The First Book, The Last Book

excerpts Dear Mother, I'd like to tell you something, and just because if I tried to talk to you about it, you wouldn't let me, I'm putting it in writing. You said to me, I quote: "You go to school, do a good job there, finish well and we'll let you do whatever you want at home, stand on your head if you like! Holiday's coming and you can do whatever you please!" – "Promise?" – "Promise!" you said. Here's how you're keeping your promise: - you scold me for being late once - you scold me for my untidiness - you scold me for not eating - you scold me for wearing another pair of trousers than the one you and Father told me to wear - you scold me for a look - you scold me for a gesture - you scold me for a tone of voice And then why should I keep my word? I'm almost on holiday but my schedule is as horrible as before. So… I'll get up around 9.30 tomorrow and I'll sort out those Passes for you so that the two of you can go to the cinema; I'm not going. 29.12.1972DEAR PARENTS,Please forgive me I haven't written earlier but I haven't had time. I got here all right and I'm having fun. I'm feeling very well and I'm not sorry I've come. The food is good, and I've still got money. We're 16 in the hostel room and we're having loads of fun. We're just back from Brasov. I hitchhiked there with another boy. I'm writing in bed, in a bad position, on the pillow, which is why my handwriting's so bad.A happy New Year to you.Love,CătălinPS My nose is still running. There's snow here, my sledge is the only one on camp and everybody dying for it and asking for it. I can ski fairly well, very well, actually. I can even skate here. 4.2.1973DEAR ROSANA,I'm missing you so I've decided to write to you. And because I don't love anyone else more than I love you, I've drawn something as well. I'll write more often from now on and I'll draw too. I won't write the usual stuff to you because that's not interesting. I'll write instead about stranger things. Such as the story of this horse… This horse is very wise and has been through a great many countries. He's traveled through Transylvania, through Oltenia, through Wallachia, through Moldavia, across the Carpathians and many other places. And sometimes the horse would stop in a very big city called Astinelp. Here he had a very good friend, a cat. And with this cat he shared everything he'd seen. The kitty asked him to take her with him, but the horse said he couldn't take her to other countries until she grew up. And when she did, one holiday, when the whole year she'd caught only ten mice, they both took the train to all these countries the horse knew. Here's a true story, Rosana, and if the cat sticks to the mice, the horse will stick to his word. Cătălin 17.2.1973DEAR ROSANA,Here is the story of the tightrope walker Once upon a time, there was a man who spent his whole life trying to walk the tightrope. After a lot of hard work, he succeeded so he took his rope and went to town; he stretched his rope across the main square and stepped on it but the rope was old and broke. The man fell and said: "One spends a life-time learning, trying to become something, and just when you think you're done, you have to start learning again. Take me, for example, I've fallen, broken my leg and when it's healed again I'll have to learn walking the tightrope all over again. And if you keep learning, when you stop you realize you're still a nothing. And then you remember you've forgotten to be a child. And why's that? Because you were learning!" Rosana dear, there are certain things you may not understand now, but you will later, just a little later.CătălinKisses, and I can't wait to see you May 31, 1973YOU'RE LEAVING FOR A MONTHEven monsters are loved by their mothers.If I am a monster, you still have to love me. Because I love you too.The only people monsters love are their parents.  "Terrible monster. There's only one being that can still find a way To his shriveled heart: his old, pitiful father Whom he thinks of feverishly." So I love you! Forgive me!I have to be good to you! And I am! I swear I am.YOU'RE LEAVING FOR A MONTH  Forgive me for being mean! Forget! I love you! "La plus violente douleur qu'on puisse éprouver, certes, est la perte d'un enfant pour une mère, et la perte de la mère pour un homme." I don't want to lose you… because I love you.  You see, Mother, it's a pity Liti removed the aerial from their TV set, I told you she shouldn't have, but you were the one who said they could take it to Craiova with them, and they didn't even use it, they had to buy another one… and on the walls I'll hang canvases painted by me. We'll only whitewash the ceiling and we'll leave the rest of the room as it is, I like the way it's painted, so what if the paint is old, that's precisely why I like it, it looks like a church. Then we'll decorate the sitting room as well, and we'll store all the old family pictures and all the old stuff in Mae's room, we'll turn that into some kind of repository of relics. As for the little study, we'll remove all the books that are there now and we'll bring our own from Bucharest, not many, though, just a carefully chosen few. We'll take the big poets, Eminescu first of all, and also my big, beautiful book that Emil Botta gave me when I was seven… that's where I first read Eminescu's poems. And I know by heart what Emil wrote on it for me: "Here is a present for Cătălin, for wonderful Cătălin. I wish him a happy journey through the valleys and mountains of the world. May his life be a beautiful song. May you live long, my dear…" – yes, this is what he wrote to me. Do you remember when he brought me a sword? He'd asked you what toy I'd like to get and you'd said "a pistol," but because he couldn't find one, he got me a sword… it was yellow, made of plastic; I kept it for a long time but don't have it anymore now. To go back though… yes, we need to do something about the basement