Copyright © 2015 by Heather Anastasiu
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
For Dragoș Anastasiu,
my husband, my lover, my heart.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE HAPPY OCCASION
HUSBAND AND WIFE
Do not live life looking ahead or behind you like the gagii do, Tsura’s grandfather once told her. Only fools think they can live in the future, even though it does not exist until you are there! But as Tsura followed Andrei up the ladder out of the cramped basement, she was tempted to ignore Grandfather Besnik’s advice.
This war would end. Or they would escape the country. Andrei spoke often of a future together, no matter that she told him it would invite bad luck. And Andrei was no fool. He told her there were places no one wanted to kill the Jews. And the Roma? she had asked. You are planning to convert to my religion and be with me, he said, so you’ll be safe too.
That sounded so very good to her. After nineteen years on this earth, it was all she wanted—to live without being afraid, surrounded by the ones she loved. Was it so bad to dream of that beautiful future and reside there in her mind?
Tsura pushed herself up the last rung of the ladder and through the trapdoor into the cramped closet, landing half on top of Andrei. She smiled wide. Maybe the future didn’t matter so much tonight. Because they were stealing a small slice of that future happiness and eating it all up, right here in the present.
Andrei put an arm around her neck and drew her to him, attempting to kiss her in the pitch black of the closet. His wet mouth connected with her nose instead and he chuckled low.
“Shh, we can’t make any noise,” she whispered in her quietest voice. “After all that time waiting for Liviu to fall asleep.” She glanced back down into the dimly lit square to the basement. They kept only a single oil lamp on low during the night and she couldn’t make out the forms of the elderly Liviu Weinberg or his wife Eva.
Andrei scoffed but gently placed the wooden trapdoor back over the hole. “I swear that old man was tormenting me on purpose tonight,” he whispered, opening the door to the closet. He kicked blankets over the trapdoor to hide it. “Every time I was sure he was asleep, he’d start muttering about the damn checkers game again.”
“Shh,” Tsura said, straining not to smile again. How did Andrei do it? Her chest was warm with happiness, such a new feeling it still felt foreign.
She hugged him from behind when he headed into the open space of the spare bedroom, nuzzling her face into the back of his neck. She couldn’t not touch him now that they were finally alone. His skin was so smooth. She ran her nose along the base of his neck and then kissed the same spot. He smelled like her Andrei—the sharp bite of lye soap mixed with his natural scent and the barest hint of sandalwood from the half-empty bottle of cologne he and Liviu were forced to use sparingly between sponge-baths.
“Don’t,” Andrei whispered throatily, looking over his shoulder and detangling her arms from his waist. “Not here.” He kept one of her hands caught in his.
She bit her lip, cheeks coloring. She was glad for the dark room. Only the barest of moonlight came through the window. Still, Andrei grinned at her and leaned in for a quick kiss before closing the closet door behind them. The happiness erupting up inside her was like boiling water frothing over its pot. Only Andrei brought this out in her.
The Weinbergs constantly fought. Being stuck in a narrow basement together for the last eighteen months didn’t help—they’d been in there a year longer than Tsura. There wasn’t even a high window to let in natural light. Tsura was sure sometimes she could open her mouth and bite the air with her teeth, it grew so stale.
But then there was Andrei. Tsura had told him his name should be Tsura, because it meant the light of the dawn. After nine months cloistered in the basement with only the Weinbergs for company, Andrei had burst into her life like a bright star. He’d been smuggled in four months ago in a hay cart in the middle of the night. They were outlaws, all of them, for one reason or another—the Weinbergs for resisting the Iron Guardists when they’d tried to seize their pharmacy, Andrei for deserting the army when they’d started killing Jews in their ranks, and Tsura for… she closed her eyes as the scene flashed again in her mind.
Run, Tsura! her brother Luca had yelled as he tackled the officer trying to arrest the two of them. No matter his prosthetic leg he’d earned in the army the year before while fighting the Russians at Odessa. No matter that he knew it meant sacrificing himself for her. Tsura had run. And she had ended up in this basement. Safe. While Luca had landed on a train north to the concentration camps for the great crime of having skin a shade too dark while at the market buying plums. The government didn’t like gypsies any better than they liked Jews.
After another moment pausing to listen, Andrei nodded and pulled her forward. The house was silent. They’d waited until near midnight when they were sure Domnul Popescu would be asleep. He was almost as old as the Weinbergs and went to sleep around ten. But Tsura and Andrei still knew how important it was to be quiet.
Domnul Popescu was a kind man to take them all in and wouldn’t appreciate their nighttime wanderings. There were neighbors who were more than nosy, and the town hadn’t been kind to its Jews. But she and Andrei knew how to be careful.
Her eyes strayed to the picture on the wall as they always did before leaving the empty bedroom. The room belonged to Domnul Popescu’s grandson Mihai, for when he visited. The picture was of Mihai and her own brother, Luca. They were so young, maybe only twelve or thirteen, and wearing identical school uniforms. Tsura’s chest gave an involuntary clench. Luca grinned so wide, every one of his teeth must be showing. Mihai stood tall and stoic beside him, though he leaned in to the arm Luca had thrown around his shoulder.
Incredible that the lives of a Roma and gagii family should become so intertwined. Luca had rescued Mihai from drowning in the Black Sea one morning when an undercurrent caught and swept him out. The only place a Roma boy and a wealthy gagii boy would ever come across one another—a beach in the early hours of morning when no one else was around. Luca could have drowned as well, as far out as he’d had to swim. Impulse, that was her brother. Impulse, with heart, and a dash of idiocy. And generosity and humor and compassion and stubbornness and—
She clutched Andrei’s hand tighter as they walked silently through the muggy house, warm with July heat. She shook her head as if she could physically rid her body of all of these thoughts. Not about where Luca was right now. Or how Mihai had grown up and betrayed them all, working for the Nazis in Bucharest as a translator. Even if he had brought her here to his grandfather’s house after she’d run from the police in the market that day—out of a debt he felt he owed to Luca.
She squeezed her eyes shut briefly. Andrei. There was only Andrei’s skin against her skin. His body connecting to hers, a kiss of souls.
She walked faster so that it wasn’t him leading her, but her pulling him through the small house. She led him past the big ceramic wood hearth in the central room and through the narrow kitchen and then finally, finally, through the back door to escape into the warm night.
Tsura breathed in the scent of the fresh air rushing through the fir trees and her whole body relaxed at the rightness of it. They were hidden from the world by the small lean-to shed attached to the house where Domnul Popescu kept chopped wood for the stove. A tall half wall separated the wood shed from the chicken coop and pig pen.
Tsura ignored the smells of the animals and felt the wind blow through her pores and straight into her soul and then out again like she was a great set of lungs. Yes. She could breathe again. Finally.
“Where is your head tonight, beautiful one?” Andrei whispered into her ear as he tugged her inside the woodshed. She threw her arms around his neck.
“With you, always with you,” she breathed out, kissing him.
The rickety structure was enclosed on three sides. The chickens were quiet in their roosts, and even the pigs didn’t make much noise at this time of night. When Tsura angled herself just right, she still had a view of the stars, yet she and Andrei were kept hidden from any neighbors visiting their own backyard privies in the middle of the night. There was nothing Tsura loved better than kissing Andrei while watching the stars.
Andrei pulled Tsura deeper into the shadows. Tsura felt like there was champagne bubbling through her veins as Andrei’s hands went to her breasts and his lips trailed hot on her neck. They took another stumbling step back, bodies pressed together.
A loud squawk and flutter of movement at their feet made them break apart. God! Tsura covered her mouth just in time to cover her gasping shriek from escaping out loud.
Andrei swore, then kicked at the ground. “Out of here!” he hissed. “Stupid chicken!”
Tsura started giggling softly and reached over, picking up the hen. She was careful to stay clear of the pecking beak and ran a hand down the animal’s back, soothing her ruffled feathers. “Shh,” she said, laughing at Andrei’s still sour face. “We’re the ones who interrupted her sleep.”
Andrei plucked the chicken out of Tsura’s hands and set it down outside of the shed, flapping his arms. “Go. Shoo.”
Then he jogged the few steps back to Tsura, smiling now. “Well, it was interrupting my time with you. And that is unforgiveable.” He kissed her and his hands went to her waist.
Within seconds, it was Tsura yanking him back until his body pinned hers against the wall of the house. He wasn’t close enough. Never close enough. She kissed him deeply in the devouring way she liked best. Immediately her hands lifted up his shirt. The skin of his abdomen and chest was so smooth, with barely any hair even though he was twenty. It felt like silk underneath her fingers, so soft and hot.
To be tormented by a sense of inner infinity means to live so intensely that you feel you are about to die of life. The passage from Cioran rang through her head. Yes. That was what this felt like. That she was about to die of life. Between the touches and Andrei’s lips on her neck, a small whimper came out of her throat.
“You are so passionate, my little princess,” he murmured between kisses. “More passionate than any woman I have ever known.”
He dropped his hands only long enough to pull up her skirt. He leaned in harder, pressing his hips against hers. Tsura didn’t mind the way the sharp wood cut into her back. All she could think about was the warm heat flooding all the way down to her toes and the way it made her forget every other thing. It was always like this when Andrei touched her. He was the first one to ever kiss her, he’d been her teacher in all such things.
“I have to have you now,” Andrei whispered, pressing her harder against the wall. He yanked up her skirt and undid his pants in almost the same motion. He grunted as he pushed inside her, and Tsura lifted a leg to wrap around him. She inhaled him and slipped her hand into the back of his pants, grasping his backside to guide him in deeper.
The feel of him taking her, oh Lord, there was nothing like it in the world. She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him closer, closer, wishing that she was the man and he the woman so that for once it could be her who disappeared inside him. What a safe, safe place that would be.
She held him tighter as he buried his face in the crook of her neck to quiet his grunts that grew more and more frantic until finally he growled low in his throat and then stilled against her, his breaths heavy. She held his face to her breast and combed her fingers through his hair. She murmured the love words he had taught her.
“You feel so good, Andrei, I never knew anything could feel so good,” she whispered. “I will love you forever.”
He held her for several long moments, and then pulled away with one last kiss.
His body separated from hers and for an absurd moment she felt like crying. It always went so fast. She wished he could love her for hours, but then again, they had to sneak in the middle of the night. The rough wall of the house was a far cry from a warm bed and a soft mattress. Still, she was always left with a whimpering sense of dissatisfaction. She pulled him back against her, unwilling to let him go.
He laughed into her ear. “Tsura, my love, we need to go back inside.”
Tsura gave a small shake of her head and clutched him in place. “No,” she whispered. “I want to stay like this forever.”
He gave another chuckle, and she loved the way his warm breath puffed in her ear when he laughed. She loosened her grip on him slightly. He was still here, still with her.
“Soon, my love,” he said, “soon. This war will end and you’ll convert and then we’ll make our home together. My mother will come over and cook all kinds of kosher foods that you’ll probably hate. She’ll be overbearing, but my passionate little Tsura won’t fear anything, not even a strong-willed Jewish mother-in-law! And I’ll get a job and we’ll lay together every night—”
“Shh, shh,” Tsura placed a hand over his mouth, shaking her head. He was only saying things he’d said before, and they were her dearest desires. But that made it even worse that he spoke them so carelessly out loud. “Don’t talk about these things. It’s bad luck to plan for the future.”
But Andrei just laughed again. “We Jews think so often about the future. It’s always Next year in Jerusalem! We’ve spent generations waiting for a Messiah who hasn’t shown up yet, but that doesn’t stop us from still expecting him.” His voice lowered and he grew serious. “Some people are tired of waiting though. There was talk before I had to go into hiding about Jews moving to Palestine and finally having a homeland of our own.” His back straightened. “You’ll come with me. We’ll go and set up a house that no one will ever threaten to burn down. We’ll have children who will walk to school and not have to be afraid.”
Andrei stopped, noticing Tsura’s flinch. “I’m sorry, I forgot,” he said quickly, kissing her on the lips. “We’ll just have the nice house and never worry about having to chase after drooling babies. I’ll get a good job and you’ll—”
Tsura put three fingers against his lips again to stop him talking. It wasn’t just the mention of her never being able to have children, which Andrei always said didn’t matter. If she ever allowed herself to even think about the future, she would worry that one day it would, no matter what he said now. Ever since the doctors had told her she’d never have children—and then right afterwards her father had sent her away from the caravan to live with her brother in the gagii world—she couldn’t help but believe that being barren meant she would always be alone.
“No more talk of the future.” She smiled gaily. She couldn’t allow it, no matter how much she might secretly want to. He who eats too much eats away his own luck. She was with Andrei now, in this moment. It was enough. “We’ll pray for luck and take each day as it arrives to us.”
Andrei nuzzled the tender space between her neck and shoulder. “My little pagan. My superstitious gypsy,” he whispered. But then he pulled back, his face serious. “I mean it, Tsura. We’ve talked around this, but I mean this truly. I will be your husband and you will be my wife. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Tsura blinked at him. Yes, he’d talked about a future together, but never so blatantly. She blinked again, realization slowly settling in. She felt a smile tug at one side of her mouth and then spread until she was grinning so wide her cheeks began to hurt. “Are you…” she choked out. “Was that a proposal? Of marriage?”
He grasped both her hands firmly in his. “The word proposal insinuates there could be an answer other than yes. So no, I am not proposing, because I won’t accept a refusal. I am telling you, Tsura Draghici, that I’ll be your husband, and you’ll be my wife. We’re engaged now.”
Engaged. Her. The barren one. To Andrei. Handsome, wonderful Andrei. Who loved her and had just said he would be her husband. The joy was slow to hit her because it was so unbelievable. All she could do was nod over and over and then toss her arms around him. She kissed him hard, laughed and then kissed him again. This was real. It was really happening. To her.
“All right,” he finally pulled away with a satisfied smile. “We do need to get in the house.”
When he stepped backwards, though, he accidentally knocked into the wood pile and sent several of the stacked logs crashing to the ground.
Tsura froze, but Andrei only laughed. “It’s the middle of the night, love, who is there to hear us?” He calmly started restacking the logs.
“Hello?” a deep voice called. “Is there someone back here?”
Startled, Andrei dropped the log he was holding, which sent it bouncing against the wall of the shed with a loud thud.
“Who’s there? Come out.”
Tsura’s heartbeat stuttered. Andrei leapt to hide behind a stack of logs, but before Tsura could follow him, a flashlight suddenly shined in her face. Oh God. Oh God. This was it. Of course it had all been too good to last. She should have known it the moment she let herself feel such outrageous happiness when Andrei had proclaimed they were engaged. She should have run for cover that very moment. Anything too bright or lovely and the darkness chased it down.
But then a second later the flashlight dropped down and she could see who was holding it.
“Oh Mihai,” she choked out through an almost hysterical laugh, hugging him. He wasn’t the kind of man you usually hugged, especially since Tsura didn’t even like him considering the work he did. But he wasn’t anyone worse and that was such a relief, she hugged him almost as hard as she’d hugged Andrei after he’d proposed.
Mihai did not hug her back. This wasn’t surprising. He was a cold man at the best of times. Even before he’d become a Nazi collaborator.
She dropped her arms and then another thought registered. Why was he here? He lived five hours away in Bucharest. Did he have news about Luca? Had he finally heard something from the camps? But before she could ask, there was another voice behind her.
“And who is this, Mihai?”
For the second time in as many minutes, Tsura’s body went still in terror. Because when she looked behind her, there was a stranger in an army uniform, pointing a gun straight at her.
The silence spread thick between the three figures in the back yard. Mihai stood like iron beside Tsura. She looked to him. He would do something. Surely. He was a large man. Then her gaze flicked to the one holding the gun on her. He wasn’t small. Besides, everything she knew of Mihai—quiet, cold, intellectual Mihai—made her think he’d never been in a fight in his life, no matter his intimidating size. Getting into a fight would require fury or passion. From all she’d seen of him in the six years she’d known him, he never felt either.
Tsura focused in on the soldier holding the gun. Her spine stiffened. She wouldn’t lay down meekly on the earth to die. If they could just get the gun away from the soldier—
Suddenly Mihai’s heavy arm clamped around her shoulders and he drew her into his warm body. What in the devil’s—
“This is Alexandra,” Mihai said in his normal gruff voice, “my fiancée.”
Tsura stifled her gasp of surprise. His… fiancée? She immediately pasted a serene smile on her face even as she tried to adjust her head to the ploy. She could see the sense in it. She had flung herself into Mihai’s arms when she’d seen him, after all. Alexandra was a good name too. One of the most popular in the country. Perfectly nondescript.
The other man lowered his gun slightly, but didn’t put it away all together. “Fiancée? What is she doing outside at this time of night?”
“Bathroom,” Tsura said quickly, her voice slightly shrill. She nodded toward the privy at the back of the yard. “I was awake and it’s such a warm night, I couldn’t help stopping to look for a bit at the stars. Mihai always calls me such a dreamer,” she snaked her arm around Mihai’s waist and looked affectionately up into his face.
He was stiff under her arms, but he schooled his features into a pleasant enough profile. Well, maybe not pleasant, but he at least made an attempt to soften his usually scowling mouth. He was so broad, her hand barely reached the other side of his waist. Completely the opposite of what holding Andrei felt like. Andrei. She felt her eyes widen. Oh Lord. Please let him stay where he was in the shed. Not come out and try to play hero.
“Alexandra,” Mihai continued, nodding his head at the other man, “this is Bogdan, my neighbor. He’s on furlough. Came across each other at the train station, both going south. Now, friend,” he turned his dark gaze on Bogdan, “I’ll thank you to put away your gun.”
Bogdan still eyed Tsura critically, then looked at Mihai. “We were on the train together for ten hours from Chișinău and you never once mention you have a fiancée?”
Tsura’s eyes jumped to Mihai’s face. Chișinău? That was in Transnistria, where the camps were. Why had Mihai been there? Had he learned anything about her brother? Mihai might work for the Nazis but Tsura had to believe he loved her brother, at least as much as a man like Mihai was able. After the seaside rescue, his parents had been so grateful, they’d offered to take Luca home with them and raise him as a gagii, and give him the best education so he would not face a future of poverty in the caravan. Likely they didn’t realize the great insult of the offer, and Tsura and Luca’s father managed to overlook it as well. For his own reasons and to the dismay of the community, he granted the request. Luca went to live with Mihai’s family.
Luca and Mihai’d grown up together and stayed close all throughout their University years. In spite of everything, and his current work, Mihai wouldn’t abandon her brother… Would he?
Mihai squeezed her arm and she dropped her focus back to Bogdan. Later, she’d find out later.
There was something about Mihai’s tense stance pressed up against her side that told her he and Bogdan might be neighbors, but they weren’t friends. So, even though Bogdan had lowered the gun, she and Andrei weren’t safe yet.
Mihai shrugged. “Your stories were so interesting,” he said with such a flat voice, Tsura couldn’t tell if he was trying to be sarcastic or not. “And as you grouched on the train, I’m a man of few words.”
Bogdan’s expression loosened and he slid the gun back into his belt. “My mother didn’t write about any fiancée staying with Domnul Popescu.” Tsura remembered Domnul Popescu warning them about the village gossip who lived next door, one of the reasons they stayed in the basement at all times.
“She only arrived a couple of days ago,” Mihai lied smoothly. “She was staying near Fălticeni before. Taking care of family.”
Tsura kept her face relaxed and happy. She’d played many parts in front of gagii before. Pretend to be mysterious. Smile to make them think you know something they do not, her older cousin Mirela had always told her. That way they will give you money to tell their fortunes but also be afraid of you.
Why do we want them to be afraid of us? Tsura, only seven at the time, had asked. It hadn’t seemed like a good thing, to want to make people afraid.
It keeps us safe, Mirela answered. They will drive us out of their towns, nothing can stop that, but they will not steal from us or kill us if they believe we can lay curses on them. We must be chameleons. Always have many faces, and never let them see your true one.
Hiding her true face had never been as important as it was now.
“It’s so lovely to meet you, Bogdan,” Tsura slid her arm out from around Mihai’s waist to hold it out to the soldier. She made her voice enthusiastic. “I haven’t had the opportunity to meet many of Mihai’s friends yet. I was so excited to come here where he spent all his summers as a child. As you know, our Mihai never uses ten words when one will do,” she laughed, “so spending time with his grandfather has been wonderful. He even has pictures of Mihai when he was a little boy! He was so cute. These cheeks of his.” She reached up and pinched one of Mihai’s now angular cheeks. His look told her he was not amused, but he did allow one corner of his mouth to tilt upwards. Mihai’s version of a smile, and probably all for Bogdan’s benefit.
Bogdan reluctantly took her hand and then kissed both of her cheeks. Tsura’s back tensed at the contact, smelling his foul cigarette breath, but she kept her features smooth. When he pulled back, his eyes were suspicious. He didn’t completely believe them yet. Never safe, never safe, never safe. She’d been a fool to forget, even for a moment, that fundamental truth of life.
“After the difficult journey, I haven’t done much more than sleep,” Tsura prattled on, then laughed, “which is probably why I’m so awake in the middle of the night. But Domnul Popescu did mention your mother and her lovely garden. I look forward to seeing it. Come now, Mihai,” she looked up at the big man. “It’s after midnight and you must be so tired, let’s get you inside—”
“You’re right,” Bogdan interrupted. “We have traveled such a long way and we’re hungry and thirsty. I’d welcome your hospitality.”
And with that, he pushed past Tsura and went into Domnul Popescu’s house. Tsura’s mouth dropped open as she looked wide-eyed at Mihai. A vein in his forehead jumped, but then he put his hand at the small of her back and thrust her inside.
“Of course,” Mihai said, loud enough so Bogdan would hear. “Alexandra would love to fix us something.”
Tsura’s back went rigid again, but with one last wild glance toward the woodshed where Andrei was still hidden, she allowed herself to be hustled inside.
It took all of her self-control to make her voice steady. “I’d be glad to. Your grandfather still has some țuică he made last year, darling, and I can fry up some potatoes in no time at all.”
In spite of trying not to, she couldn’t help thinking of the Weinbergs sleeping directly under their feet, or of Andrei cowering outside the door. She prayed fervently. Let them all stay in place, no one move.
She gave a bright smile and poured each of the men a glass of țuică. The scent of fermented plums filled the kitchen, not quite covering the sour smell of Bogdan’s unwashed, smoky odor. “Mihai says you’re a soldier. Were you at the battle of Stalingrad?”
Bogdan’s suspicious gaze never left her. What was he seeing? Her skin was a shade darker than most Romanians, but it could be explained away by saying she spent time out under the sun. She wasn’t as dark as most Roma, probably because her grandmother had been a gagica. She thanked God for that Romanian peasant grandmother now.
Tsura’s hair was dark and slightly wavy, but she’d cut it so it was a little past her shoulders, half held out of her face by clips like any other Romanian woman. Her nose was a tad larger than typical beauty standards allowed, she knew, and then there were her eyes. They were a light, almost translucent amber. Tiger’s eyes, Luca called them. Wicked gypsy eyes, the children at gagii school said when they made fun of her after she came to live with Luca. They marked her as strange, different. Bogdan would probably not guess she was Roma, but would he think she was Jewish?
“No, I’m stationed at Transnistria,” Bogdan continued, “protecting Romanians against that disease on our country, the Jews.”
Was Bogdan trying to get a reaction out of her? “Oh, how nice,” Tsura made herself say. She smiled sweetly before turning to the stove to prepare the potatoes.
“We are very inventive in our methods of dealing with them,” Bogdan continued. “General Antonescu wants to get rid of them all by shipping them to Russia, but the Germans stationed there don’t want them and keep sending them back over the Bug river. I don’t know why we don’t install gas chambers like they do at the camps in Germany. The Germans might be overbearing bastards, but at least they know how to take care of their Jews. If you ask me we had the right idea in Iași. Wish we could do the same thing here in Bacău.”
Tsura’s hand stilled for a moment from peeling potatoes. There had been rumors of a terrible pogrom in Iași, but little more information than that. “Oh?”
Bogdan laughed, an ugly choking sound. “I was working with the German Einsatzgruppen as we cleaned out Bucovina, so I knew just what to do when we got the call from Antonescu to clear Iași. After we took care of the ones in the city, we loaded the rest on a train. They thought they were safe,” Bogdan laughed again, even slapping his knee. “That we were shipping them somewhere else. But all we did was send the train back and forth,” he made a motion with his fingers of a train bouncing back and forth between stations.
“And the heat in the cars took care of the rest of them for us! Thousands and thousands of them. When some fools finally gave them food and water at one of the stations where they stopped, the ones that were left clawed at each other like animals to get it.” He shook his head like someone might do after telling a humorous anecdote. “They all show their true nature in the end. It’s the same in Transnistria, but we get to treat them like the dogs they are there with no one to stop us.”
Tsura glanced sideways at the heavy cast iron frying skillet full of congealed fat that was always kept on the stove. Two seconds and she could be swinging it into Bogdan’s smarmy face. She’d probably take him by surprise. Before he could get that gun of his out again. She blinked hard to swallow down the impulse and continued peeling potatoes. Biting her lip, she gripped the potato she held so hard her knuckles turned white.
Luca was in Transnistria. She hadn’t wanted to believe the horror stories. She’d told herself it was simply like a far away prison, and yes, her brother would have a hard time of it, but he would survive. Of course he would survive. Yet here was this filthy dog gloating about hurting other human beings with no more remorse than if they were cockroaches he squashed underneath his boot. Worse, he seemed to take pleasure in it.
Tsura kept her back turned away from him, unsure if she could school her features correctly. Yes, she’d learned to be a consummate chameleon, but even she had her limits. She turned to the icebox and pulled out several thin chops of pork. It was a small thing, but maybe it would help convince Bogdan she wasn’t Jewish. She hated that. She wanted to scream at him that she was now engaged to a Jewish man and she was going to convert as soon as she could.
But no—she forced her breathing to stay even—she had to live long enough to convert and she had to protect the man outside that she was going to marry. So when the fat in the skillet had turned to liquid, she laid out the pork in the oil. They immediately began to sizzle. Then she began to slice up the potatoes she’d peeled, glad to have her hands busy. If she was cutting potatoes, she could not claw Bogdan’s eyes out.
Soon the delicious smell of pork filled the room as she sliced more potatoes into long thin rectangles. When the pork was done, she pulled it out with a fork, one each onto three plates, and set the first batch of potatoes cooking in the grease.
A quick glance over her shoulder showed Mihai sitting at the small kitchen table, his țuică untouched in front of him. He watched Bogdan continue talking about the camps with his trademark impassive, unreadable expression on his face. If the Roma excelled in wearing many faces, Mihai wore only one, as if God had carved him from marble long ago, but unlike the rest of humanity, had forgotten to add the spark of life. Tsura turned back to the stove and tuned Bogdan’s voice out by singing along silently in her head to one of the folk songs she and Luca had loved to play together.
Luca never looked more like his true self than when he had a fiddle in his hands. He had secured a makeshift strap on the old battered case of his violin, and he took it with him everywhere. His university friends called him the crazy singing gypsy, but most said it with affection. And Tsura had been glad to be the crazy gypsy’s sister.
When he played and she sang they were the best at being double-faced, knowing they looked like happy fool gypsies from the outside while at the same time they were speaking a language that only they two understood. A secret language sewn into the music itself that the gagii could never hold in their hands or contain within their walls. One that connected them to the earth underneath their feet and the past centuries of wanderers who’d first come from foreign lands.
And then Luca and Tsura laughed even louder to themselves because of these great secret things going on while everyone else smiled and clapped along to the crazy gypsies’ music. Luca pretended to be a gagiu well enough the rest of the time, but never when he was playing music and Tsura liked him best that way.
And what was happening to him now? He’d have no violin to play. If he somehow lost his prosthetic leg or it was stolen from him, he’d be an invalid. In spite of her best efforts to distract herself, Bogdan’s voice was filtering through the music she so desperately sang in her head. She heard him talk about the long marches they subjected the deportees to, how they shot any of the ones who lagged behind. Was Luca already dead? Her heart clenched in her chest like a stone. No, it couldn’t be true. She’d know if he was dead. Viața mea, he called her. My life. Sufletul meu. My soul. She’d know if her soul was gone from this world. She’d feel the line connecting them snap, feel the life pouring out of her like blood. Wouldn’t she?
“You see, they don’t dig privies up there,” Bogdan was still talking. “So the Jews just shit themselves where they sit—”
“The food’s ready,” Tsura cut him off. She pulled the potatoes off the stove and used a fork to flip them onto plates. She took a breath to steady herself before turning around and setting down a plate for each of them on the table, then sitting beside Mihai. She needed the table between her and Bogdan. She forced herself to meet his gaze and smile as if she didn’t think he deserved to be stabbed through the eyes with the largest kitchen knife available and then drowned in the nearby pond with a boulder around his neck just to make sure the job was finished.
“I hope you enjoy,” she said sweetly.
Bogdan began to eat and Tsura forced herself to get the thin portion of pork and a few potatoes down, though her stomach was roiling. How long had they been in here? Was Andrei still waiting in the shed outside? She prayed he didn’t do anything stupid.
“So now tell me about yourself,” Bogdan said, his mouth full of potatoes. His eyes narrowed as he watched her. “Where did you grow up? How did you and this old man meet?” He cuffed Mihai hard on the shoulder. It was a seemingly good natured move, but Tsura felt the menace behind it.
Mihai hadn’t said a word during Bogdan’s monologue about the horrors of Transnistria, and watching him now, Tsura had little clue what was going on in his head. Not that she ever did. The placid, cold facial expression he had on now was much the same as he always wore, even back in his and Luca’s university days.
“Alexandra grew up near Fălticeni,” Mihai said, his voice loud in the quiet room. Tsura blinked. Devil, she’d been silent too long.
“In the city?” Bogdan questioned.
“No, about thirty kilometers southeast of it,” Tsura answered. That area was all farmland and while some lies sold better in specifics, locational lies were always best in generalities. “My father is a peasant farmer near there. I grew up playing in the corn and sunflower fields. Tati also has a small vineyard.” Tsura closed her eyes and ran her tongue over her lips. “Mmmm, it was the best wine. After this war, perhaps I’ll taste it once again. And darling,” she turned to Mihai and dropped a kiss on his cheek, “why don’t you tell the story of how we met? I love it best when you tell it.”
Mihai blinked a few times, as if shocked by the contact, but then he began to talk. Tsura collected the empty plates and took them to the sink. She tried to still her trembling hand. She thought she was putting on a good face, but she was exhausted and wanted Bogdan gone. She wanted the safety of walls and a locked door between them, even if it was only the illusion of safety. Ironic that she, a Roma, would now find comfort in walls.
She left the dishes in the sink and grabbed the bottle of țuică. “More?” she asked Bogdan, hoping he would say no. But he nodded and so she poured. She’d come this far, she didn’t want to look suspicious by shooing him too quickly out now.
“I was on holiday with university friends,” Mihai said, “heading toward my family house in Piatra Neamț. On the way, we came through to visit Grandfather. He invited us to a friend’s wedding.” Again, that one edge of his mouth curved up slightly. “Free feasting and wine. We were no fools, so we said yes. And there she was.” He looked at Tsura as she sat back down at the table with them.
“Alexandra wore a pink dress and was laughing. She’s lovely when she laughs. I couldn’t take my eyes off her all night.” His eyes stayed on Tsura while he told the fake story and for a moment she thought she saw a crack in the marble. Not exactly a flash of humanity, but… something. Did he see Luca when he looked at her? By all accounts, Mihai loved him like a brother.
“As everyone knows,” Mihai inclined his head and looked back at Bogdan, “I’ve always been far too serious. So I asked the beautiful laughing girl to dance.”
He looked so sincere as he lied, for a second Tsura was taken off guard. Had he always lied so easily and so well? She put it from her mind and smiled affectionately. “And I did not dance with another boy the rest of the night, only Mihai. My feet ached by dawn when he escorted me home, but I didn’t care.”
“Never did make it to Piatra Neamț,” Mihai continued. “My friends went on without me. I stayed near Fălticeni to court Alexandra.”
“He begged me to marry him but we knew a war was coming,” Tsura took over. “My mother had died the year before and my father needed me to take care of my younger sisters and brother while he worked the fields. We knew Mihai would have to go to help his father in Ploiești, so we decided to wait until after the war to get married.” She smiled. “But now my father has remarried, so his new wife’s taken over caring for the children.”
Tsura reached out and laid her hand over Mihai’s, feeling a strange sense of betrayal even as she did it. Her true fiancé was sitting outside among the shadowed stacks of wood probably scared and wondering what on earth was happening inside. Still, she forced herself to lean down and place a kiss on Mihai’s knuckles.
“And I decided I was done waiting to be with my Mihai, so I came to stay with his grandfather until he could come take me to Bucharest.” The better the show now, the more likely she’d never be in this position again.
Bogdan nodded and downed the rest of his țuică in a long swallow. Finally he relaxed in his chair. The air of suspicion was gone. Tsura thought he finally believed them. It was all she could do not to audibly sigh with relief.
“What is all this noise?” Grandfather’s voice echoed from the living room. “I swear, if you are getting into the țuică again, Li—”
Grandfather froze mid-sentence as he came into the kitchen, horror etched on his face when he saw Tsura sitting at a table with Bogdan.
“Grandfather,” Mihai vaulted out of his chair. He hurried to the older man and hugged him to block him from Bogdan’s view. “I was just telling Bogdan here how Alexandra and I met and how happy I am now that I can finally be with my fiancée.”
Grandfather nodded and by the time Mihai pulled back, he had schooled his features better into that of a jovial easiness. “So good to see you, boy. Didn’t expect you back tonight. You took an old man by surprise!”
But when Tsura glanced at Bogdan, the suspicion was back on his face, stronger than ever. Go to the devil!
“Speaking of,” Bogdan said, standing as well, “when is the happy event taking place?”
“Oh, we still want to wait until after the war,” Tsura smiled up at Mihai. She took her place by his side and tried to reclaim some of the lightness from the moments before his grandfather had come into the room.
Bogdan looked her body up and down. “So you’ll move to Bucharest with him without being married? How convenient.” His voice was heavy with unkind innuendo, sexual in the best case scenario, suspicious of her ethnicity in the worst.
There was a moment of shocked silence after his statement, whether from the rudeness or from fear. Maybe both. All that could be heard was the loud, alternating ticks of the kitchen and living room clocks, slightly out of sync.
“Well, I will not stand for it,” Domnul Popescu said suddenly, shattering the quiet. He slammed his hand on the kitchen table. “I know young people think you can do things differently these days, but it isn’t Christian! No, you have been engaged long enough. You will not leave Bacău together without being married. I’ll arrange it with the priest. By the end of the week,” his voice gentled as he took Tsura’s cheek in his palm, “you will be my granddaughter in truth.”
Tsura blinked at him. Domnul Popescu had always been a kind man. She swallowed. Of course. He had to do this, to say this. The farce was more important than ever. If Bogdan suspected Domnul Popescu was housing Jews, he could alert the police. From everything she’d heard from Domnul Popescu about their neighbor’s three sons who had been Iron Guardists and everything she’d heard from Bogdan’s own mouth over the past hour, she knew he was well connected enough to have the Popescu’s house torn apart if he wanted. Then all of them would be imprisoned, if not sent to the camps, Domnul Popescu and Mihai included. Domnul Popescu had protected her for the last year and she could only do the same now.
She pasted on a huge, toothy smile to cover the acid eating through her stomach. “Yes, Mihai, that sounds wonderful!” She turned to Mihai and grasped his hands. “We’ve waited long enough. You know my brother went off to fight and never came home.” She didn’t have to work to put emotion in her voice. “This war has brought so many uncertainties. We should take hold of what happiness we have while we can.”
If Mihai was off balance by his grandfather’s sudden pronouncement and her quick acquiescence, he didn’t show it. He simply pulled her into his arms as if she weighed nothing at all, which perhaps to him, she didn’t. He swung her around in a circle, her feet off the ground.
“This makes me so happy.” Mihai set her back on the ground and kissed her chastely on the lips. She felt her eyes widen, but forced her body not to tense up in front of Bogdan. She only just fought the impulse to swipe at her mouth. Oh God. What was she doing? Had she really just promised to marry two men in one night? But this was only pretend. It was the false face. Andrei had her true self.
Mihai pulled back and turned to Bogdan, arm around her shoulders. Domnul Popescu stood off to the side, smiling, but he wasn’t as good as Tsura as hiding his emotion. She could see the vein straining in his forehead.
Bogdan’s eyes were still narrowed as he smiled a half smirk. “Congratulations. How sweet that love can still blossom in a time of war.”
She felt Mihai’s arm muscles strain beside her, but he kept the smile on his face. Even though Bogdan’s words had been outwardly cordial, Mihai too must have sensed the veiled threat. At the same time, Bogdan couldn’t come out and make bold-faced accusations. Not without proof. Mihai’s grandfather might be just another villager, a retired shoemaker, but Mihai’s father was an influential oil baron in Ploiești. They were all dancing around each other as if on a chessboard. A precious balance of power that could tip one way or the other with even the slightest wrong move.
“I’m sure my mother will want to meet you,” Bogdan said, standing up from the table. “You must come over tomorrow for dinner.”
“I look forward to the pleasure,” Tsura said. Mihai’s arm was still heavy on her shoulder, angling her slightly behind himself, away from Bogdan. Tsura wasn’t sure if it was intentional or not, but she was glad for his solid body between them.
They walked Bogdan to the front door.
“Can’t wait to meet your mother tomorrow,” Tsura said cheerfully. “From everything I’ve heard of her garden, maybe she’d be willing to donate some flowers for the wedding arrangements.”
Bogdan eyed her for one last moment without a response, then turned and walked out the door. As soon as it shut, Tsura ran to Domnul Popescu’s bedroom and watched through the curtains out his window to see Bogdan’s house. As soon as the disgusting man disappeared inside his front door, she ran like a shot through the kitchen toward the back exit. She opened it quickly and whispered to Andrei, “Hurry, in the house now.”
Andrei jumped out from behind a stack of wood and in a few steps was inside the house. Tsura quickly shut the door behind him. She gasped in relief and sagged back against the door.
“How could you two be so careless?” Mihai’s voice was whispered, but the hissing bite of it was as sharp as a whip. “You risk my grandfather’s life and for what? A late night tryst? Tell me, was it worth it?”
“Mihai,” his grandfather’s voice was sharp. “Apologize.”
Tsura felt her face flood with heat and shame. A glance at Andrei showed he was staring at the floor. She glared at Mihai who stood with his thick arms crossed across his chest, gray eyes narrowed on Andrei in accusation and then flipping to her with as much censure.
Yes, she felt horrible for having disobeyed Domnul Popescu’s rules and it leading to such a disastrous end. She should never have let Andrei take her outside. Her greed for the sky and wind and to be alone with Andrei had made her drunk to consequences and now they were all in danger.
But how dare Mihai stand here, as if he was the righteous one, and shame them? Him, a Nazi collaborator! She took Andrei’s hand in hers and stood with her shoulders squared, staring back at Mihai defiantly.
She and Andrei were safe for the moment, that was all that mattered. Suddenly she didn’t care about Mihai at all. She turned and clutched Andrei to her.
“I was so worried, Andrei,” she whispered, lifting Andrei’s face and kissing him. This was no quick chaste kiss. She didn’t care that Domnul Popescu or anyone else was watching. There were so many larger things to fear now, she wouldn’t lose a moment of connection with the one she loved.
“Who was that man?” Andrei asked, finally pulling back from her.
Domnul Popescu sat down heavily in one of the chairs at the kitchen table. “A bad man,” he said, sounding exhausted, and not just because he’d been woken in the middle of the night.
“He was Iron Guard,” Mihai said, jaw taut, “and then when they were dissolved, he joined the army.”
“And he’s one of the worst of them,” Domnul Popescu added. “Even before the deportations, he led midnight raids against the Jews, murdering them in their beds. And other rumors of the violence he did to their women…” Domnul Popescu trailed off, his eyes troubled.
“How did you escape his suspicion?” Andrei’s forehead furrowed in worry.
Mihai paced the small kitchen area. “I don’t think we did.”
“What happens now?” Tsura asked in a small voice, still clutching both of Andrei’s hands. “I only have a few days to get away. We’ll have to think of a story. Is there somewhere else I can go to hide? ”
Domnul Popescu shook his head. “Not around here. Among those that I know who are sympathetic, there’s no place to put you. What about your father, Mihai?”
Mihai ran a hand through his hair, the only sign that he was agitated. “He would refuse. His refinery depends on German clientele too much to risk harboring undesirables.”
Tsura tried and failed not to flinch at the word. Undesirables.
“I have some friends in Bucharest I trust,” Mihai continued, “but there’s little space in the city. And it would look strange if she suddenly disappeared. Bogdan could still pull together a village mob to raid the house, if not the police themselves.”
Tsura swallowed, sweat breaking out on her forehead. The food she’d eaten earlier felt like acid in her stomach. She took a breath, trying to calm her nausea. She felt thirteen years old again. Never safe, never safe, never safe. She sat down and put her head between her knees, biting her lip hard against the frightened tears gathering in her eyes. She hated it, hated herself for being so weak.
Mihai stopped pacing and stood before her. “I made a vow to your brother to protect you. There is only one thing to do.”
“What?” she looked up at him.
His face was as hard as ever as he answered. “This week, here in the village, we must get married.”
“So everything’s ready for tomorrow?” Grandfather Popescu asked as he, Tsura and Mihai sat around the kitchen table eating a lunch of bread with tomato and onion salad.
Mihai nodded, eyes on the table as he mopped the bottom of his salad bowl with his bread, catching the leftover olive oil and tomato juice. “Yes.”
“The priest’s been paid? There was no trouble… encouraging him to overlook the fact I don’t have any baptism records?” Tsura asked.
There was silence as Mihai finished chewing his bite. He took a drink of water before saying. “Done.”
“And everything else? It’s been explained around the village why my parents and godparents couldn’t come? Because of the planting season and—”
“Taken care of,” Mihai broke in.
Her eyes flashed up at him, but he met her gaze calmly. It didn’t seem like he was impatient or trying to be a jerk. Just as if he didn’t think their upcoming nuptials were anything to be anxious over. Maybe to him they weren’t. Because in his calm, ordered life, he assumed he could control everything, and it would all go according to plan? Or was this just the front he was putting up to keep her pacified?
Tsura pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, wanting to poke him in the chest or let out a sudden loud noise to break him out of that preternatural calm.
“Also, while we’re speaking of arrangements,” Mihai said, finally looking away as he picked up his bowl and took it to the sink, “I wanted to remind you that after the wedding feast there will be the ceremonial kidnapping of the bride.”
“What?” Tsura felt her heart start to jackrabbit. She was familiar with the custom. Friends of the groom stole the bride away from the wedding until her return was bartered. She jolted to her feet. “No. Let’s skip that.”
Mihai frowned, looking back at her, bowl still in hand. “We can’t. It’s expected.”
She could only stare. “But…” She took a step toward him, lowering her voice. “You know what happened to me. Why I came to live with Luca when I was thirteen. He must have told you. It happened at a wedding. I…” She shuddered. “I can’t be taken off into the dark on another night like that.”
Her entire body tensed with the memories. Roma folk musicians were often hired for weddings and Tsura had gone to listen to her father’s fiddling. She’d thought nothing of walking back to her tribe’s caravan of wagons with a friend afterwards. A night that had left her friend dead and her so battered and broken that when she was eventually found, her father had bucked Roma tradition and taken her to a gagii hospital. Even then she had barely survived the night.
“Luca told me.” Mihai’s voice was unexpectedly gentle.
Tsura’s throat was tight when she looked up into his gray eyes. They too seemed softer than their usual granite.
“So you understand,” she pleaded even though she hated the weakness in her voice. She’d tried so hard to put that night behind her. “I can’t.”
Mihai’s eyes slid away. Then he walked past her, gathered her empty bowl, and went back to the sink, where he started washing both their bowls with water brought in that morning from the pump in the front yard. His voice was once again calmly modulated. “We can’t risk anything out of the ordinary about tomorrow. The ceremonial bridal kidnapping is expected. It must be done.”
Heat gathered in Tsura’s cheeks and it wasn’t from the painful memories. She’d made herself vulnerable in front of this ass and that was all he could say?
A small disbelieving noise escaped her throat. “Do you even care what it will do to me? Being back in that position?”
His eyebrows were furrowed as his head snapped back toward her. “You’ll be safe. It won’t be the sa—”
Mihai stopped mid-sentence when the front door banged open. A tall middle-aged man stepped into the living room.
Mihai’s mouth tightened before he said, “Father.”
Tsura’s eyes widened as she looked back and forth between Mihai and his father. And, she noticed now, the short, stocky woman who’d come in the door behind him. That must be Diana, Mihai’s mother. Tsura had never met the people whose roof Luca had lived under from eleven years on after he saved Mihai’s life. Finally now she had faces to the names. Luca had always spoken of Diana with warmth.
Mihai’s father on the other hand…
Ion Popescu looked around his father’s humble village house with disdain. He was a tall man with broad shoulders, like his son. He had dark hair, only going silver at the temples. “Why won’t you move out of this village shithouse?” His leather shoe stomped toe-first into the smooth dirt floor.
“Ion, don’t,” Diana said. Her voice was small. Tired.
“This is the house I lived in with your mother,” was all Grandfather Popescu said, rising from the kitchen table.
Ion dismissed him with a hand. “It’s an embarrassment. No father of mine should be living so low. And what is this, son? You call and tell me you are getting married? In a village church? What, did you get a slut pregnant?”
Tsura couldn’t help her gasp. She couldn’t imagine how it had been for Luca living for so many years with such a man. From the little Luca had told her, Ion had accepted Diana’s impulsive decision to take Luca in that day on the beach because it was Diana’s father who owned the refinery Ion was so keen to inherit. At least Ion’s contempt had taken the form of a neglectful disregard once Diana’s father died, around the time the boys were sixteen. But still. Was he always this hateful?
Ion’s eyes finally landed on Tsura. Then his gaze froze. She blinked uncomfortably as he zeroed in on her eyes. His bushy eyebrows furrowed, as if trying to put a puzzle together. And then he turned suddenly back to Mihai.
“No!” he suddenly shouted, making a slashing motion with his hand. “You will not marry that dirty little gypsy bastard’s sister.”
Tsura stepped back as if stung. She knew why he’d been staring now. Tiger’s eyes. He must have recognized the unique amber-speckled hue she and her brother shared.
Mihai stepped in front of Tsura, blocking her from Ion’s view. “We can discuss this in the bedroom.”
Ion looked like he was barely containing his fury as he strode through the door off the living room. Mihai followed and shut the door firmly behind him. Though it was quickly apparent that the door didn’t matter. Tsura could hear almost every word that was uttered, especially Ion’s loud voice yelling at his son.
Mihai’s mother came forward and took Tsura’s hand. She was in her late fifties but looked younger, with smooth barely-lined skin and hair that was a peppered mixture of gray and brown. She was a little heavyset and far from beautiful, but she had kind eyes. “I’m so glad to meet you,” she said, ignoring the noise from the other room. Her touch was gentle, her voice quiet. “You must know how much I loved and treasured Luca when he lived with us.”
Tsura nodded. “He told me you were kind to him.”
The older woman’s face shadowed slightly. “I tried to do what I could.”
“You will not marry her,” Ion’s voice resounded from the room beside them. Tsura didn’t think it was loud enough for the neighbors to hear unless they were standing right outside the window. She hurried to the living room window and peered out just in case. She released a breath. No one was around while Ion continued his diatribe.
“You’ve been enough of a disappointment in this life. You had your little fits to keep you out of the army, I didn’t say anything against it—”
Tsura didn’t hear Mihai’s response, but her own back stiffened. Mihai wasn’t able to join the army because he had epilepsy. How dare his father accuse him of shirking his duty? She’d never seen one of the attacks in person, but Luca had. He said they were horrible and they took days for Mihai to recover from.
Ion continued in his overbearing, brutish tone. “Then you leave the business I worked so hard to build up, fine. You wanted to run off to Bucharest like a little girl when the war started, I allowed it.”
“I left to translate for the German ambassador and even General Antonescu himself!” It was the first time in her life she’d heard Mihai’s voice raised. “It’s a prestigious position, isn’t that all you care about? I’ve even been invited to parties at the Royal Palace—”
Tsura’s mouth twisted in disgust. Mihai was proud of meeting the fascist leader of their country who hated Jews and the Roma? Antonescu, Hitler’s great pal? And she’d actually felt sympathetic for Mihai a second ago.
“I’m going for my last dress fitting,” Tsura announced to the room even though it was an hour before she had to leave. Anything to get out of this house. Let her future husband try to impress his jackass father with all his amazing fascist contacts. She didn’t have to be there to listen to it.
Later that night, Tsura lay in bed, hugging her pillow close. Andrei. Where was he? For the hundredth time, she looked over her shoulder to the closet. The door was open. But the trapdoor hadn’t moved.
She closed her eyes and her body deflated. They’d been arguing all week. But tonight. She’d been so sure that he’d come tonight, their last night before…
A noise sounded behind her and she held her breath. She didn’t move or turn her head again even as she heard shifting and the sound of the trapdoor closing again. The soft noise of footsteps on the rug. The creak of the bed as he got onto the mattress behind her.
Then she broke and turned to fling her arms around Andrei. She kissed his neck and then his face and then his lips.
She’d been lying to herself earlier. She hadn’t been sure if he’d come at all.
When she pulled away, he didn’t look like himself. Normally his face was laughing, so ready to smile. But he wasn’t smiling now.
“I heard arguing,” he said.
Tsura nodded. “Mihai’s father. But it’s settled now.” When she’d come back from the dressmakers, Mihai’s parents were gone to stay at a hotel in town, but Grandfather Popescu assured her all was well and Ion was even paying for the wedding feast. Tsura had no idea how that had happened, other than guessing it had to do with saving face for his apparently very precious reputation.
