Chapter 1: Born in Hell
Sector 6 Orphanage
Bucharest, Romania 1980’s
“Never fall asleep in the basement”, they all say that.
“Vlad did it and when he waked up everything was missing: the nose, the ears, two fingers...”
Vlad was truly disfigured, but he didn't say why, and if you stare too much at him he would whack you, and nobody had the courage to ask him about what happen in the basement.
Its pitch dark in the basement and the concrete floor is so cold that you have to keep walking or your bowels will start hurting and then in a week you're gone. The cold starts crawling inside you and you would like to lay down just for a moment and rest, and then you will get up immediately, but you don’t do it because you know you’re not going to have the power to rise from down there if you do it.
Sometime you fell asleep on your feet but you have to wake up immediately or the rats will come to gnaw your toes. You don’t hear them but you know they watch you there in the darkness and their belly is hurting of hunger too.
You throb! It seems you hear steps and the wizened old woman is coming down to get you out of this dark hole, but is not true, you deceive yourself and suddenly you feel the need to eat something, anything or your stomach starts to eat you. And what’s the worst is that you don’t know how much time has pass, sometimes you believe it has been weeks since you have been in here, or other times just few hours and you ask yourself how long the old hag is going to keep you locked this time. Did she forget about you? Or is she waiting for you to die?
You start to cry. “Cry as much as you want”, you’re telling yourself in your mind, “…nobody hears you anyway”.
Some of us start shouting for help or kicking the basement iron door, but you only anger her if she hears the echoes and then it is worse.
I like to start thinking about my life.
My memories are vague, I don’t know if I was born at a particular moment or if I always existed in this orphanage. Soon I was to realize that I don’t represent a whole lot of interest to anyone, my world was reduce back then to an immense room in which we sleep, eat, survive and especially suffer and back then I didn’t believe there is anything else outside of it. I remember the shock I had when they took me outside the first time. I have seen for the first time the sky, the trees, the ground, and the buildings… the world outside as it was.
And so, I came in a world where nobody wanted me: my parents, my relatives and even I didn’t ever want to exist. But what did I knew back then? Whoever was supposed to love me and protect me, they didn’t, and they just buried me there in this graveyard of my childhood, with rotten carpets and cigar smelling drapes, and forgot all about me.
But even here nobody wants you and you know it because they make you suffer, and that is when you realize life is suffering, and death is the end of suffering. That is how you begin to imagine how you are gone kill yourself, how would that be like, nobody will mourn for you anyway.
But you don’t do it because eventually the basement door opens and for a moment you see the light at the end of the tunnel even though in it is the old woman’s silhouette that we call Mama.
Outside is warm and bright and you wonder yourself why have you been down there for this long in the darkness. You step towards the bright light that intoxicates your eyes and you hate her, your jailer, from your entire hearth. The old hag that locked you in that black-hole helps you step over the door’s big iron threshold and says:
“Oh, poor you, what happen to you…” and then Mama kisses you forehead while you are dark blue and benumbed of cold, with red eyes from the lack of sleep.
This is how they like to be, with one hand they pat you and with the other they slap you. And it works… you always feel closer to the people that beat you, you love that wizened old woman as if she is not the one that put you in that hell.
As you go back in the room, the others look at you with pity, they all know how is like in the basement, in fact the basement is the first thing they remember and the first thing they want to forget.
You are sleepy and all you want is to fall asleep, but you are not getting away that easy because they are coming: Horse, Blackie, Crow, Scabby, Burned, Nicu, Spot, Tuca, Mariuca, Carrion, Nelu, Vlad, Jail, Crazy, Stammered, Sleeper and One Eye, and they too like to hurt you, because this is the way they have been taught, that is the only joy they know. We don’t have names, or if we do, we don’t know them. We only know the nicknames that other give us.
How old where we? I don’t know that but I know we didn’t know how to count anyway.
Finally later on when you fall asleep, but that old hag follows you even in your childish dreams.
The old woman is evil but the janitor is worse.