as well, make it look prettier, it's ghastly there right now. I'll put some of my posters on the walls and we'll make that look better as well. Anyway, I'll have loads of work to do, but I'd do it all, if only I could be well again and you'd see what I could do. Father will see too, he'll have to stop saying that I'm not capable of anything, as he's often thrown at me: "You're a loser, you just drop everything! You gave up fencing, you gave up French, you gave up photography" – but I hadn't even started that, I was just going to – "you don't learn anything, you behave like a madman at school, at home you're just a layabout, your clothes are scattered all over the place, you don't study for university, I feed you for nothing! Only a factory or the army could make a man out of you. You walk like a hunchback with that terrible cap pushed low over your eyes as if you were one of those scamps in the street. You've made me all anxious, I even lose my appetite when I see you in front of me. There, I can't even eat anymore, can't sit at the same table with you, I'm going to another room!" And so on and so forth. And you egged him on. You were always the one starting the rows and the two of you had allied against me… Mother, do you remember that terrible scandal about my cap, you know, it was just a week before I went to the hospital, when Father tore my cap, you remember that, I hope, you didn't forget, did you? That's when I think the bleeding started, you've know idea how much I suffered; and I gobbled down that cabbage although I hated it, I'd always hated it, I only ate it so that Father would not find it there when he was back and start a fight again – I don't know why but fights, our fights, always started at the table. I think that cabbage did me the greatest damage. I cried and I thought I'd even go work in a factory, I'd leave home, but I had nowhere to go. I didn't know where to go… I had no idea… But now, when I'm well again, you'll change your life too. You'll stop visiting your friends, where you'd waste whole nights in sterile conversations, you had nothing to learn from there, you'd just lose your sleep; evenings on end I wouldn't even see you, we'd communicate through notes; and the following day you couldn't wake up when I was supposed to go to school, I had to take my own food, had always done that since I was little. And in the last months, before this broke out, when I was sick but I didn't know how seriously, I wouldn't even have breakfast. I'd cut two slices of bread which I'd then bin, mess the shape of the butter – just to fool you that I'd eaten – and I'd only drink the milk… but now we'll live in Plenitsa and when it rains we'll hear the pitter-patter on the roof of the shed, and we'll look at the stars at night, I think in August there are more stars in the sky, no?... But what am I doing, I must have lost it and started doing poetry à la Cristina Tacoi, I've begun to "pathetilosophize." Yes, Mitsi, this is what we'll do and even more than that, when I'm well again… I think differently now, I know that health is the most important thing… no pain is natural… no, Mother, I haven't had pains for four months… the pains started last July, when you were abroad. They started in Cluj, these pains, but I thought they were just stomach aches because I wasn't eating, I was staying at Dita's, not at grandmother Luiza's, and she wasn't cooking so I wasn't eating. In the morning I'd go to community work, be in the sun on the field, and then I'd return at about 4 o'clock, lie down, and then in the evening go to the disco to dance, with Adi Danciu and other people, and when back home I'd just drink about a liter of milk… I ate very little and I thought that's why my stomach ached. Then I got the pains again in the autumn, just after school started. I felt tired. I'd come back from classes and just lie down, and you and Father would say I only went to sleep so as not to study. Whereas, in fact, I was having pains and felt tired. It hurt when I played basketball too… once, when I was at the swimming pool, it hurt so much that I thought I'd drown. Then I told the coach I was sick and could not go swimming anymore. And I didn't. You hadn't the faintest idea, you thought I was still going… but I just couldn't do it anymore. I told him I'd resume in the summer… the pains were just as bad but not continuous, they'd relent every now and then. I wouldn't tell you because I knew there was nothing you could do, nor could the doctors have helped, I knew my body was fighting on its own… ever since last spring I've been feeling tired and down, but I blamed it on some sentimental problems… I had no idea then that the sickness was already in me… but I found out later… What do you say? What's that noise?… Somebody who's got drunk and is enjoying life… and stop repeating everything I say, come up with something new, will you! You're just repeating my words and then sleep! Look how you've fallen asleep here, without even knowing what you're saying… Oh dear, Mitsi! You've fallen asleep giving me a massage… Rosana has shown me how to massage hands and fingers. When we were at Plenitsa in the summer and we were both sleeping in the big bed, and you next to us, and you wouldn't let us move because you couldn't sleep, then we'd massage each other's hands and fingers, in the dark… and in silence… I will be able to fulfill my dream, will I not? You'll help me, Mother, isn't that so that you will? You'll be by my side always and help me, will you? And then we'll draw Father on our side too, he'll come over as well when he retires, and the three of us will be together, united… I'd like to observe all the traditions while we're in Plenitsa, the way Mae does… to make gifts when they celebrate the dead… when's the first holiday when you're supposed to share for the dead? The first when we're in Plenitsa? Saints Peter and Paul? June 29? OK, then, that's when we'll