(Translated from Romanian by Mihaela Alecu.
I could often see him walking down the path with his small steps, crooked, slowly, slowly. Every time I saw him I would wonder where is he going? Where is he coming from? If I come to think about it I’ve never seen him anywhere else, it is possible that every time I’ve met him at about the same hour, in the evening, when the shadows are similar to the pale light which would always give up and make room for the electrical light on the pillars. One of them the closest one to the lime tree in the corner never hada bulb. No matter how many times have the administration try to change it, in the evening it would get burned again immediately with a short pop. They tried to see whether there was anything wrong, they changed all the wires but all for nothing. Eventually, they gave up. More joy for the teenagers who needed a darker place to kiss at leisure, while us kids would play hide and seek. In the evening it was always more pleasant, more strange. Some of the hiding places would give me the goose bumps, but the more goose bumps they would bring, the more difficult it would be to get caught. Who would have thought, for example, to look for you in the lime tree? Everyone. How about in the attic of an abandoned house? Or even more so when it’s cellar? No one. These were places where we would not go, not even during daylight, let alone at night.
In the warm, starry summer nights, not rarely, we would go on the hill to the bunker, we would light a fire, cook bard and tell horror stories. We would laugh every time, but our laughter was often frozen. Once, after such an evening, I checked the corners of the room to make sure that no devil was laying by for me. But I forgot to look under the bed. And after I turned off the light, I heard rustles. I held my breath, I don’t even know for how long, but I surely would have held it for the entire evening, just to get away. Until my cat came out from down under giving me a fright that I can remember.
Therefore, we all knew the stories with haunted houses or living dead. Although I wasn’t scared of the living dead, because my Grandpa would say that our neighbor was a living dead, since her cow would no longer give milk. It is true he would only say this after a few glasses of plum brandy. I for one did not know if she was or wasn’t, I would even go to her house to help her gather the apples, she had an apple tree in her yard with big, sweet, green and red fruits that would really hit the spot. And she was old, her husband had died and she had no one. Or maybe she had, but she was so cheap that no one would visit her. In the winter she would come to our house or go to the neighbors in turns and would not leave for hours. It’s because she does not light a fire, because she’s cheap, Grandpa used to say, and when she gets back home she goes straight to bed. I think he was right, because she would never give me not even one apple although I worked for free. Lucky that as soon as I got up in the apple tree I would eat to my heart’s content, until she turned green with spite. I could see her get consumed with envy and I could hear her nagging, but she did not have the means to stop me.
It was all good according to childhood rules and then, one evening, when we again forgot about ourselves while playing hide and seek. I don’t know who was the one who said: let’s go beyond? pointing with his head to the abandoned house; or what, are you scared? I don’t even think it was one of the children on our street, he must have surely came from the apartment blocks, called by one of our friends, or maybe even without being called. Bad choice. How were we supposed to say no? We would have embarrassed ourselves both in front of him as well in front of all the others from the apartment blocks. We couldn’t have experienced a bigger shame. We were lucky that our parents started calling us, as it was past midnight. We will go tomorrow we said to save our pride. Tomorrow!
If I wouldn’t have gotten a fever I would have went. And even so, I was ready to go, but I fell back in bed the moment I tried to stand up. My entire childhood I had a sore throat and fever afterwards having to take penicillin injections, but never during summer, and never like this. I think the shame that my friends will think that I was pretending out of fear accentuated my fever. When they came the next day to tell me about it, I was already feeling better. I never asked them if they believed me, because we never talked about that night again. They did not open the subject themselves and it was easy for me to elude it.
Anyway something broke then, an invisible link, a secret connection. Or maybe it was only me getting that impression and we were only growing up. Because next summer we are all already checking out girls and trying to only look for them while playing hide and seek, to be able to steal a smile. And when we would go to the movies we were so nervous trying to catch their hands, with our hearts in our boots beating as if they were trying to get out of the chest. Sometimes, we thought that the sound was too loud on the Indian movies that they would play back then, but there were only our hearts of in love boys.
I don’t even remember if I saw him again that summer as I was busy trying to restrain my heartbeats. And in the next one as well as I was preparing apply for high school. I think I only saw him again during the holiday between the 9th and the 10th grade. He would walk just as slow crooked. He gave me a long look, I think for the first time.
I would have like to ask him where was he coming from? Where was he going? But I was embarrassed as if I felt guilty that I hadn’t seen him for so long or that I didn’t mind him. I made do with sitting and looking at him, lost in my thoughts. Then minding my youth. The other year of course another exam followed therefore one more year passed until I decided to pluck up my heart.
“Where are you coming from?” I asked him; “Where are you going to, like this, every evening?”
He stopped for a moment, smiling. He stood quiet, so did I now, somewhat embarrassed. Only later, staring into my eyes he answered with a question.
“When you’re tired do go to bed and sleep?”
“If you were to carry your bed with you, if you were tired, all you would have to do would be to put it down, to get in it and to sleep, right?”
I was rather humming than speaking. I was already looking at him with surprise and I had started to feel sorry that I didn’t have anything better to do than to gratify my curiosity. I was ready to ask him something else, or better yet to say goodnight and to leave when he said pointing to his shoulders.
“Then what am I supposed to do with this coffin? Or maybe you want it?”
“No, thank you”, I answered and I left before he would change his mind.