Months went by since I was liberated from the labor camp in Romania. Behind were dozens of blood transfusions, dental tortures, and scary talks with a bunch of cardiologists. I got my so-so bill of health and was waiting patiently for the slow-moving Immigration Office to approve my visa. Once, as I was sipping coffee at a small table outside of the downtown restaurant in Chisinau, someone’s light hand touched my shoulder.
“What are you up to these days, Lazarus, what are you up to?”
I turned around to see the man.
I hadn’t recognized Professor Oliescu when he suddenly stood there in front of me. It wasn’t his voice, but his face; it was utterly different! All I knew was that I knew this face. He must have noticed my confusion and asked with a short laugh:
“Don’t you remember me? Yes, yes, I’ve been through their newly invented mill-stones in the middle of Orhey Forest! But you’ve been through a camp too, don’t you, Lazarus?”
I kept looking at his face, in silence. In reality, it was no longer a face, but two cheekbones with thin skin over them, sticking out like miniature mountain peaks, and the muscles that formed an expression, an expression that reminded me of Professor Oliescu, were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for a long time, that’s why his laugh was short and much too large, it distorted his face; it seemed huge in relation to his eyes, which were set far back.
“Professor!” I exclaimed and had to stop short not to add: I was told that you were dead! Instead: “How the hell are you?”
“I’m great, Lazarus, I’m great!” he put up another short laugh. “It’s spring in Chisinau—what could be more beautiful, right?”
I tried to make out why he kept on laughing. I knew him as a serious man, as Professor at the Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth it looked as though he were laughing. To ask seemed impossible.
“Yes, yes, my friend,” he said. “Those millstones roughed me up quite a bit, but I got lucky.”
He paused, and I had a chance to take another close look at him. Actually, he wasn’t laughing at all, any more than two cheekbones with thin skin over them is laughing; it just looked like it, and I apologized for not recognizing him at first.
“You’re not alone, Lazarus, I’ve gotten used to that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I feel embarrassed.”
I wanted to leave now, to tell him about the conference, the real reason for my trip to Chisinau, but he began coughing suddenly and couldn’t stop, and when he finally did, I saw two bloody spots percolating through his handkerchief.
“Scary, isn’t it?” he said. “But not as scary as a few other things I’m hiding under my clothes.”
“We all have our scars to show, I guess,” I said. “Some deeper than the others.”
“Don’t we, Lazarus? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”
His skin was like leather or clay, which could crack at any moment, and he had a belly that looked like a small party balloon held up by his thin ribs. His eyes were the only thing unchanged since I last saw him, lovely, but sunken.
I glanced at my wristwatch.
“Why are you suddenly in such a hurry, Lazarus?” he asked with his short deceiving laugh. “How about a drink for the occasion? I’m buying.”
He was a colleague of mine back in the old days at the university, I looked up to him and respected him more than any other professor in the country, but I really had no time for a drink.
“My dear professor,” I said because he was holding me by the arm, “I do have to go: my conference starts in less than an hour.”
“Than some other time, right?” he said, and I knew for sure that this man was really already dead.
“I’d like that,” I said paying for my coffee. “Whenever I’m in Chisinau again.”
Maybe it was a laugh, I thought while checking the street for a taxi, maybe he kept laughing all the time because he was still alive, standing in front of me in downtown Chisinau, despite the rumors that he had cancer of the stomach and died in the camp.
As luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to us, and a young couple paid and got out. I occupied the back seat, lowered the window and said: “It was nice to see you alive and laughing, my friend…”
“We shall meet again, Lazarus,” he interrupted. “I have a lot to tell you, enough for a thick book, and I hope you’re still a good listener.”
“I’m always up for a good story, professor,” I said, “always up for a good story!”
I tried to distinguish the color of his eyes and couldn’t.
“In the meantime, call me,” he said stepping back from the taxi. “It is allowed now.”
I promised and gave the driver a sign to go.
Spring in Chisinau, always surprising, always beautiful…
We’re damaged goods, I thought, cranking up the window, but he was right, we survived, and it’s rubbish that we are dying; we’re just getting awfully tired and more often than not need bypasses, transplants, dentures and blood transfusions. And when none of that helps, when we run out of the last ounce of strength, we move aside. In silence.
“You can take a nap,” the driver interrupted my thoughts. “It’s quite a ride.”
“Can you make it in twenty minutes?”
“I can certainly try.”
“You’ll be rewarded,” I said, closed my eyes and suddenly thought of Professor Oliescu’s mentioning of the camp in the middle of Orhey Forest. And just like that, my memory brought back an event of the past, a meeting, which took place many years ago up in the Orhey Forest, a huge mass of trees not far from a small town of Orhey, Moldova. A story of a murder I never committed.
