The Unexplained World

Kishinev 1933

From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764

The adult world was inexplicable. Things happened because they did, and Dalia tended to look the other way and keep playing. But when her mother cried, she cried also. She had milk white skin, dark hair and large, green eyes that Uncle Leo said reflected an intelligent curiosity.

In school, without her mother, Dalia felt unencumbered. She accepted the rigid school discipline, smiled at her teachers, befriended the children in her class and became an expert in hopscotch, peekaboo and rope jumping. She was slim and quick on her feet, rarely harboring a bad thought against anybody. The children were taught in Romanian in school, but when they played, they used Romanian and Russian interchangeably and without an effort — two languages without a border. Like the languages, Dalia treated boys and girls without distinction, too enthusiastic to perceive a difference, too young to care.

Dalia’s mother walked Dalia to school and back every day. Mariana’s mother approached them one morning. She was holding Mariana’s hand and during the mothers’ brief exchange, the girls traded glances and smiled at each other.

“Miss Galina,” Mariana’s mother said, “we live on the same street, and it would behoove us to help each other. What about me taking the girls to school one day, and you the other?”

“Really?” Galina said and burst into tears. “Since my Ivan died, I have carried my weight alone, like Atlas, on my shoulders.”

Seeing her mom cry, Dalia started to cry also. She didn’t want to, but an invisible string tied the two and caused them to act in tandem.

Mariana’s mother shrugged and walked on.

Ivan, Dalia’s father had died of heart failure, and Dalia didn’t remember him, save for the framed photograph on her mom’s credenza — a broad face, cheeks covered by stubble, dark strands of hair falling over a tall forehead, and gleaming, light eyes, just like Dalia’s. When Dalia thought of her father, a fleeting shadow crossed her mind. It was only when Uncle Leo talked to Galina about remarrying, that a fatherly figure replaced Ivan’s image in the photograph and materialized in Dalia’s imagination in the shape of the heavy-set school principal, the milkman or the taxi driver who took them home the night she and Galina went to the movies. Galina rejected her brother’s suggestions with loud protests and a deluge of tears, and, each time, Dalia’s visions disappeared.

As the weather grew colder and the leaves in the yard turned golden and brown, Dalia felt that Galina’s sadness deepened. She heard Galina say that work didn’t interest her and that her past industriousness — whatever that meant — had evaporated. The few things she did around the house required little effort. Dinners with Uncle Leo and the extended family were dull and predictable.

“You are my life, my princess,” Galina would tell Dalia obsessively.

She still read to Dalia at bedtime, even though the fairytales abounded in gore and cruelty. Dalia listened to her mother’s voice and saw her eyes well up with tears at the suffering of Anderson’s little mermaid or when Pushkin’s coward Farlaf thrust his sword into Ruslan.

Food became Galina’s escape and Dalia watched her mother take multiple and determined trips to the pantry. Then Galina would sit at the kitchen table and ingest hard-boiled eggs and thick tomato slices, chunks of bologna and smoked ham, canned herring and sardines. She would devour yesterday’s cold leftover chicken, suck the marrow out of the soup bones, skim the cream off the milk, scrub the honey jar clean, empty the containers of pickles and preserves and split sunflower seeds between her teeth with utmost dexterity. On the rare occasions she had little food left in the house, she would settle on bread and butter. At dinnertime, with Dalia watching in disbelief, she would eat all over again with gusto, and her sad face and tight lips would give way to a mellow smile.

Dalia drew close to Mariana and the two girls often played together after school. With the same height and build, the same long dark hair, they looked like sisters, their resemblance even more pronounced when wearing the school uniforms — white and black pinafores over dark blue dresses. Mariana had an older brother and Dalia learned from her that girls preferred dolls and dresses to toy cars and guns, and that her brother had a thing between his legs and peed standing.

It was Mariana’s mother who first recognized in Galina’s unkempt hair and stained house robes bursting at the seams the telltale signs of depression. “Is your mother always so quiet and sad”? she asked Dalia. “You should cheer her up”.

Too young to comprehend, Dalia ascribed the comments to a world where things just happened.

Galina’s mother, Grandma Katia, came from the farm for a short visit. She almost didn’t recognize her own daughter. “Why did you wait so long to tell me what is going on with your sister?” she asked Uncle Leo.

“I urged her to start dating,” Leo, always afraid of his mother, answered.

Katia decided that fresh air and last year’s wine would benefit Galina. “You bring them both to my vineyard,” she told Leo.

At first Galina shook her head no, but in the end she relented.

A week later, Leo drove Dalia and Galina in his Ford motorcar, 20 kilometers outside Kishinev proper. It was mid-afternoon when they arrived, and Katia came out to welcome them, along with her much older sister Anna, who was tiny and wrinkled, and Daniel, the farm manager, a mustachioed man of light built and thinning hair.

The farmhouse was large and in need of maintenance. The floors squeaked and most casements were peeling. The roof lacked shingles. The tracks in the dirt road that led to the entrance were inches deep. The surrounding terrain was hilly and two of the slopes were covered by grapevines. “Our farmers plant vineyards on their small farms to imitate the French,” Galina explained to Dalia.

