Sándor Déki Lakatos–Udvözlö Liszt Ferenchez
THE GIFT OF DIAMONDS ©
by Roberta Seret
INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS
Every year on my birthday, my father and I would talk about monsters and vampires. Tata was a wonderful storyteller. I would cuddle in his arms and listen to tales of what happened in the woods of Transylvania where we lived.
In Romania, when we speak of vampires, we mean Count Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, on whom so many legends are based. Paradoxically, he was remembered in our small town of Orad as a prince, a leader who protected his people from the Turks when they invaded Romania in the 15th century. Still, we had to accept that his heroic deeds were masked by blood-thirsty evil. He believed that blood preserved his youth; thousands of innocent people died at the flick of his hand so he could fortify himself.
Mama did not approve of Tata’s stories which filled my mind, but she never stopped him. As she cooked, she’d frown while Tata laughed with joy, telling me his tales.
As I became a teenager, what he shared became more complex. My father explained how the behavior of monsters and the character of man can intersect. Tata was an engineer, and he constructed a stage for me where his stories became lessons for survival.
By the time I was sixteen, Tata’s stories had taken a different route. The characters were no longer based on legends or fairytales. I became the protagonist. My father was preparing me for what I would need to know: I was the daughter of a revolutionary.
Father was the leader of the Transylvanian anti-Communists, which proved very dangerous for him as well as for Mama and me. My mother feared that Tata’s secret mission would make me grow up too fast; she realized his work would affect my entire life.
She tried to counteract the dangers by preparing me for the future: I would get to America.
She taught me English and read Shakespeare to me. When Tata was not home at night because of his clandestine activities, Mama would take me into the kitchen, run the faucet water strong so no one else would hear her words, and take out our secret, short-wave radio. She’d translate the broadcaster’s English words that hid political truths.
Now, as I look back at my childhood, it seems that Tata’s vampire stories turned into prophecies. And as politics during that time in Eastern Europe turned inhuman, his tales became guiding principles that helped me overcome hardships. My father’s monsters taught me there is evil in man. Given the proper situation, man is capable of becoming cruel and sadistic. It is difficult not to become a victim.
But Tata’s passion for life overruled the savagery that surrounded us. He was optimistic, determined to do what was right. He had a secret treasure, which he believed could open the door to dreams. In turn, those dreams would change our lives. I inherited his treasures.
* * *
PART ONE: ORAD (TRANSYLVANIA), ROMANIA
February 2, 1965
Mica biked the secret route her father had taken before her; it was twenty kilometers to the border of Romania and Hungary. Calculating her time, she knew it would take her five to six minutes per kilometer depending how thick the brush was and how cold the wind. It was 10 o’clock; she hoped to be at the border by midnight.
She had no choice but to escape Romania at once. She feared she’d be arrested like her father and mother were. There was no misunderstanding the communist strategy of torturing an innocent person by putting pressure on the family. Mica had to get out of the country.
As she fled by bike, she pedaled faster and faster.
Yet, without consciously planning a detour, she saw the dirt path to the abandoned glass factory. Conflicted if she should lose time, she took the hidden trail to the building. What if Mr. Marinescu, her father’s best friend, was wrong and her parents were hiding in the underground bunker? Wasn’t that why the system had been built? She had to see if they were there.
She bit her lip and prayed, Please Mama, Tata, be there. Then I won’t have to escape alone.
Getting off her bike, she pushed it through brush and broken limbs. Looking around, she studied every moving leaf, every shadow, to ensure she wasn’t being followed. She hid behind a tree to assess if anyone other than her father’s men were near. Then, she placed her bike among the fallen trees and covered it with dead branches. The section of the forest was desolate and eerie as if time had passed it by.
Walking slowly to avoid stepping in a ditch, she stopped at a rusty tower. Looked down, brushed leaves and sticks off a trap door and descended secret stairs.
When she approached her father’s office, she found his door wide open. Before entering, she hid and listened. No one. For several seconds, she waited behind a column to compose herself. Taking deep breaths, she touched her heart as if to quiet the thump of its beat, then took a daring step inside the room. No one.
Maybe her father was hiding? She pressed a button that opened a door that led to a dark closet. No one. She moved a rug from the floor and slid open a wooden panel. “Tata, it’s me, Mica,” she whispered, leaning down into the bunker’s lower floor. No one.
She went to the lamp on his desk. The bulb was cold. She moved toward the stove where he made his beloved espresso. The coals were cold. Tears warmed her cheeks.
Mica approached her father’s chair and sat down, moving her body into the form that had softened the leather. Staring at the maps on the walls, she remembered each one from the previous evening. She started to sob, her shoulders heaving. Now she understood her father’s sadness last night and felt the weight of his words when he said, “You are no longer a child.”
