Sophie van Llewyn
When aunt Theresa calls, I’m doing my homework in the History of Socialism.
“Alina? Is your mother at home?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “She’s working the late shift this week. She won’t be home until eight.”
“Good. I’ll pick you up in half an hour. Wear something black and sturdy shoes,” she says and hangs up, before I have the chance to argue.
Half an hour later, the deep horns of her black Volga, similar to a ship’s, summon me downstairs. The car has well-defined, voluptuous shapes. In 1967’s Socialist Republic of Romania, this car is the privilege of the Party notabilities, like my Uncle Petru.
Aunt Theresa’s hand peers out of the driver’s window. Her wrist is laden with half a dozen gold bracelets that clink merrily when she waves to me. The tip of her fingers clasp a cigarette holder.
My eldest cousin, Matei, is riding shotgun, so I clamber on the backseat, where my youngest cousin, Adam, awaits. Between us, on the red upholstery, a square box with a gliding lid, like the ones that hold the rummy tiles. I wrinkle my nose instantly. The aroma of my aunt’s rose perfume doesn’t cover the smell of putrefaction.
“Are you wearing black?” asks Aunt Theresa.
I show her the dark wool dress I’m wearing under my thick mantle.
“Good,“ she says. “Don’t open the box.”
“Where are we going?” I ask. “And what’s that smell?”
“We need to buy some flowers first,” she says and drives us to the vegetable market. “Don’t tell your mother about this. The low people in our family don’t deserve to know.”
Matei returns with eight white roses and a small crown, like the ones pupils who finish top of the class receive at the end of the school year. It’s made of interwoven bush branches with round, green little leaves. On top of them plastic carnations are glued.
“Alina, Adam, please open the windows in the back,” says Aunt Theresa.
“Where are we going?” I ask again.
“To the St. George monastery,” she says.
My teeth clatter all the way to the Monastery, for the better part of an hour. Religion is not quite forbidden, but it’s something that you don’t practice in public, nor speak of. Just like sex.
We’ve been driving on a humpy dirt road for a few miles. Adam places one hand on top of the wooden box, steadying it, so it would not fall. I can now see the monastery on top of a hill. Aunt Theresa should park the car— we would then continue by foot. To my surprise, she doesn’t stop, but steers left, into the woods. We drive for about ten more minutes on a narrow path, halting in a clearing severed in two by a frozen creek. I recognise the place—in summer, it’s our favourite picnic spot. Behind it, a steep hill where red peonies grow.
Matei fumbles in the trunk and draws out two shovels. He and Adam head for the foot of the hill, begin to dig. My mouth opens and closes. Aunt Theresa begins to sob noiselessly. Tears are clotting the powder on her cheeks, her mink coat trembles. I hear a rustling of leaves, a creaking of branches and see a priest approaching us. Aunt Theresa walks towards him, kisses his hand. She whispers something to him and he nods.
“Help me,” Aunt Theresa says, staring in the open trunk.
I peer over her shoulder. A basket with red wine, a huge ring pretzel baked with honey, coliva. I shudder.
“I suspect your mother never told you about your grandfather,” she says. “He would have liked an open casket. But we never kept him in a cage, you see. He liked to walk around the house. He must have fallen. We searched like crazy, but found him days after he disappeared, between the living room couch and the wall.” A sharp sound, like a banshee shriek, escapes between her sentences. “We found him because of the smell.”
The priest and my cousins are standing next to the little hole in the ground, waiting. She gestures for me to grab the basket, while she extracts the wooden box from the back seat.
“We went to visit your mother once— and she promised that if we ever come to her house again, she’ll tell the authorities where they can find him. The bitch!.” She pauses, caressing the lid of the box like the fur of a beloved pet. “You know what— tell her about this. Tell her she wasn’t invited,” she says.
In the car, Aunt Theresa can’t stop speaking. If she stops, she sobs and she must watch the road. Night has fallen.
“It was right after the communists came to power,” she says. “They were after him— your grandfather had been an important member of the Liberal Party. His friends, they all died while digging the Canal. Killed, beaten, tortured. What was my mother to do? She did what she could, God bless her soul. She shrunk him. Your mother— she wanted to have nothing to do with him. Nothing.” Her voice rises in the cigarette smoke that’s clouding the interior of the Volga. “She never came to see him— not even once. The idiot. How he missed her!”
The smell of putrefaction lingers in the overheated car. I mean to ask how my grandmother shrunk him, but I’m too afraid to interrupt.
Sophie van Llewyn lives in Germany. Her prose has been published by Flash Frontier, Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, Spelk, Five2One Magazine, among others and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently polishing her novella-in-flash. “The Low People in Our Family” might be a chapter from it.