I escaped Romania in the middle of the night, by bike, on February 2, 1965. It was the moment when the country was locked in a communist prison. I was seventeen years old then. Now, twenty-four years later, in the diplomatic and political frost of 1989, with the beginning of freedom, I’m returning. As I walk through customs at Bucharest’s Otopeni airport with my American passport held tightly in my hand, I feel a strange sensation: memory is pulling me back to a lost time.
I see my seventeen-year-old self in front of me, leading me into the labyrinth of youth. She takes my hand and warns me of pitfalls while I enter a world I may have forgotten. She’s cute, smiling, spunky, full of life. One would say she had been very much loved by her parents.
I follow her, admiring her short black hair cropped straight around her oval face, highlighting her high cheekbones and hazel eyes, with a small pointy chin and full lips. She’s of medium height, fragile like porcelain on the outside, but more resilient than she realizes inside. She’s dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and tight black leggings, wearing high black leather boots and covered with an Elizabethan-style coat that closes with a belt wrapped twice around her thin frame.
She leads me to a customs desk where I present my papers to an officer without any communication other than his indifferent stare. I understand that his silence, inherited from the communist era, still lingers. I look around me. There’s only one electric bulb for the entire room and its 40 watts flickers. The wind blows through a broken windowpane, letting in a winter chill. The airport is empty except for several policemen carrying machine guns. I watch them: smooth-skinned boys, dressed up as soldiers.
At the baggage claim, waiting for my suitcase, I notice bullet holes in the cement walls and dried blood on the floor. Broken glass and used bullets fill every corner of the room. Someone tried to clean up proof of last month’s revolution, but didn’t finish. There’s a heavy silence permeating the air. Danger and risk still exist.
I reason to myself that I had to make this journey. And I look around, trying to find Mica, my seventeen-year-old self, my guide. I want to confess to her why I’m here, why I have come alone, despite the suffering that might befall me, now, as it did in the past. But I can’t find her.
I see my suitcase coming down the conveyor belt. I pick it up and feel its heaviness. I try to grip the handle tightly and suddenly I feel a piercing pain in my right-hand little finger. I close my eyes, try not to cry. I remember… I was eleven years old, walking home alone from school. A policeman was trailing me. He detained me, handcuffed me, forced me onto his motorcycle, and took me to the chief of the secret police.
“In my office, I have the power to do whatever I want.” He unlocked the handcuffs, pulled my small hand into his, and removed from his pocket a pair of pliers. He flashed the tool in front of my face to taunt me and placed the metal tip under a flame. I saw it turn fiery red.
“Only you can save your father. Work for us and your father will be safe.”
“Don’t ask me that. Please! I can’t!”
“Such a sweet little pinky you have.” He took the red-hot pliers, tightened it on my fingernail and pulled hard.
“Ow!” I was on fire, burning. I fell to the floor in excruciating pain.
“Get up!” He pulled me up by my sweater. He let his pliers play with my thumbnail, burning the tender skin around it, shouting at me,. “In my office, I have the power to do whatever I want.”
I’m twenty-four years older and I’m returning home. I live in New York City and I am a goodwill ambassador to UNICEF for refugee children. This is one of the reasons for my visit. I have established an adoption agency in Transylvania for orphans, and I want to check that medicines from New York are being distributed correctly to the orphanages, and that each child has a crib or bed and food and medicines that we have sent.
I’m also returning because when I escaped, I had left something for my father in his underground bunker the night he was arrested. I need to find out if what I had hidden, is still there. I’m afraid, yet excited, to learn the truth.
That’s why I’m seeking my teenaged Mica, to guide me to a lost past. And as I search for her in these hollow halls of the airport, something unexpected is happening before my eyes: the reappearance of images from my youth. I try to hold on to the scenes as clues to help me understand how the past shaped my future. My present.
I look back to see, to feel, to relive the moments….
Every year on my birthday, my father and I talked about monsters and vampires. Tata was a wonderful storyteller. I cuddled in his arms and listened to tales of what happened in the woods of Transylvania where we lived.
