When I noticed it for the first time, it was only a swelling on the right cheek. I didn’t make too much of it. And I think it didn’t matter too much for her, either. After all, it was nothing worth noticing. My auntie was well beyond her half-century existential mark and I guess that, in her opinion, it didn’t matter which way the scale of the aesthetic tilted. For a woman that was newly past her sixty years of age, that is. At least that was how women were judging things at the time around the place I grew up in. Not that she was some incommensurate beauty in her youth which was now as far from her as the waves out into the sea. It was just that in her adolescent years thinking of marriage – even after being on the shelf – she still deluded herself there was something more out there. That the flame still burns. She was, as everyone else, a love-yearning soul. And that gave her hope somehow.
She had toiled enough to stir some grain of fire into a man’s heart. Eventually, her efforts bore fruit. Though she was less pretty, she got married, gave birth to two children and found a good job in the public sector. A pretty good score for a young girl who wasn’t worth a scrap in the eyes of most of her high school classmates. So was her future, as dark as an oil stain lost into the sea water.
I can hear her now, whispering – years from now – breathing surreptitiously into the phone, hiding her words like a hag inside the church, denuding time with some childhood old friend or classmate, saying to her that some chick had become a slut. At the end of the conversation she had her long-awaited moment of satisfaction. You would’ve bet half your fortune with no fear of losing. Because she would’ve given her right arm just to watch that slut. To taste the moment when the hope for a thriving life eluded the wanton, along with the bustle of the landslides. Not to talk to her, just to watch her. Demons aren’t consumed too easily. They remain hidden. They smolder and burn up like coals struggling with the grill not being splashed with water.
Sometimes – most of the times! – eyes have their own way of telling like it is.
Slowly, the swelling became noticeable. My auntie was convinced, just like everybody else, that something was wrong with the blob on her cheek. A few visits to the doctor followed. It wasn’t any sort of tumor, a fact that pleased everybody. It was rather a clump of fat. The only remedy: surgery. Which she decided to postpone from pecuniary motives. She had two kids, after all. And one of them in the first year of college. The better part of the family income went into their education.
Our families were visiting each other on a weekly basis at the time. Later, after my father had been offered a job with a construction company, we migrated two hundred kilometers away from the place where I was born. The waiting took us some time (especially me and my brother), but we saw the bright side of it. The city of Bucharest was much bigger with lots of future prospects after we would finish wearing down the school desks. From then on, our visits became sparse. Until it was concluded that the most benefic visits were those on holidays. For both parties, that is.
With every Christmas or Easter that passed, my auntie’s outgrowth became more and more obvious. Especially for those of us who saw her months apart. Until it grew no less than foul. It seemed as though someone stuck a pink little ball on her cheek. It was right in our eye, no happy thing for the poor lady. But her husband Sile, our uncle, lost his job and things were quite bad for the Cazacu family, so the money to surgically extirpate that bump was nowhere to be found.
There was a time when uncle Sile had a decent salary, at a security company, flexible shifts – this allowed him a day or two off moonlighting on some nearby construction sites. But that was before he damaged his back from so much lifting and before the security company where he was legally employed to throw in the towel.
I remembered our parents offered their help. I think it happened during an Easter visit. Against all expectations, Vera – who was a bit snappy by nature – took the offer pretty well. Who wouldn’t, come to think of it.
The pre-surgery examination was made exactly one month since our visit, and the result wasn’t quite satisfying. The swelling was quite different from what it was initially. It was never diagnosed as cancer, but I cannot imagine what else could’ve grown so virally. On top of that, it was strongly vascular. That was a major issue for a hypertensive person as Auntie Vera facing a surgery which – after the details of that last examination – was priced more than a second-hand Opel.
We were notified by phone. Obviously, after learning the unfortunate news, a first visit followed, made outside the festive schedule, after quite a long time of visiting strictly with reasons of celebrations according to a mutual agreement.
When I saw her, I think I let slip a few grimaces of revulsion, in spite of my efforts to avoid being a rube. That thing had grown to almost the size of a quince, with all its irregularities and all, and it was purple red. Contorting under the skin, it gave the impression you were looking at a giant clew of worms – that I knew pretty sure weren’t there – which seemed to welter incessantly. They twisted, forcing the skin, ready to burst and smear all around them with that gluey liquid they were teeming in.
