|Jan/Feb 2014 Fiction|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
Eu sunt un român din Cleveland.
That is, I'm a Romanian from Cleveland. My father and mother came from the Old World, but I am from the New. It might not be the all-American dream you have heard about. While the other kids were being raised on the Indians, the Browns, and Wheaties, I was getting fed a concentrated diet of Carpathian myth and mamaliga corn meal mush, with a very big dose of incense on Sunday down at the Romanian Orthodox Church.
My mother named me Mihai after Mihai Viteazul, Michael the Brave, a national hero from the Dark Ages. We Romanians have been badly disappointed by our modern leaders. Mihai was around when you could still play things out on the big stage. For one brief year he brought our people together against all our common enemies. Then he died a martyr. What more could a mother ask?
But being Romanian gave me more than these great expectations. It got me a special job in the US Army. In the late '50s, just as Uncle Sam was about to draft me, I enlisted and served with Military Intelligence in Germany. I became an interrogator instead of just another infantry grunt on perpetual maneuvers. The small detachment I was with handled all kinds of defectors from communist countries who had important military information. We worked with Air Force Intelligence, Naval Intelligence, and the CIA in a whole variety of esoteric languages, one of which was my very own Romanian. And we filed these fascinating and illuminating reports with great urgency to the Pentagon, where they were, I'm sure, quickly filed again on dark, remote shelves, never to be disturbed again.
But I was in a kind of ecstasy all the same. Not only were my nights filled with the sweet intoxication of fast fräuleins and marathon beer fests, my days were almost like being home on leave in Cleveland. I got to dress in civvies and spend time with real români from all those legendary places my parents and their friends had talked about with so much longing. Defectors named Marinescu, Brateanu, Crisan, and Potop. I met them in safe houses hidden all over Frankfurt, and we worked on my reports, talked about the old places, played chess, ate, and drank beer together. They were just like all the wild patriots I had heard about since I was a kid. People who wanted to save Romania from the Soviet curse. I couldn't believe my good fortune. How many times in your life can you indulge your youthful drives and ancient heritage all at once?
It was a wild time to be in Germany. Just before Khrushchev built his Great Wall, Berlin was going berserk. Thousands were surging across the border every week. Not just out of East Germany, but from all over the Soviet Bloc. And we were drowning in the tidal wave. Berlin couldn't screen people fast enough, so we got all these worthless sources. Some had obviously been sent by the Soviets to infiltrate our system in the confusion. Each of us was getting at least one defector a day to debrief, sometimes a few. We had to keep helping each other out, Czech interrogators filling in for overloaded Germans, Polish covering for Russians. And it was right in the middle of this craziness that this thing happened. When I met the other Mihai. And learned that being a Romanian patriot might not be everything it was cracked up to be.
I had gotten a call to meet CIA early that morning down at headquarters. It was still dark as I drove out of Frankfurt with him in a government gray Chevrolet. I didn't like CIA much. He was what we Romanians call un glum, a real wise guy. No warmth. No small talk. And no straight answers. Strictly "need to know" and "none of your business." I never even heard his real name. He was so SOP he insisted that we always use our cover names with each other. Even when no one else was around. Just a little guy with a ferret face who liked acting tough.
He drove fast out of the city along narrow back streets I didn't recognize, past stucco houses and high garden walls. I was tired from the previous day's interrogations and hungover from the previous night's festivities. And it was raining. I think it was always raining in Frankfurt that year. The house walls were stained from it. We swept out through the suburbs, our running lights piercing the gloom to carry us forward along a slick runway of glistening cobblestones. But out in the countryside, the road grew slick with mud, and patches of fog drifted up out of black fields.
I was irritated, to tell the truth. I had been in the habit of working on my own. Usually they just drove me out and dropped me off at a safe house somewhere, and I would handle the interrogation by myself. Then they would pick me up at the end of the day. But for some reason, CIA had to be involved in this one. And nobody had bothered to tell me why.