Andrei’s jaw hardened. “So you’re going through with it.”
Tsura looked down and nodded again.
Even though her eyes were downcast, she still caught the harsh motion of Andrei’s single headshake. “No. I can’t let you marry another man,” he said, his voice rigid.
What? She thought he’d come to make peace with her. “You know I wouldn’t do this if there was another way.” Her own anger was sparked. She’d meant to be conciliatory, but how could he not see this made her as miserable as it did him? How many times would she have to explain it? “What would you have me do?”
He grabbed her hands. “We’ll run away together. You and me.”
“And go where? With what papers?”
“We’ll head north, to Russia. The Communists don’t mind the Jews. We’ll sneak rides in hay carts or go through the forests. Or we could go south and get lost in a Jewish sector in one of the big cities. We’ll live quietly, get married.”
Tsura’s heart lurched at the thought. Yes, she was tempted to say. Yes, of course I’ll run away with you.
Instead, she said, “And what about Domnul Popescu and the Weinbergs? If I run, it will cast suspicion on them. The house will be raided. Domnul Popescu and Mihai could go to prison and the Weinbergs sent to Transnistria. You know there’s no way Eva would survive the trip.”
He pulled back, breathing hard. “Do you care about everyone else more than me, Tsura? Do you even really love me?”
His words were like a knife in her chest. “Of course I love you! How can you ask me that?”
He looked ashamed then and drew her tight against his chest. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. This is all making me so crazy.”
“It’s only on paper,” she whispered. “Just until the war is done.”
“I try to tell myself that,” he rubbed his hand down her spine, eliciting a shiver. “But then I think of his ring on your finger and I want to strangle him. How would you feel, Tsura, if I married someone else? If I stood before God and pledged my life to another? Do you think you could stand it?”
She sank her face into his shoulder, not knowing what to say. It would make her insane if he married someone else, whatever the reason. He was hers. Even though they weren’t yet married, she considered him family already. She’d be blind with jealousy if he even looked at another girl. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” she murmured, nestling her nose into the space between his shoulder and his jaw. She breathed him in, then pressed a kiss to his warm, soft skin. “But what else are we to do?”
“Yakira,” he cradled her face, “you know I want no harm done to you. I would cut off my own arm before I let someone hurt you. I would gauge out my own eyes. But I can’t bear to think of someone else’s hands on you.” He dropped his hands to her waist, pulling her against him.
“It won’t be a real marriage.” Tsura put her hands behind his neck and pulled him in close. “I’ll never share a bed with him. I love you. I only do what I have to do to keep us all safe. Once the war ends and the madness is done, this false marriage will be annulled. It will be as if it never was.” She caught his face in her hands. “I am only yours, Andrei.”
“Yes, you are only mine,” Andrei growled. He pushed up her nightgown and she quickly pulled off her undergarments. She needed the closeness with him now more than ever. He flipped her on her back in the same motion. In another second, with a grunt, he had shoved inside her. Tsura wasn’t ready for him and she winced with a sharp gasp. He pulled back and then pushed in hard again.
“When you are putting on your dress for him and then standing in that ugly goy church,” he bent over and growled in her ear, “you think of me, here. When you say your vows to that man, you remember that it’s me who has owned and claimed your body.” He pulled back and then slammed into her again. “When you are sore as you walk down the aisle in the church toward him remember that you are mine.”
Tsura swallowed hard as she stood with Mihai in front of the altar. The church behind them was full. This wasn’t how she envisioned her wedding. A sacred event, a happy occasion.
With the wrong man.
She’d never been to a gagii wedding before, well, not the official church part anyway. And the Roma rarely had official wedding rituals. If they did anything, it was a symbolic exchange of bread between bride and groom after the bride price was paid. Yes, there would be music and celebration, sometimes for days, but little as far as the ceremony itself. The marriage was the substantial thing, not the wedding.
This gagii affair, on the other hand, seemed to last forever. The priest droned on and on in front of them, lifting an ornate gold bible up as high as their faces and sing-chanting the verses to call down blessings upon their union. The priest was old with a long, full gray beard. The perfect picture of a fat village orthodox priest in his heavy ornate vestments. The church was also picturesque. Behind the altar were rows of large icons in gold gilt frames hung up the wall in ascending layers. They were dingy from grime and smoke. The priest’s voice echoed off the curved side walls, painted with more iconography that led up to the central dome of the church.
Standing behind them, the narthex was filled to the brim with people. Tsura was glad to be facing away from them. If this charade somehow fell apart, she knew that standing behind her were many young men who had once worn the distinctive green uniform of the Iron Guard. Including Bogdan. The rat-faced man had caused no trouble all week during wedding preparations, but whenever they were in a room together, Bogdan always had a warning smirk on his face, as if he knew something he shouldn’t. Even now, Tsura was sure she could feel Bogdan’s eyes boring holes through the back of her cream-colored satin gown. Though she and Mihai stood apart from the crowd, she felt suffocated in the chapel.
The priest laid the heavy gilt-lined Bible down, and Tsura noticed Mihai swallow hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. He glanced down at Tsura and she froze as he caught her staring, his steely grey eyes unreadable. There was a slight sheen of sweat dampening his broad forehead. Was he as nervous as she was? No, she scoffed internally. That was ridiculous. He was just hot, trussed up in that heavy suit coat. It was a warm summer day. Maybe he felt the suffocation like she did. There was so much ceremony in this ritual, why wasn’t there a ceremonial fan for the bride and groom so they didn’t pass out where they stood, hmm?
She had to fight the urge to giggle inappropriately. She pursed her lips hard to keep it in and secured her gaze firmly back on the priest. He sang more blessings upon them and dipped an ornate silver stick into holy water, flinging it at her and Mihai so that several drops fell on their faces, saying something about how this was supposed to remind them of their baptism. For a ridiculous second, she thought, oh, water, good, maybe that will help cool me off. But then the words registered.
What a devilish mockery this all was.
Tsura’s throat tightened to hold back a scream. Beautiful light cascaded through an ornate painted window to their right. All the gold in the church glinted and reflected back in majesty. A mocking scene of purity and beauty and the union of two souls.
Tsura had always been a Christian. All the Roma she knew were. But she’d never been inside a church as a child. She used to stare at them from the outside whenever the caravan camped near one. All the gilt trimming, the ethereal noise of the bells ringing, the processions led by chanting priests swinging incense during a funeral—it always fascinated her.
When Andrei explained to her that her religion had it all wrong, that Jesus was not the promised Messiah but merely a pretender, she’d let herself be convinced without much effort. Neither Luca nor any of his friends at college believed in God at all, so what did she care if Andrei’s version of God was slightly different from the one she’d grown up with? When she’d mentioned that to Andrei he’d become angry, saying that wasn’t true at all, that she’d worshiped a false God all her life, nothing like the one he believed in. She’d put her hands on his shoulders and feathered kisses along his face and whispered, “Yes, yes, I believe you. I’ll believe what you believe.”
He told her she was like Ruth. Ruth was a woman in his holy book who, like her, had been a pagan but had adopted her husband’s God. “Where you go, I will go, and your people will be my people,” he had quoted to her. She’d nodded fervently and kissed him. Being part of a people again, especially if it meant she would be with Andrei, sounded like paradise to her.
But now here she was, making another man her husband, surrounded by men whose hands were red with the blood of those they’d tormented and even murdered, with no repercussions of any kind. Even now, she was the one in danger. If they knew who she really was…
Her focus came back to the ceremony when the priest produced two crowns and turned first to Mihai. “Mihai Popescu is crowned for the service of God,” said the priest, “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Mihai kissed the crown and allowed the priest to place it on his head. Tsura followed his example when it was her turn, kissing the crown made of tin and keeping herself still as the priest, whose breath stank of tobacco, chanted and placed it on her head.
Then the priest reached for her right hand and Mihai’s left, joining them. Mihai’s large hand was warm and heavy on hers. The priest wound a ribbon in a figure eight, securing their hands together. Tsura’s heartbeat picked up. Somehow this made it all feel more real than even the earlier exchange of rings at the start of the ceremony. “The King of Heaven thus unites the bridal couple in unity and crowns them in one flesh,” the priest said.
The priest held the ornate chalice out to Mihai. Tsura wanted more than anything for this ceremony to be over. Mihai drank and the priest then held the rim up to Tsura’s mouth. At exactly the same place Mihai’s lips had touched. Wait. She couldn’t. It would be too much like— The priest pushed the rim closer and tipped the goblet and she drank so the wine wouldn’t spill down the front of her dress. She felt her cheeks heat and couldn’t meet the priest’s eyes as the chalice was pulled back.
She squeezed her thighs uncomfortably together while the priest droned on something about Jesus at the wedding at Cana, again remembering Andrei’s touch. When you are sore as you walk down the aisle in the church toward him remember that you are mine.
Andrei said he loved her and claimed her as his. He said he would make her part of his people. Just the thought of that made her chest ache with longing.
And yet, here she was, joining herself before God and man to someone else. Suddenly she knew she had done the wrong thing. She should never have agreed to this. Andrei loved her, he had pulled her back into life from the numbing abyss when everything had lost color and meaning.
As much as she’d tried to deny it to herself, there was every chance Luca was dead. Her father too was dead and she could never go back to her caravan, if it still existed after this war. Andrei was all she had left and he wanted to make her part of his people. But she was leaving him, voluntarily binding herself to another man, betraying him—
She blinked in surprise when her hair was yanked as the priest pulled the crown away from her head. She’d been too busy thinking of Andrei to pay attention to the rest of the service. The priest stood back and spread his hands wide.
“O God our God, Who was present in Cana of Galilee and blessed the marriage there, bless these Your servants, who, by Your Providence, are hereby joined in the community of marriage.”
Her mouth dropped open, wanting to protest. But it was already finished. She and Mihai were married.
“You my claim your bride,” the priest said.
Tsura shut her mouth and her eyes popped open wide as Mihai stooped over her. He was a tall, shadowed silhouette in the bright light from the window behind him. She barely had a moment to register what was happening before his firm, warm lips pressed against her own. It was over as soon as it began. He pulled back, leaving her stunned.
The bells tolled in celebration. Mihai tugged her forward to lead the procession out of the church, hand in hand, still bound by the infinity ribbon.
Hours and hours later, Tsura sat at a wide table in the outdoor tent that had been set up in the village square, feeling too full. After the three course meal that had started with a bowl of sour-brothed ciorbă and ended with an overgenerous helping of sarmale and pork steak, followed by a decadent dessert of tort de biscuiţi, she was sure she wouldn’t need to eat again for three days. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen so much food. Dinners in the Popescu basement had been lean, since it would’ve looked strange if Domnul Popescu was buying too much food at the market when he supposedly lived by himself. She’d fit as much of the food in this afternoon as she could without making herself sick. An old Roma compulsion. No matter how miserable you were, never pass up a meal.
Tsura sipped from her glass of wine and looked out on the outdoor pavilion. It was the first moment she’d had alone in hours. All throughout the procession after the church and then the seemingly unending courses, she’d had to smile and make pleasantries with strangers all day long. All the while, listening over and over to the phrase: casă de piatră! House of stone. It was the most common phrase of well-wishing said to a bride and groom. None of them knew that to a Roma, and this Roma in particular, that phrase was double cringe-worthy. The thought of walls, especially stone ones, after her long confinement in the basement only made her shudder. The metaphorical meaning was little better—she certainly didn’t intend on having a strong or long-lasting marriage to Mihai Popescu.
She looked out on the crowd. The band began playing again after a short break and the dancing area filled back up with people. The central village square had been taken over by the wedding party where a huge tent had been erected. All afternoon, the women busied themselves at the tables set up all along the edges of the tent, preparing food. The men slaughtered one of Grandfather Popescu’s pigs just outside the tent. It seemed like every person from the entire village and even those from the surrounding villages who barely knew the Popescu’s had shown up. Electric lights were strung around the tent, another extravagance. In fact, looking out at this wedding celebration, you’d never know there was a war on at all.
The women were dressed mostly in peasant garb, puffy linen shirts and skirts, with ornately knit red aprons draped down the front and back. Scarves covered their hair, some red, others a faded brown. The men wore loose linen pants and dark vests over their white shirts. A few here and there wore suits and stylish dresses, clearly indicating they were from the city. But everyone’s skin glistened with sweat from the warm evening air and the large amounts of wine, beer, and țuică they’d been drinking all afternoon.
Tsura herself had drunk a fair amount of wine. Whether at a wedding or a funeral, one thing was the same—you drank. As soon as she’d walked from the church to the cheers from the entire village she’d known there was no undoing it. There was no unweaving the fate that had been spun and then knotted around her neck. Nothing to do except try to step quicker next time, praying her luck would turn and let her be slippery enough to escape the noose before it cinched too tight.
And in the meantime, in accordance with the proper ludicrousness of the situation, Tsura grinned widely. Better always to laugh instead of cry. Besides, it was a great joke after all. Tricking all these gagii into having such a celebration for a Roma. Grandfather Besnik would have laughed and laughed and laughed. Jokes at the expense of the gagii were the best kind, after all.
She let the music seep into her blood, making her tap her foot. The fiddle was quite horribly out of tune and the singer’s voice broke whenever he aimed for a high note that was too ambitious for him. This was what you got when you hired gagii musicians, she snorted. But still, at least it was music. She was greedy for any she could get.
“Give me your shoe!” Radu, a university friend of both Mihai and her brother, demanded with a roguish wink. His light brown hair flopped over his forehead as he said this. He never slicked it back as was the style. He was the only one besides Mihai’s family who knew her true identity. He’d taken the train up from Bucharest after Mihai called him earlier in the week. Radu had often been around the apartment while she’d been growing up, when she’d come to live with Luca at thirteen. Radu’s favorite pastimes were telling jokes and tweaking her braids.
She tensed up even as she said, “Oh no,” with great dramatics. The time had come. She leaned down and pulled off one of her cream-colored wedding slippers. She took quick breaths in and out to try to calm her racing heart. A couple of Mihai’s other childhood friends from the village were with Radu, but Radu made sure they didn’t get too close. Bogdan, thankfully, wasn’t among them. Radu and Mihai would have only chosen men they could trust for this. She handed her shoe to one of the other men beside Radu.
She tried to prepare herself but was still startled when Radu picked her up in his arms and ran with her out of the dancing area. Tsura laughed nervously as she bounced in his arms through the lighted space of the tent square. But then he carried her into the dark night and her stomach began to cramp. No, no, no.
Radu was gentle as he hoisted her up into a hay wagon. That didn’t stop her heart from racing what felt like a thousand beats per minute. Radu jumped up beside her and the other two got up front to drive. The wagon took off, the horse hooves thudding on the dirt road. Tsura sat rigidly against the wooden sideboards, eyes searching the road. That was the thing about darkness. So much could hide in it.
“Ahhh,” Radu said, laying back on the hay with his arms behind his head. “A clear, warm summer night. Perfect for kidnapping, if I do say so.”
She took several steady breaths in and out. Radu would keep her safe. There were two other men besides him. And she wasn’t a little girl any more either. She let out another deep breath and finally let her body relax. She’d always felt far more at ease with Radu than Mihai. Radu never failed to have a joke ready for her and he teased her like she was his own sister. She was perfectly safe.
The hay cart drove for about twenty minutes, deep into the city where the roads turned from dirt to cobblestones. They passed leisurely by the ornate downtown buildings, the streets illuminated by gas-lit street lamps. Radu kept her entertained, telling her story after story about his antics in the city and the many love affairs he got tangled in. Some of his stories were obviously embellished, which made her relax and smile even more.
“Then there was Florina,” Radu said. “She usually only had affairs with the most powerful men in Bucharest, but she made an exception for poor Radu. The mixture of me looking so smart in my policeman’s uniform plus these blue eyes…the darling girl was overcome.” He raised one eyebrow devilishly by the light of the lamp attached to the back of the wagon to show off the blue eyes, which Tsura had to admit, were fairly admirable. “It’s all in the eyes, you know,” he said. “Women can forgive a little paunch or a nervous tic as long as you have beautiful eyes to mesmerize them with.”
Tsura rolled her own eyes. “As if you have ever had a paunch or a nervous tic.” Radu had never lacked for female attention. Back when her brother had been in college with him, Radu had always had one girl or another on his arm. But rarely the same one for more than a week. It didn’t sound like much had changed in the intervening years.
Radu arched his eyebrow higher. “Why Mrs. Popescu, are you flirting with me on your own wedding night?”
She smacked him in the arm.
“What?” she asked, propping her elbow on her knee.
“Nothing, just thinking of what all our friends in Bucharest will say when Mihai comes home with a wife!” He laughed. “The ever stoic Mihai Popescu.” He straightened his face into a bored-looking expression, attempting to imitate Mihai, she guessed, but the mischievous sparkle in his eyes made the impression fail.
He grinned again, not able to hold the face longer than a few seconds. “Impervious Mihai, falling in love!” He lowered his voice and leaned in so that only she could hear. “Supposedly, anyway.”
Then he leaned back and settled against the back of the wagon. “I think it will be good for him,” he breathed out and turned his face to the stars, letting his arms hang lazily over the sides. “He hangs around those German stiffs all day. That can’t be good for a man’s constitution.”
Tsura glanced at the front of the wagon. The other two ‘kidnappers’ driving the team of horses were joking back and forth raucously, not paying attention to them at all. Not knowing if she’d ever have another time like this, she moved beside Radu and leaned in.
“Doesn’t it ever bother you?” she whispered. “That Mihai works for the Nazis? Just yesterday I heard him talking about his job.” She shuddered, remembering the words he’d yelled at his father. “Like he was proud of it.”
Radu must have been surprised by her question, but he only raised his eyebrows in response. Then shrugged. “I make it a point to never judge a man by his politics or his job. Look at me. I’m a Bucharest police officer. Surely you know we don’t have a reputation for being the politest bunch. And so corrupt, most can be bought off for less than a fistful of lei.”
Radu winked and smiled. “If the situation is right, I’m not opposed to accepting a small donation. Only if it’s in support of the honorable police who protect the fair populace of our beloved capital city.”
“But Mihai’s work is different,” Tsura insisted, unwilling to be put off by his joking. “He works for them. I can’t understand it. And after Luca was taken…” Tsura stopped speaking, her jaw tensing so tight she thought she might crack a tooth.
“Mihai isn’t like other men,” Radu said, more gently. “He’s a quiet one. Even me, who’s known him all these years, barely understands what goes on in that brain of his. Maybe he thinks of his job only as far as the technicalities. He likes fiddling with languages and doing translating. The Germans need translators. It could be as simple as that.”
It was similar to what Luca had said when she’d asked him about Mihai’s job. Tsura shook her head vehemently. “No!” she whispered. “Right is right and wrong is wrong. To ignore the moral implications—”
At this Radu threw back his head and laughed. “Oh little Tsura,” he drew her close, an arm thrown affectionately around her shoulders. “You are such an innocent. We live in the modern world now. Morality belonged to our ancestors, don’t you know that by now?”
Tsura pulled away from him and went back to sitting against the other end of the wagon. The smell of hay and horses was so familiar. An intense longing for the caravan swept over her. She blinked. Where had that thought come from? She thought she’d given up that desire long ago. Given up the girl she had once been. It was just that the rules of right and wrong were so clear there. Laws and traditions shaped their lives. The gagii, especially the ones who attended university with her brother, despised such things and called it freedom.
But then, she’d yearned for so long to go back to the place where the world made sense, to reverse the years to the time before. When she’d just been a girl who traveled with her people and believed implicitly that she’d always be sheltered and protected by those who loved her.
And then, when that girl died on the road only to be reborn in a gagii hospital, she became someone else, a pretend gagica, an outside-in girl, forced to permanently wear the false face. Cut your hair, little Tsura. Speak Romanian, don’t let a Romani word touch your tongue. Wear skirts that touch your knees instead of your ankles. She’d obeyed all of Luca’s commands. He did it with good intentions, she knew. He didn’t want her to face the difficulties transitioning into the gagii world that he had when he’d first come into it.
He didn’t understand, couldn’t understand then, what he would intimately know later in his own life when he returned from battle missing a leg and part of his soul. She had been shattered that night on the dusty road when she was thirteen. Like a cracked egg, what had been broken couldn’t be put back together again. She wasn’t sure if she would’ve been able to get the pieces back even if she’d returned to the caravan. Probably not. But she wasn’t given the option of going back to find out.
In addition to the twelve broken bones and a shattered pelvis, the attack she’d suffered that night had also collapsed her uterus. The gagii doctors removed it to save her life. They said she was lucky to be alive. Lucky too that she hadn’t been raped in addition to being beaten. Lucky. They didn’t realize that a Roma woman who could never be a mother was more burden than she was worth. Her father had said he loved her, kissed her forehead, and then sent her away forever.
Years later, even when Tsura’d become accustomed to her second life, she still missed the first. Luca had only laughed at her whenever she mentioned it.
“Go back to squalor and being driven out of every place we ever stopped the caravan? Never staying in one place longer than a month or two, and that only if we were lucky?” Luca shook his head, fire in his eyes. “We had no goals back then, we couldn’t afford them. The future held nothing except more of the same, wandering and being mistreated for years on end. We couldn’t better ourselves or the lives of our children. Father was right to send me to get educated among the gagii.”
“But Luca,” she’d said, “the caravan was home. We were made whole because we were surrounded with our own kind. God bound us together and only together was our spirit made strong.”
“Tsurica,” he laughed, shaking his head, “didn’t you read that Sartre book I gave you? Hasn’t it cured you of believing in God yet?”
Tsura’d been taking French for two years at that point, and what little she could read of the book Luca carried around with him everywhere, she hadn’t enjoyed. “It’s such a sad book.”
Luca laughed harder. “Of course it is, that’s why I love it! It makes me want to dance and make music.”
At this, it was Tsura’s turn to laugh. “Everything makes you want to dance and make music.”
Luca considered this for a moment. “True.” And he’d grabbed her up off the couch and swung her around in an impromptu dance in their tiny apartment.
She was only broken out of her thoughts when the wagon stopped. They were back in the village. Radu was snoring gently beside her on the hay. One of the boys who’d been driving kicked Radu as he climbed down from the wagon.
“Falling asleep on duty?” the other man laughed. “Now I see how you get through your night shifts.”
Radu roused quickly. “I was merely relaxing my eyes. What, a person can’t even blink too long without being accused of falling asleep?”
The other man guffawed, but then was off into the night to see if their terms had been negotiated for Tsura’s ‘release.’ Tsura moved closer to Radu, making sure he didn’t fall asleep again. There were no lights on in the village apart from the tent where the celebrations were held, but that was several blocks away.
Fifteen minutes later Mihai’s friend came back and told her terms had been met.
“How much was she worth?” Radu asked.
“Two cases of beer and four bottles of țuică.”
Radu nodded appreciatively. “A girl of value. Our Mihai does not skimp, does he?”
The crowd hooted with approval when Radu and his friend carried Tsura back into the main tent area. She had survived the darkness. The rush of relief wasn’t as great as she’d been expecting. The activity and noise was bracing after the quiet of the night ride. Then she shook her head.
At least this meant the day was that much closer to being done. She could see Andrei. Her chest burned at the thought. See him and then leave him again when they left for Bucharest in another day’s time.
Mihai hurried over and returned her shoe, hugging her close since they were in front of so many spectators. He smelled of expensive aftershave. Nothing like Andrei. She stiffened in his arms.
“Are you all right?” he whispered in her ear.
“Fine,” Tsura bit out. She was tired and a little lightheaded from the wine she’d drunk all evening. And she did not want her new husband touching her.
It was almost midnight by now, but the party showed little signs of stopping any time soon. Tsura knew it was customary for the dancing to go on all the way until dawn. Then the party guests would collapse on whatever bed, cot or floor that was available, sleep until noon, only to wake and start the preparation of food and partying all over again for the second day. Tsura sagged at the thought.
“Dance with me?” Mihai held out his hand.
Tsura stared at him. She supposed it would look odd if she refused to dance with her own husband. Tsura forced herself to take his hand and again she was startled by the warm, heavy weight of it. His grip was firm. She had to tip her head backwards in order to see his face when they stood close. His gray eyes were intense as he watched her. What was he thinking? What had he thought about the entire day? How could she have been acquainted with someone off and on for six years and still feel like he was a stranger?
She went through the steps of the folk dance, glad she was only connected to Mihai by the hand as he danced around her. His eyes stayed on her the entire time. They weren’t cold now. They were… something else. Too intense. That at least hadn’t changed. She looked away. Her back relaxed only once the song changed and she was able to lose herself in the crowd dancing in a large circle.
A chunk of the crowd broke off to form an inner circle inside the large one. The band played a frantic ear-blasting tune and Tsura found herself caught up in the spirit of it in spite of her tiredness. She held the hands of a young peasant woman to her left and a middle aged man to her right who was so drunk it was a miracle he was managing to stay upright, much less dance the fast-footed dance. Around and around they went, the crowd stomping and shouting a loud ‘huh!’ on the downbeats. The beat seemed to resonate from the floor up through her sternum. Tsura stomped her feet and let her head fall back, the momentum of the circle carrying her feet without having to look where she was going. Luca, she prayed, wherever you are this night, if you are truly my soul, then feel the beat of this music and let it make your heart light. Stay alive, for me.
Tsura pulled away from the dancing several songs later. She leaned against one of the tent poles and took in a deep fresh breath of air for the first time in what felt like an hour. She couldn’t see Mihai in the crush of bodies. Good. Those eyes of his. They didn’t make her uncomfortable, exactly. It just felt like he was observing her down to the most minute detail sometimes, and judging what he saw. But he never gave away even the slightest hint of what his evaluations or thoughts about her were.
She gave her head a quick shake. It didn’t matter what he thought about her. She didn’t like him, but she would be civil. That was enough. They would only need to stay just a little while longer, then they could go back to the house and she could see Andrei, then sleep. She stretched her tired neck. This day would finally be over.
“Give me your shoe,” whispered a low voice from behind her.
She jerked away from the tent pole she’d been leaning against and spun around. Bogdan and a couple of his friends crowded in the darkness outside the tent’s light. Their eyes were red and glassy. Obviously drunk.
Tsura took several steps back into the light. “You’re too late.” She stood tall. She wasn’t going to cower from a bully like Bogdan “I’ve already been kidnapped and returned.”
But Bogdan didn’t seem deterred. “You haven’t paid my price.” His voice was low. This wasn’t a harmless wedding prank.
“Mih—” she managed only a quick shriek before a dirty hand clamped over her mouth from behind her. One of his friends must have circled around her when she was focused on Bogdan. Then she was spun and dragged into the darkness outside the tent.
Bogdan’s thugs picked her up, one underneath each of her arms while Bogdan grabbed her legs. The man behind her did double-duty, carrying her while keeping his hand mashed over her mouth. Tsura wrenched her body as they began to run with her. No! She had to get away. She bit down hard on the man’s fingers covering her mouth. When he released his muzzling grip with a curse, she screamed as loud as she could. But the music from the band and shouting crowd drowned out her voice. Not again, this couldn’t be happening to her again.
“Jew bitch!” Bogdan slapped her hard, stunning her into silence for a few moments. “I know you’re a liar!” By the time she recovered her wits and opened her mouth wide to scream again, he had roughly stuffed a dirty handkerchief into her mouth. The man she’d bitten took position at her legs as Bogdan helped hold her upper body. Then they were running again.
She kept yelling and screaming anyway, even though her cries were muffled. No one would hear her. No one would come. She was transported back seven years to when she had been thirteen. There had been three of them then too.
She struggled like a wild animal to get away, scratching, kicking to try to dislodge their meaty arms, elbowing them anywhere she could. But she couldn’t get away. Not a child anymore, but still they were stronger. She screamed into the cloth. The three men dragged her into a house where all the lights were off. Devil, devil, devil. They’d gotten her out of the open where someone from the party might have seen or heard her.
The man who’d been holding her underneath the armpits shifted his hold, banding a thick arm underneath her breasts. He laughed when this brought on a fresh set of screams into the dirty, sweat-salted rag in her mouth. She turned her face away in disgust from the stench of his sour beer-and-meat breath.
No. This would not happen. Oh God, no. She felt the panicked tears biting at her eyes, but she refused to cry. No, she would escape. She would find a way out.
A dim lamp was lit, revealing a damp, untidy basement at the bottom of the stairs. There was old, discarded furniture, some broken. Crates of jarred fruits and vegetables. Tsura’s eyes darted around wildly for anything she might get her hands on to use as a weapon if she could only twist out of their grasp. One of the broken chairs legs could be a make-shift stake, but it was across the room.
Not to mention that every time she’d seen Bogdan this week, he’d never been without the gun slung in the holster at the back of his waist. What was a chair leg against a gun? She didn’t care. If she could just get a chance, she’d go for the broken furniture. But no matter how hard she tried to wrench her arms free, their bruising grip was unyielding.
They dragged her over to a low work table, and slammed her down on it, grinding her cheek into the wood. Bogdan leaned over and spit on her face. His breath was foul and she shrieked into the cloth in her mouth.
“Costel here,” he gestured with a chin nod at one of the other men, “took a little trip to Fălticeni and he couldn’t find any peasant farmers with a daughter named Alexandra, as I had suspected. So, little Jew bitch, I’ll educate you on another point. Do you know where the custom of bride stealing comes from?” Bogdan punctuated his question by ripping the back of her gown, sending all the beautiful pearl buttons plinking to the floor. Tsura hissed out in terror and fury.
“The Lord of the manner would steal the brides so he could fuck the virgins first. It was his right as lord of the land. And we are the lords now. We are the Iron Guard, and we fight for righteousness as the bringers of death!” He reached around and crushed one of her breasts in his hand. She screamed against the rag in pain and rage.
Tsura tried to wrench backward, but Bogdan’s men held her arms down on both sides. Bogdan leaned over her, probably to spit on her again. She reared back, slamming the back of her head into his face.
He howled and dropped his elbow on her neck, pinning her to the table. Splinters from the rough wood of the table’s surface dug into the side of her face. “I’m going to rip you stem to stern, do you understand, you filthy whore!” He gathered up the rest of her skirts roughly to her waist, ripping more fabric as he went. She tried to jerk away or kick him, but his two friends locked her legs and held her shoulders down.
Tsura closed her eyes, still struggling with all her might. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to get away. This was really going to happen. The already shattered pieces of her would be ground to dust this time. Please God, strike me dead where I stand. Or better yet, strike Bogdan dead and send him to the fieriest pit of hell.
But suddenly there were other voices in the room, shouting.
Tsura twisted her neck enough to see that the door at the top of the stairs had been thrown open. Mihai and several of his friends charged down the stairs, including Radu. “Get your hands off my wife!” Mihai’s eyes were alight with fury.
“Stop right there!” Bogdan pulled the small black hand-gun from the back of his belt and pointed it straight at Mihai’s chest. But then Radu and one of the other men with Mihai also pulled out weapons. Two guns against one.
“Let go of her!” Mihai roared. He looked like a barely leashed animal. He was a large man, she’d always registered that in a kind of absent way because he always wore suits and was so often silent. But now his wedding jacket was off, showcasing shoulders that reminded her of the hulking gorillas she’d seen once at the zoo. His fists were clenched and his normally detached facial features had twisted into a brutal mask as if he were ready for blood sport. The two men holding Tsura down released her and she stumbled backwards, clutching her torn gown around her.
But Bogdan grabbed her arm in a painful grip and swung her around until she was placed in front of him as a shield. He held his gun to her temple. “You’re no better than her, you Jew lover,” he glared at Mihai. “In Transnistria we know what to do with Jew bitches. We treat them like the dogs that they are and put them down as often as we like.”
“She’s not Jewish,” Mihai ground out through gritted teeth, the corded muscles on his neck stretched taut as if he was only just keeping himself from launching himself forward.
Bogdan didn’t seem to hear, or maybe was too drunk to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. “You forget the glories of the Iron Guard! We are an eternal brotherhood. We may have been disbanded, but in our hearts we’ll always be legionnaires.” The words poured out like the memorized rhetoric they probably were. “Soon we will rise again. We already took down a king! You think we are not strong enough to fight you? We are commissioned by the archangel Michael himself to purify our fatherland by ridding ourselves of these parasites on all that is good and true and Romanian and we—”
A shot rang out in the room and for a terrified second Tsura was sure it had been Bogdan’s gun, that she’d been shot but didn’t feel it because her soul was slipping from her body.
But then Bogdan howled behind her. His gun clattered to the floor and bounced away several feet. She ripped away from him and dove toward the gun. She landed hard on her side but still managed to close her hands around the cold metal of the handle. She fumbled her fingers in the way she thought you were supposed to hold a gun and then swung to aim it at Bogdan. He was still screaming and now Tsura saw why. His upper right arm was covered in blood. He was the one who’d been shot. A quick glance over at the stairs and she saw that Radu was re-cocking his gun. Radu must have been the one who’d done the shooting.
She looked back at Bogdan just in time to see him hurl himself at Mihai in a rage. Mihai ducked out of the way and then turned back, slamming into Bogdan from the side and forcing him to his knees. Then he easily pinned Bogdan to the ground and stepped on his blood-stained arm, grinding the wound into the dirt floor. Bogdan screamed, high pitched like a woman.
Tsura stood up again and she strode toward where Bogdan lay, keeping her gun on him the whole time. She’d never held a gun before, much less shot one, but she imagined she had the basic mechanics of it. It felt good to have such a weapon in her shaking hands after all her power had been stripped from her only moments before. Mihai kept his foot on Bogdan’s arm.
Bogdan’s thugs stood with their arms up in fearful surrender as Radu and the second man holding a gun kept their weapons trained on them.
“Did he…?” Mihai swallowed, and he furrowed his eyebrows and squeezed his eyes shut as if in pain. “Were we too late?”
She shook her head rapidly, the thought of what had almost happened making her so queasy she was sure she would throw up right there. She took a deep steadying breath to keep it back and then whispered, “No.” She took a deep breath, only now realizing she’d been panting. Breathing so shallowly she felt lightheaded. “You came in time. How did you know where I was?”
The tightness in Mihai’s face softened, but only slightly. He opened his eyes. “I didn’t see you dancing. I went looking for you. When I didn’t see Bogdan either, I prayed I was wrong. I’d been watching him all night. The one time I looked away…”
His expression went hard as marble when he looked back down at Bogdan squirming under foot. “Give me the gun, Alexandra.” His voice was now perfectly modulated and cold as the arctic.
Hand trembling, Tsura handed it over to him. She didn’t know what he meant to do with it, and at the moment, she didn’t care. Part of her wanted him to put a bullet in Bogdan’s head. She was surprised and disturbed at the viciousness of the thought. She was glad the moment the gun was gone from her fingers.
Mihai took the gun and spun it around so that he was holding the butt outward. His arm was mid-swing when other voices started shouting.
“What’s going on here?”
“Oh my God!”
A woman screamed and suddenly the small stairway was crowded with people from the wedding. They must have heard the gun shot.
“Let go of my son! What have you done to him?” Bogdan’s mother shrieked.
Mihai turned to face the loud crowd. “Quiet,” he roared, his voice breaking through the din. When they quieted, he pulled his foot off Bogdan’s arm. Bogdan scrambled away, wiping furiously at the tears on his cheek.
“I caught this man trying to rape my wife!” Mihai shouted. “Look what he’s done to her.” He pointed to Tsura. Her gaping gown, the bruises blooming on her face and her split lip offered damning testimony. “He pulled a gun on us, and my friend Radu, who is a highly regarded police officer from Bucharest, delivered a non-lethal gunshot to get the gun away from him.”
“She’s a filthy Jew!” Bogdan sputtered, hobbling to his feet. “I only did what any true son of Romania would! She lied about where she came from. She’s a Jew criminal, probably a Communist, and the Popescus were hiding her!”
Several murmurs went through the crowd at his pronouncement and eyes narrowed as they looked at Tsura. She shouldn’t have been shocked that these people who had kissed her cheek with such warm congratulations only hours earlier could turn on her so quickly, but she found she still had the capacity for surprise.
Tsura didn’t want to be on display. She wanted to hide away, to tuck herself underneath a heap of blankets beneath a starlit sky with no one around for a hundred miles except for Luca and Andrei. Luca would sing to her and Andrei would whisper his imprudent dreams of the future and then she would sleep for a week until a better dawn arrived.
Instead, she forced her thoughts to the appropriate face to don in this moment. Shocked innocent victim, who had no idea of the brutalities of life. That was the one.
She let her bottom lip start to quiver in shock and horror. “A Jew?” she sputtered, as if the word was filthy. Then she turned into Mihai’s chest and tried to make her body appear small. She began to sob, letting her shoulders shake pathetically. She made sure her gown still covered her modestly but that the audience could still clearly see how it had been violently ripped.
“She is no Jew,” Mihai said, wrapping an arm firmly around her shoulders and drawing her into his chest protectively. “Bogdan is making up stories to justify attacking my wife. It’s she who is the true daughter of Romania, and if I had arrived only minutes later, he would have defiled her.”
Tsura continued to cry and clutch at Mihai’s shirt as if she were a feeble little flower. All the while, she peeked through her hair to watch what was happening. Mihai’s father stepped forward. “My company provides oil to the Fuehrer himself. You cannot think for even a moment that I would allow my son to help a Jew, much less marry one!”
“But I traveled to Fălticeni,” spoke up on of Bogdan’s men who moments before had just been holding Tsura to the table. Costel, she presumed. “No one had ever heard of her.”
“She’s from southeast of Fălticeni, you idiot,” Mihai said scornfully. “There are hundreds of kilometers of peasant farms there. Her father only has a small farm and he couldn’t get away during harvest for the wedding.”
“She’s a Jew bitch!” Bogdan screamed, his face pale with blood loss and fury. Tsura let out another round of loud sobs and pressed into Mihai.
Mihai shook his head, his jaw tight. “There is no proof of such an outrageous claim. Only the testimony of an idiot who barely passed geography, who asked a few strangers in Fălticeni if they knew of a particular peasant girl among thousands—and one with the most common name at that! If he had truly asked far and wide enough, he should have found ten Alexandras! But none of this is the point. Why am I even debasing myself continuing to argue? I have been to Alexandra’s home myself. Are you calling me a liar? Me, who has translated between the office of the ambassador and General Antonescu himself?” He coldly stared down the crowd. “My wife is the one who has been attacked tonight. This man is the culprit and now is a coward trying to escape blame with false accusations.”
Bogdan opened his mouth, but then closed it again. Finally he waved his good arm in Tsura’s direction. “Just look at her! She looks like a Jew!”
More people in the crowd did look closer at Tsura, but the rest of them were shaking their heads in disgust at Bogdan. To attack a bride on her wedding day was the lowest of crimes. Besides that, many of them knew Bogdan personally. His family may have had wealth and position in the village, but even after a week there, Tsura could tell that few actually liked the man.
Mihai’s father spoke up again, his face red. “Enough! My daughter-in-law has been abused and slandered. I demand the full extent of the law be brought down upon this man!”
“I leave this matter for the police and my father to resolve,” Mihai said, picking up his wedding jacket from the stairs and laying it around Tsura’s shoulders. “I must see to my bride.” He put his arm around her and led her through the group of people. The crowd parted before them. Bogdan shouted incoherent curses behind them, but several of the village men held him by the shoulders now. A few words she could make out though: “This isn’t over! This isn’t over, you hear me, Jew bitch!”
Tsura’s body shook like a leaf in winter and this time it wasn’t for show. She’d held herself together while she’d worn the face for the crowd, but now that she could be herself again, she felt too many things at once.
She was mute as Mihai helped her up the stairs. It was Bogdan’s parent’s house that the men had taken her to, she realized now that all the lights were on. It suddenly clicked how Mihai had known where to find her. She recognized the ornate lace runner on the table she had dined at only a few days ago. She shuddered and Mihai squeezed her shoulder. “You’re safe now,” he whispered.
No, she was not safe. It was a lie fools told themselves, one she’d allowed herself to believe again, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. She tried to nod anyway, but couldn’t seem to get her body to obey her commands. They walked across the crowded yard. Everyone from the wedding celebrations had migrated over to find out what had happened. Apparently the whispers had already passed through the crowd, because the women watched in sympathy and murmured how outraged they were as Tsura passed.
Soon they were through the yard and passed through the front door of the Popescu’s house. Several people tried to follow them inside, but Mihai’s mother sternly ushered them back out and then stood at the door as a formidable sentry. Diana must have come home ahead of them, knowing what they would need. No one else would cross the threshold tonight.
Mihai led Tsura to his room. He sat her down on the bed and then went to secure the thick curtains shut. She pulled her knees to her chest numbly with her back straight as a rod, staring unseeing at the wall. She had been “lucky” again. But she would never allow herself to believe she was safe. Never again. Luca had taught her some street-fighting tips, like using her head to bash Bogdan’s face, but it hadn’t mattered. The men had still easily overpowered her. Even though she was a grown woman and not a child, she hadn’t been able to protect herself. A long shudder rippled from her shoulders down to her toes.
And worse, if Mihai had not been able to convince them she wasn’t Jewish, the crowd might have approved of what Bogdan had done to her. Or at least turned their faces away and quietly agreed that she had deserved it. Maybe she was lucky. How many thousands of other women had suffered without being saved at the last moment?
Tsura wrapped her arms tight across her knees, curling into herself. But then there were other arms around her.
“Oh my yakira,” Andrei whispered in horror, his arms circling her tighter.
Tsura looked up in surprise. Mihai must have gone to the closet and called down the ladder for Andrei. And explained something of what had happened, though she hadn’t heard in those moments of numbness. But now Andrei was here and whispering how sorry he was and how they would be together and no one would hurt her again. She glanced up and saw Mihai nearing the door.
“We’ll leave in the morning.” Mihai’s voice, which had roared in fury only a quarter of an hour ago, was once again so quiet it didn’t seem to belong to the same man. “The crowd was with us tonight, but if tomorrow they decide they believe Bogdan or ask for your papers, they could still mob us. We’ll head out of the city before anyone wakes, at first light.”
His gaze flicked to Andrei, then back to her. She just stared at him for a moment, again with too many feelings to sort out. Before she could make sense of any one emotion, he was speaking again. “Lock the door behind me and put a chair under the knob.”
Andrei nodded, letting go of Tsura only long enough to go to the door and follow Mihai’s instructions to lock the door and put the chair in place. Then Mihai was gone.
Andrei sat back and Tsura gave up trying to sort through the mix of what she was feeling. She simply clung to Andrei’s neck and sobbed—this time for real—into his shoulder.
“Shh, my gypsy princess,” he whispered into her ear. “You are safe now.”
After letting her cry for almost half an hour, he pulled back from her and helped peel away her ripped gown. He kissed her shoulders tenderly, but made no other move, which Tsura was immensely glad for. She imagined some day she would want again to be touched like that, but not tonight. Not with the imprint of Bogdan’s fingers still on her arms, her breast.
“What do you need me to do, yakira?” Andrei whispered, kissing with the gentlest touch the parts of her face that were bruised. “I will do anything for you.”
“Just hold me,” Tsura whispered, lying down in the bed and feeling so tired that even keeping her eyelids open another moment seemed impossible. “Hold me close all night.”
The last thing she felt before she finally drifted into the warm haze of sleep was him climbing into bed, his body warm and solid behind her.
September 1, 1943
My beloved Andrei,
It has now been four weeks to the day since I last saw you, last felt your arms around me and your lips pressing into the soft place right beneath my ear. Did I ever tell you how much I melted when you kissed me there? There is so much I wish I’d said to you before I left. I wish we’d been able to dance together. I wish we’d been able to walk underneath the sky holding hands. I wish I’d told you I loved you one more time. A thousand more times.
Bucharest is not as I remember it. At least what I can see out the window that looks down on Strada Brătianu. The wide boulevard is always so busy. So many people. The trams always running and the horses and buggies. There are cars too, but less than before the war. I think the difference is that everyone seems to walk so fast and in such a hurry all the time.
There are no more lazy strolls like people used to do in the afternoons and evenings down Calea Victoriei. Especially in the long summers like this one. Luca would make me put on my best dress. We’d buy ice cream and then we’d join with every one else walking past the beautiful Athénée Hotel with all its exotic foreign travelers sitting in the lobby and smoking. Then we’d pass by the Palace and Luca would whisper in my ear, “What do you think the King and Queen and the young Prince are doing right at this moment?” And I’d feel so giddy imagining, in that beautiful building right across the street, was actual royalty, not just the kind I heard about in fairy tales.
Now I spend hours and hours peeking out the brown curtains, not daring to open them all the way in case someone sees me and begins to ask questions. It has been harder than expected to get fake papers for me. It feels like I’ve only exchanged one prison for another. You are the last person I should complain to. You have only the basement walls and the Weinbergs to fill your days and I have a whole city to watch pass beneath my window. Or perhaps none of these distractions make any difference to either of us, because our torture is the same. You are not here. I am not there. At the moment, there is nothing we can do to change it.
Tsura lifted her pen from the page and looked around. Mihai had a large inheritance from his grandfather on his mother’s side, so why did he live in this single-room studio apartment? The bed was all but in the living room, as was the kitchen, which merely took up the far right corner by the single large window. The kitchen was simply outfitted, with a stove, sink, and tiny square of countertop that was always covered by the drying dishes. Tsura prepared all the food on the table set up beside the kitchen. The table chairs backed up against the couch, which acted as a divider, offsetting Mihai’s study area from the rest of the room.
The study was dominated by a huge desk that Mihai kept in perfect order. Mihai sat there for hours each night translating dense texts. If Tsura moved even a pencil out of place during the day, he would notice and lecture her about not touching his things. She’d made that mistake only once. She’d been trying to do a deep cleaning of his baseboards and had bumped into the desk. What else was she supposed to do with her days? Infuriating.
At least there was a separate bathroom. And piped in plumbing. Compared to how she had lived most of her life, this apartment was a palace. But palaces still had walls. These walls were painted brown, which made the apartment feel dark and even smaller. Though one could hardly see the brown since the walls were covered floor-to-ceiling in shelves of books. Maybe that was why Mihai had gotten the apartment, for the shelf space.
She closed her eyes and let herself imagine Andrei’s face. His arms around her. She frowned when the memory was slightly fuzzy around the edges. She wasn’t sure if she remembered what his arms actually felt like or just a story she’d begun to tell herself about the memory. It was the danger of being a storyteller. Memories morphed into stories and the true sensory details of the past were lost to the fairytale it became. She didn’t want Andrei to be a fairytale. She wanted him true and solid beside her.
She continued writing.
I live for the days when we’ll be together again. I stare at the pictures I drew of you in my little notebook and try to draw new ones, but they are never the same as when I was sketching while I looked at you. I break my own rules and imagine our future together. I want to go bury myself underground like a winter bulb. I’ll sleep there, quiet and cold, while the world continues its mad storm overhead, and then—in spring—you’ll dig me up again and we’ll be together.
Tsura threw down her pen, feeling sweaty and missing Andrei so bad it ached in her ribs. Since it was still summer, the apartment was constantly sweltering. Opening the window allowed for a tiny bit of relief. The overhead fan only swirled around the already hot air. Tsura wiped the sweat off her brow with her shoulder.
She shouldn’t have written the bit about wanting to sleep in the earth like that. It was an old thought. A dangerous one. That way lay numbness and blank despair.
She squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them, she noticed her pen had spilled ink from the fountain tip all over the dining room table. The devil! She swore and grabbed a kitchen towel to clean up the spill that marred the yellow linen table cloth. No matter how much she scrubbed, though, all she managed to do was ruin the kitchen towel as well.
Letting out a huff of frustration, she grabbed up the letter and went to the matches they kept beside the stove to light the burner. Why did she keep writing these inane letters? She could never send them. Still she wrote, to Luca too. Silly scribbled words that were burned before they could take flight. Anything on paper was too dangerous, damning if it landed in the wrong hands. Her and Andrei’s recklessness in going out to the shed had already cost too much. It was an indulgence to even put the words down in the first place.
She struck a match and held it to the corner of the letter. Her words to Andrei curled brown and then black. The whole thing was aflame before she dropped it into a dirty pot full of water waiting to be cleaned in the sink. Her nose wrinkled against the smell of burned paper that filled the kitchen. She waved the ink stained towel against the smoke to help push it out the window and then began to laugh because laughing was better than crying.
The rattle of the key in the lock made her stand up straight and plaster a smile on her face. Mihai was home.
Her disrespect for him had only grown tenfold in the month she’d been living with him. Watching him leave each morning to work for the murderers had made it more real. More reprehensible.
He was meticulous about his morning routine. Everything had to be just so. The man ironed his undershirts, for God’s sake, and spent more time in the bathroom each morning on his toilette than she did. Tsura had only her burnt up words to cling to, meanwhile Mihai was intent on impressing the bastards reinforcing the miles between her and both Andrei and Luca.
Tsura hurried so that she was right inside the door before Mihai had it open. She put her hands demurely behind her back. Mihai looked at her impassively. Or was there a slight curious tilt to his eyes? Usually Tsura ignored him completely when he came in. Well, she tried to. Then there were the days she was weak. It was just… The silence, the old creeping numbness that threatened when her long mornings alone in the apartment stretched out into longer afternoons. Until she found herself lighting up inside like a dog looking forward to a treat when Mihai came home each night. The two nights a week he worked out at the boxing club and came home late, she paced until she wondered if she’d eventually wear grooves into the flooring.
But then Mihai would come home. When he entered the apartment, the room that seemed so empty all day long was suddenly too full. He had a quarter-hour routine of polishing and buffing his shoes and she savored the noises of the scratch, scratch and then swish, swish, swish of the different brushes he used. Then there was the way he spent another ten to fifteen minutes shuffling and arranging the papers on his desk before he began to scratch away at his translations after dinner. He made so much noise and filled a room completely, he brought the electricity of human life to the air. And each morning after he left the silence was ever more oppressive in its emptiness.
