Based on a real event I witnessed as a boy, when refrigerators were much smaller and televisions much heavier, I wrote this story in the early 70’s in Romania. Back then it was highly unusual for the state-owned media to report a crime that showed how the desire for scarce consumer goods could lead to violence, despite its glowing portrayal of the workers’ paradise.
We were in middle school and nobody was telling us anything. That’s why we found out about the reenactment at the last possible minute. Our teachers focused on their lesson plans and allowed the important stories of the day to go unaddressed. News came to us haphazardly, more often than not after circulating through the neighborhood, the various versions reaching our ears more mystifying or threatening than the actual events.
The elementary school children had classes in the morning, and because of lack of space, our turn was in the afternoon. During breaks, we congregated in the corridor. As the evening drew near, the crisp spring breeze blew through the large open windows causing goose bumps to form on our arms. The scent of lilac and rot reached our nostrils, and to this day, such a mix of smells overwhelms me and unavoidably fills my mind with memories of the homicide.
It happened two blocks from where I lived. A widowed teacher, forty years of age and her mother were killed in their apartment in broad daylight. The deed seemed even more horrible because the perpetrator turned out to be a woman — their masseuse. The bodies were discovered days later when a former student of the teacher, who had tried unsuccessfully to contact her, decided to pay her a visit. He rang the bell for over twenty minutes and eventually called the police. A nauseating stench met the people who broke down the entrance door. The dead teacher was on the floor in her bedroom. Propped against the kitchen wall, the mother had multiple slashes on her arms and legs, and an expression of horror on her immobile, wrinkled face. Inexplicably, the door between the living room and the bedroom had been lifted off its hinges, and pieces of furniture and some kitchen appliances were gone.
The perpetrator was apprehended in a week. Once that happened, the uproar in the neighborhood calmed down, but information about the presumed murderess started making the rounds. I heard my scared schoolmates say that we were facing a serial killer, responsible for at least eight homicides, including a military officer with whom she was having an affair, as well as her husband and son. Horrible deeds, unthinkable to us at the time, were attributed to the masseuse. During our recesses, which had suddenly become too short, I found out that she used to bury her victims in the basement of her own dilapidated house in the poorest outskirt of the city; that the woman was as strong as Hercules, that she possessed a razor sharp mind and that she was breathtakingly beautiful.
In front of the somber windows, dazed by the scent of spring flowers, shivering in the chilly air and overtaken by my own fantasies, I imagined her bloodstained hands. But more than anything, I dreaded my way home in the evening through the park. The classes ended late and I had no choice but to walk alone. The trees and bushes looked menacing and their shadows fell on the alleyways like so many traps. I ran hugging my books and stopped only in better-lit areas to catch my breath. But even there, the pale light of the street lamps imparted the surroundings with a sinister appearance. Ahead, there were turns in the way, dark patches of gravel, and hidden crossroads. Only at home would I finally relax and tell my parents about the things I had heard in school.
I was thirteen and I wanted to appear proper and reasonable in my presentations. For sure, I didn’t want to admit that I was scared. My father analyzed the news with me, and helped me discern the truth from the rumors. My mother twisted her fingers nervously.
Once I couldn’t control myself and burst into tears. It had been a strange day. A storm with thunder and lightning darkened the sky in the afternoon. My imagination recognized an omen in those dark clouds. The temperature dropped suddenly, and while still light outside, a full moon appeared in the sky. Like never before, one of our teachers started talking about the homicides and informed us that the masseuse had had an accomplice, a taxi driver seen parked in his cab in front of the victims’ house. That led to the conclusion that the motive had been robbery, which took place close to midnight on that same day. I listened to the teacher in perfect silence, my heart beating feverishly. His voice was screechy, and the electric light reflected off the walls with a bloody hue.
My walk home was torture. Vampires and murderers lurked at each turn. When my mother opened the door, I gave a start. Her eyes were bloodshot and a shadow covered her tired face like a veil. I ran in and threw myself on my bed, sobbing. The thought of the masseuse’s dead son throbbed on my mind.
News of the reenactment took us by surprise. We were in school, not suspecting anything, when a boy walked in and told us. I remember that we were getting ready for our history class — something to do with the ancient city of Sparta. We got all excited and decided to ask the principal for permission to go to the reenactment. The history teacher, who arrived that moment and was young and emotional, came with us. Since the reenactment was such a big event in our neighborhood, the principal agreed.
There was a full hour left until the reenactment was supposed to start, and people were gathering in the street while the police kept a semblance of order. Not allowed on the sidewalk in front of the dead teacher’s house, we formed a half circle on the opposite side, with more people arriving and moving around continuously. The roadway was cleared for official vehicles to pass and for the killer and her accomplice to arrive. I snuck into the front row, directly behind the policemen who stood guard, stern and severe. I knew two of them by sight — they patrolled our neighborhood — but I had never seen them that tense. Also unusual was the fact that they were fully armed, a semi-automatic, a knife, handcuffs, a black baton, and a walkie-talkie hanging from their thick leather belts.
