Romanian fugue in C Sharp


                           A Novel and Nine Stories

                                                                                                by Aurora Cornu




—William Blake


The Angel that presided o’er my birth

Said, “Little creature, formed of joy and mirth

Go, love, without the help of anything on earth.”




“Man does not command time, but yields under the weight of time.” Here, time, or the times, no longer implies duration; it means, very strictly speaking, history or historical events. One of the very first writers in the Romanian language, Vacaresco, defined it as such, and several centuries later, another writer, Marin Preda, echoes him: “Time was patient in the Danubian plain.” Yet as his novel ends with the beginning of the war, he writes: “Time was no longer patient.” In those countries wearied by history a man tends to consider his life crushed under the burden of circumstances. But if an outsider were to tell the story of this man’s life after his death, history would only appear as a series of simple episodes in his existence. History would be nothing more than storms, epidemics or other natural calamities. The important things being the birth, the marriage, the death, and sure enough, schooling, children, friends.  

On August 23, 1944, Romania, who until then had fought against the Russians, turned arms against her German allies. This act was precipitated by American bombardment of the oil-producing region of Ploiesti, and by the advance of the Soviet troops toward the town of Iassy. It all happened at such a rapid and lively tempo that the one and only prostitute of Frasinet, Adalgisa, who lived at the edge of the village, was utterly confused. She never knew whether the father of her blond child was the German who, leaving, left her for exhausted, or the Slav who, arriving, took her for rested. All this because the village is situated in one of the paths of the Moscow-Berlin-Moscow troops. Geopolitics held little interest for sumptuous-hipped Adalgiza, for she had no political opinion. She worked for money but also for pleasure, and her methods were highly personalized. She only accepts those she likes. She has rules: she lets herself be courted for a reasonable period of a few days, or at least a few hours, and then would surrender her charms for a price that varies but always remains a little higher than the client could afford.

From her numerous lovers she would require promises of love and fidelity. She offers them a curl of her luxuriant black hair as a souvenir. She would be photographed with them, their kepis on her head if they were military men, and she pins those tokens on her walls. She proposes to each one of them to pack in everything and marry him; although she would specify that what she enjoys most in her work is the opportunity to get to know people. She would even go so far as to take the client to church and light a candle for the soldier’s protection. And if her lap happened to be the door through which the West passed to the East and, later, the East to the West, she could not help it; for a door is made to be passed through, though its essence is not altered; it can only be, at the most, temporarily shaken off its hinges. Her lack of interest in these contingencies, her innocent detachment, gave this lap a unifying power which, philosophically, was oriented towards a humanitarian future when hatred would be abolished.

If such a comparison may be permitted, this was also the position of Frasinet, and by a somewhat excessive extension, that of the entire country—but I apologize in advance for speculations which I will force myself to illustrate. Towards the middle of the Second World War, one year before this story begins, the American Air Force attacked the objective which Churchill called “the taproot of German power.” This objective was the oil of Ploiesti, Romania. The “Halverson Project” #63 took off from Florida with 23 new Consolidated Liberator (B-24) bombers that were first to bomb Tokyo in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. They flew over China, Brazil, Africa, the Sudan, Abidjan on the Ivory Coast. When they finally reached Khartoum they were told it would be wiser to bomb Ploiesti instead. “Where?”

Although the name was known in chancelleries as the very nerve center of the Hitlerian war, it was unknown to pilots. The American Congress had only declared war on Romania on June 5, while General Ion Antonesco, a former student of St. Cyr, and prime minister of Romania, had made his own declaration of war nine months earlier.But now Harry A. (Hurry Up) Halverson learned that oil refineries in Ploesti, Campina, Baicoi were producing one third of the high-octane fuel for Hitler’s Stukas and Messerschmidts and gas for tanks as well. Half of the fuel that enabled Rommel to tour around Mediterranean Africa came from there too.

It was therefore necessary to strike the Astra Romana and Steaua Romana refineries. But Ploesti was far away and a hidden, but nonetheless powerful defense system had already been established by the German general, Gerstenberg, who was there lying in wait for his adversaries. The first group of planes took off from Bengasi, Libya at 22:30 on June 11, 1942, and reached Constantza at dawn. The ancient Greeks had named this port Tomis when they founded it on the Black Sea.

The pilots were dazzled by a kind of Aurora Borealis, actually caused by the glowing crossfire from the battle of the Crimea. The Danube had overflowed. How could they find the island and the fork, which were to indicate the direction of the target? Approximately twelve planes reached the sector of Ploesti. Believing themselves to be directly over Astra Romana, they dropped their bombs, causing insignificant damage in the cornfields, and dashed away over the Black Sea, landing in Aleppo, Syria. This story has been related at length by two war correspondents, Dugan and Stewart. Well aware of the effectiveness of the German defense, the Americans, out of desperation, came up with the idea of a hedge-hopping air raid.

