(Translated from Romanian by Mihaela Alecu. For Romanian click here)
When I first heard you talking about him I didn’t pay any attention and I thought it was a story of the old ones, told and listened to in the winter evenings, next to the smothering fire on which the sweetened wine, cinnamon scented would boil steaming, year after year, from far away times to nowadays. However I liked the stories, so I listen to this one carefully as well, although I took it as such. Then, a few years afterwards, I did not spend my winter vacations in my grandparents’ village, I had grown up and I was looking for other ways of having fun, places where I could be together with my friends, opportunities to experience fiery love and despaired break ups. An entirely new world was slowly unraveling in front of my eyes and deep inside my senses. I thought the miracle of childhood was lost at this point. A lot more important were now “serious” talks, always in contradiction, with my college colleagues, evening after evening, in the small dorm room, where we used to squeeze more than we could fit. Now we drank our wine un-boiled, straight from the bottle which would pass from one to the other, with a brotherly like gesture. Ideas were flowing probably even faster.
Until, last year, when during autumn we planned a New Year’s Eve party in the mountains. As we were students, we couldn’t afford a cabin, so I propose to go to my grandparents’ mountain village, whose house had remained in our care, ever since we managed to convince them to move to the city, with us, where they could take better care of their old age end of the health issues brought on by it. We didn’t use to go there too often, just often enough to replace a tile in the roof, o piece of wood in the fence, mostly to prevent nature from taking hold of the walls which were now alone, without the souls of those who have brought them to life.
It will be good for the house to be lived by a gang of youngsters, ready to share with it the joy of life and to leave part of their youth ingrained in the memory of the place, I told my parents and grandparents, who, at first, obviously, did not consider it to be a good idea. I convinced them, eventually, and impatience took a hold of us.
Each day that passed was not only a victory against time; the preparations first made on paper had started to become more concrete. We all tipped in, we saved money for an entire month and we managed to buy all things necessary for a true New Year’s Eve party. We didn’t miss the fireworks, let alone the champagne. The idea was clear: as much booze as possible, and enough food to match it. As for the rest, in what sleep is concerned everybody will sleep wherever they can, as the three old rooms have glazed tile stoves, and the wood which was still well arranged would provide a heat of which our city gas can only dream of. As for walking, after we descend from the train, we will manage to climb the mountain, I was able to do this route when I was a child, maybe we’ll find a villager with a horse carried sleigh to carry our luggage up, and if not, spunkily on the shoulder.
The first snow had fallen at the end of November and then it kept on snowing. We were happy that we’re going to have a gorgeous New Year’s Eve, not like others, when there wasn’t even one flake. the winter vacation separated us to allow us to enjoy Christmas holidays with the family, but we were set to meet again on December 28th, to climb the mountain, where we were supposed to stay until the 3rd or 4th, or for as long as we will have food and the mood to party. We could of course organize short expeditions to the surrounding peaks, but this would only depend on the weather conditions and on how walkable the paths would be, and on how brave we would be.
The truth is that we got to the village easier than we expected. A good childhood friend of mine, hearing that I was coming back to the village, came with the sleigh carried by his two strong horses and manage to squeeze, among the luggage, some girls as well, who were not in the mood to climb. We, the others, released by the weight of the overloaded backpacks, and each of us loaded with half a litter of plum brandy, to prevent us from getting cold, walked behind the sleigh which would carry on slowly opening the path for us. When we got home, we unloaded, we hang the meat in the pantry that was colder than a fridge, we lighted all three fires, we plugged the cassette recorder and then we stayed up telling stories until late in the evening.
