An Armchair Floated by…(Part 1)
The recent flooding of our quaint and romantic Main Street in Ellicott City, reminded me of a short story I wrote forty years ago in Romania. I am presenting it here in its English translation in two parts (the first one today, and the second next Monday). The collection of short stories in which it appeared in Romania was called One Morning and One Afternoon. Included with the second part will be a picture of the river described in the short story.
The flooding began in the north of the country. The water ran furiously, dislodging boulders and knocking down tree trunks. I saw images of the affected areas on TV. One sequence showed a woman holding up her baby as she crossed a waist high brown torrent. An armchair floated by, a black crow perched on it.
The next day panic started in the city. People spoke loudly and one could distinguish the concern on their faces. For now, the events were still far away, and only those with relatives in the north had an immediate reason to worry. They filled the post offices and the railroad stations. The trains started experiencing delays, and when they came, they were overcrowded.
In school, we listened to news broadcasts over the loudspeakers, although our own comments often seemed more authentic and interesting. Somebody announced that the Youth Party Cell was looking for volunteers to travel to the affected areas. The rumor turned out to be false and those who offered to go returned disappointed.
On the way home, the tram traveled along the river. I looked at the puny stream of dirty water flowing though the low riverbed.
Mom was on the phone with Grandma. She was calming her down and assuring her we had enough food in the house to last us for the duration.
“How was school?” she asked me as soon as I came in. She held the receiver away from her ear and I was sure that Grandma could hear me.
“Fine,” I answered. “We wanted to organize teams of volunteers and go over there, but they turned us down.”
“Thanks Goodness,” my mom exclaimed. “That would have been the last thing we needed.”
“People need help,” I said.
I could hear Grandma’s agitated voice coming through the receiver. I think she was arguing with me, but I couldn’t be sure. Besides, I wasn’t leaving to help anybody, so I went to my room.
“Don’t you worry about those people,” Mom yelled after me. “They sent the soldiers over there, and Madam Munteanu is out of her wits. You know that her son was drafted.”
I shut my door, but she called me a minute later. “Come and listen to your grandmother,” she said. “People in her neighborhood are sure they will be affected. They are doing the best they can to mitigate the effects of a possible flash flood.” She sounded as if she read from a newspaper.
I smiled. “Since when are Grandma’s neighbors our source of information?”
Mom looked at me. She covered the receiver with her hand and added, “You know your grandmother. Rumors are scary to her, no matter the source.”
Dad called and said that a state of emergency had been declared and he had to stay at work until later.
Mom asked me to go to the grocery store and buy a few things. We had everything we needed but still, a few more food items wouldn’t hurt. It was midafternoon and the sun shone in the windows of the buildings across the street. Two huge poplars guarded the corner of our house. A few dry leaves gathered on the sidewalk. I walked to the store closest to our house and found it empty. The saleslady smiled, embarrassed. “We’ve been mobbed today,” she said. “People bought everything we had, even breadcrumbs.”
Instead of returning home I walked towards the river. Around me, things looked pretty normal. A couple was taking a stroll through the park, a group of schoolchildren crossed the street, two women were talking to each other over the fence that separated their yards. Everything seemed the same, and yet, a little different. The air smelled of flowers and felt heavy with moisture. There were more people in the streets than usual, or maybe there were fewer.
As I approached the river, I felt overtaken by excitement. “Everything is all right,” I kept reassuring myself, yet I walked faster and faster and I had to control my impulses not to start running.
At the bridge, I bumped into our neighbor’s son, Andy. He was leaning over the parapet, looking at the water.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
“I am trying to determine if the water is rising.”
“Have you been doing this long?”
“No. Yeah. For about forty minutes, but I don’t see any changes. Every time I think the level is higher, I realize that I lost my point of reference.”
“Let’s do it together,” I suggested. “Look, there is a crack in the corner of that pillar, four inches above the water.”
“Six inches,” he corrected me.
“Four, six, who cares?”
“I do,” he said. “You have to be rigorous. If you’re not, you might think that the level has risen, when it didn’t. Besides, if you concentrate too much on your reference point, you end up not seeing it anymore.”
“Let’s go, then,” I said. “We’ll return after fifteen minutes and look again at the water level.”
It was getting dark and the lights were coming on along the banks of the river. Nearby was a monument carved in stone and I stopped to look at it.
“Do you know what it represents?” I asked Andy.
“Sure,” he said. “The independence. It was erected at the beginning of the twentieth century. The sculptor, a gifted young artist died in World War One.”
Andy had this habit of making statements about things he knew little about.
The sculpture was a mass of human bodies huddled in a struggle, with the raised hands of the fighters and their bayonetted rifles sticking up like spikes.
“So you think the river will flood?” I returned to the original subject.
“It’s obvious if you look at the water.”
“I thought you were saying the level had remained unchanged.”
“I never said that. And even if I did, floods do not happen this way. The river doesn’t rise slowly, inch by inch. On the contrary, the flooding hits you when you least expect it, washes away whatever needs to be washed away, and leaves behind flowers and tears.”
“Flowers and tears,” I repeated.
“Floods are like wars,” Andy said. “People get scared, some die, and in the end it’s all over and everybody is thankful to have been spared.”
“Thankful? You say this as if you actually wanted it to happen.”
He frowned and looked into my eyes. His were blue, illuminated by an unusual light. “I cannot say I want it, but I wouldn’t mind it either.”
“Andy, how old are you?”
“Eleven,” I said.
We returned to the bridge to check our level marker, but it was dark already. The muddy water looked black down in the riverbed. I leaned over the embankment to see better, but one could hardly distinguish anything, least of all the small crack in the pillar.
“I cannot see it anymore,” I whispered.
“The river has swollen,” Andy said.
“It’s too dark,” I said.
Below, we could hear the water splashing against the shore.
“The river has swollen,” Andy said again. “You can hear the water rising. If you cannot see it, listen to it.”
I listened. “It’s the sound of flowing water,” I said.
“Listen more carefully. You can hear it only sometimes, like a cry in the distance.”
I leaned even further over the river wall, half of my body hanging down, holding myself with my feet pressing against the stone base. “I can’t hear a thing.”
“Nothing?” he asked.
“Come with me,” he hissed in my ear and grabbed my hand.
We ran along the bank. Small bushes and tree branches caught in our clothing. Then he stopped and parted the vegetation ahead of us to follow a path down the steep incline to the water. I had walked through that area many times, but I had no idea that the path was there. It felt strange to discover it in the otherwise urbanized body of the river.
“Where are you taking me, Andy?”
He didn’t answer. He pulled me down the path and we finally stopped in front of a white marble plinth placed close to the water’s edge. We sat on the ground, facing the river. It was quiet and behind us we could hear the familiar noise of the city. Andrew signaled to me to listen.
“It’s the cars,” I said.
The wind stirred the branches. The leaves fluttered and the long blades of grass bent to the ground.
“Can you hear it?” Andy asked. “It’s like a whisper.”
“It’s the wind,” I said.
In front of us, small waves crushed against the shore. As if afraid, Andy cuddled against my body.
“Can you hear it now? It’s the gurgle of the river.”
And suddenly, I heard it. It was a sound I was unable to understand, and yet so very clear. It was coming from afar, and from up close as well, from the depth of the earth and from the surface of the water, dim and yet tumultuous. It was like a song or a prayer. A threat.
“Can you hear?” asked Andy.
“I can hear.”
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