Still, she hated it. Hated that this Nazi-lover had any power over her at all. Maybe that was what had driven her to take a different tactic today. If Mihai wanted to be German so badly, then wonderful. She would be a good little German wife.
“Guten abend, Herr Popescu,” she said brightly after he took off his shoes and lined them up carefully next to his briefcase beside the door. She used the German phrases she’d learned from one of the old German primers he had on his shelves. Apparently the man didn’t know the meaning of throwing a book away, though obviously he had no use for the elementary German texts. “Sie sind hungrig?” Are you hungry?
Mihai only stared at her a few beats longer than normal, but his face didn’t even twitch, devil him.
“Ja, ich bin hungrig.” His voice rang out in a perfect guttural accent. She hated when he spoke German. Hated it. That was the double edge of this ploy, or maybe the point of it. How long would he pretend this was normal, that this was all fine? That what he did for his work was perfectly fine?
She gave him a big fake syrupy smile. “Wie schön.” How nice. “Ich kockte sarmale.” I cooked sarmale.
She turned her back on him and walked over to the kitchen where she pulled out two plates and pulled the top off of the pot simmering on the stove. The smell of boiled cabbage wafted out as steam filled the already hot kitchen. She winced away from the steam. Maybe she should have just served bread and salami for them to eat tonight. Something that didn’t require the stove.
But cooking took up time, and she had hours to fill. Besides, it had been an interesting experiment trying to follow the recipe in the cookbook Mihai had on his shelf—one of the few books that had been all but untouched. Cooking had always been something she’d meant to learn. It was an embarrassment really that she didn’t know how to cook beyond frying potatoes and meat. Most Roma girls grew up next to their mothers and sisters learning how. But her mother had died when she was young, so she’d grown up carving wooden trinkets for market beside Grandfather Besnik and singing along with father’s fiddle. Right around the time everyone had decided it was time for her to stop being a child and start being a woman, she’d been sent to live with Luca. He’d been used to cooking for himself or bringing home food from cafes and she’d missed the whole learning-to-cook lessons beyond dropping things into oil and frying them.
She used a large spoon to ladle out the sarmale onto the plates and frowned. Hmm. That didn’t look like the sarmale she’d grown up eating. She’d wrapped the meat, rice, and spices in the cabbage leaves, but instead of coming out in neat little rolls like she’d always seen before, the cabbage leaves had come undone and now all the ingredients were mixed together with the water she’d boiled them in. The cabbage leaves had just kind of shredded and were floating around in an unintentional soup. Except it was just water instead of proper ciorbă broth. She grimaced and tried to strain the excess water out. Oh well. She splattered the mixture onto plates and set one in front of Mihai. She washed her hands and then sat down with her own plate. He said nothing about the ink-stained tablecloth, though at this point the thing was useless for anything else than kitchen rags or quilt squares.
Mihai shrugged out of his suit coat. Like her, his shirt was slicked down to his skin with sweat. he took a bite and winced as his tooth cracked into something hard. Tsura quickly took a bite as well, crunching into a grain of hard, uncooked rice.
The recipe had said to cook the rice first, but that had seemed unnecessary since it would all be boiling in the pot… Tsura merely smiled serenely at Mihai. She searched her mind for a German phrase to ask if something was wrong. She wondered if he would come out and call her a bad cook to her face. Finally she keyed in on a word that would work, since it was close to the Romanian. “Problem?”
“Nein, kein problem.” He said with his usual bland face and took a bite. There was another audible crunch of rice.
Their neighbor’s voices sounded through the wall beside the kitchen. They could always hear their neighbors talking through the thin walls, an older man and wife whose constant arguing reminded Tsura of Liviu and Eva. It started up almost every evening when the man got home from work. Tsura could never understand any of it since it was in German. In spite of the spartan apartment, Mihai did have a record player, and Tsura often put one on to drown out the arguing.
Tsura continued eating the meal. She’d grown up with all manner of food she could beg, hunt, forage, or steal, so a little uncooked rice was nothing to her. She knew she must have measured the herbs and seasonings wrong as well because the dish was rather tasteless. But it was food in the belly and that was all that mattered.
Still, Mihai was annoyingly unperturbed by the lacking quality of the meal. That might have been unintentional, but she’d spent all afternoon studying the spattering of German. A man like him deserved more than a prick in his conscience and she’d been sharpening herself like a tack all afternoon.
“Wie war die Arbeit heute?” How was work today? Another of her practiced phrases.
Mihai looked up from his meal. He muttered a long string of German that she couldn’t understand but suspected was a curse. Then he wiped his mouth with his napkin and set down his fork so forcefully it clanged against the table. She felt a devilish wave of glee at having affected him even the slightest little bit. But the next moment his face was back to the mask. He grabbed a slice of bread that she always set on the table for meals and buttered it. “Die Arbeit war gut.” Work was good.
She shuddered internally. She hated to think of what constituted a good day at the Nazi ambassador’s office.
“Wie schön. Übersetzen keine Bestellungen Tod heute?” How nice. Translate any death orders today?
Mihai shot up from his chair and put his hands on the table. He leaned over, invading Tsura’s space. “Why are you talking about these things?” he hissed in a whisper, in Romanian now. “I’ve told you people could be listening. We’ll not speak of these things.”
He spun away and paced the kitchen as if trying to gather his calm back to him. Tsura sat back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. She was torn between wanting to smile at having cracked his unfeeling shell and wanting to scream, to demand to know what was wrong with him that he could work for murderers. He did not want to speak of these things? He did not want to speak of the way General Antonescu gave orders that for any act of “sabotage,” whatever that meant or could be interpreted to mean, twenty-five Jews would be murdered? He did not want to speak about Transnistria, where who knows what could be happening to Luca?
Before she could ask any of those things, though, Mihai looked over the sink and grabbed the plant off the hook hanging in the window.
“What did I tell you about this plant?” he asked, lips tight. “It’s not supposed to get too much light. I learned its schedule when I bought it. I put it in the light when it needs it. Leave it on the counter the rest of the time.”
Tsura rolled her eyes. He had told her before about the plant, but then she’d spent her days looking at the poor thing shriveling up and dying because it didn’t have enough sunlight. And well, she’d felt a kinship with the devil plant so she’d set it back into the light.
Tsura grabbed the pot back from Mihai. “Which one of us is a Roma and which an idiot gagiu?” she asked sharply. “I have come across this plant often enough in the wild and it needs direct sunlight! You are killing it with your stupid gagii ways. Killing is all you know how to do!”
Mihai grabbed the pot back from her, but she wouldn’t let it go. In the struggle, Mihai wrenched it from her hands but didn’t fully grasp it; it fell to the floor. Tsura dove uselessly. It exploded in a mix of soil, roots, and shards of pottery.
Tsura and Mihai both stared at it, frozen for a second. Then Tsura dropped to her heels, fumbling through the soil to gather the roots together. “We just need another pot. Do you have another pot? If we transplant it quick enough, it should be all right. And soil, we really should get fresh soil.”
She held the sad, flopping stems in her hand. They looked half dead already. Nonsensical words kept gushing out of her mouth like a geyser, “I don’t really know how to take care of plants in pots though. They were always in the ground when we used them for herbs growing up. And they had worms wriggling around the soil. Nana Bănică, she wasn’t my Nana, she was just one of the oldest women in the vitsa you understand, always said it was worms that made the herbs grow best. But I don’t suppose worms want to live in pots anymore than the plants do!”
And then Tsura started to cry.
She had not cried when Luca was taken away. She had not cried when she’d been forced to leave Andrei. But here she was crying over a stupid little plant. And for more than the plant, maybe for all of it, but she would not think about that. She pressed her soil covered hands against her eyelids and cried.
“Christ, Tsura. I’m sorry,” Tsura heard Mihai’s voice crack as his feet stepped closer to her. Ah, she had broken into Mihai at last, and here she couldn’t even celebrate the victory of it.
She wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands that were still clean and then got to her feet. She ignored Mihai where he hovered beside her and went to the bathroom. Calmly, the tears clearing, she washed her hands with ritual slowness, then her face. She blotted her cheeks with the towel, not looking at herself in the mirror. She took a deep breath and then went back out to put away the rest of the sarmale and clean up the mess on the floor.
She paused in surprise outside the bathroom door.
Mihai was on the floor awkwardly dropping handfuls of dirt into a large crystal vase where he’d stuffed half the roots of the plant. Mihai looked up at her as she took a step closer. He had a smudge of dirt across his nose and for a short flash of a moment, Tsura had an image of the over-starched Mihai as a little boy, digging in the dirt. It was an entirely incongruous picture. Yet here he was, knees in the dirt.
“It’s not the best fit,” he gestured at the vase. “But I thought it might keep for the night. I’ll buy a proper pot tomorrow. The rest should go in another vase.”
For the first time with Mihai, Tsura didn’t have a witty comeback. She was quite speechless. She could only nod and watch dumbly as he stuffed the rest of the plant into the second vase, then she went and quietly got the broom to sweep up the lingering dirt and pot shards. They didn’t speak.
When they’d almost finished up, an air raid siren split the night.
Tsura’s grip tightened on the broom as she jolted at the sound. There had been plenty of raid alarms early in the war, but none since she’d been back in the city. Bucharest had been on high alert since the recent bombings on the oil fields an hour north, though, and she had known it was only a matter of time. Still, her heart beat jumped to a heady thrum in her ears.
“Come.” Mihai immediately went into action, stepping closer to take her elbow and guiding her toward the door. Mihai was back to his calm, cool self, though she noticed he did shove his feet into his untied shoes instead of the meticulous bow he normally tied. Then he grabbed a newspaper he’d dropped by his briefcase and a tin water bottle that stood on the shelf nearest the door and gestured her through first. His eyes were out on the hallway, sharp and assessing as she passed by him.
Tsura stepped into the hallway right as a young blonde woman herded three small children out of the apartment across the hall, a baby in her arms. All of the children were crying and the woman didn’t look far from it herself.
“Hush, hush,” the harried woman said to the swaddled baby in her arms, rocking him while also trying to keep an overstuffed canvas bag from falling off her shoulder. The air raid siren continued wailing on and people from the upper floors pushed past them to get down the stairs. The mother’s curling hair fell haphazardly out of its pins as she looked to the oldest child, a boy. “Dieter, take both your sisters’ hands. We need to hurry.”
But Dieter himself had large tears running down his face and he clung to his mother’s skirt. The smaller of the two girls toddled away from them toward the stairs. Tsura leaned down and scooped her up before she could make it to the top step.
“Oh thank you, thank you!” the woman said in accented Romanian.
Tsura perched the squirming toddler on her hip and smiled in sympathy. “Why don’t I carry her down?”
The woman nodded gratefully and finally coaxed the older boy to take his other sister’s hand. They joined the group crowding down the stairs. The apartment building was five stories tall with many apartments on each floor. Since they were on the third story, that meant plenty of traffic coming behind them. Mihai hung back until Tsura and all the children started the descent and then followed. She glanced back only once and saw that he was using his body as a buffer, holding back their overeager neighbors from trampling her or the children.
Tsura quickly averted her eyes back to the stairs in front of her and focused on the squirming, crying little girl in her arms. The cacophony of all the voices echoing in the stairwell was bad enough, but the ear-piercing air-raid siren on top of it was enough to set her teeth on edge. She wished they would turn it off already. She couldn’t imagine anyone left in the city who hadn’t heard it by now. It was so loud, it had no doubt rattled the bones of the dead in the cemeteries. Then, as if her mere thought had wished it so, the siren shut off.
She breathed out a sigh of relief right as she stepped off the last of the stairs into the basement. Many of the apartment’s residents milled around, but the children’s mother walked straight to the far corner with purpose. Tsura followed, watching in curiosity as she dropped the overstuffed bag she’d been carrying on her shoulder.
“Dieter, pull out the blanket,” she said. “Irmgard, if you help him, then you can both play with the trains.” The overwhelmed looking woman from the top of the stairs was gone. She was firing off commands now. The little boy had stopped crying, and he and the older girl pulled out a large quilt and spread it on the concrete floor.
The woman settled herself, leaning against the wall. She let out a long breath that fluffed her bangs away from her face. The baby was still wailing, but she expertly swung an embroidered little shawl over her shoulder and dipped the baby beneath it. Almost immediately, the baby quieted. The woman must be nursing. She looked up at Tsura gratefully.
“Thank you for helping with Brigitte. You can put her down on the blanket here. I’m Elena, by the way.” Elena laughed and it was a merry, musical sound. “Did I forget to introduce myself in all the insanity? I think I did! Come, come,” with the arm that wasn’t cradling her baby, she waved Tsura to sit.
Tsura dropped down, the little girl already wiggling to get out of her arms. Tsura looked down at the red-faced toddler and kissed the mop of blond curls before setting her on the ground. Dieter had also pulled a worn doll out of the bag and Brigitte ran toward it on her chubby legs, arms outstretched. The girl couldn’t be much older than two. She grabbed the doll and then plopped herself down on the quilt.
Elena looked around and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “The secret is to scout the best location before people have settled in. I learned this with the first raid when we were left no place to sit and had to stand by the pipes over there,” Elena nodded across the basement to a mass of uncovered plumbing and heating pipes. The basement was almost full now. Others like Elena had staked out areas of the floor, especially places along the wall where they could relax to wait out the raid. Some had also brought quilts, a few even pillows.
Mihai must have followed her because he’d claimed the spot on the wall right beside them and was calmly reading the newspaper he’d brought. He’d placed the water bottle between his body and Tsura’s, along with half a hard salami she hadn’t seen him grab. How many raids had there been since she was last living in Bucharest? She looked up. Were bombs falling in other parts of the city? She couldn’t hear anything beyond the low murmur of voices.
Elena shuddered, continuing where she left off. “The pipes smelled wet and moldy and made these strange noises. Irmgard was scared and crying the entire three hours we were stuck down here. So I say to myself, well, the next time this happens, I will not be in that situation again, no I will not! I get down as quick as possible and stake my corner!”
“Aha, yes, a very wise strategy,” Tsura said. She looked around the already full basement. After seeing no one but Mihai for a month, it was unnerving to be surrounded by so many people. The basement was a wide brick space, open except for three large tanks along the west wall and lots of pipes running along the ceiling. There was technically room for everyone to sit, but it would be a tight squeeze. Many were standing anyway, a low hum of voices chatting. Others were crowded around a radio that was set up in the corner opposite to them.
Tsura turned back to Elena and smiled. “I’m—” she caught herself right in time before blurting her real name. “Alexandra. This is my husband Mihai.” She gestured at him. He looked up from the paper long enough to nod.
“A pleasure to meet you both,” Elena said, then wrinkled her nose, “if not in the best circumstances. Often the bombs, they don’t even fall. But if they even suspect there is anything in the sky, they set off the siren.”
Elena removed the baby and rearranged herself under the shawl. The baby yawned and didn’t fuss when Elena put him up on her shoulder. She patted his back a few times, then held him expertly with one hand while pulling items out of the large bag with the other: a couple small pillows, a pack of playing cards, two well worn books, and several carved wooden train cars. The two oldest children immediately reached for the trains.
Tsura smiled and leaned against the wall beside the family. “You come prepared.”
Elena laughed. She was a plump woman but not fat and didn’t look old enough even to be thirty. Her porcelain skin was flushed and Tsura thought she looked like the picture perfect image of a mother. “Ah yes, the second air raid we had a space on the floor but nothing to distract or entertain them. Second lesson learned!” Elena laughed again.
“Is their father in the army?” Tsura asked.
“Oh no, no,” Elena waved a hand. “He works in the embassy. He’s there working late tonight. Klaus Müller, he’s an undersecretary to the Ambassador.” She addressed herself to Mihai now. “You were there as well, is that right? Klaus says he’s seen you coming in the building sometimes.” Mihai had told Tsura that the German embassy had arranged the apartment for him, she supposed she shouldn’t be surprised there were more people in the building who worked there.
Mihai nodded. “I know him. He’s a good man.”
Elena beamed even as Tsura felt her stomach sour.
“So he’s German,” Tsura said before she could stop herself.
Elena only laughed, not noticing the biting tone to Tsura’s words. “As German as they come. My mother is German, too, though we always lived here in Bucharest. We went to Berlin the summer I turned eighteen to visit family. That must have been nine years ago now. Lord, time passes by so fast!” the woman prattled on, not noticing the stiffening of Tsura’s shoulders. Now Tsura placed the slight accent to Elena’s Romanian.
“Of course my dear mama and tati had no idea that I’d be engaged by the end of the summer and not want to come back to Romania with the rest of the family! Oh Tati was furious with me—and Klaus. Klaus was only forgiven when we moved back to Bucharest at the beginning of the war. It was a lucky thing, yes?” Then she waved her hand expressively, laughing again. “No, no, that is a lie, it wasn’t luck, but a blessing from God above that Klaus rose so quickly in the ranks of the Third Reich.”
Mihai took Tsura’s elbow and squeezed. He must have sensed that Tsura didn’t share the woman’s opinion that rising in the Third Reich was any kind of blessing, least of all a blessing from God. But Elena just kept talking, oblivious to Tsura and Mihai. Elena must have been one of those people who could prattle on to a wooden post, or maybe she was simply starved for adult company after being cooped up in an apartment all day with four young children.
“My family is so happy to have me back,” Elena continued. “My parents are getting older, you understand, and they like to know their grandchildren. And my sister-in-law Cristina—now that girl is as fully Romanian as they come, she’ll talk your ear off about how she’s supposedly a descendant of Michael the Brave!” Elena rolled her eyes. “But don’t believe a word of it. She lives with us also, I’m sure you’ll meet her soon. She works as a nurse.” Elena pursed her lips and made a disapproving face. “She’s too young and pretty to be wasting her life working, I tell her that, but does she listen to me? No.”
Tsura was confused. “So she’s married to… your brother?”
Elena’s eyes dropped to look at her hands. “Oh yes, my brother, her husband, he died last year at the Battle of Odessa. He was in the Romanian Fourth division, very honorable.”
All Tsura’s other feelings about Elena’s husband were dashed under a wave of empathy. She reached out and grabbed the blond woman’s hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “My own brother was wounded very badly at that battle. I’m so, so sorry.”
Elena’s eyes locked with hers and she knew the woman accepted her sympathy in more than a cursory way. Elena squeezed her hand back. “Thank you.” She smiled at Tsura, a genuine smile, then her eyes flicked toward the children. “Dieter,” she said, her voice sharp but tinged with affection. “Stop pulling your sister’s braid!”
Tsura smiled over at the two oldest children who were red-faced and looking like they were about to scratch each other’s eyes out. It made her want to laugh. Gagii liked to pretend children were these angelic, abstract beings. The Roma knew children could be just as sneaky, conniving and hardscrabble as adults. It was how they ran some of their most successful cons. Send a barefoot, large-eyed child begging and they’d always comeback with three times the coin. And they could be mean scrappers in a fight.
Tsura glanced back at Elena, a complex mix of feelings in her gut. She could handle Elena-the-mother-of-four far better than Elena-the-wife-of-a-Nazi. “How old are they?”
“Dieter’s six. Then there’s Irmgard who’s five. Brigitte you’ve already met,” Elena laughed and pointed at each child. “is two. And this one,” she nodded toward the baby in her arms who she’d settled from over her shoulder into her lap, “Gheorghe, is just seven months.”
“I’m six and three quarters,” Dieter interrupted.
Tsura fought to hide her smile. “Well that’s nearly seven,” she said. Dieter beamed at her.
“You’re newly married, is that right?” Elena asked. The baby began to fuss again and suck on his fist, then whine louder. Elena sighed, then hefted him back up.
“Still hungry?” She unselfconsciously unbuttoned the front of her dress and began nursing the whining baby at the opposite breast from earlier, not bothering with the shawl this time. Tsura guessed everyone was too busy with their own conversations or distractions to bother caring about a nursing woman in the corner. Immediately the baby quieted. Still, it took Tsura a moment to avert her gaze. Not because she was shocked at the sight. No, she grew up with women nursing openly back in the caravan.
It was just the picture Elena presented. This woman with her beautiful children, the baby at her breast… it made Tsura’s stomach clench as if she could feel the empty space where her womb had once been. “Yes,” Tsura finally forced herself to smile even though she felt like anything but. She took Mihai’s arm. “We’re newlyweds.”
Mihai looked down sharply at her touch, but didn’t pull away. Then he went back to reading his newspaper and Tsura let go.
“We all wondered when Domnul Popescu would take a wife.” Elena leaned close. “Every apartment block loves its own gossip, you understand. And your husband here was so young and handsome in a city full of women since so many of our boys went off to war. But he never brought a single woman home. But now he has married you,” Elena smiled and nudged Tsura’s shoulder, “and we are all scandalously interested about how you two met and fell in love.”
Tsura told Elena the fake story of meeting Mihai at the wedding in Fălticeni while Dieter and Irmgard ran the toy trains over the tops of the women’s feet. Brigitte promptly fell asleep on one of the pillows, clutching her dolly. Elena asked all kinds of questions about Tsura’s wedding—what her dress was like, what kind of food was served, how good was the band. The children stayed mostly quiet, but by the time Tsura finished telling Elena about the dancing, a tug of war had developed between Dieter and Irmgard. Irmgard wanted the train Dieter had been playing with, and he didn’t want to give it up. Soon their shrieks were echoing around the small basement and the people from other apartments were glaring. The basement was full but there were few other children, and none as young as Elena’s. Little Brigitte began stirring. If Irmgard and Dieter didn’t stop, they’d have a grumpy toddler on their hands in a few moments as well.
“Do you want to see a card trick?” Tsura broke in, looking between the two older children. They both paused and glanced at her. Without waiting for a reply, Tsura undid the string from around the deck of cards Elena had pulled from her bag earlier and began expertly shuffling them. She flexed the cards and made a bridge with her thumbs, the cards springing between her hands in an arc. The children watched in fascination.
“I’ll show you a magic trick, but you must be very, very quiet, or else the magic won’t work.”
Dieter nodded solemnly, and, mimicking him, Irmgard nodded too. Tsura shuffled a few more times, then held the deck out to Dieter, since he was oldest. Irmgard made a small outraged noise, but Tsura assured her they both would get a turn.
“Cut the deck, anywhere you please,” Tsura told the boy. He did, and Tsura lifted the top half of the deck. Tsura took a brief peek at the card face showing on the bottom of the top half as she lifted it. Jack of Clubs. She repeated it internally several times to make sure she remembered it.
“Take the card and memorize it.”
Dieter peeled off the top card of the bottom half, careful to keep Tsura from seeing it, and stared at it hard for several long moments. “Picture the card in your mind’s eye,” Tsura said. “Concentrate very hard.”
“Now place it back on the deck,” Tsura instructed. He put it back. “Cut the deck again.”
Dieter did, and Tsura put the bottom half on the top, then she flipped over the cards and fanned them out. She looked briefly over all the cards until she came to the Jack of Clubs. Then she plucked out the card to the left of it and held it up to Dieter. “This is your card.”
His small mouth dropped open, and Irmgard started clapping with glee. “How did you know?” Dieter asked.
“Magic,” Tsura answered with a wink.
Dieter crossed his arms over his chest. “There’s no such thing as magic.”
“My turn, my turn,” Irmgard said. Tsura shuffled the cards again and repeated the process. Dieter’s eyes were on her like a hawk the whole time. She was even more careful in her quick peek at the card at the bottom of the half deck she raised once Irmgard cut it. Again, both children were amazed when she picked out the correct card.
Even Elena was watching with curiosity clear in her face.
“What’s the trick? Tell me now,” Dieter demanded. “I know there’s no such thing as magic.” He declared it with all the certainty of an almost-seven-year-old who is positive he knows everything there is to know about how the world works.
“All right, all right,” Tsura held up her hands. “You caught me. It is just a trick. I’ll do it two more times. See if you can figure it out on your own. If not, then I’ll tell you.”
Dieter scrunched up his face watching as she shuffled and repeated the trick. He stared at the cards in her hands, and after she picked out the right card again, he declared, “You arrange the cards when you shuffle the deck so you know where all the cards are.”
“No, try again.” She repeated the trick.
“You can read our minds!” Irmgard guessed.
“Nope,” Tsura said. She did it three more times, and finally Dieter admitted with frustration that he was stumped.
“All right, come close and I’ll show you how it’s done.” Both Dieter and Irmgard crowded so close they were almost in her lap. She told them the trick.
“You mean all you have to do is look at that card?” Dieter asked, pointing at the bottom card of the raised half deck.
“Yep, that’s it.”
Dieter seemed disappointed, as if the trick should have involved a lot more than a quick peek at an exposed card.
“Here, now you try,” Tsura said, handing him the deck. “Then you can do the trick on all your friends and they will think you are a magician.”
This perked the little boy up considerably, and he began shuffling the cards.
“You are good with children,” Elena smiled at her.
Tsura looked up and shrugged. She noticed Mihai’s cool gray eyes were on her as well. She hurriedly looked back at the children. “I spent a lot of time taking care of my baby cousins when I was younger.” They hadn’t been her cousins by blood, but it was what they called each other anyway. Luca was gone by that point, and Tsura had liked playing with the smaller children, being needed by them.
Elena smiled slyly and nodded over at Mihai. “And maybe you will have your own soon now that you are married.”
Tsura didn’t expect the pang that ripped at her chest. She thought she’d inured herself to the pain of not being able to have children. Then there were times like this where out of nowhere it would hit her fresh. Tsura just shrugged noncommittally and carefully hid her true face.
Elena suddenly grabbed her hands. “You should visit sometime. Or we could go to the market. God knows it would be good practice helping herd children!”
Tsura smiled in spite of herself. In spite of everything, in spite of the fact that Elena was married to a Nazi even, Tsura was shocked to realize she’d enjoyed her company and enjoyed being around the children. “I’d like that.”
Lord, maybe she was the one starved for company. She’d even thought for a few moments that Mihai wasn’t such a bad man either when she was cleaning up the potted plant with him earlier. What was the world coming to when she was spending all her time with Nazi enablers and Nazi spouses and Nazi offspring?
Then the little baby gurgled and smiled in his sleep on Elena’s shoulder. Elena kissed his soft forehead and again all Tsura could see in front of her was mother and child. “It would be good to get to know the markets around here,” Tsura said. “I’m really a terrible a cook though.”
Elena laughed. “I was apprenticed to be a seamstress before I met Klaus. I was a horrible seamstress but I am an excellent cook. I guess it all worked out since I have so many mouths to feed!”
Still disturbed by her opposing reactions to Elena, Tsura forced herself to respond normally. “I have the opposite problem. I can sew clothes just fine and fry potatoes well enough, but my sarmale always comes out undercooked and I burn the mămăligă.”
Elena waved a hand. “That settles it then. You must come over and I’ll teach you my cooking tricks.”
Put on a smile, Tsura, she instructed herself. She managed one. “Sounds lovely.” It would be good to get out of the apartment without having to venture into the streets since she didn’t have identification yet. Visiting another apartment within the building was ideal. And mingling with a spouse from Mihai’s work would only strengthen her cover. She broadened her smile. She hadn’t had to wear her second face since the week of her wedding a month ago, but she could dust it off well enough.
Movement from the far end of the room caught her eye. Voices were raised in the corner by the radio. Mihai stood and went to investigate, coming back only a few minutes later. “They’ve called off the air raid warnings for the night,” he said, though she could guess as much from the crowd that was already gathering at the stairs.
“Would it be too much to ask for help with Brigitte on the way back up?” Elena asked, gesturing tiredly at Brigitte who was gently snoring on the quilt, one arm around dolly, the other with her thumb in her mouth. Mihai moved in front of Tsura. “I’ll take her.”
He scooped up the small girl from the ground. She shifted groggily in his arms, but didn’t wake. Tsura stared for a moment. It was the second time in a single night she had an incongruous picture of Mihai set before her, this time with the tiny girl in his hulking arms. It was very… sweet. Not a word she ever thought she’d attach to him. She turned away and silently packed up the blankets and toys for Elena, since Elena was holding the baby.
Elena nuzzled Gheorghe’s head where he settled at her shoulder. Then she looked at Tsura. “Come over tomorrow afternoon and I’ll give you your first cooking lesson.”
Tsura smiled widely back. Maybe she could practice her German with Elena. If she was truly to wear the face of the enemy, she should learn the voice as well. At least enough to mimic it occasionally. “Sounds lovely. I can’t wait.”
Tsura was worried the loud noise of everyone’s footsteps echoing in the stairwell would wake the sleeping children, but both Gheorghe and Brigitte slept the whole way. Mihai carried the sleeping girl in his arms all the way to her crib. Then he joined Tsura back in their apartment.
They went through their normal nightly routine. Since they lived in the one room apartment, the only privacy was in the bathroom. Mihai took his night shirt in with him and closed the door.
Tsura waited to walk to her dresser until she heard the solid snick of the lock put in place. Then she hurried and put on her thin knee-length nightgown and hung her dress on a hook in the wardrobe. She’d begun the month in a more modest ankle-length nightgown but the heat had quickly won over modesty and she’d switched to her shorter one. Both of which had been bought by Mihai, which was awkward all on its own. Her third day here, he’d come home with three bags full of women’s clothing, everything from a new heavy winter coat all the way to brand-new unmentionables that had made her blush. He’d given only the curt explanation that he’d told the woman at the shop he needed a woman’s entire wardrobe and hadn’t looked in the bags.
Tsura hurried over and turned off all the lights, then knocked three times on the bathroom door and skittered to the bed and jumped under the sheet. She drew the sheet up to her chin. She didn’t know why she hurried. Mihai always waited a full five minutes after she knocked before emerging from the bathroom to make his way to the long, skinny couch where he slept each night.
She wondered sometimes if his wide-shouldered frame even fit on the couch. She’d never been daring enough to tiptoe over in the middle of the night to look. Sometimes he’d set up a pallet on the floor instead. She kept trying to insist he sleep on the bed and she’d take the couch. He always silently refused. The one time she’d tried to ignore him and sleep on the couch anyway, he’d simply picked her up bodily and put her back in the bed. That had been disturbing in a way she couldn’t even name, so at the time, she’d simply acquiesced, though it was rarely in her nature to give up without a fight.
He came out of the bathroom after several minutes, as expected. There was the familiar rustle of sheets as he got himself situated on the couch. She lay still for long minutes. She listened to Mihai’s breathing in the otherwise quiet apartment, reading the patterns that one comes to know when living with someone so intimately.
Mihai was still awake. What was he thinking about, lying there on the couch not six feet from her? Tsura’s head was tumbling with the events of the evening. Her burned letter to Andrei. Missing him. The broken pot. Liking and simultaneously disliking Elena. The image of Mihai holding a sleeping child. The memory of him carrying Tsura herself to bed that one time. Listening to him breathe. Lying here now alone but not alone. She wondered about the wide city out there and the hundreds of thousands of other people trying to fall asleep tonight. Had bombs actually fallen? They wouldn’t know until the morning’s paper.
She felt foolish. She didn’t know why she had said his name, what question she had meant to ask. “Good night,” she said hurriedly to cover her mistake.
There was a moment of silence, then his low gravelly voice whispered into the quiet, “Good night, Tsura.”
The words seemed to rumble around inside her head long after the syllables were spoken.
Tsura couldn’t stop staring at the portrait of Hitler.
It wasn’t a large picture, but it was prominently placed in Elena’s living room, with a large, wooden cross hanging over it, as if God himself were looking down upon the dictator with favor.
“No, you need to flick your wrist more,” Elena said, “watch.” Tsura tore her gaze away from the picture and looked at the butter in her bowl. Then she glanced over at Elena’s bowl, where her butter had turned into a soft froth. Tsura’s was still clumpy.
It was three days after the air raid and Elena was teaching her to make soup with dumplings. They already had the broth bubbling in two separate pots on Elena’s stovetop and now they were starting on the dumplings.
“How do you do that?” Tsura asked, trying to sound as if she had been thinking about butter all along and not fields of blood and chain-link fences holding people caged like cattle.
“Magic,” Elena winked, before laughing and coming over to help Tsura. “We are lucky that here in Romania we can still get butter!” Elena put her hand over Tsura’s wrist and showed her how to flick the whisk.
“When we left Germany at the start of the war, they had already begun rationing. Here yes the prices go up, but still we can get even meat and cheese with no problem. At least since our men work at the Embassy and can make real money, it’s no problem for us! Yes, that’s better,” Elena said when Tsura began to mimic the wrist movement with the whisk. Elena clucked her tongue. “I can’t believe your mother didn’t teach you to make a good dumpling soup.”
Tsura was quiet a moment and then told the truth. “My mama died when I was very young. I lived with my father and grandfather and our aunt always made food for us.”
Her ‘aunt’ hadn’t been a true aunt, but her father’s cousin, the daughter of Grandfather Besnik’s brother. She was a shrewish woman, though, so her father never forced Tsura to spend time with her, not even for the basic things a Roma girl was supposed to learn, like cooking. At least not after the first lesson when Tanti Anca had given her a beating and sent her home when Tsura burned the bread. Tati had been furious. He hugged her and said she was so smart, she’d easily pick up anything she needed to know when she got herself a husband. But then, when there was no more chance for a husband… And then Tati himself had passed. They might never have known unless their father’s good friend had not sent a letter to Luca. It arrived months after he died.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Elena looked stricken. Tsura had forgotten to school her face for a moment, but Elena must have taken the flash of betrayal she still felt at being expelled from the vitsa and grief at her father’s passing as being for her mother. Elena threw her arms around Tsura in a large motherly hug, and again, Tsura felt a sharp pang in her chest. She’d hated Elena only minutes ago and yet now for a momentary flicker, she wanted to like her. How could that be?
Tsura backed away from Elena and waved a hand. “It was a long time ago.” She turned back to the bowl. “Is it time to add the semolina?”
“First an egg,” Elena said.
“Oh mama, mama, can I crack the egg?” Irmgard asked, bouncing on her toes. Brigitte toddled along after her sister, a toy stuck in her mouth, drool around the edges. Dieter was in the other room, having declared that cooking was women’s work. He was very manfully playing with blocks.
“Yes, but remember how I taught you?” Elena said. “No one wants eggshell in their soup.”
“Yes, Mama,” Irmgard said, staring at the egg in her hand as if it were a live grenade. Her little head just barely came over the counter, standing on a small step stool. With a precise crack on the edge of the bowl, she split the egg and dropped the contents into the bowl, then tossed away the shell in the trash. She looked up at her mother, grinning.
“Very good, turnip,” Elena patted her head. Next she taught Tsura how to add semolina to the dumpling mix. Then they dropped it in spoonfuls into the soup to cook.
As they worked, Tsura glanced around the comfortable apartment. It was decorated in traditional gagii style, with inviting furniture and ornate red and white tablecloths on all the tables and cabinets, along with some fine lacework underneath brass candlesticks. Delicately painted ceramic figurines of tiny fawns at play as well as a series of cherubic children dotted the mantle. The apartment showed the mix of Elena’s Romanian and German heritages. Burnished pictures of family hung on the walls. And of course the prominent portrait of Hitler.
“So Domnul and Doamna Moculescu live on the bottom floor,” Elena continued chatting. “Be glad you live up here on the third floor, because they have arguments so loud they could scrape the hair off a cat. You think your next door neighbors are bad with the yelling, but they are nothing compared to the Moculescus. Everyone on the second floor complains about it. They’ve been married almost five decades, and Doamna Moculescu seems to get louder with each passing year, the deafer she gets. Be careful never to let her catch you in the hallway or she’ll spend at least an hour jabbering at you. But lucky for me, she doesn’t like children, so she never stops me for long.”
Tsura forced herself to look away from Hitler and continue spooning dumpling mix into the soup.
“Then there’s Domnul Vlaicu, he’s a bachelor, except I don’t think he’ll ever find a nice girl like Mihai did with you.” She lowered her voice and leaned in. “He always smells like a brewery, and Doamna Dobrin—remember, I told you she lives on the second floor too—she said that the landlord has threatened to kick him out more than once because he’s late with rent. He has a good job working with German businessmen who come to Bucharest to buy up Jew properties. Noble work because I shudder to think about those animals running our banks and our pharmacies, oh, think about it, the drugs we put in our bodies when we are sick, yes, my hands shake when I think about it!” Elena put out a hand and it did indeed tremble.
Tsura bit her lip, forcing her face into a neutral mask even though she wanted to scream. She was familiar enough with the practice Elena was talking about. Luca had been working as a junior accountant at a Jewish-owned bank when it had been auctioned off to the highest bidder, an incompetent German businessman with a penchant for young, blond secretaries. To add insult to injury, he kept the former Jewish owner on as a “personnel manager,” which meant the Jewish man continued to run the bank, but at a pittance.
Tsura’s gut suddenly churned and the smell of the bubbling soup made her feel nauseous. She swallowed hard.
“But everyone knows,” Elena continued without pause, “Domnul Vlaicu spends his entire salary at the bars and gambling tables, and then his poor aging mother has to send him money to pay his rent. Which is sad, because he’s not a bad looking fellow. A little too hairy for my taste, but some girls like that.”
“Daddy’s hairy,” Irmgard piped up.
“Yes, but only on his head where hair belongs,” Elena put down the spoon she’d been stirring the dumpling soup with and tickled the girl. Irmgard giggled.
The baby began to wail in the other room. “Turnip,” Elena said, “want to come help me with the baby?” Irmgard nodded solemnly at being given such an important task and they both went toward the bedroom. Brigitte toddled along behind them, making happy high-pitched noises.
The door to the apartment opened and Tsura looked up, expecting to see Elena’s husband. Instead a young woman came in wearing a nurse’s uniform. She was very tall and lovely, more in a sharp-featured way than a traditional, soft-prettiness, with short brown hair that just touched her chin. She sat down heavily on a kitchen chair before looking up and noticing Tsura.
“Oh,” she stood back up again, “I didn’t realize Elena had guests.”
“I’m a neighbor,” Tsura crafted her features into what she hoped came off as a smile. Her stomach was still uneasy and she was ready to be done with this ‘friendly visit,’ whether the soup was done or not. She was glad for the distraction of someone else in the room other than Elena at least. “I’m Alexandra, I live across the hall.”
The tall woman came forward to kiss Tsura on both cheeks in greeting. “I’m Cristina. Elena’s sister-in-law.”
“Ah, yes, she’s told me about you. Hello.”
Cristina’s smile was warm, but tired. “I’m glad to meet you, Alexandra. I’d be more enthusiastic but I just worked a twelve hour shift. I’m quite barely managing to keep my eyes open at the moment.”
Elena swooped back in and Irmgard launched herself at Cristina’s leg, begging to be picked up. “Tanti Cristina!”
Tired or not, Cristina swooped the little girl into her arms.
“Oh good,” Elena clapped her hands, “this is Mihai’s new wife from across the hall. I’ve been wanting you two to meet.”
“So you’re new to town?” Cristina said, giving Irmgard a kiss on the forehead and then placing her back on the ground.
Tsura nodded. “Just getting settled in.”
“Are you searching for work? Colțea hospital is always looking for more nurses and volunteers. It’s only a twenty minute walk straight down the boulevard. Ugh, it was another short-staffed shift and I’m exhausted.” She sat and laid her head down on the kitchen table for emphasis, or maybe simply because she was too tired not to.
Elena clucked at Cristina. “She’s recently married! Not all women want to be outside their homes everyday. I’m sure Alexandra wants to focus on her house and her husband. And on getting a little one in the belly!”
Tsura tried to hide her wince. Cristina only picked her head back up off the table and narrowed her eyes at Elena. “This is a new century, you do realize that, yes? Has been for forty-three years now! Women are out in the world. We work in factories since the men are all fighting. Some women are even studying to become doctors, not just nurses!”
Elena put a hand over her heart. “Lord save me from that day! This new generation knows nothing of traditional values.”
“New generation?” Cristina laughed. “I’m only four years younger than you.”
Elena clucked again, shaking her head. “Then you have no excuses. Why aren’t you out looking for a man of your own?”
At first Tsura was startled that Elena would be urging Cristina to marry again when it was Elena’s brother that had bonded them in the first place. Though she supposed the battle of Odessa had been two years ago now. And Cristina didn’t seem to mind, whether Elena was being insensitive or not.
“You will only have your looks for so long,” Elena continued. “And the men, they are not so plentiful anymore. But still, there are some good ones around.” Elena nudged Tsura. “Perhaps Alexandra here can give you some pointers since she just caught one.”
Tsura took it this was a longstanding debate between the two women. She held up her hands, indicating her neutrality in the discussion.
The two women went back and forth for another ten minutes until the dumplings were cooked—apparently Cristina was equally hungry as she was tired—and Elena’s husband Klaus arrived home. It took everything in Tsura not to visibly stiffen when he came through the door, wearing the characteristic brown Nazi party jacket and proudly displaying a swastika armband. He was a medium-sized man who looked like he’d once had an athletic build, but now there was a noticeable roundness to his stomach. He grinned and swept Dieter in his arms after the boy came at him in a headlong rush.
Introductions were made and Tsura quickly excused herself. “Mihai will be home soon, I should go.” She’d had enough of friendly Nazis for one afternoon.
Klaus offered to carry the heavy pot of soup between the two apartments. Tsura didn’t want to let him inside, but since she didn’t have a good reason for disagreeing, she led him through the door to her kitchen. Dieter followed on his heels, pestering his father about how Irmgard had tripped him earlier and should be punished.
“Mihai will be so grateful for food that’s actually well cooked,” Tsura joked, trying to hide her nerves as Klaus set the pot on the stove. Her first inclination was to boot him out as quickly as possible, which was why she did the opposite. Though she couldn’t seem to stop her eyes from straying to the swastika on his arm. She hated having it in her apartment.
“Good,” Klaus smiled broadly. “Though, if Elena keeps teaching you so well, then he might turn out like me.” Klaus rubbed the rounded pudge of his stomach and laughed good-naturedly. “It’s only the bachelors who are skinny.”
“All the better for me to hold onto you, darling,” Elena said with a laugh, coming up behind him and wrapping her arms around his thick middle.
“Come,” she pulled Klaus backwards. “Domnul Popescu will be home soon and we don’t want to interrupt. I’m sure he will be very grateful for the delicious soup.” She winked mischievously at Tsura, and Tsura attempted a smile that she wasn’t sure even managed to tip the edges of her mouth.
“Thank you again, I had a wonderful afternoon,” Tsura said quickly. She waved one last time and then shut the door behind them. She leaned her head back against it and her entire body slumped with the release of tension as she breathed out a long sigh.
As much as she wanted to leave the long day behind her, she was immediately flooded with contrasting images. The prominent portrait of Hitler. Elena making her baby giggle by blowing raspberries on his stomach after changing his diaper. How could love and hate exist within the same person? Shouldn’t the hate poison the love? Wasn’t that how it worked?
Lord knew, growing up, Tsura had lived with a sliding scale of wrong and right. But those were petty wrongs—cheating at a shell game, stealing a few eggs from a gagii farm they passed by, or the little lies that amused or made some cash on the side. But in a war like this one, there was a right side and there was a wrong side. The wrong she meant now was the kind that led to deprivation and death. Or the attitudes that in any way contributed to those fates. That she couldn’t overlook. Or forgive. No matter how adorable Elena looked snuggling with her cherubic-faced toddler.
Enough of this. She shook her head roughly. She thought back to the song Grandfather Besnik would sing in her ear whenever he thought she was brooding about something.
Whenever you have sorrows, sing them!
Whenever you have sorrows, drink them!
She began humming it to herself, moving away from the door and swaying her hips as she headed toward the kitchen. She sang the two lines over and over, louder with each pass as she stirred the pot of soup and lit the stove underneath to keep it nice and hot. Mihai should be home any moment. She frowned at the clock. Actually, he should have already been home by now. Maybe he had called to tell her he’d be late while she’d been at Elena’s. He’d done that a few times in the past few weeks when he was tied up at work.
When he still wasn’t there half an hour later, Tsura decided it was time to indulge in the second suggestion from Grandfather Besnik’s song and pulled out a bottle of wine. At first, she only drank half a glass.
After two hours, with Mihai still not home and not answering when she called his office, it was half the bottle.
After another hour, the wine was going down a lot easier and Tsura was thinking that a bottle of wine seemed like a lot more than it was. Really, it was only three and a half large glasses full, which didn’t seem like much at all. But the idea of drinking a whole bottle of wine, well, that sounded like a lot, didn’t it? And as she stood to put a different record on the player and stumbled, giggling, she supposed it felt like a lot too.
But really, what else was she supposed to do? Mihai could go to the devil for making her worry about him. She caught herself on the counter top as she stumbled again. She frowned at her shoes and kicked them off. She left them where they fell, right there in the middle of the kitchen floor. See how Domnul Perfect Pants liked that.
But then she looked again at the clock. Nine forty-five. Where was he? He’d never been this late before. He’d never not called.
What was a minor annoyance suddenly seemed very, very serious. She’d been foolish, hours earlier, worrying her silly little head about her zealous Nazi neighbor and forgetting that much worse things could be waiting around the corner.
It was too easy to be unlucky in this world. Had Mihai been rundown by a car or tram when he was crossing the street? Or had he had a seizure? He took the little round pills each morning that were supposed to keep the seizures away, but she knew he still occasionally had the shaking episodes anyway. Luca’d told her they happened when Mihai was overtired. Had he not been sleeping well and she hadn’t noticed? She should have forced him to take the bed! He’d been stubborn about it, but she should have been more stubborn!
She wrung her hands together and then went back to sit at the table. What if he was in a hospital somewhere, right now? She didn’t even know where the hospitals were, or which one he might be at. Cristina said something about a hospital. One that was twenty minutes away. Not that she could leave the apartment without identification papers or they could be right back where they started, with her being put in prison or sent off to a labor camp.
And then another thought struck. What if Mihai wasn’t in a hospital at all? What if he was lying somewhere on a sidewalk, cold and alone? It had begun to rain earlier. What if he’d had a seizure when coming home and no one had noticed him or helped him? Was he still out there all alone, lying in some grimy, littered alleyway? Or… Tsura gulped hard, did people die from seizures? If… Tsura shook her wine-soaked head, no, when Mihai came back, she was going to ask a lot more questions about his illness. In the meantime, she would just lay her head on the table for a moment. Her head felt so heavy.
She didn’t realize she’d fallen asleep right there with her head on the table until she woke up to a horrible smell. Something was burning.
She blinked in blurry dizziness, already feeling the pounding of a headache. The pot on the stove was smoking. She cursed and stood up so suddenly it knocked her chair backwards and hurried over to the stove. She pulled the pot off the burner, grimacing. Enough liquid had evaporated from the soup that the dumplings had settled on the bottom and burned.
She waved at the smoke with a towel. The rain had finally stopped so she threw open the window, breathing in the fresh, rain-soaked air. After another few moments of waving away the smoke, she laughed out loud. Only she would be able to burn soup.
But then she looked at the ancient clock hanging on the wall in the kitchen. It was midnight. Where the devil was Mihai? Her chest went tight with fear. Something was wrong. Very wrong. Her mind began spinning with possibilities again, each more horrible than the last.
She grabbed the pot and began scraping out the burned contents into the trash. As she got the top layer out, a key turned in the lock.
She dropped the pot in the sink and ran toward the door right as Mihai stepped inside. He was soaked through and covered in thick, stinking mud. His suit coat was gone and his normally pristine white shirt was filthy. Mud clung to his hair and streaked down his face.
“Where have you been?” she cried, torn between fury and fear. “What happened to you?”
He closed the door behind him and let out a loud sigh of what sounded like relief, perhaps at finally being home. In addition to carrying his briefcase, also muddy, he had a knapsack slung over his shoulder that Tsura had never seen before.
Mihai put a finger to his lips and shook his head, nodding in the direction of the left wall behind the bed. He’d told her before that their neighbor, a reclusive elderly German man, often listened at the wall. Tsura thought the old man must be asleep by now, but she bit her tongue anyway.
Mihai toed off his mud-covered shoes and came into the room. He deposited the knapsack and his briefcase by the kitchen table. “I was caught in the rain,” he said in a voice that was louder than necessary, “so I stopped at a café. Some friends were there and I lost track of time. Sorry dear. It won’t happen again.”
Tsura bit her lip, frustrated with the act they were constantly required to perform. He pulled a dull kitchen towel from underneath the sink and laid it out on the table, then lifted his dirty briefcase and set it on top of it. He clicked open the mud-encrusted fastener and then went to wash his hands. Naturally, this couldn’t be done quickly. No. There was an entire process of wetting his hands, then rubbing the soap into his palms, his knuckles, then scrubbing at his fingernails, before finally sticking his hands beneath the spray to rinse. Tsura was either going to scream at him or throw open the briefcase herself, etiquette be deviled. But finally, finally he was finished and he came back to the table. He nudged the briefcase open with his elbow, then slid out a slim identification booklet and handed it to her.
Tsura felt her eyes widen. Was this where he’d been? Getting her ID? She took it with trembling hands, still swamped by fear and relief. She looked inside. Neat handwriting spelled out her supposed birth name: Alexandra Maria Vasile. Birth date: 5 April 1922. Two years older than she actually was, but she didn’t mind the extra years. Her eyes continued looking down the page. Ethnicity: Romanian. Not Roma. That was the line that would offer her the most protection.
A sepia picture of her taken a day before the wedding was stapled in the corner, covered on one edge by an official-looking stamp. She flipped through the mostly empty pages that made up the booklet. The writing was only on the first page, with her basic information and a pretend address from a municipality near Fălticeni. Below that her marriage to Mihai Constantin Popescu—had she ever known his middle name?—then a note of her last name changing to Popescu, and finally her address change here to the Brătianu Boulevard apartment.
