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Do Not Kiss Isabel

 

Author: Sergiu Someşan

Correction Editor: CarolAnn Johnson

 

 

 

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

 

A White Helmet and a Child in the Rain.. 5

Goo-Goo-Gaa-Gaa, General   9

Do Not Kiss Isabel   13

How I Met Isabel.. 19

The Oviraptor.. 31

Dilemma.. 49

An Almost Absurd Hypothesis  53

The Bridge Seller   57

The Arena.. 61

The Lumberjack.. 69

The Egg.. 75

Meeting With a Goddess  83

A Rocket with My Name   91

Our Chance Was Called Adam    101

The Tram… 109

Work Visit.. 117

Christmas Presents  131

Eve’s Apples. 147

The Girl from the Seaside   153

Rafael.. 161

 


A White Helmet and a Child in the Rain

 

 

We have spent the last few days in the trenches, waiting for the others; the rain falls on us ruthlessly and turns the plain ahead of us into a veritable swamp. I had just decided to order the departure of a patrol when one of my soldiers flinches suddenly and waves to me: a silhouette, faintly visible through the dense squalls of rain, has appeared in his shooting sector. I signal him to wait a little longer and he acknowledges. He leans on the butt of his weapon aiming toward the uncertain shape in front of him. He edges closer, and now we can tell clearly: the person has a white helmet on his head; therefore, he is an enemy.

“Fire!” I whisper when the shape gets close enough, and in the same moment the enemy soldier falls facedown in the mud.

I summon two soldiers and they rush out of the trenches, grab the arms of the fallen soldier, and draw him to my feet. Yes, my soldier aimed well: the enemy has no visible wound. I bend towards him, raise his jacket, and with the control key, I open his chest. I pull out the program card, tear it apart, and throw it away while my soldiers are grinning with satisfaction; then, I replace it with one of our cards. One of my soldiers brings a black helmet, puts it on soldier’s head, and wipes the mud off his face. Then I activate him. He rises unsteadily, and when he sees me, he salutes. I like to have many soldiers under my command. A specialist in psychorobotics from the Maintenance Center told me once, when he was in a good mood and felt like talking, that this pleasure of mine was the residual of a human trait, carefully bred and cultivated in commanders: Pride.

That’s why we feel so good with more soldiers under our command.  He also told me that this pride usually makes us good officers and keeps us from risking a soldier’s life unnecessarily. I realized only then why I let my soldiers fire only when the enemy gets close enough to aim precisely into the armed button in the middle of the chest, the one that cuts off the vital functions.

Unfortunately, not all the soldiers hit the button, and then our bullets tear off big scraps of the enemy soldiers. We don’t know how to put them back, and those spoiled like this remain abandoned in front of the trenches. At one time, the damaged robot soldiers were taken to the Maintenance Center where there were people who knew how to make them functional again. After the escalation of the war and the use of nuclear weapons, we found fewer and fewer people at the Center, and those who remained seemed too weak to handle the dismembered robots. The specialist I spoke to said that probably all mankind will perish because the radiation level greatly exceeded even the most pessimistic estimates.

“But don’t be upset about it,” he tried to joke. “I’m sure you are going to win the war.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked him, puzzled.

He suddenly turned pale, closed his eyes, and answered me no more. I thought he died, like all the others, but in the end, he opened his eyes whispering:

“A matter of logic, my dear, a matter of logic…. In such a gloomy world, so full of smoke and ash, in which it rains all the time, soldiers with white helmets have absolutely no chance… they are too visible. This much you could have thought for yourself.”

He breathed heavily several times and then added:

“When you win, you’d better hurry to enjoy your victory because the sun won’t leave you too much time… and there is hardly anybody to take care of the Recharge Stations.”

“By the way, what is happening with the sun? Why can nobody see it anymore?” I asked him then, but he didn’t answer because he started to vomit and then he lost consciousness. He never came back again.

He was the last man I spoke with. Now I’m worried about my soldiers and I don’t know what to answer them when they ask me why they cannot see the sun. Since the day of the nuclear attack I’ve never seen it again, and a gray twilight envelopes the Earth. We still have supplies of energy for some time, but, since all the Recharge Stations are not functional, we will soon have to charge our batteries directly from the sun; otherwise we are finished. Even when I go patrolling, I don’t take with me the soldiers with the best reflexes, as I would like, but those with the most fully charged batteries.

I am still using that criterion, and I choose ten soldiers to go patrolling: there are some rocky hills in the distance, and I would like to search them in order to avoid an unpleasant surprise. We are meeting more and more black helmet soldiers patrolling as we are. We salute each other and mind our missions. It seems that the specialist from the Center was right and we will finally be the winners.

We don’t meet people at all now. At the beginning, when we went patrolling, we happened to meet one or two… They were starved and ragged, and we passed by them without noticing them. Sometimes they threw stones at us, but they were too weak to hurt us. The last time I met people, it happened to be a family. They were gathered around a tree; the woman and the two children were squatting and squalling from starvation and cold, and the man was trying to get two scrawny apples down from the tree. He burst out a dry, hollow cry, realizing he couldn’t succeed. When he saw us he began to throw stones at us.

“You bloody jerks,” he cried in anger. “We will die and they will remain to tramp the land forever!”

“Shut up, shut up.” The woman stood up, frightened. “Be quiet, or they’ll fly into a rage.”

We passed by them indifferently, as we had done before. They could say anything; their words couldn’t touch us. We were programmed to slay the white helmet bearers only.

For some time now, it seemed these problems were over and we wouldn’t meet people to disturb us in our patrols.

As we reached the foot of the hills, I set the alarm signals, as I did some other times, and ordered the patrols to spread out. I had just split from the others when I heard a short blast from a ravine nearby. I ran towards the place where the shootings were heard, and I saw a few soldiers gathered around a fallen body.  I saw, as I approached, that it was a human: blood was flowing from the chest wound mixing with the raindrops.

“You idiot!” I said to the soldier who had shot. “Why did you shoot him dead? Did you not see he was human?” I have no idea what idiot means, but this was what a General Staff officer called me when I miscarried his orders.

The soldier showed the white helmet near the fallen body.

“He was wearing it. I saw it was a human, but he had the helmet on his head.”

A few carrots rolled out in the mud from the hands of the slain man. I kicked them, and then I heard a squeak from inside the hollow of the rocky wall. Turning my head, I saw two frightened eyes: they belonged to a boy only a few years old. He was frightened, but he was hungry too, because his eyes rolled anxiously from us to the carrots. Noticing that we weren’t moving, he plucked up his courage and sneaked out, quickly snatched a carrot, and began to crunch it avidly while he watched us with suspicious eyes. The rain continued to fall heavily from above, ruthlessly hitting the boy’s forehead. Maybe this disturbed him because he stretched a skeleton-like hand toward the white helmet, fallen in the mud.

“Don’t shoot!” I cried, seeing how the soldiers’ hands clenched their weapons. “He’s just a child; don’t shoot!”

They stopped, because they were programmed to obey their officer’s orders even if those orders contravene the basic program. At that moment, the child put the white helmet on his head. The blast automatically left my gun and shook his frail body as he fell. I am a very complex robot officer. I know that he was a child and I shouldn’t have killed him, but in my program is the deeply-rooted order to shoot everything that moves and wears a white helmet.

We remain motionless near the two bodies under the rain falling harder and harder. Our batteries are almost empty and who knows whether the sun will ever come out. If I were human, I would cry now, but since I am just a very complex robot officer, I give the order to set forward to look for soldiers with white helmets.

 

 

Goo-Goo-Gaa-Gaa, General

 

 

 

My wife Betty, had just put little Bill, our eleven-month-old, to bed, asking me to keep quiet till he fell asleep, when I heard the doorbell.

Puzzled, as it was almost 10 p.m., and we are not used to visits at this hour, I went to see who was there. At the door there was a colonel, who, as far as I could tell by his uniform, was with the Air Force. Behind him a number of soldiers waited, looking at me with indifference. On the street, in the dark, I could make out the shadows of several light armoured vehicles, but I couldn’t take a better look as the officer stood right in front of me.

“Good evening,” he said, in an anxious voice. “Pardon me; we are looking for Mr. William Clemens.” I smiled, embarrassed:

“There must be a mistake, Colonel,” I said, casting a glance at the soldiers’ guns. “I am Robert Clemens.  There is no Mr. William Clemens living here.”

The colonel looked confused for a moment, and then turned towards a captain standing in the shadow of the stairs. The captain lit a tiny torch, leafed through a notebook, shrug his shoulders, and said:

“Roses Street, Number 5. This is it, Colonel.”

The colonel turned stiffly towards me:

“We want to see Mr. William Clemens immediately! It is my duty to inform you that we are on official business, and any interference on your part will have serious consequences.”

“But, colonel, don’t you understand…” I started to explain, then I suddenly stopped. My son’s name is William, William Clemens, but since we call him Bill, I did not think of this in the beginning. Surely, the Air Force is not looking for him. It definitely is a mistake. I sighed with relief:

“Well,” I continued in a happy tone, “the truth is that there is a William Clemens here, but I doubt that you are looking for him. He’s not yet one year old. ”

The colonel displayed an official smile, then turned and waved a discreet gesture towards those standing behind him. In a few moments, the soldiers passed stealthily into our living room, like walking shadows. They must have been very well trained, as they made no noise whatsoever, while searching all corners with an expert’s eye for danger.

I must say all of this left me speechless. When I came to my senses, I asked in a strange voice I could hardly recognize:

“Why are you looking for him, Colonel? Are you going to arrest him?”

I could see a lenient smile cross the colonel’s straight face. He followed me into the house after casting a second look at the few soldiers left on guard outside. He then turned and spoke to me:

“On the contrary, Mr. Clemens, nothing like that From now on, we must do our best to protect your son.”

Attracted by the noise, my wife came out of the bedroom, and seeing the soldiers occupying strategic positions in our tiny living room, stared at us in disbelief.

“As you are Mr. William Clemens’s parents,” the colonel explained quickly in response to her bewilderment, “I don’t see any reason to hide the purpose of our visit. The Governmental Computer, on the basis of the tests given monthly in all schools, nurseries, and maternity wards, revealed that your son is a genuine military genius, registering top scores in all exams. The Government decided, in recognition of his merits, to appoint him General of the Armed Forces and give him, in this difficult time for our nation, the supreme command.

I opened my mouth a few times in an unsuccessful attempt to utter something. Eventually, a pitiful laugh was all that came out.

“You must be mad!” Betty said bluntly, summing up, in a bit too direct a fashion, what we were both thinking.

“Ma’am,” the colonel turned, obviously offended, “the fact that you are the mother of the greatest military genius in history does not mean you can question the Government’s decision.”

As we were talking, the captain sneaked into the bedroom unnoticed, and came out with our little Bill, holding him with great care, as he would a priceless trophy. Bill was blinking sleepily, looking around in bewilderment at what was going on. When he caught sight of Betty, he stretched his hands towards her and started babbling: “Goo-goo-gaa-gaa” – these were actually the only sounds he could pronounce clearly, despite the fact he was almost one year old, as I mentioned before.

The Colonel turned towards me with a radiant face:

“Did you hear that? Did you hear what he just said? ‘Goo-goo-gaa-gaa’! Extraordinary! The General knows, without ever being told, the code that triggers the nuclear attack. How can you still doubt his military genius?”

I started:

“What you mean, Colonel, is that…”

“Exactly,” the Colonel confirmed my fears. “For increased safety, a nuclear attack can be triggered only by a chosen person pronouncing a code word in a microphone, so that there is no risk a criminal hand would press the wrong button. From now on, your son will sit in front of said microphone, in the control room. He will be given all the data he might need. He will be the one to order a nuclear attack, should we need to start one. I hope you realize that this is a great  honor for you.”

Meanwhile, the captain had managed to take little Bill’s blue pajamas off, and he was now trying to fit him in a uniform his size. He couldn’t manage to put on the military jacket, so he had to ask for Betty’s help, who, with tears in her eyes, dressed up our little General

“You shouldn’t cry, Mrs. Clemens,” the Colonel intervened to comfort her.  “You should be proud, aware of this great honour bestowed upon you.”

“But, Colonel, these are the only sounds Bill can pronounce clearly. And he keeps on saying them almost all the time… when he sees a new toy, for instance…”

“Is that so, Mrs. Clemens? Interesting, indeed… Did you heard that, Captain? Toys – as many as you can get, new ones. We should stock a consistent supply.”

He made a sign, and all of his soldiers rushed out towards the combat vehicles.  The captain carefully carried Bill. We followed them to the door.

“He also says ‘goo-goo-gaa-gaa’ when he’s hungry, Colonel,” Betty shouted behind them.

The Colonel turned towards us for a moment, waved goodbye, and got into the tracked vehicle. They screeched off and vanished around the corner, leaving behind a dark cloud of dust, which settled in the pale moonlight.

“Also when he needs to be changed, Colonel,” Betty whispered. “… and when he gets bored, or when he’s sleepy….”

I turned her towards me and pressed her face into my shoulder. I wanted to comfort her, but more than that, I wanted to keep her from seeing the long row of rats coming out of the old warehouse next door, making their way to the mountains on the horizon.

 

 

 

 

Do Not Kiss Isabel

 

 

 

The party must have been a real success; at least this is what I heard from those invited who were able to express their opinions coherently till its end. I was seeing a group of noisy and merry guests off to the front door when I noticed Isabel making a discreet sign to me.

“The maestro wants to talk to you before he goes.” She smiled charmingly when I managed to come closer to her.

“Would you think…?” I asked her, quite unsure, as I looked towards the armchair in the corner of the room where old Norris, a sort of special guest of the evening, was waiting for me, looking right into the bottom of a glass which I believed to be empty.

“Darling” Isabel spoke coyly, “I don’t believe a word! But if you ask me nicely, I could calculate for you the probability that he is the one we are looking for…”

I made an impatient gesture, so she continued:

“Fine, you can go then! I will take care of the guests that are still here… And, really, there’s no use to be so tense – the party was great!”

I took two glasses from one of the tables and went to the armchair in the corner, where Norris was waiting for me. I offered him one of the glasses and sat down near him.

“Well, young man,” Norris started after toasting, “I would like to talk to you.  As a matter of fact, I wanted to approach you earlier, but you were too busy to receive congratulations.  Of course, I hope you will not make the mistake of believing them to be as sincere as the ardor with which they are spoken.”

I looked towards Isabel, who was seeing the remaining guests to the door; then I turned towards the man in front of me.

“I am listening to you now,” I said, hoping that Isabel would manage without making any blunder.

Norris, noticing my worried expression, probably interpreted it in his own way, as he could not help himself adding, hiding a malicious smile behind the glass:

“This is only between us: I think you are envied by your fellows especially because of your young, charming and particularly obedient wife, rather than because of your ephemeral literary success.”

“People are gossiping, sir” I replied, revolted. “They are up to anything except recognizing the genuine cause of my success and, implicitly, of their envy: my talent”.

“Quite possible” he added, tolerantly. “But allow me not to ramble about that… I must warn you regarding a great danger that is waiting for you.”

“What danger?” I asked him, amazed. “The only danger I am aware of came from my wife’s tailor. But regarding the success of my novel, I hope I can finally settle that.”

He smiled kindly:

“I’m talking about a danger that I didn’t know how to avoid, just because at the beginning, far from appearing a danger, you would imagine it to be manna from heaven. You start by losing your personality as a writer; then your art will become the servant of some aims you won’t be able to understand.

I probably looked bewildered, because he continued:

“I will tell you everything from the very beginning… Thus you will understand better what all is about. About thirty years ago, shortly after publishing my first novel, I was unexpectedly contacted by a man that I had never seen before. His name was Baffin. He told me he was the representative of a highly regarded publishing house and he had an offer for me. The money I had gotten for my first novel had disappeared extremely quickly, and inflation isn’t really a reason to put forward nowadays, so I listened carefully to his suggestions. To be honest, I felt slightly put down by the terms of the contract, according to which I was bound to give up the manuscript of my novel to the publishing house whose name was not even mentioned, in exchange for an amount of money that I found more than appealing at that time. The publishing house was then free to publish the novel whenever and under whatever name it wished…”

“I hope you did not accept” I interrupted.

“I wish I hadn’t,” he said, sighing deeply. “Unfortunately, I could not resist temptation. Because a weak person always finds his own excuses, I told myself that I had the chance to secure a relative material independence; then I could be free to devote myself to the really important things that were my concern, and not the commercial trifles that the publishers wanted.

But the money I took as a result of this odd contract was gone sooner than I expected, so when Baffin visited me again, instead of showing him the door, I gave him a warm reception. In order to get a better price, I started to invent all sort of scruples and remorse, feelings that I never had anyway. I think he predicted my reaction. He told me that he understood me – after all, I was a writer and I wanted to see my name written on the book’s cover, to be appreciated by my colleagues and my readers. As a consequence, he offered me in exchange for my new novel the same amount of money as first time, plus the right to publish, under my own name, the manuscript of a fairly good novel. I accepted again, although this time I did not understand anything of what was going on. A long time passed before I found out the truth about Baffin. He was nothing but a common dealer, even if he was coming back from the future. He had come from a remote future where the computers – now naïve babies in terms of artistic creation – had replaced man even in art, the last field to be conquered by machines. These computers were able to offer so many facilities in the field of creation, that there is no wonder that writers, just like other artists, had become a vanishing species, but highly appreciated and honored, so that many of them were ready to pay huge amounts to become well known.

“Just as any demand creates an offer, charlatans like Baffin were created to handle this particular type of smuggling. This happened because in his future, in order for a novel to be published, it had to be checked by a so-called human creations detector that would issue afterwards a certificate to confirm that the text was written by a human and had not been published ever in history. And probably these detectors were impossible to cheat on, otherwise Baffin wouldn’t have gotten involved in such a dangerous enterprise. I believe it is not necessary to mention that what he offered me were works of art written by his own computer; I found out afterwards that it was able to write about three per hour…”

He remained silent for a while, thinking. Then, noticing that I did not say anything, took a sip from his glass and continued:

“You might perhaps ask me why I did not give up after a while. As you can probably imagine, Baffin started to blackmail me, saying that if I gave up, he would disclose the whole truth or at least part of it – meaning that my glory was based on some texts written by a machine… While I was feeling too old to start everything from the beginning, I was famous, I was a prisoner of the celebrity I really cared about, even if it had been gained by some novels written by a piece of machinery…”

He stood up with difficulty, placed the glass on a table nearby, and then shook my hand.

“I have to leave you now, but I would be really happy if you believe me, although the whole story might appear bizarre…”

I shook his hand as well, ensuring him that I found everything he had told me real enough, and I promised him that I would be careful if I ever were to meet Baffin. Then I saw him off to the entrance hall, which, for the past few minutes, had been covered by a suspicious silence, forecasting nothing good. Then I noticed that everything I had prayed the whole evening not to happen had actually happened: a tall, mustachioed man had been continuously following Isabel with his eyes. And he had managed to be the last one to remain with Isabel. When Isabel, instructed by me to be a nice hostess, stretched her hand to say goodbye, he had probably tried to kiss it. Now she was squeezing his hand without showing any sign of effort on her face, but the moustache-guy had turned red in the face in his struggle to free his hand. I hurried Norris’s leaving, after he had witnessed the whole scene from the corner of his eye, but being the gentleman he was, pretended he hadn’t seen anything. Then I turned towards the other two.

“Isabel, let him go!”

Usually, she would follow my orders immediately – that was the reason all my mates envied me, as Norris had confirmed. But this time she hesitated for a moment. I had a strong feeling that before letting his hand free, she squeezed it even harder, making the poor man in love groan, while his phalanges were cracking in Isabel’s delicate hand. After the moustache-man rushed away, looking back in anger, I went to her, furious:

“What is going on with you? Do you want to ruin everything now, in the end?”

Now I have been surprised by many happenings in my fairly adventurous existence. But none of them surprised me more than Isabel’s answer to this particular question:

“You fool! Would you like it better if he had kissed me?” And she turned away, pouting, literally striking me dumb.

When I came back to my senses, I tried to follow her and ask for further explanations, but the doorbell stopped me. I opened the door and a short, middle-aged man entered the house. After looking around to make sure that I was alone, he apologized for the inappropriate time of the visit.

“I am Baffin”, he said, “and I represent a prestigious publishing house. Due to the late hour, allow me to come to the point…”

“No use” I interrupted him. “I think I know what this is all about.”

“I should have imagined,” he smiled, satisfied. “Old Norris has already told you about it… My task is now so much easier…”

“Mine is easier as well, Baffin… The Temporal Offending Tribunal has been waiting for you for quite a while…”

He made an almost unnoticeable gesture towards his briefcase, where he probably kept the temporal generating set or, who knows, even the disintegrating gun. At the same moment, his eyes met Isabel, who had entered the room through the door behind me. Baffin froze with his hands wide apart…

“This cannot be possible!” he whispered, terrified, suddenly turning pale. “You are using Cobra androids! I will report you; you know that after the accident on Sitis they have been banned in the whole galaxy…”

I shrugged my shoulders, impassive:

“Tell that to those who sent me. Until then, I advise you to control your moves. I really don’t know what is wrong with Isabel lately.  A few moments ago I found her torturing a poor guy that had the bad inspiration to kiss her. Probably it’s the influence of the era…”

 

“What are you waiting for?” said Baffin, irritated.  “Program the generator and let’s go. I can hardly wait to get there and hire a good lawyer and be free again in three days…”

I looked straight in his eyes:

“I am sorry, Baffin, but I think I have been influenced as well by this epoch in which I’ve been waiting for you for more than one year. The epoch in which I had to write a miserable novel to draw your attention… Now, for instance, I feel like writing a report on your capture. Isabel, take care of him!”

Before closing the door I looked both at Baffin’s terrified expression and Isabel’s radiant face while walking towards him with her hand stretched to say hello:

“Till he comes back, let’s introduce ourselves. I am Isabel!”

 

 

 

How I Met Isabel

 

 

 

I have been asked often about the first time I met Isabel. Well, I have to confess, I don’t like to talk about that at all. Her presence in my life meant, first of all, giving up a whole row of bachelor’s habits, deeply rooted into my day-to-day routine, quite comfortable and generally careless. I’m saying ‘generally’ because I also had my personal problems that I could not always solve the way I wanted to.

Actually, I was dealing with one of these problems the day I first met her. On the morning of the day I’m talking about, as soon as I arrived at my workplace, I remembered I had left the bathroom tap on, so that I spent my whole day solving a fourth grade problem: If a tap with a rate of flow D pours into a tub with capacity C from which a certain number of litres can be spilled over, how long does it take for a tremendous flooding to take place? Unlike a pupil in the fourth grade who could calculate using exact data, I had to calculate using approximations.  I didn’t even know what the flow rate of my tap could be, not even the tub’s capacity. I knew only that my neighbor living downstairs, right under my studio flat, whose wife used to call him Guguta, would kick up a devil of a row. This is how I can explain my hurry after work to get back to the place of the disaster. I could picture Guguta shouting at me, and I wondered, with legitimate fear, whether Guguta would take any action, as he had promised me on the last three occasions when I flooded him. While thinking about that, I passed Isabel, who asked me:

“Are you in a big hurry, boss?”

I stopped and looked at her with surprise. I didn’t know her, and I was sure I had never seen her before. She appeared to be a young girl who had just shed the timidity of adolescence and who wanted by all means to recoup everything she might have lost. Her hair was quite untidy, judging by the latest fashion adopted by the youngsters, and she was dressed according to the standards of a futuristic trend. At that time I could notice only the T-shirt, probably borrowed from one of her younger brothers. On the T-shirt was emblazoned in red letters, in English, a text launching a very blunt invitation.

Maybe she doesn’t speak English, I thought to myself, trying to find an excuse for her. After all, these youngsters can’t be so perverted as they appear to be.

All my soothing thoughts couldn’t, however, prevent me from blushing. I coughed to clear my throat and I told her as firmly as possible that I was in a hurry indeed, a great hurry.

“That’s a shame,” she said, taking a step forward, away from the post she was leaning against. “I could have told you many interesting things…”

She took another step, and believe it or not, she took my arm. I tried to get free, terrified by the thought that the chief-accountant was only a few steps behind me and he couldn’t have missed what was going on.

The girl felt my attempt to break free because she looked at me with a smile and squeezed my arm.

“I have been looking for you for too long to let you go now. Let’s go home…”

Probably she thought she wasn’t clear enough because she felt it was necessary to add:

“Your home!”

“That’s impossible,” I groaned, terrified, remembering both Guguta and Madame Bubuleac, the block’s three-headed monster who guarded the building’s entrance all day long, inventing the most extraordinary gossip that a human mind could ever conceive – and without any reasons whatsoever… If she sees me entering my studio with this lively girl, dressed crazily and full of energy, then I’m lost.

The girl seemed to be totally undisturbed by my restlessness, and moreover, my lack of collaboration was of no importance at all, so I inferred she already knew the way to my modest studio flat.

When we were about to enter the block, what a hubbub Guguta, who is normally two meters tall when he is in a good mood, now looked even taller and was mumbling something in a sharp and spirited voice. If he had been talking about somebody else, maybe the contrast between the soprano voice and the Herculean body would have amused me, but in this case I simply felt I had to turn around and go away. Actually, I would have turned around had it not been for the tap that had to be turned off and especially the girl’s firm hand that stopped me.

A dull roar warned me that Guguta had noticed me, and a certain note in his instantly transformed harsh voice signaled that his patience, repeatedly tried by my floods, had finally come to an end. Perceiving his anger, I began to perspire, so that my glasses got steamed, and, as a consequence, I could no longer see what was going on around me. First, I heard a dull clatter as if a fully mature rhino had swooped upon me; then I felt the girl’s hand tensing lightly. Then a painful howl followed, and the earth quaked as if hit by heavy body. I wiped my glasses quickly, and the blurred silhouettes around me disclosed their identity. The brown spot at the left was Mrs. Bubuleac; she had frozen with her hand to her mouth, while the blue spot at our feet was Guguta himself. He moaned faintly, trying to pull himself together and get up. A few neighbors were sitting on the benches in front of the entrance while other people were gaping through the windows.

“I stepped on something and slipped.” Guguta excused himself towards them after getting up from the ground. Partially recovering his composure, he turned to me. He stretched his hands out as big as two shovels and that cruel sparkle again lit up his eyes again.

“You cannot touch him,” the girl by my side said in a calm and steady voice, but the bulldozer in front of me apparently missed her words.

I wished I had my glasses steamed up again so I hadn’t witnessed the scene that followed: the frail adolescent next to me stretched out her hand, caught Guguta by his track suit’s collar, and with the effort I to take a file from my desk, she threw him into the middle of the green area.

I swallowed hard and made an attempt to get away. The girl looked at me smiling and said:

“Let’s go!”

I climbed the stairs with the expression of someone sentenced to death.  One thought troubled me: what would this “being” do with me when we were alone, just the two of us?

I unlocked the door, my fingers trembling. She dashed in to turn the bathtub tap off, then fetched a broom and very skillfully directed the water towards the drain, looking from time to time at me from the corner of her eye, suspecting my desire to escape.

In a few minutes, she finished her job, then dragged me by the sleeve into the bedroom. She pushed me into an armchair and sat on the bed, in front of me.

“Well, now we can finally talk! Do you know who I am?”

“No” I replied in a faint voice, afraid that this could be a fatal mistake.

“You couldn’t have known that,” she continued, smiling benignly. “You probably don’t even know who you are…”

“I know who I am” I replied quickly, in a vehement tone which I regretted immediately. What if she got angry with me?

So I continued in a gentler tone:

“I am Andrei Tomescu, system engineer at Axel Ltd. I can show you my badge… or my ID…”

She started to laugh loudly.

“Certainly, certainly,” she uttered still shaking with laughter “Andrei Tomescu, of course, only that…”

Finally she calmed down, but I could still see the amusement in her eyes.

“Please excuse me, but if someone had told me that the conditioning would be that successful, I wouldn’t have believed it. I am sorry to undermine your deeply rooted beliefs, but you are a totally different individual. You are Tom Anard, one of the best temporal agents and… starting today, you are my leader.

I would have laughed as if for a good joke except that Guguta’s vaults in the green area were still vivid in my mind. Probably my lack of trust was betrayed by my facial expression, because the girl became more serious.

“I can’t really accept that you remember absolutely nothing! We’ve met so many times at the Centre, during the training sessions. Try to recall… I am Isabel! I was even your favorite she added with a light, flirty tone.

My expression evidently still betrayed my lack of trust, because she continued promptly:

“For a more rapid integration in the century’s society, we resorted to a total conditioning… In a week or two, you will remember everything, of course, provided that the smart guys from the conditioning department did not make any mistakes. I should have contacted you after only one month, but we now have an unexpected emergency mission, and I was sent to meet you and, of course, to convince you…

I shook my head. I knew it wasn’t a good thing to argue with crazy people, but what she was telling me was a bit too much.