I always thought that I visited Orhey only once in the fall of 1980, to attend the wedding of my cousin Grigorii, who was marrying a country girl against the will of his parents. She was gorgeous, country or not, ridiculously gorgeous, and when Grigorii called to ask my opinion, I told him without hesitation that I would run away from every frigging relative on earth just to be with this young woman. Whether or not my passionate response had any effect on my cousin’s decision remains unknown. The wedding went well. A few heated verbal exchanges died out as soon as two lanky fellows wheeled in a 50-liter barrel of homemade plum hooch and two smaller ones of aged Cabernet and Fetyaska Neagra. In the morning everyone was hugging everyone else, singing songs and taking care of their hangovers. I left around eight o’clock, it was already light enough to see and memorize the plants, the dairy-farm, and the wide cornfields.
As it turned out though, I was in Orhey three years previously, in 1977. It was a Sunday in the end of February or in the beginning of March, I was in the Army reserve and we were stationed in the vicinity of Orhey, a cloudless day. I had a weekend leave, but I didn’t take a bus to Chisinau to see my girlfriend, I wanted to be away from people and went up into the Orhey Forest. Actually, reservists were strictly forbidden to do that because of the danger—locals were not very pleased with us being stationed there—but I went nonetheless. I spent the night in an abandoned hay barn; clear, starry night. I wanted to avoid open country roads, because there were probably military patrols there to whom I, a simple gunner, would have had to report my destination, which was just what I didn’t want to do. What I wanted was a real leave, a leave from any compulsion to report. Since it was really cold outside the barn, I slept longer than usual and was up and about way after the sunrise. I walked very quickly, deep into the forest, where there was still a lot of snow, and it was still crisp and hard.
I rested right before the path became quite steep, not a soul in sight. I breakfasted. I had a knife with me—that was also why I didn’t want to be seen by anyone in the valley, a lone soldier with a knife. I was glad to have this useful military knife, which could’ve been very handy against a wolf or a lynx. I had taken off my army sheepskin coat and hung it from the belt; every now and then I stopped and peered around to see if anyone was coming, a patrol with an officer perhaps. Once I was deep inside the forest, they couldn’t stop me anymore, I thought, at most they might ask if I didn’t know the regulation and then say no more about it, moved by the friendship between fellow soldiers. But I saw no one and I heard nothing either. I seemed to be as much alone as on the moon. Soft noise of the snow falling from the branches because of the light wind, nothing else.
Later, when the path reached the highest point in this part of the forest, I felt tired, happy and tired. It was getting warmer, and after I put up my tourist tent, inside which I was out of the wind, I actually took off my sweaty shirt and rolled my soldier’s blouse into a pillow. Then I slept, I was really tired, I don’t know how long…
The man, who had suddenly spoken to me, a civilian, obviously Russian, didn’t want to disturb me, as he said, when he saw my amusement; but naturally I immediately sat up, at first without saying a word. He had evidently been here for some time; he had put down his rucksack not far away. I said good morning, as I rose to my feet so that we were now standing side by side. He wanted to know, a pair of field-glasses to his face, how far the Orhey Forest reaches east and west. “You’re a soldier, you might know,” he said with a certain smile, and as I showed him what he wanted to know I soon noticed how well he knew the district. He was carrying a pretty detailed map, although, as we were told, maps were not allowed to be carried by civilians during military training in the area or war games. A lot of soldiers here, yes… He was trying hard, I could see, to take my military uniform seriously. He offered me his field-glasses as he happened to have another pair, and in return I offered him my military water-bottle filled with grape juice. I saw through his field-glasses that he used my tracks. No one else came. I thanked him for the glasses. He stayed for about an hour, and we chatted above all about the life of an army reservist, the conditions of the barracks and the quality of the food, and also about the flora, of which he spoke in a tone of great appreciation. Not knowing why actually, I had an inhibition against looking him in the face, as though prepared for some tactless remark that embarrassed me in advance. I don’t know what he thought of me, he was very surprised indeed when it turned out that I knew a lot, and kept asking questions, casually somewhat, not really insisting on immediate answers. And this is what got stuck in my memory better than anything else: the more fluently the conversation now went, the more urgently I waited for the moment when he would pick up his rucksack. I left it to the wind to answer his question as to whether we were trained in surviving in extreme environments. That he would make it back to town before 4:00 p.m., he left me in no doubt. Now he picked up his rucksack, not without offering me an apple. I felt somewhat ashamed. An apple this deep in the forest was something. No conversation for a while. Finally, he disappeared between the trees with a cordial wave and wishing me a good time for another month or so in the army…
For some reason I felt angry. I didn’t see him again until he reached the small treeless spot some two hundred yards below me, so that all I could see using the gifted field-glasses was his green hat. He slipped, but managed to steady himself; then he walked more carefully. I shouted to him, to make him raise his face again, but he heard nothing. Then I whistled through my fingers; he probably took it for the whistle of a marmot and looked around. I stood still until he disappeared behind the trees, a little man in the forest… Suddenly I resolved to go back to town and catch up with him, but what for? I remained still, imagining him having a drink at the hotel bar.