The Janitor is an old sailor that lost all his life savings gambling. You need to run from his way or he will whack you with the first thing he lays his hands on, that is how One Eye lost his right eye when he got hit with the rake. During the night he comes and whacks you in your sleep and you wake up in the morning with the clogged blood on yourself and you wonder what happened.
But back then everything looked normal and you accepted it, this is the way things are and people like us cannot do anything else than survive even though those moments will hunt you all your life and you don’t know it yet. Later you realize you want to take revenge on those people that wretched and hurt you for so many years and did not let you have a normal life, but you can’t, because this is how pain is, this is how life works.
You become yourself one of the demons that tormented you for so many years and start torture others because now you become one of them and you like it. But even here, there is hope, not a lot just enough to make your life feel just a little more bitter. We don’t believe in that merciful and gracious God that the pastor is preaching about on Christmas, we don’t believe in the God that protects the innocents, but we all pray for a mother.
Sometimes a young woman enters the room and she looks at us and we look at her and ask ourselves: What does she wants? She leans over and pats one of us and gives him a candy, and then we all plunge and cling to her neck and yell: “Mamiiiiii…….” She hugs all of us and then she starts to cry. Later we hardly let her go and she promise us that she will return but we all know that she will not came here again. Who wants to come here again?
This is what it hurts the most, to see what is missing from your life, your heart starts to cry. In fact for people like us ignorance is bliss. You realize that not everybody has sad memories that they don’t want to remember. Some people have the most beautiful stories to tell, with parents and siblings, and friends and soft beds in homes by the beach.
Suddenly, the hate entrails you, and you realize that everything depends on luck. You could be born in one of those families and have parents, and live the dream they call normal life.
Sometime you start to hurt yourself just to be sure that you still feel something. Tuca’s forearm is her diary of self-mutilation, she cuts herself after each suffering.
In the morning the Janitor comes and he is looking for little girls, usually he chooses Tuca maybe because she is the oldest girl or maybe because she got used to it and she doesn’t cry and scream anymore. He picks her up and puts a lollipop in her mouth and then locks himself with her inside his closet, and after a while he comes out holding her hand and pats her head and givers her another lollipop. This is how the girls begin fearing that closet, when they see how bad Tuca hurts when she gets in there. One morning when she came out of the closet she was hurting so bad that she was praying to die just to feel a little bit better.
But what we are all afraid of is the old the paper press machine, made ofwood, iron, steel and brass. The Janitor used to put our hands in the machine and spin the lever till would hear cracking sounds.
“If you cry and scream, I’m not going to hear them crack…” he used to say, “…just be quiet till I hear the cracks.”
Spot was disfigured by the children living over the other side of the fence, they throw a brick in his head and he got left with this big white spot that wouldn’t grow hair, which is why we call him Spot.
Burned had a kitchen accident when his drunken father spilled boiled oil on his face. His mother brought him here after that and she promise him she will take him back home shortly, but she didn’t want to see him again.
For kids like that there is no one that will take them home, not even The Unclean One, or this is what the priest told us.
Jail’s father went to jail because he killed his mother, he was still hoping that one day he will come back and take him home.
Blackie and Crow are sisters, they got here when they were young but they still remember living in a tent with lots of cows. Their skin is dark but their eyes are bright green.
Carrion had this skin disease that makes his skin fall like flakes, nobody wants to touch him or talk to him, and he is always sitting in the corner.
Crazy, was really crazy, even the old hag and the janitor were afraid of him sometimes. He would get this demented glow on his eyes every time he was about to do something insane.
Nelu was deaf. I don’t know if went deaf after he got here or his parents brought him here because he was deaf. But he was deaf. He was also caring with him a match box full of flies, he had this weird dexterity and he could catch flies in his closed hands and put them in his match box.
Sometimes he gave the box to people when they asked for a match to light up their cigarets.
Nicu didn’t have this name in the beginning, but we start calling him Nicu because he looked a lot like Nicolae Ceausescu, some people were saying that he might be his grandfather since Ceausescu’s sons slept with a lot of women. And, now, every time Ceausescu was on television we used to yell at him: “Your grandpa is on TV!”. He even started to wear this dirty and absurdly oversized suit that he found later picking through trash on the quiet street.