“I don’t believe a word of what you’re saying,” I spoke out, in a voice that I intended to be calm and fully controlled.

She seemed to be at a loss for a second and looked at me helplessly, but suddenly jumped off the chair, agile, and drew close to the window. She looked outside from behind the curtains, then turned towards me.

“The guy that attacked us is coming again. Now he’s accompanied by another man who wears a blue uniform and who, if I’m not wrong, is carrying a gun.”

“Oh, God!” I let it slip against my will. “Don’t worry, it’s only the district police guardian Tomita”.

“He might be what you’re saying, but he’s carrying a gun. And, presuming that you do not remember anything of our mission, I must inform you that I’m here not only to help you, but to protect you as well.”

“I don’t need a girl’s protection!” I exclaimed with poorly disguised masculine pride.

She looked at me, surprised, then shrugged her shoulders and told me on a neutral tone:

“I’m not a girl, I’m a Cobra android,” and she showed me the necklace she was wearing. “Supposing that you no longer know what a Cobra android is, may I remind you that it is one of strongest and, no doubt, one of the fastest?”

 

 

I was dumfounded. I was gaping at her, and I must admit that this was not a flattering pose for me, but everything she told me left me literally speechless. I tried to come up with an answer, when I heard the doorbell ringing. ‘That must be Tomita!’ I thought to myself and I turned towards Isabel, terrified:

“Listen! Please take a seat in the armchair and do not move, no matter what happens”.

“He has a gun!” she continued stubbornly.

“He’s just a man who is in charge of the public order. Probably Guguta reported me, but I assure you, nothing bad is going to happen”.

When I saw the disbelief in her eyes, I burst out:

“If you’re still saying that I’m your superior, then I order you to sit down!”

To my astonishment, she went to one of the armchairs and sat down.

“Make sure he keeps away from you,” she mumbled at me as I went to open the door.

I proved to be right; Guguta was accompanied by Tomita, the district’s constable. The latter greeted me, pushed his cap backwards, and said:

“Mr. Tomescu, someone made a complaint about you. I was told that, together with an acquaintance of yours, you molested Mr. Grigore Iftode…”

Feeling embarrassed, I invited them in. I also felt guilty, at least partially, forgetting that if not for Isabel, I could have been the molested one.

When Guguta noticed Isabel, he stepped back involuntarily, but feeling protected by the law’s shield, he burst out, quite annoyed:

“It’s her, Inspector. She’s the one I’ve told you about!”

Pointing his accusing finger at Isabel’s top, where the red letters defiantly invited everyone to ‘kiss’ her, shouted again:

„Look, what’s written there, ‘kiss me’, at least we know enough English to understand what it says there…”

But the inspector was not listening to Guguta any longer. He was staring toward Isabel’s fragile body and to Guguta’s massive structure. He spoke to Isabel:

“If you don’t mind, Miss… Can I see your ID?”

I saw Isabel hesitate for a moment. She looked toward me, as if seeking support, then, noticing that I wanted to remain silent, groped through the small purse hanging on her shoulder and gave an ID to the constable. He opened it, took a glance at the picture, then looked at Isabel, and afterwards mumbled something as if to himself: Isabel Ionescu, born in the town of … on the 16th day of May, year nineteen … He made some calculations, then continued, satisfied:

“You are almost twenty years old; therefore, you are an adult,” and looked daggers at Guguta. Probably he had told the policeman that, apart from harassing my neighbors, I was also abducting minors.

“That’s true” Isabel smiled at him sweetly. “I’ve just come to visit my fiancé… You know, we are going to marry soon, and I came to discuss a few details regarding the wedding ceremony. When I was about to enter the block, we were attacked by…” and turned her head towards Guguta, quite annoyed.

“Is she the person that molested you?” the constable asked Guguta severely.

“Yeah, it’s her. I have already told you… Look what is written there, at least I know enough English…

“Get out!” the constable told him bluntly, then turned towards us:

“Please excuse me!” he apologized, and went away, hurrying up to follow Guguta closely.

I could still hear their voices down the stairs before closing my door:

“This time,” the inspector told him, “I will only give you a fine. But if this happens ever again, I will detain you for disturbing the public order.”

I went back to my bedroom, determined to clarify things once and for all. But when I saw her disarming smile, my élan was instantly dampened. Moreover, she had come for me and, in an endearing voice, started to flatter me:

“That’s fantastic! You managed it very well! To be honest, I wouldn’t have expected such a rapid resolution of the situation, although that could have ruined our mission and even our stay here…

I looked at her carefully, trying to discover whether she was hiding a glimpse of irony in her eyes. But not so – she was looking at me with clear, bright eyes, sincerely happy about the situation, although, as I recall the scene with Tomita, my contribution toward the success of the matter was minimal, even absent. Only a long time afterwards did I realized how well Isabel could act whenever she considered it necessary.

Anyway, even without knowing that, I was not going to give in only for a few compliments…

“Please leave that aside,” I told her in a voice intended to be as firm as possible. “I’d like to know what gives you the right to introduce yourself to my acquaintances as my fiancé? Can’t you understand that you put me in an embarrassing situation?”

She looked at me, offended:

“I realize you won’t remember, but that was your idea… You suggested that after the conditioning, you would come here approximately three to four months before me in order to acclimate, integrate yourself, and so on… After my arrival, you were supposed to introduce me to your acquaintances, friends, and neighbors as your fiancé.  Then in autumn, as stated in the scenario you suggested and which was approved by the Centre, we were going to marry… You were perfectly right; when I think back, I found this is the best cover…

I remained silent, trying to focus, to make a connection with one of the memories that I was supposed to have if this girl’s words were at least partially true. But I couldn’t make head or tail of it. No matter how much I might try, I reached the same conclusion: I am Andrei Tomescu, who works as system engineer at Axel Ltd, and started this job approximately … three months ago. I came to this place from… I was a bit confused at this point, but, obviously, the girl’s words were absolute nonsense… I let myself slip into the armchair, overwhelmed by a light feeling of dizziness.

Isabel didn’t allow me to think for long. She took a chair, sat comfortably in front of me, and with a gesture of devoted sincerity, she took my hands into hers:

“You have to believe me! I rely on the fact that I was your favorite during the training sessions, and you used to praise me for my strong persuasion skills. Therefore, whether it is dangerous or not, I am going to tell you what we have to do and you will realize for yourself that we don’t have much choice… You won’t have much choice…”

She seemed not to care that I continued to shake my head stubbornly, so she kept holding my hands, looking straight into my eyes:

“A cronophagus appeared here, in the space and time we are responsible for. We must transfer it…”

I stared at Isabel:

“What appeared?”

Isabel was a bit amused, but continued patiently.

“A cronophagus… You mentioned this word, so that you should remember something about them. Nobody knows for sure WHAT they are or WHO they are. There are many theories that try to explain their presence into our universe, but yours is the one to be widely accepted…”

I freed my arms from her arms and stood up, drawing closer to the bookshelves, looking at the titles, thinking. “The Time”, “The Biological and Physical Time”, “The Time Regarded As the Fourth Dimension”… there were shelves full of books on only one topic: time. Behind me, Isabel was looking at the books as well, smiling

“Despite the conditioning, they did not manage to take your first love out of your mind. I’m glad you’ve read something… this way you can understand your own theory more easily. So, in developing your theory, you started from the supposition that there are two universes… parallel and identical, different from each other only in terms of direction of time flow, which is inverted. You also made the supposition that between these there is a space where time does not exist… A sort of neutral area. Well, inside this space there are some creatures, entities or something like that, that feed on… time. Every now and again, they appear in our observable universe, eating up time. Behind them you can only see a stock-still space. And they develop extremely quickly… I hope soon you will remember your own theory very well, so that you can explain it to me in detail. To be honest, temporal agent or not, I couldn’t understand a word of it. So we need to hire a helicopter, one designed for spreading fertilizer, fill the tanks with chalk powder or talcum, and spread it over the cronophagus to map it. Then we go back in time a few days when the cronophagus is still undeveloped and introduce it into a timeless compartment and transport it over to the Centre. They can do whatever they please with it. This is what you’ve told those who criticized your method: ‘We bring it to you, then you can do whatever you please with it’.”

I stood there thinking deeply, while Isabel was looking at me, inquisitive. I took a book from the shelf. “DE DIVINATIONE” by Marcus Tullius Cicero. I opened it at random:

Hoc idem signifiant graecus ille in eam sententiam versus: Quod fore paratum est, id summum exuperant Jovem. I turned towards Isabel and translated to her the approximate meaning of it:

“Old Cicero says almost the same about that: What is decided by destiny can’t be changed, not even by Zeus.”

Isabel smiled a big smile. I patted her fragile shoulder and told her:

“If destiny ordered that, let’s go then and do what we have to do!”

As this was the first cronophagus we chased, I should have had some more vivid memories related to it. But everything mixed up in my head, as if the helicopter carrying us to the hunting place had jumbled all my thoughts with its propeller. I remember only the pilot’s puzzled expression when I asked him to spread the talcum powder over the desert and arid area where the strange creature hade made its appearance, and also his bewilderment when the talcum powder whirled in the air, taking the shape of the cronophagus.  I got off with Isabel, and together we mapped the ‘zero point’ and made a leap back in time to incarcerate it the atemporal compartment.

She took it to the Centre by herself. I remained there to greet Guguta each and every day and avoid Mrs. Bubuleac’s intrusive look. This was the first time I had met Isabel. A first adventure in a long row of adventures… Only, no matter how much I waited, no memory came back to my mind.

“I’m going to kill those who conditioned you!” Isabel would say every time she came to take me on a new adventure. “I am sure they did that on purpose, to get rid of you. You were the best of them. You were standing in their way…”

I remained silent. I never commented on what she said; I only attended to my own day-to-day work, waiting with a strange impatience for her to take me out of my dull daily existence and embark together on a new experience.

During the time I waited for her, I read books on the notion of time. Most of all, I read from Marcus Tullius Cicero’s works, the one who more than two thousand years ago seemed to know everything about my worries. Sometimes, in the evenings, before falling asleep, I used to read again with my eyes half closed from the treatise “On Divination”:

“Just like the seed preserves inside it the strength of the saplings that will grow out of it, similarly the causes hide the future events…”, and I always had the feeling that Isabel was right behind me, giggling delightedly.

 


The Oviraptor

 

 

 

„Maybe you can share with me what’s going on, Tom. You owe me an explanation.”

Larren stared at me, waiting for an answer. An answer which as far as I knew he would get sooner or later—probably sooner rather than later. The fact that that answer was not going to him did not concern me. Well, it did not concern me directly, or at least as long as he did not ask me to repair things.

I coughed to clear my throat, and took another drink of gin; then I sat more comfortably into the armchair.

I had underestimated how well he had known me, because he pointed his finger towards me threateningly and said in a firm voice:

“I want facts, Tom, not fairytales. I will make things look better if I can. You just tell me what the hell is going on! Because down there, something is going on…”

“Down there” happened to be the early Silurian – more than 160 million years ago. A smart-ass from the Time Control Agency proposed years ago, when the population of Terra reached 60 billion people and was not giving signs of decreasing, to transfer the surplus population somewhere into the past. What at first seemed to be a return to nature, preferred especially by those less adapted and by simple souls, had transformed over time, especially due to aggressive publicity, into a real business enterprise, and in less than a century almost half the population on Terra found itself in Silurian. Divided into communities of a billion people each, separated by partitions of a million years, it seemed that Silurian would be able to absorb all of the surplus population with no problems. That is how it should have been. After observing that the crushed leaves and hunted dinosaurs from Silurian did not modify the presidential elections from the present time, communities started to organize themselves around some very large Polis situated in a safe place, from tectonic point of view, which was supplied with a lot of modern technology. It seemed to be the ideal solution, especially since the transfers between Polis and the current civilization were made one way only, from present toward the past and never the other way around.  It was a smart solution because nobody would have known what to do with 30 billion people who at the same time wanted to take their place in a temporary niche which no longer existed. At least unlike the onerous contracts where disadvantageous conditions were printed in small letters somewhere at the end of the page, the contracts of “temporal integration” clearly specified the terms in large letters at the beginning of the page. Because of that, they encouraged integrations that comprised communities or even entire regions. Although for someone who did not want to leave Polis to visit the exotic neighborhoods, the changes were irrelevant. The information would circulate freely between Present and Polis, so that nobody felt marginalized. Theoretically that was how things were… Practically, there were always problems that the Time Control Agency could barely solve.

I took a deep breath and said loudly:

“Isabel thinks that somebody put his hands on the schematic of a time generator and now has started to fabricate and use them.”

Larren sniffed nervously and made a gesture as if he had chased a nagging bug:

“I do not give a shit what Isabel says!”

Isabel was a Cobra android that I used during my temporal wanderings as an agent of the Time Control Agency. I trusted her observations quite highly; usually they did not fail.  And also because without her I wouldn’t have stayed humble now in front of the almighty administrator of TCA. But the fact that she had a volatile and independent nature did not make her very loved among the members of the Agency. Still, as long as we had results, that did not matter anymore.

I shrugged my shoulders carelessly.

“I will rephrase then: I believe that the technology of temporal transfer somehow disseminated into the second and third Polis.” The Polises were numbered after the date of their implementation. The oldest was numbered “one.”

“You always think what Isabel thinks,” he mumbled and turned towards the safe behind him, from which he took out two cards of independent temporal Agent.

He wanted to give them to me but he changed his mind, looking at me frowning:

“Before receiving them, I want secure information about the so-called dissemination of time generators, and I want this as soon as possible; otherwise, the Council will make us one with the earth. And I’ll make sure they start with you two…”

I nodded humbly and went out of the office. Isabel waited in the hallway reading a magazine, oblivious to the provocative looks of passersby. She had to wear a medallion all the time which identified her as a Cobra android, but sometimes, especially during some difficult missions, she gave it up. Other times, like today, she would renounce it out of pure coquetry. Sexual taboos, especially inside the Agency, were extremely well implemented, and I still do not know of a case in which someone has had a relationship with an android – even if it looked as attractive as Isabel.

I signaled to her that we were leaving and she stood up, or to be exact, she raised her 52 kilograms of gorgeously structured biological material. Next to me, a novice dropped his pile of sheets he had been carrying down the long corridor, and I seemed to hear another whistling at her. I do not know whether I ever had the chance to describe Isabel: at a first glance, she was a young woman, barely out of adolescence, with that indescribable mixture of innocence and impertinence, limber, almost thin, but at the same time well-rounded in the places where she should be. Her face was not only beautiful but it was constructed in a way that drew attention. The regular and feminine features were framed by a waterfall of hair the color of honey, which, because she often shook her head trying to arrange it, was inevitably drawing attention towards her. It is clear that the ones who projected her were not normal: such a beautiful girl cannot exist! The explanations they gave me were satisfying for a while: being so beautiful, she would draw attention on herself, leaving me a free field to act. It is true that she provided me enough space, because when we were together, any male who was around her barely gave me the attention of an irritating wasp which buzzes around the mellowed pear which you are about to taste. The fact that they could not taste the pear named Isabel, only I knew, but as long as I could accomplish my missions, I did not mind.

I left the home office of the Agency, and as always, I looked carefully around me. Apparently I did not draw anybody’s attention, so I walked towards the “Safe,” the place where naturally we had to begin any investigation no matter how serious it might be. The “Safe“ was a building which belonged to the Agency, with a security degree zero and about which few knew – only some independent agents, some heads of departments, and the androids which accompanied the agents in their missions. Anyway, too many if you ask me, but nobody ever did. In this “Safe” were kept the best-secured secrets of the agency, especially the controversial time generators, which allowed the temporal agents to wander through all space-time quantum as if they were in their own living room. There were a only few: always numbered, numbered again, checked, and given to reluctantly. Once closed with the belt containing the time generator, we became practically indestructible and especially – this was the great fear of the authorities – impossible to detect through space – time. From the present, the agent would be missing only a few seconds, but nobody could tell for sure how much real time he had consumed there in the past.

At first, at the training course two possible cases were presented: in one, a temporal agent impeded the abduction of Helen from Troy (in one variant, he was the one who kidnapped her), with the natural consequence that the history books lacked the Trojan war, and the literature ones lacked “Iliad“. The second case was considered at its time a true blasphemy, but I had traveled enough in that era to consider it very possible. The temporal agent had traveled in Judea, and by bribing a few Roman soldiers, saved Jesus from being crucified. This time the consequences would have been disastrous: in the history of the world, among the three main monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the first no longer existed, and this had truly catastrophic consequences. After a while, the scenarios were pulled directly from the curricula, and there were rumors would talk about an agent who had tried to apply, as didactic material, one of the educative cases presented to us. I have never found out which of them, but I was thinking more of the fact that the man wanted to save Helen. So it seems that the Cobra androids were created in order to avoid such temptations. Maybe these are just rumours, but they say they are programmed so that if one of the independent temporal agents wanders off, to bring him to his senses. Or even liquidate him discretely, as others would say. As I have never been tempted to return and kidnap Helen of Troy, nor anything like that, I could not check the theory. More than that, in my case, I could tell that I am the one who should keep Isabel away from personal initiatives, to use an euphemism.

The case in which I was ready to throw myself was based on a supposition of Isabel: someone had gotten his hands on an individual time generator and was making contraband with biological material from the second and third Polis. Maybe from others too, because once a generator gets into the hands of the wrong person, it could be reproduced very easily. It would be good to mention here that the principle of the industrial time generators, those which transported merchandize and furniture into the Polis, functioned perfectly normally when they were traveling towards the Polis. When they were traveling away from the Polis towards the present, through its manner of function, the temporal space suffered an irradiation process which made practically impossible the transportation of any live biological material towards the present time. It was explained to us many times that the radiations were part of the temporal traveling process from the past towards present using that procedure. I, for example, always suspected that the spaces were irradiated intentionally, and the motives are obvious, as obvious as the fact that the spaces have never transported live biological material toward the present. In extreme cases, approved by the Council with a majority of votes, such a transport could be done only with the help of a temporal agent accompanied by a Cobra android.

And still, Isabel was convinced that she had discovered traffic with prehistoric animals. Dinosaurs, to be more precise. No, she had never met a dinosaur grazing through the parks in the town, and her proofs were rather inconsistent and based essentially on things she heard here and there on her walks through the town. As a consequence of such rumours, Isabel started to make some investigations in the antique stores where we could find lots of fossilized dinosaur eggs. Normally they were presented as rarities discovered in the prehistoric sites. After having bought many petrified eggs, Isabel had launched the rumour that she would pay anything for a live, fecundated egg, which she wanted to give as present to her brother. She was told that, in time, with a little patience and a lot of money, her problem could be solved. It would have been better if I had waited to buy the egg first, but impetuous as I am, I preferred to give the alarm I already regretted that I had not listened to Isabel, who tried to reason with me. As until then she had been mistaken only once in her observations, and thank God, we had hundreds of cases when she was never wrong, I hurried to inform Larren, the head of the Agency. It was not a piece of information which I could overlook; the implications would have been huge for the entire Agency if Isabel were correct. While wandering through the corridors of the Agency towards the exit, I could not stop thinking about how dangerous my mission looked if watched from outside. As the wrong was done, we had nothing else to do but get to work…

 

So we walked towards the “Safe” to start our investigation; I could not walk with Isabel quietly and without worries. Usually her presence next to me meant that I was on a mission, in a permanent state of alert, with all my senses awake, because at any time we could pass from a simple walk in a park to a speed chase. This time, as until the so-called mission seemed to remain enough time I relaxed, trying not to smile at the men who turned their heads to watch Isabel. At one point, waiting to cross the street, Isabel bent to me discretely:

“We are being followed!”

“Considering how many men stared at you today, what surprises me is that only one is following us. I would have expected a whole group …”

Isabel smiled at me bitterly:

“Ha-ha, what a good joke. Only that we are being followed by a young girl …”

I swallowed hard and went quiet. In that case, the situation was changing completely. In the historic era of the Agency’s permanent location, there were extremely traditional behaviors. Nobody had heard about lesbians and since I am in my forties, with the common face of accountant, I was far from producing feelings in the hearts of young women. Thus, it was clear that we were being followed because of what we were and not because of our looks. After we crossed the street, I stopped, turned towards Isabel, and started to arrange her scarf with affection. It seemed that the gesture drew attention because some males from around us looked at us and started to cross the street although the traffic light was red. A choir of automobile horns raised everyone’s interest, so that I could watch quietly the “follower.” A young girl – as Isabel had said, she seemed no older than twenties, thin, with poor clothes and eyeglasses with thick lenses. A scarf of a colour I could not identify covered almost half of her face, but without a doubt I had never met her before. Some kind of library mouse, but of course, it could all be just a disguise.

“What do we do?” I asked her, upset. “We cannot go to the “Safe,” not with this tail after us …”

“If you want I can push her under a car,” offered Isabel, but when I looked more closely at her, I could tell she was joking – although I could expect anything of her.

Meanwhile the library mouse was still after us conscientiously. The solution would not have been to try to get rid of her; she could have been replaced by somebody more experienced and harder to notice.

“Here is what we’ll do,” I turned to Isabel, speaking only from the corner of my lips. “We split up. We go for a while on separate roads, to see which one of us she is after. Then we meet and decide what we do next”.

“All right,” said Isabel concentrating on our follower. “Especially since she looks very familiar and I cannot tell why. Maybe I will remember on the road…”

Said and done, and to my great surprise, the one being followed was Isabel. “Maybe if they are not lesbians, there are women who are attracted by Isabel’s beauty,” I said to myself and hurried towards the meeting point. There, to my surprise, I saw the library mouse talking quietly to Isabel. When she saw me, she waved at me to come closer quickly. With a smiling face, Isabel introduced the girl to me:

“Tom, look, she is Ana. I told you about her the other day” said Isabel in a hurry – “but to be honest I did not expect her to solve it so quickly,” she said in a hurried tone and grabbed her friendly by the arm.

“Pleased to meet you.” I bowed in front of the library mouse, and saw her blushing discretely.

“I am glad to be of service, professor,” she whispered and started walking with small steps ahead.

“Professor?“ What else did Isabel tell her about me? Sometimes this girl had a very rich imagination, and I had to keep up with her. “Professor!” Professor of what the hell? What did I teach to the young students when they would watch me quietly, thirsty for knowledge? There is no doubt that I was to find out eventually, but for now I was trying to keep up with the small, fast steps of the little mouse. She was heading towards the old part of the town, and soon we arrived next to the Fortress, an old fortress of defense which miraculously had survived the ravages of time, but which threatens to fall apart now because of the antiquaries. For several years, they have skillfully used each fissure dug by time in the body of the old fortress to open a small shop where they could sell their merchandize. It was considered a good omen to sell old merchandize in the shadow of the old ruins. The girl showed us an antique store, and as small as it was, it would easily have fit next to the exponats from the shop window.

“I was so delighted, professor, when I heard that the present was for you!” the mouse kept talking. “I was glad to meet Isabel today, because just a little earlier, all was solved, but I did not know how to let her know. I had to wait until she was alone, even if I trusted you also, but you know how these things work… At first your sister would not tell me who you were, but she did well in finally telling me. Now I will help you choose a special exponat…”

My “sister” Isabel was smiling mysteriously while I felt more and more confused and overwhelmed by the events. I entered, and it seemed as if we were troubling the ghosts from their afternoon sleep with our steps. One of the mummies exposed along the wall jerked himself from the place he had been resting for ages, and with abrupt moves came closer to us. When he reached the pale light coming through the small window, I could see that he was an old skeleton-like man, but as alive as myself and the girls next to me.

“Grandpa,” called Ana, hurrying to meet him, “I told you not to get down today. You have to let Anatol and me handle the shop.”

“The merchandize came,” whispered the old man. “He had to go get it… I could not leave the store unattended… and I could not close it either… The clients, the old clients, must always find it open.”

It seemed that the effort he had spent to tell us his philosophy of the antiquary had exhausted him completely, because he sat down on a case used for their trade, several centuries old. I heard a crack, but I was not sure whether it was the case or the old man’s bones.

Ana approached him protectively:

“I will show them the exponents; now go back to bed…”

She watched the old man as he took his bones out of the room, waited until he went out, then turned mysteriously towards us, whispering:

“I’d rather he is not here, so I may show you everything. He lived during the time of prohibition and still has some hesitation even with the sale of the old artifacts…”

She took off her scarf which covered half of her face; then, coquettishly, she put on her glasses and smiled at me:

“I should thank you, too, but maybe a lot of people have already expressed appreciation for you to be interested in this anymore. Anyway, without your classes and interventions, even now they wouldn’t have legalized the sale of the artifacts from the World from Below.”

A little light turned on in my mind: the classes held for the Anthropology Faculty a few years ago, when I was following the traffic of artifacts for which I suspected student involvement. And somewhere in the first rows of the amphitheatre, at every class I would see the sharp face, a little bit younger and fuller of zits, of the mouse that watched me now with embarrassed adoration.

“I trusted you,” she whispered with emotion, and it seemed to me she blushed a little.

I smiled remembering it, under the suspicious look of Isabel. It was one of the few cases I had solved without her. Among the antique stores of the town, five years ago, strange artifacts, not belonging to any known culture, began to appear,  The sources seemed to be somewhere among the students, so when one of the professors suddenly got sick, I took his place. The students were always inventive and creative in finding new ways to delay completion of their assignments.   The solution they found was relatively simple: as communication between polises was fairly easy, they arranged for those from the superior polis to place in pre-established locations little affected by tectonic movements, different things with little value for their time. They were usually placed where they would be best protected. The passage of time did the rest: the aging of the objects sufficient to resist any tests. What was interesting was that from the point of view of the severe temporal legislation, no law was broken, and a good part of the responsibility for this I can claim for demonstrating that thing. No time generator was used; no gram of live matter passed millions of years. The only repercussion was that the absolution of any guilt of those who practiced such a trade led to such widespread availability of the artifacts, that shortly thereafter, the prices collapsed and nobody was interested in buying anything, no matter how intriguing it might have looked. But that was a predictable risk.

Meanwhile, Ana closed the shutters and turned on the light. Then, with the face of an old analyst who showed his collection of bombs to some friends, she opened a cupboard which was hidden behind some tables. When she opened the doors, a pale light turned on and a wave of moist heat came around us: on the shelves, lots of eggs of different sizes appeared to us. Ana was gazing at us with sparkling eyes:

“Well, what do you say? Will you help us this time, also?”

I swallowed hard, and Isabel made a step towards the cupboard looking at it with interest. Then she touched an egg:

“May we see this one?”

Ana took it carefully and sat it on the rounding plate of a device which I recognized to be an old modified Ecograph. When the green screen came on and Ana adjusted its resolution, I swallowed hard: the clear silhouette of a dinosaur ready to hatch could be seen entirely.

“Good Grace!” I said and then swallowed hard, not finding anything else to say.

I looked more carefully at the image and then I spoke rapidly:

“It looks like a velociraptor ….”

“No way,” Ana argued with me. “More likely it is an oviraptor…”

“It is an oviraptor,” decided also Isabel after looking carefully at the screen. “In the embryonic state, they may be easily mistaken, but this is an oviraptor for sure.”

Seeing my questioning look towards her, Isabel did not miss the occasion to show her knowledge:

“The first oviraptor skeleton was discovered in 1924 by Henry F. Osborne, somewhere in Mongolia. As it was found above some eggs with no embryos in them, it was supposed that it had eaten them, and so it got the name of egg thief. After just a few years, another skeleton was discovered, in better shape, also above the same type of eggs, but this time with embryos of a fossilized oviraptor. It was then concluded that the first oviraptor did not eat the eggs, but was trying to protect them… But as the name had caught on so well in the scientific community, it was left unchanged, even if a great injustice had been done to the small dinosaur. The oviraptor was a small omnivore dinosaur which looked like a bird. The adult measured around two meters and weighed around 25-35 kilograms. It had a light structure, fast movements, long legs, and a biped walk. Its neck was flexible, curved like the letter S, a long tail, short and strong anterior members, with three long fingers fit for grabbing, which ended with curved claws, about eight centimeters long. The posterior members also had three fingers.

“Its head had a strange form, like a parrot, with a small peak, without teeth, but with strong jaws, adapted to crush its prey. The oviraptors had on their peak a small protuberance, like a crest, like a crown, which they might have used as an adornment for mating. It is believed that the differences between these crests may represent different species of oviraptors, or may differentiate between male and female, or between the young animal and the adult one, within the species. The oviraptors lived towards the end of the Cretaceous era, approximately 80-70 millions years ago. What else do you want me to tell you?”

“Nothing, nothing,” I said quickly, thinking that among other things, she might say that she had just seen some of them running around her during our last visit in the Cretaceous Era.

Ana looked at her in amazement:

“I have never yet met anyone, who has such extensive knowledge about dinosaurs. Let me show you some other eggs… I have here a really big one …”

Isabel proved to be more practical:

“There is no need! We will buy this one!”

