Wartime Chess (Part 1)

Bucharest, 1944

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

At the Matache Market Dalia found potatoes. She found a jar of honey, yellow as gold, and bread, white and fresh with a nice, heavy crust. She put everything in her string bag and started towards home at a leisurely pace. It was a sunny spring day. Turn of the century stone houses with shady fenced-in yards lined the streets. The lilacs were in bloom. People waited for the electric tram.

Sirens ripped through the air.

Dalia had never heard the air defense warning system before. She saw people running. Someone screamed: “Planes!” Then the sirens stopped, and it was quiet. She ran like everybody else, not sure where to go. A low frequency whistle ended with a huge blast. The ground shook, and a wave of warm air moved along the street like a storm. Lilac petals swirled around her. Suddenly there were planes overhead, more than she could count and the sky seemed to turn totally black. Everything was vibrating and shaking with the roar of the engines. She heard another explosion, and another one, closer and louder each time.

On her lips she felt dust.A man in blue overalls and a newspaper cone on his head rushed from his yard, followed by a woman in a white apron with a child in her arms. The child could have been five or six, too big to be carried, but the woman didn’t seem to mind.

“Run, the shelter’s in the bank building on Plevnei Street,” the man yelled.

Dalia followed them. The child must have been scared to death when his mother picked him up. No time to explain or argue with him.

The basement smelled of bodies crammed together, of sweat and mildew. People spoke in a whisper. There were, maybe, fifty of them. A few electric bulbs hung from the unfinished ceiling. When bombs exploded above, the lights flickered. Plaster and paint flakes floated like snow. Cobwebs darkened the corners. Most people stood, but gradually they claimed their spaces and sat on the floor. One older man fished out a pack of cigarettes, passed them around and several men lit up.

Months ago, Dalia had moved in with her uncle’s family to pursue college in Bucharest. Then the war started in earnest and things went to hell — the university closed, she could not go back home to her mother in Kishinev, and Virgil, her boyfriend, was drafted. She coped as best she could.

Now Dalia sat on the cold floor across from the man in blue overalls. His newspaper cone had fallen off his head. His shoulders were covered with dust. The woman and the child sat next to him. The child looked at a large cobweb, then looked at Dalia and winced. The mother cleaned his nose with her apron and held him tight.

“He doesn’t like spiders,” she said to Dalia, like an excuse.

“Who does?” Dalia shrugged.

“We should be afraid of the bombs, not of spiders,” a man standing next to Dalia said.

“He doesn’t understand what’s going on,” the woman tried to explain.

“No one does,” the man said.

“I beg to differ,” the man in blue overalls jumped in. “It’s the Americans — they’re coming after us.”

“When they bombed the refineries last year, they had 600 planes.”

“178,” the man in blue overalls corrected.

“If one of those American bombs falls on this building, we are kaput. Fertig. This shelter’s a joke.”

Everyone looked at the ceiling.

“Let’s pray,” somebody said.

“What’s your name?” Dalia asked the child, who buried his head in his mother’s lap.

“Val,” the mother said. “His name is Val, after his grandfather who owns land in Dobruja.” She waved away a strand of hair that covered her eyes.

The man in blue overalls laughed. “What good does it do us now, that land?”

“He’s my brother. He’s painting my house,” she added, pointing at the man in blue overalls. “My husband’s at war.”

Dalia thought of Virgil. “Val’s a beautiful name for a boy,” she said.

“We were having lunch when I heard the sirens. Never finished eating,” the woman said.

Dalia felt sorry for the little boy. She lifted her string bag and showed him the honey in the jar. “Would you like some of this?”

Val didn’t answer, but his face lit up.

“Let’s see,” Dalia said, and took out the loaf of bread and the jar. The lid to the jar was stuck.

Someone produced a pocketknife. “Here, this has several blades, a corkscrew, and a little spoon.”

The man in blue overalls pried the jar open with the pocketknife. He flattened his newspaper coif on the floor, set the loaf on it and sliced off the heel of the bread. He drizzled honey on it with the spoon. The boy eagerly ate the whole piece.

“Would you like another slice?” Dalia asked and Val nodded.

There was a loud explosion, and the lights blinked. The men stubbed out their cigarette butts.

*

Dalia walked home past houses in ruin, women wailing and tearing at their hair and ambulances and fire engines speeding through rubble filled streets. In front of the post office, she saw a dead horse.

That evening, Dalia and her relatives had bread and honey with tea. They read in the paper that the Allies’ had targeted the North Railway Station and the marshaling yard. Hundreds of buildings had been destroyed and over 5,000 people killed or maimed. Countless old poplar trees in the Botanical Garden, not far from Virgil’s apartment, had been uprooted.

The bombing had damaged parts of Malaxa Ironworks where Uncle Leo worked. He left by midmorning and said he’d be gone the whole day.

In the bathroom, Dalia washed grey cement dust out of her hair. The doorbell rang.

A skinny young man, dressed in a pilot’s uniform, stood in the doorway, his car parked by the curb.

“May I help you?” Aunt Elea asked.

“I’m lieutenant Vincent Smolin, with the Second Air Brigade.” The answer came on a confident tone. “Is Dalia home?”

Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.