How important is the cause that led to the disaster? Sometimes an insignificant incident can ruin an entire life. In the dark regimes of twentieth century Europe, sometimes a single vengeful whisper was enough. A father and son embark on a journey into the past in an attempt to discover who was responsible for the family’s demise. What discoveries await them in the archives recently opened to the public in Bucharest? What will the son discover about his family and his past from the stories told about them by the state? In this shared journey, it is revealed that the reasons crumble and fade, almost ungraspable, and what remains, in this beautiful story by Augustin Cupsa, is the brittle relationship between people, between father and son. History fiercely gushes not only through the fates determined by the state, but through small, personal lives, which continue to course quietly in the world, and in wonderful, sensitive literature like the story presented before us.
For the first few hours they drove silently. His father simply sat there without saying a word, just sniffling from time to time. It seemed to him that he was doing it ostentatiously. He could see the old man had a hidden trouble, but didn’t know how to bring it up.
They were cold all the way. The car heater was probably out of order, several times he put out his hand above the dashboard, each time with the same result – all he could feel in his palm was just a wisp of warm air and that was not enough. The same journey they had taken when driving in, seemed now tougher and longer. When changing gears, he lightly touched his father’s leg and heard him moving closer to the window. He didn’t feel like turning his head to watch him. Still, he asked him if he felt all right. The old man answered grumpily – No.
For a long while, the field around them stretched empty. Even the telegraph lines seemed frozen. A few jackdaws hopped in the snow, then flew away and across the wind screen. Not much else happened besides that.
He asked whether he wanted him to say what he had read in his file, but again his father answered – No. Then he mustered his courage and asked him why he didn’t want to tell him anything about it. He answered that right from the start he hadn’t had any wish to know what was in that file.
“Still, I did not force you to come with me,” his son replied.
The father gave a short cough and covered his mouth with his hand. Then he fidgeted in his seat, fumbled in his coat for a handkerchief, found it and spent some time blowing his nose.
“You did want to come along, didn’t you?”
A car coming from the opposite direction flashed its headlights at them. They were driving at a low speed, but the son thought it prudent to slow it down a little bit more. It had rained all through the night and a thin coat of black ice had covered the road.
In the very next curve he felt the rear of the car sliding towards the parapet. He turned the wheel slowly, so as not to skid, and managed to handle the car on the route.
“I wanted to come along but did not want to read the file,” his father said. “That you’ve read it, will do for me.”
His old man had been a dentist for 30 years. In the small town, everybody had come to know him. After his mother’s death, the son had moved to a larger town, he had married a priest’s daughter who was pretty well off. One day, he had told his wife he wished to take a trip to Bucharest to read his father’s file from Securitate.
He had thought that the truth might comfort him, might ease his father off or bring him some sort of a resolution, but his wife had a different opinion. Her father, too, had suffered because of the regime, but she had been taught that it was safer to stay away from people and not dig up a past that might bring along even more suffering. Still, she loved people. They already had two sons and very soon after the twins’ birth he saw how her love flowed into them.
After having passed the police control, he continued to drive carefully. They advanced with difficulty as the fog had settled upon the valley. He placed his car behind a van and let the driver in front lead the way on.
In the years preceding the revolution, his father had gathered quite big money, for he was a good dentist and had a lot of patients. With the money he had put aside, he had bought a better dentist chair from West Germany. A cousin in Cologne had helped him buy it and then had transported it across Hungary, all the way to the border. He had been helped to get it through customs by a Party official to whom he had inserted a pivot tooth and had performed several other dental interventions along the years. As a result, he was then able to perform even more laborious interventions. The number of consultations grew.
Everybody was happy, but somebody turned him in. A search was made and his chair seized, on the grounds that it was brought from abroad. He was investigated and kept in custody for several days. It was the same official who pulled some strings so that at least he would get a milder conviction. The official had very bad teeth and needed that dentist badly. The other dentists in town were helpless. When his father returned home, he did not want to tell them anything about what he had been through in there.
At the time, his wife was still alive. All her life she had been a very cheerful person, then one day she was hit by a car.
