(Translated from Romanian by Mihaela Alecu. For Romanian click here)
Hurry up; shouted my mom, father is already at the car. Let’s not keep him waiting… I know he doesn’t like it, I added, jumping two steps at a time, laughing. I was happy. We were going to visit Grandpa, in the countryside. I was fed up with school; I could not wait for the vacation. The vacation! The big one, an entire summer of freedom. Ever since I can remember it, I’m spending my vacations at Grandpa. I did not meet Grandma, she was no longer alive when I was born, but every summer, in the evening, when we light a fire in the backyard, while we are cooking the bard, I ask Grandpa to describe her to me, to tell me about her. How was Grandma, Grandpa? I ask him. His face lights up and I can read in his wrinkles how his love for her remained the same.
The most beautiful girl in the village, what am I saying, of all the villages around! Put on your safety belt, says mother, before father starts to step on it. I listen to her. We leave. I wave to our house, I will only miss it after a while, then it will pass, I have friends with whom I can play in the countryside during vacation as well, as I have here those from school. Here I have the computer and the games that we share, there I have the forest and the hills, here I have the swing in the courtyard and the tree house, there I have dozens of nest of birds, which I will explore, however without touching them, one year I almost started a fight with a guy, who knows where he had come from, who ruined a nest, we all banished him, we called ourselves “the defenders of nature” we liked to imagine that we were more than persons who loved it, we were its protectors if we had to, when someone would escape our guard, the justice makers.The car was eating the road and dad said we must enjoy the highroad as long as it lasts, because the moment we were to enter the countryside road, which is longer than 12 kilometres, the good times are gone. Dust would lift a meter high, maybe even two, behind the car, you cannot open the car’s window, you cannot go too fast, because there are huge holes, thank God it’s not raining, then it gets even worse, the muck is immense, God forbid to get cut in a moor, when are they going to bituminize this road, dad is wandering, as every other year, without waiting for an answer. He knew that there was none.
Grandpa’s village wasn’t quite close to us, that is why we used to stop on the road, for a touristic halt, a cabin in a fir forest which would arise on both sides of the road for several kilometers. Here I was getting juice, mother tea, and father a coffee. Each time it was the same, and I liked that. I knew that everything was in its place, in a natural order. I also knew that that was how we were going to find Grandpa, just as we had left him, just as joyful, with tears in his eyes, this time tears of joy for seeing us again and that I’m going to stay with him again for almost three months, when leaving, tears of sadness, the most difficult time for him is after the spring vacation, as it is followed by the longest period in which he has to stay alone, however he never displays his sadness, although we know it, we feel it, the joy on the other hand, yes, with all his heart. After we move a little bit through the fir forest, we go on further, joyful and stretched. There isn’t that much to go, but considering that the last section is that extremely difficult road, time-wise it will take us as long as it took us to get up to here. Overall, it will be almost three hours, if everything goes alright. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.
We arrive at around three, just in time to sit down to eat. Grandpa is waiting for us in front of the gate, on the bench. The moment he sees the car far away, he gets up and gets ready to hug us. Dad lets me get down before he turns the car around, therefore I have enough time to jump to his arms. Hehe, look how strong you’ve become, says Grandpa. Soon I won’t be able to lift you. I laugh and I don’t believe him: he says the same thing every time. And I know that Grandpa is strong, He’s used to lifting big logs that he brings for fire before every winter, he’s used to working hard on the field, to pull hard on the mower, to bring, every day, food and water for the animals, and he will be able to lift me until I will be big enough to be ashamed of him doing it. How is Lupu, is my first question. And I run fast to see my dog again, black, no stains, he shakes his tail and jumps from one side to the other, he puts his paws on me, he almost put me down, and he licks me. Lupu, down, I shout at him. But he’s too happy to listen to me. I let him enjoy himself, although I can barely hold his weight.