Ana looked at us confused, first at me, then at Isabel, before saying anything:

“If you think you can help us to legalize this type of trade, also,” she glanced towards the cupboard full of dinosaur eggs, “I was told that I could give you one for free. Otherwise it is rather expensive…”

How can you explain to somebody that it is one thing to bring a carved stone through millions of years, and altogether another thing to transport, no matter how, a living being? Because, in the end, this is what the dinosaur eggs were – beings – and their transport through time was infringing the first law – about which all our contemporaries knew, but did not care since there was no way of infringing it. Well, now somebody had found the way …

I shook my head indecisively:

“at this time I cannot promise you anything, Ana, so it would be better for us to pay for it.”

Just as we were about to leave, her brother appeared in a car loaded with boxes which looked very much like our incubator. After Ana had introduced us, Anator – that was her brother’s name – also asked us to help them to legalize once and for all that trade, because they were tired of hiding from the authorities and making contraband. Taking advantage of her charm, Isabel discretely made him confess, and she did not need to insist a lot, that they let us learn that the dinosaur eggs were arriving from the past in the same way as the artifacts.

I paid for the egg. Ana put it into an incubator and then called a taxi for us. In the car, with the incubator between us, Isabel looked at me radiantly:

„As you can see, I was right! For how many times?”

“This solves only half of the problem,” I said, depressed. “Let’s see how we can solve the hardest half of it! You do realize that an egg does not last for millions of years, as do the artifacts that Anatol told us about. No place, no matter how well built, can protect a living creature for a million years. I still hope that this is a technological discovery and that no time generator is involved.”

“We will have to go to the Polis and find out. Because you have overlooked something essential.”

I frowned trying to rethink the dates of the problem, while next to me Isabel was smiling delightedly. She always had fun when she noticed the details that I had missed – even if afterwards she let me claim the credit…

After a few minutes of useless efforts, I gave up.

“All right, smarty! You tell me what it is all about…”

“The closest Polis to the present is situated 130 million years ago…”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“I know that, but I cannot see the problem.”

Isabel sighed with exasperation:

“At the antique store, when you asked me, I said loud and clear so that all could hear that the oviraptors lived 70-80 millions years ago. There is no authorized human settlement within ten million years of this date. Until we reach the Headquarters, think about it. Maybe you can find an explanation. Larren will ask for sure…”

I did not have to think too long to realize that this involved the existence of some unauthorized time generator and of some other equally serious problems.

Probably Isabel and I made a really strange pair as we carried the incubator carefully between us down the corridors of the Agency, because almost everybody we passed turned their heads behind us. But we did not care, because we were bringing to Larren exactly what he wanted: a piece of evidence. We did not foresee one thing though: his stubbornness and especially the lack of an ecograph.

We entered, and with a theatrical gesture, we set the oviraptor egg on his desk.

“You wanted evidence? Here is the evidence!”

Probably everybody has seen, even if only in movies, what a dinosaur egg looks like. It resembles a duck egg, just a little bigger, brownish green, about fifteen centimeters high – and which was now precariously placed on Larren’s varnished desk.

,After we had told him how we got it, Larren circled it slowly, knocked with his finger on the shell as if he was trying to see how hard it was, then turned with pity towards us:

“I feel sorry for you! My best agents, and you let yourselves be fooled so easily…”

I looked with surprise towards Isabel, who just raised her shoulders, as surprised as I was: sometimes Larren’s behavior caught her off guard also.

“You have been deceived, that’s what happened! You were presented a cheap trick to get a good price, that is all. On the ecograph’s monitor was placed a simple illustration and you fell for it like two beginners.”

Remembering Ana’s sincere eyes, I wanted to argue with him, but just then Isabel gave me a quick nudge, telling me with her eyes to watch the egg: a small fissure appeared just where the boss’s finger had knocked the shell. In front of our eyes, the fissure transformed into a narrow opening which was getting bigger and bigger. Seeing where we were looking, the boss also turned towards the egg, just in time to see the little oviraptor breaking out. As he was rather close to the creature, he stretched his hand to defend himself, but seeing Larren’s hand as the only thing moving, the little oviraptor stuck to it with affection, making a thin peep, as a little chicken. Larren ran from the office, but the little oviraptor jumped with an agility that nobody suspected and got stuck to Larren’s leg.

With the little oviraptor stuck to him, Larren gave us the cards for the time generator and signaled for to leave. In our many missions afterwards, we would remember him like that: making small steps through the office with the little oviraptor chirping pitifully and clinging stubbornly to him.

On our way to the “Safe” Larren phoned me:

“Tom,” he said, embarrassed. “Do something and find discretely from Isabel a few details about oviraptors. In her memory about which she brags all the time, there must be some information about what they eat, what are their customs, because I believe he is hungry…”

I repeated to him the little information I had gained from Isabel earlier at the antique store.

“And, being an omnivore, I believe that he can eat anything… Anyway it does not matter, as you know you will have to get rid of it.”

From the receiver I could hear a chuckle, then a noise like small steps, then Larren said:

“You know what I think, Tom? This little beast really cares about me… He keeps after my leg like a puppy… And you are right, he eats anything: he has just stolen my sandwich from my office.”

Next to me, Isabel raised exasperated eyes towards the sky, but I tried to reason with him:

“You had better not get attached to it very much; you know you will have to …”

“Damn it, Tom, it is an important piece of evidence! we cannot destroy it until you solve the case,” he told me while, judging by the noises I could hear, he seemed to try to get on his desk. He disconnected before being able to say anything.

Before entering the “Safe” to take our time generators, Isabel stopped me:

“You know what I feel sorry about, Tom?”

As I did not hurry to follow the manner of thinking of Isabel, I shook my head.

“Have you seen that big, brown egg on the back shelf of the incubator?”

I had seen it and I was even tempted to buy it. I thought that maybe it was more expensive, but that was not the reason I did not insist on seeing and eventually buying it. The egg was really huge, and I did not feel like carrying it along the corridors of the Headquarters. For what we needed, one was enough, no matter how small it was: the important thing was that an egg had been fecundated and contained a live embryo.

“I saw it” I said, although I did not know what Isabel wanted to say.

“Well, I will regret all my life that we did not choose that one.”

“Why?” I asked, although I had a hunch.

“It was from a Tyrannosaurus Rex,” Isabel said and entered into the “Safe”.

 

 

***

 

Larren would remain known in the history of the Headquarters as the “Boss with the Oviraptor.” Sometimes, when his arbitrary decisions annoyed me, when he frowned while communicating them to me, attended closely by the oviraptor, which seemed to have stolen not only the sandwiches, but also his habits –  I managed to his great surprise to smile. Because then I would imagine that, instead of the silly little head of the oviraptor, next to the boss’s shoulder was the mouth full of sharp teeth of a  Tyrannosaurus Rex.

 


Dilemma

 

 

 

Dear editors,

 

I know that you are a literary magazine, and that as a consequence, you deal only occasionally with scientific problems; however, since some interesting articles appearing in recent issues indicate your great interest in problems which lie between possible and impossible, I dare to bother you with a problem which torments me and to which I hope you can help me find a solution.

My name is Adamescu Vasile, and I am a pupil in the twelfth grade in a mathematics-physics high school. I am passionate about science fiction literature, and especially that which deals with the problems of time travel. I can say that I have read all I could find about this subject starting with Wells and finishing with contemporary authors. I even made a decision that at a first sight may seem impossible – that is, to dedicate all my life to this subject. Not being – yet – a faculty member with an adequate profile, I decided that at the end of high school, I would apply for the exam to become a professor of physics, and I hope that I will be able to remain in research. It may seem an impossible dream, but we should not forget that the “ancestors” of anticipation in the year 2000 recorded their most daring dreams, and the year 2000 not only came, but also passed a long time ago. Once my  decision was made,  I started to think about perspectives: the modest mathematical device that I now own does not allow me to foresee even approximately where I will direct my research, but this will not prohibit me from dreaming… Yes, I dreamed with my eyes opened, thinking of the marvelous perspectives that were to open to me, and to mankind also, once the time machine was created. But I kept wondering – in moments of doubt – will I be able to fulfill my dream? And if I do, when will it happen? In 2020? In 2040? These were the questions that tormented me, and from the questions to the answers was just one step, as you will see.

I keep a daily diary, and once, when I was writing in it, an idea came to me: what if – I wondered to myself – I were to say in my diary that I received a visit from myself with a time machine?! Of course, I am aware of the fact that I cannot oblige myself to come; I am aware of the fact that I have no power of constraint over the will of someone from the future, even if that someone is myself. But, at the same tine, I did not doubt that, if I ever came into possession of a time machine, I will pity myself and my torments, and I will pay myself a visit! Said and done! I waited for a day when I could be alone in the house. My folks left to visit some relatives in the North part of Ardeal, and I noted in my diary the following: “This night I received a visit that I expected a long time ago. My sweetest dream is fulfilled!” (I chose the moment of the meeting to be at night, so that the time machine could not be observed by nosy neighbors.) That night I had no sleep and I was very annoyed with myself that I did not state in my diary a certain hour for the date, so that I would not have to stay awake all night waiting anxiously. Also, at one point, I started to hear all kinds of suspicious noises and imagine all kinds of time patrols coming to punish me for having infringed whatever severe temporal  legislation. What can I tell you? In the end, nobody came to visit me although I thought once that someone was trying the door handle, but honestly, I was too scared to go and see.

I comforted myself with the thought that the experiment was a failure, but in the morning when I went outside, I found a piece of paper shoved under the door during night. It was unsigned and said only : “Kid, you are a fool! Why did you not open the door? “.

You will say “That makes it clear; the experiment was a success!” Well it is not that clear, because if it were, I would not have bothered you. I do not know how to present the problem to you so that you do not misunderstand me. You see, I have a neighbor who is older than I, Her name is Nicoleta, and she is already a student at the Academy of Theatre and Film. On several occasions I gave her to understand that I was interested in her.  But she was very vague in her relations with me, so I was not able to tell what her real feelings were toward me. But this is not important. What is important is that when she came home for the holidays, she would come to me when I was alone, but do not imagine a “rendezvous”; she was rehearsing a role and came to ask my opinion. So I wonder: what if she was the one who wrote the note? It is true that she never came to me at night, but what do I know? With the strange personality that artists have, one can expect anything from them … Maybe she had created a special interpretation of a role and wanted to show it to me; she tried the door and when I did not open it, she left. I wanted to ask her that morning, but she had already left for Bucharest, and in the meantime the subject became taboo and a bit complicated because my jerk of a brother (please forgive me, I forgot that you are a literary magazine) discovered the note and showed it to my folks. You can imagine that a real scandal followed: who was with you, what kind of visits do you receive at night, what dream was fulfilled? … And more, to tell the truth: they told the neighbors (information also from my smart-ass brother), that “your thoughtless daughter seduced our child and only in a few months he has an exam etc., etc”. Worse than “Romeo and Juliet”, really…

You will draw the conclusion: It is all clear! It is the work of the thoughtless girl! Well, it is not quite like that, because in the meantime I talked to her and she denied any involvement (not surprising – after all the scandal, she had plenty of motives). But, as I cannot trust much of she says, I am still confused. So I send you together with this, the note left under the door, and ask you to help me to analyze the paper chemically – or in any manner you may think fit – to establish where it came from and how old it is.

If you reach the conclusion that the note comes from the future (and only in that case), please send the results also to my parents’ address.

 

I thank you with anticipation and respect,

Vasile Adamescu

 

 

 

An Almost Absurd Hypothesis

 

 

 

It all began with a TV serial in which a sweet and sexy princess made all kind of miracles with the help of a magic ring which she would just twist on her finger to get whatever she wanted. That show was very appreciated by the entire family as it was natural; especially by my oldest son, as you will see. I realized that one evening when my wife asked me:

“Have you looked for something in the jewelry box?”

The “jewelry box” was just a euphemism for a simple wooden casket full of earrings, March amulets, and rings, more or less golden.

When I replied “no,” my wife called the two children, who, innocent, were getting ready for bed, and submitted them to a quick, double-mixed investigation for which recipe the CIA would pay hard money.

“You see,” she reported to me after her investigation, “our older son wanted to see if he could find in the casket a magic ring like the one that princess from the TV series has!”

“And? Did he find it?” I asked innocently. “You know… because for that carburetor… Maybe he can get me…”

My wife sniffed and penetrated me with her 5,200-Angstrom laser eyes as she did when she did not fully appreciate the humor of my jokes.

Once ended, this episode was soon forgotten, unimportant, and we probably would not have thought of it again if the television had not spoiled us with fascinating circus shows in which jugglers and magicians tried to outdo one another to impress us.

For days, I watched my older son, under his younger brother’s skeptical eyes, shake a wooden wand and mutter all kinds of words and trying, as he explained later, to make a magic trick, no matter how small. Finally, my dear wife asked me in exasperation to use my teaching talents and convince our children once and for all that there is no magic, black or any other color.

I asked for a big black coffee and a glass from the Martini supply that I kept for special occasions – this seemed to me a pretty special occasion – then I sat in an armchair to meditate. My wife’s insinuations that I fell asleep were groundless, as demonstrated by the ingenuity of the solution I had found. That is, I decided to make my own magic trick. I would depend on my fast hand coupled with my son’s lack of attention—after all, he is only six—and then I would explain the mechanism of that trick to convince him for good that there is no magic..

Here is what I did: I took one of the silver monogrammed buttons worked in filigree that my wife gave to me before we were married. I pretended not to hear her when she told me: “You’d better not make it disappear for good!” I wrapped it in a scarf and said a few times “abracadabra!”    I shook the scarf and with an elegant move threw the button under the bed. Then I gave the scarf to my son to analyze it.

“You did it!” he shouted, enchanted. “Unbelievable! You did it, dad!”

Yes, I did it, only I did it a little too well No matter how hard I looked for the button, I could not find it. As I said, I intended to throw it under the bed, but my wife thought I threw it out the window, which unfortunately was open. Now I did the only thing I could do: Like a man, I confronted the eight-degree storm and we headed out in the yard to beat the carpet. Although I was completely innocent, I produced an extra effort of at least 30%. When we were almost finished, my older son came to me and whispered:

“You know what I think, dad?”

As I have always been in favour of open dialogue between generations, I asked him to tell me his thought.

“I think” he whispered with a mysterious voice, “that you sent the button to fairytale land, but you forgot the magic formula and you cannot bring it back. But don’t worry, dad… If I find the formula, I’ll bring it back to you … But we must not say anything, anything at all to mother…”

I did not say anything to him, mainly because I was sick and tired of that subject. Even when, after a few days, my son found the button, I definitely forbade by wife to employ her investigative talents, especially when the children insisted he had brought it from the “other world,” the land of fairytales.

Maybe the entire story would have been forgotten if the following evening my wife hadn’t had greeted me at the door, looking all frightened. In answer to my quick question, she only opened her hand, incapable of making any sound: in her hand, three, yes, three buttons were shining softly.

“I found one today under the wardrobe when I cleaned up,” she finally managed to tell me.

I took them in my hand and studied them. One of them , and I was sure that was the one my wife had found, had reversed the letters of the monogram, as if seen in a mirror, something that until then I hadn’t noticed…

 

 

***

 

 

…It is late at night … The Martini supply is almost gone, maybe because there were passing through my head all kind of strange hypotheses. Right now I may even admit the existence of two parallel universes, folded, crossed, even screwed together if you want, but how can I admit that a six-year-old child can build a bridge between them? I may even admit that it is not the technological way one that gets to the other universe. But to bring something from a parallel universe with the power of thought, one would need a very strong, trained will… And then I remembered a text written by Emile Coue almost one hundred years ago:

“The main characteristic of the human being is not the will, but the imagination, and the latter is always a winner… when a man finds a purpose and he is extraordinarily motivated, the subconscious always finds means to get through it“. He named this the law of subconscious finality …

Yes, as absurd as it may seem, I believe that this is the answer… Maybe you don’t need a very strong will to open the gate between worlds, but just imagination and the firm conviction that that parallel universe exists. What is ironic is that he would mention it as the land of fairytales, but he was very convinced of its existence.

It is an almost absurd hypothesis, I admit, but is not the pale shining of the three buttons in front of me at least equally absurd?

 

 

 

The Bridge Seller

 

 

 

With the bad luck that has always characterized me I noticed as I approached customs that the row of cars in front of me stretched all the way to the bridge exit. There is nothing more annoying than to be the last of an endless line, so I parked my car in the lot of the small restaurant near the customs building. I preferred to wait out the slow traffic with a cup of coffee. I looked for a table somewhere in the shadows, from where I could watch the road. I found only one, where, conveniently enough, sat with a middle-aged man peacefully enjoying his glass of vodka. As I don’t particularly care conversations with people who drink vodka before noon, I asked him briefly for permission to sit down, then, idly sipping my coffee, I began to watch the road and the bridge.

The customs building was situated right at the front of the bridge and the customhouse officers were scrupulously checking the passing cars. They were more careful than usual and it looked like some sort of commission from the Customs Ministry had decided to find out how large quantities of coffee, alcohol, and cigarettes entered the country. The only visible effect of this over-checking seemed to be the exasperatingly slow flow of traffic and the exacerbation of the customs officers’ tendency to believe they are stars in a B movie from overseas. Under the careful eye of their supervisors, their gestures, both sure and efficient, had turned into a real ballet, which needed only the lake to make one believe they were swans. Captivated by their artificial gestures, I heard only much later that the man next to me was speaking to me. I turned to him frowning and saw that he was offended.

“Did you say something?”

“I asked whether you wanted to buy a bridge.”

I stared:

“A bridge? … Did I hear right? You want to sell a bridge?”

“Yes,” he acknowledged peacefully. “The bridge in front of us.”

And he pointed to the bridge where the cars seemed to move a bit faster – a sure sign that the people in charge of checking had gotten bored and left to report that everything was all right.

I studied him a little more carefully before answering. Lunatics and drunkards live in a world of their own from which it is not safe to remove them too suddenly, or if you don’t have to, you do better not to remove them at all. The man in front of me didn’t look like a lunatic or a drunk, so he did not fit into my criminal classification. He did have a glass of vodka in front of him, but he didn’t appear to have drunk much of it. He was dressed fairly well, he had clear eyes, and he didn’t look at all like one of the beggars that frequent customs in hope of a good bargain from the occasional smugglers. I didn’t think I looked like a smuggler myself. I decided not to contradict him and not to disturb his illusion as a rich bridge owner.

“No,” I answered as politely as I could. “I am not interested in the offer. First, my finances are a pretty shaky and second, I am just leaving the country for quite a long time … I don’t know how I could take care of my investment under such circumstances …”

It seems I had found the right tone, because the man bowed politely towards me.

“I understand,” he murmured, slightly downcast.

He seemed to accept the situation because he had another draught of vodka and turned resigned towards the bridge.

As the row of cars had shortened, and I could see sign of the customs checkers, I prepared to stand up.

“I wouldn’t sell it …” confessed the man in front of me, seeing I wanted to leave. “But I’m fed up with it; I really am … Taking care of it, checking every day to be sure everything is all right…”

“It’s difficult … I believe you”; I entered his game but without letting myself trapped.

“Don’t leave!” he insisted.

I looked cautiously around: the customs manager and the control team had just taken seats at an isolated table to put the finishing touches on their report.. Seeing them and thinking of the trunk of my car full of fine cigarettes that I had to get through customs, I carried on with the conversation, hoping I would not attract their attention very much. I sat back on the chair and sipped from the coffee that had now grown cold.

“I’m listening …” I told the man in front of me.

“It’s cheap – it’s a bargain. I just want to get rid of it,” the man sighed bitterly.

I sighed with relief: the man was only a subtle connoisseur of smugglers and of their saying: “Live and let live.” Maybe it’s only a superstition, but every time I went through customs with a bigger quantity of cigarettes, I gave something to a beggar. Something more substantial, of course.

“How much?” I asked, worried that in spite of my appearance as an honorable man, the fellow had managed to read me.

“Not much,” the man murmured slowly, as if he didn’t want the people around to hear him. “Just enough to buy myself a bottle of vodka. To ease my parting with it … still, after so many years … I inherited it from my grandfather …”

“It’s normal,” I sighed with relief, and I took out my checkbook. Everything matched perfectly. I was helping a beggar, and at the same time, I was taking advantage of the general relaxation that follows each customs checking.

I was about to leave, this time calm.

“Just a moment,” he said and took a piece of paper from his pocket. “Sign here, and after that you are the owner …”

With my eyes on the custom-house officers who had already started to party, I signed the paper on which was drawn a schematic of the bridge in front of us.

I took the piece of paper in my hand and I rose, keeping my eyes on the bridge. My bridge. The thought amused me a little, but I was in a hurry to catch the moment and get through customs quietly and safely with my cigarettes.

“From now on you’ll have to watch it,” murmured the man as he stood up, also preparing to leave.

“Hey, what are you two doing there?” suddenly shouted the chief of the customs with an authoritative voice. He was already coming toward us with big steps.

I took my eyes from the bridge and looked at him anxiously: Was this nothing but a clever trap?

I didn’t have time to finish my thought because a metallic rustle came from the bridge, as if someone had unzipped a huge zipper. From under the cars that fell with a sonorous splash into the river, the bridge withdrew slowly as if the hand of a giant was drawing it toward us.

“I warned you to keep your eyes on it!” said the old owner of the bridge with a slightly accusing tone, heading for the exit.

“You sold it at last!” the chief of the customs reproached him bitterly when he got near us.

“I sold it …” he confirmed and went on his way. “You wouldn’t buy it … For years I’ve been begging you to take it and you still didn’t want to. As for myself, I’m fed up with it!” He threw his coat over his shoulder and stepped towards the road where fire trucks and ambulances had started to gather, trying to get the miserable drivers out of the water.

 

 

The Arena

 

Apud  Fredric Brown

 

 

 

The sleep had glued my mouth shut, leaving a bitter taste, and I swore for the umpteenth time that I’d never put booze in my mouth again. As usual, I’ll forget these oaths the moment I get to the club with the boys.

I tried to get more comfortable and then suddenly, I realized I was not in my bed. I reached out my hand and I met some rough hair. Before opening my eyes completely, I asked myself how drunk I could have been the night before to get in bed with such a woman. I stretched myself and tried to turn over: maybe I should pretend I am still sleeping and she will have the decency to leave unnoticed. Not a chance: women, the rougher women’s hair, the more churlish they are: I found myself formulating one of the laws I would forget the moment I got rid of my hangover.

A kick in my ribs made me open my eyes to an incredible scene: I was lying with half of my body over the thick mane of a gently snoring lion and farther away I could see a lioness, too. My hand was resting on the lion’s mane and, for a moment, above all the absurdity of the situation, I let out a sigh of relief: no matter how drunk I may be, I never get in bed with a woman who has rough hair. Under me, just like under the lion, as a matter of fact, lay golden sand, and when I raised my head I saw, only a few meters away from us, the blue waters of a lake from which a drowsy crocodile lifted his head. Or was it was an alligator? I could never tell one from the other very well. What I didn’t like about all this story was that, as sleepy as he seemed, his eyes were greedily fixed on me.

“A zoo,” I said to myself. This was the explanation! “Somebody, and I’ll find out who, took advantage of my being terribly drunk last night, gave me a sleeping pill or a drug, and put me here among these beasts.” I was just thinking that there is no zoo in the world where crocodiles and lions are put in the same place, when I got a second kick in my ribs:

“Aren’t you going to wake up?”

I looked toward the owner of the voice. A well-built woman, just like in the commercials that lure you to the South Seas, stark naked, kept kicking me somewhere between my second and third ribs. With her hands she tried in vain to cover either her sex or her exceedingly big breasts. My attempt to close my eyes and treat the whole situation as the natural consequence of my drinking last night didn’t work.  She kicked me again.

“Hey, calm down!” I shouted at my superb dream.

“Wake up!” She growled in a whistle, with a voice that seemed to float on the peak of exasperation.

As my only reaction was to get more comfortable, she went on:

“You should better wake up before the lion under you does!”

I looked at the lion more closely. He was already breathing faster, and he looked like he was slowly waking up.

After a time, he blinked and the eye on my side stared at me. I decided that the dream was now a little bit too realistic, so I rose slowly followed by his somewhat curious look. Only curious for the moment, I thought.  I wondered when this curiosity would become more aggressive.

“Oh, thank God you woke up!” the woman next to me sighed with relief. “I thought he would wake up before you.”

I looked at myself, puzzled. I was as naked as she was. We were both on the shore of a lake with clear blue waters and on the beach around it were lots of sleeping animals. Some of them started to yawn in their sleep; others were already moving and trying to get up. I stepped cautiously over the lion, took the woman by her hand, and drew her a little farther, and then I asked her:

“Can you tell me what the hell is going on here?”

“I will, but if you don’t mind, let’s walk farther away from here … This is why I woke you up … We are running out of time … they are going to wake up soon…”

We stepped away from the animals on the beach.

“Now, speak!” I summoned her.

She looked around hesitating, as if she was searching for a bench to sit on. Nothing of this kind could be seen nearby, so she started to talk.

“I think I woke up ten minutes before you,” she said, irritated. “You should have woken up and heard, too …”

“Heard what?” I asked, puzzled … “Was there an announcement or something like that?”

“Not exactly an announcement,” she said, sounding confused, “but I had just woken up when suddenly I heard something like a buzz in my head. Then a voice, or a thought, came into my mind. It said something about the fact that many times, through its fortuitous genetic mutations, nature doesn’t know how to choose the real masters of a planet. And that they, but I don’t know who “they” are, will rectify this situation. They will take one animal from each species and they will lock us all in this … I think the word or at least the concept of arena was used – which they would not open again until there remains only the species that deserves to be master.”

I looked around more carefully, the last vestiges of my sleep chased away. In the distance I could see something like a translucent wall surrounding the place we were in. It looked like a circle with a diameter of three or four kilometers, on the surface of which had been amassed, as far as I could tell, almost all the animals on the earth. Like in a monstrous Noah’s Ark. The small difference was that I was not Noah, but an ordinary animal. Or at least this is how those who had put us here saw things. I took a better look at the woman. Pretty, a little bit saucy, the type I would have chosen to have fun with on an usual night, but not as an equal partner for fighting lions. But maybe she thought the same about me …

“Did you have time to look around more carefully?” I asked her. Is there a shelter or something of the kind around this place? Otherwise, we have no chance against the lions … or the crocodiles …” I added, noticing the eye of the reptile from the lake looking straight towards me with a fixity I still didn’t like.

“I don’t know. I didn’t have time to look, she answered helplessly. The moment I woke up, I began to look for people. Then, when I found you, the announcement was heard and I tried to wake you up … Do you think we can manage?” she asked with a whine and all her self-assurance seemed to fade away at once.

“We have to,” I encouraged her, forcing myself to smile. Otherwise the whole world will end up populated only by lions … or crocodiles.”

I took her by the hand and we headed for the translucent wall in the distance. Animals were staggering along by our side. As I could see, the small animals were the first to come to their senses after the drug’s effect or whatever might have been used on us. Anyway, the majority seemed still sleepy and shook their heads as if  to drive away their dizziness.

We arrived at the wall. It was like a milky screen that let the light but no image through it. I pushed it with my hand. It felt like hard rubber, and it seemed completely impervious to my attempts to scratch or pierce it with a branch. I started digging at its base, but I came up against the same hard material everywhere. Anyway, I didn’t have any tools for digging. Nor did I have the time. At least, not before the big carnivores woke up. Or before they got hungry.

“What shall we do?” the woman asked worriedly.

“For the moment, we shall search for a place to hide and be safe,” I answered and started along the wall. “We must find something…a place where we can stay until we decide what to do.”

I noticed a cluster of trees in the distance and headed there hopefully. Although it didn’t look like a solution to perch in the trees until the animals ate each other, at least to the trees offered us a provisional shelter. And all of a sudden, I saw two huge cylindrical forms behind the trees. They seemed to be reservoirs or something like that, but at any rate they were the first things that broke the monotony of our habitat. Yes, our kidnappers had thought of everything. As we got closer to the two huge tanks, I saw water flowing from one of them. After it was collected in some sort of a drain, it poured out over its brim into the lake on the shore of which I had woken up. In the other tank, a yellowish gruel also flowed into a pipe whose form reminded me in an unpleasant way of a trough. I hurried to taste it: it had a mellow taste, quite pleasant, but next to me, an ape also bent to taste it while staring at us. He lacked the fierceness of a gorilla, but if one day the food in the pipe were to decrease, I wouldn’t have liked to fight him at all. Still, this was not an urgent problem right now; the lions were. And the tigers, and the crocodiles, too. For some reason, I wasn’t sure they would be content with the yellowish porridge from the pipes, even if it probably contained all the necessary components. First, we needed to solve the problem of shelter …

“We can try to build a hut and…” the woman suggested timidly, then looking at the lion that meantime had woken up and was staring around heavy with sleep, she abandoned the idea.