In Romania, when we spoke of vampires, we meant Count Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, on whom so many legends were based. In Spera, the small town where I grew up, he was remembered as a prince, a leader who protected his people from the Turks when they invaded Romania in the fifteenth century. Still, we had to accept that his heroic deeds were cloaked in bloodthirsty evil. He believed that blood preserved his youth; thousands of innocent people died at the flick of his hand so that he could fortify himself.
Mama did not approve of Tata’s stories, but she never stopped him. As she cooked, she’d frown while Tata laughed with joy, telling me his tales.
As I became a teenager, what he shared became more complex. My father explained how the behavior of monsters and the character of man could intersect. Tata was an engineer, and he constructed a stage for me where his stories became lessons for survival.
By the time I was seventeen, Tata’s stories had taken a different route. The characters were no longer based on legend or fairytale. I became the protagonist of the story. My father was preparing me for what I would need to know: that I was the daughter of a revolutionary.
Father was the leader of the Transylvanian anti-communists, which proved very dangerous for him as well as for Mama and me. My mother feared that Tata’s secret mission would force me to grow up too fast; she realized his work would affect my entire life and she tried to counteract the dangers by preparing me for the future: I would get to America. She taught me English and read Shakespeare to me.
When Tata’s clandestine activities, kept him out at night, Mama took me into the kitchen, ran the faucet strong so no one else would hear her words, and took out our shortwave radio to listen to Radio Free Europe. She’d translate the broadcaster’s English words into whispers and reveal the political truths to me.
As our country turned ruthless, Tata’s stories scared me. I wanted him to stop, but I stayed and listened. Now, years later, as I look back at my childhood, I understand his motive: his vampire stories were warnings. Politics had turned inhuman during that time in Eastern Europe, and his lessons became guiding principles to help me understand political realities. My father’s monsters taught me that there is evil in man. Given the proper incentives, man is capable of becoming cruel and sadistic. Tata didn’t want me to become a victim; yet, there was little he could do. I would be tested and I’d have to fight to survive.
But Tata’s passion for life overruled the savagery that surrounded us. He was optimistic, determined to do what was right. And he had a secret treasure, which he believed could open the door to dreams. I inherited his treasures.
* * *
PART ONE: SPERA (TRANSYLVANIA), ROMANIA
February 1, 1965
“No, no, Juliet. Not like that!” the white-haired director yelled. Mica stopped reciting her lines. She hated displeasing Mr. Marinescu. He had taught her so much and introduced her to the love of her life: the stage. “Your words must come from your heart,” he explained. “Act as if you’re a woman, not a child. Think of everything you’re losing!”
Mica squeezed her eyes tightly. It was difficult to be unhappy when she was playing Juliet and Romeo was as handsome as Nicky Strancusi. But she did as directed and turned her thoughts to the secret police, who had come yesterday to their house in the middle of the night. “We’ll be back,” the chief had warned her father. “Until we find out what you’re up to.”
“That’s it, Mica! I feel your fear,” the director shouted. Fear, yes, for my parents, she thought. “You must get this right. Romeo and Juliet is the first Shakespearean play the people of Spera will see.”
Her eyes wandered past the chandelier with only one light bulb, to the tattered red velvet curtains and crumbling cement walls. Modern times seemed to have forgotten her town at the Romanian-Hungarian border.
“Start from the beginning of the balcony scene one more time,” Marinescu shouted. “Remember, people, tomorrow is opening night.”
Mica tried to forget that the freezing room was no longer an elegant theater; that the broken chairs hadn’t held an audience in years. She concentrated on being Juliet. They began and Mica moved closer to the edge of the stage. Taking a deep breath, she recited her lines:
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay
And follow thee throughout the world.”
Marinescu stood up and applauded. Waving his beret, he yelled, “Brava, Mica!”
She took a deep bow and smiled, imagining how everyone in Spera would applaud her tomorrow night. Emile Marinescu’s production of Shakespeare in English was such a big event that even people from Bucharest were traveling to their small town to see it. And she was the leading actress.
Holding Nicky’s hand, she practiced a curtsy while he bowed and then kissed her cheek. She felt her body turn warm. This was the only thing that could keep her from worrying about her parents.
