Have you ever wondered what it is like to be alive at a pivotal moment in history, and, in some subtle but significant way a catalyst for dramatic, desperately needed changes? If you would have had the courage of those ordinary people who took risky action – like Rosa Parks sitting down on a bus, or Emily Davison chaining herself to railings, or Vera Obolenskaya, working with the French Resistance in WWII. Or would you have shrugged your shoulders and said ‘I’ve got no power. I can’t change anything.’?
I know I’ve thought about it – which is probably why when I was reading about Romania a couple of years ago, I was so fascinated to discover there seemed to be one single moment when a few, rebellious shouts in the crowd led to a massive uprising and the downfall of Ceausescu. It made me wonder about who made that first, brave shout for rebellion, and my wonderings turned into a short story.
An Ordinary Rebel
Things… can only get better. Music pulses promise out from the gaps around Daria’s bedroom door, its foreignness declaring our freedom. I find my feet start to tap. The years between now and my childhood eddy around me, swirling, dancing a Poarga Româneascâ, and fall away.
My family believed in things getting better. Hope, like an underground river churning through rocks and soil beneath our feet, might one day cascade through a gap in the ground into the open air.
I knew well not to speak of such things. Life was a forest of whispers. It was glances cast over shoulders for prying eyes and hostile ears, of conversations passed from person to person meeting in open parks, or on the banks of the Dambovita River well away from listening walls in grey houses.
I saw how my oldest brother Misu winced as if he had drunk vinegar neat from Mama’s kitchen store when he spoke the name of Gheorghiu-Dej. Tata’s blue eyes became as dark as the midnight sky in the same way they did every time it was his days for agricultural labour. Mama shuttered her mouth behind butterfly fingers, and Stefan shoved white-knuckled fists into hiding in his pockets. We were supposed to speak only good of the leaders, and to swallow whole everything they said or did before regurgitating it as wholesome praise and gratitude.
But my family were ‘unhealthy’ people. Intellectuals, artists – Mama a flautist in the national orchestra, and Tata a law professor at Budapest University. All around them, friends and colleagues were expelled from their jobs, disappearing into prisons, or shovelled into graves. A lucky few managed to escape. Lucian, Tata’s brother, was a writer who asked too many questions and wrote dangerous, inciting articles. He had to be smuggled out of Romania Iike a bundle of illegal foreign newspapers.
My father didn’t speak of that time, after Lucian ‘disappeared’ and he was arrested. Anything I know, I learned from Stefan. Misu and he had been little boys, nine and five. Nearly half a century later, even after speaking became safe, Stefan trembled and stammered when he told how the Securitate came for Tata, the front door almost splintering underneath the butts of their rifles. The last Stefan saw of Tata then was his bare feet and pyjamaed ankles, as six black-clad men hauled him away across the wet cobbles.
Stefan was nine when Tata came back from Sighet. But not the Tata Stefan knew. This new Tata was covered in tissue-paper skin the colour of ashes, with jutting bones and eyes bloodshot and sunken. His golden hair was gone, leaving mere wisps, as grey as the concrete apartments we lived in. The slightest noise, or movement, even a paper bag blowing past on the street in the wind, made him stiffen like an alarmed rabbit. This new Tata had lost his smiles, his laughs, his voice; when he did speak, it was whisper-thin and fragile.
Mama fattened him up again, with her chiftele and sarmale. Mama and the boys reminded him how to laugh, to love. Mama now worked in a clothing factory, stitching the pupil and school identity numbers onto the uniform sleeves. She managed to get Tata a job in the pattern-cutting room. But even a year later, when I was born, he was a gossamer version of himself. And we lost him for ever when we lost Misu. The night Misu didn’t come home, Tata went to make enquiries, but he must have been followed, or asked the wrong person. Tata crawled home with Securitate bootprints blackening and bloodying his face and crushing his ribs. He died hours later, fading away in Mama’s arms.
Misu never came home. He left for university that drizzly November day with the fire of rebellion in his eyes and the smile of the bold on his face. Every day, I’d trot with him as far as the end of our street, my little hand thrust like a paw into his strong one. At the corner, Misu scooped me up in his arms. ‘You have a happy day, my little Gabriela,’ he said. ‘You learn lots of interesting things, my big Misu,’ I said, and we pressed our foreheads together. On my feet again, I stood waving, grinning and hopping up and down every time he glanced back to wave at me, until the crowds seemed to swallow him up and I skipped home to Mama.
At six o’clock, Stefan crashed through the front door. Crouched by the stove, where it was warm now the ardie umpluti was baking for dinner, I was drawing on the cover of an old exercise book of Stefan’s, and Mama was at the table, singing my favourite song, an old lullaby her mother had sung for her, and stitching a fraying shirt of Tata’s into a dress for me. Mama started to laugh, “Oh, that boy, such a whirlwind.” But even as she spoke, Stefan’s voice tore through the apartment with all the force of a falling icicle, ‘Mama, trouble at the university. Soldiers everywhere.’
Mama was on her feet, the shirt a forgotten puddle on the floor, wrapping Stefan in her arms, pressing his face close into her chest. ‘Ssh, Stefan, hush now.’ Even his few words carried danger with them. All we could do was wait, all our hopes and dread buried beneath impassive public faces.
Mama still knew people. Messages filtered through to us over the weeks, months, years, and we pieced together a patchwork picture. Misu was expelled from university. Misu was arrested. Misu refused to name his co-organisers of the student protest. Misu had written anti-government pamphlets. Misu was in Ramnicu Sarat. Misu got four years. Misu was dead.