No hut could resist a hungry lion. And we had no raft to escape to the middle of the lake. Weapons: a solid branch I had found earlier, down under the trees. It was good after all for a dog, but not for a lion or a Siberian tiger that were already sniffing around on the lake’s shore.

“An idea! I have to come up with an idea, or we’ll be lost,” I kept repeating to myself and then my eyes fell on the two tanks. They were close together with a space of a few centimeters between them. When we passed among the trees, I noticed a fallen trunk. I rushed back, hoping it was not too late and that I wouldn’t find the lion sprawled over it. I put it on my shoulders and, bending under its weight, I leaned it against the two reservoirs. From the top of the trunk, it was only two more meters to the tank’s upper edge. I urged the woman to climb up first and then I crawled up myself, pulling the trunk after me. The platform on the tanks was around six meters in diameter, and if necessary, it could serve as a shelter for a while.

I held out my hand towards the woman:

“Now we can finally introduce each other. I am Paul…”

“And I am Laura,” she said.

She looked at me cautiously, then added:

“And I need to tell you that I didn’t like the way you touched me when you pushed me on the lid of the reservoir. Despite the conditions we are in, I want us to maintain a civilized attitude … I must tell you that I am going to marry soon and I want to remain faithful to my intended, no matter the situation…”

I was flabbergasted. With the lion wrangling at my feet, she and her appetizing body were the last things in the world I cared about.

“Believe me, this is not the moment to think of something like that…”

“This is what all you men say, “that it’s not the moment,” but you are thinking of it all the time,” she said, scowling, and she jumped on the water tank.

“I am going to sleep here tonight, so that I’ll be safer,” she decreed, and she began to tear branches from the tree that spread its leaves above the tanks.

I shrugged my shoulders and began to watch the landscape beneath me. It seemed that all of the animals had woken up. I don’t know how they understood the message to fight for supremacy over the planet, but no fight could be seen yet. I was not a zoologist or a biologist, but I had no doubt that such an agglomeration on only a few square kilometers, would lead soon, with or without any call to battle, to a real massacre. The lion I had rested my head on was walking idly under the tanks. Although the water in the pipe flowed into the lake, there was no doubt that soon the place would get crowded. The shore of the lake was narrow, and in the place I had woken up, which was more accessible, I could see the crocodile on the watch.

Nothing else happened before dark fell, and we went to sleep in a rather tense atmosphere, each of us on a different reservoir. I slept fitfully and was woken up by Laura’s sharp screams. The day had hardly broken, but I could see pretty clearly the tank where she had gone to sleep. The monkey that had stared at us yesterday at the food pipe was trying to rape the girl. At least this is how it looked to me, because I doubt he had any intention of eating her.

“Help! Help me, damn it! Get this horrible thing off of me!”

I took a branch, and using it as a club, I hit the monkey’s head. He turned around staggering and wanted to attack me, but he stumbled against one of the branches Laura had used as a bed and fell down over the edge of the tank. A muffled bang was heard and when we rushed to see what happened, his legs sprang a few times and then he remained still.

“Why didn’t you come faster?” Laura shouted offended. “You were just sitting there and watching the beast maltreating me…”

“I was hoping you’d convince him to leave you alone if you told him you wanted to be faithful to your friend,” I answered bitingly. “And maybe you’ll ask him to be civilized.”

Although the ape was the first dead of this strange war, his death signaled the beginning of the massacre. If the lion kept himself in a royal abeyance, then the Siberian tiger seemed to be killing just for his own pleasure. Or maybe he was listening to the urge of the voice Laura was talking about… As if he wanted to remain the only master of the planet…

After five days, only the big carnivores were still alive. And the crocodile in the lake, patiently waiting for the denouement. I got down for water and that pink porridge less and less often, cautiously drawing the trunk near us. Sometimes I thought that without the tanks, we would long ago have been the prey of the big carnivores. Meanwhile, my relationship with Laura became more normal, and she even got used to the idea that if we survived this test, we would probably be the parents of the new world – a sort of Adam and Eve, supposing we would be allowed to rewrite the myth…

More than two weeks went by in this way, and of the multitude of animals, we could see only three from our vantage point: the lion, the Siberian tiger and the crocodile. They were still hunting each other, delaying the denouement as much as possible. It was as if they realized that they were the last representatives of the animal kingdom on Terra.

The end came suddenly and took us both by surprise. The tiger, always hungry, always in search for food, after trying in vain to eat the half rotten corpse of a coyote, approached the crocodile’s territory more closely than usual. The reptile, with movements greatly slowed down by the long fast, rushed for the tiger. He caught him by a forepaw and tried to draw him into the lake. Only the big Siberian tiger was not a mere deer. Lashed by the pain, he broke loose from the crocodile’s mouth and a terrible fight ensued on the lake’s shore. Attracted by the noise, the lion approached, too, but he remained at a cautious distance. Stirred by the smell of the blood, he finally joined the fight, although from this distance, we couldn’t see very well who tore whom. Alliances were made and broken rapidly, but the only one that could leave the lake’s shore was the Siberian tiger. Later in the afternoon, he too died. … And as far as I could see at a first glimpse, we were the only survivors of the arena.

“Do you think we should go down to the arena and kill the small crustaceans or whatever may be still alive down there?” Laura asked me the second day, seeing that our victory had not yet been acknowledged.

“Or maybe we should shout so that the referees can hear us…”

That night, as we were winners and I held Laura in my arms, I remembered the words of the announcement: “…until the last sample of the most gifted species survives”.

I wonder what else our watchmen wanted from us? A terrible thought flashed through my mind: What if they are somehow asexual? What if they don’t know anything about the sexual dimorphism? Would they consider Laura and me as different species, waiting to kill each other?

 

 

The Lumberjack

 

 

 

He would descend from the mountains with the fall’s mist, and at a first glance, one would say he was brought down by the mist itself. He was tall and seemed quite old, not necessarily because of his appearance, but because he asked all the children he might have met occasionally how they’ve been doing, calling them “his dearest tots.” When he asked that, all the children looked down shyly, never able to answer. After a while, they would raise their eyes, looking at him with a sort of dumb happiness. The children and animals enjoyed his presence. And women as well …

After a few years, some people learned that his name was Anatol. As he never admitted or denied it, people got used to calling him like that, although many of them doubted this was his real name. He was a quiet man who rarely exchanged words with the householder for whom he was chopping the wood.

As in a strange ritual, each household of the little hamlet prepared a pile of logs so that he could chop them in one day.  He never asked for money, but would eat together with different families; at night he did not sleep in the house, but in the stable with the animals, covering himself with a thick cloak. The animals happily accepted him with a pleased snorting.

Sometimes, maybe once in a few years, when he delayed his arrival in the little hamlet at the foot of the mountain, the whole community felt a strange restlessness – as if the whole living soul was frozen in a strange, long time-lag, and the rhythm of life itself gradually slowed down as days passed, and soon would stop down for good. But then, his grayish shadow appeared from the fogbanks, and a collective sigh of relief accompanied his arrival in the small hamlet. His large, strong steps were spied by greedy, hopeful eyes from behind the gates and half-drawn curtains. Although they did not know much about him, the mountain villagers noticed one thing: the first house the lumberjack stopped at was touched by God’s hand of luck. If someone fell ill, when a fire was lit from the wood chopped by him and the smoke rose up in the air, the sick man would sit up as if he hadn’t ever suffered from anything. And that was not all. The smoke coming from the burnt logs aimed straight toward the sky, no matter how strong the wind, like a secret link between the earth and the sky.

If a family was poor and could not make the ends meet from one year to another, that family’s luck changed suddenly after the lumberjack entered their house. All cattle multiplied like rabbits, and the calves and the colts grew up over night.   And those who decided to trade them found a buyer shortly and got an excellent price. Then people in neighboring hamlets started to talk about him, but many of them did not believe a word, because the man was rarely seen by strangers. And the locals were not willing to give details to anyone, thinking that others might convince him to visit their places to split their logs; that would mean he would visit them more rarely. So they shrugged their shoulders, pretending they did not know anything about Anatol, and that is how the lumberjack’s secret was kept like a treasure belonging to their community. While the locals did not talk to strangers at all, they did not shrink from talking to each other in the long winter nights spent by the fireside, where the lumberjack’s logs were burning.

“He’s a saint!” Tanase said once, but everybody knew he was very religious and on every Sunday he went a long way to the neighboring village to stand gaping about the services held by a drunkard and a woman-chasing priest.

“Phoo! A saint? I don’t believe that!” Trofin scoffed, bluntly cutting his enthusiasm. “I suppose you did not see him drinking brandy and eating up the lard. The saints do not drink brandy and do not eat lard. They only eat roots and herbs.”

“It is you that ate roots and herbs to make you talk like that.” Chirila straightened things up, as he had seen life and was smarter than the others. “Saint or not, the thing is that he brings luck wherever he goes. Why do you split hairs? Aren’t you happy with what you’ve got? Do you want to upset him and chase him away to another village? He will be received with open arms anywhere else, mind that… And if that’s not clear enough, remember Grancea…”

Everybody was as agitated as if they had seen everything again with the mind’s eyes. Grancea was a tight-fisted and quarrelsome villager who would cavil at everybody’s doings. He was prosperous, but never contented. He believed it was unfair that someone else’s fortune grew in value in one year as much as his did in a lifetime. One autumn, when he saw Anatol passing by his household indifferently, just as in previous years, he approached him with a sawn off shotgun he used to poach wild boars. He was heavily drunk and spoke thickly.

“I’ve had enough of you, my friend! This year you are coming to my house or to no house at all…”

The villagers watching this hidden behind their gates froze and held their breath. Later, recalling this knotty tale, the villagers started to blame each other for not taking any action, and all recalled that they expected the earth to open and swallow the wicked man.

“I thought God’s rage would strike him,” Tanase the God-fearing added, making a cross as big as the church’s steeple…

But none of this actually happened. The lumberjack followed Grancea into the orchard and, threatened with the sawn off shotgun, started to split the logs. But with the stark sound of the first log split by the axe, a cow’s bellowing could be heard in the stable. Another log being split, another cow’s bellowing. Grancea ran quickly to the stable and made the sign of the cross. The cattle were collapsing one after another with their bellies swollen as if they had eaten fresh lucerne. He turned towards Anatol, red with anger. He cocked the gun, unforgiving.

“This is what you are up to, my friend?” Grancea laughed cruelly and fired, but the gun exploded in his face like a blood-stained flower.

After Grancea was buried, the lumberjack moved on to another house, Pamfil’s house, where he started to chop wood as if nothing had happened. The villager had been confined to bed for many years since his legs were crushed by a fallen tree, and now were black and blue and full of pus. But as soon as the smoke coming from the freshly-chopped wood rose straight up to the sky, the man got out of bed. He came out of the house and nimbly ran after Anatol, trying to throw himself at Anatol’s feet to thank him. With a gesture, Anatol stopped him, and although he rarely talked, said these words:

“I was fully honoured for my work. But for the other things, only God knows why you want to thank me.”

Pamfil did not say a word; he only followed Anatol with his eyes in tears, until he lost sight of him. The, turning back to his house where the smoke was rising to the sky, he drew a deep breath and said as if to himself:

“I really believe this smoke is incense and not plain smoke.”…

Time passed. Grancea’s animals recovered, and the villagers remembered that Grancea’s shotgun was very old. Tight-fisted as he was, he refused to buy a new one, despite the fact that many people told him that the old rack would blow his own head off one day. As nobody enjoyed remembering this story, it was soon forgotten.

The women in the hamlet, however, had a different opinion.

“This man suffered from love,” the passionate Paraschiva used to say. “This is my feeling and I’m never wrong in this matter. He lives alone, isolated up in the mountains, but the man inside him will not give him peace. When he looks at me, a shiver passes over me…”

“Don’t tell me that, Paraschiva. A shiver passes over you as well when you look at the saints painted in the church,” the women would answer enviously.

“That’s true, I don’t deny that,” Paraschiva agreed. “They are passed over by shivers, no matter how painted they are”.

“You sinner!” the women laughed indulgently, and walked away nudging each other and making small crosses. In such a small hamlet, it was not hard to find out that for the past few years the young widow had been initiating the young lads in the sweet art of loving… Moreover, even some earnest villagers had also visited her orchard at dusk but as there was never a scandal, everything was  overlooked in silence.

And it appeared that Paraschiva was finally right, although many could not believe it. For a couple years, after choosing one household or another according to his own rules and logic, he would walk straight to Zaharia’s house as if he had to discharge a duty that could not be postponed,. This was an earnest, hard-working and witty man. Everybody gave their opinions, but Paraschiva turned out to be right:

“I am sure Zaharia’s youngest daughter resembles the woman he loved so much a long time ago. Listen to me: in one or two years, when this lass grows up, he will become a married man…

“You must be crazy!” everybody said, hoping she would be wrong. “Can’t you see how old he is? Zaharia’s daughter, Irina, is so young…”

The year this actually happened, everybody was still hoping that Parashiva was wrong, but everything happened so fast that no one had time to say anything, much less do anything.

When he entered Zaharia’s orchard to chop the pile of logs prepared as usual, all the children and dogs gathered around him. The children were seated in a circle around him, watching in amazement how he took each log, put it on the chopping block, and then, with a precise movement, split it into two or four, according to its size. And, if the children’s behavior was quite justified, nobody could explain why the dogs were drawn to this man. They ran between the children present there, gazing curiously at the man in front of them as if he were chopping sausages and not logs. Certainly nobody ever heard a dog barking. Outside the circle of children and dogs, Zaharia’s daughter Irina had stopped. Tall and slim, she leaned against the lumber room, and stared at the man chopping the wood.  Anatol now seemed very anxious, biting his nails.

Later, the children tried to tell what happened, but each of them had a different story, so not much could be learned. But the general story was that, while trying to fix a log that won’t stand on the block, Anatol raised his eyes towards Irina. In that moment, the axe speeded down. The children were all dumbfounded, and for the first time in Anatol’s presence, the dogs snarled with pain. Staring at the log on which big, red blood drops fell, Irina came closer to the man. He had covered his face with his hands, and all the onlookers believed he was crying, because his shoulders shook in wide, large movements. Yet when Irina moved his hands away from his face, everybody saw that Anatol was laughing from the bottom of his heart. When the girl tore off a piece of her top to tie his wound, she looked into his eyes, happy, as if the spell was broken. The children scattered away to their playgrounds, while the dogs ran away, playing …

 

 

The Egg

 

 

 

Adam was calling me from somewhere behind a rock. His voice was weak not because of the distance but more because of fear. But that morning we had all had time to get used to his fears, so after a while we did not hurry at all when he called us. A little earlier, when we just started to climb, he took advantage of some thick bushes in the shade of a juniper tree and hurried to hide into them, “to leave a part of the beer down at the foot of the mountain and not to have to climb with it to the top!” He had met Ionela only a few days earlier and was still embarrassed in front of her, so he used all kind of complicated euphemisms to let her know his simplest wishes. But his embarrassment had passed in a few minutes, when, with a white face, he hurried from the bushes, stumbling and zipping his pants as he walked:

“A bear, a bear,” he had whispered urgently, and pointed to a place behind him from where he had just come.

Diana and I, who for years have wandered the mountains next to our town without ever meeting a bear, looked at one another puzzled, and then at the juniper tree bushes. Saying nothing, we both took a few steps in that direction.

“Don’t go!” Adam whispered. “Come on, let’s go; leave the damn bear!

He had taken the rucksack from the ground and grabbed Ionela’s hand preparing to run.

Ionela yanked her hand away:

“Wait and see what happens!”

Carefully I pulled the branches apart and about a hundred meters ahead, in the thick shadow of some fir trees, I could see a deer with its fawn. They were grazing quietly and once or twice the deer looked toward us anxiously, probably scared by the noise of the branches  Adam stepped on as he ran.

“Come and see the bear,” I whispered to them, and hesitating only a moment, they all came to watch.

“Oh, hell! There really was a bear, I tell you!” Adam defended his position.

As we watched,  we found the explanation. At one point, the fawn, which was fairly large, got behind the older deer so that just the rear half of it body could be seen. Through Adam’s always dim glasses, not to mention the several beers he drank, the two bodies could appear like a smaller bear walking on four feet.

“That cannot be,” said Adam stubbornly. “It was a bear, I tell you!”

Ionela took his hand and looked at him with sympathy:

“But, Adam, if three minutes ago there had been a bear there, do you think that two deer would be grazing so quietly now, at that very spot?”

Instead of being impressed by the iron logic of his girlfriend, Adam looked at her angrily as if to say “you too, Brutus?” and started to climb by himself to the top.

That happened almost an hour ago, and now for sure he had seen something else. I took the bottle of water out of my rucksack and started to drink quietly.

Ionela and Diana looked at me smiling:

“Aren’t you going?” one of them asked me.

I slowly replaced the lid, wiped by mouth, and lay on my back with my head on the rucksack. I moved slowly as my muscles relaxed and looked towards them:

“I am not going! I am all right here, and after all, bears don’t climb this high… Actually, no bears are down there, either.”

When I was a child, I had seen two bears, which would come in the evening from the mountains that surrounded the town to the container where we children took the garbage. My parents always told me to stay away from them, but I always had with me a few crusts of bread that I fed to them. They were gentle; they would eat from the palms of the children’s hands. After a while we did not see them any more, I think they were caught for a circus or zoo. Those were the last bears I saw at large.

From behind a rock tumbled Adam.

“Come here now! It is huge!… It is… you have to see it!…”

Ionela looked at him curiously, and I think she wondered whether she should continue her friendship with such a strange individual. In spite of that, she picked up her rucksack and started toward him.

“See what, Adam? A huge bear?” I also asked without getting up.

Adam took off his glasses anxiously and then put them back on and glared at us.

“What bear, huh?! Are you crazy? Up there is an egg…”

Adam has been my friend for a long time and I did not want to laugh, but I thought my ribs would split from the effort, so eventually I burst out laughing. The girls started to laugh, too.

Finally I composed myself and wiped the tears from my eyes; then I looked at Adam who was watching us red with fury.

I pointed towards the rock:

“Behind that rock is an egg, Adam? A huge egg?”

Diana kept up with me:

“Actually, how huge can an egg be, Adam?”

Adam looked first at one, then at another of us, then, all of a sudden more calmly, he said:

“Instead of staying here and laughing one at another, and at me, you’d better climb a few steps and see.”

Curiously, his suddenly relaxed voice convinced me more than anything else, so I got up and shouldered my rucksack.

“Well, let’s go and see,” I said heading toward the rock.

In moments I climbed the three meters and raised my head. Then I raised it a little more.

“Well, what do you say now?” asked Adam with satisfaction.

I could not find my words, so I said nothing: and it was enough for me just to watchsee. Well hidden behind the rock was an egg. I wanted to use another word, not the one used by Adam, but he had found the best of them: it was huge. It appeared to be about two meters in diameter and four, maybe five in height. Almost as high as the rock behind which it was hidden. It was greenish-yellow, like the eggs of a goose, and it was without doubt an egg. And if Adam, in his happiness that he was finally right for once, became indifferent towards his unique discovery, I could not stop wondering what the bird capable of making such a monstrosity looked like. Probably it was as big as a cathedral. And I did not want to think what would happen if it had appeared just then and found us investigating its work of art. With that thought in mind, instead of getting closer, as my curiosity urged me to do, I scanned the whole sky, as my prudence advised me to. It was a clear sky, with no sign of a bird, big or small, so I took heart and got closer. I picked up a stone and knocked gently on the shell.

“Are you crazy?” whispered Adam. “Do you really want to see what is inside? Or do you want to give ideas to … the thing that is in there?”

I knocked again, listening carefully to the egg, before answering him.

“I don’t want to give ideas to anybody, Adam. I just want to make sure that this is not just a gigantic joke. Or that we are not on Candid Camera…”

Adam and the girls looked around suspiciously, but they could see nothing. There were just us and the sad image from the Bald Crest. Somewhere lower began the bushes and then the forest. Far away, between two rocky peaks, we could see the town where we left that morning. Here, around us was no one: we were all alone. Just us and the huge and absurd egg.

“Can you remember the bird Roc from the story of Sinbad the Sailor?”

Diana looked at us as if she expected an answer.

Since she is my girlfriend, I felt I had to clarify a point:

“Diana, that was just a story. And then, there are no diamantes here.”

Ionela looked at the egg, entranced, and whispered:

“Maybe this is the primordial egg!”

I looked carefully at her to see whether she was speaking seriously. She spoke so convincingly that I approached the egg again and knocked hard on it with the rock.

“Ionela, the egg that you are talking about is a philosophical concept. You cannot knock with a stone on a philosophical concept.”

To demonstrate, I knocked again. This time the sound became louder as if I had knocked into a huge bronze gong. The sound reverberated with deep echoes through the surrounding valleys. I threw the stone as if burnt, but Ionela did not seem to notice, because she continued her ideas:

“Well it is not at all a simple philosophical concept! According to the Vedic cosmogony, the primordial heat allowed the “hatch” and “break” of the egg of the world. And this egg really existed at the beginning of the world. And the same belief says that, when this world ends, a new primordial egg will appear around the cause which generates it, ready to give birth to another world…”

Adam looked at her, leaning his head to one side, as if he was seeing her for the first time.

“What you say is too hard for me. And furthermore, I read somewhere that you cannot think clearly if you have low glycemia. So let’s look in the rucksack, set the table, raise our glycemia to normal levels, and then see what we think.”

“Let’s eat,” Ionela whispered, starting to search her rucksack. “Especially if this could be our last meal!”

Despite her low voice, Adam heard her and jumped nervously:

“You know I don’t like pessimists!”

We hurried to get the well-roasted chicken legs out of the rucksack.

While the girls were trying to arrange our meal aesthetically, Adam anxiously laid a newspaper down as a table cloth and grabbed a chicken leg and a piece of bread and started to eat with gusto.

Ionela cut the tomatoes in equal slices and placed them symmetrically next to the slices of cheese cut in the same meticulous manner. She shifted the cheese and tomatoes to rectify the symmetry of the meal, then said with one breath as if reading from a book:

“Heidegger said somewhere that revelation takes place when man haunts nature… In his action, investigating and studying it, he solicits a modality to reveal. So, he insistently asks nature to deliver itself as an object of research until even the object disappears from lack of object as a characteristic of the available state.”

For a while, Adam stopped chewing, looking at her in amazement. Then he swallowed furiously and yelled at her:

“We did not ‘haunt’ nature, if that is what you wanted to say. And neither does this damn object want to disappear. The object is haunting us with its face of an innocent egg!”

He seemed to have finished his arguments because he started eating again. He chewed for a while and then threw another supreme argument at Ionela:

“And generally I tend to agree with those who say that girls who start struggling with philosophy don’t struggle enough in real life!”

Ionela set her glasses more firmly on her nose and said smiling, flirting a little:

“Well, I am your girlfriend, and it is your fault if you don’t struggle with me enough!”

Adam stopped, distracted, and one could see from his expression that he was preparing a pertinent comeback, when Diana said with a changed voice:

“Just listen!” She quickly cleared the tomatoes and cheese from the newspaper and started reading: “An old legend says that in a temple in Hanoi, under the dome which shows the centre of the earth, lies a bronze plate where there are fixed three diamante pillars, high as an elbow and thin as the thigh of a bean. On one of these pillars the creator, at the creation of the world, had stacked 64 pure gold disks, the largest being on the bronze plate and the rest, each smaller than the one under it, until the stack reached the top of the pillar. This is the tower of Brahma. Day and night, without end, a priest would move the disks from one pillar to another, following Brahma’s rules, which state that the priest must move only one disk at a time, and never set any disk on another one with a smaller diameter. When the 64 golden disks are moved in this matter from one pillar to another, arranged in the same way the Creator had put them, then the tower, the temples, and Brahmans will disappear into nowhere, and with a deafening thunder the entire world will disappear…”

“So, what does this have to do with the egg?” asked Adam grumpily.

“Listen to the rest,” said Diana. “Now it becomes more interesting: “The above legend gave birth to a beautiful programming problem well-known by all high-school pupils as the “problem of the Hanoi towers”. The total number of movements necessary to move the disks according to the rule specified by the legend is 18,446,744,073,709,551,615. This number is so big than if a Brahman makes one move per second never stopping, we would have a comfortable number of billions of years until the end of the world predicted by the legend. About 58 billions years according to a simple calculation. As the students of the Faculty of Informatics were given a mainframe high-tech computer, they thought to simulate for the first time the huge number of necessary movements. With the help of special software, they were be able to simulate 1,000,000,000,000,000 movements of the disks per second, so in 18,446 seconds the program will have been finished. So in less than 13 days! Due to the extraordinary news which they present – it seems to be a world premiere- today, at 14 hours or two o’clock p.m., when the calculation is complete, although it is Sunday, an impressive crowd of guests, some of them even foreigners, will be present at the laboratory of the Faculty of Informatics. Of course, because of the extraordinary speed of processing of data, just each billionth move of the disks is presented graphically, and even so, the disks appear on the monitor screen more like a golden mist than individual disks. Those who wish may assist today at this exceptional achievement of our young computer scientists. Admission is free. We mention as a curiosity that a month ago a similar experiment failed apparently because of the protest of a sect which was convinced that such an experiment, even just a simulation, would bring the end of the world!”

Diana stopped reading, Adam stopped eating and I watched the time: five minutes until two.

“There are five minutes left” I said with a voice I did not recognize. “Of course, if all of that is true,” I added, seeing the reproachful looks from the girls.

As a warning, from the gigantic egg was heard a crack and in the shell of the egg, somewhere in the higher part I thought I saw a fissure.

Diana got closer to me:

“Kiss me! I am cold!”

We stood up and I kissed her.

“Not like that! Harder! As if it were for the last time!”

I kissed her again and closed my eyes, trying to pretend that I did not hear behind us the egg opening with a deafening thunder.

 

 

Meeting With a Goddess

 

 

 

Diana was driving with her usual airy and easy manner. The car seemed an extension of her being, and seeing her drive was a real delight. She was just taking a dangerous curve when, all of a sudden, came to me the idea to kiss her. As if she had heard my thought, she turned her head towards me. Just then a huge truck, with deafening horns, came furiously down the slope, toward us …

I woke up all sweaty, my hands pushing the nonexistent wheel and trying – I do not remember for how many times and for how many dreams? – to avoid the inevitable. I woke up, and,- filled with the same terror I felt after each dream, I went to the bathroom, where, in the medicine cupboard, I would find relief. The doctor told me, after recommending the sleeping pills, that one pill every night would be enough, that I would not have nightmares anymore, and that I would fall into a deep sleep. The only problem was that, before falling asleep, a thought would come to me: if I had not come toward her to kiss her, would she have been able to avoid the accident? After that,  sleep would not come, even after two or three pills. The old doctor was terrified when he found out what I was doing. He recommended that I try anything else – sports to get me tired, perhaps – and eventually, try to replace Diana in my soul.  It was easy for him to talk, because he did not love Diana, and maybe he had never been in love. He was definitely not like me. It may seem absurd to say that you have only one love, but I can say for sure that I loved only once, and I will never be able to replace her with anyone.

I took another pill from the bottle and thought again of Diana before sinking into the thick mist of the brutal sleep induced by the sleeping pill. Sometimes she was so alive in my memory that it seemed as though I could stretch my hand out to touch her. Or that I could just call her and she would answer every time. Then I would open my eyes and realize  that all was just an illusion. She was living only in me and through me…

Two years after the accident, it seemed I was the only one who remembered her. Our few common friends would not talk about her at all, and it seemed strange to me to mention her in their presence. The dead with the dead and the living with the living… It was as if she had never existed, and it seemed so unfair for such a gorgeous being to disappear like that into nowhere. When I was thinking deeply about her, it seemed as if the furniture started to crack all of a sudden and in the sounds made by the wood, I recognized her voice. It was unnatural for a girl so full of life to die so young… It was terribly unfair… and sometimes I would blame myself because so little had to change then so that she could still be alive now. Even if I were the one to die. Usually, in the evening I drove… but when we were at the party, I, who usually do not drink, felt the need to have a glass of cognac with an old colleague whom I had not seen for many years.

“Be careful,” he told me, after I introduced him to Diana. “You know what they say: a beautiful woman brings trouble into the house…”

I waved my hand carelessly.

“I have heard that before,” I said, bored. “Only you see, Diana and I are really in love. That is what nobody seems to understand.”

He wanted to insist on it, but I did not let him. I clinked glasses with him and drank the cognac all at once; then I left furiously. Every time, at each party, there had to be one person who would spoil my mood. All because of Diana’s looks. She was a gorgeous girl, and she was usually the center of attention anywhere we went. I was envied and pitied at the same time, because I, with my ordinary looks, do not give the impression that could attract her. It is true that I seemed dull and insignificant next to her, but we really were in love. And despite all their gossip, we got along very well. It is also true that everywhere we went, she was immediately surrounded by handsome men who tried hard to win her attention. It was enough for her to catch my eye over their heads and wave to me discretely so that I would not worry about anything. She was mine! I could feel that, and the rest did not matter.  Of course some friends told me that her love for me began almost at the same time that I received an inheritance from my aunt from Canada, but I could read the envy in their eyes, I knew that’s all it was….

