MY STORY BEGINS long before I drew my first breath.
It starts with Zoe, on her way home after a party after midnight, arm-in-arm with a girlfriend, five kilometres from her village. The old streetlamps created fleeting shadows of
Zoe’s tiny figure, high heels stumbling on the cobbled road. “We need to find a rich boyfriend for you, Zoe! All that glamour is going to waste on a bunch of uneducated peasants,” said her friend.
“Why complicate life? He’ll want me to cook him dinner and wash his clothes and make babies! Where is the fun in that?” replied Zoe.
“But a nice car would make this journey so much more enjoyable, don’t you think?”
“Maybe you’re right. One day... we’ll see,” said Zoe.
As the two girls walked together, trading giggles and hearty laughs, a bear-like growl rose from up from the hills, startling them.
They increased their pace, glancing behind, panic rising with every step. As they walked through a valley, the growls echoed; where were they coming from?
Then they heard rumbling, and vibration shook the ground. A huge boulder tumbled out from the darkness, landing in front of Zoe. She froze. Her face drained, white as snow, her pupils dilated, and her breathing seemed to have stopped. She collapsed.
She regained consciousness back in her bed, the surge of the shock still vibrating in her body, like the smell of smoke after a fire. Every time she tried to close her eyes, she’d relive the pow- erlessness of that moment. The longest night of her life.
The next day she found out that it had been not a bear that made those sounds and had rolled the boulder down the hill, but a drunk man she used to go to school with. He thought that pranking the girls might be a good story to tell his mates the next day.
Zoe wasn’t the same person after that night. Her heart was taken captive by an immense anxiety. The same fear of death that she experienced years ago when her mother, Flor almost killed her, now enveloped her with a force one thousand times stronger.
Later during the day, as the sun began to set, she started feeling distressed. The idea of darkness haunted her like a faceless demon. Every fibre of her being trembled. As the vibrations intensified, she felt a desire to run frantically around the garden. And so she did. She only realised she was barefoot after the sharp little rocks had cut into the soles of her feet leaving a bloody trail behind. That night she slept under the moonlight, curled up like a baby, unable to console herself.
A few days after the incident, Zoe decided to tell her parents what had happened.
“Why do you make such a fuss about this? I told you not to go out that night! Especially not dressed like that!” said Flor.
“What do my clothes have to do with the fact that I was pranked? Can’t you see I am hurting?”
“The only thing I care about is that the animals haven’t been fed while you are sulking. Stupid girl!” replied her mother.
“Don’t talk to her like that! I will go out to the stables. Give me a minute,” said Tiberius (Zoe’s dad) gesticulating towards Flor to leave them on their own.
“Thank you, Father. She frightens me so much! Why can’t she see I am in pain?” said Zoe letting thick tears soak into Tiberius’s woollen jumper.
“Don’t mind her, Zoe! She had a bad day. You’re safe! Shhhh.”
She felt her father’s protective love and embraced him with all her strength. His callused hands caressed her back like a tuneless lullaby. When he gently pulled off, Zoe shifted her gaze on Tiberius’ face for a moment. The love behind his brilliant blue eyes was all she needed to see.
As he left, Flor’s words stalked her, “stupid girl”, “making such a fuss!”
Flor grew up in a hamlet at the edge of the Buzău county, called Cărăbuși (in Romania), the second of three children. Her older sister married very young, and her younger brother had left the family home, because he felt that farming was not his calling. So Flor at only thirteen years carried a tremendous responsibility to provide for her family; she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders.
The animals they’d bought two winters before were not even theirs; Flor’s father had taken a loan from the mayor of the village, buying two bulls, three cows and a horse, hoping that his farm would be saved.
Flor would wake up every morning at first light, working the land, planting corn and vegetables, on a small piece of land, a thirty-minute walk from the house. She’d come back after sunset – famished and too exhausted to do any homework. She loved reading about princesses and their magical castles. Seeing their two-bedroom house always broke Flor’s spell; instead of a castle she lived under a curse.
Her family’s poverty felt like an unbreakable chain. She could not go to high school like the other girls from the village. The only way to escape the misery she’d lived in all her life was marriage.
Flor was nineteen when she met Tiberius at a village fair. She fancied his stature and his brilliant blue eyes.
“I haven’t seen you here before, miss! Are you from the Valley?” said the young man.
“Yes, I grew up here. And yes, this is the first time I’ve been to the fair. But I don’t know how to dance, so I don’t see why I should make a fool of myself,” replied Flor.
“Come! Let me show you. Just follow my lead!
Abandoning herself in Tiberius’ arms, Flor muted the voices in her mind pestering her with the problems she’d left at home. No more images of her sick father and her dominant mother; she just took pleasure in being seen, touched, appreciated.
Tiberius looked deep into her eyes that first evening. Flor knew that she had finally found her man. No longer did she need to be a slave. For the first time she felt free, like the goose they used for filling up bed cushions.
Seven months later, they got married. They wanted an intimate wedding, with only their parents, siblings, and a handful of close friends. After the civil officiation and the church service, which took only two hours, they headed back to the house, celebrating until after sunset.
