He crept across the rusted and exposed mattress springs careful not to let his nakedness brush against the metal. Even in the fog of his derangement, he resisted the cold and sharp things because he knew they brought that burning feeling. His crippled hands gripped the feeble bed frame and he hovered close to the edge on bent legs. His bloated stomach pushed against his knees and elbows painfully and he resisted the pressure by connecting with the concrete floor on flat black feet, he crawled to the closest corner of the room where his bent frame consumed the putrid space in a trembling fit.
The young man, who was far older than the other inhabitants, jarred his head and slapped his face. He repeated the shaking and the resounding slap before bending over hammering the floor with a flurry of bruising fists. He shifted his body with his back to the room and buried his face in the walls of the corner moaning. His cries wet his mouth and he felt the sudden change in how his tongue slid against the back of his teeth. His emaciated body racked with sharp coughs as he hacked and pushed the salvia over his tongue. He spit, clapped his hand overtop the wet mound on the floor and drew the dirty palm to his tongue relishing the moisture and how it slightly abated his unceasing thirst. He swallowed hard and shrank from the pressure of his stomach cramping from the emptiness. He was hungry, but did not know what hunger meant. His response was bodily; he shook his head from side to side frantically slapping his cheeks willing the wetness to stay and the pain to subside. His body, an eternal prism of pain, tormented him. His only direction was to strike back at this torment, a self-battering. A frayed ribbon of material looped his thin wrist and fell along the bone of his arm rapidly while he raised his hands battering his reddened cheeks. The material was used to secure him to a steel bed, a bed without sheets or a mattress, pushed tightly against bare walls, the decay of the bed frame slightly camouflaged by the dimly-lit room. He knew they tied him to the cold things when he moved too much, let the hole in his head open and close too frequently with air and noise leaking from his room into other corridors of agony. If he was still, they didn’t bother with him.
Instead they would close the door to this room, and many others because of guilt, of despair of the entire situation that there was no money to care for these incurables even though the scattering of these horrid institutions continued to infest the peripheries of society. In these places emaciated bodies insulated the walls and floors mewling and crashing noises together in a ricochet of dirty vacancies. Some bodies did not have enough life left, or the intellect to begin with, to force their elbow in a sudden jerk when the rats crept close, the thick rats that pulled skin from their bones. The other tiny bodies felt the warmth of rats against them and they lost themselves in this embrace because it was the only touch they knew aside from the other bodies pressing close. They knew death intimately, in the smells and sounds of the rooms, but they did not know love, only that love might be two living things touching, and that was where warmth was.
Dirk watched the young man in the corner with controlled eyes. He had been aware that the youth was housed in an orphanage, the very nature of the orphanage however shocked him, and he was not expecting to see this again, not so soon after the chaos of the 40’s. He studied the spastic body with an expert gaze for flaw resisting the forced primitiveness of the youth. Dirk had spied the young man jump from the bed and crawl to the corner like a feral rodent, he kept his back to the room but Dirk had had enough time to study the young man’s features. The prominent brows were familiar to him, echoed of the stern facial features of his brother. It took only the bending of gray light across the bridge of the youth’s nose for Dirk to make the connection and he quaked.
He wanted to find no one here, no one of his lineage, and could not fathom how his bloodline had even led to this place, especially when it was obvious this young man was much older than the others. Dirk assumed he was one of the first to be segregated, the first phase of racial purification dictated by the Romanian government. From what Dirk could translate from the slum and the immense amount of bodies was that the state packed the deranged youth into these abandoned barns and factories to rid society of them in order the mothers focus on bringing healthier racially fit life into the world, they could not waste time caring for a halfwit. Dirk understood the eugenics, aligned to the agenda ideologically, but he averted his eyes and cursed inwardly. He was not expecting to see this again.
He wanted to find a young man that would return with him, help rebuild a family lineage. Dirk was a gentleman accustomed to observation. He had always been positioned in society where the bystanders thrived. He could thrive in the peripheries with the firm hand of the Reich behind him, he feared the fist, but knew early on he must adapt to its hard contours if he wanted to live. He learned quickly, however, that he could dictate bodies around him from this angle with a steady voyeuristic embrace, but not here, not now, not in this society. The imperfection was too personal.