Were they checking up on me? Was it because I was the only enlisted man in an elite detachment of officers? Or was it my name? Strange names always seemed to cause problems in the Army. Nobody trusted them. They were too much like the names of the enemy. Or maybe CIA was just tired of sitting on the sidelines. Whatever it was, I was just supposed to translate for him. Of course, that was bound to put me on edge. Who wanted someone like him hanging over my shoulder? I could damn sure interrogate as well as he could.
"So what happened to the guy I had yesterday?" I asked. He looked at me sideways, his face lit by the glow off the dashboard.
"Yeah? Who was that?"
"You know, the crazy Bulgarian. That guy I had to cover because Captain Jaeger was busy. Claimed he knew his Romanian, spoke it as good as he spoke Bulgarian. Sure he did, just enough to be dangerous. So you gave him to me. The clown was lying through his teeth. But every time I caught him dead to rights, he forgot he ever knew Romanian."
"Spooked you, huh?" He asked it with a little smirk. A row of black trees swept by, a metal bridge. Windshield wipers cleared and smeared our view.
"Son of a bitch drove me nuts."
"Probably a plant."
"So what's going to happen to him?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know that's none of your business."
That's the kind of confidential bullshit CIA handed me on a regular basis. Well, I had a pretty good idea even without his help. I had heard about those small refugee camps on the East German and Czech borders. That's where they sent problem defectors, the ones they wanted to get rid of. They kept them there long enough to change their minds about defecting to the West. And sooner or later they would just sort of melt back across the border where they had come from. Only rumors, of course. Unconfirmed. You can see what I got when I asked.
"At least I'm getting a real Romanian this time, right?" I asked. He just smiled. There sure wasn't much reason to like CIA.
By the time our Chevy finally turned off the main road, it was getting bright enough to kill the headlights. We rolled slowly up a long cement drive between old gnarled trees toward the looming shadow of a building. It looked quiet except for the two cars parked in the drive. Some kind of manor house or palace, I guessed, built by someone seriously into rococo. I let out a low whistle.
"Old luftwaffe headquarters," CIA said. "Not too bad, huh?" Not if you're into Mad Ludwig, I thought. But all this pomp had me puzzled. Like every other place we worked, this was supposed to be a safe house. How hard could it be to tail gray Chevrolets across the German countryside to some grand palace of the Third Reich? My guess was that the people across the border knew the print on our bathroom wallpaper by now.
Heavy doors opened, spilling warm light down the wet stairs. Inside we showed our ID cards to the uniformed guard and signed in using our cover names—another one of our intelligence procedures. The people I interrogated were only supposed to know me by a pseudonym. I would be just another anonymous face floating in a German sea of gray. Nobody ever considered that my close-cropped GI haircut might be a giveaway.
The guard handed CIA a black notebook. He opened it, glanced down a page, then handed it to me. It was a short bio of our source. Not much, just a sketch from his screening up in Berlin, a skeleton to hang our interrogation on. We walked down a long hallway of mirrors, built on the same grand scale, probably with Versailles in mind. Our footsteps echoed majestically along the marble floor.
At the end to the left was a darkened room. I always got a slight buzz of anticipation just before we met, wondering what this one would be like. The curtains had been drawn, and only the dim glow from a single floor lamp lit the rumpled figure sleeping on the couch. I looked him over. Dark suit, tie and collar pulled open, wavy black hair pushed back. He was a Romanian all right. His pale skin and coal black hair were the stamp of identity. I remembered the stories old guys told back home. These were the signs of direct descent from our forebears, the noble mix of Roman and Dacian.
"Buna dimineata, domnule," I said, keeping my voice low. His eyes snapped open and stared up at me. Deep, dark eyes against white skin. Gleaming.
"Da, da." He put his feet on the floor and slouched forward, his hair falling across his forehead. He pushed it back wearily.
"This is Mr. Jones," I introduced CIA. "I'm Mr. Higgins." I thought I caught just the flick of a smile, perhaps a brief look of suspicious amusement. I was impressed. He had what you might call brooding good looks, the kind you would choose if you were going to advertise what Romanian defectors should look like. One of the romantic heroes helping us in our struggle against the Commies.