For a long time a stifling atmosphere hung inside the house. The elder son went away right after the revolution. He immigrated to the US. He once told his younger brother that he had never liked living in that house, that their father had been a gloomy, stern man and that he sometimes had hit him. Nothing like that had ever happened to him, though, so he was very astonished to find that out. His brother told him that those things had happened when he had been very young and he surely could not remember. The two siblings were 11 years apart and rarely spoke on the phone. The call was very expensive anyway; his brother could barely make ends meet there, so he thought he should not make him pay too much. He suggested calling him back, but his brother bluntly turned him down. He must have felt offended. We should leave it for another time – he had said, but they had not brought it up another time.
Their father had never bought another dentist chair, although later he had had the possibility and the money to do it again. For a while, after the revolution, things went smooth. People knew what he had been through and whenever they came to the practice, they kept on filling him in on any rumour. He used to tell them they were not allowed to open their mouths. They answered they had already gained this right but he warned them that this way they would end up with bad dental interventions.
His father had always carried out a silent, meticulous and precise work. He stubbornly went on using his old chair even when the number of patients dropped significantly.
After work, the old dentist spends hours sitting on the banks of river Criș watching its fast waters. The others are fishing, but he has never tried that. They asked him why he didn’t want to try and he answered his mind was not at that. Once, as they were by the river together, his son thought the chair issue must still be bothering him. He asked him whether he wanted to know who had turned him in, as they had given free access to the archives in Bucharest. His old man said he was no longer thinking about it.
Next months, he continued to pester him, until the dentist said that he personally didn’t want to know, but that he would like his son to find out who was the snitch, so that he might stay away from him in the future. The son answered he was unable to claim the file on his behalf. The dentist answered he would accompany him, if need be. He would sit on a chair next to him until he read the entire file till he found out the truth, but he himself wouldn’t read a single line.
That was exactly what they did. For almost half a day, the father sat in a narrow, cold little room next to his son who was reading his file. A sharp draught, like the blade of a penknife, was blowing by the window frame. The son’s hands had turned purple with cold. His father kept his hands in his lap, covered by the ends of the muffler, and rubbed them from time to time. Then he stumped his feet to warm up, but didn’t stand up, not even once. For many hours, neither rose to drink some water or go to the toilet. The names were unknown to the son, and the sequence of events – unclear. Some notes were hardly comprehensible. The chronological order of events was not observed. Some entire pages were missing. In fact, it was just an extract of the file. The son turned towards his father and asked whether he felt all right. Then his father said he felt he was catching a cold. The son said he felt that cold, too and went on reading.
When they got to Alba Iulia, he suggested they should stop, it was already dark and the driver in front left them before Sighișoara. Besides, they had barely met other cars on the road. They checked in at a cheap hotel.
The lights in the street reminded him the holidays were drawing near. After they left their things in the room, they went downstairs for dinner. In the lobby he called his wife and asked her how were the twins. She said they were just fine. Then it was her turn to ask him how he was doing. He told her he was weary and felt the cold coming on. She asked how his father was doing and he told her he felt even worse. He had sniffled and coughed in the car all the way. He told her he loved her. She answered she loved him, too.
Then she hung up.
Outside, a few men passed by the window, singing. They had pork and vegetables casserole for dinner. He remembered his mother used to make meat casserole quite often. He remembered that many people his father knew had been turning him in even since college. Some were his colleagues, some were even friends. He asked his father whether he liked the casserole. He mumbled he did. Some of the notes stated they had been guests in their home. Even his mother’s name came up several times in that file. She was an outspoken and talkative woman; she would say exactly what she thought.
Some fiddlers played a few cheerful tunes and the others cheered for them, then some beckoned them over to their table, to play for them, and gave them some money. The fiddlers passed by their table, too, but quickly realized nothing would come out of it and dashed out. His mother’s name kept coming up in his father’s file, as well as another file, probably hers. It struck him he could no longer ask her whether she would like to read her file. Instead, he asked his father about getting some dessert, but he preferred a glass of water.
They rose and for a moment he worried the names he had read in the archives might get mixed up in his head. He felt a cold chill along his spine and a throbbing sensation in his chest. Back in the room, his father chose the bed by the window. He wrapped himself in the blanket and switched off the side-light. He, on the other hand, kept tossing and turning in his bed. He could feel the bugging coldness of the bedclothes and of the room.
