THE STATE OF NORMALITY
By DOINA HORODNICEANU
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© 2002 Doina Horodniceanu
Less than a month after that, it was the evening of the 4th of March 1977. I was supposed to pass by Marta’s but I had a beer with some friends and then I went directly home. I used to visit her very often during that time, except that night I thought I didn’t have anything to tell her. It happened before, that one or two days went by without seeing her.
I just got home when the phone rang. It was Marta. She wanted to know if I was still going to show up or not. Then, without waiting for my answer she asked:
“Listen, is your house shaking too?”
“It’s an earthquake, get out!”
A crystal vase fell over the phone I was talking to. The conversation was suddenly interrupted. The house started to twist out of its foundation. The chandelier, with all its six light bulbs, swiveled wild touching the ceiling.
“Turn off the lights, the bulbs are going to smash, the wires can break and a fire might start,” Ioana shouted.
Pieces of bricks and mortar were falling upon us from the ceiling. The walls shook, the doors whimpered out of their hinges. The tables, the chairs were moving, hitting each other. In the kitchen the dishes, the pans, the glasses started a chaotic dance on the shelves, with a sinister tinkling. The gnash of the furniture wouldn’t stop. Everything was moving in a crazy saraband under the rain of mortar. What could we rely on, when we were frightened and shaking without being able to stand up on our own feet?
“Let’s get out. The house is going to collapse!” I yelled at Ioana who remained petrified between the doors. I pulled her out. The door opened by itself slammed by the wind. From outside we could hear the patter of the bricks falling from the roof, the tiles rolling down in the yard and on the street.
The big earthquake hit the city. Where did it come from? When? It was a clear night with full moon. Even without the lights on, it was as much light as during the day. We looked at each other mute, still, paralyzed. The pieces of the broken vase clinked, spread at my feet. Could that be the end?
It lasted a minute, an hour, a century? We found ourselves in the backyard. From the neighbor houses people crazy with fear ran towards the park.
Suddenly everything became quiet. It lasted only one minute. But during that minute we’ve been through hell. That hell, that nobody will ever be able to describe with all its dreadfulness. It threw us from our world of certainties to a different one without any stability. Even our existence wasn’t certain anymore.
A cloud of dust was floating upon the city. A thick smog through which the moon shone red with an insupportable hideous smile. We entered the scattered house. The phone was working but nobody answered at Marta’s. Hand in hand, Ioana and I started a long run downtown.
It was chaos. The first moments of confusion turned into panic. Everybody tried to escape on the stairways, which didn’t resist to the too much trepidation and pressure, collapsing. On the streets, cars, wagons and trucks ran back and forth. The buses had been converted to ambulances. Later the phones stopped working. Ruins blocked the tramlines. The power went off. There was no water either. Crowds of women and children lined up in front of the fountains carrying water in big buckets. The number of the deaths was unknown. Hundreds, thousands? On Cathedral Hill there were no houses left, not even one. Soldiers dug under the ruins looking for survivors. You could still hear the screams from under the wreckage. It was a stunning view. At a corner three women were crying with sharp, acute screams, pulling out their hair, tearing their clothes off in front of a cadaver just pulled out from the smashed ruins. It had rained in the morning, and now a smell of mud, ash and burned wood was floating over the city.
It was just the beginning of a nightmare. Destiny made no distinction between rich and poor, workers or intellectuals, good or bad. A lot of people thought it was an atomic bomb. First there were two strong horizontal shakes followed by others on the vertical. The earth waved and a dusty cloud rose over the city.
All the big apartment buildings in our neighborhood were in perfect shape. When we heard the first rumors coming from downtown we didn’t believe them. Approaching the central area, we noticed a strange agitation, a nervous disturbance on the streets, a lot of curious people. We started to run. Marta’s apartment building was completely destroyed and she was nowhere. The whole ten stores building was gone. The empty place in front of me, terrified me. I remained still. Ioana stopped in shock too.
