by Tash Turner-Cohen
HE IS EVERYWHERE
Framed on the wall of every decrepit little office.
Who is he? He has many names.
I call him simply Nicolae Ceaușescu.
I walk through the bleak streets of Bucharest. Large colourless apartments stand triumphantly over me. The shapeless blocks suffocate all below in grey shadows.
I pass another poster of Nicolae plastered on a lamppost. He gives me a tight-lipped smile, ebony hair shining from a manufactured angelic light, with the Romanian flag behind him. The caption reads: Twenty-four years since the rise of our great leader. The years of light.
I smirk at the last bit. How ironic when each room is limited to a single forty-watt bulb and the power is regularly cut. As fast as the smirk comes, I wipe it from my face. I look around to make sure no-one has seen. No faces peek from the thousands of windows above. Even so, I feel uneasy. Anyone could be the secret police—the Securitate—or their informers.
Nicolae has eyes and ears everywhere, in the friendly handshake of a co-worker, the warm embrace of a neighbour, even in the innocent smile of a child. A plague of informers has overcome the land, and nobody is immune.
My apartment is identical to those all over Romania. One white box stacked on top of a hundred more. After seven flights of stairs, I reach apartment 731. Before I even step inside, my mother begins:
“How was work? Did that handsome coworker ask you out?”
I sigh. “No, mamă. I’m not interested.”
“Not interested? How else will you start a family?”
“What if I don’t want– ”
“It is your national duty. You don’t want to pay the Celibacy Tax all your life, do you?”
I don’t attempt to answer. Only the colourless walls and faded floorboards will ever hear me.
My mother is slumped on the sofa, staring at the TV. The ever-present Nicolae. He waves and smiles at us from the television, while the media lavish praise upon his plan to abolish Romania’s debt by rationing everything.
My mother’s eyes snag on my face. On top of my sharp cheekbones she sees the crescent-moon shaped cut.
“Did orphans attack you on the way home?”
I wish I could say that was the case, but it’s more pathetic.
“I tripped on the factory equipment.”
She rushes to the kitchen to get some salve, and says, “You can’t even walk straight. I’ll have to look after you all your life.”
Now Nicolae’s wife, Elena Ceaușescu is on screen—the Mother of the Nation. Her hair is shoulder-length in two bulbous black flaps like the ears of a dog. A cheering crowd echoes through the tinny speaker as Elena is honoured with another scientific award.
“Codoi,” I mutter, giving her the nickname she earned when she mispronounced carbon-dioxide. Of course, Elena isn’t a scientific genius. All her award-winning papers and PhDs were obviously written by others.
Everybody knows it.
Nobody says it.
“Sabina!” my mother exclaims. “Don’t say that!” She furtively looks around the small house, as if one of the Securitate might be hiding behind the stove. “The Ceaușescus have done amazing things for our nation,” she says to the walls as if this might cleanse my blasphemy.
“Do you really believe that?”
“Yes! And so do you.”
I am silent. My mother smiles at Ceaușescu on the screen, wrinkles deepening around her eyes as if she thinks he can see. My father used to sit beside her, but not for many years. The Securitate took him away and we never saw him again. I like to think he was brave enough to publish a pamphlet slandering Nicolae, but most likely he expressed discontent to an informer hiding under the guise of friendship. Ever since his arrest, my mother has been nothing but obedient.
I can’t stand it, so I go to my room. It’s a small suffocating box with a too-large bed pressed against the walls, the frame buckling in the middle. Under the bed is my prized possession. A typewriter.
I don’t have a permit, but that doesn’t stop me. After a tiresome day the soft thuds of the typebars hitting the paper calm my roiling mind. I never keep the things I write. I burn them. The flame always devours my treason until all that is left is a ghost of my voice in the ashes. But the act of writing, of voicing my thoughts is all I can ask for.
Even if no-one ever hears.
I look under my bed. The dust motes swirl in the disturbed space. There is nothing there.
My breathing stalls. The walls seem to close in around me. I leave my room and stand in front of the television.
“Sabina, I’m trying to watch,” my mother says.
“Did you take it?” My voice is quiet.
“You know what. My typewriter.”
“You wouldn’t own a typewriter.” There’s a strange lilt to her voice.
