*** The story also contains physical violence and abuse of a child ***
The blizzard shrieks outside, racing from one apartment building to the next, sweeping the snow-clad streets, lugging away a red fringed scarf, unanswered love letters, the sighs and groans of old people, carrying fire wood into their dimly lit kitchens. Frantic prayers are snatched on their way to heavens and hurled against the church steeple. Even the dead, tucked away in their pinewood coffins, shiver in fear, thankful to escape the rage of the snowstorm.
Let me in! Let me in! Like frenzied knuckles, the branches of the apple tree knock on the ice-covered window panes, on which the warm fingers of a small child have drawn a smiley sun.
She sits on the unmade bed, dressed in her heavy winter coat and a scratchy wool beanie. Mama's beanie. She uncovers her ears now and then, eager for the sound of the key turning in the keyhole. Mama should be home anytime soon. She has learned to read the clock on the wall, but can’t make its face in the dark. Her stomach growls like a cat caught in between the slats of a fence and she knows it’s dinnertime.
Sometimes, at dinnertime, she opens the front door and sniffs the air of the floor landing, filled with mouthwatering aromas, wafting through keyholes, under the doors and opened windows.
She closes her eyes, takes a big breath and lets the blend of spicy, smoky, oily, sour, sweet scents fill her lungs. She wishes they filled her little stomach instead, but she settles for what she can get.
An hour ago, she could smell sauerkraut coming from tante Leonora's kitchen window. She is the next door neighbor and Mama's friend.
Oh, she is making sarmale. Ground pork and rice cabbage rolls, simmered slowly for two long hours in sauerkraut and tomato broth, infused with dry sprigs of thyme and Turkish bay leaves, with chunks of salted pork and bacon tucked in between the rolls.
Mama manages to buy enough meat and rice to fill the pickled cabbage leaves for Christmas and Easter, but their neighbors make the cabbage rolls almost every weekend. They’re poor, too, but Raluca’s family is the poorest in the whole neighborhood.
She needs to go to the bathroom, but she dreads leaving the warmth of the bed covers. When her little bladder threatens to burst, she throws aside the covers and slides off the bed. The cracked hardwood floors are bare, covered in crumbs and dirt from her father’s boots. White ashes cover the floor in front of the broken terracotta fireplace. Its cracked tiles, once a shiny mahogany brown, are now covered in thick soot.
She runs to the bathroom and sits carefully on the icy toilet seat. The soft fuzz on her arms bristles and she shudders as urine drizzles into the caked bowl.
She can smell the rust eating away at the broken furnace. The last time Mama has filled the tub with hot water and bathed her was last summer, when the branches of the tree in front of the living room were heavy with bright green apples, begging to be picked.
That last Sunday, Mama managed to gather enough flour, sugar and two small eggs to make an apple cake. She had no butter, so Mama used lard instead. Good enough, if not even better. Rodica helped Mama in the kitchen, grating the green apples on a dull box grater. The house smelled divine that day. Even her father cracked a smile and didn't swear or touch the rum bottle.
There is no toilet paper, that is such a luxury these days, so she pulls up her panties and lets her nightgown fall over her legs.
She hears a racket outside the front door and her heart bangs hard against her collarbones. Her father stumbles inside and kicks the door shut, the sudden move making him lose his balance and collapse on the floor by the china cabinet.
Raluca runs to him before his angry calls splinter the silence of the apartment.
“Why is it so dark in here?” he yells in her ears as she helps him on the bed. His breath is rancid, but she welcomes its heat on her cheeks.
“They cut the power, Daddy,” she reminds him.
She walks quickly to the window and pulls the dusty draperies aside, letting the smug smile of the full moon flash in the room, on the Jesus painting by the china cabinet. Jesus smiles back, waving his nail-wounded hand at Miss Moon.
Raluca can see her breath in front of her eyes, like feeble steam rising from a cup of warm milk. She has forgotten the taste of it.
She waits for her father to settle on the edge of the bed and kneels in front of him. She’s alert, though, ready to jump up and run away. Not that she can run away far from him. He always finds her in the other room and yanks her from the armoire by her hair. Or leaves her in it and kicks her with his boots until she wheezes and spits blood. For hours, her skin burns as though coals from the stove still scorch her sides and thighs.
She stares at the muddied boots hanging over the sheets.
“What are you waiting for?” her father yells, swinging his boots in her face.
Hanging back, Raluca grabs the heels of one boot, flinching as her fingers touch the cold mud. Her eyes water when the stench of his unwashed crotch hits her. She pulls with all her might, then sets the boot down. The odor emanating from the bare feet makes her gag. Thankfully, there's nothing in her stomach, but terror and hopelessness and longing, as bitter as bile.
She carefully places both boots by the terracotta stove.
"Daddy, I'm hungry," she whispers as she covers her father with the comforter.