Most of it was handwritten as were all identification papers in Romania, only with an official looking stamp beside the marriage and address change notices, the former from the Bacău police department and the latter from a Bucharest section police department. It had good weight and looked and felt exactly like an authentic ID booklet. She flipped it closed. Printed on the front cover was the old emblem of a crown and across the bottom, Kingdom of Romania. It even looked worn, as if she’d been carrying it around with her for a long while. Mihai produced a small leather wallet from his case to carry the ID and handed it to her.
Tsura blinked a few times and then slipped her new ID booklet into the wallet. She was still having a hard time taking in what this meant. She would be free of the stifling apartment. She could go anywhere in Bucharest that she wanted.
She took Mihai’s hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Mihai looked startled at the touch but nodded stoically.
“Why don’t you clean up.” She could only imagine how much the soiled clothing and mud on his face was bothering the always fastidious man. “I’ll try to find something for dinner,” she said. She almost laughed at herself, because she genuinely wanted to feed him. She was just so glad he was safe. It was bizarre to move from terror to joy in the space of a few minutes. It created a strange rush of dizzy energy.
She needed to sit down. And eat something. All she’d had since lunch was wine, and she felt nauseated from hunger. Mihai was safe. She had new identification papers. The worst had not happened.
Mihai grunted his assent and headed straight toward the bathroom. Within another minute, she heard the spray of the bath water begin. She went to the kitchen and pulled out some hard salami, bread, and butter. It wasn’t much, but at least it would fill their bellies.
As Tsura put the food on the table, her eyes fell on the mysterious knapsack on the floor. Where had Mihai been all evening? He had never told her. Something must have happened besides getting her ID documents, but what? Why had he been covered in mud?
She bit her lip. Then temptation and the leftover energy still fizzling in her blood from the scare and subsequent relief at Mihai’s late arrival overrode any other thought. She sat down in one of the dining chairs and opened the flap on the bag. The thick canvas was wet and muddy on the outside, but only mildly damp inside.
She glanced over at the bathroom. The whine of the pipes and noise of water against ceramic assured her Mihai was still busy. She quickly pulled items out and set them on the table. There was no hot water because of the war. Tsura could only handle cold baths during the summer afternoons when they were a relief after the baking apartment temperatures but Mihai took them no matter the time. Then again, he was most likely chilled after his soggy evening out. Would that translate into a quicker bath? Or would his love of routine mean he took as long as always? Not wanting to chance it, she moved faster, pulling out items one after another.
She came across a bundled sheave of paper. Tsura flipped through them. All the pages were blank, but they were of slightly different sizes and coloration and looked aged, some more than others. The corners were wrinkled slightly from moisture, but overall the papers, even the more yellow pages, were in good condition. Next Tsura pulled out several bottles labeled with incomprehensible names, chemicals of some kind.
She brought out several hard pieces of rubber. She turned them over in her hands. They were rubber stamps, some only half carved. A couple were complete—they looked like official City of Bucharest seals. One stamp had an image pasted on it, ready to be carved. Tsura ran her fingertip over one that was only half complete, the delicate outer circle finished but the lettering yet undone. Understanding dawned.
This was a forger’s kit.
Tsura blinked several times and then reached in again, pulling out the rest of the items even faster now. Inside a smaller canvas bag, there were two small wooden boxes. She opened one and a stack of pictures fell out. Paper-clipped to each picture was a slip of paper with a name. She gathered up the pictures clumsily, glancing toward the bathroom as she put them back in the box. There had to be fifty of them, maybe more. She was more careful as she opened the second box. Instead of pictures, though, were several wood-handled tools with delicate metal tips, along with a small magnifying glass. She’d used similar tools when she’d worked for several years doing wood carving at Domnul Bogza’s iconography shop.
She set both boxes on the table and continued rifling through the bag until she reached the bottom. She found several other completed ID booklets. The last item she pulled out was a thick envelope. Since it was on the bottom of the bag, it was wet almost the whole way through. Mihai must have set the knapsack down on the wet ground at some point.
She opened the envelope’s loose flap and pulled out several sheets of paper. They were sealed together from the rain. She peeled them apart carefully and then read the bleeding ink. The first page was a long list of names. About ten names had been crossed through. Tsura’s eyes snagged on the last scratched out name. Tsura Draghici. Beside it was her new alias, Alexandra Cristina Popescu.
Her breath caught. She quickly scanned the rest of the names. Many sounded Jewish. In a column beside each name were more details, dates of birth, addresses, marriage dates, names of children, all the information you would need to fill out a complete identification booklet. Tsura glanced over at the other completed documents.
Why did Mihai have a forger’s kit? Something must have happened when he’d gone to retrieve her ID, but what? Had Mihai confiscated it after the forger had made her ID? Did he intend to turn it in to his Nazi superiors? That sheet of names alone could prove damning evidence to anyone on it. But surely not, since her name was clearly on the list as well. Whatever else she might think of Mihai, she believed he took his vow to protect her seriously.
“Tsura.” Mihai’s voice startled her and she looked up, feeling her cheeks redden at getting caught. Mihai had an undershirt on, but only a towel wrapped around his waist. Tsura stared, almost more startled at seeing him so exposed than at getting caught looking through the bag. He usually carried a change of clothes with him into the bathroom, but in his haste, tonight he must have forgotten. The undershirt was probably the one he’d been wearing earlier, but still exposed so much more of his arms then she was used to seeing. His shoulders seemed doubly broad and the low V-neck revealed his massive chest covered in thick black hair. So unlike Andrei’s body. Andrei’s chest was smooth and narrow. She’d always liked that about him, how sleek he looked. Mihai reminded her of a giant bear.
Disconcerted, she averted her eyes. He strode over to her with a glare and began shoving the items on the table back into the knapsack.
She sat back in her chair, still shying away from looking at him. But then, her curiosity won over again and she glanced up to search his face. His features were stony. Cold. As always.
“Why do you have these things?” Tsura whispered as quietly as she could.
Mihai shook his head as if to shrug her off. He closed the flap on the knapsack and walked over to the bed, roughly shoving the pack underneath. Determined not to be ignored, Tsura followed behind him.
“What’s going on?” she whispered again. His eyes remained stubbornly veiled. He grabbed clothes from his dresser and went back to the bathroom. A moment later he returned dressed in a fresh undershirt and night-shorts. Usually the lights were off when he came out dressed like this, but Tsura supposed that at this hour it would be ridiculous to change into normal clothes only to change again after they’d finished eating.
“Is the food ready?” he asked, turning away from her and heading toward the kitchen. He sat down at the table and grabbed a slice of salami.
“I made dumpling soup,” she said in her normal voice, “but it burned while I was waiting for you to come home.”
He grunted, but made no other comment. Tsura was suddenly livid but she held her temper. She considered it a victory. He really wasn’t going to tell her what happened.
“Elena showed me. I spent the afternoon at her house.”
Mihai looked up in surprise. “That’s nice.”
“Tell me what’s going on,” she hissed under her breath.
He ignored her and buttered a thick slice of bread. To the devil with him! He acted as if this were any other ordinary day. As if he hadn’t come home seven hours late and covered in mud.
Tsura’s nostrils flared with frustration. Time to try another tactic. “Elena’s wonderful. I don’t know how she manages all those children,” Tsura said loudly. “They’re very sweet, but mischievous. Why just this afternoon little Irmgard brought home a bag she’d found in the park. She tried to hide it from Elena, but Elena told me she always ferrets out their secrets.”
Mihai looked up at her sharply. “Aren’t you hungry?” he asked.
“Don’t you want to hear what was in the bag little Irmgard brought home?”
Mihai’s gaze turned steely, warning.
“No? Well, I’ll tell you anyway.” Tsura made sure her voice was still inordinately loud. “It was the most interesting collection of all kinds of odds and ends. Stray papers, a bit of rubber, even an old envelope—”
Mihai stood up from his chair abruptly. “You must be tired, Alexandra. Why don’t you take a bath and go to bed?”
She narrowed her eyes at him, but he took her arm and hauled her up from her chair and led her to the bathroom. It was a small space to match the small studio—short, narrow bathtub, small sink, and a modern toilet with a raised seat—there was little floor space beyond that. Having the bathroom itself was still a luxury. Many apartment buildings had communal bathrooms for each floor.
The floor was still wet on Tsura’s bare feet from where Mihai had stepped out of the bath earlier. He let her go and then reached over to turn the tub faucet back on, making sure the spray was loud against the ceramic tub.
Mihai leaned over and whispered directly in her ear, “When I went to pick up your papers near the river, the forger’s lab had been compromised.”
Tsura’s breath hitched. “But you got away safely.”
“I did. The forger didn’t.” His face went taut, the lines around his mouth tensing.
Oh no. What wasn’t he saying? “Mihai, what happened?” She put a hand on his forearm.
As if her touch had shattered the control he held so tightly to, he let out an explosive breath and then rubbed a hand over his face. He slumped against the wall by the sink, but turned his face away from her. His voice was quiet, barely audible above the water spray. “Levi was packing when I arrived. Said his spies told him there was going to be a raid.”
“His spies?” Tsura asked in surprise.
Mihai waved a hand. “The Jews have almost as many spies in the police as the Germans. Some work both sides, selling the same information twice. Maybe that’s what happened today.” He shook his head once. “Within five minutes, they were at the front door.”
“How’d you escape?” Tsura’s heart was in her throat, thinking about all of this going on while she’d been calmly cooking soup, having no idea.
“We made it to the basement and out a side exit. Levi said I should go one way and he’d go the other.” Mihai winced. “He gave me the pack and ran before I could stop him. I knew the police would be swarming the front and back of the building.”
“So what did you do?” Tsura had leaned in to hear him, and now their heads were so close together they were almost bumping foreheads. He’d put himself in such danger tonight. For her.
“I scaled the balconies of the building across the way.”
Tsura’s breath hitched. Scaling balconies? That was so dangerous. But Mihai just kept talking. “When I got to the roof, I heard gun shots.”
“Maybe they only shot at him or near him to make him stop.” Tsura shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. “It doesn’t mean he’s dead.”
Mihai shook his head, his mouth tight again. “I looked. Levi was on the ground, surrounded by half a dozen officers.” Mihai’s breath was warm on her ear. “Blood everywhere. He was dead.”
“But you got away.” Tsura looked back up at him. “How?”
“I jumped a few rooftops, then dropped back down. Too many police still around, so I hid on the banks of the Dâmbovița for a few hours until I was sure they were gone.”
So that was where the mud had come from. The Dâmbovița river had once been the heart of the city, but after portions of it were dammed up, it was only a sickly stream now, with high banks of muddy clay.
“I walked back,” Mihai continued. “Didn’t want to risk hiring a coach and have the driver be able to describe me.”
Tsura swallowed hard. Mihai reached to turn off the water, but Tsura stopped him with a hand on his arm.
She stood up on her tiptoes since he was no longer leaning over. “But why did the forger give the bag full of supplies to you instead of taking it himself?” she whispered, still confused.
Like before, he stiffened under her touch. She pulled her hand away. Suddenly she realized how indecently he was dressed. Just in his underclothes. Her stomach felt a little strange at being so close to him. She hadn’t eaten yet, that was all.
“He was a Jew,” Mihai finally responded. “He’d be killed if he was caught with it. Said he’d arrange to get it back. He thought they’d only arrest him.”
Mihai reached to turn the water off again, but again, Tsura stopped him. “But why would he trust you? You work for the Nazis.”
Mihai’s jaw clenched and Tsura frowned, but the next moment his face had relaxed into indifference again and he shrugged. “I was his only choice. It was either me or leave it to the police. He was one of the last good forgers in town. The Jews couldn’t afford to let the supplies be lost as well.”
There was something about the easy way he said it that bothered Tsura. His earlier distress was gone. He looked too calm, too put-together. Like it was a lie he’d rehearsed in his head.
“How did you find him in the first place?” Tsura tilted her head suspiciously.
Another shrug. “Anything in Bucharest can be found for the right price.”
There was something he wasn’t telling her, Tsura was sure of it. “So what will you do with all those supplies now that Levi’s dead?”
For a moment a frown passed over Mihai’s face. If Tsura hadn’t glanced up right then, she might have missed it. His bland look replaced it the next second. “I’ll dispose of it.”
Tsura pulled away from him with what had become familiar frustration, but then forced herself to lean in again. “And what about the other completed ID papers? Those people are like me—they’re not safe without the papers.” She couldn’t keep the disapproving heat out of her voice. “You just said he gave it to you so the supplies wouldn’t be lost.”
Mihai didn’t respond. Tsura’s habitual disdain for him threatened to flare again, but something stopped it. She frowned. “If you were going to dispose of the supplies, then why not do it right away? You could have tossed them in the Dâmbovița. There’s so much trash there already. It would’ve been the perfect place. Why bring them home?”
Mihai stiffened slightly. “I suppose I wasn’t thinking. I’ll get rid of them soon.”
Tsura stared at him, wondering at the uncharacteristic impulsiveness he described. He seemed unable to maintain eye contact for even more than a second.
Suddenly an idea struck Tsura, one so foreign that she took a step back from him, her back running into the bathroom door.
What kind of man who worked for the pro-Hitler government would know that there were Jewish spies in the police force alongside the German ones? What kind of man was so aware of his neighbor listening through the wall when he worked on the right side of the law? Why was he trusted enough by one of the best forgers of false identification documents in town—a Jew, no less—to protect forgery supplies? And why, instead of disposing of them immediately, did he bring them into his home? Where he hid a Roma fugitive.
Mihai tensed as if he could hear her hypothesis forming.
“Oh my God,” she whispered, looking up at him through her dark lashes. The overhead fixture shone dully, highlighting the planes of his strong jaw as he clenched his teeth.
“Oh my God,” she whispered again as the oddly shaped, incongruous pieces of the puzzle that was Mihai Popescu finally slid into place. She stared into his metal-grey eyes. “You’re a spy.”
Mihai reacted as if struck and quickly looked away from her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He cleared his throat. “It’s been a long day. We should get to sleep. I’ll bring your nightgown.”
She turned off the water and waited, dumbfounded by what she’d just realized. In another few moments, he returned.
“Here you go.” Mihai shoved a folded nightgown at her, still without meeting her eyes. Then the door closed solidly behind him.
Mechanically, she peeled off her dress, her mind reeling. No wonder Luca always defended Mihai whenever she said anything against him. Luca must have known all along that Mihai was spying for the… Allies? The Resistance? Did Romania even have a Resistance? Whoever he was working for, this at least was clear—everything she thought she knew about Mihai Popescu was backwards.
Tsura quickly pulled on her nightgown and undid the pins from her hair. But why? Why hadn’t Luca told her? Or Mihai, especially after the wedding, after they’d come back here? Indignant fury rose up. Did they think she couldn’t handle knowing? That she was a weak-petaled flower? Or that she would be careless and let the secret slip?
She pushed open the door right as Mihai stretched his arms over his head. She paused abruptly. In only his sleep shirt, without a suit-coat on, his shoulders really were alarmingly broad. Two nights a week he worked out at a local boxing club, yes, but she hadn’t realized that equated actual muscle until this moment.
Mihai turned around and caught her staring. “I’m tired dear,” he said loudly. “I don’t really feel like talking anymore tonight.”
She opened her mouth to protest. There were so many things she had to ask him, but he held up a hand. “How about tomorrow after dinner we go for a walk. To make up for being late tonight.”
She gritted her teeth. “All right,” she forced herself to say. “That sounds lovely.”
“Good.” He turned off the light and then sank into his bed on the couch.
She stood for a moment in the dark without moving. Then it was too much. The thought of Mihai’s too-large body on that too-narrow couch was suddenly, well, too much. She walked straight over to the couch, bumping into the side table. She grabbed his arm and yanked.
“You are sleeping in your own bed tonight!” she hissed in a whisper.
“Tsura—” he began to protest.
She reached for his face, or where she thought his face was, and covered his mouth with her hand, hard enough to stop whatever words were coming next.
“No,” she whispered sharply. “I have been here sitting in this apartment worrying the worst things about you, that you have had one of your attacks and were lying in an alley somewhere… “ She waved the hand not holding his mouth wildly in the air. “It was past midnight and I don’t know much about epilepsy—which is something else we’ll be discussing tomorrow—or about your work, or about how you actually spend your time when you are out of my sight, but what I do know is that the bed is far more comfortable than this deviled couch.”
She paused for breath a moment before continuing in a rush. “And you are going to sleep on that bed tonight so that you can sleep the best you can in the few hours until morning. That way I won’t have to spend all of tomorrow worrying about you some more. And then we are going to have that very long talk that you promised me. Now, once I let go of your mouth, you are not going to say a word in protest. Nod if you understand.”
There was a long silence. Mihai was immobile underneath her hand. But then his head bobbed up and down.
She sucked in a long, calming breath and her body finally relaxed. She released him. For another moment there was silence between them. Because of the dark, she couldn’t see his eyes, but she thought he was staring at her.
Then, without a word, he sat up from the couch and crossed over to the bed. Tsura climbed into the couch in his place and laid her head on the pillow. It was still warm.
The next evening after dinner—a long torturous affair where Mihai refused to say anything other than the politest inanities about the weather or to complement the meal, a joke if there ever was one since the mămăligă, a corn porridge, was burnt on the bottom and soggy in the middle—Tsura finally sat down her fork with a clang against the bowl.
“I think it’s time for our evening walk.” She had spent the day pacing, waiting for Mihai to get home. And now here it was. She’d finally get the answers to her many questions. She’d choked down a few bites of mămăligă, but Mihai had seemed to linger over his meal. At last, he finally cleared his bowl.
Tsura sprang to her feet, gathering up both bowls in the same motion and dropping them in the sink. The next second, she was over by the door to grab their shoes. She brought Mihai’s to him where he was still sitting at the table.
“I don’t know why we didn’t think of going on walks before this,” Tsura said loudly, slipping on her shoes while she stood, hopping on one foot to slide each on. “All the fashionable people used to stroll Calea Victoriei every night.”
“It was too hot for my taste before now,” Mihai replied, frowning and examining the perfect bow tie on his shoe before pulling the string and then re-tying it. Tsura sighed and prayed for patience as she pulled her new ID booklet out of the drawer of the bed stand and slipped it into her brassiere.
Luckily, it only took Mihai one more try before the bow tie on his shoe was to his standard of perfection and he was rising to leave. He locked the door behind them.
As soon as they stepped out into the open air, Tsura breathed in deep. Finally she was out of that apartment. It was the first time since she’d arrived almost a month ago in the dead of night, that horrific day following her horrific wedding. She supposed she could’ve gone out earlier in the day since she’d gotten the papers last night. Maybe something as simple as trying to find a nearby breadstand, but she’d found herself oddly reticent to go out on her own. Afraid even. What if someone stopped her? Questioned her? It had been so long. She knew she’d have to leave the protection of the apartment and go outside eventually, she’d just rather her first time be with Mihai and the broad-shouldered shield his presence offered. She hadn’t forgotten the strength of the muscled back she’d seen the night before.
And now here she was. Outside. Finally. It was a sunny day after yesterday’s rain, and the rain seemed to have left behind cooler winds than the stifling summer heat she’d suffered for all of August. It felt wonderful against her skin. She wanted to laugh and dance.
Mihai held out an arm to her. He leaned over to whisper. “You never know who’s watching.”
She nodded, her joy at being under the great blue sky tempered. “Let’s go, then,” she said. They headed down the wide, busy boulevard. Even at seven o’clock, there were plenty of people walking the sidewalks. The street had a mixture of bicycles flying by, motorbikes, the rare car, and the double-car gold-painted trams that passed every quarter hour. Tsura couldn’t take her eyes off all of the activity. It was so much more fascinating up close than from the distance of her window.
The air was fresher than the apartment but still stank of city. This was the nicer part of town, but it was also the center of the spider web that made up Bucharest. For miles around stood tall buildings packed with people. Tsura could smell the open market a few blocks away, the distinctive smell of dirty chicken feathers and butchered meat left too long in the sun. The streets themselves were dirtier than they’d been during peacetime. Fumes from the factories added to the smell that all combined to create the particular aroma Tsura associated with city.
Still, she wanted to throw back her head to feel the sun on her face and breathe and breathe and breathe. It was more than an hour to sunset and its rays were still warm on her skin. This was what her soul had been longing for. Light and open air and the ever-loving sky above her. She wanted to know Mihai’s secrets, but maybe she had wanted this even more.
After about ten minutes, they crossed the Boulevard and turned onto another street for only another couple blocks, and then they were at the Palace Square. Tsura glanced across the square at the large gleaming statue of King Carol I and behind it, the Royal Palace itself. It was a beautiful, imposing building of gleaming white stone. Somehow, in all the attacks on Bucharest, it had escaped being bombed. It was just what a Palace ought to look like, she’d always thought.
They walked past and Tsura glanced wistfully down Calea Victoriei as they crossed it. The oldest street in Bucharest, Calea Victoriei boasted the most beautiful architecture in the city, all done in the Parisian style. People called Bucharest Little Paris. Everyone who was anyone used to go for evening walks down the famous street each night, stopping at the many shops and cafes that stayed open late to serve such patrons. Tonight, there was barely any foot traffic on the street. The end of an era, she supposed. After this war, maybe no one would be so carefree again.
Tsura turned her attention back to Mihai after they had passed.
“Can we talk yet?” she murmured under her breath to Mihai.
“Once we’re in Cișmigiu,” Mihai said. She nodded. It was a good place to talk without being overheard. They were both silent as they walked the next few blocks.
Once Cișmigiu Garden had been a glorious park, the green jewel at the heart of Bucharest with a picturesque lake at its center. Now peasants, Roma, and refugees had made a flimsy camp there, occasionally cleaned out by the police only to make their way back the next week. It was still early enough in the night though—those that slept in the park often didn’t come until long past nightfall—and anyone with an ounce of sense would leave Mihai alone because of his intimidating size.
They entered the park, and in spite of the old newspapers that were little more than pulp crusted along with other trash, leaves, and other debris against the edges of the path, Tsura was still enchanted by all the greenery. So many trees. And grass and bushes and even flowers, though they were only yellow wildflower weeds that sprouted in the overgrown lawns. During peacetime this park was a well-maintained garden. Tsura liked the wild version better. They passed by a peasant woman bathing her three children in the dirty lake water. Or at least attempting to. The oldest apparently thought it was a great game to avoid the sliver of lye soap and swim out towards the center of the lake.
Tsura continued to watch the drama as they passed over a bridge crossing a narrow portion of the lake. The woman shouted at the boy to come back before the police came and sent them all away. That threat did nothing to sway him. It was only when she mentioned she’d tell his father that he reluctantly turned back and headed toward shore.
Mihai and Tsura continued walking until they could no longer hear voices, tracing the lake’s edge and finally settling on a secluded bench underneath willow trees whose branches bowed over to touch the water’s surface.
They were finally alone.
“I was right, wasn’t I?” Tsura asked quietly. “You’re a,” she glanced around. She didn’t see anyone, but it was always best to be careful about the exact words one used. Obviously they’d be speaking secrets tonight, but she couldn’t bring herself to say the word spy out loud again. Bad luck to say it too many times, surely. “You work in the shadows?”
His face was impassive. “It’s safer for everyone if you didn’t know,” he said briskly, “but I should have known Luca’s sister would guess it sooner or later.”
She knew it! Then she pursed her lips. She didn’t care his reasons, he should have just told her from the start. “And these shadows, who do you work for? How long? Since the beginning of the war?”
He lowered his voice even further. “I work for Iuliu Maniu and the British.”
Tsura blinked in surprise. Maniu? “The leader of the National Peasant Party?” It was the biggest political party in the nation. Everyone in the country loved Maniu.
“Ah ha,” she breathed, sagging back on the bench. “Luca always admired him. Even though Maniu supported General Antonescu in the beginning. And now he’s working against him? With the British?”
“He never supported Antonescu allying with the Germans or anti-Semitism. He’s repeatedly petitioned to shut down the camps in Transnistria. Maniu still supports Antonescu even while he works against him. He’s always seen the good in the man.”
Tsura sputtered, “The good? He’s a murderer!”
Mihai nodded, looking out at the large pond. “For the camps, Antonescu deserves the death sentence. But he could have been a good man. He cleaned out the corruption after King Carol. And he’s saved a lot more Jews than he’s killed.”
“What could you possibly mean?” Tsura almost rose up off the bench. “You were here for the pogroms in Bucharest. You saw all the Jews that were killed, hung up in the butcher’s shops like meat. You know about what happened in Iași. And the camps—”
“He only deported the Jews in northern Romania to the camps, and any who’ve been arrested.”
“Unjustly arrested,” Tsura broke in. “Like Luca.”
He nodded again, giving her the point. “But the Germans pressure him constantly to deport all the rest to a Polish concentration camp called Auschwitz. That’s what happened to all the Jews in Transylvania when it was annexed to Hungary. The Germans think they should be able to take the rest of the Romanian Jews there too. Antonescu refuses. His stubbornness has saved millions of lives.”
Tsura scoffed. “And all the people who have died? What happened to Luca? Am I supposed to praise Antonescu for those things?”
“No.” Mihai moved closer on the bench so that they were only inches apart now. “But you aren’t listening. A weaker ruler would’ve buckled to Germany. They wouldn’t have kept us sovereign this long. Or stood against the Iron Guard when they rebelled in ’41. Imagine a country ruled by the Iron Guard for a moment.”
Tsura did, and swallowed hard.
Mihai continued. “And this Auschwitz concentration camp isn’t like Transnistria. They aren’t just corralling the Jews and Roma together. They’re exterminating them.” Mihai reached out and curved one hand around her ear and the back of her neck, forcing her to look him in the eye. His face was so intense in the setting sun. How had she ever believed this man indifferent to life?
“In Auschwitz, they drive them like pigs into a chamber. A gas is vented out until they are all dead—men, women, and children. And then they burn their bodies in huge ovens until they are ash. They say the smoke fills the skies for miles and miles.”
Tsura felt she should cry, but the horror of it choked the tears in their ducts. She had literally never before imagined anything as monstrous or inhumanly evil as he had just described. She could only make odd strangled gasping noises, not able to look away from Mihai.
His voice softened but his grip did not. “And that’s why I thank God every day that it’s a strong, arrogant, incorruptible man like Ion Antonescu who is running our country, because he won’t let that, at least, happen here. Nor will he let the Germans deport the rest of the Jews and your people.”
He let go of her neck and moved back. She could smell the sweet wine on his breath that he’d had with dinner. “But times are changing.” His gaze finally turned away from her. “Antonescu’s time is coming to an end.”
Tsura blinked. She finally managed to swallow, but she felt light-headed. She was glad she was sitting. Images of things she’d never seen but could imagine colored her vision. A roomful of people screaming and helpless as gas filled the space. Helpless to escape as they all slumped to the floor. Knowing they were going to die. Watching their children… Then piles of bodies being fed into an oven…
Tsura grabbed her stomach and squeezed her eyes shut. When she looked up, she found Mihai’s multi-faceted gray eyes back on her. He was such a large man, but she’d thought him impotent and cowardly before. All bulk and no consequence. Easily discarded from her thoughts. Now his shoulders seemed broader, as if his body took up more space.
“Is that why you do what you do?” As she watched, the last of the sun dipped beyond the horizon and the reflected silver quality was gone from his irises.
He laughed harshly, grating after the gentleness of only moments before. “No. No, girl. That’s not the kind of man that I am.” Mihai angled his body to one end of the bench and looked outward, his face a blunt, silhouetted profile in the twilight.
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Never make the mistake of thinking I am a good man. I was a coward. You’re fond of stories, yes? Luca always said so. So I’ll tell you a story.”
His elbow was on the armrest of the bench in apparent relaxation but his suit coat didn’t touch the wooden back. There was a tension strung tight through his limbs like he was a caged animal not quite at rest. Tsura said nothing. She only watched him, the way you didn’t take your eyes off of a wounded dog. It was hurt, yes, but it might also strike out at any moment. She scooted the last few inches to the opposite end of the bench.
“When I left Paris in ’38, I knew what the Germans were. What Hitler was.” Mihai’s voice was back to its usual monotone. Only Tsura, so familiar with dual faces herself, began to wonder if it was the mere projection of indifference. “War was coming. It was one reason I came home. But mainly I came because my father said he needed me. Needed me. That was how he put it.” The monotone had slipped, turning bitter. “Suddenly my ‘foolish interest’ in studying languages had become a useful skill.”
For a man of usually so few words, tonight he was a fountain. His mouth turned down, as if there was a sour taste on his tongue. “He was inundated with foreign oil contracts. He needed me by his side. And so I went. For awhile, I was the son he always wanted. Which of course, was what I had always wanted.”
Mihai swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “I only realized after I got home that by foreign contracts, he really meant German contracts. There were a few British contracts in the beginning, but when the war began and Romania joined the Axis, only the German contracts continued.”
For a time there was only silence. Perhaps a more forgiving person, considering all Mihai had done for Tsura, wouldn’t make Mihai say anything further. But for better or worse, Tsura wasn’t that person. “And how long did you keep helping the Germans get oil for their war?”
Mihai looked over at her and his lips quirked up in that almost-smile of his. “You understand.” He nodded. “I’m glad. I would’ve been disappointed if you absolved me of my sins so easily.”
She frowned at that, but he continued again. “I worked at father’s refinery negotiating German contracts until the end of 1941, when I came for a brief visit to Bucharest.”
She knew the time he meant. “After Luca lost his leg at Odessa.”
He nodded. “Until then, I only let myself think of Germany as Romania’s military ally, you see. The way the papers told it. That way I could reconcile what we were doing—the oil we sold to the Germans helped Romania push Russia back and regain the land they stole at the start of the war.”
“But Germany had also taken Transylvania from us and given it to Hungary,” Tsura interrupted.
“Yes!” Mihai nodded, a cruel smile on his face, though Tsura had the feeling the cruelty was aimed toward himself. “It was an idiotic lie I told myself because I was a cowardly little boy who wanted his father’s approval.” He looked up at Tsura, his jaw tensed. “Except I wasn’t a child, was I? I was a man. As accountable for my sins as Antonescu is for his.
“It was Luca who made me see it. He told me things, after you had gone to bed each night. They were things that could only be spoken of in the dark.” Mihai looked at the ground for a long moment, elbows on his knees, hands clasped. On anyone else, it would look like a position of prayer.
“What things?” Tsura felt a mix of emotions. Why had Luca been willing to confide things to Mihai but not to her? But still, God, she just wanted to hear anything that came from Luca’s mouth. Anything that had been in his heart. For a brief moment, she imagined Luca in one of those rooms Mihai had spoken of, with the gas filtering in and all the screams. But no, no, Luca was in a Romanian camp, not a German one. He was still out there, waiting for her to find him, waiting… please, please, be alive and strong for me, Luca.
Mihai continued looking at the ground. Night had fallen around them but the moon was a quarter-full and her eyes had adjusted with the dimming light. Still, it was only enough to make out the shadowed features of his face. Not that she could tell anything of the emotions of the man within as he spoke with practiced detachment.
“Luca told me what the army, both Romanian and German soldiers, had done to the Jews in Basarabia on their way to Odessa. It was slaughter. Entire Jewish villages gunned down. He did what he could to try to help in small ways, sneaking a few Jewish families in Transnistria extra bread here and there as the Army passed through. But he was just one foot soldier. He didn’t participate when factions of the army joined the German death squads. Instead he was forced to help dig mass graves.”
The same choking sense of being unable to breathe from before came back. All those people lost. So violently. Tsura pressed her hands against her ribcage and then her chest, both to try to catch her breath and because it hurt that these evil things she’d known in the back of her mind existed—she was linked to them now. Their blood had been spilled in her country—or at least the soil her vitsa had traveled the last two hundred years—and witnessed by the other half of her soul. Luca had buried them. But their souls were not at rest, couldn’t be at peace after such a death and unholy burial. She was sure her brother had wept for them at least, or maybe, after seeing so much horror, he’d had no more tears. She understood, now, the lifeless shell that had been her brother when he returned from the war.
“Luca told me he was glad his leg was blown off at the start of Odessa.” Mihai’s voice had gentled. At least about Luca, he could not be detached. Tsura looked up at him, startled to feel the night breeze cooling tear tracks on her face. Finally, she was crying.
“Luca couldn’t bear seeing what would happen to the Jews after the army took the city,” Mihai went on. “He didn’t intentionally put himself in the path of the Russian tank when it was firing mortar rounds—it came on his unit while German support was en route, but he wasn’t sorry. He knew it would be another massacre. From the accounts I’ve read at the German ambassador’s office, it was.”
Tsura was silent, one hand still pressed to her chest even though her breathing had evened out. Tsura had been the one to put the pieces of Luca back together when he’d come back from the war, but she’d never known for sure until now what it was that had broken him.
“He would never talk to me about his time in the army. I only knew he was so different when he got back.” Luca, who had once loved to dance and play music, being sent to watch thousands slaughtered. Forced to dig their graves. Her hand turned to a fist against her sternum.
There was a sad tilt to the left side of his lips. “He wanted to protect you from all of it. He said his Tsurica’d had too much darkness already.”
“Oh Luca.” Tsura bent over at the waist until her chest touched her knees. Her stupid, over-protective brother. She could imagine him saying that, whispering those words to Mihai back in the months when he was still recovering. Mihai was over every day in the beginning.
Tsura sat slowly back up. “So that was when you decided to become,” she looked around them furtively, then gestured with her hand, “to get involved.”
Mihai nodded. “Luca told me about the camps that were being set up in Transnistria and the Jews and Roma being sent there. He said we had to help them.” Mihai smiled, that tiny quirk of his lips. “He got mad at me for working with the Germans. Told me I was blind and stupid. It was the same thing he’d told me the day he dragged me out of the ocean when we were ten. He was right both times.”
Tsura smiled faintly. “He always did love telling people when they were being stupid. Of course, so do I.”
Mihai inclined his head. “It’s a family trait.”
Tsura laughed, though inside it was a half-wail. Luca, she wanted to shout. Luca, where are you now? Are you still breathing? Is your heart still beating in your chest?
She reached down and plucked the stem of a long weed. She inhaled the scent of the fresh grass, breathing deeply. Oh God, it smelled so right. Of deep earth and green things grown under the good yellow sun. Then she looked up at the stars. Her Grandfather Besnik’s voice rumbled in her ear. Roma are like the stars… A star cannot shine alone, you see. It would blink out and go cold.
“So what then?” she asked, forcing herself back to the moment.
“So I began to atone.” Mihai stopped, the bleakness of that last word hanging in the night air. There was something to the way he said it. It wasn’t a word he’d come up with in the moment. This was something he’d thought about before, long and deep. Tsura reached out a hand, but he flinched before she could even touch him. She pulled back.
When he continued, the monotone was back. Tsura didn’t know how she knew, but she felt sure the timelessness was meant to cover that word that kept echoing beneath all the rest: atone, atone, atone. “It wasn’t hard to get work at the Embassy through connections with officials I’d met working with Father. They’d known me for years, and they needed reliable translators in Bucharest. I was a logical choice.”
“And what do you do?” She cocked her head sideways, as if a different angle might reveal more of his secrets. “As in, actually do for Maniu?”
He shrugged. “Not much. Document copying. Transcripts of the boring meetings at which I translate. I put up a plant in my window to notify them I have items for a drop, I put documents in an agreed location, others pick them up.”
Tsura’s eyes widened, finally understanding the significance of the plant and why he’d been so agitated when she kept moving it.
Mihai continued. “When Luca and I came up with this scheme, I think we imagined far grander situations of espionage and heroics. But what I am is an office man.” He held up his hands, that mocking smirk back on his mouth. “Other men carry guns and I carry a briefcase. I might have found the coward’s way through this war yet, just easier to sleep at night this way.”
Tsura ignored him. “And how did you get in contact with…” She broke off, not knowing the right word. “The Resistance?”
Mihai continued smirking, as if he was fully committed to being unpleasant now. When he looked at her, he did so condescendingly. “There is no Resistance, not here in Romania. There’s Maniu and a few fellows with a transmitter who can occasionally get a message to the Brits in Cairo.
“The closest we get to anything organized is through the wealthy Jews who’ve tried to keep what’s happened in the rest of Europe from happening in Romania. They pay millions and millions of lei to keep their families and fellow Jews out of the camps and labor gangs. All their businesses have been stolen by the state, but most have kept their lives. As long as they had the good fortune to be born south of Basarabia and east of Transylvania. The best resistance in Romania is the monetary kind.” He nodded, rubbing his chin. “These are good years to be a rich Jew. Money means life. Of course,” he shrugged, “the Roma can never tell one gagiu from another, so they don’t know which to bribe, now do they?”
His voice was cynical and ugly and Tsura hated it even though she understood it was the world that was cynical and ugly. But why did Mihai have to say things this way? Was he trying to make her hate him?
She glared at him and he glared back, as if he was sure he’d make her flinch away first. He thought he was so menacing. He thought he was so intimidating. He usually did it by being hulking and silent. Now he was doing it by being confrontational and mean. For some reason, he needed distance between himself and the people around him. Maybe living in the same apartment, sleeping in the same room with her each night was making him as uncomfortable as it was her.
It was the forced intimacy of shared space that made someone become family, even when you didn’t like them, like with the Weinbergs back in Domnul Popescu’s basement, even before Andrei had come. She’d felt herself succumbing to it with Mihai even when she wanted to hate him. Mihai had felt it for her brother, but for some reason didn’t want to let himself feel it for her. It was a sense of family. Vitsa. That was what vitsa meant. Clan or family. No, not everyone in the caravan was related to you, but they became your family because you traveled together. For this moment and time, for however many months, she and Mihai were traveling together.
She was learning far more tonight than about the swaying tides of nations, the atrocities men could perpetuate against one another, or even what Mihai’s shadow work was. She wanted to stand on the bench and scream at him, I see you, Mihai Popescu, I SEE you! He was a man so uncomfortable with even temporary intimacy that he had to shove it away as if it was a snake.
She cocked her head to the side, a mocking smile of her own now on her lips. “So how’s the atonement coming along? I suppose I’m atonement too? That’s why you’re helping me?”
He nodded his head decisively. “Yes.”
“Liar,” she said calmly.
That caught Mihai off guard. “What?”
“You’re a liar. This isn’t about some kind of righteous atonement. You haven’t invited anyone else to live in your apartment. You like me.” Tsura poked him hard in the chest. “Admit it. That’s why you’re helping me.”
Mihai’s eyes widened in alarm. He really was afraid of being tied to anyone, even by the thinnest rope of friendship. Tsura wanted to laugh it was so sad.
Instead, she swiped at the drying tears on her cheeks and stood up. She threw her arms out and tipped her head back, breathing in the night air deeply. The drooping willow branches brushed her arms and she swayed back and forth to feel the gentle swish as they slid across her skin.
Tsura breathed in again, the fresh scent of the green leaves mixed with the pulpy, rotted scent from the lake. New life and old, together in a single breath. She closed her eyes and let a small smile ghost her lips. She knew what she must do. And there could be no more tears in the meantime.
“It’s all right, really.” She opened her eyes and looked back at Mihai. “I’m very likable. I understand. Though I have been a bit of a hag toward you, haven’t I?” She cocked one eyebrow. “But you still like me and want to help me. Well, it’s probably mostly because you love Luca, but you probably like me a little bit.” She held her forefinger and thumb about five centimeters apart.
“And that, Mihai Popescu, is because you are a good man. Underneath all the growly bits and the sarcastic bits and Lord,” she threw both hands up in the air, “let’s not forget the dour, silent man routine, shall we? No, can’t forget that, that’s your favorite! And all of that, dear Mihai, and because of Luca who is your brother and mine, I am declaring myself your Honorary Sister, capital letters, official title and all.”
Mihai looked a bit stunned throughout this entire revelation and Tsura felt not a little satisfaction at having struck him speechless. She leaned over the bench and wound her arm through his, tugging him to his feet. She could never have brought him to his feet on her own, but he acquiesced and stood, though, as always seemed to happen, he stiffened at her touch. Still, he didn’t pull away and walked with her arm in arm away from the lake’s edge, back toward the path.
They weren’t yet to the bridge and there wasn’t anyone nearby. “Now, am I to assume,” Tsura leaned up and whispered near his ear, “that Luca was in on these shadow games with you?”
Mihai tensed even further. “It’s not a game,” he snapped.
This time Tsura did sigh out loud. “I know that, Mihai.” Didn’t he understand her at all by now? “But I also know Luca wouldn’t have urged you to help and then done nothing himself.”
There was a long beat of silence. “He used his mathematics degree and had that apprenticeship at the bank.” Mihai was careful to keep his voice low even though there wasn’t anyone close as they walked around the perimeter of the lake.
Tsura nodded. Luca had been so proud of that job, even though he’d only been a starting accountant.
Mihai was silent another long moment as they passed another couple walking arm in arm. He waited until they were well out of listening range. “He could be quite creative with his accounting. Faking ledgers, hiding money, sometimes getting money out of the country for Jewish friends before it was lost.” His mouth twitched. “Then there were the lists. Endless lists mapping which officials could be ‘trusted’ for what amount and wouldn’t sell you out, how much it took to keep someone out of the labor gangs, how much to keep on a business owner as unofficial manager, how much to keep from desecrating and rebuilding on top of a Jewish cemetery. He knew the ‘price’ for everything.”
And Tsura started to laugh. Great belly laughs that made her stop on the path near one of the many statues that dotted the park. She put her hand out and rested it against the base of the statue to steady herself, she was laughing so hard.
When she finally caught her breath, Mihai was looking at her as if he questioned her sanity, and again Tsura thought, this man really does not know me, does he?
“It’s so funny, don’t you see?” She looked around but no one was coming. She leaned into him anyway and whispered. “All these very illegal things my brother was doing, lying and hiding all this Jewish money from the government, and what is he arrested and sent to Transnistria for? Some idiot police man walking near the market one day decides that his skin is too brown!”
Tsura began to giggle again—there had been too many thoughts, too many images and emotions this night, and yes, she heard the hysterical notes to her laughter, but the time for dwelling on things was done. She was able to keep walking, which was all she really cared about for the moment. They made it back over the lake and then out of the park, but it was almost halfway back to the apartment before she could speak without laughing again. She took a deep breath as they finally turned on to Brătianu Boulevard. Time to let Mihai in on her plan.
“Well, honorary brother,” she said, “it’s time your sister caught up with the tradition.”
“What do you mean?” He’d taken her arm again after the incident at the statue and was all broad-shouldered stiffness beside her for the entire walk.
She could hear the frown in his voice and smiled. “I’m joining the non-existent Resistance! I’m quite good with carving, so I think I can handle the stamps. And I’m sure with enough trial and error I can figure out what the chemicals are for. I made decent marks in chemistry.”
“What are you talking about?” Mihai sounded both irritated and anxious.
“You said there are no more good forgers left in town. It seems I have a bit of learning ahead of me, but my people are born artisans, and what is a forged document except a very specific type of art?” She paused in front of their apartment building and shook his hand vigorously. “Meet Bucharest’s next best forger.”
Tsura stared at the soggy mess of papers spread out on the platter in front of her and let out a huff of breath so strong that her unkempt hair wafted away from her face and then settled right back in front of her eyes. Mihai sat calmly at his desk across the room working on a translation of some kind or other. He didn’t even look up at her exasperated noise.
Well, she was beyond exasperated. Exasperated had been a week ago when she’d been fighting with the strange chemicals to figure out which ones were meant to do what. Exasperated was when the experiment to see if adding heat to the substance called dimethylbenzene would help it become more sticky, mistakenly thinking it was meant to glue the pictures to the IDs. She’d barely come out of that one with her eyebrows intact.
At least Mihai hadn’t been home to see it. That was the point at which she asked him if they could go visit the library together. She’d come home with several heavy tomes and learned that dimethylbenzene ironically had the opposite purpose of what she’d thought. It was a solvent, which meant it was used to clean sticky things. She’d moved beyond dismay to straight out bewilderment and quickly to frustration at that point. She didn’t need to clean anything, she needed to forge documents! She needed to put ink on paper! Another round of experimenting began.
It was only by accident, another day and sleepless night later, that some of the dimethylbenzene, which was all over the dining room table at this point, had gotten on the newspaper Mihai had been reading. When she shifted the newspaper, she saw that the newsprint had transferred onto some stray papers underneath, even the pixels of the picture. It was an almost perfect replica. She’d stared, open mouthed as it hit her. The stamps. She scrambled for the stamps and then pulled out a separate envelope of papers she had never understood: they were papers with copies of official stamps from all over the country, Cernăuţi, Iași, Craiova, Constanța, Suceava, Galați. It made sense now. This was how Levi had transferred the images to the stamps to carve them.
But that had been one victory against what felt like a mountain of difficulties. She’d figured out how to roll ink on the copper plate and press it to transfer the official looking image on the front of the paper that she’d fold as the outside of the booklet. Bulletin de Identitate, it proclaimed in ornate black lettering, with Romania written across the bottom. There were two copper plates. She had to be careful. For the IDs created before 1940, which was most of them, there was an additional emblem; under Bulletin de Identitate was the country’s old crest with the crown, and written at the bottom was, Kingdom of Romania.
In Romania, IDs were rarely changed. A person could have the same identification booklet for twenty years. That’s what all the extra pages were for. If a person changed addresses or had a child, they simply went in to the local police station and the official there wrote in the change by hand and then stamped it to make it official. That was the extent of it. The pictures were only attached by glue and a staple in most cases. This made forgery of Romanian IDs easy and simultaneously complex.
For example, the handwriting. At each stage of a person’s life when all these events occurred, another trip was required to the police station, at which point a different official would write in the information by hand. Having an artist’s eye, Tsura approached different styles of writing in the same way she did sketching. She studied Levi’s writing in the finished documents left in the knapsack. He wrote with slanted, looping letters. She practiced his scrawl for several hours, looking back and forth from his writing to her own until she felt like she had a feel for the way his hand moved when he wrote. It was eerie and sad to echo a dead man’s handwriting. The sentimental part of her wanted to think carrying on his work would make him happy. Then she squeezed her eyes shut hard and reminded herself she wasn’t sentimental. There was plenty of Mihai’s handwriting to look at for inspiration for a third style. His letters were precise little blocks. She hunched over stiffly in her chair while she copied out his small, tight script. She could learn more styles as she went.
But again, this was only one more obstacle to overcome. All leading to her present dilemma. She’d practiced cutting the paper and binding together the booklets. Read: cutting in all the wrong sizes, wasting paper, printing the template upside down when she did cut them the right size, putting in the wrong number of pages, accidentally ripping the pages once she had put them in correctly, etc. She’d carved stamps. Read: she’d mis-carved stamps. She’d ruined several by cutting too sharply and slicing off a letter entirely and having to start over. This after several hours of working with the dimethylbenzene, figuring out that you couldn’t just put the chemical directly onto the image you wanted to transfer. No, you had to sponge it onto the back of the paper with the image and let it soak through slightly, otherwise it got all over the stamp and smudged everywhere. She’d been about to boil over and explode her top at that point.
But she’d only breathed deeply and started again. She’d gone slower the next time. Painfully, achingly slow. She got a crick in her neck from staring so intently through the magnifying glass to make sure each cut was perfect.
And she’d done it. She’d done it all. She’d begun making identification booklets start to finish. She had the stamps. She had the templates. She’d perfected the handwriting. She had the photographs and the names and information to fill in and the staples to put it all together. She had everything. Everything except for one slightly important element.
She had run out of paper.
Paper itself wasn’t such a rare commodity. It was the kind of paper that was the problem. In the knapsack, there had been all that nice aged-looking paper. There had appeared to be so much of it when she’d first pulled it from the bag.
But when you took into consideration the fact that each ID took three pages (to fold into the half-sized six-paged booklet), that those three pages had to match in stock and color—and that she’d wasted more pages than she cared to consider with her experiments, faulty printing, and cutting—she’d only made eighteen booklets, when there were fifty-three names and pictures left on the list.
And no more paper. Yesterday she had gone to the bookstore to look at art paper, but like the stores she’d always gone to growing up, the sketch pads were full of creamy, pristine paper. The paper in the office supply section was the same. When she asked the bookseller if he knew any place she could buy old paper, he had only looked at her strangely. She muttered an excuse about an art project and then turned and walked out quickly.
Her next idea was that perhaps Levi had achieved the aged look by soaking the pages in tea or coffee. Which led to the soaking mess currently on the trays in front of her. It wasn’t a complete failure. A few of the pages she hadn’t completely waterlogged were drying and did look a little bit aged, but they were nothing like the natural feel of the pages in the knapsack. Those had simply been old.
Tsura sat back in her chair and pressed her hands to her forehead, sweeping her hair out of her face. Where had he gotten his hands on all that old paper? There was something she was missing. She’d always bought her sketchbooks at bookstores. Maybe an art store would have a wider variety, but she doubted that would help. Maybe if she went to a used bookstore, they’d have some old sketchbook from twenty years ago, only half used with lots of blank pages left…
Her gaze drifted to one of the many bookshelves lining the walls. Blank pages…
She shot up out of her chair. Oh Lord, of course! What an idiot she was! The solution had literally been in front of her face the entire time.
She ran to the nearest bookshelf and pulled out a book. She flipped to the end, and as she suspected, there were multiple pages sitting nice and empty, waiting to be transformed into identification papers. A laugh of glee escaped her. Trembling fingers counted the pages. Six blank pages in this book alone! She pulled out two more books. Only three pages extra in the first. But the second, a large history textbook that was more than fifteen years old, had ten blank pages at the end specifically for taking notes. Ten! And they were all in nice crackly yellow. She closed the book with a loud thwack and kissed the cover.
She hopped up and down because her feet couldn’t contain her energy and then she skipped over to the record player. She put on the loudest record they owned, a Wagner opera. As soon as the booming horns and trumpets began, she bent over to pull out one of the ID booklets she’d carefully stashed at the back of one of the kitchen cabinets, then grabbed the book and ran over to where Mihai sat at his table. He didn’t look up as she approached, though she could have sworn she’d felt his eyes on her moments before.