The next day, we walked through the surroundings, the snow was blazing in the Sun’s light, the clear sky would turn the haughty peaks blue, and we were incredibly happy. It was wonderful. Everything. No girl escaped being rubbed with snow. And we ourselves started a snow fight which lasted until we became dizzy. We were living again the wonderful moments of childhood when what is most important is for you to be able to make a snowman bigger than that of the other group! In the evening we stayed quiet and we told stories, some of them horror, to scare the girls which would hug us stronger, others funny… it was then when I remembered the long-forgotten story and I told it to them. It was a certain night, not like any other, but in between the years when the Turks would attack our villages and steal our girls. The villagers waited terrified for a new attack, which could come any day. Until one of the village’s old men had the brilliant idea to build a maze where enemies could get lost when they were to come again. They secretly worked for almost a year until it was ready. And right on New Year’s Eve the pagans hit again. This time the villagers no longer run to the cliffs that they knew and which protected them every time although they had to pay the tribute of one frozen man whom they would only find during late spring when the snows melted and when they could bury him properly, but stayed and waited in the church where the priest held the ceremony. The Turks saw the light of the candles going out of the church, reflected in the fresh fallen snow, and they were happy they were going to catch them all in one place. They were going to take the girls, and they were going to lock the men there and burn them, so they thought. Imperceptibly, getting closer, they entered the maze. Long time afterwards their wild cries were heard or those of only one of them hunted down and killed by the others for food, but none of them came out of there alive.
My colleagues, just like me, laughed at the story, but my good friend, seriously, told them it was no joke, that it was true, that he knew where the entrance to the maze was, hidden of course, by snow and snow falls, but that if we were to dig we could find it. None of us believed him, but to give him a chance, since he had helped out so much, we promised we will follow him the next day and then we will try to find the mysterious maze. This is exactly what we did for the entire day, pointless. Along the way, many abandoned, saying that tomorrow would be the last day of the year, that New Year’s Eve party was coming, that the New Year was coming, and I am here digging like a fool. I stayed with my friend until sunset, then we also went back almost frozen. We boiled some plum brandy and we drank it like some sort of magical potion which helped us warm up and kept the cold away.
In the last day of the year, early in the morning, I challenge the guys for a snow bath. Two of them followed me, the others stayed there laughing and taking photos. I still have those photos today, where, naked down to my waist next to the snow loaded logs, I would rub and wash my entire body with the cold pure matter. Then we entered the house where the fire had warmed up even the floor, we put our clothes on and drank some more glasses of the medicine called boiled plum brandy.
The day went by fast in the heat of the preparations for the first New Year’s Eve party. We put the tables together and loaded them with all the goodies. We had plenty of food, the girls had prepared the starters, and after midnight the pork and beef chops would come, big hunks of meat, seasoned with potatoes and pickles to hit the spot. In the morning we were also to receive sour meatballs soup, to get over our hangover, and to be able to sleep at ease.
Booze was flowing as was the music on which we danced and to which we listened to unexhausted. A few minutes before midnight, we went outside and prepared the fireworks. Some of them needed to be deeply fastened into the snow, rackets, swirls, a true arsenal, plus the flags which must be kept in the hand and then thrown up before they are extinguished. The champagne was also ready, we all went out, we sang, we counted the last seconds of the previous year, released fireworks, we popped champagne bottles, and we all kissed happily. One of the rackets had flown really high and then it exploded into a rainbow of colors, we were very happy with the choice we’d made. A powerful noise then followed the rocket’s explosion in the air. We looked around for a moment, feeling that we might have triggered the snowfall. We knew it wasn’t yet their time, but on the mountain everything is possible. You couldn’t hear anything else. Everything was alright. We continued to sing, to kiss, and to throw up the last fireworks. We took a lot of photos, memories for the rest of our lives.
That I wanted to go to the bathroom, but I said to myself that since I was in the middle of nature, I would better go behind the house where some stoned trees were waiting for so long for me to come and wish them well and a Happy New Year. I headed there and I noticed in the thick darkness an even darker stain. For a moment, I thought about going back and taking the flashlight, but I decided there was no point losing any more time. Curiosity was pushing me and I went further. When I got there, I realized that the noise caused by the firework rocket was in fact the collapse of a huge snowball which had covered this entrance. The moon was finding its way through the clouds and the light was now enhanced by the glazing snow which creaked beneath the feet. I carefully looked at the entrance and moved further a few steps; afterwards I encountered a wall lighted like in plain daylight by the moon. On the left and on the right two corridors would open. I walked a bit, maybe less than a minute, through the one on the right, then I thought that it would be better to go back and call the others, to tell them the story was true and that I had found the maze.
In fact, this was the real problem.