“Without a permit that’s illegal. And we would never do anything against the state in this house. Can you please move?”
She’s destroyed it, I know.
“I need that typewriter!”
“Shhhh. We wouldn’t want our neighbours to hear.”
I move and let her continue watching Nicolae on the screen. My chest tightens. My breaths are shallow and fast. I don’t know who I am angrier with, my mother or our great leader. I open my mouth to shout but shut it.
There is nothing I can say.
Instead I mutter: “I’m going to the grocery store.”
“Sabina wait. That cut is what you get for being clumsy. Imagine what you’d get for being a dissenter. There’s nothing you can ever do that will change things.”
I turn to look at her. Now that her mask has melted away, the lines around her face seem deeper and darker. She looks defeated.
“What are you to Nicolae?” she says. “What is one young girl to a god?”
I touch the crescent-shaped cut in shame then leave.
Outside the wind is harsh, slapping my face with its frosty hands. The colourless buildings blur into one grey streak as I cycle through the streets.
At the shops there is a long line through the doorway onto the pavement, made of a wall of fidgeting limbs as people press against each other, waiting for their rations. I join the queue. Soon more people line up behind me and I am enclosed in warm bodies. Their boney elbows stick into my back and they press into my ribcage. I’m just one nobody in a heaving mass of nobodies.
It takes half an hour to reach the ticket kiosk. Before buying
anything I have to get a ration ticket.
“Bună ziua,” I greet the shopkeeper. “Can I have—”
A tall youth grabs my shoulder and pushes forward. He can’t be older than eighteen but carries himself as if he owns the place. Peeping from his cuff is the golden glimmer of an expensive watch.
“Excuse me, wait your turn,” I say.
He pushes his long hair behind his ear. He could get into trouble. Long hair is a sign of decadence and capitalism. It is as if the man thinks he’s untouchable by the Securitate. He laughs at me, an airless rumble.
“What makes you think you’re better than all of us, who’ve been waiting in line?” I say, looking at the shopkeeper. “Tell him.”
“Sir, you can’t—” The shopkeeper’s voice peters out as his eyes fix on a twenty lei note in the youth’s hand. He pushes it into the shopkeeper’s palm, receiving a nod—permission to enter.
Before he goes in, the youth turns to me. His eyes linger on my
crescent-moon cut. “It’s the way the world works. Better get used
I open my mouth to tell him that he can’t do that, he isn’t better than me, but it’s pointless. There is nothing I can do.
After all, what’s one young nobody to the rich
PEOPLE IN THE queue press together like the tightly-packed vertebrae of a snake. How pathetic. They think if they obey the rules they’ll get a personal ‘thank you’ from good ol’ Nic Ceaușescu. As if he’ll pop by this crumby shop and shake their hands. I shove through, past the frustrated girl with the crescent-shaped cut.
The shop has many counters, crowded with flocks of timid people. I shoulder my way to the front of the cold meat and cheese counter. Only a single rectangle of cedar cheese is left.
“Two-hundred grams of cedar!” a man shouts. He has the acrid stench of oil. A factory worker.
The shop assistant wraps the last block of cedar in paper.
“Actually I’ll have the cedar,” I say.
“Wait your turn,” the factory-worker snaps.
I take out a twenty lei note from my pocket and slide it over the counter. The shop assistant hesitates, uncertain. It doesn’t last long. It never does. The coloured pieces of paper in my wallet poisons everyone’s sense of decency, bending them to my will.
Next stop is one that good ol’ Nic wouldn’t approve of. I walk to the train line and wait beside the tracks. I hear a low hiss. It grows, louder and louder, until it turns into screeches of protest as the train is forced to a stop. International trains never stop in Romania, ordered by Nic himself. But this one does. It’s surprising how a couple of lei make the impossible possible.
I leap onto the last carriage and slip the guard the money as arranged. A quick on and off, taking a crate from the cargo-hold and the job is done. The train gives a low grumble then chugs on. Nic’s none the wiser.
I open the crate of sinful goods. Cigarettes, coffee, jeans, rock-cassettes, typewriters and my best seller—birth control. The hardest to get. It has to be undetectable by the Menstrual Police. Nasty business if you ask me. All those women, all getting checked for babies by Securitate. And ‘checking’ entails more than a few friendly questions. I provide them with a choice, one my mother never had. And make a tidy profit at the same time. A win-win situation.