Meanwhile, the parents and Grandpa also enter the yard, carrying the luggage. I start examining the stable and coops. The cows and horses are in the drove, the sheep are in the herd, here are only the pigs and chickens, and I marvel at how fat they are, and I spit them not to cast the evil eye on them. From here I run to the big cellar, dark and cold, where there are still apples preserved since autumn, and the pickle jars prepared by my mother never go wrong. You’re still keeping this door closed, Grandpa, I shout while I’m headed to the back of the cellar, where a massive oak door prevents me from trespassing, arousing my curiosity and imagination. Of course, it’s still locked. Grandpa told me several years ago, when I was old enough to discover it, and ever since he repeats year after year: I will give you the key when you will turn 18. But what is there inside? You will find out then, be patient. You would not know what to do now anyway…
I was dying of curiosity to know what hid behind the door, but no matter how much I tried searching for the key, I never found it. One could clearly see that Grandpa had hiding places that I hadn’t discover yet. Also, no matter what I tried to convince him to let me take a peek, or at least to tell me what was there, no matter how many supplications, nor blackmail, he did not want to hear about it. I started believing, based on the stories I was reading, subsequently, that he was hiding a dragon or who knows what sort of monster, then that maybe it was a monstrous brother of his, but mother convinced me that Grandpa had no brothers or an unbelievable treasure, and that it is better for me not to know about it, while I’m still young and unable to keep the secret, although I had promised him that I was not going to tell anybody!
My curiosity would go by quickly, as play was more interesting, but every evening I would go back to the unopened door, if not physically, at least in my mind, I would fell asleep weaving scenarios according to which I could enter it, finding the key or simply discover it unlocked, and I would always marvel at my discovery.
This is how, in the fifth grade, I got to write my first story, which was no longer the simple homework, inspired by the mystery of the room behind the door. It now seems childish, it was, no doubt about it, but it was immediately praised by the Romanian language and literature comrade teacher, and published in the school’s magazine. As far as I remember, it was about a prince looking for a princess who was destined to him and had to go through three initiating challenges, all three starting with a door which put him in front of a new situation. The prince, of course, dealt well with all three, and managed to gather the three keys that could unlock the door of the room where the princess was. Then they lived happily ever after etc. I remember how proud I was when I showed the story in the magazine to my parents, but even more so when I showed Grandpa my name published. I could see the satisfaction on their faces, but Grandpa’s was accompanied by a different kind of smile, smug, which enhanced his pride. He took the magazine and showed it to all the neighbors, in the evening, when the work day was over, when the animals were resting in the clean stable, when we would all stay and listen to stories at the gate, in the pleasant cold of the evening.
For those simple, blunt, big hearted and hard-working people, to know that Grandpa’s grandson had written for the newspaper, although he was only 10-11 years old, it was a big thing. In their eyes, I was already someone else, I was somebody, a future city man, well educated, whom who knows what important jobs will have, namely, clearly a personality. For me, however, their praise and sincere admiration would suffice, and I was ready to leap out of my skin of pride. I was already falling asleep thinking not about the door from the back of the cellar, but about the future story, better than the first, and different from that one. Without learning it from somewhere in particular, it was however clear to me that the most important feature of successful writing is originality. Therefore, the following day, I told Grandpa that I’m going to stay home, to write. He shook his head, as you wish. I wrote a story, but it was too much like the first one, therefore I threw it away. Something had happened. No matter how much I would try, I could not get it done. And I could not get it done throughout the entire summer, until I got back home. Only then, far away from the source of my inspiration, I could refer to it in my mind in a totally different manner, I managed to write another story, a totally different one. This one was also appreciated by everybody and, of course, it was published in the school’s magazine. Comrade teacher told me that if I was to write a third one, just as good, she was going to send it to a magazine in the capital city to be published there. I cannot say it was easy, but I wrote it quite fast. I imagined a magician, an alchemist who, secluded in his laboratory, tried all sorts of combinations to obtain gold, without knowing back then that alchemists were in fact searching for something totally different. As he was preparing to empty his crucible, the door fell at his feet, brought down by the emperor’s soldiers; the Emperor who was a tyrant and the alchemist was arrested and accused of witchcraft. A set up a trial followed, where no logical arguments were considered and the alchemist was sentenced and burned on the stake.
