When my father arrived home from the university, his face sallow and sagging as if he were sick, he dropped his briefcase on the kitchen floor and braced himself at the sink.
“He’s gone. They’ve killed him,” he said.
At the table, my mother set down her copy of Femeia magazine. She glanced at me before she stood, took Tata’s hat from his head, pulled him toward their bedroom door, and shut it quietly behind them.
It was mid-July in 1989, and the electricity in Bucharest was off more often than on. Our tower-block concrete apartment building baked us like cabbage rolls in a clay pot, so we always let in the breeze through the balcony doors. I had been sprawled out on the living-room floor beside my Great Tome, the warm air tugging at the pages of my stories. Now I laid my coloring pencil aside and stared, my heart thudding faster with each sound that came through the wall.
The apartment was so small you could see it all at once: the balcony where we dried our clothes, the living room and kitchen stuffed together, the tiny bathroom, my parents’ bedroom, my bedroom. My mother liked to say—when my father wasn’t there to stop her—that if we were again forced to move, they would squeeze our whole family into a closet. She missed the apartment we’d had before, with the dining room and the pantry and the corner office that held her piano. I didn’t remember it, since we’d had to leave when I was a baby, but I knew my parents had only been able to keep what could be carried. I knew they’d only been given a day.
As I sat there, tense and listening, I couldn’t stop thinking it would happen again—that whatever had frightened my father would force us to pack up without warning and leave. I wondered how much worse things would get if we moved. When the Leader had torn down our first home to make room for the wide, gaping boulevard and the palace, he’d stuck us, like everyone else, into horrible gray concrete buildings, stacked one after another, all the same. Sometimes I would imagine my family’s life before then: our pantry stocked full of bread and jam, my father’s books lining the walls from ceiling to floor. In my memory of a place that I didn’t remember, we always had enough food, and the hot water worked on more than just Saturday nights. We could bathe whenever we wanted, even in winter when the central heating went out.
But I collected stories, both made-up and true.
And I was usually good at spotting the difference.
My family had never had enough food. We’d never had enough hot water, enough space, enough light. At ten years old, I could already see how everyone, even me, talked about before in a special kind of voice and with special kinds of words. If we believed that before, things were better, we could imagine they’d be better again. This was the way we survived.
There was a loud thump behind my parents’ bedroom door, something striking their dresser. I jumped when it happened again. Muffled sounds came in great, rolling waves: my father’s words rising, my mother suppressing the swell. I knew she didn’t quiet him because of me, not really. She did it for the neighbor whose ear might be pressed to the wall, for the passerby in the corridor who might pause, fingers feeling in pockets for a pen. It was always best to assume someone was listening.
When the door finally opened, I knew I must have looked frightened, so I pretended to be busy writing in my Great Tome. I was working on “The Baker’s Boy,” a retelling of a parable from school, but my eyes couldn’t focus on the words. I kept glancing up at my parents, who had settled into silent preparation for dinner. I tried not to think about who might have been killed, distracting myself by drawing loaves of tan-colored bread around the edge of my title page. But when the sun dipped low, its fading light turned all the Great Tome’s colors to ugly shades of gray, so I tucked the book under my arm and carried it to the couch.
With the power still out, the TV screen was just a dark reflection of me holding my stories, but I sat down and stared at it anyway. Thinking about the movies I loved made me feel a bit better, even if I knew there was no chance I’d see them. We used to get two channels that had shows all day long. My mother still talked about when they’d aired the one from America with the man in the cowboy hat, which always ended with somebody shot or in a car that exploded. But now we only had one channel, just two hours a day during the week, and it didn’t air shows like that anymore. Th e programming was usually boring: speeches given from inside the grand palace; televised sessions of the Communist Party, the little men on the screen all cheering together, booing together, raising their fists; broadcasts that reviewed the state guidelines on “rational eating” or politely reminded viewers of local curfews.
On Sundays, though, Gala Animation would come on, and we’d get five whole minutes of a cartoon. Everyone I knew who had a television made sure not to miss it. Last summer, over the course of several weeks, I’d caught all of 101 Dalmatians and bragged to the other children when we went back to school. This summer they were showing The Aristocats, and the last episode had left the poor kitties scared and alone out in the country. I wouldn’t get to see the next five minutes till the weekend, but if the power came back tonight, our handmade antenna might pick up something good from Bulgaria, and my whole family might sit down to watch. Then, just like always, we could leave behind whatever horrible thing had happened.
Luck seemed to be on my side, at least for the moment, because as we were setting the table, the electricity flickered to life. I asked my father, “Can I turn on the fan?”
Sometimes he said no. The taxes were very high if we went over our energy allotment. But tonight he didn’t even look at me. He just gave a little gesture with his hand, which I took for a yes, then sat down in his place. The lines around his eyes and behind his big glasses looked deeper than usual, and I began to worry he might really be sick. At the table, the wind blowing through my choppy brown hair, I turned my gaze down and picked at my food. Pie with eggplant and potato but no meat. The queue had been too long at the butcher’s. When the line manager had told me and my mother that it would take five hours, maybe six, to get our rations, I thought she’d make us take turns waiting, but instead we’d simply gone home.
Nibbling a stale piece of bread and avoiding as much eggplant as possible, I did my best not to complain. My father was still quiet. The sickly look had not left his face, and I kept glancing up, wanting someone to speak. I knew they wouldn’t tell me who was killed or why, because they’d never told me before, but the longer everyone went without talking, the more anxious I grew, thinking that this time it had been someone important.
When I could no longer take it, I did what I always did with silence. I tried to fill it with a story.