Then Nicky led her into the wings, where he put his arms around her waist, pulled her near, and brushed her lips with his. It was magical, better than she’d imagined, but Mica was pulled instantly back to earth by the sound of the tram station’s clock striking 5:30. “Oh, no,” she whispered to Nicky. “It’s almost curfew.” She was afraid that she wouldn’t have enough time to get her father his dinner and take it to him and then be home before seven. The police seemed to be patrolling more actively than usual.
Nicky gave Mica one last kiss. He moved her closer and held her tighter, kissing her neck. She closed her eyes to enjoy his nearness, and the thrill of his passion. Then, tsuddenly, upon hearing another clock chime, she moved away and put on Juliet’s Shakespearean coat. She smoothed down her short, cropped black hair and whispered, “Forgive me. I must go!”
She raced through the theater’s dark corridors and climbed the broken-down stairs. Still tingly from Nicky’s kisses, she was struck by the freezing cold outside. Her hazel eyes teared and her face stung as if tiny knives were piercing her skin. Running through the dark, she shuddered at the thought of being alone in the empty tram station.
She moved toward the shadow of the barbed-wire fence where she had locked her bike. Someone tapped her shoulder. She stopped breathing and turned around slowly. Relieved, she saw Nicky, her Romeo, grinning down at her. When Emile Marinescu had chosen her out of the twenty-five girls who had auditioned, she had thought only of her role. But then when she saw Nicky Strancusi, a nineteen-year-old engineering student, she couldn’t believe her luck. He was so handsome. Six feet tall, thin but muscular with broad shoulders. Black wavy hair that he wore long, covering his ears. He looked like a Roman god she had seen pictured in history books, with blue eyes and devilish smile. After four weeks of rehearsing together, she felt she could give herself to Nicky. Enjoy him without restraint, for the very first time.
He leaned toward her and rested his elbow on her bicycle seat. “’Delay this marriage for a month, a week. Love only me,’” he told her, reciting his lines.
Mica laughed, wanting to believe that his Shakespearean lines were what he truly felt.
Nicky took her hand into his. “Let’s practice our lines together. Alone. We have an hour and a half until curfew.”
She was tempted to say yes. She wanted so much to be with him, feel him close, feel his kisses, but she sighed. There wasn’t time. “I can’t.” Reluctantly, she climbed onto her bicycle.
He unclasped her fingers and softly kissed the open palm. “Don’t forget tomorrow’s cast party after opening night. We’re having champagne and caviar. One of the girls got them from her boyfriend.” Then Nicky’s face turned sad. “Only someone from the secret police can find champagne in this country when there’s not even milk for a baby.”
Mica nodded sympathetically. She hated the Securitate, especially after they had raided her home yesterday in the middle of the night and threatened her father. “You’re on our blacklist now! We’re watching you!”
She turned to Nicky and whispered, “I can’t talk… ‘I must be gone and love, or stay and die.’” As she got on her bike, she tried to sound more cheerful, “Till tomorrow, Romeo.”
Mica biked away from the tram station, turning for a moment to wave good-bye to Nicky, who appeared as a tall black figure silhouetted in the fading daylight. Ever since Mica had joined the student Shakespeare troupe four years ago, her life had changed for the better. Every day she’d wake up excited, knowing she’d rehearse after school or perform on stage. And to help her get to the theater and home more quickly, her father had given her a bicycle. It hadn’t been easy for her father to buy one. Bikes were all but impossible to find, even on the black market. No one in school, except for her history teacher, had one. Mica was lucky her father had connections.
She knew that he’d be a rich man if they were ever able to get out of Romania. But he kept saying the timing wasn’t right to get past the border into Hungary without being caught by the Romanian police. He believed the moment would come when the communists would change leaders, then there’d be total disarray, and they’d have their chance to get out. He said it could happen any day.
Mica set out for her house to collect her father’s dinner from her mother. Mica didn’t ask any questions, but she knew that he and his followers were planning something big, and it was a secret, something not spoken about in her house. Tata was afraid that the walls could have ears or neighbors would spy, so he kept the details to himself. Mica had no choice but to continue her studies, practice her lines as Juliet, and see her friends on weekends. It was not easy for Mica to pretend her life was like everyone else’s. A double life was a difficult role. For her mother and father also, who went to work as always because the police were watching them. But in the past two evenings, Mica had had to get involved with real action. It was her job to bike to the underground bunker and bring her father his dinner while he and his followers strategized every last aspect of their plan to overthrow the communist leader.
