Stories by Lazarus Trubman
  1  A Casual Chat About Nothing
 An Unexpected Sunday Tourist
3  A Note
  4  Medical Examination
  5  Arrest

  About the Author  |  |  Winter 2021 Fiction Issue

An Unexpected Sunday Tourist

I was the only diner in this narrow, really tiny restaurant on the eastside of town, and the only thing that irritated me was the mirror facing me, a mirror in a gilt frame. Every time I looked up I saw myself looking like a portrait of one of my own ancestors, deep in thought in a gilt frame. I had circles under my eyes and a couple of scars on my face, that was all. Apart from that I was sun-tanned and actually looked quite normal for a man who was liberated from the Northern Colony just four months ago.

“What would you like?” the barman interrupted my thinking.

“A cognac,” I said. “How’s your fish today?”

“Was caught this morning,”

“I’d like it deep-fried with some young potatoes, and a tomato salad, please.”

My face was still the only one that watched me from time to time in the mirror behind bottles, a tired face without glasses and slightly grayish head. I didn’t know what there was about it that appealed to women. Only the two bright blue eyes—they were looking out of the mirror as though they were really there in the mirror—were such that I recognized myself in them.

“I haven’t seen you in a very long time, professor,” said the barman after conveying my order to the cook in the back.

“Four years in a Northern Colony,” I said. “And I really shouldn’t be here.”

As he rinsed the glasses, he said, “We went through some horrors here too…but it wasn’t as bad as in Northern Russia.”

“I believe you,” I said. I drank my cognac and listened to his story.

He rinsed the last glass.

I envied him—not for suffering under Soviet occupation, but for his doubt-free relationship to his story.

“Hmm,” he said, “just listen to this rain again!”

I didn’t respond to his remark, only sipped my cognac.

“Every story is an invention,” I said after a while, without doubting the horrors of being under Soviet occupation, as a general principle: every ego that expresses itself in words is a role…

“Professor,” he said, “another drink?”

“Sorry to hear what happened to your son,” I said.

“He’s alive, thank god, but will probably use a cane for the rest of his life.”

“Alive is what counts.”

“Here’s to those who are not,” said the barman, pouring some cognac for himself.

He was a man of forty, tall and a bit round-shouldered, with a pair of sunken sad eyes. A tattoo of an anchor on his left arm told me that he had been in the Navy. His son tried to set military barracks on fire, was tortured, but then let go.

“Yes,” he said again, “that’s how it was when you were away.”

My glass was empty.

“Another one, professor?” he asked.

“I’ll wait for my fish,” I said.

“Then a cigarette,” he said, pulling one out of the packet and clicking his lighter.

While I smoked he went about his business. I was about to leave my country. This restaurant was chosen by an old friend, who had agreed to keep my personal library, a collection of Russian and European classics, 300 tomes in number, until I settled in America and saved enough money to pay for the shipment. And that friend was late.

Now my fish had arrived.

I watched the barman take my empty glass from the zinc counter, dip it in rinsing water and pick up another, a dry one. I couldn’t prevent him from pouring me another drink; precisely because I was watching I couldn’t prevent him…

“Here’s to you, professor,” he raised his glass, “and all the others who paid for our freedom.”

We touched glasses, and he left me alone to eat in silence.

The fish was excellent, and I should’ve enjoyed it, but I didn’t. My mind was elsewhere.

My barman noticed that.

“This is the best deep-fried fish in town…”

“It’s not the fish, Kostake,” I interrupted, “it’s me.”

“Sorry,” he said. “Would you like some coffee? I’m about to start a fresh pot. Some lemon on the side?”

“Yes, please, I’ll have it outside.”

I thought suddenly of a man in the Codru Forest, a story that happened to me, which until today I have never told anyone, although it pursued me constantly, the story of a murder I didn’t commit. I twisted my empty glass and asked before he disappeared into the back, “Have you ever been in the Codru Forest?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Where is it?”

“In the north,” I said. “It’s quite big.”

“Why do you ask?” said Kostake.

Nonsense, I thought.

“Just thought of something,” I said. I went outside and occupied a small table next to a lilac bush. The rain had stopped meanwhile, small puddles everywhere, a light breeze from the south. I checked the time. Three o’clock to the dot. I smiled to myself. Three in the afternoon always struck me as a terrible hour, an hour without slope, flat and with no outlook. I suddenly remembered a time in my childhood when I was ill in bed and it was three o’clock in the afternoon, picture books, stewed apples, eternity…

“Your coffee, professor!”

“Thank you, Kostake,” I said smelling the smoking cup. “Still no customers?”

“It’s a dead hour,” he said. “Rarely a hungry soul.”

“Why don’t you sit with me then?” I said. “It’s quite beautiful after the rain.”

He gave it a quick thought, sat down and kicked two cigarettes out of the packet. We smoked in silence, enjoying the quietness of the world.

“Do you remember the days when we were awakened early in the morning by milkmen delivering still warm milk just squeezed out of the cow’s udder and all kinds of cheeses, and breadmen with baguettes and rolls fresh out of the oven?”