"I'm a doctor," he said.
"You called me mister. Domnule. Just to let you know, I'm a doctor."
Before I could ask him about his medical practice, a small, thin fräulein in a starched gray uniform rustled in to serve coffee and kuchen. We were quiet until she left. I studied the Romanian as he slowly, carefully stirred in sugar, then slurped at the hot liquid. He shook out a German cigarette and lit it, then lingered, tasting the smoke as if it were some kind of special luxury. CIA, who had waited long enough, walked over to the window and pulled open the curtains, adjusting the blinds to leak in just the right amount of gray light. He was in a hurry to get on with it, but I sensed I was in a position to control the pace and decided to take it slow. This defector had my attention, and I wanted to size him up right.
"You are here to talk about my plans," he announced all of a sudden. He sat up straight on the sofa, his hands on his knees, as if assuming command. Just like that. I had to smile.
"Yes." He looked straight at me. I was used to defectors being on the defensive, at least at the start. They might gain confidence as I put them more at ease, but they were almost always uncertain at first. However, here was one who had barely entered Germany for the first time, sitting in front of us, telling us what he wanted from us. I had my first premonition. As if we had met before somewhere and recognized each other. Once a Romanian, always a Romanian, my mother used to say.
"We have a few questions," I said.
Interrogation of this kind is not what you might have heard. It has to be built on trust to work right. We're not using electric shock or anything, you know. We're just asking. Following a line of questions, crosschecking, branching out, doubling back. But we have to develop a special kind of intimacy first. Naturally, there's the spoken conversation—questions, answers, the exchange of facts. That's as plain as the nose on your face. But beyond that, there has to be real rapport. You can't just look at the ball, but the spin on the ball, if you follow. The nuance, the intimation. And to read that, you must be close to your source. Listen, if some guy doesn't want to let you in on something, who's going to make him? Who's going to even know? The small details, the ones that are many times the most important, have to be coaxed out. That takes trust. And time.
CIA, blind to subtleties, plunged ahead machine-gun style, calling for the listing of facts. Date and place of birth, occupation, marital status, names of parents. Like filling out a driver's license. As I translated, I noticed the Romanian looking at me and not at CIA. He sensed old bloodlines, too, I guessed. Well, I was trying my best to take the official chill off the questions. So almost from the start, I found myself paired with the source, and apart from the questioner.
"You came from Bucharest, they tell me. Is that where you were raised?"
"No, no. My father was only a farmer. I was born near Sighisoara." I felt the hairs rise at the back of my neck. I think I might have even blushed. Sighisoara, nestled among the foothills of the Carpathians, was the land of my own ancestors. My parents were always telling me about where the rivers meet and run together under the old bridge, about the village with its narrow streets, the festivals and the dances, the homes they grew up in. Every farmer's cottage was furnished simply, and so much like the next I could probably walk into this man's house and know just how it would look. The massive oven standing in the large front room. There would be smoke from the stove, because there was no chimney. The sour smell of goat cheese and damp wool. Nothing could have made me feel closer to him. My father had come from a place very near Sighisoara. And I remembered his telling me how they painted the walls of their houses bright colors.
"What color was your father's house?" I asked instinctively. He looked puzzled. Then he broke into a smile.
"There was very nice blue," he said. "Like the sky in autumn." You see, I had forged our first bond. Small, perhaps, but real nonetheless. He knew it. I knew it. And yet neither of us had blinked.
"You were born in that house?"
"Yes, in '33. I'm older than you, I believe." Older and stronger, I thought. A lot stronger. He was built like a bull, great broad shoulders, thick chest, powerful neck. A Romanian to be proud of.