She opened his desk drawer, hoping to find his red pen and maps, but all the drawers were empty. “Memorize each detail,” he had insisted. His unspoken message was now crystal clear: it’s life or death.
Just last night, she remembered walking through the tunnel to bring her father dinner. He had designed and built the labyrinth years ago with his engineering students to fight the Fascists. After the war, they never used it again. Left it abandoned until a few days ago as they prepared an anti-Communist rebellion.
The bunker was carved inside the earth, built with an armory and sleeping area, bathroom, kitchen and a private office for her father, their leader.
Last night, she had brought him dinner, as she had done for the past three evenings. While walking through the tunnel, she had noticed an unusual mass of machine guns lined up against the stone walls.
Now she retraced the same steps that she had taken twenty-four hours ago and tried to recall each minute.
She remembered when she had felt the cement floor vibrate, heard a metallic noise that sounded like wheels rolling against stone echoing through the underground. She quickly hid to sneak a look. A slab of wood moved on four wheels. On top of the plank was a man, his body cut off at the waist. He had no legs. His torso sat on top of the wooden plank. His hands were placed deep inside two cans and he balanced himself on the plank of wood so he could stay upright.
His head was huge, out of proportion to the narrow chest. Long spidery arms extended to the ground as his hands in the cans helped him move forward. His face was dark in the shadow, its features deformed. Long black hair fell on his shoulders in braids. Attached to a pompadour above his forehead was a small stick and curling around the stick was a black and yellow snake. The reptile was so still that Mica couldn’t tell if it were dead or alive until she saw its slithery tongue snap out of its mouth.
Mica stared at the deformed man as she watched his arms and cans maneuver the slab of wood and disappear into the shadows.
The “Snake Man,” that’s what her father and his group called him. This was the first time she had ever seen him. Her father had told her, “He’s our man. He’ll pretend to work for the Communists and become our decoy.”
She wondered how he could be a good guy. He was so spooky looking.
She recalled how last night she had climbed up the staircase to her father’s office and knocked on his door.
“Who is it?” he had asked hesitantly and then she entered the room.
“Tata,” she whispered.
He moved toward her and when she saw his full head of bushy red hair shine in the light, she felt reassured.
“I saw the Snake Man.”
He nodded his head and returned to the map he was studying on the wall.
“Poor man. He wasn’t always like that. I knew him when he was a tall, handsome student. Son of a rich landowner. One day the Police arrested him because he was in the street after curfew. Then they found out his father was on the wrong side.”
“Yes. Rich. Privileged. So they tortured the boy. Hung him upside down with his head down and legs up. After several days, he had no circulation in his legs. They threw him in the mud. Legs got gangrened. Had to be amputated.”
“How awful,” she rubbed her thighs.
“That’s why he’s so full of hate against the Communists.”
Her father took a red pencil to circle a specific spot on the map.
“Mama said to eat this when no one is near you,” Mica said, remembering her mission. “She put a note inside.”
He took the tin pot and nodded without saying a word.
After several seconds of reading the note, he turned his back to the map and went to her.
“Merci, draga mea, my dear,” he said and put his arm around her shoulder. She felt his bristly red mustache rub her cheek. It pricked her but she didn’t move, wanting to hold on to the moment. Her father didn’t move either. When she looked up at him, she noticed his taut face showed signs of creases; his broad six-foot frame appeared less powerful.
“Mica…” Then he stopped.
She sensed he was thinking what to say next.
He went to his desk, opened the bottom drawer and took out a map of Transylvania. It was marked with red dots.
“I keep telling myself you’re a young woman now. Sixteen.”
“Yes.” She felt he needed her to act like an adult. But why was that making him sad?
“I want you to know a route I took years ago, during the war, when I worked in the Resistance. It’s through the forest, going from our town to the Hungarian border, where there is a train station.”
She wanted to ask him why he was telling her this now, but was afraid to ask, and more afraid to know.
“I traveled by foot. It took me seven hours in the middle of the night. It can be done faster by bike.”
He took out a red pencil, made marks on the map and explained what each red dot indicated: the fork in the forest, a grove of pine trees, the fence at the border, the electric wires. “I will explain everything and you must memorize each detail.”
She nodded her head.
“To be sure you understand this, I will go over it several times… In case….” He sighed and didn’t finish his thought. Instead, he opened his drawer with a key and pulled out a pile of black and white photos of the Romanian-Hungarian border area.
“I’m going to teach you how to navigate through the forest by using trees and buildings as markers, while making angles with your eyes.”