“But of course,” he said. “Those days are not coming back though.”

We fell silent again. I sipped my coffee.

“I knew a man once,” I said in order to talk about something else. “A baker, that is to say a conscientious fellow who made a pretty good living, the father of three children and a man in the prime of life. His name was Georgii, and there is no need to emphasize that he was a faithful husband. They had their moments as any married couple, some made him furious—inwardly furious, but he didn’t show a sign on the outside, so it wasn’t worth quarreling about, for at bottom, as everyone knew, theirs was a happy marriage.” I took a sip of my coffee. “Georgii and his wife, whom we must imagine as a very amiable woman, had been married ten years when they arrived in Floresti, a small town surrounded by endless forests to the east and Carpathian Mountains to the west. They bought a two-story house and within a month Georgii re-fitted the first floor into a bakery and kept the second floor as living quarters…”

“More coffee, professor?” asked Kostake, noticing that my cup was empty.

“Yes,” I said, waiting for him to refill my cup and slice a piece of lemon. “Where was I?”

“They bought a house.”

“Yes, they did.” I squeezed some lemon in my coffee. “Every morning but Sunday, at five o’clock exactly, Georgii came down the stairs to make the dough and light up the oven. At seven o’clock the store was open and two hours later the shelves were empty, the oven turned off. The whole family sat around the table having their tea and baguette with butter thickly spread over it. After that, he took a stroll to the nearby lake and for an hour or so fed a couple of pieces of bread to swans and ducks, every morning but Sunday. No one would ever suspect that he might come to a bad end. Not Georgii of all people. But nonetheless, one day he was taken away and locked up in a mental hospital. Everyone was surprised by that, because he never showed any signs of being mentally ill and never thought about being anybody else but a baker. He was also known as a man who collected pottery, but that was the only fanatical, if we can even call it that, streak he had. In his youth he was a soccer player, anyhow a healthy man of forty, which made it very hard to believe that he belonged in a mental hospital…”

“I’ll be damned,” said Kostake.

“His name was Georgii,” I said, “but everybody called him our baker. What he did never settled well in the minds of everyone, including us kids. We actually loved him because he always allowed us to ride on his three-wheeler.” I put out my cigarette. “It was spring, a Saturday, as Georgii, for reasons unknown even to himself, went into his garden with an ax and began crushing his famous pottery, which immediately caused not only broken pieces, but also a sensation. All his neighbors, who were standing on their porches in their shirtsleeves just like him, immediately turned their heads to look. The public sensation, it seemed, so vexed our baker that he sped up the demolition of his unique collection, which after all was entirely his own property. Nonetheless they took him away. Since then, Georgii was considered mad,” I said. “And he probably was. It became impossible to talk to him anymore…”

“Bad things happen to good people,” said Kostake. “It’s inevitable… Do you know what happened to him?”

“I sure do,” I said. “Once, as I was driving through that small town, I decided to see our baker. He was not in the shop that morning. Nevertheless, I bought a loaf which I later fed to the swans in the lake. I didn’t know why I felt I had to see him. When I ventured to try again just before closing time I was already familiar with the sound of the bell on the door and this bready air in the country bakery. I saw already that there was no bread lying in the racks, not even rolls, and I was wondering what else I could buy for the swans, biscuits perhaps, when suddenly—as I had hoped—our baker in person shuffled into the shop in his floury slippers. A man of the old stamp, still physically fit, even though bakery-pale, a native of the country in the way that makes crime look like something foreign. He asked me what I would like. His deed, I could see, didn’t fit him at all. That sort of things happens. Someone suddenly performs a deed that will put him in prison. I stood there terror-stricken. I bought a couple of biscuits, as if nothing had happened, and paid in some confusion, went on my way and saw him staring after me distrustfully.”

“Strange, isn’t it?” said Kostake.

I kept quiet.

“I really must go,” said Kostake. “Some people just walked inside the restaurant.”

I reached for my wallet, but Kostake forestalled my attempt to pay.

“Please, my friend,” he said, “it’s on me. And the drinks, too. I think we both needed some hard liquor this afternoon.”

We hugged, and he disappeared behind the front door.

As I walked to the bus stop, I thought about my friend who never showed up. It wasn’t like him at all, and I was really worried that something had happened to him. Soon the bus arrived. I occupied a seat at the window, closed my eyes and just like that, my memory brought back that event of the past, which took place many years ago up in the Codru Forest, a huge mass of trees not far from the small town of Balanesti, Moldova.* A story of a murder I never committed.