Dirk was relieved the young man had not noticed his presence. It would be easier to leave him this way. The young man and the other bent shadows blanketing the empty spaces were accustomed to comings and goings, the taller shadows arriving and departing in fits, they would not notice if a face had hovered low enough to stare them straight in the eyes anyways. They barely noticed the others like them only knew the familiar confines of their own body and how this body felt things. The medicinal personnel and workers could not care for them like other children because of the decay and disease. They could not embrace a life braided with the acidic odor of death, which would stain their souls. They interacted with these souls instead from distances. The workers usually stayed long enough to fill the water buckets and scan the rooms with horror behind their eyes. Usually they stayed working at these places until they internalized a horrified kernel of knowing that these places were really death institutions, murdering-factories orchestrated by the leader. Others stayed to shoulder sparse morsels of humanity for the incurables, but most had nowhere else to be and they were fed here. Dirk Adler understood the agenda, to purge society from imperfection. His understanding rooted in the reality that he had never been considered the flaw. The dilapidated young man in the corner, however, completely rattled him.
Dirk was about to turn and leave when the young man unfolded from the corner and scuffled across the room in a primal haunch. Dirk could not anticipate that the boy would sense his presence, and stiffened and shook inwardly when the body stilled several feet from him. His arms hung across his angular knees, his shoulders stooped causing his neck to curve awkwardly. The boy forced his head back and raised his piercing dark eyes to meet the stranger’s shadowed face. They both huddled on the brink of connection, but the stranger pulled back uncomfortably. The boy shrieked and slapped his face. Dirk retreated twisting his fingers and popping the air between his knuckles. As he fled the screams reverberated against the hard bones of his skeleton, the ridges of a fused break that should have been the ledge of scruples inside his head.
Dirk stepped from behind the metal bars of the orphanage and made his way into the compound’s meager courtyard. He raked his fingers through his grey hair and filled his lungs with the outside air. He was in the midst of shaking urine and saliva from his skin when he was suddenly halted by a commotion between two hefty workers and a blond-haired man near the locked gates. The man with blond hair gripped a large expensive camera between his hands, continuously positioning his body between the workers and the precious lens. Another worker unlocked the rusted chain while the others pushed the man through the split gates onto the dirt road.
They were shocked when Dirk idled up behind them, his full form towering above their matted and greasy skulls. They knew the man was aged from his silver hair and leather complexion, but there was a light in the blue of his eyes that vibrated with an uncanny strength that forced them to lock their jaws and bite back a tremble. They had let him into the compound earlier that morning with adverted eyes and a tinge of embarrassment staining their faces even though they were prepared for him. They knew he was coming. His careful maze, paper trails he deliberately set, leaf by leaf, orchestrated expertly throughout the years and months before had propelled him in time to access the world behind the gates to end his post-war searching. The breech was simple and complex, and what the workers did not know, could not fathom, was that Dirk had forged the last several decades of his existence through fabrication, manipulating systems. He knew patterns well and could slip easily within their calculated normalcy.
The smaller man with a stained lab coat refused to meet Dirk’s eyes and solitary disposition. The other worker, a custodian, cleared his throat nervously. He was not supposed to be leaving alone. They knew this but said nothing. The custodian tripped slightly as he moved forward pushing the gates open. Dirk nodded his head and silently shuffled past them with the air of an officer, the two men hesitated on a salute. The camera man eyed the huddle from between the bars with intense curiosity, and was intrigued how the taller man needed only to flash the inside of his coat for the workers to step aside respectfully. He knew that this man would be useful to him. He needed those connections, that false identity he projected.
“I’ve seen it Dirk. You don’t have to be silent about it. I’ve seen more than the orphanages. You couldn’t stomach what I’ve encountered the last seven years. Fetuses scattered, strewn across hospital trays. Imagine! Gray and folded like liver. Pulled from the cradle of the womb with infected surgical tools, most times a rusted bent clothes hanger. The women are relieved for a short while but usually waste away from a looming bacterial death. There’s no escape for the people now. It’s a Romanian Holocaust. I don’t care how controversial that sounds, it is what it is.” Dirk tilted his head, arched one eyebrow in irritation at the man’s insolence and said nothing as the American drawled on, pausing in between heated words and abrupt cadences to wet his lips against the ridge of a flask. He held the flask out for Dirk once, but pulled it back and swallowed before the older man could raise his hand. He hated this American. He needed him gone.