“Look!” she shoved the book under his face, flipping through to the blank pages at the end. She’d been keeping him appraised of her progress throughout the week. He’d been just as baffled as her about what to do about the paper shortage. Then she presented him with the finished identification booklet. She bit her lip. She’d done her first one yesterday, but hadn’t wanted to show him until she’d figured out everything and knew she could really do this.
Mihai glanced briefly at the booklet, flipping through the pages and nodding. “I see,” he said. Then he went back to his notebook where a ruler marked the line he was translating.
Tsura huffed out an annoyed breath. “You see. You see? That’s all you have to say?” She leaned over to whisper, always conscious to be careful even though she was confident the loud music was covering her words. Mihai’s desk was against the wall shared with the older couple, who, unsurprisingly, were arguing again.
“I’ve been fighting for weeks to make sense out of all these funny chemicals, wasted enough paper to build a bonfire, almost singed my eyebrows off during one experiment that I may not have thought all the way through, I figured out how to get the image copied onto the stamp so that I could carve it and finally, finally, solved the paper dilemma. Which means I can do this, I can be a forger, it’s not only talk now. And all you can say is, you see?”
Mihai shrugged, still looking at her with a calm expression, as if he did not have an ink-stained Roma woman who’d barely slept the past week and probably looked it, bouncing on the balls of her feet in front of him.
“I knew you’d figure it out.”
Tsura stared at him for a second, his confidence making something in her chest feel soft like putty. Then she thwacked him on the back of the head like she would have done to Luca. “Obviously. There was never a question! I was merely showing you my excellent work.”
She sat on the arm of the couch, the piece of furniture nearest to his desk, and craned her neck to look at his notebook. Mihai’s ‘study’ was small enough that the desk was only a third of a meter from where she sat. “What are you scribbling away so feverishly at?”
Mihai didn’t even look at her. He was back to making his careful notations. “You realize that couch has cushions for a reason?”
Tsura grinned. Mihai hated it when she sat on the arm of the couch. Which was naturally why she did it. “Are you translating love poems? Is that it? And you’re too embarrassed to say? O Lucinda, you twist my tongue,” she recited with flair, a hand to her chest as she flitted her lashes, “you are so limber, lithe and young.”
Mihai’s face went momentarily slack as he looked up at her, his pupils widening. But then the look passed and one side of his mouth lifted in his almost-smile. “That’s a Roma song isn’t it?”
“How did you know?”
He waved a hand. His voice was quiet, barely audible above the music. “Luca would sing them and occasionally translate. Only if I didn’t have a pen in my hand, naturally. You Roma and your secrecy.” He shook his head, then looked off into the distance. “The songs were so strange I’d remember them anyway. There was one lamenting a girl who was sold for a brass necklace. Her father, later full remorse, hung it on the door of his wagon and looked at it every night. Lots of others about traveling, or lamenting someone who’d died. And,” he glanced at her and then away. “Other things,” his cheeks turned ruddy.
Tsura laughed. She knew what he was thinking of, the songs Luca had played the most, especially when it got late at night. The naughty ones that Roma girls were never supposed to know.
“He taught me those songs too,” she said, still laughing. “He couldn’t help it. His fingers would move on the strings with all the songs they knew. I’d beg him and then he’d teach me the lyrics. He’d blame the music later and say he was drunk off it.” She shook her head, then tapped the notebook on the desk. “So, am I right? Love poems?”
“Not quite,” Mihai said, still with the amused tilt to his mouth. “It’s a philosophical piece by an Englishman named William James. On Pragmatism.”
“Pragmatism?” Tsura scoffed. “Tell me you’re joking.”
Mihai’s now blank face told her he was not.
Tsura bent over with her hands on the side of the large desk. “You’re telling me,” she said in barely a whisper, “that you translate boring documents for Nazis all day and then your reward to yourself when you come home is to translate an essay on pragmatism?” She threw her hands up in the air. “Couldn’t you at least translate Freud? Isn’t he the one who writes about all the secret naughty things our dreams are supposed to mean?” Mihai stiffened and his face reddened again, but Tsura was on a roll. This was the second time in as many minutes that she’d made Mihai all but blush, a handy trick now that she knew about it. “Or what about Italian? Is Italian one of the languages you speak?”
“Not well enough to translate,” Mihai said.
Tsura waved her hand dramatically again. “Well that’s your problem! Italian is the language of passion! They’re like us! They know how to feel. Romanians use music, but God knows you’re hopeless at carrying a tune.” She shook her head and made a face remembering all the times Luca had tried to coax Mihai into singing with him, but Mihai couldn’t carry a tune to save his life. Tsura cringed at the mere memory of it. “But the Italians use words.” She nodded decisively. “Yes, you need to become an expert at their language immediately. And then begin to translate operas.”
“Operas?” Mihai choked out the word on an incredulous cough.
“Yes, operas,” Tsura said with a wide smile. “Oh yes, that is the perfect remedy. Adventure and wars and doomed love and jealousies and great sacrifice and tragedy and heroism,” she held a hand dramatically to her chest, “preferably all in the same story. It’s just the thing.”
“And how would you know?”
“Luca used to take me whenever the Romanian Opera put on a new show, didn’t you know? We saw Aida and Faust and Madama Butterfly. Even Wagner here does not do too bad a job at it,” she gestured at the record player. “But it is the Italians who are the masters. Luca and I would weep like little children and then we would come out of the theatre feeling whole again.”
Mihai shook his head. “I am trying to do something larger than making people cry at the opera or feel something for only one night.”
“What could be larger than a good cry?”
Mihai shrugged and looked down again at his book. He straightened his pencils. Tsura noticed he had a row of five of them lined up, all sharpened, even though obviously he could only use one at a time. As always, everything on his desk was perfectly aligned, all at precise angles. She was torn between rolling her eyes and frowning. She had assumed he merely organized everything each night once he was done with his work, but no, even now, while he was here using the desk, the papers weren’t scattered like she imagined a normal scholar at work might have them. His books and papers were stacked and aligned, all at ninety degree angles. Corners perfect with the edges of the desk.
She wanted to bump the desk with her hip and send it all askew. Instead she looked back at Mihai. He hadn’t started translating again, he was just staring at the page.
“What do you mean, something larger?” she asked
He was quiet another long second. Was he not going to answer?
But then he did, his voice soft. “Once this war is over, Romania will need to find her soul again.” Another pause, and Tsura wondered if that was all the answer she would get. But then he went on. “She will wonder if she has one. With all she has allowed to happen within her borders, she will be right to wonder.”
His jaw worked and he still stared at the paper, not meeting her eyes. “But people have been murdering each other for centuries and living with themselves afterwards. Romania isn’t the first to ask these questions. Why start from scratch when others have been pondering the same things for a very long time? I want to give our people the tools.” He looked up at her finally.
“The tools to live with themselves?” she blinked, surprised at the depth the conversation had suddenly dropped into.
Mihai tapped his pencil and lowered his eyes back to his notebook, his eyebrows knit together in a frown. “There are still too many texts to be translated. So much work to do. I try to pick an objective variety. Christian Orthodox scholars. Nihilists. Others with a more tempered, in-between approach like William James here. Resources for people to turn to when all the bombs have finished dropping. I still have contacts with my professors in the linguistics department. I think we can get university editions of the translations printed when the war is over, at least as a start.”
Tsura felt that squishy putty sensation in her chest again as she watched Mihai. She hadn’t thought much about what he scribbled away at each night. He liked being buried in his books, she’d thought. Avoiding her and human interaction.
Because of course the universe was centered around her. She rubbed her forehead, feeling stupid and ashamed. But no, here Mihai was again trying to save people, except this time it was their souls he was concerned about. How many books had he already translated? How many notebooks would she find on the wall beyond his desk that were waiting for the war to be over so they could be printed? Resources for a nation trying to put itself back together again, body and soul.
But she couldn’t let Mihai see that she saw any of this. There was a delicate dance to be danced around Mihai, always. Why? she wondered. Why not let Mihai know that I see him? But that was silly. She shook away the thought as soon as it came.
Instead, she put her hand to his cheek and gave it several rough pats like one might a child. “Oh Mihai, Mihai, you might be older, but sometimes I am still wiser,” she shook her head ruefully. “There are far greater truths to be found in fiction than in philosophy.” Then she sat back on the arm of the couch and grinned. “At least they’re certainly easier to swallow down when they’re wrapped up in a story. No, I am correct. Opera is still far superior. Opera’s like a truth crepe. Mmm, so much tastier.”
Mihai blinked at her a few times, then he suddenly burst out laughing, a deep gravelly laughter that startled Tsura so much she dropped the pen she’d been fiddling with. Mihai’s whole body shook when he laughed, that big barrel chest of his trembling like a volcanic mountain. She’d never heard him laugh before. The sound lit her up from the inside out.
He thwacked a fist on the table and managed to wheeze out between gasping breaths, “A… truth… crepe?” before losing himself into great chuckles again and grabbing his stomach.
It was too much and Tsura began to laugh too. “Yes, the truth is the blackberry jam in the middle,” she said, coming up with more specifics spontaneously, “a little bit bitter and a little bit sweet,” she broke off in a fit of giggles, “and then all the lies and love and tragedy are the fluffy whip cream on top.”
And then she and the most serious man on the face of the earth laughed so hard they couldn’t breathe.
She was still laughing so hard she didn’t notice the knocking at the door until Mihai stood up, his body immediately going as taut as tuned piano wire. He moved swiftly to the door, listening. That was when Tsura heard it, the knocking, and the high pitched wail of a baby crying.
“Elena,” Tsura said, hurrying to the door. Mihai put a finger to his lips, then gestured to the table where all of the forgery implements were still in plain view. Tsura swore under her breath and ran back to the kitchen table. She hurriedly capped all the bottles and placed them into the knapsack. She was still shoving sheaves of paper together when Mihai opened the door a fraction. The baby’s wailing became louder. Tsura was distracted from her task. The baby didn’t sound right. She shoved the papers in the bag and then hurried to the door, pulling it open wider.
Elena was jabbering so quickly and the baby screaming these strange, high-pitched whines, Tsura could only make out some of her words. “Gheorghe… fever… Klaus and Cristina are both still at work.” Elena’s eyes were pinched from worry, and little Gheorghe’s whole face was beet red as he sagged against Elena. His arms still flailed against her chest, but weakly. When he did manage another noise, it was a small squawk, like a sickly bird.
“It’s not normal, not normal,” Elena repeated over and over. Elena rocked him on her hip and Tsura had to agree, no, it didn’t look normal. Even though the baby was crying, or at least trying to, there weren’t any tears and his skin didn’t look quite right. Papery and thin-skinned instead of plump. His eyes seemed sunken in his face. Tsura put the back of her hand to his forehead and it was hot, very hot.
“He’s been too hot,” Elena continued, pushing past Tsura and into their apartment, “and he won’t eat, not since last night, but it’s gotten worse all day.” Tsura tried to stop her from going in—the forgery supplies were still in the open knapsack on the kitchen table—but what could she say to the upset woman? She felt guilty even worrying about something like that when the baby was so sick, but after everything, they couldn’t be careless now. Tsura flashed anxious eyes at Mihai and then toward the kitchen table, while Elena continued in a rush, “And then Klaus, I can’t get hold of him, I call the office and they say he isn’t in, they can’t help me.”
Mihai stepped in between Elena and the table, blocking her view. “Ambassador von Killinger had a late dinner meeting with some visiting foreign dignitaries. Klaus is probably still there.” He held a hand to the small of Elena’s back, subtly guiding her back toward the door. “Tsura will stay with the children. I’ll take you and the baby to the hospital.”
For once, Tsura was thankful for Mihai’s cool head and demeanor. How did he do it? Take in everything at once and make calm decisions about it all? Elena seemed just as appreciative. She nodded over and over, still rocking the baby, blinking back her tears like an obedient schoolchild.
They closed the door on their apartment, thank God, and followed Elena back to her apartment where it looked more chaotic than usual. The kitchen was still messy with leftover dishes from dinner. The table hadn’t been cleared and there were bread crumbs and dried pasta all over the floor from where one of the children must have spilled their plate. Two-year-old Brigitte was asleep on the couch, sucking her thumb. Dried red sauce covered her mouth and was splattered on her blue dress. Dieter and Irmgard argued over a train set in the corner but Elena ignored all of them, striding in and going straight to her room where she brought back a bag that was overstuffed with diapers and blankets. She shoved a towel from a drying rack beside the sink into the bag, hiked the lethargic Gheorghe up on her hip again and then turned to Mihai.
“I’m ready.” Finally she glanced around the room. “Dieter, Irmgard,” she snapped. “It’s bedtime. Help Doamna Popescu get your sister to bed. She’ll stay with you until Tanti Cristina or Tati come home. Don’t give her any trouble or your father will hear about it, do you understand me?”
The sharp tone to her voice must have sunk in because both children straightened their little backs and nodded obediently.
Then with another whirl of activity, she, Mihai, and the whimpering Gheorghe were gone. Tsura whispered a prayer that the baby would be all right. The doctors would know what to do. The hospital Cristina worked at was closest and she should still be working her shift. That had to mean her family could get special treatment, right? Or at least move to the front of the line if there was a wait?
Tsura turned back around to the children. Irmgard and Dieter were back to arguing over the train. Brigitte coughed and then rubbed her nose with a drool and nose drip combination that smeared all over her face and mixed in with the dried sauce. Tsura frowned. There was nothing more she could do for the baby, but there was plenty to do here. Starting with getting these three little beasties in bed.
Hours and hours later, Tsura woke to a soft touch on her shoulder. She jolted before remembering the little girl still tucked into her chest. Tsura’d only meant to let little Brigitte fall asleep and then put her in her own bed in the children’s room, but Tsura must have fallen asleep herself. A quick blink showed that it was morning, barely, according to the dim light coming through the curtains. Cristina stood over her and held out a hand. Tsura took it and rose to her feet quietly, managing not to wake the toddler. They left and Cristina closed the door behind them soundlessly. Tsura rubbed her eyes, the evening before coming back to her. She’d gotten the children to bed. Klaus had come home just after and been frantic when she told him about his baby son. He’d left right after and that was when Brigitte had come out crying since she hadn’t found her parents in their beds. Apparently she snuck in their bedroom most nights. That was when Tsura’d lay down with her.
“How’s Gheorghe?” Tsura asked in a whisper as she and Cristina made it to the kitchen. “Did they know what was causing the fever?”
Cristina sighed. She had dark circles under her eyes and looked exhausted. “He’s better. The fever wasn’t the problem, it’s just some virus, the kind that all kids get. I slept at my friend’s apartment yesterday between shifts. I didn’t know how bad Gheorghe’s diarrhea was getting…” She ran her hands through her hair before looking back at Tsura. “He was so severely dehydrated. If Elena and your husband hadn’t come to the hospital right when they did so the doctors could start getting fluids into the baby…” She shuddered and swallowed hard, wrapping her arms around herself.
Tsura put a hand on Cristina’s shoulder. “But they did get there. You must be exhausted. Why don’t you go rest?”
Cristina rubbed her face again. “God no, I don’t feel like sleeping. Besides, I work a day shift tomorrow. If I sleep now, I’ll be up all night and then tired all shift tomorrow. I want to be up with the kids anyway. They’ll be up any minute now. How about I make us some coffee?”
“You sit,” Tsura said, pointing toward a stool by the kitchen counter. “I’ll make the coffee.”
Cristina laughed tiredly and nodded. “I’ll agree to that.”
“So tell me more about Gheorghe. What are they doing for him?”
Cristina smiled. “Curious, are you? See, I know you have the makings of a good nurse.” She wagged a finger. “Well, the doctor started him on some medicine to help reduce the fever. But more important was getting him rehydrated.”
“How do you do that if the baby won’t feed? Elena said he wouldn’t take any milk.” Tsura undid the lid of the coffee can. Coffee was precious so she only poured a small spoonful into the pot to boil. These same grounds would be boiled several times before being disposed of.
Tsura frowned. She’d never heard the word. Cristina obviously read her expression. “It’s a newer technique. Dr. Nicolescu only knew about it because he was studying in Paris while there were experiments using it. It’s like a blood transfusion, you’ve heard of those, right?”
Cristina went on, “Instead of blood, though, Dr. Nicolescu transfused liquid.” She waved a weary hand. “It’s more complicated than that, with pressure gauges and things, but that’s the easiest way to explain. It’s harder to do with babies but not impossible.” Her voice grew quieter and she rubbed her eyes again. “I was so afraid. I didn’t know if it would work but I pretended to be confident for Elena’s sake. Because Gheorghe—” she swallowed. “God, he looked so frail. If it hadn’t worked…”
“But he’s going to be okay now?” Tsura asked it as much to reassure Cristina as herself. Tsura’s hands shook as she set the water with the coffee grounds on the stove. She couldn’t imagine putting a needle in a tiny baby. Cristina hadn’t said it out right but it sounded as if Gheorghe could have died if they haven’t gotten him to the hospital when they did. And she’d said the treatment the doctor had used to save him had been experimental. What if that particular doctor hadn’t been working last night? Or the treatment hadn’t worked? Tsura was no fool. Babies died all the time, war or not. Fevers took babies at whim when she was growing up. Even when they took them to gagii doctors.
“Yes, he’s looking much better already.” Cristina nodded, brightening. “Dr. Nicolescu thinks he should make a full recovery and hopefully will have the strength to start nursing again later today.
“Elena wouldn’t stop berating herself about not bringing him in sooner. But she’s had three babies before and all of them have had fevers at one time or another, so she didn’t think this was anything different. And then when Klaus showed up he was blaming himself because he hadn’t gotten Elena’s calls. It was a giant mess but then Gheorghe started crying loudly again so that made us all feel better.” She laughed. “He’ll be in the hospital until the doctor feels confident the diarrhea is under control and he’s fully hydrated and feeding again.”
Tsura closed her eyes for a moment in silent thanks to God. She released a deep breath and then moved to poor coffee into two mugs. She sat down heavily on the stool beside Cristina with the coffees, feeling as if she had aged five years in hearing about how close Gheorghe had come to not surviving.
“Your Mihai is a good man,” Cristina said, accepting the coffee. Tsura raised her eyebrows in surprise. Cristina continued, “He wouldn’t leave the hospital even after Klaus arrived, not until he knew Gheorghe was going to be all right, so he could come home and bring you good news. Actually, I was surprised he hadn’t talked to you already.”
“Really?” Tsura sat up straighter. “He didn’t come by.” She looked at the door. When she finished talking to Cristina, she should still be able to catch him before he left for work to thank him.
Cristina shrugged. “Maybe he did. It’s hard to hear anyone knock from the back room, and you were deep asleep when I tried to wake you.”
Tsura smiled. “I’ve always been a heavy sleeper. My grandfather used to call me little bear because I always slept so deep it was like I was hibernating through winter. Of course his other favorite name for me was little hedgehog because I was prickly and would spear anyone who tried to trouble me or my family.”
Cristina laughed at that. “I think I would have liked your grandfather. My grandfather called me princess.” She rolled her eyes. “I would’ve liked hedgehog better. It’s certainly a good fit for me now. Gheorghe would have loved it.”
“Your husband?” Tsura asked tentatively. “Elena’s brother?”
“I take it she named the baby after him? I’m sorry,” Tsura swirled the liquid in her cup. “I don’t mean to pry.”
Cristina shook her head. “No, it’s all right. You don’t have to tip toe around talking about him.” She took a long sip of coffee and let out a low moan. “Lord, that’s good.” She looked out the window at the brightening morning, surprising Tsura when she continued. “I think it’s good to talk about the ones we’ve lost. I couldn’t, not at first. Elena still can’t. She and Gheorghe were so close. But I think that’s sad. I want to remember him. He deserves to be remembered, the way he lived, you know, not just the fact that he died.”
Tsura nodded solemnly, taking a sip of her own coffee. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to live that way if she lost the people she loved… even now, if Luca… she swallowed the thought along with the bitter coffee.
“Gheorghe was a good man, but we were so young when we got married, we were still almost children ourselves. It was before the war, you know.” Cristina smiled sadly.
“He was working at a factory and I’d just finished nursing school. We were only starting out when he got conscripted into the army. He sent everything he made back to me but I couldn’t afford the apartment after he died.” Cristina ran the tip of her finger around the rim of her coffee mug, still looking out the window. “Elena and Klaus had just moved back from Germany and offered to take me in. I love Elena but we don’t see eye to eye on many things.” Her eyes flicked to the picture of Hitler on the wall, seemingly involuntarily before she averted her gaze and took another pull of coffee.
“Staying with them was only meant to be temporary. But then Elena got pregnant again and she has such awful pregnancies. She was on bed rest and needed my help.” Cristina drained the last of the coffee and then laughed. “I don’t know why I’m even telling you all of this. I suppose I ramble when I’m tired.”
“Don’t worry,” Tsura bumped Cristina’s shoulder with her own, “when I get tired, I sing bawdy songs my brother taught me when he was drunk.” She began to sing the song she’d quoted to Mihai last night.
This shocked a laugh out of Cristina. “Now I know I would love this colorful family of yours!”
Tsura grinned. “Want another cup of coffee?”
“Lord yes,” Cristina groaned, sinking her head into her forearm. Then she cracked a smile. “But now you’ve got to promise to teach me that song.”
Tsura laughed long and low and was still laughing when Dieter and Irmgard came out of the bedroom.
“Tanti, what are you making for breakfast?” Irmgard shouted, running straight into Cristina’s legs and wrapping herself around them. Apparently this was Irmgard’s regular greeting for her aunt. Dieter was more reserved when he entered the kitchen, holding his back straight, as if forcing himself to try to look older and more serious. “How is Gheorghe?” he asked.
Cristina’s face softened as she looked at him. “He is well. Your mama and tati are with him. He just needs to stay there a few days. Later this afternoon, we’ll all go visit.”
Dieter nodded seriously, then he ran around the table and chased his sister to fight for the last stool.
“I’d like to go with you when you visit,” Tsura said. “Knock on my door when you leave.”
“Really?” Cristina looked surprised.
Tsura shrugged. “My own family is far away. I care about this one.”
Cristina’s eyes went soft and her lip trembled. She was obviously exhausted and had an emotional night.
“None of that,” Tsura tutted. “I hear you’ve got some hungry trouble makers on your hands. I’d stay and help, but I want to see Mihai before he goes to work.”
“Yes, go, go,” Cristina shooed Tsura out.
“Make sure to get me when you go to the hospital. And I’m happy to watch the children if you need to nap or when you go to work tonight. I mean it. I just sit in my apartment all day since I haven’t found work of my own yet.”
Cristina nodded, looking grateful.
Cristina looked up.
Tsura began to croon in Romanian, translating from Romani as she went, only loud enough for Cristina to hear. “O Lucinda, si cu limbuța ta…”
Cristina laughed and snapped the towel she’d picked up at Tsura’s retreating form.
Tsura was still smiling when she opened the door to her own apartment. Mihai stood beside the bed, straightening his tie. He looked tired but his head shot up when she entered and he rose to his feet. “Tsura, I was about to come and knock again. I tried earlier, but you must have been sleeping.”
Tsura nodded. “I fell asleep with one of the girls without meaning to. Cristina just came back from the hospital and told me about the baby.”
Mihai nodded. “Good. I knew you’d worry.”
Tsura tilted her head to the side. He looked tired. He’d been up half the night and had bruise-like shadows under his eyes. All because he had wanted to ease her worries. He’d shaved but missed a patch underneath his jaw on the right side. That was extremely unlike him. Usually he was meticulous to the point of ritualistic with his grooming. Tsura walked forward and readjusted his tie, even though it didn’t need it, and then with an impulsive wave of affection, she hugged him. He stiffened, arms by his sides. He was about as accommodating as a concrete pillar.
She pulled back and thwacked him on the arm. “It’s called a hug. To thank you for last night.” Then she put her arms back around him. “I know Luca hugged you because that boy would hug anything with a pulse and sometimes things without one. He hugged that fiddle of his more than he hugged you or me. This isn’t a foreign concept. Come on. Arms around me and squeeze.”
Mihai was still stiff for another moment but then finally lifted his arms, barely touching Tsura’s back. He applied the tiniest bit of pressure before dropping his arms again. Tsura tipped her head back and laughed, then squeezed him hard around the middle and let go. “All right, all right, Mihai Popescu. I’ll stop torturing you since it’s only seven o’clock in the morning. But thank you for helping with Elena and the baby and staying long enough to tell me how he is. Even though I was asleep when you tried to come tell me,” she smiled. “It still means a lot to me.”
When she looked back up at Mihai, she couldn’t read his expression. His usually steely eyes were softer somehow, almost startled and he was watching her so intently. Tsura looked quickly away. She brushed her hair back from her face. “Well, I think I’ll get a few more hours of sleep. I’m going with Cristina and the kids later to visit the baby at the hospital so I might not be here when you get back from work.”
Mihai nodded and sat on the chair in front of his desk to put on his shoes. He didn’t say another word once he was finished, not even goodbye as he picked up his briefcase and left for work.
Tsura slipped off her shoes and flopped backwards onto the bed, not bothering to change out of her dress. She curled up into the sheet and snuggled the pillow under her head. She wrinkled her nose. The pillow smelled like Mihai. It was a fresh, woodsy scent. From his shaving cream, he didn’t wear cologne—something she only knew because she lived with him and was acquainted with his bathroom products, which suddenly felt like intimate knowledge. He must have slept here instead of the couch last night. His body had lain where hers was now. She ran her hand across the pillowcase.
She shook her head at the odd thought and then reached around the side of the mattress and slid out the portfolio of pictures she’d drawn of Andrei. She flipped through them one at a time. Usually the pictures soothed her but right now they only made her feel frustrated. She wanted to talk to him about Elena and the children and Cristina. Then she bit her lip, remembering the prominent portrait of Hitler in their house. What would Andrei say to that?
Tsura closed her eyes and tried to recall a memory of her and Andrei, of him whispering to her in the dark. She’d only been gone two months, but she worried she was already losing parts of him. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter and tried to focus her whole mind on what the timber of his speech sounded like when he told her he loved her. But while she could remember the tune of every song Luca had ever taught her, she couldn’t remember the sound of her beloved’s voice.
Tsura held Cristina’s arm as they followed Mihai up the steps to Dumitru’s, the most popular restaurant club in Bucharest. The October night air was cool, whispering of a coming winter that promised to be as harsh as the year before. The chill of the evening air drove them quickly through the doors to the heated foyer of the club.
She glanced down at herself. Her thick pleated wool skirt flared nicely. Everything was still in place. No one would guess she had seventy-five fake identification papers in canvas pouches strapped around her thighs. After all, who would suspect an exchange of illegal documents in the club that was most popular with all the German officials and businessmen in Bucharest?
“Remind me again, why did I let you talk me into coming?” Cristina growled.
“Because Elena heard Mihai and I were meeting friends here and she volunteered you,” Tsura said cheerfully. “Since you’re in need of catching a husband.”
Cristina shot her a glare and Tsura smiled sweetly. Over the last month, ever since the scare with Gheorghe, Cristina and Tsura had become friends. The baby had spent a week in the hospital before coming home, and Tsura had begun spending more time at their apartment. At first, she’d only been helping out with the children while Elena and Klaus were at the hospital and Cristina was scheduled to work. Afterwards it had simply felt natural to keep coming over.
Befriending Elena was still difficult, what with Herr Hitler staring down at Tsura the whole time. But getting to know Cristina had been a pure and simple pleasure. Elena and Cristina were as different as could be, and watching them sling subtle barbs at one another made up for any discomfort in the task of keeping up her friendship with Elena for appearances’ sake. Tsura didn’t know Cristina’s political leanings, but she suspected they varied greatly from her sister-in-laws. Tsura had even gone a few times to volunteer at the hospital where Cristina worked and had enjoyed being useful. Having a job would help reinforce her and Mihai’s appearance as a normal, patriotic Romanian couple.
Appearances were everything, especially on a night like tonight. She and Mihai must appear to be newlyweds out on the town, meeting friends of his so he could show off his new bride. All to hide the fact that they were actually here to meet with a contact to pass off the identification papers she’d completed and get a new list of names and photos. Cristina coming along was a last-minute added complication, but not insurmountable. If played right, her presence would only add to the believability of the little show they were performing. Tsura didn’t particularly like using her friend in this way, but circumstances were what they were.
As they stepped through the dimly lit area of the foyer to the social club, Mihai moved behind her to take her coat. His fingers brushed her shoulders as he removed it. She shivered. Just from the sudden chill of her silk shirt without the warmth of her coat. Or the nerves of going on her first mission.
They walked into the first room full of tables lit by candle light. Beyond it was a dance floor. A small band filled the stage at the front of the room where a violin player’s bow sang a passionate tango. Couples danced together in the Western style, face to face, chest to chest. Nothing like the folk dancing at the wedding. The music made Tsura ache for Luca and she said a quick silent prayer to God for his safety. Then she tried to put from her mind how cold he must be with winter coming. She had a job to do tonight and she would focus. Her second face must be played to perfection.
“I’ve heard a lot about this club but have never actually been inside,” Cristina whispered.
“Why not?” Tsura asked.
Cristina rolled her eyes. “Because it comes so highly recommended by Elena. Klaus comes here a lot for business.”
An attendant in a smart black suit greeted them, saving Tsura from the discomfort of the reminder of Klaus’s Nazi meetings. “Table for three?” the attendant asked.
Mihai didn’t say anything. He was already looking around the club.
“No,” Tsura said. “We’re meeting friends. They should be inside.” Mihai had already started walking away so Tsura scurried to follow him toward the back of the room where two tables had been shoved together and a group of people sat laughing.
“Look who it is!” Radu jumped up as soon as he noticed them. “The happy newlyweds!”
Radu was grinning as usual. An answering grin lit Tsura’s face. She nearly hugged him but a heavy arm on her shoulders stopped her. She stared up in surprise at Mihai. Was he doing his best to imitate what normal couples did, or had he known how close she’d come to slipping up again? No one could know she and Radu were old friends, they were supposed to have met recently at the wedding. Mihai wasn’t smiling, of course, but his arm remained curled around her shoulders. She tried to look natural in his awkward half-embrace. “May I present my wife, Alexandra,” Mihai said. “And her friend, Cristina Teodorescu.”
Radu picked up where Mihai left off, introducing the two at the closest end of the table first, Rareș and Alina. They were obviously a couple.
“How nice it must be,” Alina said, looking pointedly at Rareș, “to be happily married.” She leaned over toward Tsura. “You must tell me how you dragged him to the altar. My mama keeps saying this one,” she jerked a thumb in Rareș’ direction, “needs to ask me a certain big question or I ought to dump him and find someone who will.”
“Aw dear one,” Rareș put an arm around her shoulder. He was a skinny man with a lean, handsome face. “You know you’re the world to me. It’s just in these uncertain times we have to grasp at all the happiness we can get when it’s in front of us and not worry about tomorrow—”
Alina took a piece of bread from a basket in the middle of the table and shoved it in his mouth, rolling her eyes. “You and your pretty words. I’m looking for something a little more solid. And circular.” She wagged the fingers of her left hand at him.
Rareș finished chewing and swallowing the bread she’d shoved in his mouth and kissed her behind her ear. Her stern expression slowly dissolved into a giggle as he nibbled at her ear. Tsura looked away as she felt her cheeks grow pink.
Radu only grinned and went to continue introductions when his attention shifted from Tsura to Cristina. His mouth dropped open slightly before he gave her an overly grand bow and took her hand. Cristina glared at him and yanked it away before he could kiss it. He grinned at her as he rose back up, his classic I’m-irresistible-aren’t-I-grin that he pulled whenever he set eyes on a woman he liked out in full force.
“Radu, darling,” said a pouty blond woman sitting at the table beside Alina. “I need a light.” She waved her cigarette toward him. Cristina looked at the blonde whose hair color was obviously not natural and then back at Radu. Cristina merely arched an eyebrow and pushed past him.
Tsura could’ve laughed. Most women melted at Radu’s feet when he flashed that grin. She enjoyed the slightly astonished look on his face as Cristina promptly dismissed him.
His muteness lasted only a second before he swept his arm out at the table. “May I introduce Alina’s lovely friend Dana.” He winked at Dana, the blond, and she giggled. It was a high-pitched noise. Cristina visibly winced at the sound. “Then that’s Emil at the end there.” He nodded toward a tow-headed man at the end of the table.
All of them looked several drinks in. No one at the table could be above thirty, and the men all wore suits, or, at least, what was left of suits after coat jackets had been slung over chairs and cravats untied and hanging. Alina and Dana were dressed similarly in cap-sleeved silk blouses that tucked into tidy A-line skirts—though Dana’s plunged more daringly in front—and they both wore bright red lipstick.
Tsura and Cristina greeted everyone and took their seats. Mihai simply nodded once to the table and sat. Tsura was glad to slip out from underneath the weight of Mihai’s arm. The canvas pouches were thick and scratchy against her thighs. She sat slightly lopsided until a subtle readjustment underneath the tablecloth shifted one sack to the left and she could sit correctly. She’d continued smiling politely and chatting with everyone the entire time. The canvas against her skin felt like a delicious secret, a mockery of all these well dressed patrons who danced the evening away in glittering dresses without a care about the wrongs in the world.
“It’s been forever since we’ve seen you out, Mihai,” Emil said, shaking his head at Mihai. He was a round-faced man with a neatly cropped mustache and spoke in heavily accented Romanian. “Not since I lost everything but my shirt to you at poker. No one has a game face like you! Though I guess you’ve had good enough reason to stay in lately.” His eyes stayed on Tsura for an uncomfortably long time until Radu smacked him on the side of the head.
“Eyes to yourself, idiot. She’s spoken for. And Miss Teodorescu…” Radu looked at Cristina, his woman-slaying grin back in place. “Surely a woman as beautiful as you has a beau?”
Cristina looked back at him with a saccharine smile. “Well, I’m usually too busy nursing wounded soldiers who’ve had various bits of their bodies blown off to think about beaus. Somehow all that blood doesn’t quite mix with thoughts of romance or going to the cinema.” By the end of the sentence, the sugar in her voice had turned venomous, though there was still a smile on her face.
Dana appeared to only have heard one word though: cinema. Her eyes moved from watching the dancing at the other side of the room to Radu. “Oh, have you seen the new movie that’s playing?” Dana asked him, blinking her eyes prettily as she leaned in.
“The Heinz Rühmann comedy?” Emil spoke up.
“Oh it was so funny!” Emil said, his mustache jerking as he smiled. “I dragged them all to see it. Except Mihai of course, who never comes to the cinema.”
Mihai gave an infinitesimal shrug. Though he’d been quiet throughout the conversation, he was such a large man that he still felt like a presence at the table. It was more than his size. It was his bearing, the firm set of his shoulders, his cool eyes watching everything going on around him in such a way that you couldn’t tell if he was mildly amused or bored or busy thinking terribly brilliant thoughts.
“I don’t like having to read subtitles, though.” Dana’s pretty brow furrowed. “I liked it better when we used to get French films. Those at least I could understand since we all learned it in school.”
Emil glowered. Radu merely laughed. “Don’t you know it’s bad form, my beauty, to mention Romanians used to be absolute Francophiles? Makes our new friends feel we’re being disloyal.”
Dana only stared at him, and Tsura thought the girl might not have understood what he meant by Francophile. Dana waved a hand dismissively. “I don’t care about any of that. I just want to see a movie I can understand without having to read everything!”
Emil laughed at this, appearing charmed by her. “Well soon the young people here will grow up learning German instead of French.”
Tsura almost choked on her sip of wine. Did he really believe that? Didn’t he know the Germans were losing more ground each day against the Russians? The papers were all putting positive spins on the war news, but anyone with eyes in their head could see the Russians had been forcing the German and Romanian armies’ front lines further and further south ever since the turning point at Stalingrad earlier this year.
“But that won’t help me at all, now will it?” Dana laughed back. “Most of the time I can barely even tell there’s a war going on. I hate any reminders.”
“So you must avoid all newspapers then,” Cristina lifted an eyebrow. “And the radio.”
“Oh no,” Dana said, apparently missing Cristina’s acerbic tone. “I adore the radio. As long as they are playing tangos and those upbeat songs.” Dana pulled out another long cigarette from her tiny purse. Radu leaned forward to light it. She sucked in a long breath that made her cheeks pucker, her eyes on Radu, then blew it out in a steady stream of smoke that mingled with the already smoke-clouded room. Radu eased an arm casually over her shoulders—a move Tsura had seen many times before back in his and Luca’s university days. But his eyes were still on Cristina, who was studiously avoiding looking at him.
“How is it you speak Romanian so well?” Tsura asked Emil. “Have you lived here long?”
Emil smiled widely, eyes bright from the beer he’d been drinking. “My parents are Romanian but my family moved to Berlin right after I was born. I only came out here last year to buy up a couple local businesses. It was such an opportunity, I couldn’t pass it up.”
Tsura’s stomach soured further. He was one of those vultures Elena had spoken so carelessly about, buying up Jewish businesses the government had seized. “Nice,” she said, pasting a blinding smile on her face that was all teeth. “How lucky for you that there is a war on. Those properties you buy up are such a steal!” She turned to Mihai, suddenly unable to sit at this table one second longer. “Oh, darling, I love this song they are playing. Come, let’s dance.” She stood up without waiting for a reply and grabbed his hand, taking him with her. He was so big she couldn’t have dragged him if he didn’t let her, but he took her cue and followed easily.
“Oh, that’s a wonderful idea. I do so love to dance!” Dana squealed from behind them. She pulled Radu to his feet. Radu’s eyes were on Cristina, but he allowed himself to be hauled away toward the packed dance floor.
As they wound through the other tables and the cloud of smoke that floated above the dining room, Mihai leaned down and spoke into Tsura’s ear. “Maybe we shouldn’t dance. What if the…unmentionables become loose?”
She laughed, a light airy sound that anyone around them would mistake for a response to whispered love words. She leaned up on her tip toes, hands on his chest to whisper back. “Don’t worry so much. I used an entire role of tape securing them to my legs. I brought scissors in my handbag because I’m fairly certain I’ll have to cut them off.”
He gave a stiff nod and then pulled away from her. He was dressed smartly and his hair was smoothed back in pomaded lines.
She laughed again. “You do realize we have to touch if we are to dance.”
Without saying anything, Mihai pulled her to his chest, startling her to silence. He positioned his arms easily, one held out to frame her, the other settling in the curve of her waist. It was the correct position for the tango. Tsura’s mouth opened with surprise, but she laid her right hand in his and settled her left on his shoulder.
Mihai wasn’t stiff at all as he pulled her smoothly into the dancing crowd. In fact, he seemed to glide. The canvas pouches on Tsura’s legs made her movements a little less smooth than normal, but she quickly adapted.
She tilted her face up to look at him quizzically. “You have a hidden talent,” she whispered. “Luca taught me to dance, but where did you learn?” Then she grinned. “Or did Luca teach you too? I can just imagine you both waltzing around the living room after I was asleep.”
Mihai only looked down at her with one eyebrow raised. “I learned in Paris.” But then as Tsura watched, his face slightly reddened.
Tsura’s grin deepened. At times, Mihai was so dreadfully easy to tease. “And who was your teacher?”
His lips became a taut line. “No one. Just a woman.” He averted his gaze.
“Was she your lover?” Tsura prodded.
Mihai looked down at her sharply. “You are too young to know about things like that.”
She almost choked with her laugh. “I’m hardly an innocent.”
Mihai’s shrewd eyes were locked on hers, and he seemed to sense something in her gaze. Now he did stiffen under her hands. “The boy at grandfather’s house?” His jaw went hard. “I’m going to kill him.” The tone of his voice made it sound as if he actually might.
“His name is Andrei and he’s not a boy,” she whispered, leaning in. “I love him and I’m going to marry him. I already told you this.”
Mihai only grunted in response, looking away from her out over the crowd as they continued to glide around the room. Tsura continued to stare at him, though.
“Did you love her? This Parisian girl who taught you to dance?”
Mihai’s head swiveled back to look at her so sharply she wondered if his neck would hurt later. It was absurd, asking about love while in a club that catered to Nazi sympathizers, in the middle of a war. But she still wanted to know, so she didn’t look away. She didn’t know if Mihai was going to answer her when he finally let out an explosive breath.
“No, I did not love her,” he said. “But she was a good teacher, in many things.” He looked away again as soon as he said it, his neck pink.
She grinned. After the war, maybe she and Luca could find a nice soft girl for him. She frowned at the thought. It might be hard to find someone who wasn’t afraid of him. What kind of women did he like anyway? She suddenly wanted him to find something like she’d found with Andrei.
She closed her eyes for a moment and imagined she was in Andrei’s arms. But no, that didn’t work because Andrei was so thin and slight of frame. She couldn’t imagine the broad chest and wide shoulder she held onto was anyone’s but Mihai’s. And he smelled different, that crisp clean scent of his aftershave. Different from Andrei’s earthy smell.
Tsura breathed it in for a moment. But then suddenly thinking of Andrei while dancing with Mihai felt odd, maybe wrong somehow. Before she could think too long on it, however, a small hand grabbed her arm, startling her, and Cristina’s distressed face appeared beside her.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Cristina said, “can we talk?”
Tsura nodded and then Cristina was pulling Tsura by her wrist toward the edge of the crowd.
“Excuse us,” Cristina called above the music as she shouldered roughly past dancing couples, disrupting their slow waltzes. She ignored their disgruntled exclamation and continued leading Tsura. Mihai followed, face impassive but watchful.
“What’s going on?” Tsura asked.
“That greasy German, Emil, can’t keep his hands to himself and keeps trying to take the words of the song as an invitation,” Cristina gestured toward the stage, where the singer crooned the popular Cristian Vasile tune, Sarută-mă. Kiss me.
“I’ll keep him away from you for the rest of the night,” Mihai said firmly.
Cristina waved a hand. “You know what? None of this is really for me. Coming out tonight was all Elena’s idea. And the loud music is giving me a headache.” She winced and pressed her palm to her forehead. “I’d really rather just go home.”
Tsura flicked a glance up at Mihai.
Seeing the look, Cristina went on, “But I don’t need you two to walk me home. I’ll take a coach. I saw several lined up outside.”
“I don’t know,” Tsura said, rubbing her thumb across her palm. Tsura peeked surreptitiously at Mihai’s watch. They still had fifteen minutes until the scheduled meeting with their contact. They hadn’t bargained on having Cristina along. Maybe they could get her to wait in the lobby for half an hour?
“We’ll see you back to the apartment,” Mihai said. “It’s not safe to go home alone in the city.”
Cristina waved a hand at him. “Oh please, I walk back and forth to the hospital alone every day.”
“But not at ten at night,” Mihai said. They’d have to miss their meeting to take Cristina home. If Mihai felt any disappointment or annoyance, it didn’t show on his face. Bringing Cristina had seemed like a good idea—not that there had been much choice since Elena had all but forced the issue earlier this afternoon—since it meant an extra layer for their cover story, but it had obviously been a mistake.
“Come,” Mihai said, “let’s get you home.”
Before Mihai could gesture towards the door, though, Radu stepped out from among some others crowded along the edge of the dance floor, right behind Cristina.
“Did I overhear that you need an escort home? I’d be happy to volunteer my illustrious services.”
Cristina jumped at the voice in her ear and whipped around. “Don’t you need to attend to your lovely date?”
“She’s not really my date,” Radu said easily. “I’ve only gone out with her a few times, but it was never going to work out between us. Besides, she came with Alina and Rareș tonight, not me.”
Cristina rolled her eyes, then looked back and forth between Tsura and Mihai. “Fine,” she said with a sigh, turning toward Radu. She narrowed her eyes at him. “But only because I don’t want to ruin Alexandra and Mihai’s evening. And this is just an escort to the door of my building, nothing else.”
Radu grinned and held out his arm to her. “I don’t suppose you’d like one dance before we go?”
Cristina pushed past his arm and strode toward the front of the club. Radu laughed as if he’d never been more delighted and then jogged after her.
Tsura was still looking at Cristina and Radu when Mihai bent, his breath warm on her ear. “Come, we want to be seen dancing.”
An involuntary shudder went down her spine and she pulled away from him. It was only because his breath had tickled, but still. For a second it had made her feel strange.
She shook away the bizarre thoughts. If she was stiffer in Mihai’s arms than when they had danced before, either he didn’t notice or didn’t say. They danced a few more songs. The crowd was heavier than ever and no one was looking their way. Mihai glanced down at his watch and then gave a slight nod. It was time.
Tsura felt her heart thudding in her chest. It took all her self-control not to look to see if anyone was watching, but that might bring attention to them. She’d have to trust Mihai.
He took Tsura’s hand and led her along the crowded edge of the dance floor. They went down a hallway past the restrooms and then, with a quick glance behind them to make sure no one was looking their direction or stepping out of the bathrooms, he knocked twice, then three more times on the door. A second later, it creaked open. Mihai pressed his hand to Tsura’s back and hurried her inside.
The small room was packed with boxes labeled with various wines and barrels of beer. A short, slim man with a neatly trimmed mustache welcomed them in.
“Mihai, it’s good to see you,” said the man.
“You as well, Stelian. May I introduce my wife, Alexandra.” Tsura was surprised he didn’t use her real name, but then she supposed it made sense for them to expose her secret to as few people as possible. Tsura was a recognizably Roma name.
The space was tight, but Stelian directed them around to a corner hidden by stacked boxes. The walls and floor of the room were brick, but looked like they hadn’t been washed in a long time. The sour, yeasty smell of beer permeated the air.
“We need to make this quick,” Stelian said. “You have the papers?”
“Yes,” Tsura said. She went behind several boxes stacked waist high, for modesty’s sake, and used the scissors from her purse to cut the tape holding the bags to her thighs. She winced as she peeled the rest of the tape from her leg. She returned and gave the bags to Stelian.
He opened them eagerly and thumbed through the identification papers inside. His gaze shot back to Tsura. “And these are the ones you created?”
“With the tools left behind by Levi, yes,” Tsura said, then bit her lip.
Stelian turned one of the IDs over in the light, examining it from all sides. “They’re very good. I think they’ll pass with no problems.”
Tsura let out a sigh of relief, only realizing now she’d been holding her breath in anxiety as he evaluated her work.
“And you can do more?”
Tsura nodded eagerly. “What I need are the photographs and the information they want on the ID: names, marriages, children, any specific addresses or dates need to be noted. I can begin immediately working on as many as you get to me.”
Stelian rubbed his chin thoughtfully and nodded. “Having you house the equipment and create the IDs is far better than the moveable labs we’ve had in the past. And the quality is unquestionable.” A shot of warmth flooded Tsura’s chest. She’d done it. Then Stelian looked sharply at Mihai. “But this means keeping up appearances with the Germans is more important than ever.”
Mihai’s face didn’t change from its normal stony expression. “Of course.” Tsura couldn’t tell if he was irritated by the other man’s warning.
“Any other news?” Stelian asked Mihai, looking toward the door as if nervous to be spending any more time than necessary here.
“The Germans were notified of Filderman’s proposition for the partial return of deportees,” Mihai said, his voice so low it could barely be heard. “The German ambassador will block him at every turn.”
“Well, next week Filderman will send another proposition,” Stelian whispered. “This time to return all deportees. We need to know how it’s received. Antonescu can’t bow to German pressure forever in this matter.”
Tsura looked between the both of them. “Could that really happen? All the deportees being returned?”
Mihai’s brows furrowed as if calculating. “The Germans will postpone as long as possible, but the Russians are at our borders. Soon Transnistria and its concentration camps will no longer be under Romanian control.”
“How soon?” Stelian asked.
“Yesterday there was a report that the Germans have fallen back as far as the Crimea.”
Stelian’s eyes widened in surprise. “So close?”
Mihai nodded. He leaned in, dropping his voice even lower. “What’s left of the Romanian Army detachments are leaving the Germans to fall back to hold the Transnistrian line in the coming weeks. They will fail.” His voice was completely matter of fact. “The Russians have superior numbers, equipment, and ammunition. It’s only a matter of when, not if now. The Red Army will flood through Transnistria on their way to Romania. The German and Romanian armies will have to clear the entire area, including the deportees within the next six months unless something drastic happens to keep the Russians back.”
“What if the army leaves the deportees behind to be abandoned to the Russians?” Tsura asked in a whisper.
Mihai shook his head. “Antonescu and the Deputy Prime Minister want to repatriate the deportees to garner good will with the West in case Germany falls. The fact that they’re already willing to bring back some is a good sign.”
Tsura swallowed hard as she thought of the deportees being returned. In as little as six months she could have Luca back again. If he was still alive. But no, she couldn’t think like that. Of course he was still alive. She swallowed hard and lifted her head. “When the deportees return, where will they go?”
“Many of their homes have been taken by the government,” Stelian said, pacing back and forth in the small space. “The Jewish Federation will do what it can to place those who return. We’re already preparing for the first wave of returnees.” He looked to Mihai. “Any word when it will go through?”
“Possibly as early as December. But only because they’re allowing veterans and former civil servants to return. It will take much longer to get all the deportees back.” Mihai’s mouth twisted down. “If Antonescu will agree to it. Foolish man is planning another trip to Berlin. He knows they are losing, but still won’t risk alienating Hitler.”
Stelian shook his head in disgust.
“But that’s not the reason why I wanted to meet with you face to face,” Mihai said, iron gray eyes fixing on Stelian’s. “I have requested in my last several reports assurances that all your contacts actively search for a deportee named Luca Draghici. The Roma with one leg.” Mihai’s face was cold even as Tsura felt her cheeks heat and her heart rate speed up. “And yet I have heard nothing back.”