Everyone at some point needs something Nic has forbidden. I slither around his blind spots, providing any sort of apple people desire, all the while thickening my pockets.
I see a warped poster of my dear friend Nic on a street-pole. I tip my head toward him and wink.
It’s said one in four people are a Securitate rat. I don’t know if Romania’s vermin problem is really that bad. All I know is that money can buy a lot of things, including silence. Nic has his soldiers, and I have my wallet. He might be a god, but even God can’t stop the devil.
I reach the forgotten side of Bucharest. The great plan for urban modernization deemed it a lost cause. Houses sag, with rust on the window frames like copper tears. Buildings lean on each other drunkenly, so worn and drowsy I’m scared they’ll soon collapse from exhaustion. Half the streetlights have given up, after teenagers threw rocks at them for a giggle. The other half still flicker, stubbornly clinging to life.
I arrive at the Palace of the Forgotten. It’s an orphanage filled with the decretei—children of the decree. Most are here due to Nicolae’s ingenious decree: 770. Ban birth control and abortions, and the population rises. He was right too, but he didn’t plan for the thousands of unwanted children.
The orphanage has dark windows like the beady eyes of a spider, evoking as much disgust as one too. It reeks of piss and sour cabbages. Although the house is swollen with children, it’s silent.
Home, sweet home, I think. This silence was the music of my youth. We all learnt crying was a waste of breath as no-one was there to listen. As soon as the umbilical cord was severed, my mother abandoned me here. I honestly don’t blame her or care. The cold caress of my leather wallet gives me more comfort and security than a mother ever could.
When I was old enough, I got the hell out of that orphanage. I’ve been free for three years. Some of my friends aren’t so lucky.
I knock on the far-left window.
Toma opens it and leans out. His blonde hair is matted and his eyes sunken in shadow-filled sockets. “Dragos!”
I lift him onto the street and give him the cheese. It should last him a few days if he nibbles. Opening the crate, I pick out a kiwi fruit.
He turns the furry brown fruit in his hands. “Do I boil it like
I stifle a laugh and show him how to peel it.
He tears into it, barely tasting the sweet flesh. I left the orphanage when Toma was seven. He’s ten now.
“Somebody else has been helping me,” Toma says.
“No. A man caught me trying to steal Pepsi. I thought I was done for. Then he saw those jeans you gave me and bought me a whole carton!”
A bad feeling coils around my gut.
“He said he’d look out for me, like you,” Toma continues. “He really wants to meet you, so I told him you usually come Wednesdays.”
“Toma!” A shout comes from behind.
From around the corner, a man appears and ruffles Toma’s hair. His clothes are bland and colourless, like an average Romanian, but his hair gives him away. It’s closely cropped, no strands out of place. He’s one of Nic’s disciples—the Securitate.
“You must be Dragos. Toma has told me all about you.” He sticks out his hand. “I’m Cezar.”
I stay silent and don’t accept his offered hand.
“Dragos, what are you doing?’ Toma protests at my rudeness.
The man smiles. The smile of a predator with its prey wriggling in its claws. “Toma’s been telling me all about the jeans and fruits you give him,” Cezar says.
Toma puts a finger to his lips. “We have to keep it secret.”
Cezar kicks the lid off my crate, revealing the illicit goods within. He tuts as if I am a petulant child. It’s like I’m back in the orphanage, having displeased the ‘carers’. Once I would have been terrified. But not this time. I have a protector of my own.
“Toma, your friend and I have to leave,” Cezar says.
The boy’s brow furrows. “When will you come back?”
“That’s up to the justice of our Great Leader to decide,” he says.
I reach into my pocket, feeling the reassurance of my wallet. My guardian angel. I give a bored sigh and take out a wad of cash. “That should be enough,” I say.
He doesn’t even glance at the money. “If you resist, this won’t end well for either of you.”
“What do you want? Give me a figure. There must—”
Cezar raises a hand, silencing me. “What is money to me? I’m a soldier of Ceaușescu. I can have anything I want.”
My gut constricts, making my breath quicken. My money is nothing but useless pieces of paper. I drop my wallet and vaguely hear it splash in a puddle. He will arrest me, and there’s not a goddamn thing I can do. What am I to him?