“The country is like one brutal chicken factory.” The men’s gazes met and the American detected Dirk’s opposition.
He injected, “You can smirk at that analogy Dirk, but it’s true. You’ve got the workers, paranoid and starving, oppressed by tyranny, they scavenge the factories separating the defected chicks from the viable ones, because they were ordered to. They toss the defected ones in garbage bags and liquidate them. With no community-based childcare or civil involvement, families are pressured to rid themselves of the children born with defects. They call them the incurables, and they lock these children away in rural institutions like that orphanage I met you at. The world doesn’t really know, are caught up in larger politics, but this is sickening. I’ve heard that there are over seven hundred of these hellholes warehousing them, segregating them, because once they disappear and are forgotten, well then, then they can be murdered. Many of those children you saw this morning have AIDS too. It’s a pediatric epidemic, it’s not accidental. They are infected from reused vaccine needles. They weren’t even born with it, or raped.” Dirk cleared his throat aggressively and continued.
“Their lives mean nothing to society.” He spat, a singular globe marked a slight indent in the sand and he continued without disruption.
“There are kids with ear infections so severe they’ve lost their hearing. Have you ever seen the puss of an ear infection oozing out of the corner of an eye because there’s no more room for it inside the head? I have, and it’s a mind-fuck. You’ve got young children sucking whatever sustenance they can get from this watery formula they pass off to them as food. They don’t even know how to eat with utensils, or what utensils are even. These kids are treated worse than animals, just as bad as the Jews in the Camps. Children with rashes as raw as third degree burns from sitting, soaking in urine and feces for days, and when they die, which they’re just expected to do, they’re packed into mass graves. Such futile existences! I wonder if the war ever ended, really! I tell you, it’s awful, North Americans complaining about their domestic situations when so many are dying under the Soviet fist, communism, totalitarianism, whatever the political system, we’re living in Hitler’s shadow.” His words tripped over each other in rapid accusations that caused a hotness to rise in Dirk that he had not felt since the pit of the war. Dirk stretched his neck in vain hoping to dislodge the tension. He cracked his knuckles forcibly before he began to speak in a slow deliberate tone.
“I am assuming, then, that you are knowledgeable of the current regime, this is one of the most prominent Eastern societies that openly resist Stalinism, Aidan. Nicolae Ceauşescu succeeded to the leadership of Romania’s Communist Party from the death of Gheorghiu-Dej in 1965. He was the first secretary to assume presidency of the State Council and gained popularity amongst the people for his desire for an independent Romania. He set a nationalistic political course which openly challenged the dominance of the Soviets. Throughout the 60’s he virtually ended Romania’s active participation in the Warsaw Pack military alliance, and he condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact Forces in 1968, as well as the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979. They made a new post for him, the people, he was elected presidency of Romania in 1974.” Aiden let him speak uninterrupted long enough and at this point he vehemently interjected.
“I know all about it Dirk, don’t try and feed me this anti-Soviet bullshit. I didn’t just show up in this country yesterday, I’ve been photographing this shit since the mid 70s. The shit that’s going on here, it’s beyond the Soviets, it’s about murder. You’re nationalistic Ceauşescu is a murderer! The man enters into power with a massive ego, dictates that the population, already poor and oppressed at 9 million be raised to 25 million. Ceauşescu wanted a labor force, more bodies to extract resources for him, they worked themselves out of Soviet control and he paraded around suggesting that he did this for them, because he loves Romania. Fuck off! He paid off this country’s debt, freed them by standing on their shoulders, by exporting their agriculture and their industrial productions. He invented asinine concepts like ‘Heroine Mother,’ ‘Maternity Glory,’ ‘Maternity Medal,’ just like ‘Koche, Kuche, Kinderen’ to brainwash the women to reproduce. They couldn’t feed their babies with these medals! Ceauşescu is a coward with a starving labor force living with no personal resources. The people have no self-worth left and they hate him for this above everything else! Either he purges society of any inkling of resistance, or this place is going to be rocked by a severely modern civil war. I don’t know about you, but I will stay and take pictures, send them back to the media pigs in North America hoping that some self-serving soul over there feels some ounce of pity and will send money.” Aidan spat again and emptied the flask. The rims of his eyes were red, his breath fermented. He sat quietly taking in Dirk’s dark countenance before his further probing stung the air around them.