“You’re late,” Corina Mihailescu said as Mica stood at the front door. She had obviously been watching for her from the window, but to sound less anxious, she quickly asked, “How’s Nicky?”
“He’s not like anyone else.” For one second, Mica closed her eyes and smiled. Then she took her father’s dinner from her mother and packed it into the basket mounted on the rear of her bike. “I can’t wait until tomorrow night! You and Tata will be so proud of me. I’ll save you front row seats.”
Her mother watched her mount the bike. Good idea. I’m looking forward to see you on stage. Something good for once.” Mica noticed her mother’s round cheeks, usually flushed and full, appeared tired and pale.
“Tell Tata to eat this dinner only when he’s alone,” she whispered. “The message is hidden inside the cup. Then bike home as fast as you can. You know I worry about you!”
Mica pedaled away as the last rays of daylight faded. She heard the howl of a rabid dog, and she reached behind her and took out a wooden club her father had placed in the rear basket. “Just in case,” he had told her. Mica hated Spera in the dark. There were no lights anywhere, no cars, no people, no life. Only the sounds of wild dogs howling and searching for scraps. They were known to nip at cyclists’ legs, even maul children. People would leave their houses with a club or stick in hand because so many of the stray dogs carried rabies.
Mica veered off the main road and followed a narrow path into the woods. She had come this way so many times that she could have found her father with her eyes closed, but with the darkness closing in around her, she proceeded carefully, ducking to avoid the overhanging branches that blocked her path. Her father and his engineering students had designed and built an underground secret labyrinthine bunker during World War II so that they could fight the fascists. After the war, they had abandoned it until a few days ago as they prepared their anti-communist rebellion. The bunker was carved inside the earth like a twisting tunnel, with a sleeping area lined with dozens of bunk beds, a large bathroom, a kitchen, an armory, and a private office for her father.
She pushed her bike slowly through brush and broken limbs using her high leather boots and a stick to clear the way. She came to a stop and hid behind a tree to see if anyone other than her father’s men were near. She saw no one. She laid her bike among the fallen limbs and covered it with dead branches. She quickly went through the trapdoor next to the abandoned glass factory that marked the site of the bunker. As she made her way to her father’s office, she couldn’t help but notice an unusual mass of machine gunsleaning against the stone walls of the armory and knew that this meant their preparations were imminent.
When she knocked on his door and saw his full head of bushy red hair shine in the light, she felt reassured. He greeted her with a red pencil in one hand and a map in the other hand. “Mica, sit with me while I eat.”
“What is it, Tata?” she asked. “What are you planning? Can I be part of this?”
“No, my love,” he said, kissing her forehead. “You’re busy enough as Juliet. And I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
She put his dinner on the table, but before she could ask him more, the cement floor began to vibrate, and they both turned toward the metallic noise of wheels rolling against the bunker’s stone floor.
“Stay here,” he said to her as he went out to investigate.
Mica waited until she heard him talking with someone before she sneaked a look. The sound of wheels came from a slab of wood fastened to four wheels. On top of the plank was a man, his body cut off at the top of his thighs. His torso sat on top of a hollowed-out hole in the wooden plank. His hands were inside two metal cans, and he used them to balance his half body so he could stay upright. He had no legs.
The “Snake Man.” That’s what her father and his men called him. His head was huge, out of proportion to his narrow chest. His long, spidery but muscular arms extended to the ground as he swung them, using the cans to push himself forward. Shadows fell across his face. He had braided most of his long black hair but for a pompadour above his forehead that he had wrapped around a small stick and where a black and yellow snake now curled. The reptile was so still that Mica couldn’t tell if it was dead or alive until she saw its slithery tongue snap out of its mouth.
They finished their conversation, and Anton Mihailescu patted the man on the back. The Snake Man made his way down the corridor as Mica stared, mesmerized by the way he maneuvered his half-body.
“Poor man,” her father said, sitting back down at his desk and taking the tin cup that Mica had brought. “He wasn’t always like that. I knew him when he was a tall, handsome student. One day the police arrested him because he was in the street after curfew. They wanted him to denounce his friends, but he refused. So they hung him from a tree upside down for several days. When they were done with him, they threw him in the mud. He had no circulation left in his legs, and he got gangrene. His legs had to be amputated.”