He showed her photos of a dense forest, pointed to several buildings, a 12 foot fence, a cable box. Then from another drawer he opened a secret compartment and took out a ruler and compass.
After an hour, Mica’s sweater was soaking wet even though the room was unheated and cold. She noticed her father’s face was red and a vein under his left eye twitched. She watched him rip the map and photos into tiny pieces and burn them with the lit candle on his desk.
He took her hand, put her palm against his lips. For several seconds he stroked her fingers. “Draga,” he had whispered. “Whatever may happen, you must be strong. Think with your mind and act with all your heart. When in doubt, go with your instincts.”
His face looked strained, as if all the blood had left his lips. She swore she could hear the pounding of his heart as he kissed her cheek. His skin felt warm.
She put her arms around her father and hugged him hard. Sensing his silence as a signal to leave, she kissed him good-bye on each cheek and moved away. He took her hand to hold on to her. “I love you more than life,” he whispered. “Never forget that.”
She wanted to answer, “I love you too,” but was confused by the map lesson and his not telling her why he burnt the photos. She felt like running away. Hiding. Going somewhere safe. Loving her father hurt so much. Trying to gain control, she walked toward the door and said nothing.
Waving good-bye, she left him to his work. Slowly taking the hidden staircase, she tip-toed through a secret corridor and climbed out to the night from a different section of the tunnel. Glancing from one side to the other, she searched for a moving shadow or noise. No one, just rats trying to move faster than the bitter wind.
Mica’s mind returned to the present. Although she had to concentrate on pedaling faster, she couldn’t stop crying, remembering the night before. “Tata, where are you now? I need you so much.”
Pushing her bike with her legs to go faster, she
thought of the machine guns lining the bunker’s walls. Now she understood his sadness. She’d have to get out of Romania, fast! Alone!
Snow started to fall. The sky looked threatening. As the snowflakes turned to ice, she feared that a storm would make her escape more difficult.
Hearing a series of gunshots, she veered off her trail and took a parallel path deep into the woods. But there was no escaping; there was more gunfire and then shouts of “Ceausescu! Traiasca Ceausescu! Long live Ceausescu!”
Not sure what to do, she lowered her body and leaned into the handlebars, trying to make herself small, pedaling harder.
As her path turned closer to the road through dead brush, she saw hundreds of men marching into town. Each one had soot and grime smeared on his face and wore a helmet with a yellow light. Each man carried a heavy bicycle chain and snapped it in the air or at anyone near. They marched in lines of five, appearing as a force ready to overtake the town.
Mica studied the men, taking them in from head to toe, wondering whom were they working for.
She heard a helicopter. It flew so low that she was able to see a large “C” on it. Strange. No one inside the helicopter was shooting at the miners. On the contrary, the helicopter was guiding the miners into town. That’s it, she thought, “C” for Ceausescu. The miners are working for Ceausescu. He has staged an uprising to prevent his opponents from taking power. Ceausescu is using miners as mad dogs to wipe out anyone who dares to stop him from becoming the dictator.
Mica stared at the horde of miners, sub-human monsters, like animals, blowing whistles, throwing stones, hitting people with chains. Blood splattered on the road where they marched.
She watched a man run into the street, trying to cross the road. Dozens of miners surrounded him, flicking their chains and taunting him. He ran away and darted into a building. A second later, he ran out, a fire torch in his hand. He threw the torch in the middle of the miners and laughed as the flames filled the air.
The miners retaliated by knocking the man dead with their chains and shattering the building’s windows. Chaos exploded in the streets. Gunfire. Sirens. Mica saw a woman run out of a bus carrying a baby. The infant was on fire!
Mica jumped off her bike and hid behind a row of bushes. She stared at the miners swarming through town.
“We’re cleaning up the streets!” they yelled.
And a voice from a loud speaker warned the people to obey. “Go home! Don’t fight back!”
It was the hidden voice of the Secret Police mixing with the shouts of the miners. They were working together. And the voice from the loud speaker was followed by the appearance of hated Secret Police as they marched into the Square. They seized men, women and children, and beat them with wooden clubs.
Mica stared, afraid to move from her hiding place.
She knew the uprising had been intended to terrify the people and create hysteria. Then Ceausescu would appear on a stage and calm the crowd down with a semblance of order. It was a Communist strategy, treating citizens like cattle, rounding them up, bringing them to the range, and then locking them in cages. The iron curtain padlocked tightly.
