I wrote this short story 47 years ago, when I was a very young man in Romania. The place I describe is an actual fishing village on the Black Sea, called 2 Mai, where we used to spend our summers dreaming of becoming famous poets, writers and musicians, reading Hemingway and listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. At that time, myself, and all the young people around me were fully aware of where the evil was. In 1989, a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the communist regime in Romania collapsed. My short story saw the print as part of a collection in 2001. Troubled by the senseless Las Vegas shooting, I translated my story into English. Today we have no idea where evil is hiding. In that way, it is scarier and more senseless than ever before.
That spring evening the village stretched dead between hillocks. Only the blue sea throbbed endlessly, bringing salty air from afar, and a strange taste of freedom. The sun, almost gone from the sky, spread a feeble heat that caused people to shiver, while gusts of wind scattered the sand and bent the trees. Spread between the soft curves of the earth, white houses dotted the landscape, here covered by vegetation, there dry and wrinkled like an old man’s hide. To the north lay the cities — silhouettes visible to the naked eye, gray, overlapping. The leading road came from there, the only road, following the bottom of a shallow ravine, sometimes hugging the sandy beach, other times departing in sudden and unusual curves. A marker stood at the entrance to the village — a board nailed to an eight-foot pole. The old letters were hardly legible, erased by the wind. At sunset, its shadow fell on the road in the shape of an oversized cross. Tired villagers were returning from work carrying their heavy tools; along came bicyclists, horse driven carts, and delivery trucks.
A young couple walked towards the village. Tall and slender, with narrow hips and shoulders bent under the weight of their overfilled backpacks, their curly hair falling in long bangs on the sides of their face, the two, seen from a distance, looked like drifters; but upon a second look, their clothing, the light in their intelligent eyes, and their hands lacking the roughness of physical labor, indicated a more select provenance.
As the evening advanced, the youths knocked on many doors, but most remained locked. Eventually, someone offered them lodging at the edge of the village. At night, the two lit a fire in the backyard and sat there silently, smoking and contemplating the flames. The girl sang. She had a small voice that sounded awkward, but reflected happiness and a deep inner peace. The young man listened with his eyes closed. His shirt was unbuttoned and the fire lit his flat chest with a bloody red color. He seemed indifferent, as if the world had ceased to exist.
The next day, the youngsters spent most of their time indoors, spoke little to their hosts, and in the evening, after dinner, they went for a short walk on the terraces of reddish clay that bordered the seawall and the beach. Whirlwinds of sand danced in the air, as waves broke into small waterfalls.
Days went by without incident. No one approached the couple, and they didn’t try to befriend anybody. Their origin was a mystery, as was the source of the money they had to pay for food and housing. An old man saw them kiss once in front of his house and yelled after them, “Get away, you clowns!” They left offended and when they reached the street corner the girl remarked bitterly, “People would have been nicer at home.” Somebody overheard her, and the desire of the locals to know where their home was became more acute.
The young couple purchased paints and brushes in the city, and, on their way back, they stopped at the faded signpost. ‘Sunny Village’ they wrote on it, in large, playful letters. They drew flowers around the sign, and fish, and small butterflies. They adorned the pole with blue and red circles. The freshly painted sign surprised the locals. Some objected, other shrugged, but most silently appreciated the youthful colors that met everybody at the entrance into the village.
As it got warmer, the young couple started spending time at the beach. They walked to a small cove formed by the tall seawall, where they sunbathed for hours, and swam along the shore.
New people arrived. Dressed like the first two, they looked around with the same calm indifference, and asked for lodging. Given their experience, the locals accepted them with more ease, refrained from asking questions and allowed them to carry on as they pleased. The only thing intriguing to the locals was that the youngsters lay naked on the beach.
As if drawn by invisible threads, and as the summer advanced, people from far and wide, young men and women, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups, came to the village. They all stopped for a few minutes at the road marker, nodded, and then dispersed amongst the white houses and hillocks, the yards full of greenery, and the long, sandy shore. There were musicians and poets, students, dreamers, and bums. Excited, the villagers started offering services to them. Stands with fresh produce appeared at street corners, a coffee house opened on the main road, and the restaurant filled with customers. Every evening, groups of visitors got together around bonfires at the edge of the sea. They played music, recited poetry, smoked, and talked. Some slept on the warm sand until morning. During the day, when the sea was calm like a lake, the little crabs hid underground, the grass twisted in the dry, scorching sun, and the heads of corn cracked on their yellowish stalks, hundreds of inoffensive bodies sunbathed on the beach.
The morning sun threw a silver blade across the rippling water. Fog melted at the horizon. Nothing floated on the sea, not a boat, not even a gull. As the sun rose, the beach started filling with people. Everything seemed the same.