“How awful.” Mica rubbed her thighs and a shiver passed through her. She felt so sorry for him.
“That’s why he’s full of hate against the communists. He’ll pretend to work for them and be our decoy.” Her father stood up from his desk and walked over to the map he had been studying when she arrived.
“Mama said to eat this when no one is near you,” Mica said. “There’s a message inside.”
Anton took the tin cup and with his fingernail, he pried open the false bottom which revealed a note folded in four. He read it, then burned it with a candle on his desk.
“A good way to communicate with me,” he said, and winked at Mica. “Remember.” The smell of beef stew and corn pudding filled the room, and her father started to eat. Then he stopped. “Draga mea, my dear,” he said, standing up and putting his arm around her shoulder. She felt his red mustache rub her cheek. It pricked her but she didn’t move, wanting to hold on to the moment. Her father didn’t move either. When she looked up at him, she noticed how tired he looked; his broad six-foot frame appeared less powerful, but he held her more strongly than ever. “Mica, you must perform tomorrow evening as Juliet…” He paused and then slowly let her go, and went to his desk. He unlocked the bottom drawer and took out a map of Transylvania. It was marked with red dots. “I keep telling myself you’re a young woman now. Seventeen.” “Yes.” But why was that making him so sad? “I don’t know what will happen, but if someday I don’t come home, if your mother doesn’t come home, you must get yourself to Hungary.” He smoothed the map out on the desk between them and drew a line from Spera to the border. “This is the route I took years ago, when I worked in the Resistance. There’s a hidden trail through the forest, and when you cross the border, you have to get to the train station. You’ll have to run five kilometers to get to the first station in Hungary, but you can do it.” She wanted to ask him why he was telling her this now, but she was afraid to know. He looked so sad.
“I traveled on foot. It took me six hours in the middle of the night to get to the border, but it can be done faster by bike.”
He made dots along the route he had drawn and explained what each one meant: a fork in the trail, a grove of pine trees, the fence at the border, the electric wires. “I will go over this several times until you have memorized each detail.”
She nodded. He opened a drawer with another key and pulled out a pile of black and white photos of the Romanian-Hungarian border area. “You’re going to have to use trees and buildings as markers while sighting angles with your eyes.”
He showed her photos of a dense forest, and pointed to several buildings, a twelve-foot high fence, a cable box. Then from another drawer he took out a ruler and compass.
“Where the last pine tree and barn meet, right here, create a sixty-degree angle with your eyes. Then look down to the ground.” Using the ruler, he drew a diagram. “Create an isosceles triangle like this with two equal sides at that spot. The two lines will converge at a point where you will see in the distance the chimney of Dracula’s castle. This is the way explorers navigate unchartered land.”
She studied the photos in his hands and watched him measure the angles with his ruler and compass.
“This is the section of the fence from which you will dig a rectangle the same size as your body,” he explained, circling the point with his red pencil. “The earth will be muddy and soft there because it was once a sewer. Dig two feet deep on each side, so you can pass safely through beneath the wires.”
He repeated the directions again, and then cautioned her not to give in to the impulse to run toward freedom after crossing over. She needed to stay focused to keep from attracting any attention that might alert the guards on either side of the border.
After an hour of listening and then being quizzed by him on the plan’s details, Mica’s sweater was damp even though the room was unheated. She noticed her father’s face was red and that a vein under his left eye twitched. She watched him rip the map and photos into tiny pieces and burn them with the candle.
He took her hand, put her palm against his lips. For several seconds, he stroked her fingers. “Draga,” he whispered. “If you can’t find me or your mother, if you know in your heart that we’ve been taken, then you must take the diamonds from the basement. Remember how I’ve shown you where to dig them up. They will buy your freedom. They will protect you for the future.”
“Tata, no. Don’t say that.”
“Whatever happens, you must be strong. Don’t ever give up hope, no matter how hard things seem. Think with your mind and act with all your heart. When in doubt, go with your instincts.”
She hugged him with all her strength. He wiped his eyes and looked away, sighing. Sensing his silence as a signal to leave, she kissed him good-bye on each cheek. He held on to her for several moments more. “I love you more than life,” he whispered. “Never forget that. Use our love for your strength.”
