Mihai went into a coma at around lunchtime and died in hospital at midnight. He was twenty years old and nothing in his life had foretokened such an early demise. He had not been ill ; he had not possessed the gift of drunkenness. He worked hard, it was true, he hauled firewood in his cart for the gentlemen in town, but all the lads in his village and the surrounding villages did the same. Most of them worked at the furniture factory in the town of R., but Mihai did not like to commute or to work three shifts, repeating the same movements in front of a planing or staining machine. He preferred the forest, the axe, and horses.
On the day he died I was the last person he spoke to. I had just come back from school, at half past twelve as usual, and I was waiting for Mother to make the fire. It was quite cold that February, but my parents forbade me to light the fire in the terracotta stove by myself. But Mother arrived quite quickly and I only had to wait half an hour in the cold, wearing my overcoat. At a few minutes past one, fires were roaring in the kitchen and in the dining room.
Mihai was my mother’s younger brother and he came to see us whenever he brought the gentlemen firewood from the forest. When he entered our house he never behaved as a guest. First he would look at the bucket of water and if it was only half full, he would go out to fill it. In the 1960s, in the town of R. there was neither running water nor gas. Each family had a water pump in the yard, the toilet was in an outhouse in the garden, and the firewood or coal was kept in a shed.
On the day of his death, after entering the house, the hardworking, helpful Mihai did the same as he always did. He took the half full pail and fetched fresh water. He went outside again and came back with armfuls of chopped firewood. I rushed to the window to see his horses, of which Mihai was very proud. Mihai had long since explained to me that he did not haul firewood with an ordinary cart, but with a phaeton, since it had rubber tyres. If my fingers had not been numb with cold, I would have gone outside to stroke the two horses, which waited patiently in front of the gate, each with its muzzle in a bag of oats. Mihai began to shave kindling from a piece of fir wood so that he could make the fire before Mother arrived.
In that instant, with his knife dug into a piece of fir wood, Mihai began to totter. With a laugh, I asked him whether he was drunk. Also with a laugh, he answered that he had drunk nothing but water. Then, he sat down, limply, on the edge of the bed. He looked like a weary man, about to fall asleep. He tried to shake his head a few times ; for a few seconds he struggled to keep his heavy eyelids open. Then, he lay down on the bed and started to snore. I shook him a few times, but Mihai seemed to be plunged in a deep sleep. I left him to sleep and went to the window to admire the horses. I found nothing out of the ordinary in the behaviour of that uncle of mine, who was twice my age and with whom I often played, especially in summer, when I went to my grandmother’s in the village of H. He was a weary man, without a doubt. On the days when he went to the forest, he woke up in the middle of the night, at four in the morning. All my uncles and aunts from the country were weary people, in fact, as I could tell by how they fell asleep as soon as their heads touched a pillow or as soon as they lay down on a blanket in the grass.
By the time Mother came home, half an hour later, Mihai’s snoring had begun to be suspicious. It was like a rattling snort. Mother was worried. She dabbed his forehead with a wet handkerchief and tried to wake him. Mihai opened his eyes for a second and looked at Mother, but he was unable to answer when she asked : “Have you been drinking ?” His eyelids fell once more and, as I later found out, he never opened them again.
“Go quickly and fetch your father ! Tell him Mihai is ill.” I do not know why, but Mother thought it would be better to fetch Father from the furniture factory than to call an ambulance. I ran to the furniture factory, not without a certain amount of excitement, because I liked to visit Father in his workshop, where he was surrounded by strange tools and everything smelled so different. Familiar with the factory, I told the gatekeeper that I was going to the veneers section. Walking quickly, I crossed a number of inhospitable halls, where people were processing planks amid an infernal din, and I entered Father’s workshop, where it was much quieter and pleasantly redolent of pine.