Tiberius had inherited his house after both his parents died during a pneumonia outbreak. At just seventeen and an orphan, with a young sister in his care, he took a job in carpentry in Nehoiu, a small mountain town thirty kilometres from their village.
He loved the tranquillity of his life, and the multiple journeys per day from the house to their patch of arable land, just to see Flor. She would often bring her picnic basket and have lunch with her handsome husband. Tiberius’ dark hair reminded her of the colour of the horse she rode growing up.
Three years after their wedding, Flor fell pregnant. On that same August of 1965, Romania became a Socialist Republic. No one knew what the future might bring. Engrossed in the speech blasted from the radio, Tiberius looked worried for a second when Flor gave him the news about the baby, but he dismissed his pessimism with a hearty smile.
“We’re going to be parents, Flor! Imagine that!”
“I’d love to have a boy! He will be so handsome!” said his wife.
“May God keep him safe, dear; the rest will be fine.”
On her way back, Flor’s mind drifted. She couldn’t be happy. Months ago, she had given herself to another man at the village fair. She’d drunk too much, the alcohol loosening her inhi- bitions. As the shepherd made love to her, the bucolic smell of sheep and whey imbued in his skin soothed her. She buried the memory so deep she wouldn’t be tempted to remember. I promise I won’t cheat on Tiberius anymore. He will never know.
Flor had never shown affection to her daughter. On a sunny May morning, as Zoe came back from the store with the ingre- dients for her tenth birthday, Flor refused to help her bake it.
“Why are you so cruel to me?” wailed the child through tears.
“You simply don’t deserve it!”
“But why? What have I done to you to punish me so harshly?” “You weren’t conceived in love! You were just the fruit of a fling. An accident,” said Flor staring out the window.
Zoe stood motionless behind her mother, unable to com- prehend what she’d just heard. Is my father not my real father? I thought he loved Mum! How can I be an accident? My own mother hates me. Are Claudiu and Christian my brothers?
Zoe knew not to press with more questions. As she kneaded the dough, tears fell into the mixture. She laughed, the thought of her family eating her tears distracted her from the pain.
Claudiu came into the kitchen, after playing football with his mates in their back garden.
“Happy birthday, sis! May you grow big and fat like that dough you’ve just made!”
“Claudiu, don’t say that! Thank you! Give me a kiss, you cheeky bugger!”
Her little brother always had a way of making her happy. He was so energetic and gave her the best kisses.
Flor loved Claudiu from the moment the nurse put him in her arms, on that November morning in 1973. She saw Tiberius’ eyes and nose in her newborn son. The guilt she had been carrying all those years vanished like a cloud. Claudiu was her husband’s legitimate child.
“We have a baby boy, Flor! I cannot believe that!” shouted Tiberius.
“I am so happy, dear! I know how much you wanted a son!”
“Zoe will be so happy to meet her little brother!” said Tiberius.
“No ... not yet. Let me enjoy my baby a bit more!”
When Claudiu would damage the tools in his father’s shed, Zoe took on the blame. She hated seeing him cry when he’d be punished. Even if Flor saw the girl’s little acts of sacrifice, she never acknowledged that to her daughter.
When Flor was pregnant again Zoe prayed, Please God, don’t let my mother’s venom to be transferred to the new baby.Once Tiberius and Flor’s second boy, Christian, was born Flor’s patience seemed lit on an even shorter fuse, as she’d beat Christian every time he was naughty. Seeing her brother hit on his lower back made Zoe fear for him, but she was too afraid to confront Flor. Zoe would take Christian in his arms and calm him down by caressing his handsome face.
Tiberius would wake at five every morning, to take the train to a town thirty kilometres away where he worked as a carpenter. He’d come home in the evening around eight. Only on Saturdays and Sundays could Zoe spend time with him – while working together on their small farm with their cows, poultry and sheep. He was a gentle spirit and he enjoyed listening to her silly stories from school.
“You will always be your father’s daughter! You know that, right?”
“Yes Father. I love you the most of everyone in this world!” replied Zoe.
“Don’t let your mother steal your wonderful joy, my dear! She is trying her best. She sees life differently than us. She’ll come around. Now, let me hear another one of your stories,” said Tiberius with a child-like voice.
Tiberius loved his train trip to work. Most mornings he’d spend the journey asleep. Otherwise he’d just look outside the window and admire the landscape. His dream was to buy land and build a small farm where he could have more cows, more sheep, and maybe a couple of horses.
But once the kids were born, his dream was impossible. Zoe was already in Year 5 and her studies required money they didn’t have. Selling a cow to pay for her education wasn’t a big sacrifice, for him, at least. But Flor always resented spending the money on Zoe.
Tiberius could not understand Flor’s animosity towards his daughter. She was so sweet to him, making him smile with her jokes she’d learn from school. Wanting to make her happy, he’d take a day off work and take her to a fair in a neighbouring village. He put on his Sunday clothes and asked her to put on a beautiful dress.
“You look like a princess, Zoe!”
“I am your princess, Father! Now, let’s find me a prince!” said Zoe giving Tiberius a kiss on the cheek.