We did that so much that Nicu started to like it, and believe it, and he forget his real name or at least he was confused what he was called before he became “Nicu”.
We were children, growing without love and surviving with just bread and water. But one day we grew up.
Chapter 2: Inferno expulsion
My sin was that I was borne in there, in that hell that I never imagined I could run away from. But even the underworld ejects something sometimes just to let others know it’s there, close to them.
“Vlad jumped the fence!” the Janitor yelled at the old hag coming in to get his cudgel. “What?” I throb quietly from the nostalgic liturgy in which we all fell sometime contemplating our own existence.
The Janitor never found him, Vlad ran for hours.
He was the first one to run away from the orphanage, before any of us even ever conceived the idea of escaping this bottomless pit of misery. He did well begging especially because he looked like a hopeless child, exactly what people like to see when they give money to beggars.
I couldn’t jump the fence but I run away from the hospital. What got me to the hospital? I can’t remember, but I vividly remember walking throw these empty foul-smelling insalubrious corridors made out of cement that was echoing the heartbreaking screams and cries of babies tied to their cribs and banging their heads against walls.
It was dark and there was nobody in that building with broken light bulbs but the kids left alone in there. I walked towards this light coming from a window and found some stairs and then finally got out through the backdoor and breathe my freedom for the first time. I jumped into a trolleybus, sit down and got as far away as I could from that place.
I remember the first time I saw the downtrodden communist city with its thousand grey tall apartment buildings erecting sad and depressed as in a recap of my gloomy dreams build relentlessly by huge cranes with their iron arms burning in a silver colorless afternoon sun.
People with depressed spirits and emptied by their soul were looking at me with bleakness in their eyes. Families kept in darkness by the everyday rolling blackouts and cold by useless freezing water heathers that never worked. Lightless streets deserted in darkness at dusk.
People fear the beggar, the soul who holds out his hand to a better world hopping for crumbs of happiness coming from above. I see them, staring out the window or in the subway at me in silence and resentment. They rather raise dogs and cats than street kids.
They gather them self in long lines in fronts of stores waiting to buy milk and bread, meat and eggs. They would stay in haunted silence in these lines for hours fueled by the hope that the food won’t run out by the time they finally made it inside the store and also fearful of leaving empty-handed. The shelves are empty, the meat is scarce, and their faces are unpainted.
They can’t complain to anyone or they will be arrested by the communist militia.
Sometimes I just stay there and look at them passing by, a mother in a hurry, a guy with a motorcycle smoking nervously a cigarette, a really old couple walking lonely in silence, a drunk.
Spot once articulated his thoughts to me: “Look at these people, they only care about the roof over their heads. We are like an accident, a wreck that they slow down to look at. They just enjoy staring at our suffering; it makes them feel better about their own grim life. They are the real monsters, it’s morbid and macabre. Sometimes I am amazed I can still take it…”
I guess their indifference toward us breed resentment towards them later.
We try to stay away from the gypsies. They are poor and underprivileged like us but people hate them and they barely get any money when they beg, they have to steal.
Gypsies have their own language and beautiful girls with sad eyes.
We didn’t have people friends, the stray dogs were our best friends, especially the puppies. They don’t judge you; they don’t know that you have been abandoned by the society. They just see you for you, a friend.
The Bandit was this one big stray dog. Dogs can be found on any street in Bucharest, but this dog was really big, mean and strong. We called him The Bandit because he used to stay behind the butcher`s shop door and snatch the meat right outta clients grocery bag. Every time I used to see that dog I would freeze with fear and try to back away slowly, so he would not feel my fear chase me and bite me. Lots of times I took my jacket off just to have something to give him to bite in case he will attack me. He also had this loud mean bark that will make you paralyze with fear.
Back then, each one was afraid of militians and the secret police that was called securists.
There was this one fat cop that everyone called Fatty, which we, the beggars in the North Railway Station pay a part of what we got from people kindness. He only took bills and left us to keep the coins. I didn’t know how things were working there in the beginning till he hit me in the back of my head with his big rubber baton. I instantly got the idea but my head hurt for a week after that.