He began talking freely now, like a new friend, so openly that I sensed how terribly lonely he must be. He rattled on about growing up during the war, about the Russians coming, about working in the collectives, about attending the university at Cluj and then going on to medical school and internship in Bucharest. His father had always hated the Communists, he said, because they'd taken away his farm. But he was himself devoted to the party when he was young. He confessed to me what a very naive idealist he had been. He had first wanted to become a doctor because of his love for the working man. The proletariat. He had had a deep, simple desire to serve. His eyes actually glistened with emotion, so that I had to cough to bring him out of it. I glanced at CIA while I was translating and saw the smug, ironic look on his face.
The doctor had met his wife at the hospital where he interned. She was older, a surgeon with a reputation, and a party member. A true city girl, he told me, very sophisticated and well-versed in socialist matters. It sounded like he admired more than loved her. He spoke very little about her after his first revelations, but I felt there was something about her success that bothered him. I don't think it had gone too well for him in his own career. Although he had worked in Bucharest for the past ten years, even I could tell he was from the country just by the way he spoke. He used a lot of little regionalisms. And I think that must have held him back. Being a worker like Gheorghiu-Dej was one thing, but being a farm boy was no bonus among medical professionals. He kept referring to himself, with a bitter smile, as "just a small country doctor."
I was taking this confession and giving it to CIA in a kind of shorthand, pared down to the bare facts he was looking for. It was as if the doctor were a childhood friend, exchanging confidences. I could imagine us as farm boys together, herding sheep through the early morning mist. I could even hear the big, hollow boom of a great horn echoing up the valley, calling us home at dusk.
I had always secretly dreamed about going home to Romania some day, right to my parents' village, and announcing myself to relatives. So they could give a big feast and kill the fatted calf and welcome me home like a hero. We could all sit around and drink tuica together and sing, "Multi Ani Traiasca." Now here was this man who might have been a neighbor's son, sitting right in front of me, and I couldn't even let him know my real name.
"What's taking so long?" CIA mumbled at me. He had to know I wasn't giving him everything the Romanian was telling me. Naturally he felt left out and was getting edgy. Somehow that cheered me, as if I had extracted some revenge for his arrogance. But CIA would never show it. He just kept officiously scribbling notes. "What's his rank, his time in grade?"
The doctor was a captain in the reserves. He had been promoted a year and a half before. His memory was absolutely photographic, and that impressed the hell out of CIA, whose attitude changed quickly. He could describe all his outfit's maneuvers with the Soviets in Moldavia and Bessarabia with amazing detail. And once he got into matters concerning the Warsaw Pact, CIA gave him his full attention. The Romanian itemized units, catalogued equipment, detailed personnel. And he had particular knowledge of how they planned to handle medical emergencies. That was just the kind of information we were after from him. CIA couldn't write fast enough to get it all down.
But the doctor also made a personal point of reminding me that Bessarabia and Bucovina were once part of our Kingdom of Romania, before the Russians had taken them away, as they had taken our oil, our forests, our freedom. His dark eyes narrowed into little slits. It was suddenly clear what an excellent hater he was. He could kill someone in a second, I thought. And, not surprisingly, I admired him for it.
"A leader," he whispered. "We need a leader."
When we broke for lunch, I was surprised to find that we had been at it for a good four to five hours. Our uniformed fräulein reappeared wheeling a cart of bottled beers and sandwiches—good Yank ham and cheese, served with cold potato salad. Her eyes never looked up, and she disappeared with the same starched rustle as in the morning. We were famished from our efforts and withdrew into ourselves to eat. I made sure to use a knife and fork on my sandwich as any good European would—another one of our clever pretenses. The doctor seemed to study and savor every detail, from the texture of the bread he was eating to the red and white Binding Bier label on his bottle.
I raised the blinds and opened the window. I needed air and light. I took a deep breath and looked out. But the sky was still heavy with low clouds. The hill behind us fell away past a few old trees to a great sodden field. Distant voices of young boys drifted up toward us. I saw them far to the left chasing a soccer ball. I could just make out their uniforms against the muddy expanse, dark blues and greens. I tried to pick up the rhythm of their game. My father had played when I was young. They had a league in Cleveland made up of European émigrés. I had rebelled and gone off to play baseball. But watching this game, I felt a sudden wave of homesickness.