Stelian nodded again, his face neutral. “We understand that this is important to you. But we all have loved ones we care about. It’s more important to focus on the many, though, not just the few. Now, we have already risked being here too long, I’ll leave first—”
Mihai’s eyes narrowed as he grabbed Stelian’s arm roughly to stop him from moving. “You are not going anywhere until we have settled this point. Every ounce of information—and lei—I donate, I do for this man you dismiss with a wave of your hand.” His voice was low and dangerous. “Do you understand me? There’s no one as well connected as me in the German consulate. The Germans will get desperate now that they are on the losing side.
“Ambassador Killinger is a crazy bastard who will inflict as much damage as he can before he goes. And Richter, his advisor on Jewish affairs is more determined than ever to imprison or execute Filderman before it’s all over.” Mihai’s voice lowered in timber as he gained intensity. “Richter already put a stop to letting the starving orphans from Transnistria emigrate to Palestine. And it’s not only Jews who have to be worried. They even tossed Tudor Arghezi—one of the most respected national writers in the country—in prison, just for writing a satirical poem in the paper about Killinger. I watched Killinger light a pile of copies on fire in his office. These are not stable men and you need eyes on them.”
“Are you threatening not to give us information if we don’t help find your friend?” Stelian asked, his voice a raised whisper. He was leaned slightly back. Though Mihai had never taken a step, he’d angled himself forward, invading the smaller man space. “And threatening to cut off your financial support at the same time?” Stelian seemed to gain back some of his footing. He squared his shoulders. “All these years we believed you were an exception, that unlike others, your generous donations were not motivated by a desire to purchase something.”
Generous donations? All these years? Tsura looked back and forth between the two men. Mihai had been giving money to the Jewish community for years? She hadn’t known. She’d thought he lived in such a small apartment because he was a stoic, pragmatic man who simply didn’t see the need for more space. Was the truth that he’d been living frugally so he could give his money away? And how much had he given?
“I don’t particularly care what you think of my motivations.” Mihai’s face was still hard as marble. “No matter what they were, or are, the fact remains: I have worked for the Jewish cause for many years now without asking a single favor in return. Except this one. And it’s a favor I must demand.”
“And if this one legged Roma is already dead?” Stelian asked. Tsura winced as if she’d been slapped. Stelian didn’t notice her since his gaze was locked on Mihai.
“Then he is dead,” Mihai said, his voice unreadable. Tsura wanted to scream at him for even saying the words out loud, but then he was speaking again. “But if he isn’t, I will be notified the moment he reenters Romania among the deportees. I’ll pay three million lei in return for this favor.”
Tsura struggled not to choke at the figure. From what Luca had told her, Mihai’s maternal grandfather had left him a fortune when he died, money his father couldn’t touch. Maybe three million lei was nothing to him. Or maybe it was everything left in his bank account.
“You may be a mercenary,” Stelian’s voice was low, “but we are not. We don’t care about your money.”
Mihai laughed, low and caustic. “You are many things, Stelian, but rarely a liar. Money buys lives. Money keeps your people out of the labor gangs. Not to mention that you will need it to rebuild after the war. For more bribes. To buy boats to take you to Palestine. And in the meantime, you need the information I can provide. No one is as well-placed as I am.”
“Fine, fine,” Stelian said, then smiled sardonically at Mihai. “You are a hard man. I agree to your terms. We will question every deportee we can find until we locate your Roma friend.”
Mihai’s jaw relaxed, but only slightly. “That is all I ask. Do you have the new drop location?”
Stelian nodded. “You go to the library often, correct?”
“Yes,” Mihai said.
“There will be a hollowed out book on the second floor stacks. Memorize this call number.” Stelian produced a piece of paper with letters and numbers. Mihai examined it carefully, his thick eyebrows bunched together, his lips moving silently. After another few moments, he passed the paper back.
Stelian pulled out a lighter and burned up the slip of paper, shaking the flame out when only a small unmarked corner of the paper was left.
He handed Tsura an envelope. She peered inside and saw a stack of photographs and a folded sheet of paper, no doubt another list of names. She slipped it into one of the canvas pouches attached to her thigh she’d kept empty for just this purpose.
“That concludes our business then,” Stelian said.
They all stood and Mihai and Stelian shook hands. He walked toward the door. “I’ll leave first. Wait five minutes and then you can go. The door will lock behind you.”
Mihai nodded and they waited behind the boxes. Tsura studied Mihai. With everything she’d learned about him, somehow his face didn’t seem as harsh as it used to. In spite of the fact that she’d just seen him be intentionally intimidating, the heavy jut of his eyebrows seemed less severe, his nose less blunt. His face might still be made of angles like cut granite, that heavy brow, the slice of his jaw leading to the sharp triangular point of his cleft chin. But all the features together didn’t seem menacing like she used to think.
She looked away. “I didn’t know you’ve been giving money to the Jewish Federation,” she whispered.
Mihai shrugged. “It’s nothing.”
Tsura smacked him on the arm. “It’s not nothing and you know it. Do you have friends who are Jewish, is that it?”
Mihai shrugged again.
“Shrugging isn’t an actual answer, you realize this, yes?”
He shrugged again, but this time there was that tiny edge of a smile.
Tsura rolled her eyes, but then she smiled back at Mihai. They stared at each other for a long moment before Mihai cleared his throat and looked down at his watch. “Time for us to go.”
Right as they turned to go, though, the noise of a key scratched in the lock. Tsura’s breath hitched and she immediately went to duck for cover behind the boxes. Mihai stopped her with a strong arm around her waist. She didn’t dare risk voicing the question to ask him what he was doing as he swiftly untucked his shirttail. He loosened his tie and undid a few buttons, then pressed Tsura’s back against the wall. His hand went to her hair, pulling out several pins and mussing it.
Then the door opened and Mihai clutched her to him, dropping his face against her neck. His breath was warm against her throat, his body cinched so tight to hers she could barely breathe, or maybe that was because of her terror at what would happen next.
“None of that in here,” said a voice from behind them. Mihai pulled away, breathing hard. He looked over his shoulder at the tall man who’d entered the room. The man had on the crisp black and white suit that all the servers wore. “How did you get in here?” he barked.
Mihai stepped in front of Tsura. “What? The door wasn’t closed all the way. It opened when I pulled it.”
“I’m so sorry,” Tsura piped up, infusing her voice with abject embarrassment to match the genuine blush spreading across her face. Her hand rubbed at the spot on her neck where she’d felt Mihai’s breath. “We’re newlyweds you see and—”
The server held up a hand. “Fine, fine. But this room is off limits to guests. I trust you will remember that in the future.”
Mihai bowed his head and nodded, then grabbed Tsura’s hand and pulled her stridently through the door, fixing his appearance as he went. As they walked down the hall back to the dance floor, Tsura adjusted the pins in her hair, feeling too many things at once. They’d gotten away with their meeting and her body felt light with exhilaration, like with each step she took she might just lift right up off the ground. But if that server had come in only minutes earlier, he would have caught them with Stelian. That had her sinking straight back to earth.
Then there was the lingering embarrassment about being pressed so intimately against Mihai for those few fleeting moments. Her flaming cheeks in front of the server hadn’t all been an act.
She clutched Mihai’s hand so tightly she realized only belatedly that he’d probably have her nail marks in his skin. She tried to let go of his hand, but he refused to release her. He pulled her back through the crowd onto the dance floor. She knew what he was doing, keeping up appearances as the happy couple, but she’d never felt less like dancing.
She threw herself into it anyway. Mihai danced them back toward the side of the room where Rareș and Alina were. Tsura glimpsed Dana arm-in-arm with a very handsome man a few couples away. Even Emil was dancing, with a slender woman who was taller than he was.
“Where’ve you two been?” Rareș said over Alina’s shoulder.
“On the other side of the crowd,” Tsura said easily. “We slipped out to say goodbye to Cristina and make sure she had a ride.” Hopefully that was enough explanation so that if anyone had actually been looking for them, it would reason away their brief absence from the floor.
Tsura braced herself for more questions, but Rareș just nodded once and went back to his partner. Mihai and Tsura exchanged a glance, and then he pulled her back into his arms as another tango came up. Suddenly Tsura started laughing.
Mihai looked at her, eyebrows drawn together. “What is funny?”
Tsura applied slight pressure to his shoulder to get him to dance them further away from Rareș and their group of acquaintances. When they were thick in the throng of strangers, she finally gasped out through her giggles, “The look on that server’s face, when you turned around with your shirt untucked!”
It was more than that, of course. Maybe it was the sheer perverse delight at having met with a fellow shadow worker right under everybody’s noses. Maybe all the intensity of the last half hour had to come out one way or another and tears would be harder to explain on a dance floor. Mihai didn’t laugh, or smile even, but he seemed to catch her mood and his grip on her loosened. The next song was a popular tango and as he spun her around the floor, they passed by at least two men wearing Nazi armbands. All the laughter fizzled out of her, but in its place another idea sprung up. Stelian had approved of her IDs. He said they were quality work. She hadn’t realized until this moment, but this had been the test she’d set for herself—if someone other than her and Mihai believed they were worthy, then she would finally believe it too. It wasn’t real until now. She was actually a forger. Which meant she could make IDs for anyone she wanted to…
She and Mihai danced tirelessly for another half hour, neither of them saying a word, before following Rareș and Alina to the sidelines.
“Thank you for the evening,” Mihai said, “but we’ll be going now.”
“But I just ordered a pitcher!” Rareș said, holding up the newly arrived beer. “You have to stay and help us drink it.”
All Mihai offered in response was a curt, “Have to work early tomorrow.”
“Fine, fine,” Rareș waved sloppily at them. He’d obviously drunk enough already that he may not remember much about this conversation in the morning. “I suppose I should be delighted you stayed as long as you did or danced at all!” He turned his bright eyes toward Tsura. “My dear, you are a positively good influence!” He put the pitcher down and clapped Mihai on the back.
“Goodbye,” Tsura called over her shoulder as Mihai pulled her toward the exit.
To Tsura’s surprise, Mihai didn’t let go even after they’d left the club and walked into the crisp October air. They began walking the six blocks home instead of waiting to hail a trăsură. The horse and buggies were busy on Friday nights and it could be a long wait. Besides, Tsura didn’t feel afraid walking through the darkened streets lit by only the occasional street lamp. Mihai was beside her.
“I’ve had a wonderful idea,” Tsura said, excited to tell him what she’d realized on the dance floor.
“Oh yes?” The left side of Mihai’s mouth lifted incrementally. “And what idea is this?”
Tsura felt so energized she was almost bouncing. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I mean, I guess I just didn’t really believe it was real. That the IDs I was making could pass for the real thing. I thought they were good, but now I really know they’re quality enough to pass inspection and do you know what this means?”
She didn’t wait for Mihai to answer. “I can make one for Andrei and we can go get him! We can bring him back to Bucharest with us! We won’t have to hide him if he has papers. He can be,” she waved her hand, “Radu’s second cousin or something and stay with him at first. We can help find him a job and I can go and see him all the time.”
She was looking down at the cobblestone street, carefully assessing her footing in the heeled shoes Elena had lent her. When she finally glanced up at Mihai’s face, his expression was unreadable.
“Isn’t that a good idea?” she pressed. “We can take the train together up to Bacău and—”
“No,” Mihai said immediately.
“What?” Tsura paused, stunned. She’d just figured out the solution to all her problems. She wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the war to be with Andrei. And Mihai thought he could get in the way of that?
Mihai’s jaw tensed when she stopped and wouldn’t budge. “I only meant, no, I’ll go alone to retrieve the boy. Bogdan is still recuperating in Bacău and it’s too dangerous for you there.”
He cut off her protests. “I knew Bogdan growing up and I knew him while he was in the Iron Guard. He was a bully as a child and became a violent pig of a man. I would not let you within a hundred kilometers of that town while he is there.”
Tsura wanted to argue. She wanted to see Andrei as soon as possible. And she hated the idea of having to cower from the man who had unjustly attacked her. But Mihai said he would bring him to her. She breathed out a frustrated huff. She could be patient for the extra day or two it would take for Andrei to come to her.
As the idea settled in, a smile grew on her own face until she felt it might crack her cheeks.
“Thank you!” She threw her arms around Mihai. As always, he was stiff under her embrace, but she only laughed. Finally, she let him go and they continued walking home.
As they turned the corner from a main boulevard onto one of the smaller side streets leading to their apartment, Tsura heard a man’s muffled shout of pain. The noise was followed by loud derisive laughter. She froze, the familiar sting of fear crippling her steps. This was an old terror. Had she been feeling safe only moments ago?
From the shadow of the building where they stood, she saw two uniformed police officers and an older man with white hair lying crumpled and bloody at their feet. “Please, I’ve done nothing wrong!” the man moaned.
“You were born a Jew. That’s enough to condemn you to hell,” the taller officer sneered, then sent a vicious kick to the man’s stomach. Tsura and Mihai were close enough to hear the man’s gasp as all the breath was knocked out of him. He couldn’t even scream now. The second officer took his turn to kick, landing a hard blow to the man’s back.
Tsura started to yell at them to stop, but a hand clamped over her mouth and waist, dragging her sideways into a darkened alleyway. Oh God, oh God, had more of the policemen come from behind them? She writhed and kicked wildly until she heard Mihai’s voice in her ear, “Hush, Tsura, it’s me.”
She went limp in his arms, but he didn’t let go of her mouth until he’d pulled her halfway down the alley.
“What are you doing?” she asked in an explosive whisper as soon as he let her go. “We have to go help that man.” She started back down the alleyway, but Mihai grabbed her by the waist again, holding her back to his chest.
“Let me go!” she seethed, trying to smack his hands away. He held on tighter. Was it only moments ago she’d been glad for his size? Now he was using it against her and she hated him for it.
“There’s nothing we can do for him.” Mihai’s arms were like a band of iron around her waist, pulling her in the opposite direction she wanted to go.
“How can you say that?” Tsura whipped her head around to look at him. “You’re helping the Jews, working for the Resistance to stop things like that ever happening again and—”
“Hush!” Mihai’s whispered voice was hard. He hauled her up against him. “There are ears everywhere. Don’t you know that by now?”
“Of course I know that!” her whispered vehemence matched his. “But that man back there. They might kill him! We can’t stand by and let it happen!”
Mihai spun her around and pressed her back against the outside of one of the brick buildings, his body like a cage around hers. “What do you think would happen if we went back, hmmm?” His voice was low and rough, as if he was barely containing himself. “You think they’ll listen if we just ask them nicely to let the poor Jewish man alone? You think they won’t ask us questions? Demand to look at our papers? Add our names to their watch lists?”
He inclined his head, his mouth cruel. “Once they find out where I work, won’t it look extremely suspicious that I was so bothered over the plight of one old Jew? This is the work that we do. The shadow work, as you call it. We are trying to save many more than one man. Not to mention that if my standing is put into question, then so is yours. And I won’t endanger your life for some stranger.”
“But you’re strong! You could have jumped out and surprised them,” Tsura said stubbornly. “You could distract them long enough for me to get the man away from them. Maybe knock them unconscious. Then they couldn’t ask any questions.” She heard the absurdity of what she was saying even as it came out of her mouth, but she couldn’t get the image of the man out of her head. He was so old. She could only imagine how brittle his bones were. How easily they would break.
There were other reasons too. Because in her mind she was suddenly on the ground, tall shadowed boys standing over her, jeering as they took turns kicking and stomping. Her hand went to her nose and the bump where it had been broken. “You don’t understand. We have to try. I can’t not even try.”
Mihai noticed the gesture and his face softened. “They’ll most likely leave him alive. And we can’t interfere.”
She sputtered out of fury and frustration, but then took several long breaths to calm herself down. He just didn’t understand. She had to make him understand, and quickly. She had the sense that at any moment he was about to throw her over his shoulder and bodily carry her away. “Did I ever tell you the story of the foxes and the wolves?”
Mihai stopped, eyebrows furrowing at her apparent change in subject. “Not now, Tsura,” he said with a backward glance over his shoulder. She wasn’t deterred.
“There was a family of foxes,” she began quickly, feeling cold all the way down to her bones. “They were good at fiddling, so the wolves would hire them to play at their parties. The foxes were always afraid of being among wolves, but the wolves said, we won’t harm you, we want to dance to your music and we’ll pay you for it!”
Storytelling was always the easiest way to talk of secrets and soon she was able to look Mihai in the eyes as she continued. “So the foxes played and the wolves danced and it seemed like there were no problems in the world. One of the fiddlers had even brought his baby fox kit with him. Oh, she would have scoffed if you called her a baby to her face. She was almost a full grown fox! Soon she would go off and start a family of her own! When her father had fiddled long into the night, the baby-fox-who-claimed-she-was-not-a-baby got tired. Her brother lived in a far away city so another friend, no older than the girl, said he would walk her safely home to the fox den.”
Tsura drew in a long breath and cast her eyes back at the dirty cobblestones below. They needed to get back to the old man. There wasn’t much time. He’d already been bleeding so much. Her heart sped up in her chest. But she had to convince Mihai to help. She had no doubt he’d force her to leave otherwise. This might be the most important story she ever told. This story could save a man’s life. But only if she could make Mihai feel it, feel it to his soul.
She continued. “But some of the wolves followed them. They said to themselves, Who invited these dirty foxes? They should not even be allowed to breathe the same air as us, to walk on the same ground! So they put their bellies to the ground and slunk after the foxes. Hunting them.”
“Tsura,” Mihai put a hand on her arm. “We should go home. You don’t have to tell me this—”
“And then they attacked,” Tsura went on, ignoring him. “The boy fox fought bravely, but there were three wolves and he was only one young fox. The girl fox howled and tried to help him, but one wolf was so strong he slammed her to the ground and pinned her there. And so she watched as the wolves devoured the boy fox. When they were done with him, his body was broken and he would not rise off the ground. Then all three wolves turned on the small girl, their evil eyes beady in the moonlight.
“Mount her, said one of the wolves. That will be funny, to mount one of these foxes who walk around on all fours and pretend they are wolves.”
Mihai winced, his face drained of color, but to his credit, he didn’t look away. “And did they?”
Tsura squeezed her eyes shut. “No. The leader couldn’t get his body to do what was required. The other wolves taunted him, an embarrassment that enraged him. So he stomped and tore at the young fox until you could barely recognize she was a girl at all, and he made sure she would always stay a girl and never a woman who could bear little foxes of her own. Other woodland creatures walked by while the two little foxes lay there bleeding on the ground, one unto death, and the other near to. And no one stopped to help them.”
Mihai kicked a piece of gravel hard, suddenly looking much younger than he had ten minutes ago. The usually taut lines of his face were softened—not in relaxation, but as if struck with a childlike sense of being lost. “Luca could never bear to talk about it.” Mihai’s voice was quiet. Strained. “Even after you’d been transferred to the hospital in Bucharest and he visited you every single day. But he had a rage in him that I’d never seen before. One day when they were weaning you off your medications, he came home and said you’d been screaming in pain. He got so drunk but still he couldn’t speak of it.”
Tsura looked back up at Mihai. “So you understand now, don’t you? Why we have to go back? The policemen are probably gone now. We can get the man to a hospital. Oh Lord, we’ve already waited too long.”
She started back in the opposite direction, but once again, Mihai’s hand clamped around her arm. “No.”
She looked up at him in shock and anger. “Didn’t you listen to my story? Don’t you understand that I can’t be the one who walks by and doesn’t help? I swore to myself, swore, that if I was ever on the outside, I wouldn’t stand by, that I would step in and help.”
“Tsura.” Mihai’s voice was quiet. “They are still wolves. They would still tear you apart if they knew who you really were. I won’t allow that to happen.”
Tsura yanked at his arm, but he didn’t give. She’d just bared the most painful part of herself, a story she’d never even told Luca in full, and he was acting as if she’d never said a word. “Why should my life be worth more than that man’s?” She finally pulled her arm away from him, only to shove him hard in the chest. “What about atonement? Isn’t that what you said you’re trying to do? Doing good to help right the scales of the wrong you’ve done? Or is that only a lot of talk?”
He laughed darkly. “You don’t think the scales will actually ever even out, do you? I’ll never do enough good to save my soul.” He grabbed Tsura’s chin, eyes flinty. She thought she’d seen his face hard before, but it had been nothing to what she saw now. He was ice. No, ice could melt. He was stone.
“I told you before. Never make the mistake of thinking that I’m a good man. Don’t try to pretend I’m something that I’m not.” He shook his head. “That old man back there is only one more among many I’ve left to their fates. Before I started this so called atonement,” he spat the word, “I sold oil to Nazis and made all of their atrocities possible. And worse, I stood back and did nothing while the Iron Guard beat and murdered Jews in our city. We all knew it was happening. And we did nothing. I had no excuses then. I had no shadow work.”
“So do something now!” Tsura grabbed his forearm, not caring that her fingers clawed at him or that her whispered pleas now edged toward desperate begging. This was no longer only for the old man’s sake. It was for Mihai as well. “It’s not too late.”
There was a long moment of silence when Tsura believed she was getting through to him.
And then his jaw tightened. “I do what has to be done now, that’s all.” His voice was a low growl. She dropped her hands from his arms but in the next second he was holding her shoulders, again caging her in. “And I’ve never fooled myself into believing the cost of atonement will lead me anywhere but to hell.”
She tried to yank away from him, but he didn’t let go. “If you won’t help him, that’s fine!” she hissed angrily. “Then let me go, and I’ll do it myself.”
His grip on her grew firmer, just short of bruising. “I promised Luca I would protect you, and I will, even if it’s from yourself.” With that, he swung her around so that her back was to his chest.
He brought his left arm around her neck in a chokehold and cupped the back of her head with his right hand, forcing it down. Almost immediately, she felt lightheaded and black spots invaded her vision. The last thing she heard before she lost consciousness was his voice hot against her ear. “I don’t expect you to forgive me for this.”
Tsura woke half an hour later, on the bed in their apartment.
She sat up, disoriented and confused as to where she was. A moment later, she remembered everything. The alleyway. The old man being beaten. Mihai’s arms around her neck. Outrage flamed to fury as she got to her feet. Mihai sat calmly at the dining room table, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. He looked up at her, placid as ever.
Words sputtered and died on her lips. What was there to say? He’d knocked her out and dragged her back to their apartment. There was no point in argument when he was willing to resort to such brutish action. And that man, the man they’d left behind… Tsura turned away, unable to stand the sight of Mihai.
She went to the dresser for her nightgown, then into the bathroom to change. The floor was cool and she looked down. Her feet were bare. No shoes. Mihai must have removed them when he brought her in. Her socks as well. All while she was unconscious. She flung her skirt and blouse to the floor after slamming the bathroom door shut. She yanked her nightgown over her head, washed her face with quick, angry swipes and brushed her teeth in the same manner. Then, flinging open the door, she left her clothes where they lay and went back to bed, pulling the sheets up high overhead. Childish rebellions, when a man could lie bloody and perhaps dying on the cold streets tonight. Shame washed over her.
She sat up in bed, pulling the sheet tight. “What if you went back now?” she asked. “The policemen will be gone. Just to make sure he’s not still there, lying in the road, injured?”
For a brief second, she thought she saw Mihai waver. She should have known better, though, because the next instant, he looked back at his paper. “No,” he said. “The matter’s done. I’m sure he made it back home by now.”
Impotent rage burned anew. “How can you—” she stopped herself. There was no point. There was no point at all when it came to Mihai Popescu.
She lay back down and closed her eyes but didn’t sleep. Mihai went through his own nightly routine and the lights shut off. She hated listening to his breathing in the dark. At least sleep didn’t come easily to him either. They took turns now sleeping on the bed, one week on the bed, one on the couch. She was glad it was his week on the couch.
She woke early the next morning but stayed in bed pretending sleep until Mihai left for work. Then she returned to where the man had been beaten. She asked around at the shops if they knew anything about it. She tried to play it off casually, saying she’d noticed a disturbance as she passed by last night and had simply been curious.
People averted their eyes. Finally, an elderly man at the bakery counter whispered to her when they were the only ones in the shop, “We found him there early this morning when we came to stoke the ovens. The body was already cold.” His eyes held sympathy and Tsura bought a loaf of bread and offered a heartfelt thanks even as inside she wept. Never on the outside though.
Tsura returned home, heated pots and pots of water on the stove, then took a long bath, scrubbing herself until her skin was pink. She did not cry. She decided several things.
First, Mihai wasn’t her brother or her friend. Second, whatever emotions she might have projected onto Mihai—compassion, kindness, mercy—were merely that: projections, of no more substance than the cinema reel’s light on a wall. Reflections of her own sentimentality. Mihai had obviously practiced making himself stone for long enough that he’d become the statue he pretended. Except that no, her earlier comparison to stone no longer fit. Even stone was too soft. The man she lived with was steel. Unbending, unbreakable. Whatever bit of humanity he may have had once had burned away in the smelting process.
Everything would be better once Andrei came. They could set him up with an apartment in the city. He’d find a good job. The war would be over soon and they could start the lives they always dreamed of.
In the meantime, she was bound to Mihai. She might hate the man but she had obligations to him. He had helped her. Saved her, even. He was trying to save her brother. If she left when Andrei came, a wife suddenly showing up and then immediately abandoning Mihai might bring suspicion on him. Stelian had said it today: keeping up appearances for the Germans was more important than ever. But when this war was done, whether that was in five months or fifteen, she would part ways with Mihai Popescu and never have anything to do with him again.
For the next two weeks, Tsura was the model young wife, burning everything she tried to cook, taking her turns on the couch at night, and using her newfound forgery skills to make ID after ID. At last came the night Mihai would bring Andrei home with him. Tsura sprung towards the door as soon as she heard the key in the lock. She threw it open, looking for her beloved.
Instead, there was only Mihai.
She pushed past him, thinking Andrei might be hidden by Mihai’s bulk. But no, the empty landing alone greeted her. She looked down the stairs. Maybe he was carrying his luggage and had fallen behind. She started to race down the stairs, but Mihai caught her arm.
“He’s not here.”
“Did he go straight to his new apartment?” She lowered her voice, eyes flicking to Elena’s door. “I didn’t think you and Radu had gotten it set up yet.”
Mihai shook his head, his stone face impassive. She wanted to slap him. Instead, she took the front of his shirt and dragged him back into their apartment. She didn’t deny her pleasure at his disgruntled look when she crumpled his shirt.
It took a substantial amount of self-control not to slam the door behind them. “Where is he then?”
She sank back against the door, feeling as if she’d been punched in the stomach. “I don’t understand.” It came out as a whisper. Really, it was a miracle she was able to speak at all through the lump forming in her throat. Looking forward to Andrei’s arrival was how she’d made it through the past two weeks. Yes, she might despise Mihai and yes, images of the old man bloodied in the streets, dying with no one to help him haunted her waking and dreaming hours, but Andrei was coming and he would make it all better.
She swallowed hard and glared at Mihai, determined not to cry in front of him or anyone. “Explain.”
Mihai sat down on the sofa, only after smoothing and re-tucking his shirt. “I arrived to grandfather’s house and gave Andrei and the Weinberg’s the new IDs you made for them. I explained your wishes to the boy and that I was there to take him back with me.” Mihai’s eyes shifted away from her. “He was less than pleased with the idea.”
Tsura narrowed her eyes and strode from where she was still standing by the door to sit on the couch in front of Mihai. “What does that mean? Less than pleased?”
“He was upset that you had sent your husband to fetch him, those were his words.”
“No,” Tsura exclaimed, “that’s not how it was at all! Didn’t you explain about Bogdan? How you thought it wasn’t safe for me to come with you? Did you give him my letter?”
“I did.” Mihai’s voice was clipped. “He calmed some after that.”
“So why isn’t he here?”
Mihai expelled a breath through his teeth. He was quiet another moment before finally speaking. “He said that the ID gave him ability to move freely and that he thought he could do more good in Bacău for his people than in Bucharest. Getting them food and other things…” He didn’t meet her eyes. “At least until the war was over and your marriage to me could be annulled.”
Tsura stared at the floor, the patterns in the rug blurring together. Not because there were tears in her eyes. She refused to cry. No, it was simply the shock of it. She was devastated that he wasn’t here.
But Andrei was being honorable. He was passionate about his people and she wouldn’t fault him for it. It was the same impetus that drew her to forgery in the first place—the recognition of injustice and the need to make a difference. She wouldn’t deny her beloved that. It only made her love him all the more.
“He was very grateful for the ID,” Mihai said. “As were the Weinberg’s. They’re going to travel to a town on the seaside as soon as it can be arranged where no one knows them and try to make a new life there.”
Tsura nodded. At least Andrei wasn’t native to Bacău so no one would know him there.Her voice was stronger when she looked back up at Mihai. “Did he send a letter?”
“No.” Mihai looked down. “I’m sure it was too difficult for him. Though, like I said, he was very appreciative of the ID. And he said how much he missed you,” he added after a beat.
Tsura nodded. Of course. Andrei had always been better at expressing his feelings through touch than with words. It was one of the reasons this separation was so difficult. But they were both doing good work in an evil era. That knowledge and the promise of their eventual reunion would have to be comfort enough on the cold nights to come. She turned away from Mihai. She had nothing else to say to him.
The chill of that October morning had followed Tsura home and winter took up early residence in their apartment. She didn’t ask Mihai what he was reading or translating. She avoided touching him, even the briefest brush of shoulders as they passed in the kitchen. She kept the radio on loud whenever he was home, and as much as she could, she avoided looking directly at him.
But as much as she wanted it to be the arrangement she’d imagined in the beginning—two strangers who merely happened to share a living space—she couldn’t ignore him completely. He was too large, for one. His aftershave scented the bathroom for hours after he left in the morning. His broad-shouldered shirts still crowded the laundry basket. His heavy breathing that was just short of snoring seemed to echo off the walls at night.
She scooped out a large helping of mămăligă into two bowls and then dropped his hard on the table. She sat down and began to eat. It was two days until Christmas, and she was saving the roll of hard salami she’d splurged on at the market until then. Prices for food had inflated crazily over the past couple of months. All the food grown in Romania was being shipped out of Romania to feed the German war effort, and worse yet, the Germans had stopped paying for it. Everyone was furious and even the propaganda controlled papers couldn’t lie about shortages any more. They hadn’t started rationing yet—the poor simply went hungry. Tsura knew Mihai was wealthy and they could afford it, but she hated the idea of buying more for themselves when others were hungry, so she made the grocery budget stretch.
More often than not, they ate corn porridge for dinner, sometimes with a dash of cheese or sour cream or, on the very rare occasion, with a little bit of meat. Mihai made no comment, no matter if she served the same thing for five days in a row. She wondered if he even tasted it. Did steel have taste buds?
She tried to finish her food quickly. She didn’t relish sitting at the table with Mihai. Her days were busier now that she had taken Cristina up on her offer and spent four afternoons a week volunteering at the hospital. The short-staffed nurses were glad to let her empty and sterilize bed pans, change soiled bedding, mop the floors, and pass out meals. Tsura was glad for the busying work and was fairly inured to the indecencies of the bedpans since she, Andrei and the Weinberg’s had shared a chamber pot in the basement.
On those days she didn’t get home until seven and didn’t eat with Mihai at all. Other days, like today, she spent with Elena and the kids, going to the market together or getting more cooking lessons. Her cooking was improving. For example, tonight’s mămăligă wasn’t burned.
If Mihai minded her changed attitude toward him as the weeks, then months passed— cooler than even the distance she’d put between them when she’d first moved in—he said nothing. Nor did he apologize. And now Tsura had enough other people to talk to during the day that she didn’t mind the silence at night. In the evenings she worked on making as many IDs as she could and then fell into bed exhausted.
Tsura hated living this way. But whenever she looked at Mihai’s face, she’d remember the old man lying broken on the ground, begging for help. The man who’d died because they hadn’t dared to save him. And any words that might have been on the edge of her tongue were swallowed back down. Mihai continued on in the same manner as before, like a man long accustomed to the silent chill of winter.
Tsura shivered and swallowed the last bite of food, then stood and went to wash her bowl in the sink. As she went, she accidently brushed Mihai’s shoulder and he hissed as if in pain. Frowning, Tsura looked at him. Her frown deepened when blood began seeping through the sleeve of his dress shirt just above his bicep.
He went back to eating as if nothing was wrong.
“Mihai,” she said, taking a step toward him, “you’re bleeding!”
“What?” he looked up, then followed her eyes to his arm. He cursed under his breath and stood as well.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I hit my arm on a cabinet at work. It’s nothing,” he said dismissively.
“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped. “You’re bleeding through your shirt. Come to the bathroom, I’ll clean it and get you a bandage—”
But Mihai’s sudden grip on her forearm stopped her from heading to the bathroom. “It’s fine,” he ground out through clenched teeth. In pain from the wound, or because he was embarrassed at showing any weakness? “I can take care of it.”
He strode to the bathroom without another word and closed the door solidly behind him. Tsura heard the sink turn on. She put a hand to her forehead and rubbed it tiredly.
Part of her wanted to knock gently on the door and ask him if she could help. The rest of her turned on her heel and went back to clean up from dinner. Mihai must have decided to do his nightly washing, because he didn’t come out until a long time later in his undershirt with a bandage around his upper arm, and then probably only because the phone on the little table beside the couch began ringing.
Tsura was already reading in bed. She froze where she sat flipping the page. Who would be calling them? No one ever called them. The phone was for little more than emergencies or occasionally Mihai calling to say he’d be home late from work. She and Mihai shared a look before he strode over and picked up the phone.
“Good evening,” Mihai said into the phone. His jaw clenched and he cradled the phone to his shoulder. He began to speak in German. After a few more exchanges, he put the phone back down.
“What is it?” Tsura asked, getting out of bed and walking closer to him.
“It’s work,” he said curtly. “They need me to come in for a special assignment.” He was already pulling out the suitcase from under the bed and then filling it with items from the dresser. Packing. As if he was going on a trip.
Tsura felt a flare of anxiety. “Do they usually do this kind of thing?”
“What kind of thing?”
“Special assignments. Calling you at all hours of the night and asking you to come in.”
Now she wanted to strangle him, but for altogether different reasons. “What do you mean, no? No, as in it’s not usual, or no, as in, this is the first time it’s ever happened?”
He looked up at her. “No, it’s never happened before.”
Tsura started pacing. “So what’s different this time? Why can’t you do it when you go in to work next? What is a special assignment anyway? And why do they need you to pack?”
Mihai didn’t avert his gaze from her. “I don’t know. It must be sensitive, they wouldn’t say over the phone. But they told me to pack a bag and said that I might be gone for a few days.”
Tsura’s heart lurched. All the hostility she’d been feeling towards him evaporated with the threat that something was amiss. A million possibilities flooded her mind. None of them good. She went over to the radio and switched it on for cover noise and then came back to Mihai and whispered, “What if that’s just a ploy? What if they’ve found out what you’ve been doing?”
Mihai shook his head. “If they did, why not simply arrest me at work tomorrow?”
“Because tomorrow’s Christmas Eve and you don’t go back to work for three more days. Maybe they think you’ll use the opportunity to run.”
Mihai shook his head again, one hard negation. “Then they would come arrest me here.” He calmly put on a shirt and then a tie, looping the knot with neat, practiced movements.
Why was he being so blasé about this? She wrung her hands together. He just didn’t understand how quickly things could fall apart. One second you were walking in the market on a sunny day and everything was fine and then the next, police were shouting in your face and arresting you. “But what if they want it to stay secret because they don’t want anyone to know they had someone working right under their noses—”
Mihai reached over and placed a finger over her lips. “Shh, Tsura.” His voice was uncharacteristically soft.
Tsura blinked for several long moments, staring into his flint gray eyes.
He leaned down, whispering. “It’s far more likely that they simply need a translator. Prisoner interrogation. Secret visit by a foreign dignitary. Anything. My real work is to gather information to end this damned war, remember? It’s good that I’m the one they call.” His breath was a hot brush of air against her face.
Tsura blinked, momentarily forgetting her two-month campaign of staunch indifference to Mihai Popescu. He did seem to genuinely hate this war and want to help end it. But if that determination didn’t translate into saving a helpless person being hurt on a dark street corner as he walked by, what kind of man did that make him?
Maybe it didn’t matter what kind of man he was. Maybe in the end it was men like Mihai who would win this war and it was only the foolish girls like her who would be singing sad songs over the gravestones in the aftermath. She’d sung a song for the old man every day since his death, a token of remembrance. It was all she could give him.
Mihai walked over to the bed with measured steps and pulled out a bag from underneath. He came back to her, opening the bag at their feet.
Tsura frowned. “What is that?” she whispered.
He opened the bag wider and she saw several changes of clothes and a large stack of hundred lei bills. Reaching in, he pulled out a piece of paper.
“If I’m wrong and I don’t contact you within three days, then take this bag and run. Go to the address in here.” He indicated an envelope before sliding it back between the stacks of money. “My contacts there will help you get out of the country. Use the money for bribes to get to Constanța and to buy passage to Turkey. I have friends in Istanbul who you can stay with for the rest of the war.”
Tsura’s heart lodged in her throat. He spoke about it so calmly. How long had he planned for this possibility? “And what about you?” she choked out. “Will you join me there?”
He shrugged. “What will be will be.”
The radio fell silent as the station turned off for the evening, and Tsura was left staring at Mihai with her mouth hanging open. Did he really care so little about what happened to himself? Did he truly not feel one way or another about it, or was he that good of an actor? And why hadn’t he told her about this before? That he had a back-up plan. She should have known Mihai wouldn’t have left things to chance. He probably had back-up plans for the back-up plans. He turned away from her and tucked the case back underneath the bed. He pulled out another empty suitcase and filled it with a few clothes. They both remained silent as he finished packing and then shrugged on his suit-coat and an overcoat.
“I’ll call if it will be more than a few days.” He walked toward the door and then paused, turning toward her one last time. “Merry Christmas.” His voice was back to one of cool indifference.
Tsura had felt rooted to the spot while he packed so calmly, but now as he put his hand on the doorknob to open it, she flew across the room and hugged him hard. Devil him. He might be an unfeeling automaton, but she was not. She couldn’t bear to think of him getting hurt.
“Be safe,” she whispered in his ear, then kissed him once on the cheek for good luck.
He gave a strangled sounding grunt and nodded, then opened the door and was gone.
Christmas came and went. Tsura spent Christmas day at the hospital to distract herself, knowing that if she stayed home waiting for the phone to ring, she’d go insane before nightfall. Yes, she risked missing his call, but she reassured herself that she’d stay home the following day. A good idea, as it turned out, since Mihai called that day to say that he’d finished his work, but wanted to go visit his grandfather.
Tsura scowled at the phone. Was that some kind of code? Did it mean she should leave town because it wasn’t safe? Or that Andrei was in danger? But then in the next second he told her he would be back in a few more days and he looked forward to giving her the Christmas present he was picking up. Again her mind went to Andrei. Did that mean he’d be bringing Andrei back? Did she dare hope?
She wanted to ask for some kind of clarification, but then he hung up. When he came back, they were going to create a secret code so that if he needed to, he could give her real information over the phone. Make sure to buy a hog’s head at the butcher’s could mean, you’re in danger, get out now. Or, honey I was going to pick up some fresh flowers, could mean, don’t worry, everything’s fine, no one knows our secrets, oh and by the way, I’m bringing the love of your life home with me.
The days felt tortuously long. Since Mihai had indeed called, they must be safe enough for now. He only said she should run if he didn’t call. And if he’d been allowed a phone call it meant they hadn’t discovered him and tossed him into a deep, dank prison somewhere. Right? Not that the image didn’t still regularly haunt her dreams.
But no, everything was fine.
She repeated this over and over to herself to calm her choking worries. She volunteered at the hospital even when she wasn’t on the schedule. More days passed. She’d just cleaned up and changed out of her work clothes after a long shift when a knock sounded at the apartment door. Tsura’s heart jumped.
Was Mihai finally back? Devil. Her shoulders slumped. Mihai had keys, he wouldn’t be knocking. It was more likely Elena. Tsura opened it to find Radu standing there, two bottles of champagne in hand.
“Radu is here, now the party can begin!” he said, waving the bottles.
Tsura blinked in confusion, and then it hit. Oh, yes. It was New Year’s Eve. Other nurses at the hospital had mentioned it, but Tsura hadn’t really been paying much attention. She’d wanted to get home and go to bed.
But now that Radu was standing here, she remembered that Mihai had invited him to go with them to Elena’s to celebrate. In her worries over Mihai, Tsura had forgotten about the party completely. At least she’d bathed recently.
Radu sauntered into the apartment. “Where’s Mihai?”
Across the hall, Elena opened her door and peeked out.
“Why hello! And who is this handsome man I find lurking outside your door, Alexandra?”
Tsura smiled, trying to gear herself up for a night of being friendly when all she really wanted to do was sink into bed. “Elena, this is Mihai’s friend, Radu. Radu, my neighbor, Elena.”
“Enchanted,” Radu said, bowing to kiss her hand. Elena giggled at the gesture.
“Oh yes, you will do quite nicely,” Elena leaned in to him and whispered. “Come meet my sister-in-law, Cristina. Now she will have someone to kiss at midnight!”
Radu grinned at Tsura. Aha. She should have known it hadn’t been Mihai asking his friend to the party but rather Radu who’d wrangled the invitation so he could see Cristina again.
Tsura shook her head ruefully. Cristina wouldn’t be happy about Radu’s sudden appearance. She’d been vocal about her dislike for Radu on several occasions when she and Tsura walked home from the hospital together. Funny though, because as much as Cristina “loathed him,” she kept bringing him up.
Radu eagerly crossed the hall to Elena’s door and Tsura followed behind them.
“Where’s Mihai?” Elena echoed Radu’s earlier question, looking behind Tsura in confusion as she entered Elena’s apartment.
“He’s been away on business.”
“For how long?” Elena asked.
Tsura shrugged. “About a week now.” She hoped she hid her anxiety. He was fine, she assured herself again… But was he? Why hadn’t he called again? It had been five days since he’d last contacted her. Five days. So much could happen in five days and—
“You were alone on Christmas?” Elena’s voice interrupted her thoughts, going so high-pitched that Tsura all but winced.
Tsura nodded. “I volunteered at the hospital for most of the day to keep busy.”
“No, no, this is not good!” Elena proclaimed. “You should have come over! Holidays are for family and friends.” She looped her arm through Tsura’s. “Thank goodness they didn’t try to make my Klaus work on Christmas—these government employers don’t think a thing about family, do they? Even on one of the most important holidays of the year! Bah, they are too busy staring at their maps and their numbers to even notice! Fine, fine, but don’t drag the rest of the good family men and women with them, I say.”
Tsura smiled and went to help Elena in the kitchen while Klaus slung Dieter over his back and chased the toddling Brigitte who ran from him with gleeful shrieks.
Cristina was chopping eggplant at the sink, looking particularly pretty in a soft pink dress. Elena must have cajoled her into wearing it since it was nothing like the normal sturdy wools she usually favored. Radu leaned against the bar beside the kitchen, his normal swaggering confidence seeming off kilter. He swallowed hard as he watched her for a long moment before clearing his throat and tossing a smile her direction. Cristina looked up, noticing him for the first time. Her eyes went wide in shock for half a second before she went back to her task, dismissing him from her notice as if he were a particularly annoying fly. In spite of everything, Tsura couldn’t help grinning. When was the last time a woman had not fallen at Radu’s feet when he flashed that hundred-watt smile?
Tsura looked back at Klaus and the children with the same mixture of awe and loss she always felt whenever she was around this family. Klaus was pretending to be some kind of monster while the children flocked around him, trying to tackle him to the ground and shrieking with laughter.
“Alexandra, did you hear me?” Elena asked.
“Oh, sorry, what?” Tsura turned to her. “Did you ask me something?”
Elena looked at her, then beyond to where the children played with Klaus. “I’m sorry that the babies have not come yet for you. But there’s time.” She nudged Tsura in the hip. “And the trying is certainly fun in the meantime, no?” She laughed and Tsura forced herself to smile, along with a genuine blush.
Elena laughed and pinched one of Tsura’s cheeks. “Still blushing, my little bride, you are so funny!”
Tsura helped Elena and Cristina finish preparing the food. In wartime, it wasn’t the elaborate seven-course meal most Romanians had on New Year’s Eve, celebrating until dawn. But Elena must have saved up because she had meat for both the traditional Romanian sarmale and toba, a German food where meat scraps of all kind were stuffed into a sheep’s bladder, then cooked, sliced, and served.
They started with appetizers at ten o’clock, bread with salată de vinete, eggplant salad. Irmgard and Dieter were still awake, though by the way they were rubbing their eyes, Tsura thought they wouldn’t make it past the first course. Elena chatted happily about all the latest building gossip she’d heard, joked with Klaus and the children, and asked Radu question after question about his job and if he had any special women in his life. Radu, for his part, kept flirting with Cristina. She appeared completely uninterested, which seemed to make Radu even more determined.
Elena had cranked the radio up loud, a mixture of popular Romanian folk songs and the more danceable tangos. The next course was soup and Tsura ate it greedily. Only now she was realizing she’d barely eaten for the past week.
As midnight rolled near, Tsura’d had enough țuică for a happy blanket of warmth to settle into her veins but not enough to be drunk. The new year was beginning. 1944. Perhaps it was the year that the war would end. She clung to the thought.
Ten minutes before midnight, she was dancing with a sleepy Dieter in her arms. He kept determinately trying to hold his head up, but a moment later it would droop against her shoulder again. Tsura laughed and twirled him around the room. Klaus and Elena danced close. He whispered something in her ear that made her giggle. Cristina had reluctantly agreed to dance with Radu, though she slapped his hand whenever he tried to move it lower down her back. This amused Radu greatly, so he kept doing it, obviously enjoying getting a rise out of her more than anything else.
A knock came at the door five minutes before midnight. Tsura wondered if it was another of Elena’s friends from the building. Almost everyone was awake to celebrate the new year, she could hear noise of others in the building, even in the stairwells. If this were a normal year and not wartime, people would be crowding the streets and balconies to watch fireworks.
“I’ll get it,” Tsura said, setting Dieter down on one of the couches they’d pushed back to make way for dancing. She opened the door and the smile stopped on her face.
“Mihai!” She flung her arms around him and breathed him in, clutching him tight. He was safe. They were safe. When she pulled back, he had an odd expression, a little stunned but also pleased. She let go of him and stepped back. She blinked, conflicted. While he was gone, she’d forgotten about all her sour feelings toward him. All she thought about was his safe return.
“Mihai!” Elena echoed, hurrying over. “What perfect timing, it’s almost midnight!”
Elena ushered him into the apartment and poured him a glass of țuică. He nodded at Radu and Klaus, then accepted the glass. Radu nodded back, but didn’t let go or look away from Cristina—who stared at the wall over his shoulder as if she was bored.
“I’m sorry my work kept me out of town so long,” he murmured to Tsura.
“Is everything all right?” she whispered back, glancing to make sure Elena and Klaus were out of earshot. She suddenly remembered his phone call and what he had said. “Was that talk about going to your grandfather’s house about Andrei? Is he here?”
A look of confusion crossed his face. “What? No. But all else is well.”
“Oh.” She blinked again, emotions flopping like slippery eels in her stomach. Still the relief that Mihai was safe. Disappointment that Andrei wasn’t here, but not as strong as she would’ve thought—her worry for Mihai had been too much at the forefront of all her thoughts the past few days. She shook her head to clear it.
“You’re here now,” she said louder. “That is all that matters.” She took his arm and led him into the room. She felt better when she could touch him and reassure herself that he was solid and safe and here.
The radio announced that it was only one minute until midnight. Mihai tossed back the glass of țuică he held. Even though it must have burned, a slight tensing of his jaw was the only sign of discomfort. He set the glass on the table.
“Dance with your wife until the new year!” Elena called out gaily. She resumed dancing with Klaus after waking Irmgard and Dieter. Groggily, they got off the couch and danced with each other, bobbing sleepily on their feet and half holding each other up.
“Do you want to miss the new year?” Dieter said harshly, rubbing his own eyes with a fist. “Go to sleep like the babies?”
Irmgard lifted her head haughtily and moved her tiny feet to the music.
“Shall we?” Mihai held out his hand to Tsura. She had a hundred and ten questions she wanted to ask him, but it could wait. She took his hand and they danced to the lively folk song.
Then the radio announcer began to count down over the music. Elena counted enthusiastically along with it, and soon everyone in the room joined her. Even Mihai. “Three, two, one! La mulți ani!”
Elena and Klaus kissed each other deeply. Tsura blushed when Mihai leaned over and placed a perfunctory quick kiss against her lips.
“Oh come on,” Klaus said, grinning over his wife’s shoulder. “Kiss her like you mean it!”
Tsura opened her mouth to make some joke to distract them, but then Mihai had her in his arms and dipped her backwards. She gasped at the unexpected move and that’s when Mihai kissed her. Her mouth had been slightly open from the gasp and Mihai’s lips were warm and soft. His tongue gently explored the contours of her lips and then dipped inside, touching the very tip of her own tongue.
Tsura felt her face flame all the way to the roots of her hair, even as her eyes flew open. She hadn’t realized she’d closed them. Mihai’s eyes were open, his irises taking on a silver quality in the dim lighting as his kiss gentled, nibbling and sucking on her bottom lip. She’d never been kissed by anyone except Andrei, and the feeling of it… Her breathing was erratic like she couldn’t get enough air. For a moment all she could think was, who knew his lips could be so soft, when he usually holds them in such a hard line? Followed by her next thought: oh God, Andrei is going to kill either Mihai or me if he ever finds out about this. Finally Mihai pulled her back to a standing position and released her. She pressed her hands to her cheeks and turned away from him.
Klaus gave an appreciative laugh, and proceeded to give his wife another long kiss. To Tsura’s surprise, she also saw Cristina and Radu were still kissing in the corner, and quite vigorously.