Fatty was obese, almost bold and you could tell by his eyebrows that he is hairy as a bear under the dark blue uniform. He had one skinny son that he was driving to school and pick him from school every day in his militia car with his lights and siren on.
He spend most of his time in a local bar and eating grilled ground meat rolls made from a condiment mixture of beef, lamb and pork when he was not in the brothel next door spending our money on young peasant’s girls freshly arrived in Bucharest from the country side looking for a better life.
And then, there is this really old woman. She is alone or maybe she has grandkids or something. We call her the Ghost, because she is always dressed in black as if she is mourning for someone and she is very quiet.
She brings spoiled food to the church: old eggs, rotten meat… She ask you to say “Bodaproste” for her sickening offering which means: “Thank you and God forgive your death ancestors”.
People are evil, they want to see us eating their spoiled food and they want to see us getting sick. They bring us foods they don’t want to throw in the garbage. “Let’s give it to the homeless kids, they will be happy to eat anything…”they think in their minds and then they give you plates with uneatable meals that smell and look bad. I just take them and tell them that I’m going to eat them later.
Somebody even gave me painted eggs four weeks after the Easter.
“Ungrateful!” they all yell at you upset that you don’t eat their foul smelling moldy pastries, “This is why you are homeless and nobody wants you! You are not listening! I’m not going to give you food or money again!” they scream while playing the act of the wounded Good Samaritan.
“I’m just trying to help an ungrateful homeless child…” they whine to the others around them.
They don’t fool me …or God…maybe, the others. Most of the time they fool themselves.
Crazy got sick one time… He got sick really bad!
He lied there in the underground for weeks. His belly was hurting all over and he cried and screamed, and we all thought he is going to die, but he didn’t. He didn’t eat anything for a week but we brought him lots of good foods, he just lied there…and then one day he crawl out on his own.
Crazy still looked ill, but we knew he was now getting better.
“I knew it was spoiled…” he broke the silence with the first words he said in weeks, “…but I didn’t know it was so old.”
We were just happy to have him back.
“I had to eat, they were all looking at me…they would made me feel quilt if I wouldn’t have eaten…” he confess to us.
After he got stronger, he went back deep into the sewer, to that abysmal place where all the city’s piss and feces are fermenting for years and he came back with a jar of that yellow-brownish zymotic poison. I used to get sick to my stomach just for thinking of it.
Somehow he gave the guy who poisoned him that nightmarish spunk. I didn’t know until I saw the guy in church, all his skin was purple-beige, dark and frightening looking.
“You did this?” I asked Crazy.
He looked back at me with his still diseased red-yellowish eyes and didn’t say anything. He kept it to himself, but I knew he did it.
The guy died two weeks later. I got an empty feeling inside me that day, a void for the first time in my life, not because I was sorry for the guy but for realizing how fragile life really is.
The food they brought to the funeral was good though.
Vlad fallen prey to the aurolac’s hallucinogenic pleasures of the huffing silver spray paint from a plastic bag that lets you inhale the vapors and gets you high... it's was cheapest drug on the market, very popular with the people living on the streets or underground. The first phase is disinhibition and sleepiness, just like alcohol, but if you inhale to much you can get delirious especially in the beginning. Is the morning after that get you addicted, I mean the squeamishness, the vomit, the headache, the apathy, and the depression will make you get the next dose. Nobody can stop using aurolac, they just go to the next more powerful drug.
When you take the drug you don’t need food or water, but then hunger strikes even though you are in that dream world.
The drug it takes its toll and you have to eat something, anything. You suck and bite your finger, just like a baby is sucking milk from his mother’s nipple, but you’re eating your own flesh. The blood flows down your hand in little stripes, and then you rip with your teeth whatever meat is left on your finger and swallowed everything….the skin, the nail, the muscles. What remains is the white, shiny, clean bone. Soon is going to dry out and fall off.
The silver dust is keeping you alive but in the same time is sinking you in the ground, Bucharest is puling you underneath in the hidden city canals.
I feel I’m not like the others orphans; I don’t like there vulgarity and I don’t share their hate for the world. They’ve seen that in me already… and they want to crack me open now. I don’t think of myself as being special, just different, but aren’t we all?
Beneath the street of Bucharest there is quagmire that people call it “The city of the living dead” made out of intricate subway tunnels and passages where homeless children cook, eat and sleep among steaming wet pipes that shields us from the cold outside. There is no law here, not the one from above at least.
We are built and united by suffering, misfortune and horrible memories of our own life that are going to hunt us forever. The portals between worlds are the manhole covers which drop you into a parallel reality where cockroaches are creeping around and the heavy musty air grabs your stomach and squeeze it until your brain starts to hurt.
You can find your place in there, but you have to reclaim it from the rats, pests, billions of worms and human dejections. In these catacombs we all finally find each other, waiting to die.
We all need somebody to protect us, and if you don’t have that someone, we will invent him: a parent, a big brother, God.
Carrion created an underground shrine to Jesus and decorated the dark walls with scripture verses written in white chalk on the black, candle smoked cement. He has been baptized in church by Christians that promised him a place in haven, with that came his godparents a young couple that he spoke about them with great affection and respect.
He put up all this reddish-brownish pictures of his baptized that none of us knew anything about it next to a stolen from church big religious icon painting that he used to call it his ”window to heaven”.
“You can’t really steal anything from God” was his excuse for the appropriated artifacts, as in nothing belongs to the man, everything belongs to God in the end.
“I am waiting for Jesus to clean me! He healed the lepers!” Carrion said with his eyes full open and full of hope staring at me blindly. “He healed the lepers!” he repeated ecstatically while throwing himself on a big dirty mattress that I was wondering how he managed to get in through the small manhole.
Carrion’s full beard came, since I last saw him in the orphanage, and his now tall in stature and has long hair. Dressed in those dirty ripped clothes he really looked like The Savior. It also inspired some respect, part based on the fact that he believed so strongly, part that he just might go insane at any moment and strike you in the name of the Lord.
I was speechless since I didn’t know what I should say without offending him.
“The cross Jesus carried is nothing like the cross you carry. You are as bad as it gets.'' Vlad yelled at him and then turn to me whispering “He has seen the Oracle, and the Oracle give him this vision that Jesus will heal him one day. He hasn’t stop taking about that since then”.
“But, hey, if you get the people to believe the stories in the Bible…you can make them believe anything” Vlad said to me as if he was talking for himself.
“Well if God made Carrion, he has to be a pretty messed up God! He has a pretty sick sense of humor” he continued.
“Jesus loves everyone equally” Carrion replied talking with a rough priest like voice.
“This is what you want? To be equal with them? You are better than them Carrion…” he replied fast.
A silent tension started to rise between them as they look deep into each other’s eyes.
“Who is the Oracle?” I change the subject.
They looked at me like they didn’t understand the question or as if I was already supposed to know some universal well know truth.
“The Oracle is not a person is a place, which is kept secret by a blind man who calls himself The Guardian.” Vlad explain while Carrion turned his back to us and left. The confrontation lost its momentum.
Vlad turned towards Carrion’s chamber and shouted:
“All those religious stories are for the rich. If Jesus had loved you he would have given you some parents by now” said Vlad furious to Carrion while throwing himself in an improvised bed that he made out of multicolored garbage discarded pillows.
"Oh Jesus, is so great. Every word I say from now on is Jesus!" he concluded for himself.
"Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" he said quickly then he took a short brake and looked at me and started again using a prophet voice "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!"
“This is my church!” said Vlad proud after a little while, showing me his room full of old lifting weights that he probably got from the city trash.
“Where is this Oracle?” I asked him.
“I have this idea…” Cray interrupted me jumping in the conversation coming down the manhole“…that this is the lowest level that man can reach, you know: the sewer” throwing his right hand in the air with a bad temper. “As you go up, first floor, second floor life gets better like heaven” raising his hand and eyes more and more, and then he light up a cigarettes out of nowhere.