My teacher was so excited by the talent with which I was telling the story that she immediately sent it to Cutezătorii magazine. For reasons which are now clear, but back then difficult to understand, the story was turned down. How could they publish a story about a tyrant? How could someone be refused the right to a fair trial? etc., etc. All these were against the party’s politics. My teacher was warned to be more careful, I only found this out after the Revolution. Then, she told me that the text was not going to be published in Cutezătorii, nor anywhere else. This was a hard blow for me. At that early age, our mind works according to different rules, and no matter how much my teacher would have insisted that the problem wasn’t the lack of talent, but the system, what did I know about this system, about censorship? Go on writing, she told me, however without unfair trials and tyrants, all right. You should write something beautiful, romantic. But I, after I had tasted the mysterious, I could not go back to describing snowdrops ousting their head to light… I’d rather stop writing, I told her, and I left with an injured soul.
Of course I was upset for a while, but children forget fast. Therefore, I continued writing although rarely. But I did not show them anymore, and the fact that comrade teacher was soon transferred, made it easy for me. The new Romanian language and literature teacher knew nothing about the whole story, or he pretended he didn’t, however, we never talked about it.
The years passed, in ‘89 I was in the 11th grade and almost nobody remembered I had published so early. Anyway, I had long given up the stories, now I was writing poetry, which I used to dedicate to the beautiful girls in high school, whom at least would be able to appreciate them, and would reward me with a slinky kiss, during moonless nights. Since I had entered high school I would no longer spend my entire summer at Grandpa’s, but I would go when hay was gathered, to help him, or when fruits and vegetables needed to be cropped. He hadn’t changed one bit during the years, he was the same joyful and strong man. He hadn’t revealed to me the secret of the door, although I had made several more attempts. Next year I will turn 18, I told him, what’s another year? Why can’t you give me the key now? That was our deal, he told me, smiling. I would give up, although I was still intrigued, I wasn’t as interested or curious. I knew that next summer I was going to find out everything. What could there be in that room? Dragons, fairies or monsters clearly not, maybe some sort of machinery, or war weapon, or his hunting gun assuming that he had one, yes, I had to be old enough to be able to touch it safely, but after all what difference does it make, I will find out soon, I don’t know why I am troubling my mind, it is not even that interesting…
The Revolution, no matter how contested it might have been, brought me an immediate gain, although not material: the fact that I could publish again – I published again, for real, if one can say so – this time without fearing the censorship who ruined that childhood dream which appeared to be so beautiful, and which was about to turn into reality. At first, poetry, which was also published in a volume, then short stories, also published in a volume one year later. I decided immediately that it is time to start something more ambitious and I worked for over two years on my first novel upon which I concentrated my entire attention. I dedicated it to Grandpa. It is clear why:
When I turned 18 at last, after my birthday party, the following weekend, I left for the countryside. By bus. Grandpa was waiting for me whit his carriage at the crossroad, having the same wise smile lighting his face. You shouldn’t have waited for me, I told him, I could have found a ride or, if not, I would have come across the hill. Don’t worry; you don’t need to waste your time. He knew how anxious I was! The horse was walking slowly, and the 12 kilometers got shorter little by little. I told Grandpa how things were, what I had managed to publish, how my poetry and short stories were appreciated, what college it was going to go to starting in autumn, what plans I had for the summer and how he was included as well. I will always come lend you a hand, as often as I will be able to, I told him. Don’t worry my dear, I’ll manage. Only when you have the time… You have so many things on your mind now…
When we got home, we unloaded, and we sit down to eat. We drank a glass of red wine. Happy birthday! said the Grandpa. To you too Grandpa! The sun had descended on the curvy line of the hills and was about to disappear. Then Grandpa handed me a massive, old, iron key. We both headed towards the cellar. We moved both plum brandy donjons, they were there set aside for your wedding. Not to mislead me, right? Thank you Grandpa! There’s a long way to go until that wedding… When it will be, it will be! I wanted to know that you had your plum brandy ready. Old, because it is as old as you. That is when I set it aside. I hugged him, impressed. I found them in the cellar next to a wall, untouched. And the door, just as unstirred, big, mysterious, it was if it would have been waiting for me. I’ll leave you. As I was alone, I approached with some sort of excitement. I put the key in the key lock, I pluck up my heart and I twisted it. After all it wasn’t a minor step, although it might look like one. I opened with difficulty the massive oak door and I went beyond it. It was a small, tight room, dark and cold. And, as I expected, it was empty.