Mica noticed that the crowd was becoming more hysterical as a wooden platform rolled out. It was the Snake Man on his slab of wood, moving quickly through the mob. Dressed like one of Ceausescu’s men, he tried to infiltrate the group of Communists without being stopped. His ape-like arms were so hairy that he didn’t need a coat. He had abandoned his cans and now in one hand he was carrying a canister of gasoline that he spilled out in a straight line. With the other hand, he lit the fuel and watched the flames rise to the sky.
A miner ran over to him and snapped his chain but the Snake Man disappeared. Within seconds, the rolling board reappeared. The Snake Man took out a pistol and shot the miner, venting his fury for his legless fate.
A van moved toward him. Soldiers dressed in riot gear and armed with machine guns rushed out and shoved him inside.
Mica watched, helplessly, wishing she could do something to stop them. But what could she do? A sixteen-year-old girl all alone?
Her father had said it would happen like this. Communists causing fire, blood, shrouding their town red. That’s when he had planned they’d escape, their little family, the three of them together in the middle of the night, when all the Police would be in town and none at the border. Her parents would have protected her.
Mica biked deep into the forest. She pretended she was getting smaller and smaller as she disappeared into the night. Not looking back, she felt a surge of energy. Orad was in flames and behind her.
* * *
While moving carefully through the brush on a narrow path, Mica’s focus was jolted by an unexpected noise. As she pedaled faster, the din of an engine, possibly a motorbike or scooter, left her fearing the worst: a policeman.
It came closer; she could swear it was a body moving toward her. Turning around, her body rigid with terror, she searched every direction, struggling not to lose her balance. No one was there. The main road behind her was empty, and in front there were only trees and brush. But Mica sensed that someone was watching her. Someone, somewhere, getting near. Of that, she was certain.
She was taking the secret route to the border, which her father had shown her on the map. He had assured her that the path was never used. It was nothing but dead branchws and logs; few people even knew a path was there.
But her father hadn’t used it alone. Mr. Marinescu, her father’s friend from childhood and the theatre director of her student-acting group, had also been part of the Resistance.
A shadow moved slightly near a group of pine trees. Mica glanced from one side to the other, then pumped her feet faster, worrying that danger was closing in.
She thought it was a person’s voice; then came the tapping of footsteps on leaves and sticks.
The shadow moved again, as the breaking of branches grew louder. Suddenly, the footsteps stopped. Mica’s heart pounded; she could hear the beat in her ears. Escape, faster, she told her legs.
What if Mr. Marinescu knew she’d be taking the trail? Did he know her father had a treasure of diamonds? Twenty rare colored diamonds that he had buried in their basement and two that were now sewn in her coat. He could easily ambush her. Steal them. Was he capable of killing her?
She’d be at the border soon if she kept her pace,
if no policeman or thief caught her first. She called upon every bit of her strength to pedal faster. The shadow loomed nearer; the branches and brush broke as someone near followed her.
“Stop. Wait.” A man’s voice. “Mica, it’s me.”
“Don’t be afraid. It’s me, Marinescu. I came to help you.” He was pedaling his motor bike to slience its noise.
Mica noticed he was wearing a long heavy coat and a woolen cap, which was pulled tightly over his white hair.
“I knew you’d be on this hidden path – the one your father and I took years ago.”
Not so hidden if you could find me.
She wondered if he had brought someone with him. Two men to overtake one girl. She looked behind him, to the right, to the left. Listened for noise.
“You must trust me,” he begged. “I came to warn you there’s a fork in the road. To the right is a monastery, to the left is Dracula’s castle. Don’t go right. The Securitate, Secret Police, are there looking for anti-Communists and Resistance fighters who are hiding.”
She dismounted her bike and moved away from him for a better view- she needed to know if someone was with him, hiding. She took a wooden club from her basket, a big one that she had found in the forest, and raised it to his face.
“Believe me, please. I’m here to help you. I’ll ride with you to where the path divides and then leave you to go on your own when it is safe.”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she kept the club in her hand and got back on her bike and pedaled furiously to remain ahead of him.
She remained silent, thinking of her mother, who had insisted that Mica should listen to Mr. Marinescu. To do whatever he told her.
Mama, I hope you’re right.
They came to the monastery’s gate.
“The fork is after the gate,” Marinescu said, taking the lead. “Get off your bike now, and walk it like me.
Bend down as low as you can. There’s a terrible woman who’s in charge of that gate. She works with the Secret Police and would denounce us given the opportunity.”
He indicated that she should wait. “I’ll go alone, then follow behind me.”
He moved first. She waited, unsure whether to listen to him or run away. While Mica was contemplating, she spotted the old woman in the distance. She was hunchbacked, trying to walk through the snow. She was dressed in tattered clothes, no overcoat, no hat, no shoes. Her feet were bare. Even from the distance, they appeared blue and swollen. The woman grumbled and cursed as she limped. Then she spat at a tree. Mica, frightened, felt certain the action was meant for her.