“When did he start smoking?” I remember thinking for myself.
“Don’t listen to him, he is an informant for the Romanian secret police” Carrion jumped in smiling. I laughed. We were all relaxed now.
“Do you know anything about Scabby?” I asked Vlad.
He left his head down and his smile suddenly disappeared.
“He died a month ago… You know how he was picking up his scabs of his wounds and never let them heal to impress people with his blood draining down his legs when he was begging in the subway? After a while the wounds refused to heal anymore and they were growing bigger and bigger. Some people told him he had cancer,” Vlad answered while he begins washing his clothes in an improvised bucket made out of a garbage can cut in half.
There was a brief moment of silence while all of us tried to remember our last moments with him.
The silence was soon broken by Vlad.
“But let me tell you about Mariuca! A week ago I was in the Uniri Square minding my own business, you know… begging for money, when I saw her: all dressed up holding a new born baby in her arms and with a guy, I guess her husband or something, kind of peasant looking young man.“ Vlad was really trying to get me in the story.
“I go to her: Hello Mariuca. How are you? you know… and she is all acting like she doesn’t know me” he said raising his hand in the air sarcastically like asking: What’s her problem?
“It’s me Vlad! But she is like: I don’t know you! Leave me alone!” and hemimicked her expression.
“And then the guy she is with start asking questions: Who is he? How come he knows you name? Is he the baby’s father? Like I was her secret lover of something, and then he started to hit her. Bang! Again bang!” he said simulating the punches in the air.
He accentuated his last words: “While she was still holding the baby…everyone there was looking!” and he stood there waiting for my reaction to the whole thing.
It was a late autumn when Burned died, he was in Blackie’s arms but he died happy with a big smile on his face. We were all there around him surrounded by candles and in the silence that lies beneath the streets at night.
“Your mama came today from that village far away in the mountain to see you.” I told him trying to stop myself from crying.
“Is that true? My mama came for me?” he asked us with his eyes closing slowly down.
We all nod our heads.
“Yes, but she didn’t want to wake you up, and then she hug you while you were sleeping, and there were tears in her eyes and she said she is going to come back soon… she just went up to get some candy and chocolate for you” said Blackie weeping quietly while gently patting his hair, “You better rest now, so she will find you well rested when she is coming back.”
“You should have waken me up…I don’t want to fall asleep until she is coming back…” he said gently.
He looked at all of us one more time and stared to Spot when he spoke his last words: “See, I told you she is going to come! She loves me!” He died shortly after that in Blackie’s arms. We all stood motionless and silent for an hour.
And that is how we lost Burned, later some people told us that he was hit by a speeding car and the driver didn’t even stop to take him to the hospital when he saw it was a homeless child. He crawled for a half a mile to get back in the sewer tunnels and that’s where we found him.
“There is no justice in society and even if there is, has nothing to do with what is right! Burned used to say” reminded us Spot later that day.
“It’s all pointless. Our whole existence, we are just shadows from the underworld…we are not real” he continued.
“Stop reading those books. They are going to poison your mind and just make everyone feel miserable” snapped Vlad at him.
Vlad, Spot, Carrion and Crazy were the only ones that could read and write. Crazy was actually trying to forget how to read, because he believed that he already read too much for his entire life and he thought he will become too smart somehow.
Vlad was always writing on his manuscript and never left anyone read it, he was very psychotic about even getting close to his bunch of dirty yellowish paper glued together and tied with different colored strings.
Carrion was only reading “The Good Book” and Spot was reading anything since he found a lost library card in the streets. The librarian knew the guy on the expired card wasn’t Spot, but she took a like on his love of literature and lend him books.
We buried Burned in the dead of the night, under a weeping willow in a public park in Bucharest, close to a high school hangout. He always told us that he wants young girls to come by his grave so people would think of him as a big lecherous womanizer. Carrion wanted to administer the last rites, although Burned was not Christian and Carrion was not a priest.
Vlad opened a bottle of vodka and stick the bottle with its neck down in the ground at his head and whispered mournfully “One last drink!” then he recovered the bottle very fast and start drinking.
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