She wanted to answer, “I love you too,” but she said nothing; her mind was filled with his map lesson and what he had told her she’d have to do. She couldn’t absorb yet the reality that her life was about to change and that she’d be responsible to achieve that change. She felt almost in shock; even though she had known for years that her father’s anti-communist work would have grave consequences for her. She didn’t realize that it would come now. But now it had.
She felt it was best to leave him to his work, or she would break down and sob, or he would cry. She took the hidden staircase, then tiptoed through a secret corridor and climbed out into the night from a different section of the tunnel. Glancing from one side to the other, she searched for a moving shadow or noise. No one, just rats trying to move faster than the bitter wind.
On her way home, she took a detour through Gypsy town. The people of Spera believed Gypsies stole children and took them far away. Whenever Gypsies marched through town, parents took their children’s hands. The Pied Piper was a Gypsy who led children away from home with his magic flute. Yet, when Mica watched Gypsies dance with their colorful costumes and their arms thrown up to the sky, she was surprised to see they looked like everyone else, except they were so happy.
She passed their broken-down shacks and saw that rats were scurrying into ripped garbage bags. Cracked flower pots with garlic pushing out of the earth were all over the muddy ground. There was no food to buy in stores, so the Gypsies planted garlic, which they ate whole. Some people said they also ate dandelions from the mountains and even pink poppies. Mica wondered if that’s why they acted so strangely.
A stray dog ran after her, barking and growling while reaching for her boot. Mica gripped her wooden club tightly. She didn’t want to hit the dog, all she wanted was to get home quickly so she could sit by the fire with her mother. She wanted to feel safe, protected.
Spera was in sight; Mica could see the church steeple. Free from the dogs, she slowed down while passing the infirmary, a dilapidated two-room shack. Her arm ached in memory as she recalled going there to get shots for tetanus and polio when she was small. Now the facility was closed. The doctor had disappeared one night along with his wife. People said he had bought visas for France, visas that cost a fortune. Her mother had said, “Lucky man. He traded his Brancusi for freedom.” Almost home, she couldn’t help feeling as though someone was watching her. Something moved against the wall of an abandoned building. She glanced from one side to the other, looked over her shoulder and moved faster. A noise from a motorcycle; it grew louder. Someone was breathing. There was the slow tapping of footsteps down the cobblestone street.
Mica’s heart pounded as she accelerated, thinking of the big green armchair at home by the fireplace and her mother next to her on the couch.
“What’s a schoolkid like you doing out so late?”
The man’s voice made her jump. She froze, stopped her bike, her heart beating faster. She saw that the man’s nose was red and swollen and streaked with blood vessels. She had once seen another man with a nose like that and her father had told her, “Too much drinking.”
The policeman ordered her to get off the bike and to drop her club. She noticed he couldn’t walk straight; he wobbled. He searched her, starting with her back, touching her shoulders, and moving from top to bottom, down her legs.
As he touched Mica’s chest, he jumped back. “My God. You’re a girl!”
She pulled away before he could come near her again. She was furious at him for touching her, and furious at herself for not fighting back. But she had to keep herself in check. “Show me your I.D.” She handed over her card, wishing she could throw it at him, and got back on her bicycle to defy him. The policeman grabbed the handlebars and pulled her toward him. She smelled his clothes, bitter with wine and sweat. “You shouldn’t be out this late.” She considered just riding away, but it would be risky. He could shoot her or follow her. He asked, “Where do you live?”
Mica pointed toward her parents’ house beyond the road and up the hill.
He came closer. She remembered her father’s advice after the police had raided their house. “If anyone should ever start questioning you, cooperate. Don’t fight. And don’t be angry with yourself for giving in. Pretend you’re acting.”
She blinked her eyes and put on the flirtatious manner and voice she had seen in a French movie that had been shown months ago in their little theater. “Yes, you’re right. I’m going straight home. Need to do my homework.”
He glared at her, then pushed her hard, and laughed. “Go! Vede-ti de treaba,” the policeman yelled, puffed up with power. “Get out of here before I put a bullet through you.”
* * *
Sándor Déki Lakatos–Udvözlö Liszt Ferenchez