"Go to hell," he answers, his words muffled by the pillow and the torpor that envelopes him at once.
Hot tears sting her eyes, but she knows better not to insist. She walks into the kitchen, Miss Moon smirking at her through the ice-painted windowpanes. She grabs the bread bag hanging on the pantry door handle. The bread slices are so hard she would need a hammer to break them into bite pieces.
She knocks on tante Leonora's door. The older woman shakes her head in annoyance, but grabs her hand and pulls her inside. Raluca blinks in the bright kitchen, filled with the wonderful aroma of sarmale, simmering in a big ceramic pot on the stove.
"They're not ready yet," the neighbor says and cuts a thick slice of potato bread and slathers it with bacon grease from a jar. "Go, before my husband gets home."
Before she knows it, Raluca is back in the dark of her apartment. She bites into the slice of greased bread. Mmmm. The fat melts in her mouth and she savors the salty bits of bacon on her busy tongue.
Raluca sits down at her little rustic desk under the Jesus painting. She has pulled up Mama’s thick socks up to her knees, even though the coarse wool scratches her delicate skin. It keeps her feet and calves somewhat warm, however, and the tingling sensation strangely comforts her, like Mama’s callused hands rubbing her feet and calves. Her hands dig deep into the coat’s pockets, straining the weak seams. The right hand holds tight three small pearl buttons from Mama’s white blouse.
Still shivering, she stares at the shape of her father under the thin comforter, relieved that the sight of him doesn’t make her run for the armoire in the other room. He looks diminished, vulnerable, pitiful in his sleep. His snoring reminds her of the squeal of a rusted gate hinge swinging in the wind.
He is a carpenter by trade. Skilled enough to have made the desk and chair set for Raluca when she was about to start first grade. He was proud of his creations, even sold a few small furniture pieces to relatives and neighbors. For just enough money to keep him in rum and cigarettes for a full week.
One day, while cutting lumber at the shop, he severed two fingers of his left hand: index and middle finger. He wasn’t a strong man to begin with. Seeing his fingers on the floor covered in saw dust shook him. Stirred something loose inside him. Something wicked, chilling. He dropped his tools and never picked them up again. He started drinking at the pub from morning to sundown, blubbering in his glass of plum brandy, mourning the loss of his fingers.
He beat his wife unconscious for the slightest of offenses. For the lack of meat in the stew. Her constant begging for money. For the soot on the stove. Raluca’s mismatched socks. The bad news in the newspaper. The neighbors’ disdain for him.
One day he grabbed her in a fit of rage, making the buttons of her blouse snap and fly to the floor. He was about to throw her off the window of the apartment - second floor - when Raluca let off a bloodcurdling scream that echoed in the apartment, hitting each wall and ceiling, startling the saints in the smoke-stained icons.
He stopped cold when seeing her eyes wide with terror. The woman’s wails chocked in her throat. He dropped the woman in a pile on the floor and fled the apartment, cursing and punching walls all the way to the ground floor.
Raluca helped her off the floor, fixed the hair that has escaped her askew headscarf. She straightened the front of her torn blouse, wincing at the sight of the green-blue marks on her neck and chest. The little girl led her to bed.
Her mother couldn’t read to her that night. Her left eye was swollen, like a plum shoved in the eye socket. Her lips bled when she spoke or sipped the weak tea Raluca had fixed for her.
When she woke up in the morning, the little girl was alone. Just her book on the pillow next to hers, open to her favorite story. And a note, in large letters, saying, “I’ll be back by dinnertime, Mama.”
It was the last time she has seen her mother.
Raluca’s eyelids get heavy watching her father sleep. He mumbles and smacks his lips in his dreams. Perhaps in his dreams he can drink to his heart's content. The blizzard still roars outside, dragging white clouds across the grey skies while Miss Moon yawns and buries her head in a silver-tinged vapor, like the veil of a torpid bride. Even Jesus has closed His eyes. The saints on the other walls join Him in a choir of reverent snoring.
Her father turns around in bed, facing her. His three-fingered hand hangs over the edge of the bed. Without looking at it, Raluca approaches the bed.
“Can I sleep with you, Daddy?" she whispers. "Mama’s not home yet.”
Her father mumbles something in approval and lifts the comforter, welcoming her next to him. Raluca grins in disbelief and climbs in, adjusting her small frame into her father’s. She dreads the touch of the three-fingered hand, but the heat from his body melts her apprehension, calms the goose bumps on her arms.
Her father still loves her, she smiles. The pores of her skin absorb greedily the heat emanating from his body. She closes her eyes and breathes in, a deep sigh of relief.
He whispers something in her hair, his breath hot on her cold cheeks. His hands move across her back and arms. Then down her bare legs. They lift her nightgown to her waist.