The window was covered with ice flowers. A pale light came in from the street. He waited until his father’s breathe ease, and then he snuck out of the bed. He used to do that when he was a child, but he did not smoke at the time. He lit a cigarette in the corridor. The hall stretched long and still, like a goose neck cut on a chopping block. He noticed the carpet was worn out and the walls were dirty. He felt a slight burning sensation in his throat so he only drew a few puffs at his cigarette. Then he put it out and went back into the room.
During the night the temperature dropped to -17˚ C. In his dream, the son found out that his father had turned him in to Securitate. The news was overwhelming. He tried to escape but he couldn’t. He was being followed. He ran away with a thick file under his arm and hid under a tall gate. Every time he reached the end of a page he would find a new one. He had to run away but was unable to as the unfinished file held him back. He realised his father knew so much about him, about his wife and kids while he knew almost nothing about his father. Then it was as if he were on a sandy field trying to overturn a tortoise. He was poking it with a stick and hitting its shell gently without hurting it, when suddenly he woke up.
His father was sitting on the side of his bed, watching him.
‘Get up, so that we may leave,” he said.
On the rest of the journey he felt badly tired and realised the cold had seized him, too. His father suggested he could stay home overnight. He called his wife and asked her whether it would be wrong if he stayed away for one more night. She told him to do what he has to do. He asked again about the boys and found out again they were safe and sound. His wife then hung up without telling him she loved him. She must have been very busy. He didn’t tell her he loved her, either. His father told him that the maid had cooked for them a beef bone marrow soup. He had no doubts that would fix them up.
The fog went along with them almost all the way to the town, but the weather had become milder. The snow turned into a drizzle. They passed by the psychiatric unit on the outskirts of the town. The patients were standing behind the fence, smoking in the cold rain.
They skidded on the next curve. Neither of them got hurt but both got scared stiff. The car got one of its back wheels stuck in the thawing out mud. He stepped up but the car wouldn’t move. His father switched to the hand wheel while he went out to try pushing the car. At one moment he stopped and just stood there watching the wheel spinning in the mud. His father stopped pushing the accelerator and pulled down the window.
“Why aren’t you pushing anymore?”
He didn’t answer; he was simply looking at the stuck wheel.
After a while, a car drove by. His father recognised the psychiatrist who was coming back from the graveyard shift and he stopped to give them a hand. That doctor was a bit bonkers, spoke incoherently and smelled of alcohol, still, his father introduced him as a good old pal. They tied a steel cable between the two cars and with the psychiatrist’s help they made it back to the road. He towed them all the way to the town. All he had to do now was to gently steer the wheel to the left or to the right, keeping his eyes on the signal lights in front. Close to home, he felt a burning fever going noisy through his head. Then he sneezed a few times and felt better.
When they got home, they were both exhausted and dirty as hell. The housemaid was long gone, leaving the soup on the cooker, now cold. He didn’t feel like eating anything, just lay down in his bed with his thoughts spinning on his head just like that wheel in the mud. He watched the room he used to sleep and study in when he was a child and which suddenly seemed terribly small to him.
His father suddenly came in.
“Have you found out who turned me in?”
He was not expecting that question, not at all. He sat up in bed and looked at him, blinking fast. His father’s figure slowly became clear.
“He had a code name – ‘The Bear’,” he told him.
“Well, well, have you found out his real name?”
“Several names were mentioned. Petroviceanu, I think.”
“I see,” his father answered, and walked towards the door. “Are you sure you don’t want any soup?”
“Yes. Or Petroveanu, something like that…”
His old man stopped and turned towards him.
“Petroveanu was a fellow working at the greenhouses nearby and was my patient, while Petroviceanu was a high school mate.”
He then realised that he could no longer tell, and that he couldn’t avoid what he had feared the most.
“Now, I don’t know anymore. I’ve read so many pages and they were so many who turned both you and mother in.”
His father frowned.
“Anyway, you said you are not interested!”
“I’m not! I just asked whether you found out his name. I wanted to check if you know whom to stay away from, that’s all…”
For a moment they both went silent.
“I’ll stay away from both…”
“Fine then, the father answered. I’m going to heat up a bowl of soup. This woman is such a great cooker!”
He felt that at that very moment his father was even cheerful.
“What about your cold?”
“The same,” the father answered, waving his hand despondently.
∗The story is taken from Marile bucurii și marile tristeți (The Great Joys and the Great Sorrows), Trei Publishing House, Bucharest, 2013.