharest-based French literary journal La Politique, under the pseudonym Loys. In 1913 she began to contribute poems and stories to the literary magazine Viata Româneasca (Romanian Life) in Iasi. In 1926 Papadat-Bengescu published her first major novel, Fecioarele despletite. In 1936 she was awarded the Grand National prize of the Society of the Romanian Writers, and in 1946 she received the national prize for prose. She died in 1955 after a long illness.
Dayana Stetco is an associate professor in the department of English the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her book Seducing Velasquez and Other Plays was released by Ahadada Books in 2009. Her plays have been produced in the U.S., her native country, Romania, and the U.K., and her fiction, plays, and translations have appeared in many journals. In 2001 she founded the interdisciplinary theater ensemble The Milena Group.