Raluca opens her eyes, confused. What is he doing? She senses his hands fumbling with the front of his pants, then they pull down her panties. She feels his hands moving on her buttocks, squeezing her hips, fondling her belly. The thought of the three-fingered hand on her bare skin petrifies her. He starts rubbing himself against her buttocks. She can feel his big thumb pushing in her back, thighs, bottom. He moans, pants, kneading her thigh, bruising her.
“Daddy, you’re hurting me,” she cries, unable to break his strong hold.
He stops suddenly, as though rudely awaken from a bawdy dream.
“Get the hell out of here. You’re just like your mother,” he says and pushes her off the bed.
She lands hard on the cold floor. She’s dizzy and perplexed, but quickly gets up, only to trip on the panties around her knees. She makes it to the bedroom. As she passes, the saints in the icons above her shake their haloed heads, exchanging worried looks before nodding back to sleep. Raluca steps in the armoire and collapses on the old linens stacked neatly inside.
The rooster’s crow pierces the crisp morning air. Raluca is already up, on the bed, straining to hear her father’s movements in the other room. He is sober now, she decides and opens the door to the bedroom.
“Good morning, Daddy.”
“Stay out of my way, kid,” he warns her, rummaging through cabinets and drawers.
He searches for anything of value that he could trade for a glass of vodka and a few unfiltered cigarettes. He curses and kicks the cabinet doors shut. There is nothing left to sell. He has sold all Mama’s jewelry, her Russian book collection, her fur hat and coat set. Even ballerina and angel porcelain bibelots.
He walks up to her. Eyes wide, Raluca holds her breath, bracing for a slap. “Give me those earrings,” he demands, fixing the silver tear-shaped earrings the little girl is wearing.
Raluca looks at the three-fingered hand in front of her eyes. It’s red with cold, and shaking. Only a glass of alcohol can make the trembling and queasiness go away.
“Not Mama’s earrings,” she implores, her eyes filling with tears and anguish.
“Don’t you make me yank them from your ears,” he threatens. His voice throbs with pain and urgency. He would tear her earlobes apart, so desperate is his need for alcohol in the morning.
Sobbing, she unfastens her earrings and places them in the shaking three-fingered hand.
He slips them into his pocket and slams the door hard behind him.
At least, she still got the three pearl buttons from Mama’s blouse, she sighs.
It’s late afternoon. A miserly sun glares down at the neighborhood clothed in a white duvet. Raluca is on the bed, her nose against the windowpanes, marveling at the new world outside.
Her father lumbers in, the hardwood floors whining under his boots. He sits on the bed for a while, hands in his pocket, his red ears buried in the collar of his coat. He gets up and grabs a few newspapers off the table. He balls them up and stuffs them into the terracotta stove. He lights a match. He looks around for more paper and grabs Raluca’s book off her little desk. Stunned, the little girl opens her mouth to protest. He glares at her and she makes herself small under the comforter. He tears the book apart and feeds it to the flames. With soft gasps, the paper writhes and blisters and shrivels away.
He gets up again and grabs a Bible from a drawer. Mama’s Bible. Raluca's breathing stops. She blinks in disbelief, unable to utter a sound, a plead.
With a sneer, her father tears the black front cover apart, then the back cover. Raluca watches the desecration, expecting any second for the skies to open and a thunderbolt to strike her father on the back of his head. Nothing happens.
Her eyes move up to Jesus on the wall. But His eyes are lowered, watching the sacred writings choke in the white smoke. In concert, the saints on the other walls only mumble disapproval in their beards.
Next, the man grabs Raluca’s little chair and pulls the legs off. Then the desk, breaking the wood against his knees. He laughs, tickled by the heat on his unshaved cheeks.
He opens the armoire and pulls an armful of Mama’s clothes, and one by one, he feeds them to the fire, nodding and cackling like a madman. He leaves the little door ajar.
A little while later, he succumbs to the warmth in the room and falls asleep.
Behind him, Raluca stirs, alarmed by the smoke that escapes through the broken square tiles and the door of the stove. She is afraid to move, but can’t muffle her coughing for long.
A spark flies from the stove opening and lands on Mama’s dress on the floor. It catches fire immediately. Raluca watches the flames spreading to the rug under the table. Then the tablecloth. The seat coverings. The white smoke engulfs the room from wall to wall.
Raluca climbs off the bed, coughing, blinded by the flames that greedily close in on the rug by the bed. She calls for her father, but the smoke gags her.
She staggers to the front door and bangs on it with the last of her strength. She then falls to her knees, gasping for air.
At last, the door flies open. As in a trance, Raluca makes out two sturdy legs above her. A house robe. She fills her lungs with the sudden fresh air invading the hallway. Two strong hands snatch her off the linoleum.
Is it Jesus?
“Daddy is inside, sleeping…” she murmurs in the neck of her savior.
“Let him sleep,” tante Leonora answers through her clenched teeth and carries the little girl to safety.