"I've come a long way," I heard the doctor say. "I have to speak with someone in authority." He was standing beside me. Instead of answering, I sipped my beer. It might seem cruel, but I couldn't get drawn into that business just now. So I kept quiet as if I hadn't heard him, and he didn't ask again. He reached for his cigarettes instead but found the pack empty. I took out my extra pack of Luckies and handed them to him. He tore the foil off and shook one out, then offered one to me. "Varog."
I lit his, then mine, sharing the match in a gesture of intimacy. He took a deep drag. Some people go through the motions, but he truly smoked, inhaling deeply and savoring it, then exhaling in a rush. Each cigarette was like that, smoked down to the nub, almost burning his large hands. As if each one were his last. He studied the Lucky pack, running his finger around the red of the bull's-eye. The smoke rolled from his mouth up into his nose.
"Do you play fótbal?" I asked.
"When I was a boy. Not for many years." Then CIA was there, closing the window and lowering the blinds again.
"Let's get to the escape," he said. "I hear he came into Berlin by train. I want everything. Stops, times, conductor routines, everything."
"How much longer?" the doctor asked, starting to run out of patience. "I must talk to the ones in command."
"Just a little while now," I assured him. "Tell me about the train. It could mean a great deal to others." I felt I was close to losing him now and pushed on for everything I could get. He didn't see himself in the role of informant, and I knew his good manners would only get us so far.
He was on vacation. They probably still didn't miss him in Bucharest. He had told his wife he was going to visit a sister in Lipova, near Arad. That had been last Saturday. This was Thursday. His patients would be lining up for him at the clinic on Monday, I thought. He bought his ticket for Arad, not a long trip, just a few hours. The train left Bucharest Nord at eight in the evening. He carried one small black bag.
This all seemed routine enough. I fell into the role of translator again. And that is a lot like being a typist. The information flows through you, and you sometimes lose contact with the meaning of it. It can lull you into a sort of dream state. I heard him saying that around midnight his train was already descending along a swift flowing river, in the moonlight, out of the mountains into a long curving valley. Onto the plain toward Hungary. I had covered this ride before. I felt very tired just then. Too much beer or too little sleep. I had to suppress a yawn. My mind began to drift. I have never been to Romania, but I know it as well as I know Ohio.
I was just repeating place names, ticking off details against what I already knew. But I began to feel guilty about taking his story so casually. After all, he had put his life on the line. And he was excellent at describing everything. I didn't even have to ask very much. Anyway, you know how it is with a good escape story. I began to get involved in spite of my lethargy.
He was speaking in a very quiet voice now, just above a whisper. All the time on the train he had kept track of the conductor as he walked from car to car, peering into the compartments. But he also glanced out the window to see just where they were. "The timing had to be right," he said. As soon as the river left the tracks and headed south, he took his bag and went toward the rear of the train.
He stopped at the W.C., but someone was in there. So he waited. He had thought of everything, you see, and he knew it would be a long time before he would be able to get to a toilet again. While he was there, the conductor came along the corridor, then stopped right beside him. That got his heart beating all right. But the conductor was only informing everyone that they would be in Timisoara soon.
The next car back was the mailcar. He knew just where it would be and slipped in, unnoticed, closing the door quickly behind him. It was dark. Only he didn't just say "dark." He used a strange expression that tripped me up. He said it was "black as a gypsy's soul." I had to stop for a second to search for the right phrase. I mean, it was so damned medieval, so loaded with ancient claptrap. It actually got me off stride, like tasting something unexpectedly bitter in an otherwise sweet dessert. I stumbled in my translation, not much, just enough to catch CIA's attention.
"It was ink... inky black." I stuttered.
"What?" CIA asked.
"Pitch dark," I said.
But the doctor had planned each detail carefully. He had a large flashlight in his bag, brought along for just this kind of darkness. A large heavy one with a supply of large batteries he was sure would last the whole trip. He shined the light around the car to get his bearings, then went straight to reading the tags on the mailbags.