What is a rich man to the law?
PROCESSED, TRANSFERRED, IMPRISONED. That’s what the future holds for the lowly youth, Dragos. I was once just like him, a purposeless orphan, lost in the shadowy streets of an aimless existence. That was until Ceaușescu recruited me. I have never actually met the Great Leader, but I feel I know him. There is a framed portrait of him in my office and it’s reassuring to feel his persistent gaze, guiding my path. I nod to him as I leave.
The roads are nearly empty as few can afford petrol, but normal rules don’t apply to me. My car glides through the streets, unhindered by traffic.
I take the familiar route to Ani’s house. As I drive, I think of her. Her eyes are a hazel-flecked green like the shimmer of rocks under an emerald sea. I’ve never been far from Bucharest, so I’ve never seen the ocean. But I imagine it would look just like her eyes.
As an orphan I had to beg, scavenge and steal everything—food, blankets, shoes. Now as a soldier of Ceaușescu, I want for nothing. Except her. It’s a terrifying feeling—wanting something with no promise of ever getting it. A feeling I haven’t experienced since my orphan days. But it’s also invigorating.
Ani’s house is on the bottom floor of an austere apartment block. Her door looks identical to thousands of others, but this one beckons me. I straighten my collar and pointlessly smooth my closely cropped hair. I knock. She opens the door.
“Cezar,” she sighs. “What is it this time?”
I clear my throat and try to not let my smile falter. “May I come in?”
She doesn’t open the door any further. Only a sliver of her fine features appears through the crack. “What do you want?” she says.
“I was wondering if we could talk. Maybe inside over some tea?”
If it were anyone else, I would force myself in. “I just want to know who is this Dorin? You’ve been calling him a lot,” I say.
“You’ve been listening to my phone calls? Of course, you have. It’s none of your business. Now go. Please.”
Anger rises within me. Who is Dorin to me? What can he give her that I can’t a million times over? “Why won’t you give me a chance?” I say.
“You know why. You’re Securitate.”
“Yes I am! I have the power to tap any phone I like. I have the power to lock up someone and throw away the key if they so much as look at me the wrong way. If Ceaușescu’s a god, then I’m an angel. And who are you to deny me?” My breathing is heavy, rattling as I inhale.
“If Ceaușescu’s a god and you his angel, then I’d prefer to live
My anger drains away and something colder and far more dangerous crawls in to take its place. “Maybe I’ll whisper something in God’s ear,” I say. “Maybe I’ll tell Ceaușescu that Dorin has been spreading dissent. Then we’ll see if he can protect you—or even himself.”
Only now does she open the door, revealing herself to me in her thin white nightgown. “You can’t.”
“Why not? Who can stop me?”
I turn my back on her. I walk toward my car and enjoy the sound of her calling my name. She runs after me, barefoot in her thin nightgown. A silk strap slips off her slender shoulder.
“You don’t know what this means,” she cries, as I start the engine. “I need him.”
I drive off.
The following week, I drive by Ani’s place, hoping that she will see things my way now Dorin’s gone. I knock on her door a few times, but she doesn't answer. I think I might not see her again but our paths cross at the local infirmary.
I hate hospitals. The walls are aggressively white and the polished floors squeal with cleanliness. But you can’t escape the smell. No matter how many times the floors are swept, tables wiped and bed-sheets changed, that smell still lingers. The smell of death.
I stride quickly through the corridors, not wanting the smell to weave itself into my clothes, hair and skin. I enter Ward C, Operating Theatre 2. I want to make this quick.
A doctor approaches, pulling down his surgical mask. “She’s in here,” he says.
A girl lies splayed on the operating table. Blood spreads like a spider-web through the bed-sheets. I’ve seen a lot of blood in my line of work, but never so much as this…well, not from anyone still alive. The smell is metallic, as if I have licked a coin. An illegal abortion gone wrong. One of hundreds that happen every day.
“The sooner this is over, the better for both of us,” I say to the girl, as I walk toward her. “All I need from you is the name of the person who helped you, and this doctor will save your life.”
Beads of sweat dot her forehead in salty rain. Death seems to have claimed most of this girl, except for her eyes. They still sparkle, a bright sea green with hazel-flecks.
“Ani?” I clasp her hand. It is slippery, but I don’t care. “Why did you do this?”