For Zoe being at the fair brought back memories of a big secret she carried. When she was only nine years old, she had come home early from school to get ready for a fair in their village. She could not wait to put on her silly folk costume and play with her girlfriends.
As she reached the house, she found the gate was locked. After she jumped the fence, she could hear giggles and laughter from inside the house. When she opened the door, her mother was in bed with a man she did not recognise. Her mother saw her and became furious, screaming at her.
“What are you doing home so early?” Get out, you stupid girl!” screamed Flor covering her naked breasts with the sheets. Zoe closed the door behind her, ran outside, and began crying.
Flor came out and slapped her daughter throwing her on the ground.
“That should teach you not to meddle in things you are not supposed to!” yelled Flor.
Zoe hit her head on a rock and lay motionless for minutes.
When she regained consciousness, she ran towards the barn where the hay was stored for the winter, tears streaming.
“I hope you stay hidden there for the rest of your life. If you ever tell anybody, I will kill you! You stupid girl!” screamed Flor.
After this incident, Zoe’s relationship with her mother grew even colder. Terrified, she decided not to tell her father what had happened.
Now, almost a decade after catching her mother with the mysterious man, she finally realised what she’d witnessed. The contempt she felt for Flor grew stronger every day. She could have died that day, but what infuriated her the most was the betrayal of her father. Was that the only time? she wondered.
She remembered a morning when she was playing with her doll in the barn; she heard her mother yelling at someone. Peering through a hole in the wall, she recognised the voice of a family friend, shouting “How many more children will you throw in the river?” Not understanding what the woman meant, Zoe went back to playing.
But now, as a grown-up woman, she knew that the neighbour was referring to her mother’s aborted children. She couldn’t stand the thought of Flor cheating on Tiberius repeatedly. How many brothers and sisters could she have had if Flor had not terminated those pregnancies?
Telling her father about Flor’s sexual adventures would only make things worse. If he found out about his wife’s secret life that would have killed the wonderful light inside him.
Zoe’s panic attacks grew in intensity and frequency; she needed her father now more than ever. But the phantoms of the past were the least of her concerns. The future terrified her now.
The couple of months following the prank boulder attack passed very slowly. Zoe’s girlfriends stopped checking in on her, and so she felt even more alone. One morning, on the way to the village store she met Tim, a gypsy-style middle-aged neighbour working on a drilling rig in the Carpathian Mountains. (The Communist regime planned as many drilling rigs as possible in the southern part of Romania, so many men from the region found employment thanks to the new scheme.)
“Zoe, I know a guy you should meet!” he said. “An electrician who works with me on the rig. A good-looking man with a great sense of humour.”
“Thanks Tim, but I’m not up to meeting men at the moment. I have a lot of things on my plate.”
“Well, you have to meet someone, soon! Your mother wants you married!”
“Who told you that?” asked Zoe.
“Well, the women in the village are like a telegraph.”
“I am only twenty-three, Tim. There is still enough time,” said Zoe.
“He will come visit me this weekend. Just talk to him. If you don’t like him, no harm done. He has a motorcycle, you’ll like that,” Tim added.
“We’ll see! Good to see you, Tim!”
Zoe didn’t have the courage or strength to think about her future family. The final exams for school, ever demanding work on the farm, and the panic attacks kept her busier than she’d wanted. How could she envision a life away from her mother, devoid of fear and pain, when the present was as bitter as the fodder she fed the pigs with?
Saturday came sooner than she expected. It was a beautiful summer evening, so she’d bought a flowery strapless dress that’d go well with her yellow high-heeled shoes. It had been so long since she used make-up and did anything special with her hair. The mirror showed a good-looking young woman, with jet black hair, green eyes and a mysteriously faded smile.
Tim lived a couple of kilometres north, in a wooden cabin by the river. As she approached the house, she could hear music coming from inside and the sound of men laughing. Tim looked elated to see her.
With his usual grin, he called out: “Oh, hey! You came ... Come and say hello to Radu!”
“Nice to meet you, Radu. I am Zoe.”
“Pleased to finally meet you, Zoe. I’ve heard great things about you,” said Radu.
“Oh, have you? I wonder who from!” teased Zoe, eying Tim. Radu admired her dress, analysing her from head to toe.
“Beautiful motorbike, Radu. I like the green stripes!” said Zoe.
“I’d love to give you a ride soon,” he replied.
“I’ve never been on one, but I might take you up on that ... once I muster enough courage,” Zoe added shyly.
That evening Zoe forgot about her problems. Radu was witty and treated her like a woman. She admired his shoulder-length raisin black hair and liquorice black eyes; his pupils immersed in the blackness of his irises.
Would I feel safe in his arms? She wondered. Could he protect me from the world, from the indifference of my mother? How can I tell him that I am afraid of my own future? Do I even have one?
At midnight she decided to leave; her jaw muscles ached from laughing.
“You are a delightful woman, Zoe. I am looking forward to seeing you again.”
“Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer,” she replied, pointing towards the motorbike.
When she got home everyone was already in bed. She knew she’d not sleep, but she didn’t care. She could think of the future now. She might’ve found her saviour.