first give out presents… Mother, please don't play the sister of mercy with me! Leave that to the sisters of mercy. You just be so kind and cheer me up! The way you did when I had my tonsils out… you gave me ice-cream and read to me from "The Stone Flower" and you cheered me up. In fact, solitude's been good for me… in solitude I've learnt how to think. When I was little and you would leave me alone in the evening, I'd make up stories for myself, I'd invent them and tell them to myself… and later, when I grew up, I learnt how to think. I came up with a system of thought. When I was about seventeen I checked it and I saw it was good. And now this illness has fully confirmed to me that I know how to think. What good has it done to you, Mother, that you've read so much? Books you don't even remember… just a pile of paper! I've read little, it's true, but I've read the essential books… and then I enjoyed life… I enjoyed knowing life… Mother, I want to tell you something: I'm in a deadlock again. The terrible pains are back. They won't go away with pills, I need injections again. We need to take the plane, I can see we need to take the plane! Somebody won't let me be! Somebody takes decisions in my stead! I can't choose! The sickness inside me will not let me choose! Yes, I can see myself that we need to go earlier than the date initially set, we're leaving tomorrow, on the first plane. Otherwise I have to go to the hospital here again and the third time I won't come out alive. Please ring Father in Bucharest and tell him to ask Liti and Traian to come over, I'd like to ask for their advice, I need to talk about something serious with them. They're the only doctors I trust, and that's not because Liti is your sister, it's not that, it's that I can speak openly to them. When we get to Bucharest, they should be there too. What? You had phials of Fortalgesic and you haven't told me? You've let me agonize for so long?! Oh, Mother! Mother, go take care of everything, pay the hospitalization, buy the medicines, sort out the plane tickets, en fin, do everything that has to be done and let us leave tomorrow even! Look, Mother, I wrote a poem while you were away. It's June 9 today, isn't it? I'll read it to you and if you say it's bad, I'll tear it to pieces right away. I can't tell how it is… no, don't write it down just yet, listen to it first… wait a little… Here goes: A rather monstrous pig, comes to cheerfully lieIn the sticky slime and the warm, thick mud The black foam he's in, with its acrid smell Envelops him tenderly, making him feel swell. A child's there standing in the dusty road And he's watching him sadly his thoughts a wee mad… The hog's thin legs with their small hooves Move about slowly in the stinky clay. The ferocious neckline swollen and fat Rubs itself happy on a ditch-side splinter. Black, heavy drops ooze down his snout Then he slowly departs all dripping and grunting The child in the road with his eyes weeping Goes with his wane face to the empty ditch. I think I'm going to faint, I can't stand on this travelator anymore. I feel I'm just about to fall down. I won't make it to the plane. Can't do it anymore, my legs won't help me. The wonderful goodies Ioana S. has sent and I can't enjoy them… she doesn't even know who we are and what we look like, until recently she didn't even know we existed, and now she's sent us all this stuff. I won't wear my wig at the Otopeni airport or Father won't be able to tell how sick I am. Better he sees me like this, bald as I am. My country, my country, I'm back in my country. Mother, I know that only cancer pains won't go away with anything. Hello, people, my friends, you've no idea what suffering means! Take care of yourselves… Mihnea's done me a lot of harm… it hurt to see that he didn't understand anything I was going through, how serious my illness was… he kept telling me to try to belong, but how could I belong when they were healthy?! And he didn't approve of my departure. He said I should stay there and go on with the treatment. And he said to Mother why was she listening to me, she shouldn't mind me and we shouldn't go back home… he didn't understand anything. Somebody help me! Somebody sedate me! If a horse breaks its leg, he's put down immediately, why are you letting me suffer like this? They were right, the Spartans, to kill the sick, the helpless. When they fall ill, people should be shot. Don't you realize that I could kill myself one day? Dear Traian, your letter's done me a lot of good. I've carried it with me here, in my breast pocket. And whenever I had doubts and felt down, I read it. It's been my moral support. I would read it and cry. You've been the only one who wrote to me, to me directly, everybody else wrote to Mother and encouraged her, you were the only one who thought of writing to me. But then everybody else was healthy, only you'd suffered a lot and knew what that meant. I've always believed in you and I believed you'd get well again and I resented Mother because she didn't believe in you and interfered in your and Liti's life. I never agreed that Liti should leave you, the way Mother and Father taught her… yes, your letter has been a great help. Professor Maurice wanted to keep me there because for him I was a case. He wanted to see how my body would react… they're only interested in the body's reaction, in the way in which the body fights against the disease. My body's put up a good fight, the best it could and for as long as it could. But now… not even Maurice understood my state… from now on. He'd made an appointment to see me on June 23. Albatros, 1977 Cătălin BURSACI was the above-the-average rebel teenager whose youthful, enthusiastic plans are often tempered by surprising maturity. His dreams were cut short by cancer, but the poems, stories, scripts, memoirs, and drawings that survived him formed the substance of a singular book.

by Cătălin Bursaci (1957-1975)