The house where the homicides had taken place was a two-story villa with a gabled roof. It was covered by mustard yellow plaster and had a small square yard in the front. Next to the house was a vacant lot. From there one could clearly see the few concrete steps and the hand railing leading to the front door, and a few of the windows. The victims lived in the ground floor apartment. I asked myself what would happen to it and couldn’t imagine that someone, anyone, would now want to rent it and live there.
Listening to people’s chatter around me, I learned a few things. Although she was the younger and stronger of the two victims, the teacher had died from the first blow. The mother, who was bringing coffee from the kitchen, had surprised the masseuse leaning over her dead daughter with the hatchet in her hand, and fought her fiercely. That’s why there were sixteen deep slashes on her body, a fact that enraged the public even more. The description of the fine porcelain of the coffee cups was disconcerting. Otherwise, people acted relaxed, and while curious about the reenactment, they were talking about many other things as well and even laughing.
We all took a step back when a police car drove by and stopped in front of the vacant lot. Two uniformed young men entered the yard, and posted themselves to the right and the left of the gate.
The van that brought the masseuse made its appearance much later. From behind the steepled roof, the sun was causing a long shadow to fall over the crowd. People booed and threw a few stones, rather timidly. A signal from the policemen who now formed a barrier in front of us caused everybody to stop. Instead of expressing outrage, the onlookers started complaining that they couldn’t see well, pushing each other, climbing on fences or rising on their tiptoes.
Being in the front, my view was unimpeded. I saw a heavy woman of medium height, dressed in black, as if in mourning. Her dark stockings and mid size heels, too elegant for the occasion, surprised me. Her ankles were delicate, but her calves were wide like a cyclist’s, giving her legs the comical shape of a fat spindle. Her heavy hips filled the middle, while her back, as strong as a man’s, reminded me of the rump of a charging bull. Her brown hair was tied under a kerchief. She advanced towards the yard in a measured step, holding her head down and avoiding looking at the crowd. Then she disappeared inside the house, accompanied by the police and the few civilians who had arrived with her in the van.
Obviously the most important part of the reenactment was now taking place inside and we had no access to it. People started to whisper again, and the question that suddenly occupied everybody’s mind was whether she would get the death sentence.
Then a murmur traversed the crowd. The woman came out the front door carrying a refrigerator all by herself. She was leaning back to counterbalance the weight in her arms and her head was twisted to allow her to see from behind the appliance. Cautiously she navigated the four steps — right foot forward each time, her ankles and leg muscles twitching on her heels. Once through the gate, she deposited the refrigerator on the sidewalk and went back inside. Silent, people stared in disbelief. She reappeared a few seconds later, with two rolled rugs under her arms. She carried out in this fashion, one after the other, the TV set, the stove, and pieces of furniture that I believe had been brought back earlier for the purpose of the reenactment. When she finished, she climbed into the van with the security people and was driven away.
As if awakening from a dream, the crowd started to disperse. Nobody booed or protested anymore, and the policemen broke their formation and retreated into the yard. A new question troubled the people — if the taxi driver was an accomplice to the homicides, why didn’t he participate in the reenactment?
The press reported that the trial had taken place in the fall, and that the death sentence would be carried out the following spring.
Ten years have gone by. A family with two small children has moved into the apartment. After all, living in our quiet neighborhood is quite a privilege. On the vacant lot they have built another three-story apartment building. The way it is positioned, it blocks the view of the little yard from the street, along with the steps leading to the entrance.
At night, the place is ghostly and for a long time, I have had an uneasy feeling when passing through there. Sometimes, at parties, or on trips, during the lingering moments before the last midnight drink, I relate the story of the masseuse in the most somber details to my surprised audiences. The girls begin giggling nervously and ask me to stop, while others step in with stories of their own about ghosts, vampires, and deserted castles.
Two days ago, I was returning home later than usual. Being winter, darkness had already descended over the city. It was cold and a light rain was falling. The streetlights reflected off the wet pavement. Getting closer to the house in which the double homicide had happened, I recognized that old uneasiness overtaking my body. I fought it by making fun of myself, and I kept going. When I reached the small yard I heard a thump and a screech. A person stepped onto the dark sidewalk. Without thinking I crossed the street and walked away as fast as I could, hearing steps moving in the opposite direction. I was sure they were the steps of a woman. When I finally summoned the courage to look back, she happened to pass under a streetlight. She was far away, but I had no doubt. At any time and under any circumstances, I would instantly recognize that woman’s back that looked like a man’s and possessed the strength of a charging bull.
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