Deep into the car he found the German mail and the bags tagged "Berlin." Then he knelt among them to make a place for himself. In the back corner the bags and boxes were already piled high enough. And he knew there would be more coming at Timisoara, because there are so many Germans—what we call swabii—living in that region. He burrowed among the bags and made himself invisible. You had to give it to him. He had thought things through.
"You knew about the mailbags ahead of time?"
"Of course. I've been watching at the station."
"So you've been planning for a while."
"How many mailbags to Germany?"
"It's always different. But enough. There are still many swabii living in our country." He said it with the same distaste he had used with gypsy—tigan.
"How many usually?"
"This is a stupid question. Six, 13, what does it matter? I have no time for these stupid questions." He was getting annoyed with tedious details. His voice had taken on a strange, throaty quality.
"I'm sorry," I said. "Îmi pare foarte rau." We had been in such a groove, really together, and I didn't want to interrupt the flow. "Please go on."
They stopped at Timisoara, and again at Arad. The car door opened, and more bags were loaded in. They called out the names of cities and countries where the mail was going, throwing bags into different parts of the car. Some bags even fell on top of him. Finally, at the border, the door opened, and he heard men speaking Hungarian for the first time. You can imagine how he must have felt knowing he was out of Romania—thrilled and frightened all at once.
But after that the train began making too many unscheduled stops. He had worked so hard on every detail of his trip, but even though he had memorized the schedule backward and forward and could run down the list of names in order, he was suddenly lost, completely at sea. After a while he couldn't even guess. I have heard of perfectly brave men going mad in absolute darkness. They lose all sense of where they are.
He got his bearings back in Budapest. He heard workmen talking during a layover that lasted more than an hour. But even then he couldn't stop worrying. In fact, he started to get even more nervous as they neared Bratislava, because it was so close to Vienna. He was certain someone would inspect his car. Then he was sure they would discover him. He lost all faith in his plan. Finally, someone did open the door and shine a light around. But just as quickly they left. It was such a superficial search, it was laughable. But he couldn't get his confidence back. All along the Austrian border, he was haunted by fears that he would be caught. It was only after they passed into Czechoslovakia that he could relax again. By then he was so tired, he even dozed off.
I was leaning forward now, listening hard, straining to hear him. His voice was barely audible. His dark eyes glowed with intensity. Something had awakened him with a start. A sudden jolt. It took a minute just to figure what was happening. Then he recognized the clang of metal and panicked. They were uncoupling his car from the train. He felt it being shunted off to another track. Then another jolt as they coupled onto the second train.
His fears grew enormous. He began thinking they might shunt him off in a whole new direction—to Warsaw or even Moscow—who knew? He had come all this way, thinking he had almost made it, and now he was going to lose it all. He saw himself drifting further and further behind the border. Further and further from his dream. Like falling down a deep well into eternal darkness.
By now I was practically on top of him, trying to pick up his words. But he had stopped and sat there just staring at his cold coffee.
"And?" I said to him. I just wanted to jump start him. He looked so desperate.
"I had no right to feel sorry for myself," he said. "Perhaps it was being asleep and waking with such a start. I was dazed. If I had been more alert, I would have remembered the mailbags right away. I would have known it was safe as long as I was with those bags. But the darkness confused me. It had me totally disoriented. There are things you cannot plan for. There are things you cannot even conceive of." Little beads of sweat had broken out on his upper lip.
He was staring into that blackness now, thinking about how stupid he had been, when the door flew open and a full blast of light hit him. It was too late for him to move. He just froze. Out of the blinding glare, he could see someone lurch into his car. He heard the sharp metallic click of the door latch. Then it was solid black again. It didn't seem real. Just a quick flash and then nothing. He sat absolutely still trying to persuade himself that it was just an illusion. And now I was suddenly with him in that car. I was no longer just listening, but sharing his experience.
