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The Dictionary of Big Words

Nadine Karol

Note: An excerpt from a short story


He unlocks the door and it opens with a screech. He enters his house as he would enter a church. The one-bedroom apartment where he lives with his wife and daughter is his refuge, the place where he can be a free man, where he can be himself. They have been living here for thirteen years now, since the summer of ’76, before Ioana was born. That was a hot summer, he remembers; the first months after they moved in they felt stifled, and yet it was home.

He takes his shoes off by the door and puts his slippers on. The house is so quiet; it feels odd to be home at this hour, so early in the day. He goes to the bathroom, washes his hands and splashes water on his face.

His skin is numb from the cold outside, but the gelid water does him good. He looks in the mirror and sees a tired man, deep creases of disappointment carved on his high forehead. He crosses the living room again, where light pours in violently through the east facing windows, goes to the kitchen and fills a glass with water. He drinks it slowly, standing, bent over the sink, then rinses the glass and lets it dry on the dish rack. There’s a half empty mug abandoned on the table. A thin slice of lemon is still swimming in the blackened liquid, now cold and sticky. He takes it out with the spoon and puts it on a saucer. When he lifts the mug, the stain on the linoleum doesn’t even leave a full circle. He pulls the small chair from under the table and sits down, bracing the mug with both hands.

A sparrow catches his attention out the window, it chirps and struts along the rim of the balcony’s railing, looking for food. He thinks of the breadcrumbs he played with on the table last night and how he shouted at Greta – now he feels sorry. It wasn’t her fault, how could it be? The power cuts are getting longer every night. Two hours, that’s all the light they have each evening, two hours for Ioana to finish her homework, two hours for him to finish a half-read book or a painting, or let his thoughts dissolve in the music of the records. Sometimes the light comes and immediately goes out, enough to raise your hopes and then leave you fumbling in the dark for the matches; other times, like yesterday, it doesn’t come at all.

They lit a candle and gathered in the kitchen around it, waiting. Waiting is a part of their lives, as natural as the queues for milk before dawn, or the filling of the bathtub overnight, even on those evenings when hot water runs long enough for all three of them to take their turn, even when the water is a brownish red, the copper in it turbid and bloodshot against the rawness of the white tub.

‘Don’t you see, they are mocking us, lashing us, keeping us blind like moles, starving like dogs, tortured in our own houses, their fists in our mouths, until they kill us. But they can’t kill our minds. They can’t fill our souls with lies. We will speak, because this has to stop.’

He shouted, and Greta, surprised to hear the angry pitch in his usually calm voice, urged him to keep quiet, scared that the neighbours might overhear him through the thin walls. As though it wasn’t enough that she lived in constant fear that one day the Securitate would knock on their door because he listens to Radio Free Europe every night, the faraway voices, muffled and distorted, reaching them through his improvised transistor radio. He had been breaking the bread into small pieces, rolling the soft crumb into beads of dough clumping on the table, shredding the hard crust into sharp minikins which kept falling to the floor. Now he feels sorry for the bread, too.

He opens the fridge and looks in the bottom drawer: there are two green bananas left, an orange, and half of a dried lemon. They’ve been saving them for Ioana; winter is almost over and she won’t see citruses until next Christmas. He counts the eggs in the rack, checking their dates, which he had marked himself with a pencil stub two weeks ago, when he had come home with two dozen eggs, some crumbled cheese, a bottle of rapeseed oil, a pack of cornflower, and a bag of mixed chicken legs, rumps, and necks. He had been so lucky that day. He had just left the factory when someone in the street told him that they had brought something to the co-op. The man didn’t know what it was, but they had run there together. After one hour the detergent had run out and he was about to leave, when a new truck arrived, this time with food. He was among the first in the remaining queue. He couldn’t believe his luck. Neither could Greta when he entered the house, trembling with cold but smiling. He closes the fridge with a gentle push.

It’s sunny in the living room and there are flowers everywhere. Hyacinths, violet and curly; freesias, yellow and soft-scented; little white snowdrops; and a large bunch of lilac in a Chinese vase with a blue dragon. Greta has always been a popular teacher. The seventh graders, especially, adore her. Next year Ioana will be in her class too. She doesn’t like that. She says she doesn’t want the other kids to think Mum is doing her any favours. She will get all her good marks in earnest.

The long table is covered with little amulets, M˘art ¸is¸or, ‘little March’ trinkets the women pin on their blouses on the first day of March, in honour of the coming spring. Hundreds of thin threads are twisted around each other into their red and white strings, the threads of the days of the year and the thread of man’s life, spun by the fates at birth. Old Dacian custom, from before the Romans came. Greta got handfuls of them yesterday, along with the flowers.