“Why the hell are you in Romania anyways Dirk? Why were you at that orphanage?” He missed the look of contempt that clouded Dirk momentarily and continued prying.
Brooding, Dirk wondered why he even stopped before the American prostrated in the dirt. He should have just kept walking, ignored his banter, forced comradeship. The photographer named Aidan Williams was entirely aggravating, too young to really know what was going on. Dirk thought his entire presence a joke, his photographs a two-dimensional mockery. He bet that the man had never felt the cool butt of a handgun, or had fired it out of survival, self-preservation. Dirk pushed his tongue against the inside of his teeth. He hovered on the notion of whether to speak blatantly or coveted. The slight weight against his ribs, steely and firm reassured him.
“Sometimes it is not about the individual worth. It is about the common good of society. I understand this well because I am not North American like you assumed.” Dirk deliberately stripped of his Germanic accent until that point fell back into it smoothly, coating the rest of his words in it. Aidan sat back suddenly with wide eyes.
“I am from a well-respected family in Germany that was completely shattered with the onslaught of the Second World War. We did what we could to survive, but no, you wouldn’t understand that. I had a twin brother. His name was Heinrich. He joined the forces heading east, tried to persuade me to join with him but I wouldn’t leave our home. He thought he could live out the war in a remote cabin in the Siberian snow, I told him it would be better to form with the rest of German society. I joined the Hitlerjugend. He wrote me near the end of the war that he had a courtship with a Romanian woman, but deserted her because at that time in 1944 Romania had declared Germany her enemy. I don’t know how the woman had tracked down my information but I received a letter from her several years ago. She wrote that she had conceived a son with Heinrich and she had recently welcomed a grandson. She explained that the state had taken the baby without explanation. She relented that I should find him for my dead brother. I did not know then he was assuredly dead, we had lost touch during the war and I could not track him down afterwards. Her letter completely changed things for me. I had reached a point where I accepted the solitude, I had married and tried for my own family but my women were barren. That Romanian slut tricked me, had reached me with the right words and manipulations. Now, I am searching for this grandson.” Dirk shifted and lowered his voice. He leaned in close to Aidan letting the man absorb his words fully.
“I did find the boy, eventually. He was at the orphanage. I had to know for sure that he was there before I left for Germany. I wanted to avenge my brother’s death and abhorrent decisions by bringing his blood line back to Germany, setting things right for him, but I couldn’t do that with that boy, what a disgrace.” Dirk cracked his neck with finality and penetrated Aiden’s stare with an icy calculated gaze.
Aidan’s eyes burned with anger and he ground his teeth. He rose instantly and attempted to strike Dirk across the face, but the man caught his wrist in a vice-grip and forced his arm high up behind his back-twisting Aiden around completely locking his back against Dirk’s chest. Aidan moaned. The pain was warm and pulsated. Dirk bared sharp white teeth and his blue eyes blazed with a ring of red. He pulled the switchblade from inside his jacket in a flash of steel and rapidly forced the metal deep between the American’s ribs without a word. Aidan bucked violently, but Dirk held him with greater contempt and veracity. Aidan felt the shock of the older man’s strength and knocked hard against Dirk in desperation to break free, but Dirk locked his grip around the young man and pushed the blade deeper. Aiden felt Dirk’s breath against the side of his face and he spit blood. Aidan smelled the thick iron scent as his eyes closed and he stilled, his body slumping heavily against Dirk’s chest. Dirk dropped the body and spit. He pulled out a black handkerchief and slid it along the blade. He knelt beside the body and almost laughed. Dirk rose after several minutes and shouldered the cadaver into a ditch. He spat, retrieved a simple brown leather bag and continued walking into a horizon of dust. The cylindrical outline of a long camera lens pressed against the inside of Dirk’s bag, distinct and intact.