I was eight when the last message arrived, old enough to understand what death was. How could I not? Our family had been tainted by it. Our streets, our city oozed death in every breath it took. Everyone knew someone who had been arrested and executed, or beaten and starved to death inch by inch in a filthy prison, or worked to death in a forced labour camp. Yet nobody could speak out without bringing the same down on their own heads.
But by then I’d started counting down the days until Misu came home to us, and I could not believe he never would. Every night as I wrapped myself into a cocoon of blankets, my mind whispered, ‘You sleep well, my little Gabriela.’ Every day, as I thrust my limbs into my scratchy school uniform, it said, ‘You have a happy day, my little Gabriela.’ In my head, his voice always chimed an echo. I filled the margins of my old school books with sketches of Misu laughing, Misu eating an orange and grinning at me with orange peel teeth, Misu playing his violin. Now my hands coaxed out the folk tunes he had loved.
Misu didn’t die for me until I was twelve. My heart hung on to the promise of him coming home to us that I had believed for so long. ‘You learn lots of interesting things, my little Gabriela,’ I whispered one morning as I ran to school. My feet drummed the pavement, louder than the thoughts in my mind. My footsteps faltered, my knees crumbling beneath me, and I threw my hand out against a concrete wall to stop myself falling. ‘Say it, Misu.’ Curious looks got me moving again, the habit of not drawing attention to ourselves so ingrained it dictated every move. I even managed to whistle a melody I’d been learning on the violin. But my mind was a vacuum, straining to hear Misu’s voice. Nothing. That evening, when I got out my pencils, the lines on the page would not form Misu’s face. When I closed my eyes to conjure him, his features blurred. The sharp lead gouged at the page, ripping jagged holes and acid stung my throat, burned my eyes.
I held on to my tears, and they branded rage in my heart.
Our surname was a brand too. Kovaci ensured making the school swim-team was an impossible goal. Kovaci drew razor eyes, muttered conversations behind official doors, and stamped a red DECLINED on applications for travel permits, university places, or new apartments. It guaranteed delays in receiving ration cards, fewer egg and meat stamps when they arrived, pay packets several leu thinner than they should be. It made individuals of us in a nation that demanded uniformity.
Yet I clung to my name. It connected me to Tata and Misu, and I didn’t want to sever that link. Even when I became Mrs Gabriela Rafael, still I signed myself as Kovaci. Kovaci’s were thinkers, subversives. I might submit on the outside, but inside churned a turmoil of hope, of rage.
Sometimes, things get worse before they can get better. People have to fear they have nothing left to lose. They have to learn they can create a new reality. Hunger, cold, fear have to bring them so low the only way is death, or destruction of the status quo.
In the end, we chose destruction. There we all were, workers herded into coaches, and driven to Piata Palatului. Party officials thrust paper flags on sticks, banners, and enlarged pictures of our president into our hands and told us to cheer everything he said. There he was, Nicolae Ceausescu, up on the palace balcony. Elena stood at his side, smiling, waving. Nobody moved. The microphones screeched into life and his voice boomed out round the square in praise of his communist paradise.
He was met by a silence so potent, it drowned any sparse applause at the front of the crowd. The silence was so defiant Ceasescu’s hands fluttered a moment, and his voice spluttered, halted. He gripped the balcony balustrade. Too far away to see his face, still, I could read his body, and I saw a man too heavy for his legs to hold him. The microphone crackled again, and he promised us workers higher wages, our student friends increased allowances. Still there were no cheers. Only the susuration of breathing and a shuffle of feet shifting, like a great wind rising. Those flags and pictures dangled as limp as empty gloves. Only those who’d been herded to the front were clapping.
Lies, I thought. My heart was overflowing with Tata, with Misu. My heart wept for my wounded family; for my Daria, and for Stefan’s boy Carol, both of them walking to school together through frozen winter streets in coats meant for summer, because there was no fabric in the shops to make them warmer ones; for Stefan and Nadia and the baby they lost because Nadia was kicked by a Securitate officer for glancing too briefly at the president’s picture on her office wall; for Mama in our apartment, trying to stretch two potatoes among eight of us and for my husband, Marius, always overlooked for promotion because he married a Kovaci.
A woman at my shoulder moaned. Pale, winter sun captured the snail-track of silent tears on her face. Residing in those tears of a stranger were the same stories my family knew. Who, in this crowd of thousands, had not felt these punishing wounds?
‘Sa mori tu.’ The words were a mist of breath on my lips. I looked at the flag in my hand, as red as blood in the sea of grey and black. Twenty-five years worth of rage burst through the locks caging it. No more, I thought. I grabbed the flag in both my hands, raised one leg and snapped the stick across my knee. The crying woman stiffened beside me and shot a glance at me from eyes so huge I could have fallen into them. Something bloomed on her face, a smile spreading like an amaryllis brightening a winter garden. I grinned then, crushed the broken fragments of flag beneath my feet, and hurled my voice out above my head, over the crowd.
‘Sa mori tu.’ Death to you if you lie.
A pause, a beat of my heart, and an echo. Sa mori tu. The woman clasped my hand, raised our arms to punch the sky. All around us, the curse became a breeze, swelled to a wind, a gale that tore through the crowd, a storm that would not be stopped.
With three tiny words, I started the revolution.
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Poarga Românească = Roman Polka
Securitate = secret police
Sighet = Romanian prison for political prisoners
Sarmale = minced meat with rice, in pickled cabbage leaves or vine leaves
ardie umpluti = stuffed peppers
de leagan = a lullaby
Ramnicu Sarat = a Romanian prison for political prisoners
Piata Palatului = Palace Square, now Piata Revolutiei (Revolution Square) in Bucharest
Sa mori tu = Die [if what you say is not true]