(Translated from Romanian by Mihaela Alecu. For Romanian click here)
Although I had spent my childhood in the forest that opened from behind my parent’s home, going up on a small hill and then hugging with its branchy arms the entire city, I had never seen the lake before. Agnita, the city where I was born and where I lived almost eighteen years, is in fact a small city, a borough which before the tragic communist conquest, could have been easily mistaken for a bigger village. Then, with the red light of the eternal night the factories and of course apartment blocks started to appear. The peasants were moved to the city and locked within the four walls of the cold un-insulated concrete apartments or, even worse, studios. I was among the lucky ones, my parents, together with grandparents, relatives and friends, built a house, immediately after moving to the city.
This was almost eight years before I was born, that is why I don’t remember it too well. I just know that when I got here, I took everything for granted. The courtyard where I used to play, and our dog, Lăbuş, then the pigs, chickens, sheep and even a cow, namely everything that could be brought back from the old village house. Except for the village and the eternity. Because, no matter how small a city, Agnita was a city and bread would only come on card like in all other “real” cities, namely the bigger ones. And people would deal with their troubles the same way and death would still come unexpectedly. That was what happened with my grandparents, who, although old, they were healthy. Then, suddenly, that was it. First grandma, and two years later, as he himself had predicted, grandpa. I was a little bit sad, but I was a child and I did not really care about what was going on around me. I had other concerns. Like scouring through the hills and forests around. Which I walked across by foot, most of the time accompanied by my childhood friends, whom nowadays I can barely recognize. We were building tree houses and, mostly, we would dig bakestones in the ground and would light big fires and baked potatoes in the embers until they blackened and would gain a crust, which resembled the embers. In the end, we would never leave the embers in the ashes, and to make sure the fire was off, we would pee on it and laugh.
I regretted it for a while, during high school and college that I was not born and I did not live in a big city, like Sibiu, at that time, my favorite, 60 km away. I would have had different opportunities, I wouldn’t have had afterwards to try to catch up with what I hadn’t learned in due time. But today I no longer have such regrets. When I remember my careless childhood, living a state of freedom which resembled wilderness, I am satisfied. I did not read, for example, Cioran, Eliade, Ionescu or Noica, until I was in the 9th grade, it is true, but I could climb trees and camouflage, I could rake and turn the hay, I could carve the soil around the potatoes and crop the corn, I could breathe fresh air and, moreover, I could be and think free.
Today, on the contrary, I would like to resurrect those happy unconscious times; we all – at least those reaching old age – say we would like to be children again; but I have a solid reason. It is not only that I would like to live again my life, to be young again; and it is not about the careless world, simple and, moreover, magical. It is true, but it is not enough. I would like to rediscover the purity of the child I used to be and who had the chance to live a wonderful, literally and most seriously said, experience, to live it again. Because I did not understand then, afterwards I lost its memory somewhere between the tree’s hollows or within the fire’s bake stones. No matter how much I tried, I did not succeed. I decided to blame it on the long exile to the USA, on the alteration this exerted on my most inner self, on breaking the micro cosmos- macro cosmos connection. Then, objectively thinking, in the limits of my subjectivity, I stopped lying to myself and I reached the conclusion that it was definitely a dream. Its misty memory, the perfumed taste that stayed with me, the immaterialness of a pale-flying image and, of course, the impossibility to find that place again today, all determine me to admit that only my wish to make it real lead me to believe that it really existed.
Since 1973, when my exile started, I lived in a city on the eastern cost of the United States, Philadelphia. I lived and I worked there. All sorts of jobs, very different from my university qualifications, which I had decided to burry together with my pride. At first, I was a taxi driver, than a waiter, and after a few years, a headwaiter. After I gained some experience and I gathered some money, I managed to open my first and own restaurant. Romanian dishes, of course. This was the beginning, and it was successful, today I own a network of such Romanian restaurants across America. But this is not what I wanted to tell you about. I no longer care about these things as I grow older. What I am concerned about now are these dim childhood memories, which made me to return to Romania. I plan to stay in the country, and to spend the rest of my life here.