Despite her weak condition she laughs, a pathetic wheezing sound. “Dorin. Without him, I could not have supported a child.”
Always under Ceaușescu’s guiding gaze, I thought there was nothing I could do wrong, nothing I’d ever regret. “You need to tell me who did this. Who gave you the abortion?”
She arches her back as a wave of pain shoots through her but remains silent.
“Give me a name for God’s sake!” Her gaze seers into mine, and I feel myself swept away in a tide of regret.
“I would rather die than betray the person who helped me.”
“You have to,” I say. “Ceaușescu has declared anyone who doesn’t cooperate will be denied medical treatment.”
She shuts her eyes and takes a shaky breath, as if to prepare herself. Her hand slips from my grasp.
“I wish it wasn’t this way. There is nothing I can do,” I say. I turn to leave but stop, unable to take another step. Ever since I was an orphan I always wanted to visit the ocean. But now all I can think about is Ani’s liquid gaze. The enchanted waters in her eyes are turning stagnant, filling with salty tears, soon to become the Dead Sea.
I look at the doctor. “Give her the treatment.”
His eyes widen. “But Ceaușescu says—”
“I don’t care. Give her the treatment.”
The doctor is silent for a moment then excuses himself to get some equipment.
I look at Ani, her delicate body shuddering with each breath. I hear the door open.
“If there’s anything I despise more than a dissenter, it’s a turncoat,” a baritone voice says.
The doctor hasn’t returned but instead there is a man with short-cropped hair, not a strand out of place. Another Securitate. I close my eyes and sigh. I, of all people, should know Ceaușescu’s persistent gaze sees all.
I stroke Ani’s cheek one last time, feeling the sticky sweat. There is nothing I can do for the both of us. Who am I to break Ceaușescu’s divine law?
Who am I to a god?
21 December 1989—
I AM EVERYWHERE
Smiling at you on flags.
Looking at you from the television.
Framed in your office.
Who am I?
I am God.
My rifle sits proudly on a stand in the middle of my office. The telescopic sight is more powerful than any other rifle. I peer through and see on the skirting board specks of dust. My hands fit perfectly into the contours of the handle.
This rifle was a present from the Queen of England herself. Even she aims to please The Nicolae Ceaușescu. I remember the last time I used it, and smile.
It was in the countryside. The trees there grew wild, their roots exploding through the ground. Their gnarled branches twisted high into the heavens. The forest creaked as if in greeting.
My personal hunter pointed ahead, signaling my prey. I crept slowly. Through the trees lay a verdant carpet of grass and on it was a great black bear. It had been captured from the icy rivers of Alaska and, upon my order, flown to Romania. All for this moment.
It lumbered around in circles, snarling. My hunter whispered urgently, fearing the drugs were wearing off, that its keen primal instincts might return.
I didn’t rush. I never did. Things happened when I wished them to. Through the scope, I lined up the bear, aiming for the heart. But I didn’t pull the trigger. I paused to admire the beast. Muscles rippled under its lush fur coat. Its claws had been clipped, but a single swipe could still disembowel any mere man.
My shot rang through the woods. The bear fell.
“Cut it, stuff it,” I had ordered my hunter. “That makes 385.” I smile as I recall and put the rifle back on its display. It’s a reminder that everything, even nature, bends to my will.
My wife, Elena comes in. Her hair is pulled into a tight silver bun. The corners of her mouth are downturned, giving her a sharp frown.
“They’re ready for you,” she says.
I hold her hand. Together we walk the halls of the palace we built from nothing. We handpicked every detail, from the 3,500 tonnes of crystal to the 1,000,000 cubic metres of marble. So much marble that none is left for headstones. It’s a sacrifice the people were willing to make for their Great Leader. I designed this place to be fit for the gods. Fit for me.
Elena places my favourite căciulă in my hands. It is a traditional hat, a symbol of my beloved country, made from a bear’s pelt. The black furry material fits snugly around my head, matching the lapels of my overcoat. I always think of this final touch as a black-halo around my head.
“Remember, don’t film my side profile,” I hear Elena say to the media crew. “Only record my husband upwards.”
A Securitate nods to me. “Conducător, all the factory workers have been herded into the palace square. The placards have been handed out, the orders and cues given to them. The cameras are ready to film live.”