He grew calluses while he journeyed southeast from the border, sleeping against trees and pissing along railway lines until he reached Timisoara on the 10th of November 1989. The only thing he needed to do was find her. That was all that was left to do.
He lumbered into the outskirts of the city and tasted the poverty right away -the sweat from a mother stirring a pot of water with three wrinkled potatoes, and the wet stench of perspiration clinging to the back of a laborer- which flung him into memory. This time he encountered them with secrecy, the dirt and blood from beneath his fingernails concealed in his pant pockets. They could only be distracted by his crisp lines and the remaining shine of his boot as he stepped over carnage. He resented the city immediately and cursed the memory of his brother, how he had ventured there to begin with. Heinrich had met the Romanian woman through collision, a brazen encounter at a corner. He had been looking behind, searching in fear for the blackest boots. She had been looking behind too, but for the raging fist. It was August 1944, Romania had just declared war on Nazi Germany, and the local Wehrmacht garrison had surrendered while handfuls of German and Hungarian troops attempted to take the city. Amongst this chaos they had somehow smashed together and created a life.
The flat face of the razor blade glinted in the flickering light as Dirk slid the sharp edge along the pulp of his cheeks dipping below the hard line of his jaw. He pressed lightly around his Adam’s apple, letting the edge of the blade guide his fingers over the slight protrusion, his thumb gently fanning against the cartilage surrounding his larynx. He paused suddenly as the radio fazed into the stillness of the room, the blade lingered, and his shaving cream itched. Dirk sighed and slouched. He angled his body into a chair in the corner of the cramped hotel room and adamantly toweled the cream from his face. He cleared his throat and leaned forward, cranking the volume on the small-outdated radio.
A collective of voices, perturbed and commanding echoed from the speakers, “Wir wollen raus! Wir wollen raus! We want out!”
Dirk pinched his eyes shut and cupped his clammy palms around his beaded forehead. The radio program was lost in pockets of static every few seconds and Dirk had to concentrate to comprehend the mash up of voices. A strong thread of English shot from the tangle and Dirk understood that it was a British program replaying excerpts from German media. He stiffened when he recognized the voice of Hans Joachim Friedrichs, anchorman for ARD’s Tagesthemen braided with English commentary.
“Dieser 9. November ist ein historischer Tag.” This 9th of November is a historic day. Die DDR hat mitgeteilt, dass ihre Grenzen ab sofort für jedermann geöffnet sind, die Tore in der Mauer stehen weit offen.” The GDR has notified that their borders are open for everyone from now on, the gates in the wall are wide open.”1 The gates, wide open, the wall, wide open, he envisioned the disorder, and repeated the words clearly, letting them exist briefly before they fell into emptiness. He swallowed and left everything thrumming as he sought his bed. He stretched on his back anticipating the swell of the room and then turned anxiously onto his right side. He shifted onto his stomach, and again onto his left side. Dirk spiraled slowly into frantic submission, his head nodding and coursing around the sounds from the radio, of the crowds and the surge in their voices. He could hear their feet pounding the wall in a grating march, the West Berliners and the East German youngsters. He counted the sound of crumbling bricks.
He awoke to a city ignited and he trembled. He could grasp the words that the Romanian’s pushed around inside their mouths and how these words were the seeds for ideas. He’d seen it before and was therefore not oblivious. Dirk noticed how their gaze lingered on his blond hair and the paleness of his eyes. German or Russian, German or Russian, the shifting scales penetrated his thoughts. The scrutiny bred anxiety he had never known. Dirk searched the streets, the collar of his jacket shielding his face. He frantically peeled back filth to find her.
He found traces of her. There was a gesture, the flick of a wrist that directed him to the top level of a slanted apartment complex, he anticipated her. It had been over a week and this was the closest he had grasped any recognition of her, of her name and the child she had bred, and the infernal halfwit that came from that child. He opened the door to the apartment easily because it was not locked. He assumed that many families had taken up residency there since his brother had copulated with the enemy.