Leo said he had to return urgently to Kishinev. “Matters of the heart,” he added.

“At least walk with us for a while and breathe some of this wonderful air,” Katia insisted.

“I bet you break many girls’ hearts with this car,” Daniel said, approaching the Ford and kicking the front tire. “Where did you buy it?”

“Oh, from the Annex on Stephen the Great. They have many American cars.”

“Enjoy it as long as you can, because I’m afraid Papa Stalin is coming. If he does, bye-bye cars, bye-bye vineyards.”

“And good-bye to speaking Romanian,” Katia added.

“I don’t see anything wrong with Russian,” Anna said. She grew up before World War One, when the area had belonged to the Tsarist Empire.

“If the Soviets come, I am out of here,” Leo said.

“Talk about this to your brother,” Katia said.

“Alexey? We have nothing to talk about.”

“Of course you do, but let’s go for a walk.” Katia looked at the sky. “The days are getting shorter.”

They skirted the edge of the woods on the left side of the house and took the soft incline to the hills. Off the almost completely harvested vine, Dalia picked and ate small purple grapes wrapped in a delicate layer of autumn frost.

Soon after Leo left, they partook in a copious dinner of sarmale with sour cream, followed by rabbit in aspic as their main course. Galina ate hungrily. Daniel alleviated his unquenchable thirst with the vineyard’s sweet wine, of which even Dalia tasted a little.

For Dalia, the evening melted into a haze of voices, laughter and tearful stories that ended with them all going to sleep. Dalia shared a bed with her mother, the cotton sheets crinkled and rough against her cheek. Suddenly there was a loud bang at the front door, the wind blew through the house like a crazed animal and the dogs, both inside and outside, started barking and howling.

Galina and Dalia rushed into the corridor. Two other bedroom doors opened and Anna and Katia appeared as well. The women were in their nightgowns.

“An intruder!” Katia exclaimed.

“Where is Daniel?” asked Galina.

From the opposite side of the house, the answer reached them in the form of thunderous snoring.

“It’s the wine,” offered Galina.

“We don’t need Daniel,” Anna said, and rushed back to her bedroom. She quickly reappeared with a fez on her head and carrying a lantern and a slightly rusted, single barrel rifle, almost as long as she was. On her skinny feet, she had a pair of black galoshes. “Hold this, and come with me,” she told Katia and gave her the lantern. “Galina and Dalia, the two of you don’t move. Stay right here!”

Galina and Dalia didn’t listen. Downstairs, the door was wide open, and the dogs gathered around the women and started sniffing.

“Quiet,” Anna whispered, unclear if to the women or the dogs, and stepped outside.

The entire procession followed her. The air was cold and crisp, and there was light from a half moon above the treetops. The few remaining leaves rustled.

“There he is.” Anna pointed at the moving leaves in the woods to the left. “Stoy! Ya tebe puliu’v jopu puscyu!”she yelled in Russian, thrusting her body forward and squeezing the trigger. When the smoke cleared and the ringing in her ears subsided, Dalia smelled the lingering gunpowder. Shivering, she grabbed Galina’s hand.

“I’ll go check the woods,” Katia said lifting the lantern.

“Are you crazy?” Anna said. “I got him, and if not, I scared the hell out of him, so let’s go inside and warm up.”

Katia made sure the front door was properly locked and Anna placed a heavy chair with its back under the door handle. In the kitchen, Galina got cups out of the cupboard while Katia made tea.

Dalia put three sugar cubes in her tea and stirred. She warmed up. What she found most enthralling about this night was not the danger or the deafening gunshot, but her grandaunt’s yell preceding the firing of the gun. Loosely translated it meant, ‘Freeze, or I’ll drive a bullet right up your ass!’ an impressive double violation of good manners. First, and Dalia knew this from school, whether in Romanian or Russian, the word ‘ass’ was a no-no in the vocabulary of a lady, and second, under a slightly modified pronunciation, the word ‘puliu,’ which meant bullet in Russian, was a vulgar Romanian term for what dangled between Mariana’s brother’s legs and forever differentiated men from women.

In the morning, Daniel, who had slept through the night like a teenager, was dispatched to check the grounds and the woods, and returned with one empty bullet shell, and a basket of wild mushrooms.

“No blood? No footprints?” inquired Anna with obvious disappointment.

“None,” Daniel responded.

Shortly after their return to Kishinev, Dalia watched silently as her mother changed. She cut her hair short. She stopped eating excessively. She bought new shoes, several dresses and an expensive overcoat. Then she announced to her family she was going to find a job.

“Find a man,” Uncle Leo said, sounding like a broken record.

“Brother, a woman can do what any man can, and do it much better. Depression be damned! I’ll take the outside world, without explanation, and beat it.”

Dalia looked at her mother and recognized in her the determination she had gleaned on her tiny grandaunt’s face at the vineyard a second before pulling the trigger.