He strains to hear. Yes. There it is. Someone is moving over there, across the car, stumbling past the mailbags. He hears him stop, sigh, then the splash. It's clear, he is pissing against the wall. Now he is coming toward him. He holds his breath, trying to hear, but the blood throbs in his ears. Again a stumble and fall, a curse. Now he is on the bags close by. Just next to him.
He grips the flashlight, feels its weight. The other is so close to him now, breathing heavily. So close he can smell the beer on his breath. It's all around him in the darkness. For what seems eternity they sit there next to each other. He is certain the other must hear his heartbeat.
Then everything happens in a flash. The other lights a match to a cigarette and looks directly across into his own eyes. Like looking in a mirror. Just the match between them and the briefest sharing. He stares like a dead man, then drops the match. And for just a moment, it's absolutely still and black. Between them and around them. A single endless moment of last life. Then in a single movement he flicks on the flashlight and swings downward smashing it with all his might into the face. He hits so hard that the flashlight flies apart in his hand and then it is totally dark again.
But he can't lose any time. He can't let him cry out. He falls across, clawing at the darkness. He grabs the cloth of a jacket, feels the arm, the shoulder, then the bare skin and sinew of the neck. He grabs with both hands, squeezing, feeling the body rise and flail out under him. Fists and legs strike out at him, but he pushes down with everything he has got. He doesn't dare ease up until he is sure it is absolutely still. Then, for a long time he just sits there. Panting. Coughing. Dripping wet. Used up. Just sitting in the darkness. In his mind, he still sees the eye, wide open, just before the flashlight hits it. He is thinking how much it is like the eye of the cadaver he worked on as a student. Always open, staring at each dissection. It is only much later that he thinks about finding the matches so he can search out a place to hide the body.
"Mihai?" I asked. He was staring straight ahead as if he were in a trance. As if he had forgotten where he was, who I was. He looked at me, surprised that I had called him by name, his name. "Who was he, Mihai? A Czech? A German?" He shook his head.
"Numai un betiv," he muttered. "Just a drunk."
"What happened?" CIA was asking me. "What the hell is going on?" I realized that, caught up in the moment, I had probably stopped translating.
"He killed him," I said in a whisper. "He killed the son of a bitch."
"Who, Sarge?" CIA blurted out, blowing my cover. Did he do it on purpose? "Killed who?"
"For Christ sake, the drunk on the train." But now Mihai was on his feet, raging.
"No more," he shouted at us. "I'm through with you. You people are nothing. I haven't given my life for this little chat. I must do important things. We need a leader. I must talk to the President. To the Secretaries. I have a plan. I can't give my time to you."
"Take it easy, take it easy," I was saying. They were both standing now, yelling at me or through me, I couldn't tell. I turned to the Romanian, trying to get him back on my side. "You are helping us, Mihai. You've already helped. What you've told us is very important." It was like seeing myself and all my ancestors at once, swooping down out of the mountains against our enemies, proud, beautiful, brave, and absolutely mad. All the wild and terrible moments of my perversely romantic ancestry exposed. Revealed to the cold, unsympathetic eye of CIA.
But Mihai had broken away from me and burst from our room into the hall of mirrors, where he was immediately reflected back and forth into infinity. The image caught his attention and stopped him for just a moment.
"Where the hell does he think he's going?" CIA yelled. "Tell him to get his crazy ass back in here!" Mihai had buttoned his jacket and straightened his tie. He stood erect, glancing sideways at his reflection. Then he began pacing up and down the hall, regally, his right hand shoved grotesquely into his jacket like Bonaparte. I caught my own pale reflection behind him, staring at him. He had obviously chosen his stage, but all I could think of was watching a bad burlesque.
"What's your plan?" I asked.
"I've nothing to say to you," he insisted, sweeping the two of us away with his hand.
"But if you tell me, maybe I can help. The President doesn't know you."
"Men are in the hills. In Bucovina, in Transylvania. They want to fight, but they need help. They need a leader. You told us you would help us. But you let them all get wiped out in Hungary. Thousands were waiting to rise up, but now they're only hunted. Many have already died."