I open the door and we step onto the balcony. Beneath us is a heaving mass of 80,000 people, waving placards with images of our faces. Many black lenses watch me as I am broadcast live into the homes of every Romanian.
The crowd is an ocean of tiny insignificant people, their voices cheering and blending together into one. From my vantage point, the limbs and lives join into one mass as if they are a single organ. Romania is a living being—the people the entrails, and I the heart.
I lift my hand, silencing the roar. “Dear comrades, I wish you success in all your fields of activity.” Another wave of cheering begins. I wait and nod till it subsides. “Citizens of Bucharest, capital of Socialist Romania, we have come—”
I hear a sound foreign to my ears. It isn’t a cheer. I pause. The people and cameras stare up at me, expectantly. I open my mouth in uncertainty and look toward the sound. I find the face in the crowd.
She’s a young girl, plain in her features, unremarkable except for her scar. It’s on her cheek in the shape of a crescent-moon. She looks directly at me. And boos. People around her look shocked, afraid, though a few smile at her audacity. But they no longer smile at me. Instead, they snarl.
Like a cancer, the dissent rips through the crowd, the cheers mutating into jeers. Placards of my face are hurled to the ground. The cancerous outbreak has metastasized. The whole crowd and now surges toward the palace.
“Down with Ceaușescu! Down with the murderers!”
“Talk to them!” Elena screams.
For the first time I am at a loss for words. I stand still, mouth open, bewildered. The savage crowd is growling now, roaring. The cameras never stop filming. Romania sees their great leader—their God—
frozen in confusion and fear.
“Stay quiet!” None are listening to me. “Hello?”
I tap the microphone, thinking—hoping—this is just a technical problem.
“Down with Ceaușescu!” the crowd chants, “Romania awake!”
I raise my hand to calm them, the same hand that held the power of life and death only moments ago, the hand that pulled the trigger. But now it is as if the drugs are wearing off the bear. The people surge towards us.
There is nothing I can do.
I STOOD IN the crowd, thousands surrounding me, trapped in a suffocating coffin made of fidgeting limbs. Warm bodies pressed against me, squeezing the air from my lungs. I was just one nobody amongst a heaving mass of nobodies.
We clapped when they told us and cheered when they told us.
It had been two weeks and my cut hadn’t vanished, but instead had scarred. Neither had the despair at my mother’s destruction of my typewriter. It was as if Nicolae wanted to strip everything from
“Long live the Ceaușescus!” we all chanted.
I cheered as well, my voice drowned out in the swell of sound. I saw Him, on the balcony, waving his hand to silence us. He began to speak.
All heard His voice.
Yet none would ever hear mine.
I imagined my mother at home, in her devotions before the TV, smiling at Nicolae. She wouldn’t even bother looking for me in the crowd. He began his sermon, praising the heavenly state of Romania under his divine rule. I didn’t hear his words but something else. I heard the soundless cries of the forgotten orphans, the echoes of protest from the thousands imprisoned for speaking their mind, the screams of women on top of dirty kitchen tables, terminating pregnancies.
And then I booed.
Once, twice. I couldn’t stop.
The nobodies all turned their heads to me, mouths agape at my blasphemy. Nicolae paused in his speech and looked directly at me. Finally, he’d heard me. He’d seen me. And I’d seen who he was.
He was no god.
“Down with Ceaușescu!” I shouted. “Down with the murderers!”
Another voice joined mine. And another. Until a chorus began with my chant, our voices merging into one – the voice of the people. The grief, frustration, anger which we had buried within us, manifested in a loud savage roar.
I saw Nicolae speaking, but no-one was listening anymore.
Because who was he now?
A very old man in a pathetic fur hat.
After all, what is a god to those who don’t believe?
Four days later the Ceaușescus were executed and buried in an unmarked grave.
Tash Turner-Cohen is a Sydney university student, studying psychology, and a writer of novels and short stories. She is currently writing a novel for a historical fantasy series. This piece has been meticulously researched, with many books from first-hand accounts of personal interactions with the ruler and experiences in the oppressed Romania, as well as an interview with someone who lived there at the time. However, she took creative liberties to fill in the gaps and find the personal darkness within the public story.
© 2020 Tash Turner-Cohen