I came back home in 1998. First I bought a small house in my beloved Cluj, my adoptive city where I lived and were I “grew up” since college, until I left the country. Then I went back to Agnita and I discovered a city which was ill. My parent’s house was in its place, still taken care of, although nobody lived there anymore. My sister stayed in Mediaş, and my brother in Sighişoara (relatively close to Agnita) and therefore they could take care of it, using it only as a vacation house. They were grandparents for a while now, and proud of their successors, although sad for the situation in which the country was. They did not have money problems for a while now, but to no avail: even the richest travelers on the Titanic sunk with it. And me, whom I had hopped and believed in the country’s resurrection after 1989, I was now living a sad disillusion. Despite all these, I decided to stay and probably to invest here: after all, it is the country where I was born and it should not be blamed that politicians don’t care about it. What finally determined me to stay was, of course, the lake in the forest.
Because the thought of finding it again had of course never left me, once I remembered it. I wasn’t yet convinced it really existed, but I couldn’t swear it didn’t either. I asked around, both the old ones as well as the young ones. No one knew of a lake in the forest. They all believed it was the stew beyond the neighborhood of apartment blocks. I knew that one: first of all, it wasn’t in the forest; secondly, it wasn’t there when I was a child. One of the problems was the massive land clearings performed during the years of the dark glory. After two years of searching, interrupted only by the weeks I had to spend in Cluj, of starting some business in Romania and some visits I had to pay to America, to solve what I had to solve there as well, I gave up. It was clearer and clearer that my lake did not exist. It was one of the saddest moments in my life. I don’t know how deep it affected me, and I don’t want to make suppositions which might be wrong, especially since the doctors blame it on my old age (they said “age”, probably they believed that “old age” was offensive) and on stress, my heart attack which I had two months after, in April 2000.
I was home in Agnita, in the room with two yellow armchairs, at the first floor. Two walls are made of glass; therefore it is a delight to spend time here from spring to autumn. Actually, I liked to stay here, lying in the armchair on the right and reading. During autumn, I would open a window and gathered grapes from the vine that stretched across the courtyard, driving the children who walked I front of the gate crazy with the grapes’ flavor, therefore trying, each time to reach a bob. Many of my pleasant and even unpleasant memories start from that room. Like this last one which at first sight seem to be the most unpleasant of them all: who would like to get a heart attack? To fall on the carpet and to lay there until someone would find him? Nobody, I am convinced. I did not like it either, until I felt how I could lift from my own body. It was me who was lying there, but it was also me who was walking. I got out of the house, of the courtyard, of the city. I entered the forest. A dense fog prevented me to see beyond the closest tree. But I continued to move ahead, my steps led me by themselves to the core of the forest. I passed an old, hollow tree. I thought I could remember it, but it could have been any old, hollow tree. Immediately, the fog cleared and I could see the lake. A lucent clarity, as I had never seen before. And in the middle of it, an island. Green; completely green. It stuck put from the water. It seemed carved from a single piece of green stone, skillfully made by a perfectionist stonemason. Above the cliff there were the tall trees, lofty within the great greenery that surrounded them. I dropped my clothes and I decided to get into the water. It was such a pleasant coldness… I swam up to the island, without thinking about how I was going to climb it, hopping I would be able to find a way which remained invisible from the shore. The distance was not big and I got next to the island, like the wrecked gets next to a huge ship. But there was no one to lay down a stair for me, to throw a rope or even to give me a hand. I swam around the island two times, but only the third time I discovered an opening somewhere beneath the water level. I took a deep breath and sunk. A small tunnel allowed me to swim to another round lake with a 2-3 meters diameter inside the island. I surfaced and I laid on the grass. Exhausted, I fell asleep immediately. I don’t know how long I slept, but when I woke up it was daylight again, and the sun was burning stronger than I would have expected. The vegetation around was as luxurious as I had only seen in the exotic islands of the Pacific. But I had never seen an island so green, of lucent stone through which I could almost see, glimmering like an emerald. Some thin springs of water flowed into the central small lake. I don’t know if there were really four, or if my desire made them to be four. I had read Eminescu’s Cezara and I had dreamed of an island like that of Euthanasiu. But I was alone here and the whole island was mine! I then felt happiness so big that it started burning me inside, my blood started to boil, my chest to flop, unable to bear such love. I jumped back into the water, to appease, as grandma used to say, my longing.
Then I came back, unable to make a stand against the doctors who resuscitated me. I wanted to tell them to leave me a little bit more, to let go of me. “You’re lucky your heart is so young”, said one of the doctors. Lucky, indeed: ever since, I am healthy and it is as if I am younger every day. I peacefully carry on with my life, which faith, maybe God, granted me, confident of the future. I couldn’t be otherwise, knowing that, when I will leave this world forever, my green island, carefully hidden, is waiting for me.