"What do you want me to do?"
"We're slaves. Gheorghiu-Dej must be brought down."
"What do you want from the President?"
"We need a submarine. Just one nuclear submarine."
"What did he say?" CIA was asking.
"The President can't give you a nuclear submarine."
"We'll go into the Black Sea and force Bucharest to be reasonable, to listen to the people."
"What's he saying?" CIA was shouting.
"He wants a nuclear submarine," I said. CIA started laughing.
"Oh, he only wants one Goddamn nuclear sub!" He was roaring with laughter. The Romanian scowled at him. I was still trying very hard to get everything back under control.
"Mihai, Mihai, the United States can't be implicated in an uprising against Moscow, can't you see?" And then came the kicker.
"No one will be implicated," he said with all the nobility of Romania's dead princes. "We would never tell where we had gotten the submarine."
I didn't translate that. God knows who I was trying to protect. Was it Mihai or my family in Cleveland or that whole phalanx of failed Romanian patriots? I didn't wish to lay out any more before CIA and the sly cynicism of Military Intelligence. Good God! Perhaps I was even naive enough to believe that I could still salvage something from this interrogation.
But of course, it was much too late. CIA no longer attempted to talk through me, but stood now in front of Mihai, his face chalk white, his thin lips twisted in a tight, mocking smile. He kept jabbing his finger up into the Romanian's face.
"Get the hell back in that room, you lunatic!" he threatened, the veins on his neck and forehead swelling. But then he stepped one step too close, and Mihai uncoiled, flinging him with a single sudden movement across the hall against the mirrored wall. So sudden, it seemed just a slight flick. CIA bounced off the wall, stunned, but strangely enough, still standing, swaying back and forth on the balls of his feet, while the mirror cracked and fell behind him, sliding in a clattering, splintering avalanche across the marble floor. Mihai, astonished by what he had done, reached forward to help, but two men I had never seen before were already on him from behind, holding him back.
"Are you all right?" I asked CIA.
"Yeah, yeah, fine." He was embarrassed. He knew he had acted badly, breaking at least two or three cardinal rules. He brushed himself off, straightened his hair. His shoe crunched on a piece of glass. "Let's get the hell out of here."
I looked back into the darkened room. Mihai was sitting on the same sofa, as if nothing had happened, except of course that two men I had never seen before stood beside him. He looked up at me with those dark Dacian eyes. But I was already drawing back, thinking about the shadowy refugee camps on the border.
"La revedere," I said to him and nodded goodbye. He smiled that simple, open peasant smile. A smile like that could have melted a lot of hearts in Cleveland. Then he took my pack of Luckies from his pocket and held it over his heart. What a strange gesture, I thought. Then I remembered the bull's-eye. Pity the poor boy who is rocked by his mother to the heroic tales of Mihai Viteazul. "Multi ani," I said, turning to leave. "Many years."
But the next two nights were terrible for me. I kept waking up and then lying there, staring into the damp darkness, listening to the rain, unable to get back to sleep. I was haunted by dreams, or rather one particular image that kept recurring in all the dreams. I didn't want to talk about it with anyone in Germany, but it bothered me so much I finally had to telephone my parents in the States.
"There's this guy dressed like a peasant," I yelled over the phone. "He's riding a white horse through our mountain villages. He tells everybody he has spoken to Mihai Arhanghelul, and the Archangel commanded him to free Romania from its enemies."
"Yes," my father answered very calmly. "I remember. That happened when I was a boy. Perhaps I told you. 'Romania for the Romanians,' he used to say. 'Pure Romania.' He preached against the Jews and the Gypsies. He was very popular for a while. A big hero."
"What happened to him?"
"He was executed, I think," said my father's voice, speaking very matter-of-factly in Romanian long-distance from Cleveland. "Men like that don't last too long."
"Eu sunt un român," I blurted out as if trying to defend my race to him.
"Yes, but from Cleveland," he reminded me.