“She must be alright!” I mumbled. “Yes, yes she should be somewhere in the crowd.”
It was a terrible rush around the ruins. On a stretcher, a woman’s body, broken to pieces. It wasn’t her. We burrowed, through the people clotted together, yelling her name. She wasn’t there.
“Move away! What, you didn’t see dead people before?” Somebody shouted.
I couldn’t take my eyes away from the monstrous pile that covered her. How was that possible? It wasn’t more than half an hour since I talked to her. And now?
Three days and three nights I stayed there watching the ruins, imagining that it wouldn’t be possible… That she was maybe alive. I didn’t realize the absurd. I was deluding myself with useless hopes just to allow a stronger desperation to take over me again. Even worse than the wishes I knew were hopeless.
Three days and three nights full of remorse. Why have I done that and not different? Why did I leave her alone that night? Why? Why didn’t I go there, when I was supposed to? And then others and others why…. Endless and useless.
I escaped the disaster. I was there, alive, tortured, unable to make peace with myself. Not even Ioana could settle. She was shocked too. She was very nice to me. She stayed right behind me, all the time.
After three days, when they pulled out Marta, alive, from her grave, where she was buried for eighty-four hours, I burst into sobs.
Being young and sportive, Marta recovered soon. The stories she told us after she left the hospital and improved a bit, refuse to be written. The fears she went through and the terrific anxiety can’t be described. Comparing to the moments lived by someone in the dark, in a grave, where every meaning of life fades, the stories told by Dante after visiting the Inferno seem simple naiveties.
To be in a tomb of stones, mud, dust and broken pieces of a mirror for eighty-four hours, relying only on a slim ray of air coming through a hole upon you, these are horrible hours. To be not able to move any of your body parts except for the left arm used to measure the distance to the ceiling coming closer and closer it was unbearable. To contemplate the prospect of it collapsing any moment over you and crushing you, these are incredible experiences that, as many others, of the same kind, can’t be put on paper. No matter how real they are, they seem impossible.
To feel how a ten floors building falls upon you, it wasn’t a misfortune, it was a curse. To cry for help when you knew that nobody could hear you, to listen to the noise made by the soldiers digging on top of you, and when they got closer to hear them saying:
“Here it’s nothing. Nobody could survive here.”
To listen to their talk and yell back without them hearing you… What a torture, what a terrible struggle, when not even hope could help you anymore. When you lost your faith that somebody could still save you. Everything she told us fell behind the possible.
And still, somebody saved her. It wasn’t a human been, but a dog. One of the dogs they brought from the Alps, to sniff, with their instincts, the life, if there was any left. It smelled among the ruins, it dug using its claws until started to bleed, hurt by the stones and mortar, and gave the salvation signal.
And so, after days and nights of horror she was pulled out from the dead. Marta survived.
Tudor’s girlfriend died. She was so young, so nice, and so pure. A petit with childish face. When in thousands of deaths, one has a face you know, a smile you know, death becomes horrible, concrete.
Four days after the earthquake, the city was still a mess. The buses and the trams started to work. We still didn’t have water. The number of reported dead and missing people was around four thousand. Half of the city was ruined. Most of the old buildings were transformed to rubble. I used to walk and get lost in those old neighborhoods. I liked to watch the houses, the little stores, the restaurants. I liked to feel their mysteries. I knew that destiny would decide for all of us, but I didn’t imagine even for a moment, the macabre view of that day when everything became a crumbling wall in a few seconds. And none of us imagined the future either. None of us had enough power to change anything, then or now.
The stupefaction produced by the earthquake was dispersed little by little. Impatient waiting for the future took its place. Nobody foresaw all the madness, the misery and the danger involved in the general atmosphere of desperation, anger and hate. It was just the beginning of the disaster. With consternation, our beloved President noticed how fragile our old architectural monuments were and decided to smash all those that survived the earthquake and build instead new apartment buildings in the new communist style, along with a new society and culture.
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