Mr. Marinescu signaled for Mica to join him. They bent lower, leaving the old woman behind.
“Not very friendly,” whispered Mica. “Who is she?”
“Oh, she’s the devil,” Marinescu replied, muttering the word devil through clenched teeth. “That witch wasn’t always so weak. I remember her during the war. Tall and straight then. She was the mistress of the leader of the Iron Guard for all of Transylvania.”
“What was the Iron Guard?”
“Romanian Fascists! Monsters!” he yelled in the dramatic voice Mica knew so well.
“They came to power in 1927 when their leader, Codreanu, said he heard the voice of God talking to him through an icon in church.”
“Do you think God really talked to him?” Mica asked.
“That’s what he claimed when he recruited vampires for his Fascist Iron Guard.”
“Yes. Anti-Semites. Each soldier had to suck the blood from the wound of another member of the army, and then write an oath in his own blood, vowing to commit murder whenever they saw a Jew.”
Mica’s bike swerved out of her hands. The path was covered with rocks. She didn’t want a flat tire. Not now.
Mr. Marinescu continued talking as he pushed his motor bike through dead logs. “Each soldier wore a packet of Romanian soil tied around his neck. They said Romania’s earth was too good for the Jews. They wanted them dead or out of Romania.”
“Was the witch part of that group?”
“Yes! She said that she wanted to be Romania’s female Hitler.”
Mica felt a chill flow through her. Whenever she heard Hitler’s, name she felt her entire body tighten. The colored diamonds weighed heavily on her frame.
He continued. “She helped lead a group of Jews from the neighboring town to this forest, then had them strip naked in the snow, where they were shot dead. She ordered the Romanian soldiers to take the bodies to the town slaughterhouse where her father worked. First, the soldiers pulled out the gold from their teeth. Then, they took their cargo to her father’s butchery, decapitated each one, and had their heads hung from butcher hooks with a sign underneath saying –‘KOSHER.’”
Mica felt like throwing up. Why did people harbor so much hatred against the Jews? She remembered Shylock in Shakespeare’s play. “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, senses, affections, passions?”
Mr. Marinescu watched the tears rolling down Mica’s cheeks. “Let me tell you why I want so much to help you. I must do something good for you because years ago I was powerless to help another girl.”
“What do you mean?”
“This witch had a husband who worked in a textile factory. They had a little girl; he adored that girl. He would take her to school before going to work, then walk several kilometers to the factory, and at the end of the day he’d walk back to pick her up. I used to see them together, hand in hand, laughing and singing. She was about nine-years-old. Blond pigtails, freckled face.
“But the mother didn’t like the child and she hated the father. He was Jewish; she didn’t know that when they got married. She found out when she was pregnant. Realizing she’d have a baby with Jewish blood, she wanted to punish him and his child.”
Mica remained mesmerized, distraught, taking in every word.
“One day, I saw the witch in the forest. She was wobbling through town, drunk, carrying a bottle of wine. She saw her husband and daughter walking home and went over to them.
“Drink,” she said, forcing the bottle to pry open the girl’s mouth. The father grabbed the bottle. They struggled. Not wanting to see her parents fight, the child took a sip.
The mother laughed as her daughter drank. The father begged for mercy, as his wife screamed, telling him to go to hell and calling him a dirty Kike. All the while, the girl kept on drinking.
Mr. Marinescu stopped walking. He was trembling.
“I was there. I ran over to the woman, tried to grab the bottle away from the child. But the mother was a big woman. She was too strong. She threw me down. The girl was vomiting and the father was yelling, ‘No more!’ As her parents fought, the girl was knocked to the ground. She hit her head on a rock. The mother opened her daughter’s mouth and poured wine down her small throat. Before long, the little body stopped breathing.”
“Stop. Please! No more,” begged Mica.
“Did she die?”
“Yes. That’s why the father threw himself in the river and drowned. I tried to get the mother prosecuted, but the Iron Guard protected her. Then she became a Communist, switched sides from right to left, like so many other Fascists did. And now she’s the one who’s telling the Secret Police that rebel fighters are hiding in the monastery.”
Mica took a deep breath, wishing she could exhale evil.
Mr. Marinescu resumed his pace. “I keep telling myself the past is the past and I must go on. But I don’t want to lose my humanity.” He paused, as if trying to find his composure. “If we don’t do good for others, God will turn his back on us.” He looked down and made the sign of the cross on his chest.
Mica closed her eyes and prayed softly, “Please, God,
I want so much to be good. Help me.”