At home we found Mother in tears. Mihai could not be woken. And so it was Father who decided to call an ambulance and went to telephone from a goods warehouse on our street. The ambulance arrived in about an hour. Assisted by Mother and Father, two men in white smocks lifted Mihai onto a stretcher and then took him to the ambulance. In the meantime Mother had taken care to light the fires and make me something to eat. I was left alone in the house until nightfall. I did my homework, drew pictures, and played with the chess figures, which to me were like real soldiers.
At seven in the evening Father came to see me for a few minutes, he checked the fires in the stoves, he told me that Mihai had something serious, and then left me on my own once more.
The hours passed monotonously. Finally, I grew sleepy, put on my pyjamas, and went to bed. Father woke me at one in the morning. This time he was not alone. He was with Mother, Grandmother, another of Mother’s brothers and that brother’s wife. They all had tears in their eyes. Father had bought two bottles of plum schnapps.
“Mihai is dead,” Father told me.
The news of Mihai’s death did not cause me any grief. What astonished me, at the time, was the fact that at that late hour those people felt like drinking plum schnapps. Grandmother’s face was unrecognisable, a face of stone that was slowly cracking apart. Father opened one of the bottles, filled a number of glasses with plum schnapps. I had never been awake at one in the morning before and I looked at the clock with great curiosity. More than the news of Mihai’s death, what struck me was the thought that it was I who had seen him alive for the last time. The information continued to circulate for the next few days and lend me a certain aura. The whole family, even the neighbours, and also the prosecutor who came to make a report treated me in a special way, paying me additional attention.
During those few days I learned some new words. I found out, for example, that the dead go to the morgue before being returned to their families. It was also then that I first heard the word formaldehyde. Father had bribed somebody not to stint on the formaldehyde and to prepare Mihai for the funeral “properly.” Later I discovered what formaldehyde smelled like.
Two of my uncles from the village of H. came to collect Mihai with a sleigh drawn by two horses. The formalities were probably lengthy and exacting, since it was nightfall by the time Mihai was taken away from the morgue. When I saw the horse drawn sleigh with the coffin in front of the gate, I begged Mother to let me go with my two uncles. “Take Mihai with you,” Mother told them, “because he was the last one to speak to him.” Once again, the fact that I had been the last person to see Mihai alive seemed to weigh heavily in my parents’ decisions, as well as in the attitude toward me that other members of the family took.
We set out for the village of H. just as the night frost was beginning to bite. Steam came from the horses’ muzzles. My two uncles, Vasile and Gheorghe, wrapped me tightly in a blanket. A lighted lantern hung from one side of the sleigh. I was seated between my two uncles and was thus protected from both sides. I had never travelled with a dead man and I lived every second with the greatest intensity. After the last houses of the town were left behind and we reached open ground, the blizzard could be felt more keenly. Because the wind had blown the snow off the road in places, the sleigh floundered from time to time. I could hear the grating of the metal runner on the asphalt, and the horses strained with all their might to continue on their way. To lessen the load for them, Vasile and Gheorghe climbed down from the box and walked beside the horses, as dispirited as they were. After a while, my uncles decided to abandon the road, because the snow cover was too unreliable and the horses had to make too much of an effort whenever the sleigh hit bare asphalt. We continued over the field next to the road, where the snow was deep and firm.
It was a clear night and I could have counted thousands of stars in the firmament. It was as if the moon and stars had never been bigger and brighter ; it was as if the frost had augmented their size. I had never travelled on a brighter night. The snowy plain itself was a source of light that blended with the brightness of the heavenly bodies. I had travelled between the town of R. and the village of H. many times before, on the bus or by bicycle with Father. It was a distance of just eight kilometres. But now it seemed infinitely longer, and sometimes, because of the lack of any landmarks, I had the impression that the sleigh was not moving at all. It was as if we and the dead man were moving deeper into milky night. A gigantic night, as lofty as the stars, a night that was rather angry with us, or at least so it seemed to me, because of the whistling blizzard, which was the voice of the night.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth