The signs we get from the market say that the hysteria induced by Ion Biceanu’s books will continue throughout this year, too. The publishing houses boast thousands of copies press runs, sold out in days. As the writer died leaving no heirs, poor and forgotten by everyone, the copyrights issue hadn’t even been raised. The competition moved into the archives of public libraries where special envoys sent by publishing houses rummage frantically through the old books, rare – but so valuable – copies from the works of the Transylvanian writer.
Viewed until recently as a minor writer, Ion Biceanu hasn’t benefited from republications of his short story books. Throughout his life – though he published a lot (especially on his own) – he sold little, and after his demise that took place around the World War II, his life and works haven’t aroused any interest whatsoever. Nowadays, the situation changed dramatically. An impressive monograph was in bookstores, and word went that another two stand by, and the most recent literary history devoted him a remarkable chapter.
…drawing on robust realism, entwined with the metaphysics of the man’s mission in the world, Biceanu depicts a land of pain, inhabited by small creatures whose destiny has only terrible trials in store…
In fact, I have no doubt about it, critics and readers alike follow the clues of his heinous crimes.
What? You haven’t heard the whole story of Ion Biceanu yet? Go figure! Here it is, in its shortest but absolutely authentic version, as it comes right from the source. It was revealed to me by inspector Basil Mănescu himself, while we were talking over some glasses of wine, red as the blood of a hot Hungarian girl.
On 17 June 2007, some woodsmen hanging around the woods of Găureasa near the spring of Someșul Rece in Apuseni Mountains, found an old railcar buried in the ground. The branchy fir they felled with their chain woodsaw, crashed so heavily into the ground that the dirt caved in revealing part of a rusted iron housing with rotten boards hanging on it. Much to their surprise, the workers recognized a train chassis, in spite of the fact that no railroad was passing through the area and never was. The nearest railroad section – from Turda town to the city of Câmpeni – w as fifteen miles away to the south. How the hell then did that vehicle end up there? As if it’d been dropped from the sky or some fairytale giant carried it there…
After they removed the gravel that hid the single-compartment railcar, the awe of the men turned into horror. Inside the railcar, sitting across on the two wooden benches that stood well the passage of time, were two fleshless bodies. Not much was left of their garments, just enough to understand they were a couple: a man and a woman. At their feet stood a quite big bag of pork skin that looked untouched.
Summoned to the place, the policemen from Alba Iulia were filled with wonder at the terrifying discovery. After they took pictures and made measurements, they confiscated the railcar and the two skeletons. The results of the police samples confirmed that the bodies was of opposite sex, young at the time of death (30 years old tops) and had lingered there in the railcar for well over a century. The data showed that death occurred sometime between nineteenth and twentieth century. The small scratches on the ribs that once protected the myocardium, scratches that showed on both bodies, seemed to have been made by a very sharp dagger. Double homicide, maybe?
The assumption of double suicide was ruled out after the policemen didn’t find any knife into the railcar or the luggage. And to think that – after stabbing his/her partner and then thrusted the dagger into his/her heart – the perpetrator (he?she?) had the power to throw the white weapon into the bushes (with what purpose?) would be – we have to admit – a far-fetched supposition. From the same reasons, they also ruled out murder followed by a suicide – (from remorse, maybe?) – of the killer. So, it was somebody else that took the life of the two. But who? And as there was clearly a third person, it wasn’t mandatory that the crime took place inside the vehicle, but anywhere else, for that matter.
The little railcar with no marks at all, was looking quite much as a carriage. Or a deluxe carriage. Except that this one it was on solid iron wheels fastened with very plain bogies. The rust-stained wheels seemed operational. Though the vehicle looked like taken from a period movie that reconstructed the second half of the 19th century, the expert summoned from museum of Cluj to authenticate it shrugged and found it impossible to tell where and when it was manufactured.
The luggage shed no light either. The large leather bag contained only a few tattered clothes, smelling of decay, a thin book with pages of textile paper and some woman knickknacks. There were no money, no IDs or – and this came up from a more clever policeman – any train ticket! This added to their astonishment.
Though the span of time that passed since brought (doubtlessly!) the demise of the perpetrator and his exoneration from any legal accusations (the crime being prescribed after a span of 20 years since its perpetration), the Alba PD tried some kind of reconstruction. Unfortunately, all police efforts to understand the drama that took place over one hundred years ago failed in every which way.
Once a mine area rich and bustling with villages, hamlets and little towns bursting with life, that place in Apuseni had become at the beginning of the third millennium an area almost deserted and choked full of vegetation. The closing down of all gold mines throughout the last century slowly led to the impoverishment and depopulation of the area. Those few strayed localities that obstinately endured barely counted a few souls – even those very close to the secret moment of reincarnation. Though old as mountains, the people couldn’t give any information. None of them remembered of having heard of such a thing.
„And if so, what?”
In truth, the policemen didn’t even know what they should ask them. About two young people that disappeared mysteriously a hundred years ago? Thousands of people died since, not all of natural causes! About the rumor of some dangerous liaisons? There were so many gossips those old hags concocted! About the local legends? Only then the old men felt like chatting and started chattering the adventures of Avram Iancu or Horea or some who-knows-what local heroes. But the policemen didn’t even want to listen to such!
„Well, I heard them from my old man who learned it from his old man who learned it from his grandfather and so on. Our Iancu was a worthy man we must never forget!”
Neither the press investigation at the time yielded any results for the Police. Around 1900, Transylvania – still province of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – had just a few publications for the orthodox Romanians in Apuseni. So the policemen left it at that, eventually. It seemed that the unusual mystery of the railcar and two skeletons couldn’t be solved.
Well, that was when the Inspector entered the scene. He took the investigation from scratch as he became interested in the case. So he started the investigation by searching anew the railcar, the skeletons and the luggage. And his eyes fell almost instantly on the book titled `The Archangel’, written by some fellow Ion Biceanu, that was thrown amongst the tattered clothes, probably to be read during the strange journey. Something didn’t fit. Though every other details of the murders suggested a false trip, the book (to be read during the trip; what trip?) was as real as it could be.
Sitting on a rickety wood chair in the warehouse of the Alba County police, the Inspector started reading it.
The book was more like a pamphlet as it contained just one novella. Strange, but the cover held one title: ‘The Archangel’, while the prose piece was titled ‘The Journey”, yes indeed, ‘The Journey’! and it had before the title the roman number VI. A subtle innuendo was there that the pamphlet (or the short story, to be exact) was some kind of serial, a small part of a bigger tome. But where were the rest of the chapters?
The novella minutely described the ordeals of a miner that suspected his wife of adultery. From small bits of events, the man had acquired the certainty that his wife, beautiful as a jewel and whom he prized more than all the gold in the world, was planning to leave him and elope with her lover, a small-time landowner. From what the miner pried, he found even more, that the two were planning to extort him of his little savings that he earned working hard in the gold mine. The elopement was to take place sometime at the end of the summer, as soon as the woman’s lover had cashed a last and handsome revenue.
Incapable of eating, even breathing, the man was going down in his boots! At last, the flimsy gold washer couldn’t stand the ordeal any longer, and confess to the priest of his church, conjuring him to tell him what to do.
„Let her go about her business,” the priest required him. „Let go of this ordeal and release her! Only God knows what punishment she will receive.”
And the miner, obedient and with fear of God, listened to him and got home less troubled.
But the story was only now getting more thrilling. Because sitting in his barn whenever his services gave him a however small respite, the priest set to make a simple railcar as he saw many years ago when he wandered with his gentle wife through the capital of the Double Monarchy. Late at night, the priest wrote down his thoughts and you, dear reader, are witnessing a strange transfer of feelings as the servant of the church is now being the one who seems to suffer from the betrayal of another man’s woman…
Once his work was done, the priest waits and in due time, like a true angel of revenge, he approaches those two elopers in the woods, taking their life and goods. After he hides the bag of gold in a hole near the path, he carries both bodies to the railcar that he hid in the bushes. He carried it there with the help of two sturdy horses. After he rummages through the luggage, he steals their documents, but hides amongst the clothes a bunch of paper sheets that he himself had printed…Finally, he performs a short funeral service, then buries the railcar throwing rockfill down on it.
You ask yourself right away why did the killer complicate things so much? Why didn’t he just kill them and cast away the soulless bodies afterwards to the wild beasts? The traces would have disappeared easier. What was the point of this whole gruesome staging?
But there was even one more astonishing thing. Somehow, it could have solved everything. The name of the priest in the novella was Ion Biceanu, just like its author. Just a simple coincidence, a modern literary scheme, or just a way of telling the writer that the whole thing was pure truth, not some figment of the imagination? You could tell right away – from the feeling of fright that chilled your spine and raise your neck hairs – that the writer himself took part in this terrifying crime. There was something with that plain writing that confessed an ordeal that was overwhelming for a simple man.
Holder of the shameful secrets of the community, the priest Ion Biceanu decided that he wasn’t to be be just a simple onlooker. Just like a modern Jesus that renounces the traditional gesture of turning the other cheek, he took hold of the dagger and deals a deadly blow. He wants justice here, in this world, not divine rightness! He takes the sins and sufferings of those he serves and involving on his own with their destiny he dooms himself into the fires of barathrum. To eternal death…! The novella was a confession that referred vaguely to many other vindications equally bloody. Extremely real anyway was the pain that went along these thoughts. You could immerse in it, and that black feeling, intense black feeling, got a hold on you, grabbed you and didn’t let go…
When the Inspector raised his eyes from the book he was no longer reading from some time, the dark had already fallen. One moment, for just one moment, he flinched thinking he wasn’t a policeman anymore, but a miner, and his fellows left him by mistake inside that dark mine.
The conclusions of the Inspector’s investigation raised havoc. The identification of a serial killer with an aura of an evil justiciar amongst the servants of the Church made some shudder. In spite of the fact that the BOR archives and the scarce public biographical data (upon which the monograph was based) showed incontrovertibly that Ion Biceanu was for a long time an orthodox priest in some village from Apuseni, the Patriarchate rejected in indignation the ‘unfounded aberrations’ of the Alba PD, considering them ‘an unprecedented attack of the Greek-Catholic minority towards the Ancestral Church!’.
Instead, the public became eager for the works of Biceanu. So the republishing began. And when based on the same story, a reader found in the hole of a tree over two pounds of gold, the public went berserk. Though amongst the nuggets was also a thick wedding ring engraved with the name of Maria, the people ignored this information. So what if the woman’s name was Maria? We don’t care! The man perishes, but gold is immortal!
According to effectual laws, only a third of the gold was for the finder to keep. But this hadn’t held back the treasure seekers. Romanians from all provinces poured over into the Apuseni, and foreign investors promised to reopen the old goldmines. Meanwhile, the locals started to thrive a little. And despite the fact that no one, really no a single one of the newcomers, cared of the stories about Horea and Iancu, all holm oaks in the area were combed!
„Here,” I proudly made the Inspector look at my raincoat, rubber boots, pickaxe, spade and the minutely drawn maps I had copied from various atlases.
„What do you need them for?”
„I can’t just stand aside while my fellow people get rich…”
From his armchair, where he was standing savoring his red wine, the Inspector surveyed me with a frown. He had the same smart but tired look, as if he did nothing but kept reading.
„I wonder if we weren’t all set up…”
„A trap?” By whom?
„Picture a wholehearted man, full of grace, a priest in a community of miners…?
„This servant of the church assists for a while to the ordeals of his fellow villagers, shocked by the fate that governed their lives. When gold was found, the miners got carousing, and spent extravagantly. When the lode was drained, they became beggars again, starvelings, barely shifting for themselves. All this was bad for the community, and the priest didn’t know what to do to help them.
„And now is better, you say?”
„As a father confessor,” the Inspector resumed unruffled,”Biceanu knew best the people’s drama, and as a writer, the same Biceanu understood it thoroughly. What could he have done?”
„At first, he wrote about it, hinting, searching for – how to call them? – philosophical solutions, yes, philosophical. But some train of events made him ponder. The mines starts closing down, the miners lose their jobs and leave the area, and his remarks – ethical first, then literary – lose not only their validity, but rather their object. The world he was writing about was slowly dying. I think that’s how he came up with the idea…”
„What idea, man? I don’t make nothing of what you’re saying…”
„Hear me out! Biceanu realizes his solutions to the people’s problems – his own way of sensing the reward, the punishment, the good, the bad and all other – will be forgotten as nobody will ever read his books in the near future. All his efforts in vain. So he decides to change it…”
„He only writes about absolutely authentic events he knew by rote from the secrecy of confession. Even more, he chooses to be part of it, to intervene, but not as a murderer!”
„But the crimes are there…”
„Definitely! Even the stories about the gold can be true to some great extent! Also, and here I have not the slightest doubt, the whole ordeal that these stories convey is true. Biceanu was really a special priest. None of the murders are his work, nor the one in the railcar, nor the other ones he kept writing about. Every murder had its perpetrator or – as was the case with the railcar – even the cheated husband. He was a miner, he knew well enough how that railcar worked, but also where he could get the necessary stuff: wheels, bogies. He killed those two and returned them to dust. He could’ve hidden them in some deserted mine, but he would’ve spoiled holy ground… Then he confesses his guilt to the priest, like the other criminals…”
„And the kind-hearted priest had nothing better to do than write some books and take over the role of the sinner. Come on!”
„Exactly! Otherwise, Biceanu wouldn’t have left his books as a sort of clue for these enigmas. He preferred to take upon him the parishioners’ sins, losing his honesty, but winning the posterity. This way, his ordeal would pay off.”
„Wait!” I shouted. „What about the book at the crime scene…?”
„What about it?”
„How did it get there?”
„I’ve already explained it to you, I’m convinced the priest put it there. I told you that he very well knew what was going on in the community he shepherded. It was his manner to take part in the crime. His way to buy a ticket for the eternity!”
I looked disappointingly at the Inspector.
„So even you, the great detective, think there is no serial killer?!”
„Killer, no. Rather the other way around. A serial life-creator. Look how much seething energy is there again in the Apuseni! No, I don’t think Biceanu was a murderer, he was just a man that understood that the end of every world isn’t brought about by who knows what devastating catastrophe, but by unrighteous forgetfulness, and acted accordingly. He sent us a message through time. Don’t forget that any archangel is primarily a messenger.”
After he left to take care of his business, I hurriedly packed my things in my backpack. He’s smart, this inspector, I can give him that, he’s my friend, a very good one at that, but smart fellows can make mistakes sometimes. All the data I’d culled holds that Ion Biceanu was a terrible serial killer. He tortured and hacked his fellow people, stole their fortunes and hid it throughout the woods. Then, he left clues about the hiding places. Don’t ask me why he did that, I don’t know what to answer. Even the Bible says that every crime is the game of a sick mind. This was the game of Biceanu. And I can take the challenge. Somewhere in The Apuseni, on some meadow with five fir-trees shaping a pentagon, a fabulous treasure awaits me. It says so at page 147 of his last short story collection…
— Translated into English by Dan BUTUZA