They moved in silence for several minutes, before Marinescu spoke. “Remember, at the fork in the road, turn left.”
He pointed the way and gave her his final cue: “You’ll continue from here alone. If I find any news about your parents, I’ll try to get word to them that you’ve escaped.”
Mica pulled her bike to the side, and then looked around to see if anyone was following them. She looked behind her to see if the witch was near.
Mr. Marinescu gave her a kiss on both cheeks and took her in his arms. “Be strong, Mica. Do whatever you must to survive. Whatever!”
He turned his face, wanting to hide his tears, and then left her to travel alone. She moved again, holding ever tightly to her wooden club.
* * *
Mica walked her bike through the trees and brush, struggling to remain composed and focused. Arriving at the border area between Romania and Hungary, she realized there was no more forest, mostly fields, which made it easier for the Secret Police to spot their prey.
In the dark of the night, her eyes surveyed the guard posts and then moved to the border patrol, which stood unattended next to the barbed-wired fence. She studied a small box attached to the gate and counted as it ticked every second. She felt its electricity flow through her body – every second stung her like needles.
She pushed her bike over to a barn she was told had once been used by the Fascists as an arsenal. Her father had recounted how he and his group had disengaged the mine traps on the surrounding grounds.
She tiptoed slowly, all the while looking down to avoid the rusty mines afraid they still had power to harm. Quietly, she entered the wrecked barn, where she took off her heavy coat.
Stripping herself naked, she covered her skin with olive oil that she had taken from her mother’s cupboard. She had once seen a Gypsy from her student-acting troupe cover her own body with olive oil and dirt before going home. When Mica had asked her why, the girl had replied, “Rabid dogs are roaming near my house. Only olive oil and dirt are stronger than human scent. If they don’t smell me, they won’t bother me.”
Mica concentrated on rubbing the same solution mixed with mud from the ground on her neck and into her hair, as if she were applying make-up for one of their plays. Now, rubbing the oily solution on her face, she hoped her actions would keep her safe.
Her hands touched her bra’s padded cups, and she counted the six bumps that hid her six largest diamonds. She bent down and picked up a box of paprika that she had packed. Sprinkling the red spice on top of her sweater and pants, she pretended, for a moment, it was fairy dust. She rubbed the powder into the olive oil and mud on her face and neck until she was a red and brown color with no human odor whatsoever.
She put on her bulky coat that she had used for her role as Juliet, and sat down on the dirt floor to remove her black boots. Examining the hand-sewn double soles where she hid most of her diamonds, she banged the shoes together several times to make sure the soles were tightly glued.
Reassured, she kissed her boots and raised her face to the sky. “Please help me.”
Taking the silver charm in the shape of the small pill box from her sock, she made sure it was closed. Then she turned her attention to her coat pockets. In one, she found the rubber gloves and hand rake her father had told her to take from the basement. In the other, she fingered the metal cutter from her father’s drawer. With her tools intact, she sat down on the icy ground and took deep breaths. She was ready to walk toward the electric fence.
Mica got on her knees and studied the pine trees in the distance. She searched the ground with her fingers until she found the exact spot to dig. Her father had circled the location several times on his map. “Where the last pine tree and barn meet, create a sixty-degree angle with your eyes. Then look down to the ground.”
He had taken out his ruler and had drawn a diagram. “Create an isosceles triangle with two equal sides at that spot. The two lines will converge at a point where you will see in the distance the chimney of Dracula’s castle.”
She had studied the photos in his hands, and watched him measure the angles with his ruler and compass.
“This is the section of the fence from which you will dig a rectangle the same size as your body,” he explained, circling the point with his red pencil. “The earth is muddy and soft there. Dig two feet deep and don’t forget to do the same thing on the other side of the fence, so you can pass safely through.”
He repeated the directions again and again, and then cautioned her not to give into the impulse to run toward freedom after crossing over. She needed to remain composed and focused, to finish her digging on both sides with care so her body or coat would not accidentally touch a cable.
Mica put on the rubber gloves to protect herself from the fence’s electrical volts. But while studying the chimney of Dracula’s castle to calculate the precise angle, she remembered that as a child she had dressed up as Dracula and had so much pleasure. She had worn a black cape and pretended to fly around her house. It was so much fun.
She tried hard to focus on digging, but was so afraid someone would see her. Her mind kept wandering, dreaming. She couldn’t stop thinking good thoughts. For now, it was her only way to escape reality. She was so nervous.
She remembered her history teacher had told the class that Dracula had stopped the Turks from invading Romania. The teacher had moved to the front of the class, flicked his stick in the air, and with its tip, tapped a boy on the head. “How did he do it?”