Tsura turned away and went to the kitchen to pour six glasses of champagne. She was still breathing unevenly, her usual composure completely rattled. First with the immense relief of Mihai finally coming home and then that kiss… a wave of guilt swept over her for thinking even one more second about the kiss. It was nothing. It was acting, merely her second face. Keeping up appearances in front of Elena and Klaus. She might be glad Mihai was safe because she wasn’t heartless, but she hadn’t forgotten who he was.
Taking a deep breath, she focused on pouring the champagne. It was the traditional New Year’s drink, but it was scarce these days, even on the black market. Where did Radu get his hands on it? Cristina pulled away from Radu, her face as nonchalant as ever and came to help Tsura. Tsura arched an eyebrow at her friend, but Cristina looked away, obviously not ready to talk about it. Klaus finally released Elena and they came over, all clinking glasses and wishing each other la mulți ani, many more years, and drank.
They stayed long enough for the sliced tobă, and then Mihai said he was sorry, but he was very tired after his trip. He told Tsura she could stay, but she begged off as well, and finally they were walking through the hallway. She couldn’t quite bear to have Mihai out of her sight again so soon.
“I’m so glad you are back home.” Safe. She didn’t have to say the last word. He understood.
“Glad to be back.” He closed the door behind them after they entered their apartment.
“You must be tired.”
He nodded, but didn’t move. He just stared at her for several long seconds. His eyes seemed brighter than normal. She clasped her hands together, then put them behind her back. Then that seemed silly. Why did she suddenly not know what to do with her hands? Wanting to break the strange moment, she looked away as she whispered, “Where did you go? What happened?”
Mihai rubbed his eyes. He looked so tired. There were lines around his eyes that hadn’t been there when he left. This war was aging them all prematurely. They’d be little old men and women before the thing was done.
He turned on a record and then directed her over to sit on the couch with him. They had to sit close enough to whisper. For a moment it felt strange to be close to him again after their kiss but then she told herself once and for all to stop being stupid. They were adults and they lived in an adult and dangerous world. It was two in the morning, but she could hear noise from their neighbors still celebrating the New Year. They were probably too busy to listen at their wall, but it was ingrained at this point to keep quiet.
“So where were you really?” Tsura asked.
“Three British intelligence officers parachuted in, two and a half hours from Bucharest.”
Tsura was shocked. “And they were captured?”
“Within hours,” he said grimly. “They must have missed their target. And they didn’t know that the gendarmerie was offering twenty thousand lei for any information on strange travelers. They were turned in by a woman on a farm outside Plosca.”
“Did the Germans interrogate them?” She swallowed hard. “Torture them?”
He laughed, and she looked over at him in surprise. “I was called in as a translator, but the Gestapo didn’t get to ask a single question. Killinger was red in the face the whole three days we stayed there, demanding to question them or transport them to Berlin.” The half-smile was still on his face. “It was a devil of a thing not to show how glad I was that the Romanian authorities aren’t letting themselves be bullied anymore. I think it’s a sign of things to come.”
“How, though?” Tsura frowned. “I thought Hitler could pressure Antonescu into doing anything he wants?”
Mihai shook his head and waved a dismissive hand. “Hitler has bigger things on his mind. Romanian officials are starting to think what happens about after the war. They want to make bridges with the Allies. Protecting these British spies is only the beginning.”
“So they weren’t being tortured for information by the Romanians either?”
Mihai shook his head. “From the little we could find out, they’re being treated very well. Even kept in a house, not a jail. And the Brits are smart. They said they were sent with messages for Romania from their government, so we are treating them like ambassadors. If they claim official business, the Germans can’t touch them.”
“What do you think they actually came for?” Tsura whispered.
“No clue.” He shook his head. He dropped his voice even lower, brushing her hair off her shoulder to whisper in her ear. She almost pulled back, but then reminded herself this was the only way to talk about such secrets.
“But my hope,” his gray eyes glinted as she turned to face him, their faces so close they were sharing breath, “is that Britain will finally discuss terms of protection from Russia if we can overthrow Antonescu and join the Allies. The Russians already tried to steal our land before the war even began and they’re going to want revenge for us going to war against them with the Germans.”
Tsura sucked in a breath. “Really? You think Britain would protect us?” She blinked a moment, distracted by looking at Mihai’s wide lips that had kissed her only a couple of hours ago.
Mihai pulled away an inch and looked at the wall as if in thought. “It’s mainly just Antonescu trying to hold onto the alliance with the Germans. With the Russians getting closer, everyone’s afraid, the country’s ripe for switching sides to join the Allies.”
Tsura felt a thrill run down her spine at the thought. Would Romania do it? Finally join the right side of the war? But then another realization struck and she frowned. “Wait, if the Romanian officials wouldn’t let the Germans talk to the men—and you translate—then why were you away for a whole week? You didn’t go to your grandfather’s house, did you?”
He was quiet a moment, then shifted his body towards hers again so that they were touching all along their thighs and arms. He leaned in again. “First let me say, it was not Luca.”
She narrowed her eyebrows in confusion.
He took a deep breath. “One of my contacts heard reports of a one-legged man among the first refugees returned from Transnistria to Dorohoi.”
Tsura’s heart seemed to stop in her chest. She clutched Mihai’s arm. “How can you be sure it wasn’t Luca?”
“Because I went to Dorohoi.”
Tsura gaped at him. She clutched his forearm. “You should have taken me with you! You said the British POWs were captured near Plosca. Bucharest is on the way to Dorohoi from there. Why didn’t you stop and get me?”
“And put you in danger for nothing? Raise all your hopes only for it to turn out not to be Luca? No.”
“But it could’ve been! You didn’t have the right to make that decision for me.” Tsura pressed her hand against her heart as if she could outwardly calm its racing beat. “You should have told me and let me come.” Her jaw tensed so hard she thought it might crack. She stared Mihai down. “Tell me everything.”
So Mihai did. He told her about leaving as soon as it was apparent the Romanian officials were going to stall the Germans for weeks, maybe even months. He’d immediately taken a twelve hour train ride up to Dorohoi and arrived at the hospital only to find out the man had died half an hour before.
Tsura shivered at that, hand still pressed to her chest. Oh God, what if it had been Luca and then he’d died before they ever got to him? “And they let you see the body?”
Mihai nodded grimly. “I had to pay a large bribe, but yes, they did. And it wasn’t Luca.”
The air felt tight in Tsura’s lungs. “You are sure? Positively sure?”
Mihai nodded. “It wasn’t Luca’s face and the man was far shorter than Luca. His leg had been severed at a different place as well.”
Tsura sagged back into the couch, relief in every pore and cell of her body. It was not Luca. Luca had not died in a cold hospital surrounded by strangers, wondering if his own sister even remembered or cared about him.
“Next time you will take me with you.” Tsura’s voice was like iron.
Mihai looked like he was about to argue, but then he finally nodded his head. “All right, I’ll take you with me.”
Later after their nighttime ritual of changing and turning off the lights, Tsura closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Mihai was breathing easy and she thought he was already asleep when his voice suddenly came through the darkened room.
“Good night, Tsura. I’m glad to be home.”
The way he said home struck Tsura with a strange pang in her chest. She turned over in bed and hugged the pillow close. Her emotions felt too large for her body, she didn’t know what to do with them until finally they erupted in silent tears that tracked down her face.
She wasn’t sure if they were tears of relief that Mihai was safe, or fearful tears for Luca, who could so easily have been the dead body Mihai had seen. Maybe they were tears of longing for Andrei or because of her brief and unintentional betrayal of him tonight. Or tears of hope, daring to imagine that 1944 might be the year that the world righted itself and madness became sanity. That next year all those she loved who were far away would be near enough to hold in her arms once again.
The first months of the new year passed peacefully in Tsura’s small sphere. She knew it was a mirage to think that way. She read the biased papers and questioned Mihai constantly for a truer accounting. The Germans lost more and more battles and the Eastern front moved closer. Antonescu had agreed to repatriate more deportees from Transnistria, but still he refused to send out the order to recall them all. January slid into February and then into March.
Tsura volunteered five days a week at the hospital now. After a long shift in early March, she and Cristina walked home together since their hours had coincided. It was full dark at five o’clock because of winter. Tsura clutched her coat tighter as they made their way down the icy sidewalks. Her woolen stockings were worn and too thin, doing little to combat the freezing air. Everything had become more expensive over the past month, and luxury items like stockings were harder to find. Even the feast they’d had a few months ago for New Year’s would be difficult to manage these days since meat was priced incredibly high.
“What’s going on with you and Radu?” Tsura asked. To her surprise, after New Year’s, Cristina and Radu had begun dating. But Cristina wasn’t like Radu’s normal women. For one, he’d been seeing her for more than two weeks, the longest any of his previous relationships had lasted. He and Cristina were going on two months at this point. Second, Cristina seemed immune to his charm.
Cristina huffed, her breath expelling a puff in the night air of the dimly lit sidewalk. Only a few lamps illuminated the wide street, but it was still busy enough that Tsura felt safe, or as safe as she ever did. They stayed on Brătianu Boulevard the entire twenty minute walk home. They could take the tram, but both of them hated to waste the extra lei unless it was too bitterly cold, they were especially exhausted, or it was late at night and they were traveling alone. But since they could walk together and it was warmer tonight—only five degrees below freezing—they were braving the walk.
“Who knows?” Cristina waved a hand. “He’s such a little boy. Like a puppy, all energy and running over things and begging for attention.”
“But charming,” Tsura said, nudging her friend in the hip.
“Ha!” Cristina said. “That boy has too much charm. That’s his problem. He’s gotten everywhere in his life with that charming smile of his. He barely takes anything seriously!”
Tsura nodded. She could see Cristina’s point.
“But sometimes,” Cristina went on, her voice softening. “I think there’s more to him than that. He’s good to his friends. Loyal. He’s funny but never mean. I think he has a good heart. By the way,” she shot Tsura a sideways look as they paused at an intersection. Cristina pulled out a cigarette and lit it, drawing in a long pull and then letting out the smoke with a small groan of satisfaction. They started walking again when there was a break in traffic. “He says you’ve been very good for Mihai.”
“What?” Tsura couldn’t help her eyebrows shooting up to her hairline. She hadn’t expected this conversation to turn around on her.
“Oh yes. He says Mihai was a man driven like a demon before he married you. Cared only about his work and responsibilities. But then you come and he’s gotten softer around the edges.”
This time it was Tsura’s turn to scoff. “Mihai? Soft? Not likely.”
Cristina made a noise of disagreement. “I don’t know. I see the way he looks at you. I’m good at reading people. He looks one way at the rest of the world and then he looks at you and it’s hardly the same man. Whenever you’re not around he looks hard, almost cruel. Then you walk into the room and…” she waved her hand, as if looking for the right phrase. “Well then I guess he looks like a man in love. He gets this brightness to his eyes.”
Tsura bit her lip to keep herself from scoffing again or assuring her friend that it wasn’t like that at all, but kept her mouth shut. If she were a normal girl, and hers were a normal marriage, hearing these things would have made her feel happy. But she was not, and their marriage was not, and if Mihai got a softness around his eyes when he looked at her it was because he was seeing his best friend Luca and wanting to protect the only part of him that he could.
And if Radu had noticed anything, it was only that some of the easiness was back between Mihai and Tsura. Tsura had still not forgiven him for not helping the old Jewish man, and certainly not for knocking her out and dragging her back to the apartment like a caveman. But she’d come to a place of acceptance that he was who he was and they were stuck with each other for the duration of the war. They weren’t intentional strangers to one another any more. In the evenings they worked or read peaceably in the same room. Tsura didn’t joke with him like she had before but still it wasn’t a bad kind of quiet. It was the kind of silence you didn’t feel you had to fill, because even without words, there was that pleasant feeling of not alone. Companionship, she supposed was the word for it. An easy companionship that made silences full instead of empty.
“Maybe they are right with that saying that opposites attract,” Cristina concluded. “You and Mihai, me and Radu.” Then she shook her head and laughed. “Or maybe not. I keep thinking every time I go out with Radu will be the last because he’ll finally do that one thing that drives me so crazy, I’ll end it.”
“But then you don’t,” Tsura said, glad to get the conversation back onto less confusing territory.
“But then I don’t.” Cristina’s smile faded and she took another long drag on her cigarette. “I’ll have a day like today, where I spent three hours sponging down a man who was burned from head to foot, his skin black in some parts and coming off on the sponge.” She shuddered. “Then I go see Radu and he’s so silly with that big, dumb smile of his and…” she shrugged. “I forget everything else for a little while.”
“And the hours of forgetting make everything else bearable,” Tsura finished for her.
Cristina nodded, then dropped her cigarette to the ground and looped her arm through Tsura’s, planting a big kiss on Tsura’s temple. “And that, my friend, is why I like you so much. You understand things.”
Five minutes later, they were at their block, still arm in arm, when Tsura heard her name, well, her false name, called out. Mihai walked toward her, briefcase in hand. He must just be getting home from work. He gave Cristina a nod.
“Darling,” he leaned over to kiss Tsura’s cheek. “We need to talk,” he whispered in her ear.
She pulled back and nodded. They walked with Cristina up to their floor, then said goodbye to her and walked in their apartment.
“What is it?” Tsura asked as soon as she shut the door.
Immediately Mihai was in action. He turned on the radio loud and then hurried to grab their suitcases from underneath the bed. “We need to pack.” His voice was quiet but urgent. “I got another message about a man among the latest batch of returned deportees. It could be Luca.” He looked up and met her gaze. “Or it might be another dead end like last time. But if we hurry, we can make the six o’clock train.”
Tsura all but ran to her dresser. Oh God, oh God, Luca. She grabbed three dresses and several pairs of woolen stockings and underthings, then shoved them in the suitcase. “What did they tell you about him?” she whispered feverishly. “Did they ask if he was named Luca?”
“My contact didn’t know anything else, just that there was a one legged man who had darker skin among the latest group on the train back from the camps.”
Tsura’s heart jumped. “Is he sick? Why is he in the hospital?”
“The contact didn’t say.” Mihai’s face darkened as he rolled up a pair of pants and put it in the suitcase. “But if it’s anything like with the last refugees I saw, well, none of them were in very good shape. They were all very thin, many sickly. Most of them needed medical attention.”
Tsura dropped the suitcase, closed and latched it. Her heartbeat was suddenly racing a thousand times a minute.
“Tsura,” Mihai put a hand on her arm. “It might not be him. It probably isn’t him, in fact.”
Tsura snatched her hand away and shoved the suitcase handle at him. “There’s only one way to find out.”
The next second they were out the door. Tsura was already halfway down the first flight of stairs when she realized Mihai wasn’t with her. She looked back and saw him knocking on Elena’s door. Before she could ask what he was doing, the door had opened and she heard Mihai’s voice. How could he be speaking so calmly at a time like this?
“My grandfather is ill, so we are going immediately to see him. Klaus already knows since I got leave from the office, can you have Cristina notify Alexandra’s work? We’ll be gone for a few days.”
“Oh no, how horrible!” Elena said. “I’m so sorry! I’ll light a candle and pray for him. Are you leaving right now?”
“Have you eaten dinner? Do you have anything to take with you?”
“We’ll be fine—” Mihai said shortly, but Elena cut him off.
“Wait here for one second. I baked pretzels this afternoon, you must allow me to give you some.”
“We really must be going—” Mihai started, but Elena had already whisked away from the door. She came back carrying four large doughy pretzels and wrapped them in a cloth as she reached the door.
“Thank you Elena, that is so thoughtful,” Tsura forced herself to say from the stairs. All she wanted to do was fly to the train station as quickly as possible.
“Yes, yes. Safe journey.”
Mihai hurried after Tsura. They were both silent all the way to the train station. Tsura walked so fast she was almost running. It won’t be Luca, she tried to tell herself. Don’t get your hopes up for nothing. You will bring bad luck if you assume it’s Luca. But she couldn’t help that dangerous blooming bud springing to life in her chest: hope. Because what if it was Luca? She rubbed her chest. Hope was an aching thing, a pleasure pain, because wanting the best was countered by the equal weight of fear of the worst.
Ten hours later, the overnight train approached the lights of Iași. Mihai had managed to sleep, but Tsura was wide awake the entire trip, praying fervently for the train to go faster, for it to be Luca waiting for them on the other end. Or for it not to be Luca, in case there was a repeat of what happened last time—following a tip only to arrive in time to find that the patient had already died. She finally stopped praying at all, afraid she would jinx it by praying for the wrong thing.
When the train pulled with a screeching of wheels into the Iași station, Tsura was on her feet before it even came to a complete stop.
“Wake up Mihai,” she shook him hard. “We’re here.”
His eyes popped open and he hustled as quickly as Tsura did off the train and into the brisk night air. Mihai consulted his watch. “It’s four in the morning.”
“Do you think they’ll let us in at the hospital to see him?” Tsura asked. She hadn’t even thought of it until now, but surely visiting hours didn’t begin until the morning. She felt sick at the thought of having to wait for several more hours, knowing she was so close but not being able to find out if it really was Luca or not.
“They’ll let us in,” Mihai said, his voice steely. “One way or another.”
After getting directions from a drowsy station agent, they set off through the darkened streets. Snow sifted down overhead but Tsura barely felt the cold. She was on fire, her blood right under her skin, singing her brother’s name. Even Mihai with his long-legged stride had to hurry to keep up with her.
The city streets had a ghost-like quality as the silent snow fell. Iași seemed to have more churches than most, but each time she passed one of the magnificent buildings, some that were three or four hundred years old, she felt an icy chill that had nothing to do with the freezing weather. The God she’d prayed to the whole trip here was the same God the parishioners who came to these churches prayed to. And those were the same people who had massacred ten thousand souls over the space of a few days only three years ago. On these same streets. Tsura couldn’t help the picture that filled her mind as she looked down, imagining the cobblestones below her feet filled with blood and bodies. They’d heard of it even in Bucharest. Those in the Iron Guard had bragged about all the Jews they had killed. It might not be the systematized murder of a gas chamber, but the atrocity was no less horrific.
A wave of mourning made her feel nauseous, and she wondered if the restless spirits of the murdered remained, imprinting the city with a residual echo of terror and fury that would continue to wail throughout the centuries. All of it made her feet move faster until she was actually running. She had to know if Luca’s voice was among the living or the dead, if it was Luca at all.
Twenty minutes later they arrived at the darkened hospital. It was much smaller than the hospital where Tsura worked, only a single story complex of three buildings.
As Tsura had expected, the man at the front desk told them they would need to come back at eight a.m. when visiting hours began. The foyer was small, with a desk and a row of chairs against the wall that Tsura supposed constituted a waiting area. The walls may have one time been white, but now were a dirty grey. When Mihai pulled out his wallet and laid five hundred on the counter, it took the man only half a blink. “Well, exceptions can be made in extreme circumstances.”
Mihai added another two hundred lei to the pile. “These are extreme circumstances.”
The man nodded, then called over one of the nurses. The nurse, a tired-looking woman in her forties, came down the hall from the right. She wrapped a worn yellow cardigan more firmly around her body and took a slow drag on a cigarette.
“Direct this nice couple wherever they need to go.”
The nurse looked them up and down. “What’s in it for me?”
Mihai didn’t even blink. He just opened his wallet again, and then the woman led them down several long hallways to an open corridor where cots were set up every few feet, about fifty patients stuffed into the dimly lit ward. Tsura’s eyes frantically searched the faces in the cots, discarding each when she didn’t recognize the face as Luca’s. Briefly she noted that they were all skinny, too skinny. Skeletal. But Luca. She had to find Luca.
“Whole truckload arrived two days ago,” the nurse said. “You Jew-lovers or something? You all have been in and out of here all week.”
Tsura flinched at the woman’s callous tone, but Mihai only said, “Show us the man who’s missing half his left leg.”
“Fine, fine.” The woman blew out a long exhale of smoke, walking so slowly that Tsura wanted to strangle her. “Over there,” the woman finally stopped and gestured. “Second cot from the right by the wall. Don’t make a lot of noise now. The patients are supposed to be sleeping.”
Tsura ran swiftly through the lines of beds to the one the nurse pointed to. She looked down at the figure in the cot. He was emaciated. His cheek bones stuck out of his gaunt face and his skin had a sickly cast to it except for rash-like red spots on his cheeks and neck. He stirred in agitation and for just a moment, his eyes opened.
Her world spun to a stop. And began whirling again at double speed.
It was him. It was her brother.
“Luca!” she breathed his name in a worshipful whisper as she crashed to her knees beside his cot. “Oh God, Luca, what have they done to you?”
His eyes had closed again but he was breathing. He was breathing. Blankets were pulled up to his chest, but from what she could see of his shoulders and collar bone that stuck out so sharply they looked knife-like, he was little more than bones with skin stretched over them. His head was shaved and the hollows underneath his eyes seemed to swallow his whole face. A sheen of sweat covered his skin.
She traced the sharp lines of his face. His skin was hot to the touch, feverish, but he didn’t stir. Just asleep, she assured herself. She laid a hand gently to his chest, afraid if she pressed too hard, she might crush his fragile bones. Still, she needed to feel the rise and fall that told her he was breathing. He was alive. She closed her eyes and counted his breaths. They were steady.
Mihai swore and Tsura looked up at him. He was crouched on the other side of Luca, his head in his hands. Then he jumped back up to his feet, his face pale. “I’m going to see about getting him a private room.” He looked around at all the other prone figures in the cots. Several were coughing. One nearby had an unchecked nosebleed. Most were as emaciated as Luca. Tsura shuddered. She spent plenty of time in the hospital and had seen far more outwardly gruesome wounds. But there was something about these beds full of skeletal people that was so unnatural, it was more disturbing than a ward full of battle wounds. This was like a living morgue. She winced as soon as she had the thought, turning back to her brother while Mihai walked away.
“It’s going to be okay now,” she whispered, pressing her cheek to his. His skin was hot against hers. “Mihai and I are here. And you know how stubborn that man is. He will force them to make you better. There is no other choice except for you to heal and then come home with us. We’re here now, my soul. Your vitsa is here.”
Suddenly Luca’s gaunt eyes blinked open. “Tsurica?” he whispered, his voice a barely audible rasp.
“Yes, Luca, it’s me.” She pulled away only so she could see him, caressing his face. “It’s me, I’m really here. You’re safe now.”
Then Luca began to whisper almost incoherently in Romani. “Tsurica, I have to leave. Papa says it will be good for my future. And I want to go. I want to go so much!”
In his delirium, he must be reliving that time when he’d gone to live with Mihai after saving his life when he was ten. “It’s all right, Luca. It’s all right to want to go,” she tried to soothe.
“Oh little Tsurica, can you forgive me? Oh God, what have they done to you? Get away from her! I’ll kill you for hurting her!”
Tsura was hugging him but now she had to hold down his limbs that flailed weakly underneath the blankets.
“Shh, shh,” Tsura whispered urgently. “Luca, I’m here, we’re both safe. Shh, just rest now.”
But Luca was agitated. His eyes closed again, but he yanked one arm out from underneath the blanket and began picking at the cotton. She took Luca’s restless hand in her own. “Shh, Luca, I’m here now. You’re safe, you’re safe.”
He settled then, but Tsura didn’t let go of his hand. As much as she wanted to squeeze him to verify that he was real, she held him gently. She’d known it was bad in the camps, but she’d never expected… this. How long had he been starved? Did they feed them at all? How had he even survived?
“I have to get back to my soul,” Luca murmured. His eyes were still closed but his head moved restlessly from side to side. “A body should not be away from its soul.”
She put her hand again on his cheek. “Your soul is here, Luca. You can rest now. Your soul is here.”
Mihai came back and crouched down beside her. “It’s typhoid fever. The nurse said many on the last train have it. The night shift doesn’t have the authority to transfer him, but I’ll talk to the hospital administrator in the morning. I’ll buy them a whole new goddamned wing if I have to, but we’ll get him a private room and the best care.”
“Typhoid fever?” Tsura asked, her eyes still on Luca’s sleeping face, hand clutching his. “What is that?” Most of her nursing duties at the hospital were still at a very rudimentary level. She’d begun reading Christine’s old textbooks and training to take on more responsibilities, but there was still so much she didn’t know.
“From drinking contaminated water,” Mihai said. “Not surprising from what I saw when I visited the camps.” He shook his head in disgust.
Tsura’s eyes finally flashed up to Mihai’s. “You saw them, people like he is,” she gestured to Luca’s body. “Why didn’t you tell me it was so bad? He’s barely more than bones.” Her voice broke on the last word and she sucked in a sharp breath to keep from crying.
“I didn’t want you to worry,” he said, then added, “more.”
“So you lied to me instead?”
Mihai’s jaw clenched. “I didn’t lie. I just didn’t tell you everything. There was nothing you could do, so there was no point in putting those…” he breathed out, his eyes briefly shutting, “images in your mind.”
Tsura was silent a long moment. “Typhoid fever. Is it…? I mean, do people mostly…” She gulped.
He leaned over to place his hand on hers and Luca’s. “There’s a good chance that he’ll get better.”
“How much is a good chance?” She looked at him in the dim light, his face inches from hers.
Mihai’s jaw firming again was the only response for a time, then he said, “We won’t let him die.”
No, they would not let him die.
Tsura stayed crouched at Luca’s bedside until morning light began to creep through the windows. Mihai disappeared again to go see if the hospital director had arrived yet. Tsura didn’t let go of Luca’s hand. Her knees ached and her back hurt, but she never moved. Luca woke occasionally, but only to speak gibberish. It tore at Tsura’s heart that he was never quite there with her. He was somewhere else, lost in the delirium of his mind. But maybe his soul recognized her even if his mind did not. She consoled herself with the thought as she sponged his fevered forehead.
Mihai had asked the nurse earlier and learned the symptoms and stages of typhoid patients passed through as they recovered. Luca was somewhere between the second and third stage, each lasting around a week. He had a high fever and his abdomen was distended, paunched out in spite of his emaciation. He had rose spots across his chest and abdomen and delirium. Apparently they were in for another week of the same until, hopefully, his fever would finally break and he’d begin coming out of it. This third week was the most dangerous, though, and rife with potential complications.
“Just another week, my soul, and then we’ll have you back,” Tsura whispered as Mihai walked over to them several hours later with a man in a suit and wire-rimmed glasses.
“I’ll have the balance transferred this afternoon,” Mihai said. “In the meantime I expect him moved to one of your premiere suites.”
“Yes, sir, Domnule Popescu,” said the pinched-face man. “We’ll have him moved directly. And can I just say that we here at Sfânta Ana Hospital greatly appreciate your generosity.”
But Mihai was no longer paying attention to him. He came around to Tsura’s side. “Any change?”
She shook her head and then rubbed her face with the sleeve of her shirt. She was so tired her eyes ached in their sockets. Mihai watched Luca for several beats and then looked back at her. “Did you sleep at all on the train?”
She shook her head. “No, but it doesn’t matter. I won’t leave him.”
Mihai put a heavy hand on her shoulder. “You’ll be no good to Luca if you drop from exhaustion. I’ve arranged a hotel room, it’s only two blocks from here—”
Tsura shook her head violently. “I’m not leaving him.”
Mihai sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He looked weary too. “I’ll arrange for an extra cot to be put up in Luca’s new room.”
Tsura hovered while the orderlies moved Luca onto a stretcher. They’d pulled off his blanket and it was then that she saw the full horror of his skeletal body. She didn’t know a body could be so thin and still be alive. He couldn’t weigh more than eighty pounds, maybe even less. She glanced up at Mihai and saw that his mouth was open, his face pale as he watched his friend carried down the corridor to the private room. Luca twitched on the cot and coughed violently, but didn’t wake up. At least his leg looked okay, there didn’t appear to be much chaffing from using the prosthetic, even in those horrible conditions.
They finally arrived in a small white room that reeked of antiseptic but had two large windows that allowed the morning light in. Luca would like that. Tsura looked back at her brother as they transferred him from the stretcher to a low bed. She pulled over a stool and sat beside him, taking his hand again.
Luca was quiet for a time, but then he became agitated again. His thin face contorted. “No! Don’t shoot them! They’re just little children, stop!” And then he screamed and sank back against the mattress. At first Tsura thought he’d fallen back asleep, but then his body started shaking. Twin streams of tears dropped from his eyes and his sobs seemed like too much for his wan body.
Tsura leaned over him and cradled him to her chest. When she ran out of soothing words, she began to sing to him, a lullaby from their childhood. It calmed him and soon he was back asleep.
“Alexandra,” Mihai said quietly from behind her. “Rest now.”
But Tsura didn’t want to let Luca go. In the end, she pulled her cot right up next to Luca’s bed so she could keep holding his hand. She slept fitfully, waking whenever a nurse came in to check Luca’s temperature, give him more medicine, or try to get him to drink the sugar-saline water mix. The doctors here weren’t familiar with IVs but in spite of Luca’s delirium, they were getting fluids down him, so she wasn’t too worried. They had put him on a sulfa antibiotic, but the doctor was concerned because in addition to typhoid, he also diagnosed Luca with pneumonia.
“But he’ll recover, yes?” Tsura asked. “Now that he’s getting treatment.”
The doctor looked at Mihai instead of Tsura. “You should be prepared for all possibilities. We’ll do everything in our power to give him the best chance.”
It wasn’t what Tsura wanted to hear, but she supposed this gagiu doctor didn’t know Luca like she did. He would fight to come back to her, she was certain of it.
That day and the next passed in an exhausted haze. Tsura stayed with Luca the entire time, pressing damp cloths to his heated face, singing to him, telling him stories. Most of the time he slept, but occasionally he would wake up with fits of delirium, shouting that Tsura shouldn’t be here, that they would kill her if they found her here. Mihai had to hold him down until he quieted.
Mihai simply sat at Luca’s other side, ever stoically upright in his chair. He rarely spoke but was a calming presence nonetheless. He left only at night to go sleep in the hotel, and only when Tsura had demanded it, losing her temper and asking if letting himself get exhausted and risking an epilepsy attack would help Luca in any way. He’d looked disgruntled, but had grabbed his coat and gone, returning early the next morning.
Tsura herself changed the diaper they kept wrapped around Luca, disgusting work considering the nature of the stomach problems the typhoid gave him, but Tsura was glad to do it all the same. He was like a large broken child, and she bathed him and washed him with as much care and love as she would give to a baby.
“Do you remember that time when we were children when you let me hunt hedgehogs with you?” Tsura asked after bathing him one morning, taking up her perch on the stool. His eyes were open, though Tsura didn’t know if he was really hearing her at all. Still, she imagined her voice must give comfort to him.
“You were so much older than me and usually never wanted to let me play with you, but I begged you that time and you said fine. You said you’d take me this once, because every girl should know how to catch her dinner, not just how to cook it. So we went out into the forest together. It was a bright day, but dark in the forest. I was afraid. You said that I was five years old, far too old to be scared like a baby, even if I was a girl.
“That made me so mad, so I was going to show you I wasn’t afraid. I kept telling myself I was with my big brother and you would always protect me. You taught me how to creep on the tips of my toes so I wouldn’t make noise as we walked. And when we finally found a small family of hedgehogs rooting around together, you taught me how to throw the cloth around them so I wouldn’t get poked with their quills.
“But then I cried because I didn’t want to take the hedgehog mama and papa away from the babies. You gave a long sigh, but then let them out of your bag again. Remember how glad I was?” She pressed a wet cloth to his forehead. “And you said I shouldn’t be so soft-hearted, and where did I think the meat in the stew came from?”
“And you said you didn’t care,” Luca’s voice rasped out, “but it wouldn’t be from that hedgehog family tonight.”
“Luca!” Tsura dropped the cloth in her surprise, watching with a flooding sense of relief as Luca’s eyes focused on hers, really focused for the first time since they’d arrived.
Mihai leapt up from his chair and came to kneel at Luca’s other side.
Luca turned his head slowly and smiled. “My brother.”
Mihai put a hand on Luca’s shoulder and nodded. “It’s good to see you again, my friend.” Mihai’s eyebrows dropped. “I tried to find you. I should have tried harder. I’m sorry. I’m…” he gulped hard. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault,” Luca wheezed. “On the train north, a man stole my identity.” Luca took another wheezing breath. “Thought it better… to be gypsy,” another breath, “than a Jew. So instead of the Roma camp…I was sent to Jewish one.” He breathed hard and closed his eyes. “But I kept hold of my leg.” Tsura knew he must be referring to the prosthetic one. “Wouldn’t have made it without it. They’d march us. If you… couldn’t keep up, they’d shoot you. So I wouldn’t let anyone take it…” He breathed out heavily and she could tell how taxing the speech had been. “Not till the end. No more strength then.”
“Shh,” Tsura said, putting her hand on his cheek. It was still warm. The fever wasn’t gone yet, but it was lower. “Rest now, don’t try to talk.”
They stayed beside him as he drifted off to sleep. Tsura looked up at Mihai with tear-filled eyes and a blinding smile. “He’s going to make it,” she whispered, her voice breaking on the words. As much as she’d said it over and over to herself, she wasn’t sure she’d entirely believed it until now. “He’s going to survive this.”
Mihai smiled back at her. A genuine full-toothed smile, maybe the first she’d ever seen from him. “Yes, he is,” he said, joy in his quiet words. Tsura put down the cloth she was holding and went around the bed, tugging Mihai to his feet.
“Our brother is going to live!”
He smiled as if he wasn’t sure whether to really believe it, but he took the hand she proffered. He slipped his other around her waist and hugged her hard, and then spun her once until she felt dizzy and let out a giddy, half delirious laugh. A passing nurse glared at them. Tsura let go of Mihai and went back to Luca’s bedside, but she still felt like laughing and singing. Luca was going to be all right. One day soon, this entire nightmare would be behind them. It was a miracle. It made her want to truly believe in God again, for real and not just as someone to beg for favors in prayer when she was afraid.
Luca continued to improve over the next day and the next. He was lucid when he woke on the third day and Tsura told him in whispers about everything that had happened since he’d been taken from her. About Domnul Popescu’s basement and the Weinbergs and Andrei. She went on and on about the last topic, and was surprised to look down and find Luca frowning at her.
“And how do I know this boy is good enough for you?”
Tsura laughed, spooning broth into his mouth. “He’s hardly a boy, and I’m not a little girl anymore. And he helped me. I was…” she glanced away, studying the cracks in the plaster near the window, “having difficulties being separated from you, but he helped me find joy again.”
Luca waved away the next spoonful of broth. Tsura set the bowl down on a side table. Luca’s hand found hers and his gaze narrowed. “Difficulties? Like in the year after you first came to live with me?”
Tsura looked down. “It’s just…there was no one left. Without you, I had no vitsa or hope of one. Father sent me away because no man would ever want me. And then you were taken and he had already died, not that I would’ve been welcomed back anyway—” She shook her head, looking up and squeezing Luca’s hand. “But none of that matters anymore,” she smiled brightly. “Now I have you back, and Father was wrong. Andrei does want me. He doesn’t care that I can’t have children. Hopefully this war will be over soon and we’ll be together again.”
Luca stared at her in confusion. “That’s not why Tati sent you to live with me.”
Now it was Tsura’s turn to be confused. “What?”
“Tsurica, is that what you thought all these years?” Luca tried to sit up on his bed, but Tsura pushed him back down.
“Don’t move, you’re still so weak!” she chided. Luca was getting agitated and he didn’t need that. She wanted to know what he was talking about, but his health was more important. She pressed the back of her hand against his forehead. “You need to rest, we’ll talk about this another time.”
But he lifted a frail hand and caught hers before she could pull away. “No, we talk now.”
“All right, all right,” she said soothingly. “Lay back and be calm. I’m listening.”
He dropped his arm back to his side and his breath rattled in his lungs. A coughing fit wracked his frail body. Tsura held him and then gave him water through a straw to ease his throat. He was exhausted by the brief exertion but ignored her when she urged him to rest again.
“Tati didn’t send you away because you couldn’t marry,” he said, still wheezing slightly. Tsura leaned closer so he could whisper. “Well, that was part of the reason, but not in the way you seem to think. Within the vitsa, he knew the men would likely not take a barren wife.”
Tsura swallowed. She didn’t want to talk about this. Her back stiffened. She wanted to pull away, but this seemed important to Luca so she forced herself to stay still.
“But Tsurica, it was the hardest thing he ever did to send you away.” Luca let out a weak huff of laughter. “Probably harder than sending me, his son, away. Tati told me that when Grandfather died and it was only the two of you left, he loved you more than anything else in the world. Then you were attacked, and he was destroyed by it. He could barely speak when he called me on the phone to come for you.”
This was all harder to hear than Tsura had expected. Her voice shook when she asked. “Then why, if he loved me so much, did he send me away, never to see me again?”
Luca took her hand, a twitch of his fingers all he could manage in the way of a comforting squeeze. “Think about it. Father was older than most when he had us, fifty-five when you were attacked. What would happen to you when he died, with no man to marry and protect you?” Luca’s voice gentled. “And he did pass only a few years later.”
Tsura stared at Luca. “I would have stayed among the vitsa. They would’ve taken care of me.”
Luca shook his head. “No, sister. You would have been considered too young to keep his wagon all on your own. You would have been taken in by Cousin Anca.”
Tsura flinched. She remembered Cousin Anca all too well, the woman who beat her when she went for cooking lessons.
“She always resented Tati and the fact that Grandfather Besnik had such a place of prominence among the vitsa when Besnik’s brother, Anca’s own father, wasn’t respected at all,” Luca said.
“But he was a drunk and a cheat!” Tsura protested.
“Exactly, and Cousin Anca was a horrible woman. She would’ve made you suffer all your life, with no way out through marriage to a man. Tati did the only thing he could to protect you. He sent you to me.”
Tsura sat back in her chair. Astonishment was all she could feel. She’d believed her father had deemed her broken without the ability to bear children. Unworthy. Unlovable. For a long time she’d believed that of herself as well.
“Why didn’t he say?” She whispered, clutching her stomach. “Why didn’t he explain? I never understood. I thought— I thought—” She swallowed, unable to finish.
“I’m sorry, sister. I assumed you knew. As for why he didn’t visit—you know he couldn’t. It’s the Roma way. That was the sacrifice. We were dead to him. That was the price of our futures. How much he loved us.” Luca smiled, but it was a sad, sad smile. Then the look on his face turned to one of determination. “But I need you to promise me something, Tsura. To swear it on our blood.”
Tsura sat up straighter at his tone. “Anything, Luca, you know I’d promise you anything.”
Luca nodded. “Good. Father did everything he could to protect you and thank God for Mihai stepping in when I couldn’t these last two years. But you are older now and this world can be terrible and cruel.” There was a darkness in his eyes as he said this and Tsura hated that he was talking about protecting her when all she wanted was to go back in time and protect him from all the things he’d seen and had to live through. But he continued, “So you must swear to me that no matter what happens, you will survive. No matter what happens to me or anyone else. You will continue to live on and not let yourself fade away again. What happens if next time this Andrei or I or Mihai are not there?”
“Luca, don’t talk like that!” She pressed her hand to his cheek. “You are going to be fine. You are getting better. You barely have any fever anymore.”
“Good,” Luca said stubbornly, “then this shouldn’t be a hard promise for you to make.”
“Swear it,” he cut her off.
His bony hand clutched hers, ragged nails biting into her skin. “Swear it, sister. Swear to me that you’ll survive, Tsura, swear it. No matter what. No matter the cost. Swear to me my soul will live.”
Tsura relented. Anything to ease him and give him peace. “I swear it, Luca. I will survive no matter what. And you will be there the whole time to make sure of it.”
Luca relaxed into the bed. He was sweating and looked drained.
“You have tired yourself out, my little fool,” Tsura wiped his brow. She would give him such a good life full of good things to try to erase memories of all the bad he’d endured. And it was a wonder, learning that her father hadn’t betrayed her as she’d thought, but instead had sent her away out of love—it should feel like a more momentous thing. Instead, she only felt a deep abiding sense of rightness. Their father had loved her. Of course he had. As she loved Luca and he loved her. Her family. What was broken had been made whole again.
“Tell me a story, my soul. And make it a pretty one.” Luca closed his eyes.
Tsura obliged and began to tell him the story of the morning star and the evening star. “Once upon a time something extraordinary happened. If it had not happened it would not be told. There was once an emperor and empress,” Tsura began.
After Luca fell asleep again, Tsura’s body slumped on the stool. She was beyond exhausted. She went over to the cot they’d pulled back against the far wall for her. She laid down only to rest her eyes and ended up falling asleep.
When she woke, Luca and Mihai were talking in low tones. Mihai was on a low stool pulled up beside Luca’s cot, dressed in his usual neat suit, though without a tie. Tsura sat up and rubbed her face. “What are you two scheming about?” She got up and went over to the chair on the other side of Luca’s bed.
Luca grinned at her. “Mihai here was telling me about what it’s like to be married to a stubborn one like you. And I was asking him how he’s survived your cooking. I of course built up an iron stomach when you lived with me, but he’s had no such luxury.”
“That’s not what I said at all,” Mihai broke in, straight-faced as always, but Luca only laughed, a deep wheezing laugh that turned into a cough.
“Don’t make me laugh,” Luca clutched his chest with a wan hand, but he was grinning, and that alone swept away any lingering fears Tsura had about her brother’s recovery. In spite of all he had seen in Transnistria, and everything he’d witnessed in the war beforehand when he lost his leg, he was able to laugh with them. Luca clutched one of Tsura’s hands and then one of Mihai’s from the other side of his bed and pulled them close so that all three hands were touching in the center of Luca’s chest over his heart. “I am home,” he sighed in relief, closing his eyes. “You two are my family, my only true family.”
Mihai was staring at their hands all clasped together, eyebrows raised in surprise one second and then dropping low the next. Tsura leaned over and kissed Luca on the temple.” Yes, we are your family. Always.”
They stayed like that for a long time, hands clasped over Luca’s chest until he fell asleep again, a contented smile on his face. Only after she was sure he was asleep did she pull her hand back. Mihai pulled his back as well and then he rubbed hard at his face. Had those been tears glittering in his eyes before he’d scrubbed them away? But no, when he looked back at her, his face was the same cool façade as ever.
Tsura stood, stretching. “I think I’ll go to the hotel to bathe and change.” Now that Luca was feeling better, she finally realized how grimy and dirty she felt. How many days had it been since she’d last changed clothes? She didn’t know. The days and nights of the last week had melted together.
Mihai handed her the key. “You should take a nap on a real bed too. You’ve got to be exhausted.”
“I’ll be fine,” she smiled and stretched again. For the first time in years, she truly believed those words. She would be fine. Things were going to be all right. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
Then, right as she reached the door to leave, Luca let out a howl of pain. He jackknifed up in bed and clutched his side.
She spun around. “Luca, what’s wrong?” She ran back to his side.
He let out another high-pitched moan. “My stomach,” he gasped. He clutched his stomach and curled up onto his side.
“Get the doctor!” Tsura shouted to Mihai, but he was already out the door. Luca leaned over and vomited over the side of the bed.
“Oh God, Luca!” Tsura grabbed one of the cloths she’d been using to cool his forehead with and wiped his mouth. He continued making pitiful noises of pain and his face turned gray. A few moments later he was vomiting again.
“Nurse!” Tsura shouted. “Somebody help!”
Mihai rushed back in with a doctor in tow, two nurses following behind them.
“He started screaming and saying his side hurt,” Tsura said, the words spilling over themselves as she was jostled out of the way by the doctor moving closer to examine Luca. The doctor pulled down the blankets and pressed on the side of Luca’s stomach. Luca howled in pain.
“Perforated bowel, most likely,” the doctor said in a clipped tone. “It can happen with typhoid cases. We’ll need to operate right away.” Then the doctor began barking orders at the two nurses, who brought in a stretcher and quickly loaded Luca’s writhing body onto it.
“You’re going to be okay,” Tsura called through threatening tears as she walked along side the stretcher, clasping Luca’s hand. She wouldn’t cry. Not when Luca needed her. His face was scrunched in pain and he didn’t respond.
The nurses and doctors took Luca from the room and Mihai put a hand on her shoulder to hold her back from following. “Let them do their work. Luca will come out of this. You know he will. We’re in a hospital. The doctor came right as it was happening. He’ll be fine.”
She nodded miserably and then spent the next fifteen minutes pacing the corridor, wondering what was going on behind the closed door. Mihai stood stoically against one wall, arms crossed, unmoving.
“God, please save him, please,” she whispered. Of course Luca would be fine, though. Only an hour ago they’d been laughing with him. She’d seen the old teasing light back in his eyes, and she’d known, she’d known, deep down in the pit of her that he was going to survive. That was all she needed to focus on. He was her soul and she was his and he wasn’t going anywhere.
She looked at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes now. Once Luca got better, they’d take him back to Bucharest with them. She’d already made up a fake ID for him in anticipation of the day he returned. Soon neither of them would need them. The war would be over and old arrest warrants for Roma and Jews would be voided. She would marry Andrei, and Luca would live in the same town and he’d come by every evening and they’d all eat dinner together. She’d even invite Mihai since it would make Luca happy. And she’d be a good cook by then, she swore it. She would be patient and kind to everyone, and they would all be happy, so happy—
The door to the operating room opened and the doctor stepped out. His face was drawn. His gloved hands were covered in blood. He was just tired, that was all. Saving people’s lives was tiring work.
“He’s better, yes?” Tsura asked, even as a horrible sensation erupted in her chest. But that was foolish. This man would tell her that Luca was safe now and as soon as she saw him she would berate him for giving her such a scare—
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “His body was simply too weak to survive the surgery. His heart stopped. We couldn’t restart it.”
“No,” Tsura whispered, her head shaking back and forth. “No, he’s fine. Mihai tell him.” She swung to Mihai. “Tell him we were just talking to him an hour ago and he is fine!”
Mihai’s eyebrows were drawn together in pain. “Tsura,” he reached for her, but she yanked away and slammed her palms against the doctor’s chest, pushing past him.
“Luca!” She called. “Luca, wake up and tell them you’re fine!” She barreled into the room and there was Luca on the bed. Blood covered his opened mid-section, viscera exposed. His eyes were vacant, skin too pale. Two nurses who had been cleaning up were saying something to her but she couldn’t hear them.
“No!” she shrieked at the top of her lungs. “No!” She ran to his side and cradled his limp body in her arms. The nurses scattered and headed towards the door. Tsura’s hands immediately became slippery with blood. Luca’s blood. His body was still warm. But his face was all wrong.“Viața mea, my life, you can’t leave me here alone. Not after everything. Not after I had you back!”
She looked back down at his stomach and the intestines that had begun to sag and fall out of the opening. Hysterically, she tried to shove them back in, as if by putting them back inside where they belonged, she could make him whole again. She could fix this. She screamed and kicked when two men came in to pull her away from Luca. She only realized one of the men holding her around the waist was Mihai once they’d dragged her out of the room. She heard his voice loud in her ears, but couldn’t make out the words over the sound of her own screams. Her chest was being ripped open, cleaved right down the center. Half of her soul was trapped in the lifeless body in that room, the body that had no longer been Luca anymore even though it had his shape. But Luca’s eyes had never looked like that. Luca’s heart wouldn’t stop like that, not when he knew how much she needed it to beat.
“Luca!” she screeched, still fighting to get away from Mihai and the other man who held her. “Luca!”
“Hold her still!” An unfamiliar voice shouted, one of the doctors maybe, and then Tsura felt a prick in her arm and slumped as the world went dark.
The funeral was held two days later. Tsura did not cry. Crying meant accepting that Luca was dead and that was a thing she could not do. Funerals were to say goodbye, she supposed, but how could you say goodbye when you couldn’t believe the one you loved was really gone?
Even when she saw the shape of her brother in the casket. Even when they lowered him into the ground. Even when the priest chanted through the death ceremony and waved his censor trailing smoke back and forth. It reminded her of her wedding ceremony. And like her wedding, this too had the sense of unreality, that she was in someone else’s body, trespassing in a dream.
Because that was what this had to be, wasn’t it? A dream? A bad dream that she would wake up from? But she’d been thinking that for the past two days, and she hadn’t woken up yet. She’d stayed with Luca’s body all of yesterday as was the Roma custom, but she hadn’t thought of it as keeping watch over the dead. No, she’d sat on an uncomfortable stool in the cold hospital basement beside the covered body, waiting for Luca to sit up and tell her it was all a garish comedy at her expense. Mihai had sat beside her, a requirement of the hospital administrator lest she become hysterical again. His money could only buy so much grace for eccentricity. She was a gypsy, after all.
Most of the snow had melted, but the ground was still frozen. They had to bury Luca in one of the underground crypts since they couldn’t dig into the earth.
The priest finished and the seal to the crypt was shut tight. Blood suddenly whistled in Tsura’s ears and she felt lightheaded. She turned to Mihai to tell him they had to open it back up again. That it wasn’t right, that if they just looked in the coffin one last time they’d see that Luca was fine. But when she looked up at Mihai’s face, she saw his eyes were red and he was swallowing repeatedly. Even though his chin was up, she could clearly see tear tracks on his cheeks, a fresh one spilling as she watched.
She blinked at him, feeling betrayed. How could he give up on Luca so easily? How dare he cry now? She turned her back to him. Her chest hurt. It felt squeezed in a giant’s fist. She gasped at the pain of it, and then her gasp turned to a gulp.
Seeing Mihai crying had somehow made it final to her. Luca was dead. He was gone from this world. Oh God, how could he be gone? Why would God take Luca but not her as well? Didn’t he know they were one soul?
She dropped to her knees onto the cold ground. The wrongness of it stole her breath away, and then she couldn’t seem to catch another one. She gasped with her mouth open, trying to draw in air, but unable to, like a gaping fish.
“Shh, Tsura,” Mihai’s voice was in her ear. He rubbed her back. “Take a breath. Calm down, you need to breathe.”