Thinking about her continued to torment to me so strongly that even if I felt the chemistry of the sleeping pill trying to defeat me, I simply could not fall asleep. I thought about the money I inherited, a very large amount for me. It was useless now, and I would have given it all if only I could bring Diana back to life – even if for just a second. Finally I drifted off, and through the misty waves of sleep that surrounded me, an idea came to me… something about the miracles from Lourdes…

The second day, the thought about Lourdes followed me everywhere I went. I felt it was important, something about me and Diana, but I could not remember anything precisely. About lunch time, not being able to endure the tension anymore, I went to a public library and asked for everything they had about Lourdes. The books did not give me anything more than I had already known: it was a holy place, like many others, where miracles would happen. Incurably ill people, certified as such by serious and responsible doctors, after drinking the water from the healing spring, would return home cured, stunning the skeptical and serious doctors, who had been treating them until then with no result. The number of diseases and of ill people was remarkable. Cancer, AIDS, leprosy, psoriasis, sclerosis, and many other diseases that modern medicine still could not treat: now they declare them cured.

“Why is Lourdes obsessing me? And what does it have to do with Diana? As if death were a disease which a holy place could heal…“

Towards the evening, I finally remembered. It was a magazine article in which a doctor was trying to explain the miracles from Lourdes, and also the fact that in such places, surrounded by believers, would be created a psychical space where mysterious energies would make any miracle possible… The place where thought and belief would work towards cure… The ill ones were sinking in an ocean of faith and had nothing left but to accept it, to let themselves penetrated by it, and the transformations would come naturally…

The places where thought transformed in something else… This is how he explained the phenomena that were not yet elucidated. In the psychical spaces, thoughts, t beliefs, and ideas can easily transform, materialize and interact with matter. And with the lack of respect for divinity which characterizes any scientist, he proposed a very interesting experiment: to use the power of belief of these people to produce a touchable, measurable, and controllable, and especially repeatable effect, which would demonstrate with no doubt the truthfulness of his hypothesis.

I should have felt relieved, but still I did not know why I associated that old article, hanging in the tormented waves of my subconscious, with Diana. With her coming back to me! Is this what I wanted? Yes, of course that is what I wanted! But is it not the first step towards madness? My old doctor had already sent me to a psychiatrist when I told him that sometimes I seemed to hear Diana talking to me. When I was a child, I read a book whose author and title I have forgotten, but a passage from it remained in my memory:

“Gods are truly forever and immortal, with a little amendment: only as long as we believe in them!“

Although it was a simple essay, the author speculated on the idea that the old Gods had really existed and that they had their period of glory. Then, as newer gods appeared and the belief in the older gods disappeared, their powers would disappear as well as their capacity to manifest themselves in the world. With the gods missing from the public life, little by little the number of believers became fewer, and in this way, one by one disappeared. Starting from the population of ancient Greece and from the rich pantheon of gods and the manner in which each of them manifested, the author reached the conclusion that, in order to exist, a god needs at least ten thousand believers, without being very active or bringing sacrifices, believers who think of that god at least once a day.

I fell asleep with this thought in mind… Tens of thousands of believers. Tens of thousands of people who would think of a…. goddess. At the time I had pronounced the word goddess I knew I thought of her. I got up and ignoring the effect of the sleeping pill, I hurried to the safe where my monthly bank statements lay sealed.

I wondered how much money I had? Would it be enough to “buy” – I cannot find another suitable word – sufficient believers so that I could create a goddess? Diana, of course. Looking at the long row of zeros on the checks, I thanked my aunt, and for a moment the idea came to me: what if I had to use the money to bring my aunt to life, supposing that such craziness were possible.

But, remembering her character, truly disagreeable, I decided to try with Diana.

 

***

 

A month passed from the evening in which the idea came to me. With money, it seems easy to accomplish anything. Creating a goddess seems like baking a cake, and I cannot but reveal the recipe to others, too. It is expensive, however; I must mention that from the beginning.

So: first you buy space on a web server, enough to host several pages. Then, with the help of good webmasters, you enter the picture of the one you want to transform into a god. Explain in a few simple words that this is a scientific experiment and that the participants must be volunteers of good faith who will pray hard to this goddess. Through this simple experiment, we only want to test a hypothesis: whether prayer and faith can be created a psychical space which can in turn create gods – in other words, to test whether it is true that people create gods, as the brilliant minds of the world have always stated. Then, for this effort, you offer a small amount of money. I offered a dollar for each time the web page was accessed during an established time interval. There is, of course, the possibility so that somebody opens the page and takes the money without thinking and praying to the goddess. But, as the endeavor was presented as a scientific experiment, I doubted that I would have many unpleasant surprises, especially since I was paying in real time: every hour I would transfer the money into the account of those who had visited the web page until then. So I can tell you precisely that you need 9,830 believers to make a god appear. The figure stated by the ancient Greek researcher proved to be surprisingly exact.

At first, a few night at a row, the figure oscillated between two thousand and three thousand “believers” who accessed my page; then it seemed that the news about it traveled fast – and also about my reliability and especially my promptness regarding the payment, because the number of visitors increased every night until it reached 9,830.

“Are you waiting for me?” whispered a soft voice behind me and, when I turned, there she was smiling more than ever… Diana.

“Diana!” I was ecstatic!  I wanted to go to her.

She squelched my enthusiasm with a wave of her hand.

“Stop George! I am a goddess now! Do you know what this means?”

I shook my head no. It was all too strange. I had apparently resurrected Diana, but I could not understand why she was acting so cold to me.

She gave me a long look for some moments, then she sighed.

“George, I am grateful that you brought me to life, and especially as a goddess… but I must tell you some things. I have never loved you! I stayed with you only because of what you could offer me. But now I am a goddess and I have the powers of a goddess… I want to enjoy it… Do not try to stop me!”

She headed towards the door to leave, then hesitated in the doorway and turned again towards me:

“And one more thing: you were never the only man in my life.”

I wanted to say something, but the words stuck painfully in my throat.

I do not know whether it was Diana’s attractive face or my money, but around 12 o’clock during night, her number of believers reached 14,000. I was just on the verge of transferring the money to them when Diana, accompanied by two muscular males appeared, giggling a little wasted.

They passed near me without seeing me, heading toward the bedroom. From the door, Diana turned back to me, as if she suddenly remembered that I was there, too:

“I know how you created me! Only now I don’t have to depend on you. I have real powers, and even if they are not as spectacular as the powers of Zeus, I can produce a little lightening to stop you from doing anything on that computer..”.

She stretched a hand towards the monitor in front of me and “a little lightening” hit my old computer, which broke down in a rain of sparks.

“Diana, what are you doing? Let me explain…”

“Don’t you dare!” She whispered with a voice that stopped me cold. “Or else you will end up in a pile of ashes like that monitor!” she threatened me and went into the bedroom slamming the door.

From the noises coming through the bedroom door, it seemed she was having a blast.

I did not know what else to do. Go look for a computer and connect to the internet so I could pay the visitors to the web page, or wait to see what happened? If an hour  passed without my making the payment, the number of visitors to the web page would suddenly diminish—and consequently, the number of Diana’s worshipers. But what if, as she said, she had enough powers and did not depend on them anymore?

I was curious to see what would happen next, but worse, Diana’s new behavior frightened me. I did not have to wait long… Over the pleasure moans from the bedroom, I suddenly heard a terrible cry all of a sudden.

The bedroom door slammed against the wall:

“You beast! What have you done?”

“Nothing”… I said frightened by her look. “I did nothing!”

And my answer was perfectly true.

“You are lying! Look at me, you bastard!”

Beyond her hand stretched toward me, I could see her tense expression. She was naked, but I did not have time to admire her body, because she was losing substance every minute… Next to her, holding their clothes in their hands and avoiding touching her, with the two fellows she came with slipped away.. They ran outside without looking back.

I wanted to get close to her, to touch her, but she was now a thin smoke…

 

***

 

My goddess disappeared into nowhere, and sometimes, in the long nights when I wait for the sleeping pills to act, I wonder whether the entire memory was nothing but a mere extension of my old nightmares…

 

 

A Rocket with My Name

 

 

 

I stopped in front of the door, trying – as I did every single day – to pretend I was as tired as possible. I did not have to pretend I was worried, because I was worried anyway, but I had no reason to feel tired. I had seen three movies, so I think I looked bored rather than tired. When I felt I could play my part fully and look perfectly exhausted, just like any other man that worked for several hours on his desk, I rang the bell three times quickly.

As usual, Robert opened the door, while Bruce ran all around me, waiting for the moment to come and jump on me. From behind the kitchen door, Ellen stretched to peep through the opening. She cast a short glance at me, and then scolded the kids.

“Children, leave dad alone! Can’t you see he’s tired?”

I must have exaggerated a little and played my part much too seriously, but now I couldn’t change that and although I could hardly keep from playing with my children, I made a sign to leave me alone and I collapsed heavily into the armchair.

“Dinner will be ready in a minute,” Ellen told me, and came to run her fingers through my hair, as she did every time I got home.

Then she stopped in front of me and riveted her eyes on me.

“Is everything all right?” she asked me.

I tried to smile:

“Of course it is! Why wouldn’t it be?”

She had an inquisitive look in her eyes, and involuntarily I looked away guiltily.

“I don’t know how to put it, Mike… I am worried. Today Mr. Wald from the third floor received a notice of termination. I am really afraid one day you might get one as well…”

“But I’ve told you, my dear,” I breathed freely, relieved that it was only that, “I’ve told you so many times that my position is ensured. Believe me, there’s no reason for you to worry…”

“Yeah, I know, you’ve told me… But…” and she turned around to go, but stopped hesitatingly at the door.

“Mike, I am sorry to ask you this. It’s quite a stupid question… The things you are doing there, at work, are legal, aren’t they?”

I smiled uncontrolled:

That crowns all, that it would be illegal to watch three movies a day! But I said aloud:

“Of course it is legal. More than that, I am working for a governmental institution, but I can’t tell you more. Not even to you!”

“That’s fine, don’t tell me,” she breathed freely and went back to the kitchen.

After dinner, I managed to play for a few minutes with my children before Ellen sent them to bed. Then I went to bed myself, while Ellen was still working around in the kitchen. Actually, I was happy she took her time there and came to bed late… Otherwise, who knows, while lying in bed together, I might have been tempted to tell her the whole truth and get rid once and for all of this play that I had to act each and every evening.

As a matter of fact, what could I have said to her? That my only duty, after signing the strange contract, was to report once a week for a medical check-up, to take the vitamins and medicines I was given, and pick up my wages.

It was definitely better not to tell her anything. She could have become worried for no reason…

Sometimes, I think about the day I responded to the small ad published in tiny print at the bottom of the classified page.  I did not at all like the policeman guarding the entrance of the building, nor the atmosphere inside my future workplace. But I had been unemployed for almost a year, my children had grown, and I had to pay their educational fees.  And the unpaid bills were already making an impressive pile. I got over my usual skepticism that I would normally express vehemently to the receptionist. After introducing himself, and before anything else could happen, he sent me straightaway for a medical evaluation.

“You know, Mr. Grove,” he told me, “before engaging in a serious discussion, it is better to have a short medical check-up done. We don’t have any special requirements regarding your education, but our employees’ health must be perfect.”

“I am whole and sound,” I replied quickly.

“The sounder the better, Mr.Grove. You won’t encounter any difficulties, but we just want to make sure it is like that.” He smiled politely and sent me to a doctor who put me through the most minutely detailed medical examination I have ever had in my whole life.

While I was being examined, I was thinking that this was a workplace where education was not important, while my health and my reflexes were checked thoroughly. Highly convinced I was on the right track, I waited for the moment to ask the doctor:

“Doctor, it’s about mercenaries, isn’t it?”

The doctor looked at me, visibly offended:

“You are joking sir. We are a governmental institution.”

Oh, as if you were as pure as a lamb, I said to myself. As if Government were not using mercenaries. But, as I did not want to make my situation even worse at my future workplace, I chose to put on a pre-occupied expression and did not ask him anything else. But I had decided to thumb my nose at them if they offered a position at a mercenary unit. I didn’t want to die and leave my bones in the hot spots of this planet.

After the medical exam was over, I went back to the man who had welcomed me at the beginning. He looked at me with reproach.

“Mr. Grove, how can you believe such a thing, that a governmental institution deals with the recruitment of mercenaries? That would be illegal, don’t you realize?”

He asked me to take a seat, ignoring my apologies.

“But as a matter of fact, you have already noticed an important aspect of your future job. Please remember, your future career might require traveling abroad when necessary. And traveling abroad, I must warn you, is not entirely risk free…”

So you are not recruiting mercenaries, but spies! I told to myself, but I asked Mr. Goodman something else:

“And what exactly do I need to do abroad, Mr. Goodman?” Of course I knew the answer beforehand.

“You see, we can only tell you the moment you are sent over there.”

I stood up, ready to go.

“Mr. Goodman, I hope you realize that under these circumstances, our conversation is over. You are telling me about sacrifice, but you refuse to tell me plainly for what I should sacrifice and in what circumstances…”

Obviously, I was not the only one to stand up determined to leave, because Mr. Goodman shrugged his shoulders, disappointed.

“It is up to you, Mr. Grove. But if you made the effort to come here, you might at least be interested in having a look at the contract,” and he put two sheets of paper in front of me.

I took them and read them, very circumspectly: the first page was written in an obfuscated, intricate style, and said roughly the same things I had just heard from Mr. Goodman. On the second page, it mentioned that in the first two years I was to be kept as a reserve, and I should follow a special regimen in order to fortify my body; immediately under this clause, I could read the amount of pay I would receive weekly. I could hardly believe my eyes: the wages for only one week were enough to cover half of all the unpaid bills!

Still hesitatingly, I asked Mr. Goodman:

“Is it true, what it says here, that in the first two years I won’t be…?”

“It’s all so true, Mr. Grove… If you accept, you’ll be the reserve of another reserve… And please believe me; we take care of our people. As you can see, we invest too much in them to afford the luxury of losing them foolishly.

I was still dubious. In order to hide my feeling, I asked him again:

“Then what do I need to do in these two years?”

“Nothing special! You just need to come once a week for your medical check-up, take your vitamins and other fortifying medicines, sign the sheet, and collect your wages.”

As if in a dream, I signed the contract. As for the rest of it, Mr. Goodman was right: after the medical examination, I had to take a few drugs, have an injection that wasn’t very painful, then in a neighboring room I had to sign and collect my money. Nobody would ask me anything.

Therefore, what could I tell to Ellen, especially now, when the two-year period had come to an end few months ago and I could end up one day being sent somewhere, anywhere…

I could hardly fall asleep, but before sinking into a deep sleep, I made the decision to go and find Goodman the next day and ask him what they were going to do with me. It was the day of my medical appointment anyway.

When I found myself in front of the grayish building, the policeman guarding the entrance door greeted me like an old acquaintance. I greeted him back, very preoccupied, my mind somewhere else. I was determined to break this plot of silence that had been woven around me, and by all means, to drag the truth out of Goodman about what was going to happen to me.

I went first to the surgery where, as usual, the doctor that gave the injection was waiting for me. I lay down on the bed where I was usually examined. Before I realized what was going on, my arms and legs were tied with some belts hanging at the edge of the bed.

“Hey, what are you doing there?” I fought to escape the restraints.

“Nothing, nothing special Mr. Grove,” Goodman said, after entering the room unnoticed. “We only take these measures in case the news we are going to break to you might distress you.”

He made a sign to the doctor who came closer to the bed in silence, and before I was even able to protest, he gave an injection totally different from the usual ones. If it was a sedative, it didn’t work because I could feel myself boiling over with anger. I had never imagined such a thing would happen to me!

“I hope you don’t want to put me  to sleep!” I objected again. “I signed a contract, what the … I am ready to leave of my own will. I can guess what’s in store for me…”

“Really?” Goodman smiled mysteriously. “So you’re saying you can guess, Mr. Grove…”

I looked around. Meanwhile, a few more doctors had entered the room. They were standing near the door, stone-still, with the same mysterious smile on their faces. I became frightened.

“Well,” Goodman continued, “You can know what this is all about. Why not? You might be even proud! After all,  only a few people have such a destiny: a rocket with their name, even if it’s for only two years. In brief, it’s all about that. The army has a new type of rockets in storage, named Crotal. They are extremely good and efficient. With the difference that instead of a microprocessor, they are commanded by a human brain. Far more flexible, more safe, more efficient… However, the system has a weak point: it won’t last more than two years. The link between the nerves as organic component and the data band, the metallic component, becomes unsafe after two years’ functioning, even though your nerves have been specially treated these two years… Therefore, Mr. Grove, it’s your turn!”

“That’s nonsense”, I shouted mightily. “You can’t do that… In the contract it was mentioned I’ll work abroad…”

“You will go there as well, no worries, if there is tension somewhere on the planet,” Goodmann continued, mildly. “And as far as your family is concerned, do not worry. Your wife will receive a notification that her husband died while serving his country, and obviously, will get a good pension. You don’t need to trouble your head about that. You won’t feel anything, and your memories will be blocked. You will know only that you are a rocket and have always been one…”

“That’s not possible!” I was fighting to break loose. “That’s murder! Help! Police!”

I can’t tell whether the picture of the cheerful guardian came into my mind and made me stop, or the doctor’s injection took effect, but suddenly I became inapprehensive of everything around me. I had a foggy picture of the doctor coming closer to me, then I was suddenly surrounded by darkness…

 

* * *

 

I am a “Crotal” rocket! I am huge – 40 meters long – and I was built so that I can easily slip through the most difficult geographical surfaces to reach my target. From time to time, the darkness that surrounds me lifts a little, and I can see plenty of maps around. At the beginning, they would appear chaotically, but little by little I learned how to call them at my will, from my extraordinary memory. I have cameras that turn the pictures around me into digital signals. This is how I can compare the real trajectory and the programmed one. Because somewhere, in my fundamental program, they have deeply implemented the order that at the “Start” command, I should reach a certain point. This is the only thing that really matters. Up to that point I need to wait and learn. I wait and learn about myself…

… In this bunker where I have been installed, humans come for the first time. I know they are humans, although I have no information whatsoever about them stored in my memory.  They raised my curiosity from the very beginning, but I could not find any information on them. The only data that I found were uncertain and were coming from an internal part of my memory that I cannot control properly yet. There are many blocked areas in my internal memory, so instead of groping about through the forbidden areas looking for unsafe bits, I observe them instead by means of cameras. They move around me with precision, changing the expired parts and filling the tanks with a fuel. Most of the time, when I open the mouth orifice, there are some vibrations in the air that I can perceive but I do not understand their meaning….

… I continued to search persistently, and I found out that somewhere inside my huge body, a copper wire comes into intermittent contact with an aluminum plate that vibrates with the air stream.  A small galvanic pile was formed with its voltage modulated by the human voice. I manage to capture this insignificant variation of voltage, but I cannot understand any of it.  Their words sound like an analogical muttering that doesn’t make any sense when compared to the digital elegance of the bits coming from my memories…

… Then one day, without making any effort, suddenly  I started to understand people’s language. Somewhere in my memory was a blocked area that was activated by their language. I could now understand their words with little effort, but many of them had no meaning to me. Spring, wages, hatred, fear, flowers, air… No, not air. I knew what air means, I had to take into consideration the air strength when calculating my trajectory…

… After they left, I reviewed the memory spots where I had recorded their discussions. And suddenly, while listening to one of them talking about the holidays he had spent at the seaside with his wife, I remembered Ellen.

Ellen, Ellen … I was thinking, and every time I repeated the word something related to her came into my mind: her long hair, blonde and soft, her velvety skin, so warm and smooth under my light touch… Ellen! I wanted to call her, deeply moved. Ellen! But all I could do was to move the bits of her name from one disk to another. Ellen! And I remembered Robert, the smart one, and Bruce, the naughty boy… The desire to embrace Ellen, to see again my sons had become almost unbearable. Extremely anxious, I rewound all the maps at a maximum scale until I found the town where they lived. The scale of the map allowed me to localize with high precision even the house. And I decided to go and see them…

… The following day I waited impatiently for the maintenance technicians. I needed one of them to succeed in my objective. I can take off by myself, I have checked my circuits so many times, but I cannot open the iron-clad lid of the bunker. I can see the control stick through the frontal video camera, but I cannot reach it. But with such a high calculation capacity, to calculate the trajectory of a tool towards the control stick is nothing.

I waited for a couple of hours until one of the technicians was very close to  the control stick, carelessly holding a hammer in one of his hands. He said something funny to another technician, continuously waving the hand with the hammer. Then, in an instant, the hammer was in the calculated position and I send a short fire jet from an auxiliary booster in order to adjust the trajectory. Blinded, the technician covered his face with his hands, dropping the hammer so that it hit the control stick.  With a heavy noise, the metal lid moves aside, and I can see the sky above me. I engage the contact and the main engines burst out filling the narrow space in the bunker with smoke and flames. I know that none of those around me will survive, but I don’t care. With the engines revved to the maximum, I am running towards Ellen, towards the children that certainly are now waiting for me at the window…

“Oh! Ellen, I’m coming to you!” and my humming engines seem to murmur a strange lovetune.

 

 


Our Chance Was Called Adam

 

 

 

Adam B. was living one of the unhappiest days he could remember in the last several years. The truth is that everything contributing to his misery, now all at the same time, had happened to him now and then during his life, but always separately and in particular, leaving one or two weeks between them, for him to have time to recover and start creating illusions again, illusions which destiny would destroy very quickly.

Adam’s bad luck had begun that morning when he discovered in his mailbox a letter from Camelia; of course, it had arrived yesterday, but he always looked in the mailbox in the morning and in this way spoiled his entire day. It was not the only time he had received such incendiary letters, but that time the sweet child from Dambovita’s branches was very categorical in expressing her feelings.

She wrote him, among other things, that she did not understand why for a few moments of sweet loss she had to endure his presence every time he came to Bucharest: “That’s enough!” she wrote him at the end of her letter, confessing to herself through fine illusions the happiness which would embrace her if she did not have to see his toady look nor his face like a suspicious rat.

As odd as it may seem, Adam was not bothered by Camelia’s intensions of breaking off the relationship, but more about the uncompromisingly vehement style in which it was all written, not to mention the very exaggerated comparisons at the end of the letter.

So, she considered his intense look, through which he tried to pay a modest tribute to the absolutely charming way Mother Nature had arranged Camelia’s fifty-two kilograms, seemed to her a simple “servile” look. And more than that, his life-weary face, that of a distinguished intellectual, which doubted on principle women’s fidelity and the great truths of science, seemed to her a vulgar, suspicious face.

At that time, remembering a few sweet intimate moments when ontology’s problems did not matter, he was tempted to forgive everything and write a letter in which he would try conciliation. Unfortunately at that very moment, his eyes fell on the words “suspicious rat.” Well, no! That was something that his outraged dignity could not tolerate, so he gave an imperative order to his neurons to interrupt the synapses leading to any memory of her.

At the office was waiting for him an urgent paper whose coefficients had to be recalculated according to the new expenses. More than that, his supervisor was waiting for that paper so he could communicate the new coefficients immediately to the foreign partners. But instead of coefficients and expenses, Adam saw only Camelia’s letter (he had put it above the file so it was obvious) and he had just decided that it would be better to concentrate his attention on another girl, who would know how to properly appreciate his qualities. He was already thinking – looking, actually – at Nina, an enchanting brunette full of locks and temper, who was frantically writing something at a computer nearby, and studying a possible approach to the problem when the boss entered the office to ask for the coefficients. It is very possible that Adam’s thought had passed the initial phase of exploring the grounds,; in fact, we are sure about it because Nina’s annoyance at his stare was obvious , and because he did not see the head of the office until he was in front of him. Much too late to remove his gaze from the locks of the chosen variant, but soon enough to remember that Nina was his boss’s secret passion. The boss glanced at Nina and then at the untouched file, and hissed:

“Come outside, Adam!”- with the same tone that another boss at another time had used on Adam when he had caught him courting his secretary, and more than that, eating fruit from the apple tree on which he made phytotechnical experiments.

Knowing the story in detail, Adam shook remembering that after all of that, the two of them were transferred to a much worse location.

Fortunately, the conflict with the current chief was less serious, and Adam was just taken out to the corridor. The boss was known to be a discrete person, and in the office were too many young girls to show, as he wished, the linguistic rarities kept for such occasions. But once they had reached the corridor…

Well, there are moments in life when it is better to be discrete and it seemed this was one of them…

As if all those well-aimed strikes of destiny were not enough, destiny had prepared for him on the same day two or three more of the same calibre, as if to demonstrate that although the probability for all that to happen in the same day was pretty small, once in a while Miss Chance leaves  to have tea with her friends and forgets to come back, and the probabilities, left on their own, amuse themselves making such jokes ton the unfortunate people.

Because of all that, towards the evening, poor Adam, really disgusted with life, decided to take a short walk in the park at the edge of the town, to find some comfort. Nothing could be simpler: the park was empty; the moon seemed to look for the pair of lovers, but she looked  for them in vain.  A rock band had come into town and the lovers were at their concert. So the empty park offered a pleasant ambiance for Adam to relax his nerves aggravated by the daily stress and the above-mentioned events. The moon, in the absence of her usual clients, concentrated all her power of seduction on Adam and little by little started to have an effect.

After only a short while in the pleasant park, his outlook already seemed rosier, and he even began to smile with satisfaction, congratulating himself on the idea of coming to the park, when he noticed that he was seeing everything pink because from above a green light shone. As Adam was by nature an analytical person, under other conditions he might have stayed to study the phenomenon more fully. But he could not now afford such a luxury because he realized, as a committed reader of the literature on Still Non-Elucidated Cases, that he was heading very quickly towards a second-degree meeting.

He reached that conclusion when he noticed that the green light came from… yes, being very sorry about it and despite the tradition, he could not name the object hanging above him a “flying saucer,” It seemed more like (so that we don’t leave the kitchen) a huge salt cellar from which someone had removed all the salt and replaced it with reflectors which indiscreetly lit Adam’s face. The flying salt cellar buzzed for a few minutes above him, as if studying him, then went ten meters forward and landed heavily. After all the appearances, Adam’s second degree meeting had every possibility of transforming into a third degree meeting, for which from instinct he arranged his tie and hair, thinking to make a favorable impression on the aliens.

In Adam’s favor, we must say that at no time did he consider meeting the representatives of the distant civilization violently as he heard some sheriffs from Texas had done. Some meticulous readers might object saying that he did not have the necessary equipment –our engineers were not equipped with Colts, not even after a terrible fight with their boss. Well, reproaching them that they oblige us to divagate in the key moments of the action, we will just say that on Sundays, towards the edge of town, people would come with picnic lunches; usually the would bring their cars, to take advantage of that time to change a spark plug, an oil filter, even the oil itself, throwing what they did not need all through the park, so Adam found it very easy to gather these items. Not to mention those without cars who would also bring their contribution mostly of empty bottles and cans. If he wanted, Adam could have been busier than a Texan sheriff!

But fortunately, for us also, instead of making violent plans, as I said, he just arranged his tie and hair; after that, he waited to see what would happen next.

From the flying object parked in front of him emerged three beings resembling human beings.  (We are very sorry to disillusion those who are fond of tradition, but these beings weren’t even green.) Also their behaviour was like that of humans, because the one who seemed to be the boss pushed a small and poor one in front, saying to him:

“Get closer and see if it bites, stings, distorts the space, stops the time, annuls any dimension or … “– there followed some notions which Adam, despite his multilingual training, did not understand.

(We don’t want to offend anyone by explaining such simple things as the manner in which Adam understood himself with the aliens: this would appear to us to be redundant.)

The smaller, bitter being took a few careful steps towards Adam and stopped at a safe distance.

“He is all right, boss. He is not dangerous!”

“It’s all right… it’s all right…,” the other started to imitate him furiously. “The same thing you told me about that muddy volcano from Venus, and when I got to it… you know what happened to me… Get closer!”

“There is no need to.” Adam thought he should intervene. “If you can understand me, I’ll tell you: I am a rational being and as a consequence, I am not aggressive.”

“Yes, we understand you,” said the grumpy one who seemed to be the boss. “On our way here we caught some television transmissions and we saw how rationally you know how to examine one another… However, these are not problems that interest us. We just want to warn you not to make some unwise gesture, because we have means to counterattack. We came here with a mission and we hope that you help us willingly because otherwise …”- and the eyes, which briefly protruded from their orbits like an exophthalmic, goggled threatening at Adam.