It was 1977, a cloudless Sunday in February or March. I was in the Army reserve and we were stationed in the vicinity of Balanesti. 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 Codru Forest. Actually, reservists were strictly forbidden to go into the Codru Forest alone because of the danger—locals were not very pleased with us being stationed around their town—but I went notwithstanding, and to the highest point. I spent the night in an abandoned hay barn, where it was as cold as hell, no hay, draught blowing through, a clear, starry night. I wanted to avoid open country roads, because there were probably military patrols with an officer 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 cold as hell all night I was up and about early, long before sunrise. Against the gray screen of the mountainside no one could see me, field-gray as I was, and I walked pretty 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, as the sun was rising, not a soul in sight. I breakfasted. I had a military knife with me—that was also why I hadn’t wanted to be seen by anyone in the forest, a lone soldier with a knife. I was glad to have this shiny military knife. I might have managed without it, but it could’ve been very handy against a wolf or a lynx. I took 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 military police unit 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, anyhow not on the snowfield, and I heard nothing either. I was as much alone as on the moon. I heard chunks of snow falling down from the trees because of the light wind, nothing else.

Later, when the path reached the highest point in this part of the forest, I felt exhausted, happy and exhausted. It was getting warmer and warmer, and after I had built up a shelter made out of loose stones and branches, behind 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, tired after the night, I don’t know how long; at least I shut my eyes and dozed, having no other plans.

The man who had suddenly spoken to me, a civilian, obviously Russian, didn’t want to disturb me, as he said, 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 a little way away. I said good morning as I rose to my feet so that we were now standing side by side. He wanted to know, putting a pair of field glasses to his face, how far the Codru Forest reaches east and west. “You’re a soldier, you might know,” he said with a certain smile.. I soon noticed how well he knew the district. A lover of the flora obviously, not from Moldova, but a connoisseur. At least he was familiar with the mountain peaks to the east and west, also with the names of small towns and villages around the point. He was carrying a pretty detailed map, although maps had been confiscated at that time and were not allowed to be carried by civilians during military training in the area or war games. His stubborn attempts to speak Moldavian did more to make conversation difficult than the wind, and he didn’t have to. I spoke perfect Russian. 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 now saw through his field glasses that at some point he had begun using my tracks.

No one else came. He stayed for about half an hour, and we chatted above all about the mountains, also about the flora, of which he spoke in a tone of great appreciation, the conditions of the barracks and the quality of the food. 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, and I couldn’t think of much to say. 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 somewhat casually, not really insisting on immediate answers. And this is what got stuck in my memory more than anything else: the more fluently the conversation went (more fluently because he now spoke strictly Russian) the more urgently I waited for the moment when he would pick up his rucksack. My advice as to how he could best get down to Balaneshti wasn’t needed. A lot of officers, yes, very nice lads. I left it to the wind to answer his question as to whether we were trained in mountaineering. That he would make it back to town before 4:00 p.m., he left me in no doubt. All the same, he now packed his rucksack, not without bequeathing me an apple. I felt somewhat ashamed. An apple this deep in the forest was something. After he had buckled on his rucksack he suddenly began talking about Moldavians, how thankful they should be for being part of a union, which keeps them safe. Yes, the Soviet Union, the only union capable of keeping its citizens happy and unafraid. We had already shaken hands. I was not prepared for this conversation. I said nothing, nor did I contradict him. I simply stood in silence, my hands in the pockets of my field gray trousers, looking over the forest and the land of my country, which actually belonged to the great Soviet Union. It was only after he finally disappeared between the trees with a cordial wave and wishing me a good time in the army that I felt angry at not having told him to shut his trap and get the fuck out of our forest. 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 behind my shelter, I fell asleep again, for several hours.

When I woke, 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 hadn’t done it. But why didn’t I? I hadn’t dreamed it either; I merely woke with the 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, never, not even tete-a-tete. I saw no one far and wide. No eyewitnesses. Not even an animal. Light wind and no listening ear. In the evening 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 have drunk beer. No one would ever have noticed from looking at me, I don’t think...

Since then I have talked to a lot of murderers, in restaurants, during the interval at a concert or elsewhere; you can’t tell by looking at them! When I had eaten the 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 Codru Forest I had already forgotten the man. 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.

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 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 Codru 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 came 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, 1978, there really weren’t any fucking tourists!

In the following years, as everyone knew, a lot of things happened. Real things. 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 Codru Forest; it was too ridiculous. And, after all, I didn’t do it. The hand of the law will not descend upon my shoulder.

Not till much later, while reading a newspaper, did I suddenly think of it again. I read there, among other things, that the Moldavian government, with help from the Soviets, had planned to build a Strict-Regime Colony in the Codru Forest, a one-hour hike from the town of Balanesti. The plans were ready, and it was safe to assume that such plans were not prepared without a thorough study of the terrain. Who reconnoitered the terrain around Balanesti? Perhaps it was the man who, on Sunday in 1978, also made an excursion to the Codru Forest, and whom I didn’t stab in the back…

I don’t know. I shall never find out who he was.

What for?

We just chatted the way people do in the middle of a huge 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. 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…

“This is your stop, citizen.” The bus driver brought me back to earth.

I thanked him, got out and began walking towards my friend’s apartment.


*The modern Republic of Moldova was historically known as the Principality of Moldavia and during the Soviet occupation as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic.  
  © Lazarus Trubman, 2021

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