Alina Stefanescu



1 / vial of water

A vial of water procured near Bucharest failed customs muster. The official stamped no. I ran a fingernail through the soft wax seal and swallowed the water. So no one could stop me. Officials formed a semicircle to let me pass. I kept the water; they confiscated the glass.
      As for me, I pass for a blonde, a ladder, a linden tree. Only my dark roots bind me. You see, there is a pond deep within Boldu-CreĆŁeasca Forest, a small pond no larger than twenty feet, space enough to cover the soil where Vlad Tepes lost his head to a scythe. In 1476. Betrayed and beheaded. A little pond. A teeny story growing strains.


2 / blue jeans

The Vrancea earthquake of March 4th, 1977 demolished buildings, houses, railways, and roads in Romania. Killed 1,424 residents of Bucharest, including several court poets.
     My parents raced down eight flights of stairs from their Bucharest apartment, trying to beat the building to the bottom. Until my mother remembered what she'd left. One hand held aloft for balance as she double-hopped the steps to retrieve the thing, my father screaming Lydia! Lydia!  Screaming and following. Crazy woman. Finding his wife, a single pair of blue jeans folded beneath an arm, a frantic scavenge for photos to save. He trembled with rage. Flung her over his shoulder and barrelled down the stairs, babies screaming, cement crumbling into hair.
     He descended in a daze, eyes zipped shut. Murmurations of babas crossing themselves. Children calling, a chorus of Mama's. Streets swallowing cane-laden men. Road masticating infamous statues. Heroes losing their heads. My father helping a neighbor find her teeth in the rubble. Dentures from Bulgaria. Precious things procured by black market. Secrets they bought for cash. Stories abandoned in albums. Fine white dust shaken from angel wings.


3 / wheelbarrow

Many attempted to explain the earthquake. It's no one's fault. The mayor of Bucharest pushing a wheelbarrow. Communism cannot be defeated. Geologists describing an ancient fault line which preceded the current leadership. Revival of history that contextualizes the earthquake from a socioeconomic perspective. Sudden Roman history renaissance. Gipsies lost the least! Consensus is the mark of a great country! Homeless persons migrated towards untouched park benches. Streets filled with leather shoes. Capitalism engineered black market solutions. Romanian rubble is for Romanians! The Ministry of Metallurgy collapsed. We are proud to welcome the assistance of the International Red Cross. Over 34,000 families were left homeless. New laws punished persons who abandoned the ruins of their residence. Communism grew long, pretty, paternal claws. Hooligans washed windows shut. Retirees told reporters they only wanted to make Romania Great again.


4 / green truck

Trucks hauled the rubble to various hillsides and forests.
     City trucks were painted green. The paint was mixed in a secret factory where no one claimed to work. One green truck dumped seven loads of Bucharest into Vlad's pond. A sock in the mouth of folk superstitions. A lip-cork to stopper the stories that slutted around.
     The truck poured stone into the open mouth of the pond. It was a shallow pond, less than five feet deep. One week before the debris disappeared, the truck poured. The earthquake never took place. The pond persisted. Maybe the debris had never been dumped. Which part of what never happened didn't happen?


5 / blood

Some stones poured into the mouth bore traces of Bucharest blood. People who died in the earthquake. A land which ate us could only be Romanian.


6 / black hoods

Gipsy witches gathered in prejma to practice their traditions near the pond. Midsummer nights, St. George's, St. Andrews—auspicious days when the gates opened briefly into alternate realms. The whispers of witches spread like wildfire through plowed fields. Spells cast from the banks of the pond were potent, incorrigible. Any spell cast from there would come true. Globes of lighting, mysterious white lights, perilous halos were corroborated. Owls honored their rites with elusive, reedy matins. Monks shrouded their heads while issuing exorcisms palliating ghosts. Hobbyists sought Vlad's bones to establish a proper burial. To end the historic discrepancy.


7/ gavel

The pond rewrote history. Pregnant women could not afford to love their state-operated bodies. Wombs harbored the fetuses of Little Pioneers. Patriots entitled to breast milk. Miserably burdened mothers made pilgrimages to the pond. Bathed their foreign bodies in its muddy water. No frogs croaked. No woodland stags came to sip. No sign of life may be a blessing.
     Miscarriages followed, hours beat like gavels, girls celebrating streams of uterine blood. Oh how the village women loved the pond. For silencing the tyranny of dictator hands up their skirts, spreading their legs, opening them wider and wider. For the blood they lost. For the blood which prevented babies from losing their hearts. Our sweet babies will do better in the arms of the holy Father than Ceausescu's machinery. Mothers saved their children.


8. pony

My mother wore her blue jeans beneath the white doctor's coat, a body divided into white and blue blocks. And that flicker of orange—her hair the color of hay hit by sunset. She worked the village clinic near Boldesti. Peasants said things. Ploughmen swore blizzards could not freeze the pond. Rainstorms failed to add to its waters. The pond stayed the same despite drought.
     Babas trusted the pond which kept its size as the world around them shifted. The pond never lied. The pond is strange and miraculous, they whispered. The pond is like God.
Mother needed evidence. Scientific explanations. He offered her a gold band as proof of marriage. She liked that sort of commitment in a mutually-binding monogram. But the pond... She borrowed the Domnul Iacob's pony and ventured into the forest. As she approached the pond, the pony kicked its hind legs and whinnied, struggling to loose itself from the bridle. My mother stroked its white mane and promised a sip of water. Look pony, here is a pond—drink a sip and your nerves will be soothed. The pony bucked with terror, escaping my mother's hands, flinging its tiny white body into the shallow pond, thrashing violently for thirty seconds before sinking from sight. Gone. 
    Domnul Iacob suffered from rheumatism. Mother could not bring herself to tell him how the pony died. How a woman with more courage than curiosity might have saved the pony. How she wanted evidence. How she didn't believe the things people said in bread lines.
     Oh you would never believe! Young hoodlums ripped the reigns from my hands and ran off into the woods. I am very sorry. I will never forgive myself.
Two years later, she fled the devil's dictatorship for an American dream. She ran to save her children, the living and the dead. She never forgave herself for leaving.





At night, when the house snores, I wander the wilderness of my Romanian-American childhood, consciously shifting mental gears from English into native tongue. This story came from a few notes in my insomniac journal (the one I keep in Romanian, a sort of estrangement from everyday self and life with my American children). A few mythologies mingled with my mother's memories of the Bucharest earthquake set loose inside the language for which my vocabulary and syntax remains adolescent, followed by morning research into Romanian legends, and then back into night to write. When translating the story from Romanian to English, I forced myself to gnaw close to the original bones, avoiding the sirloin-steak-style texture of my everyday speech. Because I can't resist Romanian's magical associations, a tongue in which anything can happen, superstition shares syntax with facts—and marvel tunnels within the marrow.