Back inside the tent, I thought for a while about his sudden appearance and precise questions regarding the area around Orhey. Then I fell asleep again, now for good…
When I woke up, probably because I was cold, I was dismayed by the thought: I could have stabbed him in the back with my military knife. I knew I didn’t do it. I hadn’t dreamed it either; I merely woke with the waking thought: a stab in the back as he bent down for his rucksack would have killed him instantly.
Then I ate his apple.
Of course, I am glad I didn’t do it. It would have been murder. I have never talked to anyone about it, not even to my close friends, although I didn’t do it. I saw no one far and wide. No eyewitnesses. Not even an animal. Light wind and no listening ear. Next evening in the garrison during the roll-call I would have stepped into the back row, head to the right, hand on the seam, at attention, good and straight, afterwards I’d play some chess with my neighbor. No one would ever have noticed from looking at me, I don’t think...
Now it all came back to me, every tiny detail. Since then I have talked to a lot of murderers, at the university, during concerts and soccer games; you can’t tell by looking at them! When I had eaten his apple, I would’ve turned him on his back to look at his face, to make sure that he was dead…
I glanced at my wristwatch: time to go down. I picked up my belt, put on the sheepskin coat. The snow felt now much softer, the wind stopped. By the time I got out of the Orhey Forest I had actually forgotten the man already. I had thoroughly real worries which were more sensible to think about, begging with the beast of a sergeant-major, who would try to put me on guard duty again, but above all the profession that had been left home, my profession wasn’t soldiering…
In the Orhey Forest in the afternoon light, when I saw his footprints in the snow running this way and that between the trees, I couldn’t remember what he had really said up there, only that one could have done something that I hadn’t done. And that, one might have thought, was the end of it; precisely I didn’t do it. But I was interested to make sure that he was, in fact, dead. Just to have a look.
I refused to think which hungry animal would’ve gotten to him first, and I didn’t know why I was worried about what hadn’t happened anyway. It was getting warmer, and not for the first time I cursed our army’s uniform. As I walked, I noticed: the sky overhead looked violet, the snow more like milk; the little rocks at the end of the forest like amber. Everything motionless…
Although I slowly became convinced that the man in the Orhey Forest was no harmless tourist, I said nothing about it. I was put on guard duty later in the evening, had hellish sunburn, fever. The guard duty was usually four hours long, so I had nothing to do but look and see whether a green hat suddenly comes into my view. Naturally my belletristic hope was not fulfilled. I walked: fifty steps this way, fifty steps that…
Why was I suddenly remembering all this?
Because at that time, 1977, there really weren’t any fucking tourists!
In the following years, as everyone knew, a lot of things happened. Real things. I never thought of it again, it was certainly no time, God knows, for imaginary murders, when, as I soon knew, there were enough of the other sort every day. So, I thought no more about it and never told anyone about that Sunday in the Orhey Forest; it was too ridiculous. And, after all, I didn’t do it. The hand of the law will not descend upon my shoulder.
So, forget it!
Not till much later, while reading a newspaper, did I suddenly think of it again. I read there, among other things, that Moldavian government, with a nod from the Soviets of course, had planned to build an underground labor camp in the Orhey Forest, a one-hour hike from the city of Orhey. The plans were ready, and it safe to assume that such plans were not prepared without a thorough study of the terrain. Who reconnoitered the terrain around Orhey? Perhaps it was the man who, on Sunday in 1977, also made an excursion to the Orhey Forest, and whom I didn’t stab in the back…
I don’t know. I shall never find out who he was.
We just chatted the way people do in the middle of a night forest, like comrades so to speak, two men who are the only ones for a few kilometers around. Without formalities, naturally, a handshake without introductions. Both of them have reached this point; both have the same wide panorama. Handshake or no handshake, I don’t even remember that for sure now; perhaps I kept my hands in my pockets. Later I ate his apple and used his field-glasses to see him in the trees. I know for sure what I didn’t do. Perhaps he was a good fellow; perhaps I actually met him again, without knowing it, many years later, dressed differently and so that with the best will in the world we couldn’t recognize each other again… Only sometimes I’m so uncertain. Suddenly. And yet it’s forty years ago! I know it’s ridiculous. Not to be able to forget an act one never performed is ridiculous. And I never tell anyone about it. And sometimes I completely forget him again…
Only his voice remains in my ear.
Only a lot of deaths.
Lazar Trubman is a college professor and a survivor of the labor camp in Northern Russia, who immigrated to the United States in 1990. In 2017, after teaching Theory of Literature and Cyrillic languages for twenty-one years, he settled in North Carolina to devote his time to writing.