Then, as if interrupting the charm of those immovable moments, somebody uttered, “Look, three ships on the horizon!”
Indeed, through the mist that was quickly evaporating one could distinguish three blue dots, like three little flies. Without becoming the center of attention, that presence caused a light stir.
“Think of the life that exists on those ships,” said a young woman with a melancholy face. “Is it possible that they see us as well?”
Youngsters continued to arrive, throw their clothes on the sand, and run into the water that welcomed them with its cool embrace. By the time the sandy horseshoe became crowded, the existence of the three ships was known to everybody. People talked about all kinds of things, but from time to time, they looked at the sea, and even the near sighted could now make the outline of the vessels, each followed by white foam.
“They are battleships,” offered one.
“Speedboats. Look at their wake,” said another.
“You guys,” retorted a third with a burst of laughter. “These are the most normal commercial vessels sailing into the harbor.”
By noon, everybody agreed that three military ships were inexplicably advancing towards their shore.
From its pinnacle in the sky, the sun sent its deluge of melting rays, while the several hundred youngsters aware of what could never happen, continued their day. Yet, beyond the peaceful atmosphere, an attentive observer would have noticed a murmur of anxiety. Everything that the youngsters did contained a touch of stubbornness in it, a hidden determination dominated by a premonition that all of them tried to suppress. Three ships sailing in their direction. Big deal!
The ones playing ball became more aggressive. Those reading seemed absorbed like never before by the contents of their books. Discussions had never been more passionate, the speakers using wide gestures to emphasize their points and construct their arguments. With unmatched dedication, the sun lovers exposed their bodies to the sky.
In the meantime, the approaching ships were close enough to allow the youngsters to distinguish their stacks, the cabins, the antennas, and the emergency boats. Someone brought a pair of binoculars from the village and people formed a circle around him. They took turns and some exclaimed in wonder when noticing the uniformed soldiers standing on decks, armed to the teeth.
“I can see the cannons,” yelled a young man.
Others grabbed the binoculars from him.
The three ships positioned themselves parallel to the shore and threw their anchors. While the news crossed the beach like a shockwave, most continued to feign indifference; but when six boats filled with soldiers were lowered into the water and, no one pretended anymore. Curious and concerned, people gathered in groups to watch the spectacle on the sea.
The six boats advanced at a constant speed.
“We should run,” suggested a man suddenly aware of his own naked body.
Others contradicted him. “Run? What an idea! We’ll be witnessing something interesting soon.”
As the boats got closer, the youngsters were able to see the soldiers’ frozen faces under their steel helmets, and their hands holding on to the weapons, like white stains on the green of their fatigues. It was a bizarre feeling, surreal — the crowd on the beach, all naked and confounded, and the six boats, with soldiers as if carved out of stone, obviously following some unknown orders, coming closer, and closer.
“There’ll be military maneuvers,” said the one who a few seconds ago wanted to run.
“Why here? Don’t they have another beach to invade?”
The boats stopped, and the soldiers jumped in the knee-high water. The sand rose to the surface turning the sea brown, like a wound. The soldiers formed a continuous line and held their guns to their chests. As one, they marched to the beach.
Fear overtook the youngsters, but they tried to hide it. “Really, no need to worry,” they said. “Just a rehearsal of sorts.”
In silence, they watched the soldiers approaching. They seemed like a green wall. While so much closer now, no one could read their facial expressions. What moved was a monster grindingly stepping on multiple boots. As they came out of the water, the surf washed away every trace.
Suddenly a dry patter was heard, followed by a loud scream. The youngsters started to run, some without knowing why, but it was already too late. The machineguns unloaded hundreds of bullets into their suntanned bodies, and one after the other they kneeled. They fell. They grabbed onto each other, blood sinking deep in the sand. After several long minutes, their cries became rare. The green wall broke, and the soldiers started in pursuit of those who had succeeded to escape. But instead of climbing the seawall, the youngsters darted across the beach, without purpose or aim.
When finished, the soldiers walked between their lifeless victims, now and then releasing a burst of fire, to take the few wounded out of their misery. Then they got back in formation and returned to the boats. Sea grasses filled the water with a tinge of red. The departing boats left behind an eerie silence stunned by the heat. The wind moved the sand, piling it against the bodies. The boats reached the ships and the soldiers climbed on board. A few of the locals who had heard the shots emerged from their hiding places and fearfully stepped onto the beach. They looked at the corpses, uttered a few meaningless words, and disappeared.
The ships retreated, their silhouettes becoming flies, three little blue dots flickering on the horizon.
The sun started to set. Its oblique rays carried golden reflections while the beach became a sinister mosaic. Seagulls pecked around calmly, from time to time rising into the air, cowing, hovering, and gliding back.
While the indifferent sea, got ready for sleep.
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