I felt like puking only thinking about it. On several occasions before, my lips had kissed that cheek. I could do this at least: refrain myself so I wouldn’t waste my lunch. To our great discontent (especially me and my brother’s), we had to stay overnight. Which meant that the next day we were there to admire it again, in its full splendor.
At least our barbarian prospect didn’t come true as my aunt didn’t sit at the table with us the next day, under various excuses. Maybe she’d have eaten out, or not at all, or maybe surreptitiously, I wouldn’t know. But what I do know is that I was very glad she did that. Even so, I put a lot of effort into swallowing the mashed potatoes lumps with meatballs and sauce. I couldn’t help imagining that the mixture of tomato sauce and potatoes strikingly resembled so much the blood and puss in that blob. Dammit! I wasn’t the only one at that table who thought it, I swear! I saw it on their sunken faces, with each ingested nibble.
The visit ended and we all left; things got back to normal. For us, at least. I almost forgot I had an aunt whose face was like a fisherman’s can of worms. We each minded our own businesses and, after nearly half a year, the expected – however, never wanted – call came. My auntie kicked the bucket. It’s hard, but I have to admit it: I was glad. In some sort of way. Because that sliminess had to disappear with her, too. Cancer or not, no one found out anymore. She’d given up seeing doctors, and her passing was a relief for everybody. Though no one ever admitted it.
Our greatest fear (me and my brother’s): the moment we had to make our adieus. As much as we didn’t want to do it, we had no choice.
I approached reluctantly, as though that blob was still there, alive. No matter how much I tried to avoid looking at it, it drew me, just like a magnet. Through the thin fabric veil, the rugged face of my auntie was the color of dry mud. Of all that hunk of a woman, only a gray bag of skin remained, hidden and frozen under the folds of the veil. It seemed draped over a pile of thorny bones. The sight of the meat clod, partially hidden by the white of the fabric, stayed with me for a long time afterwards. The reddish skin on the cheek was rather like a ripened-plum blue; and still tout, though. Sleek, as if oiled with some quality ointment. In spite of all appearances, it didn’t seem at all lifeless. Rather, it looked as though it’d sucked up all stamina from the body it grew on. As if it had a life completely of its own.
Call me crazy, but I could’ve sworn that I glimpsed on its surface two small, black, round eyes like two cranberries. A wiped nose and a minuscule mouth. Thin lips like two lines drawn by felt-tip pens.
I recoiled off the side of the coffin. My brother, scared as hell, listening to my frantic phantasmagorias, wouldn’t come less than a few yards from the casket. And this in spite of my poor mother’s efforts to convince him. If only he would have gone, with moil and toil, at least to curtly kiss my auntie’s hand good-bye. And not be a laughing stock. But Nicușor was no and no all over. And so it remained till we left.
My auntie was gone, that damn swelling too. I spent what was left of that burial ceremony bustling to and fro without even coming close to the church entrance.
After the sermon everybody displayed a conspicuous tranquility. A peace of soul. Finally, Vera had found a way out. I only imagine it wouldn’t be quite pleasant to exhibit such a blight on your face. To accept the desperate attempts of all around you to convince you that nothing was changed for them. That everything was like before. When, in fact, the things were quite the opposite. At every encounter, their eyes sending forth revulsion, even when analyzing furtively the thing.
For years we laughed and joked, me and Nicușor, when we got together. Even after we went our separate ways. We were challenging each other – or others around us – to disinter Aunt Vera, and if someone’d done that, he would’ve found the blob still in its place. Glued to the wrinkled corpse, sipping hungrily to the last drop the sap from the crooked twigs, once bones, yearning for the day to come and get away from the confines of the casket.
But years passed. So were most people that knew her, so nobody dug out Vera. Even now, more than forty years later, when I look myself in the bathroom mirror, all alone, it gives me pause. I study the little speck of fat that clings to my forehead. Nothing to worry about, the doctors reassure me. Just that, in my insanity, I search for those eyes, still unsquinted. The wiped nose and those two lips like lines drawn by felt-tip pens.
There are nights when I flinch in terror. I dream of my forehead skin cracking slowly, making way for a thin straight line like a minuscule mouth. I could hear it breathing in the dead of the night. A newborn wailing, mingled with the relentless rustling of the larvae. Thin like thread and long as apple stems.
Translated into English by Dan BUTUZA