“Of course I will help you,” he mumbled unhappily, swallowing the welcome speech he wanted to say to them. “But I don’t know how I can help you, who…”

“I will explain in a few words what it is all about. We are laugh prospectors… And we are not talking about that animal you are thinking about now, Lynx Lynx, as you call it, but about the action through which a rational being expresses his joy, happiness… I don’t know whether I should tell you… However, I don’t think I am wrong to tell you that in laughter is hidden a tremendous energy, but noting the penury of energy in which you struggle, I can tell that you are still far from using it to its potential. So, we would like to test how much energy is contained in the laughter of the beings from this planet because, I must confess to you, there are beings who although they roar with laughter, I think is the expression, they issue very little energy. You don’t have to understand any more; the essential thing is that you want to help us, because otherwise…”

“Of course I would, just …”

Adam wanted to explain to them that he might not be the best example of how happy earthmen are, after all the unfortunate things that happened to him that day.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know the laughter from the planet,” retorted the boss. “I received shows where I saw entire rooms of people laughing at what you call comic movies…”

He turned towards the third alien, who seemed to be a technician, because during all that time he had been quietly manoeuvring some machines.

“Have you prepared the detector?”

The technician nodded his head quietly and brought a complicated device close to Adam.

“Start with test one! Tell him a joke adapted for this planet.”

The technician went next to Adam, and in a monotone, whining voice told him an old joke about a husband controlled by his wife.

“Why isn’t he laughing?” frowned the boss to the technician.

The latter raised his shoulders.

Adam was not laughing, imagining that he probably would have had a similar fate had he made the stupid mistake of marrying Camelia.

“Shall I tell another one?” asked the technician.

“Leave it at that,” said the boss. “Maybe our sample reacts only to visual stimuli. So we move to the second test. Show him that funny movie which we registered.”

The technician pushed a button and on the dark wall of the device appeared a rectangular light, where showed a popular comedy about a boss who tortured his subordinates with the finest torments who could find, a movie which raised painful associations in Adam’s soul, and not a single smile.

“Maybe he is pretending,” thought the smallest and bitter alien who had tested Adam’s aggressiveness.

“He is not pretending,” said the boss, confused, “I am keeping him under telepathic observation.” He turned towards Adam beseechingly. “Here is what I ask you, confidentially. We cannot return to Base and just tell them that we did not succeed in testing how much energy is contained in the laughter of earthmen. We must take a reading, or they will cut our bonus. Place yourself in our shoes and try to understand! Come on, make an effort and laugh a little!”

The technician moved closer with the probe of the device, and Adam burst into an anaemic laughter as he proceeded to concentrate all the miseries that had happened to him that day.

“Stop, stop!” said the technician alarmed.

“What, what has happened?” said the boss anxiously, coming toward him

“That is extraordinary,” the technician answered. “I haven’t seen anything like it! The laughter has a negative coefficient of energy. When he laughs, he simply absorbs energy from our tanks.”

Looking frightened towards Adam, he pulled the boss away and said to him:

“Please, ask him not to laugh until we leave, or else he will discharge our tanks and we will never leave from here.”

The boss scratched his head uneasily, a gesture not unlike an earthman in the same situation, but he recovered relatively quickly, proving that he wasn’t named head of the expedition for nothing.

“Listen,” he got closer to Adam, “try to stop laughing until we leave.”

He wanted to threaten him but fearing he might look silly, he preferred to abstain and made a short gesture to the technician.

The technician understood and quickly picked up the devices. In a few minutes, they were ready and got into the salt cellar, throwing anxious looks towards Adam, who seemed as if he wanted to say something but could not find his words. He recovered just as the alien ship disappeared somewhere among the stars.

“Have a good flight!” he whispered sadly after them.

I am sure that some would hurry to criticize Adam for the pitiful way he reacted, blaming him that because of personal motives, he missed a potential contact with an alien civilization. But I don’t know whether they would want to spend their rest of their days somewhere in the southern extremes of the galaxy, on a planet with a green sky, closed in a room where day and night are projected comedies, and from their heads emerge main lines of high tension.

 

 

The Tram

 

 

 

It was a beautiful morning in May, so no wonder I was so absent-minded and felt so good. I bought the newspapers as usual, I skimmed through them for a few moments absently – a longtime habit of mine – then, as always too, I waited for the traffic light, which was several streets away, to interrupt the almost continuous flow of cars and allow me to cross to the concrete island from the middle of the square. In the old days, when everything went well and the city factories throbbed abundantly, the municipality had decided to build a tramline between the two big workers’ districts. My concrete island was about to become one of the main stations. Since the factories had gone bankrupt one after the other, the tram (like many other projects) was abandoned. The small concrete island remained as a memory, a place to stop for those who, like me, were too lazy to make one more kilometer to the first pedestrian crossing. Of course, it is not recommended to read the newspaper in the street, at least not in such a crowded one. But after some years, people get used to habits, automatisms that they can hardly control. For instance, I had this habit that, after I bought the newspapers, I skimmed the first one, glanced up and down the street, unconsciously figured how long until the traffic light strangled the flow of the cars, and then started to read. Almost instinctively, after the noise of the cars diminished enough, I would throw a glance over my glasses, convince myself that the red miracle of the traffic had taken place again, open the newspaper to the entertainment page, and start across. It wasn’t a reckless act of courage, just making efficient use of  the time spent in the street.

I did exactly the same thing right now: I stopped just like I did any other day on the refuge; I finished one more article (about terrorists actually, I think) – then, as I passed on to the next, I became aware that the other traffic light had done its duty, too. The rustle of the cars had become almost silky.  I looked up and saw that the traffic had stopped (on principle, I was not interested in the stopped cars) – and I prepared to cross. Something – a sense of danger atrophied for a long time – made me stop. I raised my eyes from the newspaper and looked more carefully – and only then I discovered the reason: two pairs of eyes looked keenly at me from a car parked a few meters away. When I saw the blue letters POLICE written on it, I realized the cause of its occupants’ curiosity.

Well, luckily for me I saw them in time, I said to myself, and I opened my newspaper for a thorough reading. Preparing to cross, I made two more steps and leaned firmly against a post. It appeared that in the meantime, some negotiations had taken place in the policemen car because one of them got out and approached me.

“Good day,” he said politely. ”Papers, please!”

“Good day,” I answered just as politely, while I folded my newspaper leisurely. “What for, if I may inquire? As far as I know, papers are requested only if one has broken the law. What have I done?”

“You’ve crossed the street in the wrong place,” the policeman said unflinchingly.

“Really?” I said in surprise, more theatrically than necessary. “Did you see me crossing?”

I counted on the fact that when I had looked near the newsstand, I hadn’t seen any car parked there.

“It’s true,” admitted the policemen reluctantly, but then, how did you get here?”

“Believe me,” I answered him as seriously as I could, “this is my problem and, as long as I didn’t break any law, I have no intention of answering any questions. Have a nice day!” I said, cutting his attempt to reply, and I turned my back to him continuing to read the paper.

He started walking towards the car, but he insisted once more, scratching his head confusedly under the peaked cap.

“There is one more question I would like to bother you with, if you don’t mind…”

I composed upon my face a very busy expression, that of a man who has been disturbed while reading the newspaper at home in the armchair in the dining room, and I urged him, with a short gesture:

“I’m listening.”

“Still, what are you doing here?”

I looked at him amazed:

“ Isn’t it obvious?”

He raised his shoulders confused:

“I’m sorry… it isn’t.”

I pointed to the post I had leaned against to read my newspaper. An old rusty iron plate, destroyed by the time, announced that the first station of the 101tram was to be opened soon.

“I am waiting for the tram,” I said as calmly as I could.

“Oh,” said the policeman clenching his jaws while he headed towards the car.

As eh walked to his car, I resumed reading the paper, and I realized he got in it only after I heard the car door slam furiously. At that moment, his colleague got out, crossed the street, and went to buy some sandwiches and coke. As far as I could see, their wait would be a long one, so I opened the paper to the literature page. Only after I had read the endless story and a few poems did I realize how hot it had become. The two policemen in the car had eaten and drunk with the air conditioner on, and they were able to wait no matter what. I understood that when I saw, only a few meters in front of us, lots of people crossing the street unhindered. I started to read the column of classified ads, but as I didn’t want to sell or buy anything, I got bored immediately. I looked again at the two policemen who were watching me intently, and I came up with an idea. I turned my back to them, got out my cell phone, and called the police:

“Hello! Police? This is a responsible citizen speaking. I see two policemen have parked in the middle of Revolution Square and they are drinking vodka in full view of the heavily disgusted public.”

As a matter of fact, the truth had been stretched a little in my account: the bottles of Coke could hardly be mistaken for vodka, and the only member of the “public” that was looking disgustedly at them was me. The rest of the “public” continued to cross the street, absolutely indifferent to my trouble.

Although childish, my stratagem was fruitful: in just a few minutes a police car, a little more elegant than the first – which was a sign that there were some superior officers in it—stopped  near the first one.

Well, I told myself, cops are cops no matter what their rank: instead of sending those who were watching me somewhere to patrol, they sent one of them to get more sandwiches and drinks, and they all got prepared to wait.

I felt like giving up: after all, the fine was hardly worth the papers I bought every week, for all I knew. And still, I didn’t like the bitter taste of defeat. I had to find something and I had to do it fast; otherwise the thirst and the heat would soon make me give up.

For a while, nothing came to mind; then I noticed a helicopter in the immaculate blue sky. I remembered a report about a fire, in which the television helicopter had arrived before the firemen. I looked in the newspapers for the phone number of the local television station. That was it: “If anything happens, call us first! The audience has the right to know.”

I called and I composed myself a very grave voice:

“Hello, television? I would like to inform you about a serious and flagrant case of abusing a citizen’s rights. The police have cornered a citizen at the pedestrian post near Revolution Square, and now they are waiting for him to cross the street and then fine him. This is one more proof that instead of thwarting real law-breakers,, the police do nothing but sit and wait to…”

I clearly heard the receiver slam down, and it didn’t take more than five minutes before the helicopter shot over me. A rope ladder unfolded from the helicopter and a reporter with a microphone climbed down on it. From the helicopter above, the cameraman was carefully shooting everything.

“Why are you protesting?” shouted the reporter, trying to cover the propellers noise.

I looked at the police cars: the doors were open as they were carefully listening.

“I’m not protesting anything,” I shouted as loud as I could. “I’m waiting for the tram…”

The reporter’s eyes gleamed maliciously as he looked at the police cars.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, for many years, at every election, the municipality has promised a crow-town tram line, that would facilitate the flow of traffic through the center of the town. Moreover, in order to delude us, they have already built the stations and put the guideposts. One citizen, revolted by this perpetual lie, has finally decided to protest. He has settled here in the main street of the town, determined to wait until someone will hear his protest and take the necessary measures. As usual, these examples of public discontent are carefully watched by the police. From what I can tell, due to the peculiarity of this protest, even the police chief himself is watching in order to prevent any breaking of the law.” I let him finish his report. I think he had come with a text prepared at the editorial office, so any attempt to interrupt him was destined to fail. When he finished, I beckoned to him to come closer. He made a sign to the pilot and he laid the ladder down easily right next to me. I covered the mike with my hand and I said to him:

“Listen… can’t you take me away from here? I’ll pay any price.” He smiled and it was his turn to cover the mike:

“I’m sorry, but we really can’t waste the main subject of the day. Look, I’ve spoken to the manager of our TV station… hold on as long as you can, and we’ll pay the fine for you, if there is going to be one after so much publicity.”

I lost my temper:

“Listen, I am hot, I’m thirsty, I’m hungry! I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold on here for you to get your report…”

He started to climb the mobile ladder:

“It’s not for our report that you are here. It’s for principles. So hold on and we’ll help you. “

He got his mike back and, while climbing up, informed his audience:

“As always, our TV station helps citizens who, for one reason or another, decide to protest, to emerge from obscurity for a common cause…”

Meanwhile, the live broadcast seemed to have been followed by a pretty large audience, because people had started to gather around us on the sidewalks. And so, when the helicopter descended again to bring me mineral water, sandwiches, and an umbrella, the gesture was loudly applauded by the people around.

Along with the food, I found a folded placard in the bag and a small written note: “Maybe you should display this. The protest would seem more coherent. If you hold on until six p.m., we’ll try to get an ambulance for you. You’ll pretend to faint or collapse in order to motivate an intervention.”

The note was not signed but I could tell it was the reporter who, lacking subjects, concocted them by himself, and did it very well.

I unfolded the placard very cautiously and stuck it with two pieces of wire under the iron plate that announced the inauguration of the tram. On it was written in big, red letters: “We want a tram, like you promised.” And no one was surprised that I had not posted it until then. On the contrary, I received another ovation and voices could be heard here and there shouting:

“We want a tram, we want a tram…”

It was only a little after lunch and I was still waiting, but I felt more comfortable in the illusory shadow of the umbrella and began to eat. In the more and more insistent rattling of the helicopter, the crowd became larger and larger. I couldn’t hear what the bloody reporter was saying, but it appeared he had managed to get a huge mass of people out of their houses…

For a long time, I had been convinced that a crowd, especially if it is a big one, is like a recently tamed animal whose reactions you can never predict. Now and then, altogether spontaneously, over the noise of the traffic, the voice of the crowd could be heard like a tumult.

“We want a tram, we want a tram…”

The sound seemed to be born from the crowd around, but then it made waves like the breakers of the sea after it smashed against the buildings around us and turned back towards those who had produced it. But the echo was amplified and thus magnified their yelling frenzy. Above us, the helicopter carried the team that shot without a break. I imagined the happy reporter commenting upon the billowing crowd beneath him. At one point, somebody had the idea of bringing in some loudspeakers, and the noise became indeed unbearable. From my island, I could see the red, heated faces of people, oblivious to the wilting heat of the sun, shouting themselves hoarse:

“We want a tram, we want a tram…”

About three o’clock in the afternoon, regret that I had gotten into such a mess became so strong that I thought seriously about giving up and going to police; I would pay the fine and run home where a comfortable armchair and a cup of coffee that had grown cold long ago were waiting for me. I shut the umbrella and I put it down next to me prepared to give up when all of the sudden, the tumult of the crowd ceased. A silence like the beginning of the world lay on the scene, and nobody seemed to know why. All the heads turned toward the end of the street, and only when the helicopter went into a quick, dangerous dive towards the place, did I know that something had happened or was about to happen.

First, I heard a noise, and I thought that finally the ambulance had come. Only when it got closer, I realized that the noise sounded different. I rose on my tiptoes looking over the police cars to see better when suddenly, there was no need for it. Ringing the bell, the most beautiful tram I’ve ever seen in my life was coming from the square entrance. Rushing to make way for the tram, the police cars passed by me. I wanted to shout sarcastically after them: “It is forbidden to park the car in the tram stations, you morons!” But I didn’t have time for that because creaking from all its motion, the tram stopped near me opening its doors wide. I took the umbrella and the newspapers, and I got on. From the door, I looked back. The tram started moving again, and seeing the people parading before my eyes as the tram accelerated, I realized that for nothing in the world did any of them want to be in my place.

 

 

Work Visit

 

 

 

The old professor was a writer. He had been writing for years. From time to time he would look outside the window, seeing nothing beyond the transparent glass, as if he was looking for his inspiration in the window’s imperfect mirror. A gust of wind brought a piece of paper in front of the window, drawing his attention for a moment and making the windows clatter briefly. Almost as a reflex, he stood up, checked to see that they were properly closed, then leaned again over his desk.

“The Huns invented – or maybe only perfected – the bow with double extension. At a first glance, this doesn’t seem important, but if we consider that we are talking about the weapon that brought them, for a significant period of time, supremacy on two continents, it is probably worth giving it more attention. The bow, invented and used for thousands of years, had not undergone any alterations or major improvements since it was invented. It is true that different materials were used, and the arrows were continuously improved and adapted to make the transition from hunting to war. However, all these improvements did not really change anything in the functioning of the bow. The body of the bow was built from strong materials and was provided with a string that, through tensioning then releasing, would hurl the arrow directly to the target. There came the critical moment: the arrow had to pass in an extremely short time, actually in an instant of time as perceived by a normal eye, from the initial static state to maximum speed. Then some movements and transitory phases eventually led to an increased imprecision of the hit.  Unlike the curved bow in the shape of letter C, whose efficiency diminished as tension was increased, the Huns’ double extension bow had an exterior arch between the place where they were holding it and its edge. Moreover, the ends and the middle part were strengthened with bones, so that the tensioning of this bow could have been obtained by the flexing of the two lateral sides working together. This way, the moment the arrow was released, there was an instant of acceleration that, together with the new three-sided shape of the arrow tip, allowed it to keep an optimum trajectory to the target…”

He stopped writing and drew closer to the window again. After each and every page, as a sort of ritual, he would stop writing, draw closer to the window, and look outside. Many times he would only look outside mechanically, without even seeing anything, while his mind continued to put all the words in order, just as they were later put on the page that waited anxiously for the new ideas to come.

Right in front of the window, two floors below, was the central square of the small town. Opposite the square, there was the only hotel in town, and next to it, the town hall, the post office, the church, and the local bank. The square seemed to be – and  probably it was indeed – the center of everything that happened in the small town. In front of the hotel a group of drifters, a bunch of youngsters, always the same people, waited for the few foreign tourists. And it was where Roza, the blonde and chubby Roza, the only prostitute in town, waited hopefully for any possible early-morning client.

The professor remembered that he had passed her one day in the morning, when, really amused, the youngsters tried to explain to him that what she’s selling, men can buy towards dawn, after a couple of drinks. As if to contradict what they had just said, a solid, red-haired northern fellow came out of the hotel and beckoned to her. It was obvious he had already used her services. Impassively shrugging her shoulders, Roza entered the hotel, casting a defiant look at the people around her. As she passed them, she mumbled in a sarcastic, firm tone, as if to herself:

“Real men can do it in the morning as well as in the evening.”

The bursts of laughter appeared to the professor a bit exaggerated, mixed with a light nuance of envy for the red-haired Viking that appealed to Roza’s charms early in the morning. The professor bought his cigarettes in a hurry from the kiosk in front of the hotel entrance and returned to the house, preoccupied by the idea that Roza’s defiant look was meant to hurt him as well.

“It can’t be possible,” he whispered to himself, hurrying upstairs, eager to continue his writing.

“Maybe she did not notice I was there, among those people. I should go and talk to her, to apologize and explain that I did not make fun of her…”

But everything remained at the level of being well intentioned. Whenever he met her on his way to the tobacconist, he greeted her full of respect, making poor Roza live in a sweet ambiguity: did he want to use her services or not?

Unlike the youngsters in front of the hotel who were living for experiences, the Professor was aware that prostitution had a quite important role in history. Sometimes he wondered himself what it would be like if he invited Roza to come upstairs to his place to discuss this issue. But that could not have happened without the merry young men in front of the hotel finding out. How could he possibly have the courage to pass them again on his way to the tobacconist? Anticipating their reaction, he stopped himself in time, although in his moments of relaxation, he tried to imagine how his discussion with Roza might go.

The Professor was not a misogynist. But for him, there was only one woman that mattered, namely Amalia, the maid who did the cleaning, cooking, and washing. He understood perfectly the role women had in history, but that was all. Many years before, he could not tell precisely how many, he had almost slid onto the domestic life. His family, made up of an impressive number of aunties, had introduced him immediately after graduation to a blonde, chunky girl whom all his aunties trusted. For a while everything went according to the routine, with long hours of exasperating walks, stolen with great effort from the study time, with never-ending visits to a never-ending number of relatives. Her name was Mirela, and when – after a full year of visits and walks she had run away with a marine on holiday, he felt only relief. He accepted a teaching post in the capital, but this was more to get rid of the choir of his dismayed relatives and their new attempts to replace Mirela as soon as possible. After many years, when his relatives passed away one by one or started to fill vacancies at rest homes or asylums, having enough preoccupations to keep them away from him, he returned to his home town to dedicate himself to writing and studying. A couple of times at the beginning,, Amalia tried to suggest some dates that probably could have “filled the emptiness of such a beautiful home.”  Fortunately, the professor was one of those people who did not need more than two mistakes to learn from, so the maid, facing the alternative of being dismissed by the professor or leaving him alone, smartly chose the wiser way. Yet sometimes, when passing by Roza, he could feel her young woman smell pervading his mind, awakening fugitive memories about the time when he and Mirela were walking through the park hand in hand. But he would easily push away this feeling, taking refuge in writing.

 

***

 

For several years, writing was everything that mattered in his life. And of, course, the library. The library was the spring where, like in a miracle, he could choose his information. He would process the information afterwards, selecting the relevant pieces; then he would find associations and correlations that his colleagues did not have the opportunity or the talent to make, although they had them under their eyes for ages.

For years, he wrote twenty pages every day – ten in the morning and another ten in the afternoon. Twenty pages written with his small, tidy handwriting. One hundred twenty pages a week, because he would not write on Sundays. On Sundays he just rested, then reviewed what he had written. He could rarely find a mistake, an improper word, perhaps, that he felt needed to be replaced. Only after he finished his book would he feel the need to pass the whole text through the thick sieve of intransigence that made him so famous amidst the academics.

Whenever he felt unsure about a particular thing, he had developed the bad habit of looking back to the twenty-three books already published that were resting peacefully on the shelves in their leather covers. Even after the tenth book, he started to be called “The Herodotus of the Migrating Peoples,” and his words became the rule in any subject related to this particular theme. After the twentieth book, he began to have a great number of offers from universities, and people started to talk about his being offered a place in The Academy. He used to smile, amused by all the praise and refused stubbornly to leave the small town where he had found refuge. All he needed was a quiet place, books, and bibliographical materials, and he had had plenty of them recently. The little town offered him the silence he needed, and after he became well known, any library in the world would be pleased to meet his requests. Why, then, should he leave? He felt so good there.

He remained silent for a while and then stood up from his table. He wrapped the cozy gown around him even tighter and went outside on the balcony. Although it was May and everything was green, from time to time he could feel a draft as cold as ice coming all from the snow-covered mountains surrounding the town. He shivered and looked around. There were more than a hundred meters between the balcony and the hotel entrance, but Roza still noticed him and greeted him with a polite, yet feminine nod of her head. The youngsters there noticed him as well and greeted him. He answered everybody’s greetings and then, breathing the fresh air deeply one more time, went back to his desk.

On one side of the square was a stall owned by a big, plump, hairy gypsy, with a huge head, and when the professor saw him from his balcony, turned his head and looked elsewhere. For years, whenever he passed that shop on his way to the tobacconist, the gypsy would try to convince him to buy from him. He had a stall full of souvenirs – this was what he called them – and once, exasperated by the Professor’s lack of interest, he approached him as he passed:

“Professor, I have something for you. It’s guaranteed quality stuff, or I’ll be damned. Original stuff… brought from the mountains, from the ruins…”

Somewhere on top of the mountains, there were the ruins of an old defense citadel that were sought for years and years by treasure hunters hoping to find some rare pieces that they could sell later to the tourists who came in large numbers to their town in summertime.

He looked closely at the helmet the gypsy produced from underneath his stall. It was polished and very well finished, as if it had been manufactured an hour before.

He shrugged his shoulders then returned to him, very bored:

“This is fake, young man!” he answered, calm. And please, don’t bother me with these trifles in the future.”

The gypsy never bothered him again; neither did he greet him, to the poorly concealed amusement of the youngsters who were always waiting for him to pass by the stall. Sometimes, when the sentences would not flow on the paper as he wanted them to, he had the feeling that the noisy group of youngsters was behind that attempt to trick him into buying helmet, especially since he had seen them before offering the naïve tourists all sort of rings and earrings discovered in the ruins. Whenever he saw the gypsy’s big head turning ostentatiously away, when he had to pass his stall, he was overwhelmed by happiness, a feeling he could not account for. It was probably because he had uncovered so quickly his attempt to sell him that fake. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t even sure; his judgment was based merely on intuition, as he had never worked with historical objects, but only the historical writings that were useful for his studies. An amphora, for instance, would not tell him anything. But what one historian or another wrote about that amphora would allow him to filter and refine the truth and turn it into real works of art. Sometimes he realized he continued to borrow from other people’s books and works, because, although he knew by heart a lot of historic sites, he had never held in his hands any of the historic tools used for digging the earth. Indeed, he used to live on other people’s explorations and books, but would extract from them things that went unnoticed by those who had only practical on-site experience. He was able to make correlations that the others could not envision.

“Maybe there was a possibility that it was authentic,” he used to say to himself whenever he remembered the helmet. “Perhaps inexpert as he is, the gypsy polished it to make it sell more easily.” And then he tried to remember whether the nails linking the parts showed were any signs of oxidation.

He remembered there were some; then he thought the best thing would be to ask for it again to check it in detail. “I’ll have to take a magnifying glass with me,” he decided for his peace of mind, and then bent over the sheet of paper, coming back to his favorite topic.

“I think I’m a bit too technical in describing the bow,” he thought, going through what he had written before. “But that’s essential in order to explain how successful the Huns confronting the Roman troops…” the Professor told to himself and got back to writing.

“The arrows, as explained before, were iron-tipped and three-sided at the top, measuring up to 80 centimeters and had such amazing thrust power that the whole Occidental world panicked when the Huns approached their borders. Trustworthy sources (Priskos, Ammianus and Zosimos) tell us that the Huns’ bow was so good that their arrows could hit the target from a distance as long as one hundred meters. From such a distance, they could go through the Roman warriors’ leather waistcoats as if they were made of paper. This is how the Hun warriors could keep a considerable distance away from their enemies’ heavy weapons. This was their real force: they could fight without a direct contact with the enemy.”

The Professor stopped writing again and looked out of the window toward Roza. So, he went on with his calculations, if one of the Hun mounted warriors were close to where Roza is now, and would like to kill me, he could do that easily. A colder gust of wind came from somewhere into his study room and made him shiver. “It’s like a feeling…” The Professor told to himself and got back to writing:

“It was also the Huns that first brought into Europe the saddle provided with a ladder, which enabled them to turn around and shoot their pursuer while galloping. As a matter of fact, this was their main way of fighting: they attacked in force from a safe distance, in groups of 200-300 mounted warriors; then they pretended to be overwhelmed by the much larger number of enemies and retreated followed by them. And on their galloping horses, they turned around and decimated their enemies. Then, when their leaders considered it the right time, one of them released an arrow equipped with a sort of orifice that made specific sounds, which were considered their battle call. Hearing that sound, all the small groups were reunited into one that destroyed the enemy from a comfortable distance… Their victories were so rapid and important that in the year 410, when Alaric, the Visigoth king, conquered the Great Citadel, the Huns were preparing the conquests that made their suzerain the most powerful in Europe.”

He wrote a couple of pages more, until he filled the requisite ten, then stopped and lay down, tired. It was the time he usually went to buy cigarettes. Just as many other things in his life, going after cigarettes had become a sort of ritual. He could have bought ten packs at a time to avoid this effort of going down the stairs every day. But it was no longer an effort. It was only a pretext to get out of his room and relax after the morning work. He used to buy cigarettes from the kiosk in front of the hotel, and then walk to the park on the outskirts of town. At noon it was usually very quiet, and he could smoke a few cigarettes in peace, while admiring the town panorama and organizing his thoughts…

He changed his clothes and went downstairs. The man from the tobacconist’s did not even ask him what he wanted: for years, at the same time, the same pack of cigarettes. He took the pack and walked away to the park.

“Hello, Professor,” Roza greeted him as usual, with her voice filled with emotion.

“Hello to you, Roza,” he answered, turning his head to answer the young men that also had mumbled a greeting in one discontinuous voice.

A couple of years earlier, they simply ignored him, until one day when he appeared on TV, being presented a trophy at a elite ceremony by a member of royalty from old Europe, for his “special contribution toward clarifying some enigmas of our country’s history.” As a matter of fact, they were talking about a couple of detailed studies that were meant to prove the continuity of the royal family which had been questioned at a certain point by a group of devoted Republicans.

The park was a little higher than the rest of the city and offered a really encompassing view of the surroundings. Sometimes he used to try to explain to himself how the city had been born in that vail. Mountains from all directions surrounded it, and only a narrow, snowy corridor, impracticable in wintertime, linked it to the rest of the country. That was one of the many mysteries that will be explained in time only – if indeed they will ever be explained…

He sat down on his favorite bench, facing the town, thinking about another major mystery he had to solve these days, maybe that particular day: the Huns’ religion. There was very little data, and everybody knew that like all the other Asian populations, the link between the people and their gods – whoever they might have been – was made through a “shaman,” who was considered the second important person after the king in their extremely well organized hierarchy. And, certainly, they way they dealt with the conquered territories was also a matter of religion. They did not want to rule the conquered territories. They never chased away the peasants from their plots, in order that they could continue working the land. They never chased away the craftsmen and the locals who lived in a town in order to occupy their deserted houses. They never killed the noblemen to take away their privileges. They simply killed everything and everyone in their way, with an extremely wild cruelty that nobody was ever able to explain. It was as if their people had been betrayed before and now they had to take revenge. He was very familiar with the cruel outbursts of the Oriental populations, with their excesses after conquering a settlement, but the Huns were not only more cruel than the others, (and maybe “cruel” is not the right word) but also totally different. “I must find out why,” he said to himself and stood up, ready to go down to the center of town.

