Beyond this second row of buildings, the town sprawled out to the horizon, covering half the window with an increasingly minced, confusing, indistinct, random mixture of the vegetal and architectural, with poplars’ spears soaring up here and there, and strange domes arching their backs among the clouds. Very far in the distance I could make out (since my mother had shown them to me as a child, against the skies after the storm) the zigzagging shape of the “Victoria” shopping centre, several very tall high-rises in the centre, decades old and built like some ziggurats, laden with red, green and blue neon signs, which flashed in different rhythms; and farther still, only the thickening density of stars on the horizon, forming, way out, an edge of old gold. Inset like a gem in the ring of stars, nocturnal Bucharest filled my windows, poured in and seeped into my body and brain so deeply that even as a teenager I imagined it as a commingling of flesh, stone, cephalo-rachidian liquid, steel angle bars and urine, which, supported by vertebrae and architraves, enlivened by statues and obsessions, digesting with intestines and thermal stations, would have reduced us to one entity. Indeed, sitting at night on the wooden frame of the sofa and with my feet up on the radiator, it wasn’t just me contemplating the city, the city was also spying on me, was dreaming of me, it, too, was getting excited; for the city was but the substitute of my yellowish spectre looking back at me from the window pane when the light was on. I was in my early twenties when I lost this image. That’s when they laid the foundations of the high-rise opposite, when they decided to widen and resurface the road, to tear down the bakery, the filling station for soda bottles and the kiosks, and to build a wall of high-rises taller than ours on the other side of the street. It was a frosty winter and the sky was white and clear after a long snow. Every now and then, I looked out the window. A yellow excavator was demolishing, by pounding with its indented bucket, the building where a lascivious woman used to live, a woman that has never shown herself naked to me. The insides of the rooms were empty and were clearly visible in the ruin made even more pathetic by the snow. Bucharest was having one of its kidneys crushed, a gland extirpated, maybe a vital one. Maybe underneath the hide of the city, just like underneath the scab of a wound, there were indeed subterraneous passages and maybe this extremely lustful housewife, who had never (for some whim?) shown herself naked to me, had been some sort of centre, matrix of this underground life. Now, her alveolus was crumbling like plaster. Before long, the other side of the road looked like a ruined denture, with yellowed snags and empty places and gaps of metallic rottenness. The snow smelled awfully good – I’d opened a big third of the thin, wet window, putting out my head with its freshly cut hair, so that my nape and ears would become freezing cold and I could watch the steam rushing out of the room –, but beyond its crisp scent, fresh like that of laundry frozen on the line, my mind could detect the stench of destruction. And if it is true that the cerebral hemispheres have developed out of the ancient olfactory bulb, the metaphysical stench, reek, the smell of time’s armpits, the acrid dishcloth sniff of approaching ecstasy, the garden cress whiff of madness – all these are, perhaps, our most profound thoughts. By spring, the foundations had been dug, scabies-like ditches cut through the clay, pink and black cables uncoiled from huge wooden reels, taller than a man, and the concrete skeleton rose obscuring one strip of Bucharest after another, choking its rustling vegetation and obliterating its gables, its gorgons, its domes, and its overlapping terraces. Plywood and wrought iron encasements, uneven and unstable, the scaffolding the workers climbed on, the asphalt spreading machine billowing smoke, the new concrete power-line towers piled up in stacks, which were supposed to replace the rusty metallic crucifixes – all this seemed to be the visible parts of a conspiracy meant to tear me away from Bucharest, from myself, from the fifteen years during which, sitting on the wooden frame and with my feet up on the radiator, I had pulled the curtains apart and watched the vast skies of the city. A wall was being raised, a part of my mind was being closed, from now on I was going to be denied access to everything I'd projected out of myself and into each of the cubes and rectangles and the black green and the yellow green and the moon thin like a nail reflected in all the windows. When I was seven or eight, my parents made me sleep in the afternoon. The wardrobe was then parallel to the bed and, for minutes on end, I would look at myself in its yellow lustre, a dark-eyed child sweating under the sheet and unable to fall asleep for a moment at least. When the sun reflected on the veneer blinded me, making me see purple spots, I would turn with my face to the wall to watch, tracing every little flower and crimson leaf, the pattern of the upholstery of the side of the sofa next to the wall. I could see coarse symmetries in the floral labyrinth, unexpected groups, animal heads and figures of men, with which I made up stories that should have continued in my dreams. But sleep wouldn't ever come, it was too light, and it was the white, October light that made me decide to play with fire: I would listen for noises coming from my parents’ room and then I would get up quietly and tiptoe to the window. The image of the city was now dusty and remote. The road took a wide turn to the left, so I could already see the buildings on our side of the street towards Lizeanu and Obor. Far in the distance you could see the Firemen’s Watchtower, and behind it the thermal station with the paraboloids of its chimneys exhausting a still smoke. The poplars looked straight and ogival, but the closer ones betrayed their loaded heredity: the branches, full of rustling, up-pointing leaves, were not straight but curly, like some recently unbraided plaits. I would place my forehead against the window pane and, drowsy with insomnia, I would wait for it to be five o’clock, but time seemed to have stopped, and the terrifying image of my father rushing through the door, with a stocking knotted around his head like a fez to hold back his black thick hair, never left my mind. During these times stolen from the obligatory afternoon nap, I contemplated once the most beautiful sight ever. It was after a summer storm with lightning spreading out in all directions on the suddenly darkened sky, so dark that I couldn’t say where it was darker, inside the room or outside, and with a downpour of rain whose each parallel strand was wrapped in a vapour of fine drops jumping lazily in all directions. When the rain stopped, suddenly there was light between the black sky and the gray wet city. It was as if two palms were protecting infinitely gently the fresh transparent yellow light, which was sitting on surfaces, painting them saffron and lemon, but mostly turning the air golden, giving it the glow of a glass prism. Slowly, the clouds broke and other shafts of that rarefied gold fell at a slant and interfered with the initial light, making it even more intense, clearer and fresher. Spread out on the hills, with the mercury-like steeples of the metropolitan church, with all its windows ablaze like a sodium flame, and entangled in the rainbow, Bucharest was a retable painted on my triple window, the sill of which I could barely touch with my collarbones. Humanitas 2002 Translated by Dana Crăciun

by Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956)