When the boy shrugged his shoulders, the teacher hit him hard on the head. “With sheer terror! You all know that Dracul in Romanian means Devil. And he was thirsty for human blood. Some people say he carried a flask made from human bone, which he hollowed out and filled with blood, just in case he got thirsty.”
Some students laughed like she did, others moved uncomfortably in their chair.
“Yes, Vlad the Impaler was blood thirsty,” the teacher continued. “His greatest pleasure was to wake up in the morning and watch a line of people being impaled by his soldiers with a long pointed stake up the victim’s rectum that came out through the stomach.
“Count Dracul would smile and breakfast on toast rubbed with garlic and drink bloody tea. All the time, enjoying his garden view.”
* * *
Mica stopped digging to calculate if she had done enough. She had estimated that her body needed an opening three feet wide and two feet deep; her thin figure, 5’4” and 115 pounds, would then be able to slip under the fence on both sides.
But there was more work to do. The only light came from the small flashlight she had propped up in the dirt. As she was digging, her thoughts wandered again. She imagined Hungary, just wires away, where the guards would be sleeping. Her father had told her they’d be drunk and full of wine from the evening’s festival of St. Stephen. There was an American Embassy in Budapest, a network for political refugees, a visa, a new passport, and a telephone call to her uncle. Certainly, he’d help. They were family. She had diamonds!
Mica stopped digging. Her pinky ached. Putting her finger in her mouth, she started to cry as a dreadful memory came flashing back. She had been tortured. Five years ago, when she was eleven-years-old. Aside from today, it was the cruelest day of her life.
Mica remembered how that horrible day had started. She had been walking home, alone, from school, when she noticed a Securitate policeman on a motorcycle was following her.
“Halt! Stop!” He rode up in front of her, blocking her from walking farther.
“Get on!” He pointed with his gun to the side seat of his vehicle. He immediately locked her wrists in handcuffs.
He led her to Headquarters, where the chief was waiting for her. She had heard about his cruel tactics. Staring at the man, she realized why everyone was so afraid of him. He had a glass eye that was fixed in one direction. His other eye had a tick. When he spoke, she saw his three front teeth were made of steel and the teeth he had were covered with brown spots of nicotine.
“Stand at attention!” he had yelled, taking a whip from his desk and snapping it at her feet.
She felt the tip lash her leg. She jumped away. “What did I do wrong?” She started to cry.
“Your father likes radios,” he began.
She didn’t answer.
“He speaks English?”
She shrugged her shoulders, but even at eleven, she knew to speak or read English, the language of Capitalists, was considered a crime. The only people she knew who spoke English were her parents, Mr. Marinescu and several students from her acting group.
“I know he’s an engineer,” the chief said unlocking her handcuffs, putting her small hand in his, and removing from his pocket a pair of pliers. He flashed the tool in front of her face, and placed the metal tip under a special light. She saw it turn fiery red.
“In my office,” he said louder, showing her the hot tip of the pliers, “I have the power to do whatever I want. Anything!”
He pulled her pinky to his hand. “Such a sweet little nail you have.”
He took the pliers, tightened it on her fingernail, and pulled strenuously.
“Ow-w-w!” she screamed. “I’m burning!” she cried, hysterically. “I’m on fire! Please stop! Please! No!”
He pulled harder until her nail dropped to the floor; she fell down, the pain beyond description.
“Get up!” the chief ordered.
“No! Please,” she cried, sucking her throbbing pinky. She took the finger out of her mouth and showed him the blood streaming down. “I’m only eleven years old. I didn’t do anything. Let me go home!”
He pulled her up by her neck. “Get to attention!”
He put the pliers under the red light again, grabbed her by the arm, and put the red hot steel on top of her thumb.
“Your father listens to Radio Free Europe on a short-wave radio. The neighbor told us so. That’s a crime!”
His pliers played with her thumb nail, burning the tender skin around it.
“Stop!” she yelled. “Stop! Please, no more!”
“We know you speak English too. Your history teacher said so.”
She tried to pull her hand away, but his grip was too tight. Her pinky was gushing blood. She couldn’t stop crying.
“We need someone like you to work for us. A youngster who speaks Romanian, Hungarian, and English without an accent.”
He put his evil tool under the light again. His steel teeth reflected red. Mica fell again to the floor, kicking her legs and screaming, knowing she was fighting for her life.
“Would you like to be that youngster?”
She couldn’t answer. She could barely breathe through her sobbing.
He grabbed her again by the neck. Picked her up from the ground and threw her into a chair. He put his pliers to her ring finger. She felt the red hot tip burn her skin and she bit her lip to stop herself from fainting.