A cold North wind started, and if it had been just one month earlier, it could have turned into a snowstorm. The Professor wrapped the light anorak around his body and hurried up to his house.

A few years before, the oval shape of the skulls found in the Huns’ graves launched the theory that it was characteristic of Huns, as of many other primitive populations, to modify the shape of their children’s heads for unknown reasons, by pressing them until they took an ovoid shape. And that was believed to be the cause of their extreme cruelty. This hypothesis was a bit hazardous, and it was the Professor’s belief that the explanation must have been lain somewhere in their religion. Somewhere in his mind, he kept a collection of information, and there was no doubt that sooner or later the pieces of data would form organized paths toward a theory impossible to challenge.  Something related to their famous bronze vases used in rituals. Something found all along the course of their migration. And something considered important enough to be carried with them everywhere they went, despite the fact that whatever it was, was so difficult to carry. Some people believed the bronze vases were used for boiling and purifying the dead. That’s nonsense, as in all their graves, the Huns were found buried with their body intact, and sometimes, if the person was an important one, with a ceremony vase nearby. The most imposing urn discovered so far measured 60 centimeters in height and weighed 50 kilos. It was fitted with some buckles, so it could be transported on horseback. Transported and certainly used. The professor had the feeling that he had heard that before – heard or read it somewhere –but at that time he had not paid attention to it. He passed Roza and the young men hastily and returned their greetings, then went upstairs, deep in thought. He was sure he was close to something important. Somewhere in his head he had gathered all the information he needed. He only had to wait, to give it time to organize itself, and, as on many other occasions, to turn itself into beautiful sentences, impeccable, impossible to challenge. He took his warm gown, cast one more look at the books that were waiting on the shelves, anxious to be leafed through, and started to write, convinced that the bronze Hun urn would unveil its secrets that very day. A strong gale shook the window panes and once again he stood up to ensure they were properly closed. He cast a casual look out of the window and saw the men in the square looking up, worried. Even Roza, who took so little interest in the weather forecast, was looking up, unsure. The object of their attention was the big, thick snowflakes that were falling. Although it was May, he vaguely remembered that there had been other such snows-of-the-lambs before in the town, which lasted only a few hours then melted instantly. In just a few minutes, a thick layer of snow covered the square, then was swept away by the wind that had suddenly transformed into a snowstorm. Over the wind howling he could distinguish a strange noise, quite unfamiliar. There were screams as well. He came closer to the window to see what was going on. From the outskirts of the town a tram approached, easily balancing on its rail. It was covered by a thin layer of snow and he wondered how the spring-like image of the square had been replaced in just a couple of minutes by a totally new hibernal aspect. The wind was now scattering the snow into small dunes near walls and gates. It had become difficult for his eyes to watch that, but he could still distinguish a group of people on horseback galloping past the tram. He realized the noises he had heard before, like screams, were coming from them, and, for a second, he believed that a new movie was being produced in the square, just as happened three years before, when for weeks in turn he could not write anything because of the noise. Very intrigued, he pulled the curtain aside and leaned his forehead against the window to have a better view. If it was a movie, then it was an excellent one, with extremely good special effects and stunts, because one of the riders, galloping by the gypsy’s souvenir stall, took his sword, and in an instant, cut off his head. The big, dark head rolled down on the ground a couple of times and stopped in an unbalanced position, leaning against a garbage bin. The Professor had the feeling that the skull’s eyes were staring at him and, shocked, made a step backwards, dropping the curtain down. After a while, he finally managed to take his eyes off the skull, and was perplexed to see that the quiet view of the square had totally changed. The group of youths had scattered: two of them were beheaded and were lying on the hotel’s stairs, while the other three had rushed away. One of the riders, realizing that he could not reach them anymore, stopped his horse and, at an amazing speed and with high precision, took his bow and tensed it, and before the youths could turn the corner and hide, all three of them collapsed one by one, at intervals of only a few seconds.  A few meters away, another raider dismounted wildly and, ignoring Roza’s desperate shouts, pushed her down on the hotel’s stairs, pulled up her pink ruffled dress, and started to rape her, encouraged by the others’ yelling. The archer shrugged his shoulders, disgusted, and turned his horse towards a jewelry shop’s window, breaking the glass with his foot. The noise of the broken glass attracted other raiders who, busily filling their hands with all sort of cheap, shiny accessories, forgot about Roza for a while. It was then that the Professor could observe the raiders – and especially their reflex bows – more carefully. He was petrified: it was them, the Huns. There was no doubt: the ones down there were the Huns themselves. But how could that be possible? Leaving aside any caution, the Professor opened the balcony door and went outside to see them in more detail. This was something extraordinary; he would not see something like that ever again in his life. He was overwhelmed and did not know where exactly to look first. He was captivated, and although he got a bit carried away, he still remembered that he had to be cautious, so he drew back behind the structure post of the balcony from where he continued to watch everything with curiosity. Two other men on horseback who, judging by their garments, must have been chieftains, entered the square at a slow pace, dragging a third horse after them, and then stopped in front of the hotel. They jumped off their horses and seemed to ignore Roza who, being raped by the third or the fourth Hun, was weeping monotonously. They got down a ceremonial vase from the saddle of the third horse. It was the biggest vase he had ever seen: it must have been more than one meter high. First, they poured an oily, dark liquid from some skins, and then they began a mysterious ritual that the Professor could not see properly because of the waning light. But curious to see everything, he stretched his head out, while one of the chieftains called the archer. They stepped back, and the Professor could see a sort of indicator floating on the black liquid right on top of the enormous urn. It looked like a huge compass indicator oscillating right and left, as if looking for the North. After a few moments, he saw that the indicator remained still, pointed toward his balcony with uncompromising precision. Then it rose, pointing towards him.  At the same moment, the two chieftains and the archer noticed his presence.

“Professor!” Roza yelled at the top of her voice, under the pressure of a fifth Hun on top of her. “Ruuuuuuuuuuun!”

He did not have a chance to ask her how she knew they were talking about him, as the indicator on top of the ceremonial urn had shown him clearly that he had to escape as soon as possible. He turned around with a spring he wasn’t so sure he was capable of at his age, but stumbled and fell, hearing the arrow piercing the door’s frame with a sinister sound, exactly where his head had been a couple of seconds before. He crawled on all fours to his room, where he was protected by the wall, and stood up.

“My goodness, they will cut my head off! They came here for me, but why?” Professor asked himself in terror, and he thought he heard heavy steps coming up the stairs. In that moment, his eyes rested on the piece of paper on the table, where he had started a new chapter: “Huns’ Religion”.

“Although we don’t have too much information about the Huns’ religion – and archeological discoveries haven’t proved to be any more revealing – if we try to connect all the information we have, we can get a coherent image of their mysterious religion, a religion which broadly accounts for the behavior of this population. Therefore, we could say that without doubt, the Huns’ religion explains in an extremely simplistic manner one of the main cosmogony’s major enigmas. And not only does it explain it, but judging by their behavior, it is obvious that they made especially unique and efficacious use of all the knowledge they had gotten by mysterious means…” and he had stopped writing here, interrupted by the noise made by the Huns in the central square.

Avoiding exposing himself in front of the window, he stretched his hand and took the piece of paper on which he had written the beginning of the last chapter. He reached out once again and took the cigarette lighter as well. He was touched by remorse, but still lit a corner of the paper. Hesitatingly, he pulled the curtain away and went outside on the balcony. The archer raised his bow instantly, and for a moment, the Professor and he looked at each other along the arrow line, extremely tense. He fluttered the burning paper, and the one who appeared to be their chieftain put his hand on the archer’s shoulder, whispering something in his ear. The indicator went round and round a couple of times and was absorbed by the black, oily liquid. He shouted a brief order and all the raiders spread all over the neighboring streets plundering around. They tipped the black liquid from the vase out into the snow and galloped away towards the mountains on the horizon. Before disappearing around the corner, the chieftain turned once again to look at the Professor, as if in a final silent warning.

He let the burning piece of paper drop on top of the gypsy’s decapitated head. The wind had stopped and, suddenly, from between the clouds magically scattered, the sun sent its last rays before setting over the wrecked town, as a sign that everything was back to normal.

 

 

Christmas Presents

 

 

 

I leaned against the wall and looked down. Somewhere in the depths, the river’s waters were flowing, furious and dark. In the morning, upstream an iceberg had broken, and ice was floating furiously downwards, crashing from time to time against the borders of the river. Among the torn, gray pieces of ice, there could be seen dark spots of gasoline and piles of garbage. I remembered that a long time ago, when I was a child, we could drink water from the river. Its waters were crystal clear, very seldom troubled, only after a big rain. In the last year, its waters had become muddier and muddier, so that nobody, unless he had some work to do, would stay around it for long. Fishermen caught smaller and stranger fish that nobody bought. And from what I have heard, they did not dare to eat them either.

Behind me, the flashy neon sign of the bar was trying in vain to chase something from the dark of the night.

“vana lub,” the slanting letters said, and a stranger who comes at night would not realize that it used to read “Havana Club.”  But there was no hope for a stranger to come to town anymore. For a long time nobody came, day or night.

Most of the strong inhabitants had left years ago to head South, and those who remained were old and feeble. A few nights ago, I helped a drunk to get home. He was leaning on a street lamp and he would not let go. He was old and you could see that he had not always been a drinker. Like many others, he started drinking only after the town was abandoned and those remaining were left alone in houses that before had been filled with life and children’s laughter. I did not know him, but he certainly did know me. I left him leaning upon the door of his house, and before I went away, he asked me:

“I see you are strong, Doctor. Why don’t you leave?”

I watched him staggering, leaning with hesitation upon the gate. From beyond his eyes, red with alcohol and lack of sleep, he watched me as a lonely and frightened man who did not want to enter the empty house. I was certain his family had left a long time ago, and he, like many others, did not want to leave, waiting for something to happen. For thirty some years, we had all waited for something to happen, and nothing did.

He jerked the door open and before entering, he asked me again over his shoulder:

“Why don’t you leave, Doctor? There is nothing else you can do here…”

I could see that he was not waiting for an answer, because he slammed the door hard before I could answer.

I peered at the tall wooden gate. It was solid, bound with thick straps of wrought iron as for resisting a terrible attack, although for years nobody had stolen anything. At first, people reacted strangely. Most of them headed South; others went crazy, and still others hid behind the thick walls and locked doors. Nobody could say which was easier.

During those first years, I was always asked: “Why don’t you leave, Doctor?“

My answer never varied: “Because I belong here!” – although I could not explain to anyone, I felt then as I feel now that my place is here, although the hospital was almost empty. Seldom did anyone come to consult with me, and then it seemed that they looked to me hoping that I was better informed and that I had found out something before they had.

Behind me, the flickering sign of the bar was still trying to attract me with its violets sparkles:    “ vana   lub”.

Thirty-some years ago in this club everything started, at least for me. The letters were shining brand new: “Havana Club,” but we would all refer to it as “Max’s”, and Max was then young and careless, as we all were, and would promise us:

“You can come here every evening to get wasted…” – a thing we did sometimes with the oblivion characteristic of our youth. We really did.

Nothing was like it used to be. Maybe it was only old age that crept insidiously inside us, or maybe something else. I felt a bitter taste in my mouth, and after carefully looking around, I spit far into the river. Several floating chunks of ice responded to me, rubbing against one another and gnashing furiously. I shrugged my shoulders and entered the club.

From behind the bar, Max stood up heavily and looked at me, worried:

“I did not see him tonight, Doctor…”

I sighed and sat down at the table. At our table… From the first day the club opened, Virgil and I had our table. For Max, I was the Doctor, and Virgil, the Lawyer. For many years. For an eternity, although if I count, it was only thirty years. Max knew the number better; I should have asked him. Maybe tonight I will.

“A Marguerita, Max. And a strong coffee…”

I watched him as he mixed the drinks. His gestures had become slower with time, but he had the same grace in his movements. I once gave him a gift of an electric blender, but he refused to use it.

“A drink is like a being,” he explained once to Virgil and me in one of those long nights of our youth that we spent in his club… “Like a beloved being…,” he added – and for the first time I could see his eyes sparkling. “You cannot put the drinks into a blender and mix them a hundred times, the same as you cannot kiss your girlfriend a hundred times and tell her that you had a romantic evening. There are things that will never become automatic… nor caught entirely in a recipe … This you have to feel… There are times in a night when you have to mix the drinks just a little. You have to touch them and feel how the wonder of the evening alone brings them to life…”

Virgil looked at him with skepticism, slowly sipping from the vodka:

“You should have become a poet, Max, not a bartender. You make things look better and spoil the drinks…”

 

***

 

All his life Virgil drank only vodka basted at the end of the glass with a little tomato juice.

Just one time he made an exception. It was the afternoon of the day he introduced to us Margherita, a sunny December day. The sunshine polished everything, and the snow, which had fallen a little earlier, made everything look bright when they both entered the club.

“My girlfriend Margherita,” he said and urged her forward; I felt then that I had to kill him or leave town.

“Nice to meet you, young lady,” bowed Max ceremonially. “I will make you all a Marguerita, on the house.”

At that time, the way Max prepared a cocktail was a real show, and I was glad everyone was paying attention to him; that way, I could watch Margherita. Girlfriend! Where did he meet her?  And more important, when did he become friends with her? I had met with him every day, and we spent at least half the day together. I had never seen her in town, and judging from her age, I suspected her to be a student. But in those days, the town was still pretty crowded, so someone could walk through it for six months without my seeing him. On the other hand, Virgil was frequently courted, especially by the law students. His father was not only a successful lawyer, but he was also an exigent law professor. And it is easy to suspect that any student thought she was protected from failing exams if she dated the professor’s son. They were bitterly wrong, but Virgil did not bother to explain this to them; on the contrary, I would say that he took full advantage of it, letting them see for themselves. I saw him accompanied by many gorgeous girls, for unequal periods of time; some of them would see what was really happening from their first exam, that passing through Virgil’s bed would not make them pass exams, and they would leave him and start learning. Others, even after seeing this, would stay around him for a little while, because he was agreeable, and this kind of adventure added a little salt and pepper to an otherwise fairly monotonous existence. These were simple adventures, and all its actors were aware of that, so when all ended, nobody got hurt more than they had to, leaving a place for other small and equally charming stories. With Margherita, however,  I felt from the beginning that it was something else. I don’t refer just to the possessive way Virgil looked at her, but at the way Margherita acted. She made one feel able to do anything for her. She had such a mixture of innocence and guilt, and one never knew how to act around her. At first her look seemed so helpless that I felt like taking her hand protectively and saying to her: “That’s all right now! I am here, I will protect you!”- although one could tell immediately that she did not need protection at all. She stirred in each man the wish to be his. I don’t know how she did it. Maybe the way she looked or the way she would lick her lips before saying anything. Anyway, she was very much aware of the attraction she exercised on any man, and she did nothing to diminish that attraction. On the contrary, she sent a lot of subliminal signals that warned the amateurs: “I am with him, but I am not his. With a little luck, I can be yours.”  I had never met anyone overflowing with such provocative feminity. “Mistress, but not wife,” her big green eyes wanted to say to whomever wished to understand.

That afternoon, her blond hair fell loose over her shoulders in a superb golden cascade, and the late afternoon sunshine, made her head look as if it were surrounded by an aura. I expected that at any moment, her thin blouse might burst and reveal a hidden pair of wings.

Max brought us the cocktails, each with a green slice of lime.

“For you and your beloved,” I said to them and sipped easily from the glass.  The bittersweet taste of tequila and triple sec seemed like a poison whose marvellous taste I would never forget.

Virgil made a grimace when he put his tongue on the salt glazing on the glass.

“For God’s sake Max, how could you prepare such shit?”

Max rose smiling. He shrugged his shoulders and offered, as an excuse:

“It is a very old recipe…”

Virgil turned to Margherita:

“They should change its name. Such a lousy drink cannot bear your name.”

Margherita smiled a little over the edge of her glass and tasted the drink. She had eyes as green as the lime slice, and in them golden points sparkled. Only later did I realize that she was exactly like the cocktail that bore her name: bittersweet, she would enter one’s soul without his realizing and she would make him never forget her.

That December evening would remain the most beautiful and saddest of my life. It was the time when I met and lost Margherita. And, unlike Virgil, it seemed that I knew her better although I had met her only half an hour ago. At the left, when he caught her in his arms to kiss her, she opened her eyes and stared at me over his shoulder. What was it the philosopher said: a woman does not cheat a man when she sleeps with someone else, but when she looks at someone else over his shoulder? I looked then, over Virgil’s shoulder, into her large green eyes, and in my mouth I felt the bittersweet taste of an unknown poison…

“I must go, darling,” she whispered in his ear, her green eyes looking at me, delighting me, and luring me with an unspoken invitation. “I must meet a colleague of mine, with Paul. He must give me his class notes… I’ll see you tomorrow…” – and she went out the door, a young and crazy torment of golden light.

Then I remembered: it was Christmas Eve. What notes did she need, and what exams was she preparing? But that night all craziness started and no one cared about questions…

 

***

 

Max slowly put a drink on the table and then sat next to me with a coffee in front of him. He got old, too. Without meaning to, I looked at his hands, which shook as he took his cup of coffee to his mouth. He explained once to Virgil and me that a real professional must not measure the drinks when preparing a cocktail: “He just twists his arm a little and pours into the glass exactly 10 millilitres of drink. And he repeats the move as many times as the recipe calls for.” His moves were then supple and fluid, and the shaker seemed a part of his being. Lately, after having made a mistake in mixing a cocktail, he would carefully measure the drinks behind the bar, so that we could not see him.

“He has not come yet, Doctor!” Max repeated as if begging me, waiting for me to encourage him.

Sometimes, on an evening like that, I also felt the need to be encouraged. I took a sip of my Marguerita and closed my eyes, leaving the green poison to flow inside me. I took a deep breath and opened my eyes, looking at Max:

“He will come eventually, Max. I am sure of it… We are all he’s got… and Margherita, sort of…”

Max nodded his head a little and listened to the river cracking its ice in torment. I could not get out of my head the dark spot of gasoline which I had seen earlier nor the garbage that floated by more and more and more often. How many times have I feared that one day I would be called to the river’s edge to pull Virgil out of the water! For years he has told Max and me that one day he was going to throw himself in its tormented waters. Usually this would happen in the evening, in Max’s club, after the second bottle  of vodka. He would lean towards me, look at me, his eyes red from lack of sleep, thoughts, and booze, and ask me with a trembling voice:

“Do you know why I haven’t done it yet?”

And when neither Max nor I would answer him, he would rise stumbling, leaning towards the wall, spitting disdainfully into the water, and continue:

“Because it has no bridge, that is why. I would not want them to think,” and he would point toward the town, “that I had slipped by mistake …”

Sometimes, especially in the beginning, when a lost client happened to be in Max’s club, he would remind him, bored with his repetition and drunkenness, that only five kilometres out of town, there was a pretty good bridge that could satisfy his tastes.

“You are a fool,” he would say to the discomfited patron,  “I want to do it here, under their eyes, so that they feel sorry for me…” – then he would usually burst into the unstoppable sobs of a drunk, and we would all regret that we let the conversation reach that point …

I took another swallow of the infernal cocktail mixture and looked towards Max’s shaking hands. Because tomorrow mine will start shaking, too.

“How many years has it been, Max?” I asked him finally.

First he looked towards the big calendar hung among bottles, and counted for a while, slowly with his lips:

“Tomorrow will be thirty-three years, Doctor…”

He watched me with a sad smile:

“As if it were yesterday…”

Yes, as if it were yesterday. If I closed my eyes, I could still see Margherita sitting in Max’s place and watching me, innocent and guilty at the same time.

I wanted to say something else, when suddenly I saw Max’s face light up:

“Here he comes,” he said, raising his forehead, listening carefully.

From somewhere in the park, we heard a hum and a lame song from afar. Only when he got closer could I understand part of the words:

 

„I feel like an old sturgeon

That is looking for his shelter

For a last road…“

 

It was a new song, and Max looked at me, worried.

I shrugged my shoulders and tried to comfort him:

“He was with the fishermen again and drank with them, that’s all”.

But the desperation from Virgil’s song was overwhelming. Finally he stumbled in and sat at the table.

“Hello, guys! Can I get a coffee around here?”

When Max left to prepare his coffee, Virgil leaned mysteriously towards me:

“I don’t want coffee… I only wanted him to leave so that I could tell just you. You know it is closer?”

I tapped his shoulder as an encouragement.

“It just seems that way to you, Virgil… You know this is impossible…”

He looked at me dreadfully:

“It’s closer, I tell you…”

I left him with his thoughts; after a visit in the park, one could not speak to him anymore. Maybe I would have felt the same if I were he, which is why I preferred to give him the coffee and push the pack of cigarettes closer. He drank a little coffee and then looked towards Max:

“Do you know that another has appeared?”

“I heard it on the news”, said Max in conciliation – he sensed that Virgil was as grumpy as ever, and he did not want to start an everlasting argument with him.

But it seemed that Virgil had reached the stage where he did not need an interlocutor, because he got up and went out to the edge of the terrace and spit with disgust into the water. Sometimes I was afraid he would think that after all, the terrace where we had spent our youth and from where it all began was as good as any bridge from which to fly into the dark waters of the river…

 

***

 

…Before, for us the time passed pleasantly, although a little boring. It had been almost a year since we finished school – I finished medicine and he, law-school. At the beginning of the year, I planned to begin my internship after a long holiday of one year, and he was about to take over the family business from the tired hands of his father. Neither of us was in a hurry; all day we were lounging around Max’s terrace. The day he introduced Margherita to us was to be the last pleasant day of lounging, but then none of us knew that. After she had gone, we let the pleasant silence of the winter afternoon embrace and enjoy us. More than an hour had passed, and I wanted to ask him where he met her, but I did not get to do that: the silence of the day was broken by a youngster, who burst all sweaty on the terrace:

“Mister Virgil… … Margherita… in the park…” He stopped his words under Virgil’s icy look and starting babbling:

“Hurry!  You need to see…”

Virgil grabbed him by his collar and raised him in the air:

“Did something happen with Margherita? Tell me!” – and he was shaking the poor child without letting him answer.

“Nothing happened, but you’d better go…”

In those days, the park was the town’s pride. Thermal springs and other telluric phenomena made the temperature in the park always pleasant, even in the coldest winters. It had been surrounded by high walls, which conserved the heat of the soil even better, so that in the middle of the winter, one could see green plants, more common to Mediterranean areas. When it snowed, the contrast between the large, puffy snowflakes and the green leaves they fell on was wonderful – especially because they did not last long, changing in just a few moments into translucent drops of dew.

As the park was very close, we got there in a few minutes. Virgil wanted to ask someone about Margherita, but he did not have to: many people were gathered at the entrance to the park, on a hidden alley. They ran in front of me, and when I reached there, too, I saw him;  it looked as if he were bumping into an unseen wall, brutally rejected by the shock of the hit, falling with a mourn of pain.

“Margherita!” he yelled, and from his voice I knew he had lost Margherita forever.

Just then I looked towards the bench where Margherita and Paul were kissing. The image that later went around the world amazed me from the beginning—it seemed so natural. Without a doubt, the two liked each other, but Margherita, as I have said, liked almost anyone: she devoured him with her eyes, leaning her head a little toward the back and side. She was smiling, and her slightly opened lips were tempting him; he was leaning indecisively towards her, not knowing what to kiss first. This was because, although he was holding her around the waist with one hand, the other he had pulled her left breast out from her blouse. The pink nipple of the breast, like the sulky head of a small rabbit asking to be petted, or the red, slightly opened lips? It was a question to which neither we nor anyone else would find the answer: Margherita and Paul were caught inside a large sphere about ten meters diameter, like huge soap bubble. A small, blue, hardly visible iridescence shone at the meeting point between it and air. If his girlfriend were not there, kissing another, he could have seen it easily. Anyway, Virgil was the first and last to test so roughly the Sphere’s qualities. This is how it would later be reported in all the news journals: The Sphere. Lucky for Virgil, the strangeness of the Sphere caused his and Margherita’s story to be forgotten, but that did not make him forget Margherita. Since then, almost every day, after drinking a bottle or two of vodka, he went to the Sphere. The guard who was stationed there told me that he spoke forever with Margherita and swore at Paul. Sometimes he would hide, under his clothes and under the indulgent look of the guard, a portable drill or other tools, trying to get another millimetre closer to her. Of course he did not succeed. Others better equipped did not succeed either. A sect who said that the Sphere was the Antichrist put a bundle of dynamite next to the sphere; that was before they put a guard there. The explosion shook the park and broke all the windows in town but the Sphere did not move an inch.

After them came scientists who tried for months to cut or tear a piece, no matter how small, from the Sphere. They tried to pierce it with lasers, but besides the fact that that light would slow its speed a billion times when passing through the Sphere, they did learn anything else. A ray of sunshine needed about three hours to get out of the Sphere, and that is how they reached the conclusion that inside the Sphere, time passed by billions of times slower. To us, it was an eternity, and there quickly appeared others who exploited that idea.

“If you want your love to last forever, get married under the Eternal Sphere!” the advertising slogans would say, and despite their foolishness, the idea caught on with the public. And as a consequence, an endless crowd of pairs of pilgrims came  to the Sphere as to a new Mecca to get married. After a few years, when they saw that the number of divorces was the same whether couples got married next to the Sphere or someplace else,, this silliness ended. Anyway, others started.

A sectarian thought that he saw behind Margherita a pair of wings, and from there grew other slogans and houses of prayer.

“God, in His kindness, transforms the best among us into angels,” they screamed all day long in the streets, and displayed forged photos with the Sphere in which Margherita had her breast in her blouse, Paul watching her humbly, and behind them a superb pair of wings showing its feathers. First, I thought that Virgil would take out his gun and chase them away. But it seemed that the idea of Margherita changed into an angel comforted his hurt ego; he accepted it for a while, gazing constantly at the sectarians’ pictures. The craziness in our small town seemed endless, and only the appearance of other spheres ended that show and allowed us to return to our normal daily life. Besides the fact that at first the spheres would catch inside them a pair of lovers, no other rule could be established. What would it be? Temporal phases, the scientists would answer. Drops of eternity, the poets would reply. God’s will, said the believers, but the spheres, indifferent to people’s opinion, appeared more and more frequently, and it seemed that one day everybody would end up caught in the crystal waters of a sphere…

 

***

 

With a piece of paper in his hand, Max approached us.

“Maybe you’d like to see this,” he said and then withdrew leaving the sheet of paper on the table.

Lately he was very precautious around Virgil, especially since several years ago Virgil had told him that if he had not gotten Margherita drunk with his stupid cocktail, she would have stayed with us, not left to meet Paul.

It was the usual news about the situation of the spheres, aired every day: 16,638 spheres had appeared around the world; since yesterday 1,342 spheres had disappeared, among which 16,632 had caught a pair of lovers inside them, and six, a larger group of people. And never did the spheres catch inside them anyone over 30. It was also noted that they appeared only in winter and only in the cold areas of the globe. And only when it was snowing!

Scientists, philosophers, and theologians have debated for a long time the space and time distribution of the spheres, but they have not found any explanation. As the first sphere, the one that caught Margherita inside it, appeared on Christmas Eve, a sect tried to connect its appearance with Jesus’s birth, a late punishment because the Virgin Mary was left to give birth on a bed of straw, in the cold, among animals. Nothing would connect, so after a while this idea was abandoned also, as were many others.

With dim eyes, Virgil also read the news, then shrugged his shoulders: in thirty years you have time to get used to anything.

I drank the rest of cocktail at once and stood up:

“Let’s go, Virgil… It is late.”

He rose, too, staggering and frowning at me:

“You want to be the Good Samaritan. You want to make sure that I throw myself into bed and not into the river.”

I waved my hand, bored:

“It is late, Virgil, and I just want to make sure I will sleep a few hours tonight.”

He let me put my arm around his shoulders, and we moved towards the exit.

“Good night, Max,” I said from the door, and when I saw him sad, alone and old among his bottles, a strong wave of pity embraced me, so that I wanted to turn back and take him into my arms.

I resisted the temptation, however, and went with Virgil into the night. In other times on Christmas Eve, the town teamed with last-minute shoppers. Now the blazing lights lit only empty streets and scraps of paper moved from here to there by the wind. The young ones had gone South after it was noticed that the spheres appeared only in the cold areas. Sometimes they would come home, but less and less often, and only in summer, in a short burst of happiness and sadness.  But they never visited more than a few days. It seemed as if all the young people from around the world were moving to the hot areas, because the rate of the apparitions was much lower there.