She managed a gasping breath but only a short one. Mihai crouched down on the ground beside her, pulling her to his chest. She wrenched out of his grasp. She didn’t want to turn to Mihai for comfort. That was wrong. The soft, sorrowful expression on his face was wrong too. She didn’t want Mihai’s softness. He shouldn’t be the one comforting her. That was almost as wrong as Luca’s body in the ground.
“Andrei,” she gasped out. “I need to see Andrei.” She stumbled to her feet, her legs wobbly. She hadn’t been able to eat anything this morning and she’d slept only when she took the sedatives the doctor gave her. “Now. Today. We have to go to Bacău.”
“Tsura,” Mihai said, “I’m not sure that’s—”
“We can leave as soon as we check out of the hotel.” She cut him off and turned away from him. “We didn’t bring much so it shouldn’t take long to pack. And Bacău is only a few hours by train.” She continued babbling out details as she walked from the cemetery to the hotel. She fell silent as soon as they got back to the road. Mihai didn’t say anything else and she was glad. She just wanted silence until Andrei could hold her in his arms. Only then could she cry.
She didn’t bother buttoning her coat back up. She welcomed the icy March wind. Numb, that was what she needed to be. Andrei could thaw her. But she didn’t need to think about anything until then. She would be a block of ice until then.
Mihai tried to talk to her a few times after they checked out of the hotel and then again once they were on the train. She ignored him. When he pushed a buttered slice of bread into her hands, she ate it only because he kept pestering her. It felt like a rock in her stomach.
She barely noticed the countryside passing out the window or the towns the train stopped at along the way. She closed her eyes even though she couldn’t sleep. Maybe Mihai would stop trying to talk to her if he thought she was sleeping. She pressed herself hard against the window, not wanting any of her body to touch any of his. Andrei, she only wanted Andrei. Andrei was the last of her oddly quilted together vitsa she had left. With their new IDs, they could go to any city in the country and be safe together. Besides, Antonescu was bringing back all the deportees from Transnistria. Everyone had far bigger things to worry about than a few stray Jews and Roma.She stood at the door as the train pulled into the Bacău station. As soon as the doors opened she was down the steps and jogging through the streets. She remembered the way.
“Slow down,” Mihai called from behind her, caught in the crush of people waiting on the platform. “Christ.”
Tsura didn’t slow. “I have to see Andrei,” was all she said when Mihai caught up with her. He kept pace after that. Her lungs burned by the time they got to his grandfather’s house, both from the cold and the exertion. She rarely had occasion to run, and after last week’s bedside vigil, she was weaker than normal. That was fine. She would collapse into Andrei’s arms. He would hold her while she cried and then while she slept.
She burst into Domnul Popescu’s house. They never kept doors locked out here in the village. “Domnule Popescu?” she called out as she came into the center room.
Domnul Popescu looked up in surprise from where he was reading in a rocking chair near the large ceramic hearth in the corner. “Tsura? What are you doing here?” He stood as Mihai followed her into the room.
“I need to see Andrei. Where is he living now?”
“Oh,” Domnul Popescu said, rising to his feet. “I haven’t heard from him in a few months now, but last I knew, he was staying in the Jewish quarter.”
“But that’s too dangerous!” Tsura’s hand went to her forehead, then she wrung both hands together, all while pacing back and forth in front of the ceramic hearth. “That’s why I made him the ID. Anything could happen to him in the Jewish sector. It’s not safe.” Then she stopped pacing. “Where? What street?”
“He said no one is rounding up Jews anymore,” Domnul Popescu said. “I send food sometimes to the family he’s living with.” He mentioned the address.
Tsura turned desperately to Mihai. “Do you know where he’s talking about?”
“Two blocks back behind the east marketplace, yes?” Mihai asked.
His grandfather nodded.
Tsura was already out the door again. She heard Mihai making excuses to his grandfather behind her, but she barely listened. She tapped her foot impatiently until Mihai came back out. She was sweaty underneath her coat from the running. She pulled it off and slung it over one arm. Finally Mihai stepped out the door and she all but dragged him down the street once he indicated the direction they should go. Several neighbors called out greetings as they passed. Tsura ignored them. Mihai nodded to some and told one particularly stubborn woman who followed them down the road that they were on an errand but would be happy to visit when they came back.
Tsura wanted to scream at them all for slowing her down. Her need for Andrei was an insatiable driving force. She felt nauseous with it. Only when she saw Andrei would her world make sense again. Maybe it never would without Luca in it, but her only chance was with Andrei.
Her mind suddenly ran through a million possibilities of bad things that could have happened to Andrei. Domnul Popescu said he hadn’t seen Andrei in a few months. So much could happen in a month.
She’d always believed she would’ve known if something were wrong with Luca, that somehow she’d feel it, but now she knew that was mere girlish sentimentality. This world was harsh, cold, and rarely made sense. What if Andrei’s warm body was tucked just as deeply in the icy ground as Luca’s?
She was almost hyperventilating with fear as Mihai led her past the teeming marketplace and into the shuttered streets of the Jewish quarter. The houses had once been fine, she could tell, but many had been defaced, some even burned to the ground. Unlike the rest of the city, few people roamed the streets here. Tsura heard the distant wailing of a baby from inside the walls of one house, but the rest were eerily quiet. Mihai stopped in front of a dingy two story house.
“It’s this one,” Mihai said. Tsura ran up the front steps and pounded on the door.
After several long moments, the door opened a crack and an old woman with heavy wrinkles and a dull beige scarf wrapped over her head peered through the thin space. “What do you want?”
“I’m looking for Andrei,” Tsura said. “I have to see him.”
“There’s no one here by that name.” The woman went to close the door, but Tsura put her foot in the way.
“I’m his fiancée. I know he’s here. I lived with him in the Popescu’s basement, I have to see him.” She looked at Mihai and he nodded and pushed firmly against the door in spite of the older woman’s protests. It opened wide enough so that Tsura could slip through.
Her heart raced as she went past the woman, ignoring her mixed shouts of Romanian and what she assumed was Yiddish. In another second she’d see Andrei, and he would make everything better. He’d pull back the heavy lead blanket of despair she could feel threatening to descend over her. She knew the feel of it, the heavy metallic smell of it, hovering right behind her eyes, waiting for a moment of weakness when she couldn’t hold it back anymore. It would be so easy to let it drop, so easy. But no, Andrei would keep it back. He always could.
She pushed through the main room where a group of people, maybe ten to fifteen, gathered around a fireplace, searching every face for Andrei’s. Some exclaimed in surprise as she walked so boldly through the living room. The house was full, almost overstuffed with people. She’d known many families grouped together in houses to conserve food and warmth, but she hadn’t expected this many people to live in one house. She didn’t care. She’d live here too, if Andrei did. Or she’d take him with them to Bucharest. They could claim he was Mihai’s long lost cousin or something. Anything so they could be together again. She should never have left him in the first place, she knew that now.
She walked down a short hallway and then stopped in the kitchen. And there, standing beside a woman stirring something on the stove, was Andrei.
She stopped so abruptly that Mihai ran into her from behind. She hadn’t realized he was following her until then, and she did little more than register the fact now. All she could do was stare at the scene in front of her.
Andrei’s back was to her and his hands snaked around the waist of the woman standing at the stove. Then he nuzzled his face into her neck. Tsura must have made some kind of choked gasping noise, because both Andrei and the woman turned their way. Andrei’s face instantly sobered, the easy smile he’d had dropping.
“Tsura,” he whispered, and then he swore. “What are you doing here?” He stepped away from the woman who gave Tsura a puzzled look. Tsura could only look back and forth between Andrei and the woman, who was delicate and pretty. And Jewish. All the things Tsura was not. Tsura took a step back from the room and Andrei followed her. He grabbed her wrist.
“Let go of her.” Mihai stood to his full intimidating height. He reached for Andrei’s arm, but Tsura managed to mumble, “No, it’s fine, Mihai.”
Andrei needed to take her somewhere private and explain how this was all a mistake. That the woman he’d been with was just an overly affectionate third cousin. Or that he had to pretend to like her so he’d be welcome into the house. Yes, that had to be it.
Andrei pulled her into a small closet, apparently the only place they could get privacy in the house. It smelled like lye soap and wet wool.
“What are you doing here?” Andrei asked, his voice low. He touched a knob to turn on a dim overhead light. He wasn’t his usual smiling self. Instead his face was long and serious.
“I don’t understand,” Tsura said, her mind still not quite able to catch up with everything that was happening. “Who was that woman?”
Andrei ran a hand through his hair. It was long. He needed a haircut. “She’s my fiancée.”
Tsura stepped back against the wall as if she’d been struck. “But I’m your fiancée.”
He let out a long-suffering sigh. “Look, I would’ve sent a letter, but I couldn’t do that, could I? Besides, you should have known from the beginning it would never have worked out. You’re a goy and I’m a Jew. I can’t abandon my people now, not when we’ve been so broken.”
“My people are broken too,” Tsura whispered. It was easier to fight over the small details than take in the larger ramifications of what he was saying. “I’ve only been gone seven months. You said we were going to get married…”
Andrei shook his head with a mixture of impatience and pity. “We were only children then. I let myself get caught up with you instead of focusing on the needs of my people.”
Tsura angled away from him. This wasn’t Andrei. He wasn’t saying these things. This was all an extended nightmare that had begun the moment she’d walked into that hospital in Iași. Maybe earlier than that. When Mihai had first come home with news of a possible sighting of Luca. She’d fallen asleep that night and really, this was all just a very vivid nightmare. Her mind playing horrible, horrible tricks on her.
“You said I was yours and you were mine,” she whispered. “We promised each other forever.”
Andrei’s face hardened. “And then you went and got married anyway.”
Tsura’s mouth dropped open. “But you knew it wasn’t a real marriage. It’s only until the war is over and then—”
“And then you will be a divorced woman, and that is no better. I couldn’t be with a divorced woman, especially one who had married a Nazi-lover.” He took a step toward her and she flinched. He didn’t seem to notice. “Now listen, Tsura. I still care for you, of course, enough to tell you that it’s the Communists you need to be siding with in the upcoming months. Leave your husband. Otherwise it will go badly for you and everyone else who helped the Nazi murderers.”
“Communists?” Tsura gasped out. This had to be a dream. Every word that came out of his mouth made less sense than the last.
“The Russians are coming,” Andrei continued, “and they’ve always been kinder to the Jews than our own countrymen. We intend to be on their side when they take this country back from the Germans. Open your eyes. Don’t be a child anymore hiding behind your Nazi husband.”
Suddenly a switch flipped in Tsura’s head. She shoved Andrei hard in the chest. “A child? You think I’m a child?” She couldn’t help the hysterical edge to her tone. “I waited for you. I thought I was your fiancée. You knew my marriage wasn’t real. You swore you loved me! I believed you!”
Andrei’s head tilted sideways, in that pitying manner again. Then he put his hands on her shoulders. “We were good friends for a time, Tsura, but you’ll learn as you get older that there are seasons to life. We enjoyed our season together, but then it passed. What’s important now is the future.”
Tsura didn’t cry as whatever remnant left of her heart completely shattered. All her anger died with it. Of course Andrei had never loved her. What a fool she had been to believe in love and happy endings. Didn’t the Roma in her know better? She’d been too transfixed by the flashing smiles and the stomping beat to hear the screaming, mournful tune underneath the happy music. It was the most basic thing about life she’d been taught growing up. It was living among these gagii that had done it to her. Hope was a gagii word.
She pushed out of the closet and walked back down the hall, ignoring Mihai’s worried inquiries as she went. After pushing open the front door of the house, she stumbled into the muddy lane. She’d never even gotten the chance to tell Andrei that her brother had just died.
Tsura started running, a growing madness pecking away at her with each footfall in the muddy road. She didn’t know why she was still bound to the ground anyway. The last of her tethers had snapped. She tripped and slammed into the ground, landing hard on her elbows and getting a face full of ice-slushed mud. Part of her wanted to stay right there, to die right there. Dust to dust. Mud to mud. Put her body in the ground beside Luca’s. That was the only forever people were promised. The quiet silence of eternity in a tomb.
She and Luca could be together in death as they had been so little in life. In life, always one thing or another had ripped them away from one another. If the soul did live on after the body was dead, then maybe they truly would be together forever in death. And if it did not, well, then she wouldn’t be here to feel the pain anymore. Why had she bothered pulling herself up all those times before? Bury me standing, for I have lived a lifetime on my knees, the old saying went. She was ready for the lifetime on her knees to be done. She was ready to return to the earth.
She laid down flat on her stomach, uncaring that her face was in the mud. She willed it to absorb her, to take her now so she could find Luca’s soul before it got too far ahead on the journey.
But then there were arms around her waist pulling her up, up, up.
“Stop it!” Tsura shrieked.
“Tsura, it’s me.” He spoke quietly. “It’s Mihai.”
“Leave me here!” she shouted.
“No,” Mihai said. His voice was still cool, still calm. But then he grabbed her jaw as he wiped the mud off her cheeks when she was standing on her own again. His fingers flexed as if realizing too late he was holding too firmly. But when she tried to pull from his grasp and look away, his fingers tightened to keep her in place. Now he spoke through gritted teeth. “You promised Luca. I was standing in the doorway. I heard. I heard you swear to him you’d survive.”
“That was when I thought…” She didn’t finish the sentence, but surely Mihai understood. She’d promised Luca that when she thought she’d have Luca and Andrei to help her. Now there was no one.
“I’m here,” Mihai said firmly as if reading her thoughts. “I swear to you. Whatever you need.”
Tsura didn’t shake her head, she only stared over his shoulder. Mihai had been loved by Luca and now Luca was gone. That meant her tie to Mihai was cut as well. He was nothing but an inconvenience who wouldn’t let her die. She pulled away from his grip.
“Come. You’re covered in mud. Let’s go back to grandfather’s house.”
Tsura shook her head vehemently. “Not there. Not now.”
Mihai sighed. Tsura’s heart squeezed in her chest. Oh God, why had she ever been foolish enough to let herself love Andrei? To love anyone? Luca had half her heart and Andrei had taken the other half and now both of them were gone. Death or betrayal, she didn’t know which cut the deepest.
“We’ll go to an inn,” Mihai said.
Tsura didn’t respond, barely noticed him taking a firm grip on her arm and leading her ahead. She tripped over her feet but he kept her upright. She stared ahead without seeing. Time, movement, one foot in front of the other, dirt turning to cobblestones underfoot, none of it had any meaning. It was all a play she was watching from very far away. The actors around her seemed so laughably serious, so concerned with their little roles, not realizing that the gossamer tie to life could be severed at any time. And down they would go, and then down further still into the ground.
Suddenly they were inside a room and Mihai was speaking words to a woman at a counter. His wife had fallen in the mud, that was all, and yes she was fine, but did they have an empty room for the night?
Tsura didn’t listen for the answer. She stared out the window at the way the light fell through the smudged and chipped glass. It splayed little beams onto the ancient looking carpet underfoot. The room was dim, light coming from the dirty window and a single overhead lamp hanging so low Mihai’s head would bang into it if he wasn’t careful when he turned around.
But the next second, thoughts of Luca and Andrei were back. She stumbled and tripped as Mihai led her forward. Oh. Stairs. And Mihai was urging her up them. Stairs, she knew how to do that. She walked numbly upwards, step by step. She went through the door into the room Mihai ushered her toward. She stood in the center of the room. It was an old inn. The wooden floorboards creaked loudly with each step she took.
“The innkeeper said there’s hot water. I’ll turn on the bath for you.”
Mihai’s low voice was a dim rumbling background noise, like thunder far in the distance. Again her feet moved where Mihai led her. She barely felt the pressure of his hands on her shoulders.
“Sit, Tsura. Take off your shoes.”
He went into the small bathroom. She heard the sound of a faucet turning, the rush of water. She stayed standing, staring out the window. Mihai had pulled back the drapes. It started to snow again and she pressed her hand against the cold glass. She would have turned to ice if Mihai had left her in the ditch. Snow meant it must be below freezing. She would have gotten her wish.
She didn’t hear Mihai calling her name again until he’d come in front of her and taken her by the shoulders again. “Tsura.”
She lifted her gaze to his chin, his mouth. She wouldn’t look into his eyes. His voice dimmed into a background buzz again.
“Damn it.” He dropped down and slipped her shoes and then her thin socks off. “Christ, you’re freezing. Get in the bath. Tsura, are you listening to me? You need to get in the bath now. I’ll close the door. Then you need to take off your dress and get under the water. Tsura, do you understand me?”
Tsura walked woodenly toward the bathroom to stop the talking. She stepped inside. The door closed after her. She stared blankly at the steamed up mirror for a moment, wondering what she was doing here. A dripping tub faucet drew her attention down. Oh right. There had been instructions. She stepped into the bath full of water.
It hit her with a shock, blinking her out of her numbness. Hot. Too hot. Or maybe she was too cold. She sat down in the tub without undressing. The hot water hit her freezing skin like the sting of a thousand needles. She gasped. And then suddenly the cloud that had dropped over her head cleared.
Luca was dead.
Andrei was gone. He had chosen someone else. He did not love her and maybe he never had. She had believed lies, built her life on his lies, given her body to his lies.
And Luca was gone from this world.
There was nothing left for her. The water was heavy. No, that was her dress. The water soaking it dragged her down. She looked at the small tub. Not deep enough to really do the job. Then she flicked her eyes to the razor blade neatly perched on the counter beside the sink.
She lifted up on her knees. Water sloshed out of the tub as she reached for the blade. She’d been a fool to think lying down on the earth would do the job. Someone could find her there and keep her from resting. Someone had.
But here there would only the quiet of the empty room and her blood spilling out of her veins into the water. If she cut hard enough, deep enough, it could be done before Mihai realized what was happening. She could finish what should have been accomplished long ago.
Don’t finish what they started, Tsura, don’t let them win. That was what Luca had said to her after the attack that had left her broken and her womb shattered. When she’d wanted to sew heavy boulders inside the hem of her skirts that would drag her to the deepest part of the sea.
Swear to me that you’ll survive, Tsura, swear it. No matter the cost. Swear to me my soul will live.
The words he’d said to her only days ago. They hit her like a brick to the chest and she sank down in the tub, gripping the razor blade so tightly in her fingers that she bled. What if souls weren’t eternal? What if the only way for Luca to live on, for his soul to endure, was for her to continue to live?
“It wasn’t fair of you to ask that!” she bellowed, sliding down in the tub so quickly that it made a wave of water slosh over the sides. “How could you ask it?”
The bathroom door banged open.
“Fuck it, Tsura!”
Mihai rushed over and carefully pried the blade out of her hands and threw it in the sink. He loomed over her body where she shook in the water. He swore again.
“What were you thinking?” Then he squeezed his eyes shut and breathed out. He opened them again and grabbed her hand. “Christ. It’s not deep at least.”
She stared mutely at the wall.
“You didn’t even undress. You’ve got to get clean.” He bent over her, ignoring the water sloshing over him as he reached underneath her armpits and lifted her until she was standing. “Take off your dress. You have to wash.”
He let her go and turned around.
She could only stand, unsure if she was glad or furious that he’d come in and taken away her choice. But then, Luca’s promise gave no room for choice, did it? Oh God, Luca— And then it was too much, too much, TOO MUCH, and then—
Sound went first. All the noises in the bathroom, the dripping water from her dress and the loose faucet, the hum of the radiator, all of it muted to a dull roar. Then her peripheral vision narrowed and while she blankly stared at Mihai, it was sightless.
There was nothing.
Water dripped from her hair onto her face. She didn’t feel it. She observed it happening like she was outside her body.
She wasn’t hot or cold. She wasn’t anything at all.
She continued standing.
Finally Mihai turned around again. “Christ, Tsura.” He ran a hand down his face, then stepped closer. He let out a disbelieving sigh, then unbuttoned the top of her dress and slid it off over her hips.
“Step out,” he commanded, his voice low and rough.
That she could do.
She obeyed, and he pulled the muddy sodden dress off all the way and laid it on the sink, leaving her in her brassiere and underwear. “Now wash your hair and your face.”
She stared at him again, standing motionless.
He swore under his breath and put pressure on her shoulders, urging her to sit. He sat on the edge of the tub, ignoring the fact that his own clothes were half-soaked with water, and rubbed a bar of soap in his hands until he had lathered them. Then he began to work the soap through Tsura’s hair. She drooped into his touch, angling her body so that she could put her cheek onto his thigh.
She was so tired.
For all the harshness of his swear words, his hands were gentle, massaging the back of her head as he worked the soap through her hair. And when he touched her, all thoughts were suspended. Different from the blankness of a few moments ago, though. She felt pulled back from that absolute emptiness. This felt safer, somehow. She wasn’t afraid, but she didn’t have to think either. It was such a relief to give control over to Mihai. His hands were warm and sure on her scalp. She relaxed into his touch.
She concentrated only on his hands as he washed her face and shoulders, under her arms, her stomach, down her legs. He didn’t touch the parts of her body still covered by the thin fabrics of her underclothes.
It was a relief to have the rest of the world drop away like this, to only be an animal in animal skins. She felt bereft the moment Mihai’s hands left her body. He pulled the plug in the tub. Brown, muddy water mixed with soap bubbles swirled down the drain.
When Mihai moved to pull away from Tsura, she immediately reached out and grabbed for his arm, needing the contact back.
“You need to dry yourself,” he said, his voice gravelly. He kept his face turned away from her, crouched awkwardly mid-stand from where from he’d been perched on the edge of the tub. Tsura was still sitting. She rose to stand, allowing him to stand as well though now he turned his body away from her completely.
She said nothing but cinched her fingers tighter around his arm. He didn’t move for a long moment and then reached for the towel with his free hand. He took a deep breath and then turned back to her. He kept his eyes averted and started at her head, drying her hair. He moved quickly down her body, much quicker than the bath had been and without the finesse. Tsura was still glad of his proximity. She wanted to breathe him in. To inhale him until he was so close, he was underneath her skin.
As he came back up her body with the towel, drying her thighs and then her stomach, Tsura reached out her left palm and placed it on his neck, right over his pulse. She didn’t know why she did it. But as soon as she made contact, she felt fully reconnected to her own body. And to him. She saw the lie now. Luca was not her only connection to this man.
It was then she looked at him. Really looked at him. The wet clothes plastered against his body. The way his pants didn’t seem to fit right. How they bulged out in front.
“Fuck it,” the harsh curse came from Mihai’s mouth again, when he saw where she was looking. He took a step back from her. But she immediately put a foot out of the bath and followed. She molded her body until it was pressed tight against his. Yes, it was what she’d thought. He felt like Andrei did against her stomach when he wanted her.
Mihai wanted her like that.
The realization was a shock to her, but then in the next second she abandoned thought again. She needed him to touch her. That was all she knew. Suddenly she was burning to be touched again. In all kinds of ways.
She reached around and undid her bra, then pulled it off her shoulders. It dropped to the ground. She watched Mihai’s face. His eyes dropped as if they couldn’t help themselves. He stared at her naked breasts for a single moment, pupils widening before he ripped himself back from her in a stumbling step and then flung open the bathroom door. He fled back into the central room.
“Wrap yourself in a towel and get underneath the sheets, Tsura.” His voice was wrong, high-pitched, almost strangled sounding.
Tsura followed him. Calm. Single-minded.
Mihai looked like he wanted to bolt out the door and run out of the inn, but his clothes were soaked. Like her, he had nothing else to wear. They’d left their belongings at his grandfather’s house when they went to look for Andrei. Andrei. The name sent another slicing pain through her chest. There was only one way to stop the pain, to stop the thoughts. She pushed down her underwear and then stepped out of them. Mihai swung around so that his back was to her, but she could see that he was shaking.
“Put the towel around yourself and get underneath the blanket. Get some rest. We’ll go home in the morning.” He leaned a hand against the wall as if to steady himself.
Tsura continued moving forward. Her feet were quiet on the rug, but, as if he could sense her growing closer, Mihai’s muscles visibly tensed with every step she took.
She curled her body against his back, ignoring the cold of his wet shirt. She rubbed against him, her hips against his backside.
“Christ, Tsura,” he bit out, “You’re Luca’s little sister.”
“Luca’s dead.” Her voice was flat. “And you promised, you promised to give me whatever I need. I need this.”
She moved around to the front of his body, between him and the wall. She glanced down at the front of his pants again. Good. She wasn’t asking for anything he didn’t want. She began to unbutton his sodden shirt. He stood unmoving like a statue, one hand still on the wall, staring fixedly at some point above her head. His jaw was so tense she wondered that his teeth weren’t grinding themselves to bits.
“Stop this right now.” His gray eyes finally flashed down and met hers. “I refuse to take advantage of you when you’re vulnerable.”
Her hands stilled on the buttons. “You refuse?”
Sudden anger lit her body, so hot after the numbing cold. She shoved him hard in the chest. “You refuse? Your body isn’t refusing. I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m a woman and you know it.” She shoved against his chest again, not that it seemed to faze him. He stood as still as marble, as immovable as a mountain. “But oh that’s right, I forgot, Mihai is so strong he never feels anything!” she shouted. “He’s not like normal people. He might as well be made of stone. He doesn’t need comfort. He doesn’t need the touch of a woman. He needs nothing!”
She shoved again, giving a grunt of fury that she couldn’t so much as jostle him. She began to beat at him with her fists until he grabbed both wrists in a single large hand. She struggled against him, furious that he could best her so easily, that she was nothing more to him than a gnat biting at a bear.
No, she was more than a gnat. She went slack in his arms. Then, right when he let his guard down, she struck out with her whole body. She’d taken him by surprise and toppled his center of balance, knocking him backwards. He held her to him as he fell, protecting her from the impact.
She landed on top of him, limbs splayed. His need for her was as clear as ever by her thigh. She rubbed herself against him.
“Tsura,” he growled, flipping their bodies so that her back was on the ground, his body suspended over hers so that no part of them touched. He braced his hands on either side of her face. A vein stood out in his forehead, his eyes resolutely shut. But still he didn’t move. The anger in her chest was burned away by another sensation, one hotter than fury. She moved her hands from her sides and simply touched his face, cupping both of his cheeks. His startled grey eyes flashed open at the contact. His jaw was still clenched so tight, he spoke through his teeth. “Are you pretending I’m him?”
“No,” she said in surprise. The size of Mihai’s body as it hovered over hers, the width of his shoulders, and more than that, his mere overwhelming presence—there was no way to pretend one man was the other.
“Are you using me to exorcize him from your body then?”
She growled in frustration. Why did he keep on with these words, trying to force thoughts back into her head? “I don’t know!” she finally cried. “All I know is that I need you. Please, Mihai,” she whispered, hating the tears that gathered at the edges of her eyes. “I need this.”
She reached for him again, but this time it was Mihai’s turn to growl. He captured her hands and pinned them over her head against the rug.
“And all that matters is what you need, is that right?” His voice was low and angry. His eyes flashed. “You aren’t the only one who lost him. Luca was my brother for almost as many years as he was yours!”
Tsura blinked back her tears, going limp at his words. The tidal wave of grief swept in again. Reality again. Luca was gone. They’d both lost someone irreplaceable and she was foolish, not to mention selfish, to want to hide from it even for a moment.
He groaned low in his throat. “Oh, fuck it,” he snarled. She’d never heard him use that harsh word before tonight, but here he was now, using it over and over again. This time when he looked at her, his grey eyes weren’t cold stone or even steel. They were molten.
He ducked his head and she saw what he meant to do. He was going to kiss her. Her mouth. But while she wanted this, needed it, his mouth on hers seemed to make too intimate what she wanted to be an animal moment. She grabbed his head and forced him lower, to her breast. He did not hesitate and the shock of his eager mouth was like an electric surge. Andrei had never… they’d always kept most of their clothes on. He’d only touched her there. But never kissed her. And the feel of Mihai’s mouth on her skin, the slightly rough grain of the whiskers on his cheek he hadn’t shaved, combined with the soft, warm tugging of his mouth. She gasped at all the sensations it sent running like a flurry through her body.
She tunneled her fingers into his hair, all thought blessedly gone again other than the feel of his body against hers, his mouth. She knew it would be over so soon.
He dropped his body low against hers, rubbing himself against her through his pants. That felt good. So good. Soon he would unzip his pants and press her into the rug and then soon, oh too soon, he would be gone and she’d be left empty again. But she’d take what she could, and maybe he’d hold her afterwards. As long as his skin was touching hers, no other thought could intrude.
Instead of what she expected though, he pulled back and took her up in his arms. He carried her to the bed and laid her in the center. Then he stood up and took a step back from her. She wanted to whine in frustration. Had he changed his mind again? Was he going to leave her here to rest and go read some deviled book in the corner, ignoring her?
As if reading what she was thinking, he laughed, a low, almost self-mocking laugh. “I’m no saint.” He began to undo his bathwater soaked trousers, pulling them off. The underwear he wore was a longer style than most, but seeing Mihai so exposed seemed doubly wanton. Her breath hitched and she rubbed her thighs together, squirming.
“I’ll stop anytime you say stop.” He sat down on the bed beside her and put a hand on her cheek, his eyes searching hers. Was this Mihai? Who was this soft-eyed stranger? “Is that what you want? Do you want me to stop?”
Tsura glanced from his eyes to his half opened shirt. Thick black hair covered his chest. So different from Andrei. She reached out and ran her fingers through it, then looked back up into his eyes. The eyes of the man she knew so well, and yet suddenly wondered if she knew at all. This had begun as a way to forget, to pull her mind out of her body for awhile. But now, with him looking at her like that… she squeezed her eyes shut. No more thoughts. He felt so good underneath her fingertips. That was all she needed to know.
In an instant her back was pressed into the mattress and his body was over hers again. He angled for her mouth and again she drew him down, this time to her neck. He suckled there and her breath hitched. She reached up and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He was so broad. She ran her hands down to his shoulder-blades, then up over his shoulders again to his chest. A shudder went through his body at her touch. She tried to pull off his shirt which only had the three top buttons undone, but his hands stilled her. So she touched him where she could over the fabric, hands running across his chest, then down his ribs. He squirmed and laughed, pulling away.
“You’re ticklish?” she said with disbelief. The great and mighty Mihai, ticklish?
“Yes,” was his only answer, as he resumed kissing his way down her neck, across her collarbone, lower. He bypassed her breasts this time and kissed down her stomach. She gasped when she realized where he was going.
“Mihai wait,” her hands caught his hair.
He looked up at her. “Do you want me to stop?”
“No. Just…not there.”
He laughed again, a low chuckle in his throat. A carefree sound, nothing like anything she’d ever heard before. “If you don’t want me to stop, then I’ll go, and go where I want.”
And he did. The things he did… Tsura couldn’t even bring herself to think about what he was doing, even in the quiet of her own head. So she let his touch and his tongue silence all thought. Not thinking was suddenly very easy as sensations she’d never felt before made her body break into sweat all over, and then grow frustrated, uncomfortable, anxious and writhing and needing, something she couldn’t put into words, if she’d ever had words for it.
But Mihai seemed to know what she needed. He continued with his mouth and then his fingers until the liquid sensation in her stomach flared furiously hot and went shooting to all of her limbs in a single great sparking shudder.
Her back arched and her hips jutted as a gasping, high-pitched cry broke from her throat. And then she sank back into the mattress, her breathing coming in quick shallow pants. It was so beautiful, such a pure feeling of satiation in the few breaths after, as if all wanting was gone forever.
Mihai moved now, kissing her stomach gently, murmuring low words that she couldn’t fully hear but didn’t think were Romanian. He whispered over her body so reverently, as if she were a precious thing. Perhaps that was what finally broke the dam.
Thought rushed in again. Why did such beauty and such pain exist side by side? Why God, did you make the world this way? It was all too much, the heights and the depths. Why God, oh why make the human heart only so it could burst and break? Death, betrayal, side by side with that body-shattering euphoria? Why? It was too much. None of it made any sense.
A great tearing sob came out of her. She rolled away from Mihai but his strong arms wrapped around her from behind, tucking her close, her back to his chest.
She scratched and clawed to get away from him, but he only held her tighter as the sobs came so hard she could barely breathe. It had turned dark outside and there was no light on in the room. Finally he released her but only long enough so he could flip her around and tuck her naked body to his chest, skin to skin, like a mother to a child.
His arousal, unsurprisingly, was gone, and that made her cry harder, because he hadn’t even gotten his release. His chin rested on top of her head and he stroked her hair back from her face as she screamed and howled her grief into his shoulder.
He continued holding her even as her sobs eventually turned to hiccupping gulps. He gave her the edge of the sheet to help her wipe her nose, refusing to let go of her to go find a handkerchief. She was glad he hadn’t, because part of her was sure she’d shatter if he wasn’t there to hold her together.
Sometime later she must have fallen asleep because when she woke, the thinnest morning light filtered in through the grimy window. She was still wrapped in Mihai’s arms. Her arm was slung around his stomach, her thigh wedged between his, her head on his chest. One of his heavy arms was slung across her waist and the weight and comfort of it felt good, so, so good.
Which suddenly made her feel so, so wrong.
She tensed and withdrew from him, wriggling each of her limbs away from his as if burned by his touch. Mihai’s eyes fluttered open. “Tsura? Are you all right?”
“Fine,” she said, and then curled into herself with her back to him, eyes closed. He put a hand to her shoulder blade. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter.
“I’m going to take a bath,” he said, his voice still soft, still so unlike the man she thought she’d known. “Sleep as long as you want, then we’ll go home.” He put a hand to the small of her back and then she felt the bed shift and there was the creak of springs. He walked back and forth around the room several times.
After she heard the bathroom door close and the noise of the bathwater turn on, Tsura waited some more. Only when the water stopped and she felt confident Mihai was in the tub did she slip as quietly as she could out from beneath the sheet.
She tiptoed to get the underclothes and dress that were set out on the radiator. Mihai’s thoughtfulness, no doubt, to help it dry. At least the brief dunking in the bath had gotten some of the larger chunks of mud off of it. It was still slightly damp, but she pulled it on anyway. Mechanically, she ran her fingers through her hair and smoothed it back from her face. She put on her muddy socks and her shoes, and then made the bed and sat on it primly, staring at the wall until Mihai came out with a towel wrapped around his waist and his undershirt on.
“I couldn’t sleep anymore,” she said, not looking at him. “We’ll go as soon as you’re ready. I’ll be downstairs waiting for you. I think I heard the innkeeper’s wife say she laid out bread and coffee for breakfast.”
“Just wait a moment and I’ll come with you.”
“It’s fine,” Tsura said, “I’ll see you there.” Then she skirted out of the room before he could say anything else.
He joined her for the meager breakfast a few minutes later. He sat in the chair beside her. She angled her body away from his and finished her toast in a few bites. She stood, waiting for Mihai to finish, then put on her coat.
When they left the inn, Mihai said, “We’ll pick up our things at grandfather’s, then catch the next train.”
“No,” Tsura said, pausing so sharply that she almost stumbled. She began walking forward again. The inn was off on a smaller sidestreet that ran parallel to the main boulevard, leading to the train station. This was a wealthier section of Bacău where the houses were widely spaced with ornate metal fences and large yards.
“No, it was only a few things,” she continued. “We don’t need those clothes.” And after another moment, “I don’t want to go back there. If you need to say goodbye to your grandfather, I’ll stay here while you go.”
“I’ll just call him. I don’t want to leave you alone.” His voice was gentle. Cautious.
She felt his eyes on her. She didn’t look up, but focused instead on the cobblestones of the street. She’d moved to the middle of the street where there wasn’t as much icy slush like by the edges.
“Tsura, stop this.” His hand on her elbow brought her to a halt. Still she did not look at him.
“Look at me.”
Setting her jaw, she glared at him. “What?”
“Don’t do this.” His face was all worry and concern. Curves instead of edges. Soft instead of hard. “After last night, we’re beyond it. We both lost Luca. It’s our grief to share.”
He needed to stop talking. Tsura wanted to put her hands over her ears. Or over his mouth.
But she didn’t and he kept going. “Our marriage didn’t start conventionally, but we are still bound together. I’ll help you through this.” His large hand reached up to cup her cheek. Tsura flinched, both at the contact and at his words.
“No,” she spat, moving back from him. “No.”
Mihai’s eyebrows drew together as he stepped forward, hands up in a placating gesture. Tsura was hurting him but if she didn’t he would keep coming, he would keep trying. His eyes, usually so hard, now glistened. Whatever barriers had come down between them last night, in Mihai’s eyes, were ground to dust.
But Tsura did not need dust. She needed stone. She needed steel. She wanted the Mihai back that she had always known, the one who didn’t spout feelings or want to help or save her. At least not like this. Didn’t he understand? She was a mirror, and her soul’s reflection had left this earth—yet she was still here, broken, splintered shards that could only cut.
“What are you doing?” she sneered. “Who’s this soft man standing here in front of me? Are those tears in your eyes? Are you going to cry now? What would your father say?”
This time it was she who advanced on him where he stood frozen in the middle of the road. “Mihai Popescu, the great savior. Don’t think I’ve forgotten all the things you’ve done. Don’t think I’ve forgotten your own words. I’m no fool. I won’t make the mistake of believing you’re a good man.”
As the fog of her hot breath escaped her mouth, she wanted to catch the words and stuff them back in. Mihai’s back straightened and he became taller. His jaw clenched and his face hardened into mask-like lines, until he was as still as if he was a statue chiseled in the likeness of the gods. He was absolutely rigid.
There was a moment, just a moment, when Tsura knew she could still take it back. She could’ve lunged forward and pressed her lips to his and told him she didn’t mean any of it, that she was scared, so scared. That she knew he had lost Luca too, his grief was as real as hers, she understood, she understood. She hadn’t meant to drive another knife through his ribs, but nothing made sense and she’d sworn to survive and she didn’t know how to do that in a world with no Luca, no vitsa, nothing left when all she really wanted to do was curl up and die herself.
But then the moment was gone, and there was the tiniest lift of the left side of Mihai’s lips, half mocking, half cruel. “You have an excellent memory.” He turned and walked away from her. “Let’s go.”
Tsura felt the weight of his hurt even if he would never admit it. Guilt piled onto her grief. Tsura didn’t move. But because Mihai deserved it, she forced the words out of her throat. “Maybe I shouldn’t come with you.”
He paused. It seemed a full minute later before he turned around. His face was blank, his question cold. “What?”
Tsura forced her feet forward but kept her eyes on the ground. “Maybe it’s time to be done with the farce. I should free you. Let you find happiness with someone. I have my false ID. There’s no reason not to go our separate ways.” She swallowed hard but got out the next words. “Luca no longer binds us together. Nothing does.” She did not cry. There would be no more tears.
She thought it would be a quiet, dignified parting. Instead, a bark of sharp laughter made her look up. Mihai didn’t laugh often and on the rare occasion he did, it hadn’t sounded like this. Harsh, sarcastic. Dark.
“Nothing binds us together?” He stepped close, invading her space. “What about the certificate declaring us man and wife? That binds us in any court of law in this fair country of ours.” His voice was clipped but there was an undercurrent energy to it Tsura had never heard before, the same manic darkness that had edged his earlier laughter.
Then he laced his arm through hers in the manner of lovers on a stroll, but his grip was firm, just short of rough, heading in the direction of the train station. Tsura stumbled a few steps before she caught on to his longer, quick strides.
“And wouldn’t it look odd,” he continued, with a quieter intensity, “if my wife suddenly deserted me in such a strained political atmosphere? It’s time you paid your dues. My actions up until now have been generous, so you’ll forgive me,” the acerbic bite was clear on the last two words, “if I ask for the farce to continue, at least until I’m sure my current employers won’t drag me from my house to murder me on the street in the middle of the night.”
Tsura was both deeply saddened by Mihai’s personality regression and relaxed by it. She’d forgotten how talkative he was when he was trying to be cruel. But good, this was what she had wanted. Because she was a terrible person. Then again, she was simply too tired to think anymore. More than anything, though, she was relieved that he had denied her request to part ways and that they were going home now.
“All right,” she responded and allowed him to lead her to the train station. The trip back to Bucharest was silent. When she got to their apartment, she swallowed one of the sleeping pills the doctor had given her at the hospital after Luca’s death. She went to the bed and Mihai to the couch. She listened to his breathing in the darkened room. It made her ache to hear but not touch him.
But soon she felt the pull of the sleeping pill and a slow confusing fog settled over her brain like a shroud.
“Sleep well, my Tsura,” she thought she heard a low, gentle whisper in the darkness. But when she turned toward the voice, that was all there was: darkness and more darkness still, on and on without any light.
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The epic conclusion to Tsura and Mihai’s story is available now!
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I fell in love with reading historical fiction in the summer of 2013 and as soon as I began toying around with a story idea in my head, I immediately knew it had to be set in the country where my husband was born and grew up. Romania has a rich history and I wanted to dive into researching it, number one, because I love research (I’m a nerd like that), and number two, I wanted to learn more about the land he came from (and our son’s heritage). There’s so much written about most other European countries in WWII, but barely anything about Romania, which was both the breadbasket and oil well for the Germans during WWII. Romania was one of the few European countries not occupied by Hitler. Instead, its dictator, Ion Antonescu, allied with him. Romania also has the sad distinction of being the only country apart from Germany to set up its own concentration camps, and had the second largest number of holocaust casualties because of this. While the concentration camps didn’t have gas chambers, they were so poorly organized and run, disease and starvation killed hundreds of thousands of occupants anyway (the final numbers are estimated between 300,000-400,000 Jewish people and 30,000 Roma).
While many Jewish people migrated away from Romania after the atrocities of war, the Roma had nowhere to go. The Roma have been persecuted throughout Europe for their entire existence. Scholars believe they were originally brought to Europe as slaves from India (not as long believed, from Egypt—from which the term ‘gypsy’ came). Their wandering lifestyle has been partially enforced because they were chased out of every place they attempted to settle. A distrust of outsiders and clannish cultural structure has reinforced this roving lifestyle. The Roma are currently Europe’s largest ethnic minority and prejudice against them continues rampant to this day, not only in Romania, but throughout Europe. In many places, it’s simply taken as the norm that gypsies are criminals and thieves. When I’ve taken up this topic with some Europeans, they’ve exclaimed to me, “But you don’t live here! My cousin was robbed by one, they really are dirty criminals!” It’s language that‘s reminiscent of that which has been applied to our own minorities here in America, about people also brought to our nation as slaves. If I oversimplify the conflict, I apologize.
Here are more informed people discussing the situation, (if interested in more resources, also check out the Bibliography, after the Glossary):
- CNN News report:
- The Plight of the Roma, Europe’s Unwanted People: [+ http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/europe-failing-to-protect-roma-from-discrimination-and-poverty-a-942057.html+]
- A fabulous, nuanced book that intimately explores the Roma existence: Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, by Isabel Fonseca
There’s so much beauty and pain in Romania’s history. Over a period of only a few years, kings, dictators, and prime ministers rose and fell and then still more rose and fell. Tumultuous doesn’t even begin to describe it. Against this backdrop, my novel (which eventually I split into two because it got so long!) almost plotted itself.
This was an absolute passion project for me start to finish and there are so many people to thank for supporting me along the way.
First of all, my husband, Dragoș. I mean, people thank their husbands in these things, but when I say I couldn’t have done this without his support, I mean I literally could not have done it. Between helping me deal with my chronic health problems while also taking care of our son, he was also a sounding board when I ran into plot knots, he helped me with tons of tidbits about Romania, and we spent hours discussing (and arguing! ha) history. Then he proofread both books within two and a half weeks. So I mean it when I say, these books couldn’t have been written without his support! Not only that, but he didn’t look at me crazy when all of the sudden I was jumping around, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I can’t stop reading these amazing historical epics! I want to write a giant historical epic instead of another young adult book. Like GIANT, honey, I mean the 700 or 800 pages kind of giant!!!’ He was just like, that’s great babe. And he meant it. Because that’s the variety of kick-ass man I married.
Next, thank you to my amazing writer’s group who helped me so incredibly much with figuring out what the hell I was doing with this story. You helped me as I stumbled through an extremely ugly first draft while I fought to ‘get’ who the characters were. Especially Li Boyd, Anne Brown, Lauren Peck, Jacqueline West, and also Kerstin March and Heather Zenzen, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!
Finally, thank you to some fabulous folks who beta read both books (while they were still ONE 800 pg megabook!): Mihaela Alexandra Ceauș el, Anthonee Alvarez (you’ve read every book I’ve ever written, even the unpublished ones—you are my ultimate cheerleader! *mwah*), Whitney Brace, Valerie Cummins, Kristin Leigh Jones (your critique was so helpful!), and Karina Larson. You guys’ enthusiasm was so heartening and really, really helped through some tough times that followed as I was editing and pushing to get the books out. You helped me to continue believing in this project and Tsura and Mihai’s story, I cannot thank you enough.
And finally, thank you, thank you to A. E. Murphy for teaching me formatting in my hour of need. You rock socks, lady!
For more about Heather and upcoming book news, check out:
(terms are translated Romanian words unless specified otherwise)
Bulletin de Identitate – direct translation: ‘bulletin of identification,’ i.e., identification pamphlet or ID
*cas*ă de piatră – direct translation: ‘house of stone.’ Common phrase of well-wishes said to a bride and groom at their wedding. It indicates hopes for a strong and long-lasting marriage.
da – both Romanian and Russian word for ‘yes’
domnul – address for males, equivalent of Mr.
doamna/doamnă – address for married women, equivalent of Mrs. (changes depending on whether you are directly addressing a woman or simply talking about them)
drabarni – a wise, often older Roma medicine woman who uses herbs and other medicinal/spiritual practices as a healer
Einsatzgruppen – German death squads
gagii / gagiu / gagica – plural/male/female forms of term for non-Roma persons (this is the terminology in Romania. It varies depending on what country a person is in.)
gendarme – Romanian military police
goy – Yiddish term for non-Jewish person
‘la mulți ani!’ – direct translation: ‘to many years,’ the Romanian phrase used to mean Happy New Years or Happy Birthday or even just, congratulations.
lei – Romanian currency
Roma – an itinerant, traveling people often referred to as ‘gypsies’ (though that term has often been used as a slur and can be offensive).
Romani – the language of the Roma people (though the word ‘Romani’ can also be used to refer to the people themselves). The dialect varies wildly depending on where in the world a particular caravan is located.
trăsură – horse and buggy taxi popular in this time period since petrol was in short supply
viața – life
vitsa – Romani term for clan, family, or tribe
yakira – Yiddish term for my ‘dear’ or ‘precious’
ciorbă – sour soup. The dumpling soup Tsura makes is different from ciorbă because it’s not sour.
mămăligă – a boiled corn-based dish very similar to polenta
mici – spiced meat, shaped like half-sized sausages, often served with mustard
cozonac – a sweet bread
orez cu lapte – rice boiled with milk, sugared.
sarmale – Romanian dish of cooked cabbage wrapped rolls of meat, rice, and spices
tort de biscuiţi – Romanian desert. Direct translation is ‘biscuit cake.’ Actual desert is made with whip cream, cocoa, and slightly sweetened crushed crackers, shaped in a dome. This dessert isn’t actually as popular in Romania but it’s my husband’s favorite :)
țuică – traditional Romanian liquor, hard alcohol, most often made from plums
salată de vinete – eggplant salad
*t*obă – a food where meat scraps of all kind are stuffed into a sheep’s bladder, then cooked, sliced, and served.
Cioran, Emil. Trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. On the Heights of Despair. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Deletant, Dennis. [_ Hitler's Forgotten Ally: Ion Antonescu and his Regime, Romania, 1940 -1944 _]. London, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Fonseca, Isabel. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. New York: Random House, 1995.
Giurescu, Dinu C. and Popescu, Eugenia. Romania in the Second World War: 1939-1945. New York Columbia University Press, 2000.
Giurescu, Dinu C. Romania’s Communist Takeover: the Rădescu Government. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Hancock, Ian. We Are the Romani People. Cambridge, Great Britain: University of Hertforshire Press.
Ioanid, Radu. The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944. Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee Publishing, 2008.
Kaminsky, Sarah. Adolfo Kaminsky: Une Vie de Faussaire. Paris, France: Calmann-Lévy. 2009.
Manning, Olivia. The Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy. New York: The New York Review of Books, 1981.
Porter, Ivor. Operation Autonomous: With S.O.E. in Wartime Romania. London, England: Bloomsbury Reader, 2012.
Sebastian, Mihail. Trans. Patrick Camiller. Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Smith-Bendell, Maggie. Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy family’s Hard and Happy Times on the Road in the 1950’s. London, England: Abacus, 2009.
Waldeck, R. G. Athene Palace: Hitler’s ‘New Order’ Comes to Rumania. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1942.
Walsh, Mikey. Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009.
Yoors, Jan. The Gypsies. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1967.
Various. Roumanian Fairy Tales. Project Gutenberg Ebook. 2007.
An epic WWII saga, for fans of The Bronze Horseman and Outlander. Outcast and despised as a Roma (gypsy) in World War II Romania, all Tsura longs for is a sense of safety and a place to belong. Just when she believes she’s found home in the arms of her lover, for both their safety, she’s forced to leave him and marry another. Against the sweeping backdrop of war-torn Romania, Tsura fights one day at a time to survive the fall of fascism, the unrest of civil war, and the rise of Communism. Yet in spite of all she’s forced to endure, the biggest surprise of all? Home might be found in the last place she ever expected it—with her own husband. Excerpt: “It won’t be a real marriage.” Tsura put her hands to Andrei’s shirt and pulled him in close. “I’ll never share a bed with him. I love you. I only do what I must to keep us all safe. Once the war ends, it’ll be as if it never was.” She caught his face in her hands. “I am only yours, Andrei.” “Yes, you’re only mine,” Andrei bent over and growled in her ear. “When you put on that dress for him and walk down the aisle in that ugly goy church,” he kissed her hard before putting a strong hand to the back of her neck, pulling her forehead to his, “you think of me, here. When you say your vows to that man, you remember that it’s me who has owned your body tonight.” He again pressed his lips to hers. It was a claiming. Book I of II.