“Do you want more?”
Mica couldn’t refuse the language of the Secret Police. “Would my father get in trouble?”
He smiled, pleased. “As long as you work for us, he’s safe.”
She understood. She had to save her father.
“When will I do this? My parents will find out if I don’t come home.”
“You’ll work for us instead of going to school. Twice a week. Your history teacher will bring you here.”
“You won’t tell my mother and father what I’m doing?”
“You can trust me,” he replied, winking.
She looked down, ashamed, and put her bleeding finger inside her mouth. How would she explain her missing nail?
And so, Mica was recruited as a child spy for the Communists. Since she lived in Transylvania, the area of land that had been shuffled back and forth between Romania and Hungary for centuries, she spoke Romanian and Hungarian without an accent. English, she had learned from her mother and her Shakespearean books.
They dressed her up as a newspaper boy and put her to work on Romanian trains. Her job: to make sure that the train’s bugging devices were working. The main circuit box was in the first-class bathroom, hidden behind the toilet. Only a small child’s hands could fit into the narrow opening. She was also forced to tape conversations with a tape recorder buried in a large sack full of German and French newspapers, which she carried in a backpack.
One day, she overheard several men speaking in English about the Vatican’s involvement in overthrowing Communism in Eastern Europe. Religion, they claimed, was being destroyed. They were priests traveling incognito to organize secret meetings, to counteract Communist regimes.
Mica had been so happy to hear about their plans that she lingered next to them as they chatted. To do her share for the cause, she destroyed the tape of the priests’ conversation, and for an entire month, she felt redeemed.
Mica despised Communism, and she hated it even more after being tortured and forced to work for them. She was afraid if she didn’t continue to cooperate, her father would be arrested. She was tormented by her shame; yet, she knew she had no choice but to continue working for the enemy.
Another day, she realized just how much being a spy was not a game or a role in a play. She was “selling newspapers” on the train when she noticed two men, both Romanian, who were arguing. They wore green shirts that Mica recognized as being the uniform of the Romanian Legionari – Romania’s Fascist party.
Mica saw that the older of the two was yelling at the younger one, while pointing a gun to his head.
“You’ll never get this information for such a pitiful price!” the younger Romanian protested, unafraid of the weapon between his eyes. He held up a piece of paper, and as he opened his mouth to swallow the paper, Mica saw he had gold teeth.
The older Romanian tried to grab the paper, but the other man ran away. He climbed out the window and made his way to the top of the train.
Mica opened the window next to where she was sitting and stretched her neck outside to find the man. He was running on top of the train and was ready to jump off when the train passed under a power line. She saw that the man’s hands got entangled in the electrical wires. In a split second, his ten fingers turned to flames before her stunned eyes. With his hands burning, he jumped off the train and ran into the forest.
To calm herself down, Mica walked in and out of the first-class cabins to sell her newspapers. As she entered the last one, she realized it was empty. On a seat, she saw a large book, thicker and shinier than any her mother had ever brought home. She stared at it, not daring to touch it, afraid her fingerprints would expose her curiosity and land her in jail. On the cover was a building with a tip pointed so high that it scraped the sky. The steel was surrounded by a setting sun sparkling like bright red diamonds.
She picked up the book, unable to fight temptation. She looked around the empty cabin, and then out the window to check if anyone could see her. She stuffed the book into her newspapers, then rushed out of the cabin to the bathroom.
As if in a dream, she fingered the title words –
New York. She opened the book, stroked the paper, and studied each page. There was a photo of a park covered by fine snow, a layer so pure that only God could have sprinkled the Earth so pearly white. Turning the page, she stared at a wide avenue, with its dazzling bulbs lighting up theaters and billboards. Hungry for more, she whisked through the pages, greedily, until on the very last one she saw fireworks bursting colored gems over New York’s sky. She wondered if the photos could possibly be real. They looked as though the camera’s flash had sprayed the city with fairy dust and diamonds.
She didn’t know what to do with the book. All she knew was that she needed to own it, to touch the colored pages, to believe they were real. She couldn’t help but take the book. She became obsessed to make that world her own.
Each night for the next five years, before she went to bed, she fantasized about being in New York; strolling on the avenues, exploring the hidden corners, feeling the lights lift her body. Before closing her eyes, she’d think of the photo where fog surrounded the city and closed it off from the rest of the world. She imagined the fog reaching to Heaven, making New York an island for the brave. She’d caress the pages of her magic book, praying that one day she’d be free in New York.
Mica couldn’t take the book with her as she escaped. But she hoped that one day the photos would become real.
* * *