“Do you want to hear the new one?”
“Maybe another night,” my mother replied.
My stomach fluttered. My cheeks flushed. They never said no.
I returned to poking at my dinner, suddenly frightened as I tried to guess who was dead, because it had never been this bad. It had never meant this much.
My father put down his fork. “Is that what you did today? Work on your stories?”
I thought he was mad about me not doing my summer homework, so I said quickly, “It’s a school story. Mrs. Dumitru told it to us before vacation.”
“Another night,” my mother repeated, and this time I took her words for what they were—a warning.
“No, I want to hear it. I want to hear what they’re telling my daughter. I want to hear what she’s writing.”
I looked between them, shrinking into my chair. A chime from the clock let me ask, “Can I be done?”
My mother glanced at my plate with a frown but nodded. “Bring in your dishes. And turn off that fan. You’ll catch cold.”
“What about your story?” my father asked.
“I forgot it’s not ready,” I lied.
After filling the sink with soapy water, I switched on the TV and sank down into the worn couch. My parents began to clean up. When the dark screen filled with static, I peeked out onto the balcony, worried that someone had climbed up and stolen our wires, but everything seemed okay. I looked at Mama. I hesitated. She was elbow deep in dirty dishes, my father helping dry. They were both still silent—a bad sign.
Usually, after supper, I had to turn up the TV extra loud because my mother loved to sing and my father loved to join in and bellow off-key. If it wasn’t that cacophony, they would at least be chattering away about work.
Back in the old apartment, my mother had given music lessons from home. But once she’d lost her piano, she’d had to take a job as a secretary. Now she filed stacks of papers and made calls and typed up copies of documents, since copy machines were illegal. Sometimes there was so much work, she had to get special permission to take a typewriter home.
“I have the worst job in the world,” she would say.
“At least it’s safe,” my father would answer.
Tata was a professor at the University of Bucharest, where he lectured in literature and composition. He’d never been a very good writer, but he loved stories almost as much as I did, so he’d spent his whole life learning how to listen to them. He could hear what was inside a story’s heart—what made it beat or let it die—and he’d shared that gift with me. Most nights after supper, if he wasn’t singing with Mama or talking away, he’d patiently critique all my new ideas. And if we couldn’t watch television because the power was out, he’d get a candle and I’d go find his reading glasses and we’d snuggle up on the couch with our books.
Usually, after supper, our family found something to be happy about, even in the hardest of times. But tonight my father was silent and slouched like an old man—like he was carrying a sack of stones on his shoulders—and even though the kitchen was so close I could almost reach out and touch him, I felt as if he were standing a hundred kilometers away.
Whatever was eating him up started eating me, too.
I crawled over to the TV and twisted the knob frantically, searching for a Bulgarian station. We didn’t speak Bulgarian, but they got much better shows, and sometimes when Columbo came on my father would pretend he knew what everyone was saying, making up silly things till we were all a giggling mess. If that happened tonight, life would go back to normal, I was sure, and whoever had died wouldn’t matter, not really, just like they’d never mattered before.
“Mama, the TV’s all fleas,” I called, getting desperate.
My mother glanced at the clock. “Then watch the news.”
She dried off her hands, sighing loudly, and stepped out onto the balcony to fiddle with the antenna. When she came back inside, there was still only static, so she changed the channel to the nightly state broadcast.
“I want to watch a Bulgarian show!” I said, panicking. Turning on the news was a terrible idea. Most of the time it just made my parents upset.
When I kept complaining, Mama shushed me and gave a few gentle smacks to the back of my head. A newscaster was talking in front of black-and-white pictures of the Leader, an aging man with slick gray hair and puffy little boy’s lips. His wife was beside him in a skirt suit and fat, shiny pearls. She was always photographed from the front so her nose would look small. The two stood before a huge crowd of people, giant posters of the Leader’s face plastered all over the wall at their backs. The people were applauding. Flags were waving. I slid dramatically to the floor and rolled onto my stomach, groaning till my mother shook me to silence with her foot on my butt.
A clip of the Leader must have started playing, because I heard him then, speaking to the cheering crowd about the importance of loyalty to the country, about the importance of poetry.
“Everyone enjoys a good love poem,” he said. “But of course the highest form of all art is socialist poetry.”
My mother sat down on the couch. She called to my father: “Lucian.”
He came over and I stopped fussing, lifting my face up from the thin carpet.
The Leader read some lines from a poem. I knew the poet they were from. We all learned about him in school. This particular poem praised the state and the Communist Party.
But I knew other poems from this poet, as well—ones the teachers did not read in class.
I knew them because the poet had gone to university with my uncle Andrei, my father’s brother. The poet had written many things that he shouldn’t have written, many things that did not praise our country. And before he died—before his spine was crushed late one night under the wheels of a tram—he had inspired my uncle to write poetry, too.
I tensed and looked up at my father.
“What wonderful lyrics,” the newscaster said with a smile when the clip ended. “Our writers must always strive for such beauty.”
My tata’s face drained of what little color was left. When he started to sob, my whole body went numb. I thought I might start crying too, but before I could, my mother got up and ushered me into my room.
“Don’t worry. He’s just not feeling well,” she said.
But I collected stories, so I knew that was a lie.
I knew my uncle, the poet, had not been home in a week. I knew now that my father thought he was dead.
But recognizing a lie and knowing the truth are two different things.
My father wasn’t crying just because he was afraid for his brother—his brother who wrote dangerous poems.
He was also afraid for me.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.
Excerpted from The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer. Copyright © 2019 by J. Kasper Kramer. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Simon & Schuster/Atheneum.