I was glad Virgil did not live far away, because it became more and more difficult with each step. I entered the house with him and put him to bed, trying not to look at the mess in the house. More and more people had abandoned themselves to carelessness, as if the lack of youth among us had taken away the wish to live. I closed the windows and covered him; then I turned on the heat, because the bedroom was as cold as a cave. He immediately fell into a sleep tormented by nightmares, but lately more and more of us would sleep like that. On the bedside table, he had a glass globe in which Margherita and Paul, with angel wings, were looking humbly at each other. It was one of the souvenirs sold by a sect. When I was a child, I received one much like this. It contained a small town with a market with a huge Christmas tree, and over the town small pieces of plastic imitating snow would fall. I turned this one, too, and sat it on the bedside table, watching how the small snowflakes fell over the two silhouettes. Virgil started to snore slowly, so I easily caressed Margherita in the globe, already covered with the easy flow of artificial snowflakes, and wanted to leave. From the door I turned again towards the globe. Margherita watched me as if to reproach me: “If you really loved me, you would know how to get me out of here!“

 

***

 

I left and slowly closed the door after me. I started walking on the empty street through the falling snow, thicker and thicker, as if it wanted to cover our sins. I loved her, of course, but I was the only one who knew that neither I nor anybody else could ever save her. And sometimes, when my steps became heavier, I used to think that the burden of being the only one who knew the truth made walking so hard.

At first, a few years after other spheres started to appear and the crowd from our town had disappeared, I started in the middle of the night, after taking Virgil home to sleep, to go to the Sphere. There was no guard there: it was hard to put a guard at the tens of thousands of spheres that had appeared – and after all, the spheres were protecting themselves very well. Then I found near the Sphere a kaleidoscope – or at least it looked like one. A tube of hard plastic with an eye hole and several buttons. I thought it was a new toy which had just appeared on the market and which had been lost by a small child in the park. Only when I took it to my eyes, I could see the multitude of spheres one after another, and I realized what is was: a presentation catalogue. Pushing one of the lateral buttons would cause the spheres to turn over for a moment, and then return, while the snow fell with small, quiet snow flakes over the pair trapped inside. Many moments passed, making the spheres pass in front of my eyes, until I realized that we, the people, were nothing but mere objects for the Christmas presents of who knows what civilization much farther away.

 

 


Eve’s Apples

 

To the memory of Ioan Resler

 

 

 

After more than a thousand years, the descendants of the two beings would name the mountain in front of them Kilimanjaro. But then the great mountain did not have a name, and they did not seem to care much about it. They were glad it could be seen from almost any place in the wood, and it was enough to climb in a taller tree so that they could see it. They knew then where they had to go to reach the clan again after getting tired of wandering. Because they, unlike the others, liked to wander not only into the woods but among the grass of the savannah, too.  When they were younger they would leave the shelter of the forest less often and only for a short while because the swift predators that wandered through the savannah would make them withdraw immediately to the thick, protective shelter of the shadow. After they grew up, the weather got warmer, until the white-iced pinnacle of the mountains was always surrounded by a garland of clouds. The woods were full of fruit so nobody from their clan needed to venture into the illusory grasses of the savannah. They too could have remained there forever, in the shelter of the woods, next to the others. But since they knew each other, they enjoyed wandering, and not a few times they had to save their hide from the hoards of golden monkeys whose territory they had unknowingly infringed. It was as if they enjoyed the danger, and not even the bites they received during the chases seem to calm them down for long.

When they got older, they happened to mate in the bushes on the edge of the woods, all the while watching for dangers that might appear around them.  From unknown reasons, she hadn’t got pregnant yet although others of her age had had several off-springs by then. Maybe because of that, she was much more agitated than many other females of the same age, and she wandered through the woods on roads which seemed to go nowhere, followed only by him, her wandering-mate since childhood. Many times she caught herself stopping at the edge of the forest and watching, lost far away across the savannah. For a while, he thought she was looking toward the mountain that was standing like a fortress over them, and only after a while he could see that something else attracted her. On the savannah could be seen nothing but grass which made waves sometimes under the silent steps of the great cats that were hunting. For a while, though, they could not be seen; a river had changed its course, and the herbivores had to move their grazing places, and consequently, attracted their predators after them. The field in front of them remained free, and not a few times, they happened in their play to stray far away into the savannah’s grass, something that only a few years before neither had the courage to do. And still sometimes she would stop playing and stare towards the mountain. Somewhere not too far beyond the edge of the forest, but farther than they had ever gone in their wanderings through the savannah, had appeared a seedling. It had grown little every year on a small knoll where the wind or maybe a migratory bird had brought its seed. It wasn’t mative to the area, and it clearly suffered from stunted growth. When the ice from the mountain reached the lower parts, its leaves would wither and fall, even if the forest all around it was still green. She knew that it was a foreign type of tree, and she continued to watch it, thinking it was not meant to bear fruit – the same as she. At least there was no fruit so far, or maybe, she thought, not at all.

Between their clan and the clans of golden monkeys there was a permanent state of war, and many times the fights were decided by fate. Too many times it seemed they had lost, but by luck, none of the many battles led to the disappearance of their small clan. But she did not care about that, and even if sometimes when they were bored and curiosity pushed them to do unexpected things, nobody could suspect in them the ancestors of people. They were curious, it is true, but the monkeys were also curious. And still, then as now, their curiosity was different. Never would a monkey have remained for a long time looking in silence at the lonely tree without fruit in the middle of the field. Such a thing never happened with any of the trees around them.  She did not know that where the seed of the strange tree came from, in the far and frozen north, when the leaves would fall all around, it was embraced by cold, and only under the harsh kiss of the cold, in the withered branches, would be born the promise of the future fruit. The tree with such small, round, delicate leaves seemed meant to remain barren, and in vain each year, she watched from far away its crown without fruit…

Then, one year, in which the continent their descendents would call Europe was moaning under the ice of one of the endless ice ages, the weather got cold again and the white belt which usually surrounded the mountain only half way down, fell lower than ever. Unexpected whirlwinds would suddenly start on the mountain carrying to the savannah’s grasses a cold, frozen air they were not used to. Their walks towards the edge of the forest became less frequent, especially because she thought that the fragile silhouette from the top of the hill would perish under the white whirlwind that embraced it.  How could she know that the icy kiss of the snowflakes was what the apple needed in order to bear fruit? Imagine her surprise when at her next walk to the edge of the forest, she saw the tree with a green crown and full of white flowers. After that,  she would come every day to see it and remain for hours with her eyes lost in its green crown, forgetting even to eat, which made him bring food to her, too. After the flowers had fallen and were replaced by small, green fruit, her anxiety was so great that several times he had to run after her and bring her back.

Some time had passed, and one of the fruits on the lower branches started to gain a reddish tinge. Did it happen by mistake? Was it just a simple mutation, or was the colour due to the heat that surrounded the savannah? She did not care, and after her quick eyes saw the red colour sparkling from the midst of the green leaves, she knew that all she wanted was to bite at any price from that strange, new fruit. One day when he seemed eager to mate again, their play led without their noticing out of the woods. Their play was repeated so many times with the running away followed by his wait, and then again running away and waiting, until finally they got under the tree, where their run stopped. Did she want to get there or did they get there by mistake? Their descendents would fill full pages on that theme, but once they got there, they remained silent on the small hill watching the apple that hung red and tempting above them, half hidden between the leaves. It was high, higher than they could reach, and around them they could see no stick that they could use. They sat face to face under the red temptation and stretched without being able to reach it. He was a little taller, but even if he jumped he still missed half an arm to get it.

And then, under the impulse of the moment, using her as living tool he caught her around the waist and raised her with his arms. She caught the apple greedily in her hands and took a bite from it. The bittersweet taste enchanted her and for a moment, she closed her eyes. Then, while he slowly lifted her down, she gave it to him to taste, too. He bit into it, and as she was still in his arms, his eyes stopped on one of her breasts. It was round, almost without hair, with a hard and provocative nipple. He chewed the apple slowly, and then with its taste still in his mouth, leaned and gently took into his mouth the breast. A small provocative laughter – maybe the first – made him bite harder, squeezing her in his arms, embraced by a new thrill. He let her down a little lower, and for the first time he could see her eyes. He sank into the light, and driven only by a new and still unnamed feeling, he laid her down on her back and watched her eyes all the time they were mating.

You will ask me: well, well, but where was the snake? Could it have been wound around the apple’s trunk as Eve’s descendents have drawn it again and again? Or more likely, could it have watched hidden in the grass all around? After such a long time, who knows?

And yet, when they finally left the hill, hand in hand for the first time, behind them crawled the snake, unseen. It was a huge boa snake, old and very hungry. When they entered the forest, the two of them were received by a hoard of monkeys more agitated than ever. For a while they seemed more determined than ever to exterminate all of their kind. After a life and death battle, they had just decimated the clan, and then, driven by an instinct of destruction, were looking for those two. It seemed they had no chance; in just a few moments, they were surrounded by strong golden monkeys, which were focused to kill. In only a few moments, humanity as we know it today would have been just an illusion, when from the grass behind them, whistling casually appeared the old boa snake. What strength could his whisper have so that all those present became like stones looking at him? Nobody could answer that question, just as we cannot answer it thousands of centuries later. They, future humans and their death enemies the golden monkeys could only look at the huge snake; we don’t know whether they could see it, waiting for their fate whatever it might have been. The snake approached her first, wound around her body, and then when its head reached her face, their breaths mingled and the old snake relaxed his embrace, leaning down first and then away towards the monkeys. They did not know in those times about pheromones, so the only explanation was created centuries later as follows: “I will make enemies of you and the woman, between your seed and hers; she will crush your head and you will sting her heel.” One cannot say that there was friendship between them, but leaving the woman, the snake went towards the golden monkeys and it seemed to like them. The old snake and others after it never left the forest until the clan of golden monkeys had been entirely decimated. It was enough for the clan of the future people to recover, and forgetting about the apple tree which brought them together with the old snake, went out to conquer the world. The years passed and the old apple tree faded away. Nobody knew where its place had been. As the animals were not familiar with the story, they had to transform themselves into people first and tell things in such way that in the end, even they could not recognize them.

 

 


The Girl from the Seaside

 

 

 

I heard a little noise at the door and I sat up in bed. I haven’t been sleeping well, a nightclub nearby had clients until late at night and felt compelled to entertain them with loud, robust party songs and with  a good time. I looked at the clock: it was only eight and I did not really know who would bother me so early. I lay back down hoping that it was my imagination when I heard the knock again. I could barely hear it – it was just a whisper – and all of a sudden I realized who it might be. I wanted to pull a blanket over my head, but I knew that he would knock longer and louder until I opened. The knock on the door was the combined effect of a rainy evening sprinkled with a lot of vodka, and mixed with a lot of bad luck.

Three or four evenings ago, after that girl with whom I had haunted all the beaches around had split up with me seeing that it had begun raining, I hid in the hotel’s bar trying to chase away my disillusion with a few drinks of good vodka. Later, toward the end of the evening, I saw her: Ella. She was the roommate of the chaste mimosa from that morning. She asked for a place at my table and feeling so depressed and lonely I would have allowed a female hippopotamus to sit next to me, if it had a shoulder I could lean on and on which I, a man cheated in his expectations, could cry. Well, Ella was really good at comforting. She explained me in detail that her friend had been doing that number constantly since they arrived at the seaside. She would pick up men, sweet-talking them, and then toward the evening she would send them away, to their exasperation. And to mine, I tried to add, but neither my head nor my tongue would start, and I couldn’t find the accelerator to speed things up a little. In the end, although she did not seem the type, Ella speeded it up. She helped me get to the elevator, then into the room, then, naturally, into bed. How she got next to me remains a mystery like that of the Bermuda triangle. Did I ask her? Did she offer? Anyway, in the morning I woke up next to her in bed.

Without the alcohol running in my head putting a pink curtain between me and reality, Ella seemed really hideous. Too bad about the name. Actually, watching her as she was snoring I told myself that she wasn’t just ugly. She was…, how can I put it? Gray, pale, and unattractive, like a medusa abandoned all night on the beach. Let’s take just the hair, for example: if it were with a tone more blond, it would have had that beautiful color which any man would have been glad to see on the pillow next to him. But instead, it looked as if I was lying next to a tow of hemp, and not processed too well at that.

“Oh, God” she said, when she finally woke up. “What will you think of me now?” she asked me, chastely blinking her bleary eyes.

I sighed without answering, and liking how my sigh sounded, I continued sighing. I uncovered my head and got her out the door.

It is true that I left the poor girl without an answer, but I didn’t care what I thought about her, only what my friends would say, who all knew I was a normal person, if they saw me in bed with such a sample of pure ugliness. Well, since then, and again now, almost every morning she would knock slowly on my door to propose me all kind of stupid things. Pretending to be asleep wouldn’t fool her because the other day when in exasperation, I put my head under the pillow, she brought the hotel’s locksmith screaming down the hallway that for sure her friend was sick or something terrible had happened to him. I opened the door just in time, before the man got the chance to break the lock, and seeing his look, swinging  the hammer, looking first at me then at her, I was certain that he wanted to throw it at our heads. I wasn’t sure, though, which one of us he wanted to hit first…

I got out of the bed and stumbling to the door, I opened it.

“Paul, oh Paul,” she burst, anxious as usual. “If you knew how worried I was… I thought you got sick…”

Her worry seemed to melt all of a sudden when she set eyes on the bed. Talking continuously, she reached it and lay on it and started to arrange the pillows.

I have always been a soft man. I let things flow naturally even if they were not flowing in the direction I wanted them to. Now for example. Why didn’t I have the power to pull that thing from behind her head and take her in front of the mirror and explain to her:

“Dear girl, you old hag, you witch! Wake up! Take a look in the mirror and after that, start running… and stop only when I ask you to.”

Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t find the strength to do that. Instead I started to make an excuse, something about my bad state, the headache that wouldn’t pass for days, although I felt like Gulliver when he was irritated by the young yahoo female.

“Leave it to me, I’ll get you on your feet!” she declared happily and started to look into the huge bag she carried with her everywhere.

She started to put on the bed vitamins, energizers, and finally a pack of Kama Sutra condoms with explicit positions from Tantra Yoga drawn on the package. Just maybe, I would think of something. I even thought of two things while I was feeding myself with pills: I had to do something, anything, to get rid of her, or if not, then run away and give up my holiday. I was watching the way she followed me with her eyes as I swallowed the medication. She had a small, old face, glittering eyes that I had seen only in a monster movie from the Island of Doctor Moreau, and with a terrible urge to annoy me. I went out with her thinking to get wasted enough so that I could find the courage to tell her that I did not like her and that never, no matter what she might do, would I give her an occasion to get into my bed again. Maybe if I were always drun – but I wasn’t stupid enough to give her that idea, because, if it were up to her, she would have put it into practice.

I remember only the first two bars and the first six drinks. After that, as though in a dream, I remember that we met her room-mate who congratulated us – did she say something about an engagement? I didn’t, that’s for sure! Then with my old group of friends with whom I came to the seaside, one of them pulled me aside and told me very seriously that he knew the address of a cheap paid killer, and that he was sure if I showed him the picture of the girl, he would give me a 50% discount.  Another asked me to get him a picture of Ella, taken in the morning without her make-up, because he had a lazy dog at home and he wanted to teach him to bark. These kinds of bad jokes I had done many times. I swallowed hard, kept silent, and drank again. I drank until I did not care what Ella looked like and where the Earth was spinning. Because it was spinning fast, that was sure. And still among the mixed vapours of alcohol, I remembered while returning to the hotel that I had to find a reason to break up with her. A reason that would not offend her, but that could not be turned against me later. I was stumbling to one side and another while she supported me proudly as if she were saying defiantly to those watching us in amusement: so what if he is drunk? He is my man! The hell, her man! The entrance to the hotel was getting closer very fast, or we were getting closer to the hotel- well, not really so fast – but we were still getting closer, and I could not think of anything. We entered, and it seemed to me that I saw the night clerk shaking his head reproachfully, but Ella shrugged carelessly and propelled me toward the elevator.

Please God, make the cable break! Make the cable break! I would pray silently, and I did not know what to promise so that my prayer would be heard.

It was so easy for the kings in the old days. They would build a monastery, a cathedral or two, and all their prayers were heard… What could I promise? I kept reciting to myself …: to break the cable, make the cable break…

“It will not break, don’t be scared,” Ella encouraged me. “You drank a little too much; that is why you think it is shaking.”

She was right: it did not break. We reached my room, and as her mind probably made some kind of association between my drunken state and our first night of amour, I think that she was already seeing herself in bed with me.

I sat at the table and gestured for her to sit down. I spoke in as small words as I could so that she might understand:

“Ella…”

“Yes dear, tell me…”

“Ella, sit down and listen to me! Don’t say a word until I finish talking!”

She constricted her mouth and watched me, frowning.

“Ella… I don’t love you. I will never be able to love you. Don’t cry and listen! Since I was a child, I dreamt of a woman like that… and I pointed high up—as high as the sky. I will never be able to love a little thing like you… so now you know. I was drunk the first evening and I thought you were taller… really…”

Or maybe I said bigger? Anyway it did not matter much and there was nothing she could do, that I knew for sure because when I was in high school I had a colleague who tried in vain to gain four centimetres in height to reach as tall as his girlfriend. He could not succeed with all his daily gymnastic exercises and in the end they broke up.

She wasn’t listening to me anymore. Her small face was furrowed like a mask of corrugated paper, as if somebody was rumpling the paper from inside.

She suddenly stood up, making the chair fall as if we were in a scenario of a bad B movie. It did not matter then. I told her I was breaking up with her, without telling her how ugly she was.

“You will bear me on your conscience!” she threatened me from the door, watching me with the eyes like two phosphorescent points. “Tomorrow, if you want to find me, look for me on the seaside…” and she slammed the door making the paint around it fall…

“The dog catchers find you,” I mumbled, falling for the first time in the last week in a deep, dreamless sleep.

My subconscious had noted the victory and communicated to me that I could sleep quietly because the following morning nobody would awaken me.

The strong knock on the door the following morning made me jump from the bed.  It was not Ella for sure. It was too strong and the rhythm seemed almost hysterical. With my eyes full of sleep I went to open the door and saw the frightened face of the hotel’s locksmith. He swallowed hard twice, and then he succeeded in telling me:

“The manager sent for you. He asked you to come immediately to the hotel’s beach”.

I got dressed more quickly than ever before and ran down the three floors without waiting for the elevator, while a terrible idea came to me: Ella kept her word and threw herself into the sea.

When I got to the beach, I could see that despite the early hour, it was full of people. They were all watching a gigantic silhouette lying on the beach. It looked like a huge girl, gigantic even, dressed in a small blue bathing suit, sleeping carelessly on the beach, her back toward the entire crowd on the beach. First I thought of a bathing suit commercial or something like that. Only a few moments ago, the staff from Coca-Cola had installed on the beach a huge balloon bottle that everyone seemed compelled to visit. But what did it have to do with me? Why was the manager looking for me? As if he read my mind, the manager approached me with small and affected eyes. He was the only one in a suit and tie on the entire beach, but he did not seem to care. He stood on his tiptoes to reach my ear:

“I don’t know whether you noticed, but she looks exactly like your girlfriend! Until a few minutes ago, her face was turned towards the beach and I could notice that aspect very clearly”.

“It is kind of early for sunbathing, don’t you think?” I asked politely, and he wanted to answer me in the same tone of voice, but just then on the beach there started a murmur of voices, and everybody began to move away.

Because of the tide, the thing from the beach started to have her face in the water and as that seemed that bothered her, she turned her face towards the beach. She was huge! She once opened her mouth and rose on one elbow looking at the ones who gathered there.

Looking around, she noticed me and stood up. The dogs mingled among the people started to howl, and the people themselves started to step on each other’s feet in their hurry to leave.

A voice sounding like all the trumpets from Ierihon surrounded the beach:

“Paul!” she said, but it sounded as if she said „Phaaauuuul”.

The windows behind me rattled long, and in the harbour, I don’t know why, the sirens of the ships started ringing. Yet they could not cover her voice.

I closed my eyes and stretched my hand around me trying to find the pillow. It was a nightmare; I had to wake up and especially to be careful thereon not to mix the drinks like that in the evening.

“Phaaaauuuul!” I could hear again, and when I opened my eyes I could see that she had made a step towards me among the terrified people who were running away from the beach.

“Phaaaauuuul! Am I big enough now for you to love me?”

She watched me with her piercing eyes and anxiously stretched her hand, as large as the cup of an excavator of great calibre, toward me.

“Phaaaauuuul!” and nothing sounded more frightening than the note of affection that I perceived in the thundering voice.

I closed my eyes and let the gigantic door of destiny embrace me.

 

 


Rafael

 

 

 

I’m ugly! I’m so ugly that I’ve always forgiven my poor mother for having abandoned me after she brought me to this world. She could have killed me. Her sin would have probably been forgiven, like all the murders made in the name of God. Because anyone who looks at me once remains convinced that I can only be the Devil’s son. I’ve never met my mother. Maybe she was a simple countrywoman who was late working the field on a cloudy evening and, on her way back, was caught in the trap of destiny. Hence, her gesture of abandoning me at the monastery gate. Or maybe she was a young, bored townswoman who, looking for new ways of entertainment, invoked a demon. From a faithful, obedient servant, the demon turned overnight into a damned lover. These are only assumptions that I can make in the silence of the nights. I couldn’t say which one is true. What I can recall is that Brother Samuel, who picked me up from the gate of the monastery with dew all around my clothes and me, told me the moment I could understand some things:

“When I saw you there at the gate, watching me grimly and unflinchingly, I thought you were Satan himself sent upon us as a punishment for the many sins some of our brothers have committed. Then the abbot came and looked into your blue eyes, bright all of a sudden, looked up, murmured a prayer and then said to us: “Let him be baptized in the name of God. And may his name be Rafael, like the angel of the needy.”

Usually, when he told me this story, Brother Samuel was frowning. With a sudden gesture he was pushing another pile of books towards me, continuing:

“No matter how much the abbot would tell me about angels, I still believe you are the Devil’s hand. No one will ever convince me differently.”

Sometimes I suspected that he had that opinion because of the books I read. At the abbot’s order, which nobody understood or commented upon, I enjoyed preferential treatment. Instead of the monastery’s toils, I had to fulfill another penance, which to the others, seemed much more difficult than working in the field: I had to read! Brother Samuel brought me pile after pile of books from a library that seemed inexhaustible. Sometimes, the abbot came to look for me unexpectedly and after he saw with satisfaction the pile of books I devoured, he would ask me questions from what I had read. Very few things seemed to have anything to do with faith, like the other brothers imagined. His questions were rather mysterious and he would not always expect an answer from me.

He looked as if he wanted to hear himself speaking, but since I was growing up, he also wanted me to answer. He was satisfied with my knowledge.

I didn’t have a mirror at the monastery, but I saw myself in one once when I went down to the village along with the monk that took care of provisioning. I was about 14… I had entered the small store to help him carry the necessary things. In a corner I saw a rectangle of light and I approached it, intrigued. I was shaken. A sort of monster, with a vague human look was watching me gently from the clear waters of the mirror. Even now I wonder why the poor mirror didn’t shake her waters in disgust because of my image. Soon enough, I realized that the horror beyond the pure crystal waters was I. I crashed in front of it, enlightened all of the sudden by understanding: now I realized why people looked away while I was talking to them. I looked horrifying. Compared to the ugliness of the face, the hump and the crooked, deformed legs could hardly be ignored. They came as a natural completion of my ugliness, and I am sure that, except for the head, I had had a normal body, the contrast would have seemed more hideous to everybody. I pulled myself together and I got out in the sunlight. The harnessed donkey we had brought to carry the goods put out a short roar on seeing me. I went in front of it, grabbed the bridle, and looked deeply into its eyes. It watched me as it always did. A creature that didn’t care how he looked. Did that mean I couldn’t find understanding and acceptance except with the animals? Brother Clement finally got out of the store and put his arm around my shoulders:

“Let’s go, brother Rafael!”

I took my eyes from the donkey. With a gasp, he started pulling the cart towards the hill where the monastery lay. Before getting in, I asked my companion:

“Brother Clement, how come I am so ugly?” He looked away.

“You are not ugly… You are unusual…” He wanted to say something more, but he stumbled against the words that wouldn’t come out.

I left him alone to unload the things we had bought from the village and I rushed anxiously to my books. One can find so much in a book…

 

***

 

When the circus came to the village, very soon a change was felt in the air. It was as if those nomad people had brought with them, and with the air surrounding them, an anxiety that unwittingly transmitted its vibration to everybody. How? No one could answer, even if that deep, profound vibration had somehow pervaded the most hidden cells. I first saw them the second day after their arrival. I was going down to the village with Brother Clement to do the usual shopping when we met the noisy, joyful group.

“People, people! Come and see the most amazing miracles at the Globus Circus!” a midget was screaming with all his might, frantically shaking a megaphone. “The Bearded Woman, the Mermaid Woman, the Wolf-Man, and the Tiger-Man… magic and miracles at the Globus Circus… Tonight, the first show…”

There were some wheeled cages coming behind them in which one could see a man who looked like a tiger, a bearded woman, and a small aquarium in which a mermaid swam gracefully.

When our cart met their convoy, we stopped as if the meeting had long been predestined. A careful and impartial observer wouldn’t have been able to tell which of the two groups was more impressed. They remained thunderstruck, looking straight at me. The man suddenly lowered the megaphone and gasped:

“Holy Mary…”

The Tiger Man forgot to roar and the mermaid remained with her hands hanging on the edge of the aquarium, looking right at me. Nobody moved and no noise was heard. It was like the beginning of the world. The silence was suddenly broken by a silvery voice coming from the rear of the convoy:

“Why did you stop?”

A blond angel, bewildered and upset, showed up from behind the Tiger Man cage displaying her ringlets. It was a girl dressed in a blue shirt and a blue skirt that brought the gold of her hair even more into relief. She had a few extinguished torches in her hands. She came close and then her eyes fell on me. I wanted to hide myself under the earth, to die, to fly, or to catch on fire – anything but remaining there to profane the light of her eyes. As I couldn’t move, I just closed my eyes waiting for God to bring justice and wipe me off the face of the earth.

“Oh,” I heard the puzzled voice. “It was you they stopped for?”

There was surprise and questioning in her voice. There were many things in her voice, but not disgust or repulsion like the voice of those who saw me for the first time.

“Larissa,” a worried voice suddenly was heard, “don’t go too near!”

“Why not?” She asked in a petulant voice. “He’s so cute…”

I opened my eyes with curiosity. The girl had dropped the torches and she was approaching with small steps. She was looking at me smiling. The look in her eyes was bright and full of strange curiosity. When she got in front of me, she raised her hands and held my face. After a moment that seemed an eternity, she kissed my forehead gently, like the touch of a butterfly and whispered to me:

“Poor you, you must have suffered a lot! It’s all right, now you’ve met me. Tonight, after the show, come and see me.”

I leaned against the shafts of the cart while the joyful, noisy procession passed unnoticed by me.

 

***

 

I was looking inside, through the slot of the tent, at the fairy scene of sounds and lights that flooded the night. When it was all over and the audience began to leave, I went to look for her. Near an open door, I thought I could hear her voice and I got closer.

“You can’t do that, Larissa!” a hoarse, old feminine voice was heard.

“You are crazy, mother! How long do you think he is going to keep us here, for our talents… can’t you see that nobody is watching our number anymore… while he… Have you ever seen anything more hideous?”

“To tell the truth, no…” admitted the older woman in an undertone.

“And, more than that, he likes me,” Larissa giggled joyfully. We’ll make a fortune, mother, you’ll see!”

I left without being able to see anything in front of me, my eyes blurred with tears. I went into the Circus tent where it was dark by now. I saw the ladder she had climbed to get to the trapeze, and I began to climb up. It seemed it still kept the smell of her body… I was up. The world seemed so small, seen from up there, that when Larissa and a man came in the arena, I first thought they were two dolls.

“We can’t do that now, Paul, try to understand me! I have to wait for that monastery freak; maybe I’ll convince him to join us…”

Paul, the knife thrower, didn’t seem to have too much understanding or patience because he flung her on the heap of ropes at the edge of the arena.

She appeared to have forgotten about me because only a choked sigh could be heard from the arena, interrupted now and then by the heaves of the man. I approached the edge of the platform. In the books the abbot gave me to read, it was written that the hump is only the place where angels keep their wings in order to go unnoticed among people. I took off my clothes slowly… And that, sometimes, when they need them, they can get them out to fly… Down below, the sighs were profounder and jerkier. I will found out now if my books held the truth, not only “things to go off the hooks” as Brother Samuel used to say. A long sigh that came from the darkness signaled that the two released themselves from their passion. Now it was my turn… I threw myself in the emptiness and I felt the skin from my hump cracking and falling to pieces. I was going to fly and kidnap Larissa and to keep her for me only.

“Look!” I heard some whispers, or maybe there was a scream as everything lightened up for me. A divine music flowed from the heights and, forgetting Larissa, I began to fly towards it, spreading my wings wide.