Ioana received many of her own, too: good luck chimney sweepers, crystal swans, flowers, felt monkeys or mice; there’s also a cat with eyes of green beads. He pictures the shy boys in her class, asking their mothers to choose the best ones to impress the girls. The table is so messy, it’s been like this since yesterday, but Greta and he didn’t mind; let her enjoy this as long as it lasts. Her Chinese pencils lie aligned, their points sharpened and ready as though in block-starters, the erasers at their ends intact, for it would be a pity to waste them, although little rodent-like marks are visible on the coloured wood. She can’t stop chewing on them, especially when she does her maths homework. She forgot her pair of compasses again. Better: she could fall on it and hurt herself.

The thick dictionary rules over the middle of the table. It was a Christmas present, she was so happy when she opened it, the pages still glued together, and she had greedily inhaled the paper’s scent. It’s spread open at the letter ‘L.’ Greta has been telling him, whispering conspiratorially, that Ioana has started to inquire about love, but he keeps looking at her incredulously, ‘Ioana? My little girl? Nah, this will happen only when she turns eighteen, no sooner,’ and they both laugh.

There’s a photo of Ioana propped against the dictionary’s spine. He took it, on the slope, on the first day of the year. She’s shining, proud in her new ski suit, waving at him. He taught her to ski and she was the best of pupils, applied and meticulous as in everything she does.

He pulls out a drawer of the bookcase and looks inside. All their documents are there, all the house papers, the money, the velvet pouch in which Greta keeps the few jewellery items her mother left her. He opens it and takes a look at the small gold beaded earrings, the ones she will give Ioana once she’s a bit older. He takes off his wedding ring and puts it inside, then closes the pouch and returns it to its place.

Is it possible to squeeze your whole life in a drawer? Could you also shrink and climb inside, one leg after another, bend your head and rest it on your arms folded around a pouch that belonged to a mother, ignoring the papers’ sharpness and the money’s rancid odour, and just sleep there for a while, waiting, huddled in the dark like a bear dreaming of spring? And the spring is near, you can smell it in the air, you can see it in the fragile shape of the hyacinth’s bells, you can taste its freedom in the first rays of sun warming your face after the long, long winter.

He turns around and goes to the bedroom. He takes down his skis from the top of the wardrobe, then squeezes his hand behind its corner, and pulls the cardboard out. He throws a last look around, then takes everything to the living room, closing the bedroom door. The phone starts ringing. Once. Twice. Thrice. It doesn’t stop. He stares at it blankly, waiting, until it does. He opens the balcony door and steps out, inhaling the sharp air. He opens the cupboard he built there and takes out the small metal canister and the hose. He goes to the kitchen and picks up an empty one litre bottle. He returns to the balcony, unscrews the canister’s cap, puts the hose inside, lowers his mouth to its end and pulls until the first drop of liquid stings his tongue, then quickly inserts the hose in the bottle’s neck. He waits for the canister to empty itself, watching the dirty yellow liquid rise steadily against the bottle’s walls.

He hasn’t lost a drop. Before closing the cupboard, he sees the oilcan. He opens the front door and pours a little oil on its hinges. He waits a bit, then swings the door. The creaking has stopped. He is about to close it, when he hears a screeching voice.

‘Good day, Mr. Babesh. Home so early? What made you come back before noon? Oh my, is everything OK?’

The woman’s voice is greasier than the oil and her eyes are colder than the draught coming from the balcony. She stretches her neck, on tiptoes, trying to see behind him, but he blocks her.

‘Good day, Mrs. Ionescu.’

He gets inside and closes the door. In one week the whole neighbourhood must have found out. She must have known since day one, since he had stepped out of the Committee’s building, his pocket lighter without the Communist Party member card. When he had touched it, discarding it on the activist’s desk without a word, it had burnt his fingers. This morning, when he stepped into the chief engineer’s office, asking to take the day off, the man looked at him worried and questioning, but didn’t ask a thing. He just nodded, as if he had read in his eyes the thought lingering there. This is where I stop. In fifteen years, he never missed a day of work, never called in sick, never asked for anything.

He closes the balcony door and pulls back the curtains. The skis are leaning against the couch, waiting for him. He waits until the steps die away outside and moves for the door. And then he sees her picture again. He goes to the table, takes one of the sharp pencils whose erasers are never used and touches its tip on the back of the paper, and he doesn’t know why he writes this there, he just knows he must. ‘’89. Ende.’ And he goes away, locking the door behind him.

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