When he entered the space, he knew immediately that she was not there and that it was foolish to think she would be. A dense blanket of dirt covered the floors and shards of furniture. There were no footprints in the dirt, neither were there broom scratches that would give anyone away. Dirk circled the apartment regardless, sliding his hands in dark recesses searching. He wondered why he hung on to the hope of traces, anything that had existed here while his brother was alive.
Dirk eyed a slight dark mound underneath the bed that enlivened him and he forced himself as far under as he could fit. He grasped the object and pulled it out into the grey light. It took him several moments as he shifted the object in his hands, but when recognition hit Dirk felt a flutter in his ribcage that he had never felt before.
It was his brother’s tobacco pipe. He slowly traced the etched initials ‘HA’ with his finger following the curve of the pipe along the handle. Dirk stopped when he felt more etchings. He turned the pipe catching the shallow scratches in the light, 48° 52′ 0 N 2° 19′ 60 E. He let himself wander along pathways, of the haven of geography, of prospective secret messages. A steep rush of elation pulsed through him and dirk placed his mouth against the coordinates.
He was bent over the object when he heard a sudden commotion rising up from the streets outside the flat. The city had been in angst for several days, he knew that word of the Berlin wall meddled with much of the agitation. There had been violent bursts, the outpouring of civilians throughout those days, and he anticipated retaliation. Dirk slid the pipe into his tote and hovered near a window. The people called out to each other desperately, some flinging a name he had heard endlessly for days across the square.
“László Tőkés! László Tőkés!” the people chanted.
Dirk’s attention was pulled to the buildings across the square. Several fists emerged from windows full of paper and photographs. They littered the streets with these papers, Ceauşescu’s writings. They flung official portraits of the man, and his books out the windows, while the bodies on the streets kicked the pieces around setting fires. Dirk spotted a young woman who appeared on the rooftop waving a flag with the coat of arms torn out. He shot back from the window shaking the memories from his head. He saw other streets and squares congested with violence, the piercing cry of fired guns, bending bullets through skeletons emblazed with yellow cloth and black stars.
He was already pushing near the border, far from the urban slums of Timisoara when he heard of the execution of Ceauşescu and his wife. The story saturated everything Romanian, gossiping hopeful lips, hands chapped and warming, their illiterate relentless media. The people hummed and slapped their hands together in gestures and embraces; they had not touched in a long time. He could only imagine, how Ceauşescu sang The Internationale through stubborn gums as they led the convicted pair against a wall in Târgovişte. The firing crushed the bodies with a wall of bullets, the surly dictator folded along the concrete, his blood painting his name in red. The bodies were covered in canvas, concealing their twisted legs. Nervous hands fumbled with the film footage as it rushed from person to person, a nonverbal parade towards the media, those Western democratic voices. Dirk knew that he must go the same way and he followed the coordinates.
He was deep within Germany near the end of January of 1990. He had transgressed landscape craftily, curtailing with the winds of camouflage, his hair shorn crisp against his skull, perfect and round. No one noticed the singular figure of an old man; his shoulders squared his jaw set, as he stepped up to the ruins of the wall.
Dirk did not turn back to see where he had come from before he shuffled through a large gap in the wall. He paused only to steal a chunk of brick for history’s sake. He absently placed the chunk against his tongue and continued through. The lens of a camera pressed against his side and he mistook the hard curve of plastic for the subtle convex of a pipe, a token given in pairs to two young Germen men before geography exploded.
Friedrichs, Hans Joachim. “Tagesthemen vom 9. November 1989 – English subs.” YouTube. Uploaded October 3, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCDdSXy22ms
Rosapepe, C. James. “Half Way Home: Romania’s Abandoned Children Ten Years After the Revolution.” A Report to America from the U.S. Embassy. Bucharest, Romania: February 2001. 1-24. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/Pcaab104.pdf
1 Hans Joachim Friedrichs, “Tagesthemen vom 9. November 1989 – English subs,” YouTube, Uploaded October 3, 16
Sara Hailstone an educator and writer from Madoc, Ontario who orients towards the ferocity and serenity of nature and what we can learn as humans from the face of forest in our own lives. A graduate of Guelph University (B.A.) and Queen’s University (M.A. and B.Ed.), she has currently just completed her Masters in English in Public Texts at Trent University.