Thus, on August 1, 1943, one year before our story begins, the “Tidal Wave” operation was launched on Ploesti. It involved 29 of K.K. Compton’s pink Liberdados, 39 green planes from Addison Buker’s traveling Circus, Killer Kane’s 40 yellow Pyramiders and 37 green aircraft from Leon Johnson’s Black Balls. In addition, 26 Liberators, fresh from the factory, were joined with Colonel Jack Wood’s Sky Scorpions to bomb Campina. In all, 165 planes out of 178 reached Ploesti and dropped their bombs from an altitude of a few meters, which was the only conceivable way to take the German fire by surprise and avoid radar detection.

On the German side were 90,000 Luftwaffe soldiers plus 70,000 Russian prisoners, who did all the fatigue duty, and 12,000 technicians. Dozens of anti-aircraft batteries were buried in trenches, camouflaged behind factories, hidden under haystacks. Despite General Gerstenberg’s complaints, quoting Marshal von Mackensen during World War I: “I arrived in Romania with an army of soldiers and I am left with an army of merchants,” the quality of the defense in Ploesti was never in question. As an antidote against the country’s mild climate and natural wealth, Gerstenberg kept his artillery men busy with daily maneuvers.

About 32 kilometers away, in Mizil, was the main German air base where there were four squadrons of Messerschmidt-109—totaling 52 aircraft. At a short distance, in Zilstea, 17 night hunters, black twin-engined Messerschmidt-110 with clipped wings, were keeping watch. The Germans wanted the “Gypsies,” as they called the native pilots, as little underfoot as possible. In their Romanian YARs they indulged in all kinds of acrobatics and tricks, and therefore were in charge of defending the capital, Bucharest, which was of no strategic interest for the war. “Rich brats out for a little fun,” the Germans said mockingly. From Pipera, on the outskirts of Bucharest, they trained in their chasers made in Brasov: IAR-80 and IAR-81, 34 in all, heavy and low-winged, armed with four Tommy guns and two machine guns; they had still caused much damage on the Russian front. Fortunately for the civilians, the refineries in Ploesti formed a circle around the town. An emergency pipeline ran above ground, joining the refinery units together; if one unit had been destroyed it could be quickly repaired in order to reactivate production.

In Campina, the main target was Steaua Romana, located approximately 30 kilometers from Ploesti, property of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The Scorpions that were to attack it preferred to fly in close formation. They had at their disposal brand new Liberators that could fly a little longer than the others. In successive waves of assault, they dropped delayed-reaction bombs on each target three times. Three hundred ten American pilots never returned to their base. The last raid on the region of Ploesti took place on August 17 and 18, 1944, with 78 Wellingtons, Liberators and Halifaxes from the Royal Air Force. Ploesti became a vision of the Apocalypse. After 23 bomb raids, 9173 sorties of bombers, protected by fighters that dropped 13,709 tons of explosives, Ploesti, Campina and Baicoi were severely damaged. To the Americans’ credit, the Gerstenberg bill amounted to 268 bombers destroyed and 2829 men killed or injured.

The Royal Air Force had lost 38 heavy bombers out of 924, and 36 RAF pilots became prisoners. Gerstenberg was to end up at the Headquarters of the G.P.U. in Moscow to have a little chat with Beria.

My father had helped the old beggar, who was heading for the village, into the cart. We were far from the city. A polite and quiet fellow, the old man, muttering to himself, curled up in the hay we were carrying. He gave the impression of chewing lentils, so full was his mouth of small teeth. He was fairly well dressed for that kind of old man. He wore old-fashioned but clean clothes. We were old-fashioned too. Our vehicle was this ancient wagon designed for collecting heavy loads of the perfumed hay, growing on steep hillsides dominating our village, with which we fed our cows. The small cart that our neighbor had asked us to bring him was hooked up to our wagon. The cobblestone road was jolting the wagon; it made a sound reminiscent of the staccato conversation of chattering young girls. Alongside of our huge Swiss horse trotted a small bay horse, all flame and fire, who was nonetheless beginning to tire from trying to adapt his quick pace to the majestic step of his companion. Their mute rivalry had touched us also, but after a while our resigned irritation had subsided into rest. Suddenly my father put his hand under his collar where he had felt something moving; slowly he turned a questioning look towards the old man.

‘That must be one of my snakes,” said the latter as if excusing himself.

Without panicking in the least, my father pulled out from under his shirt a garden snake he handed to the old man, who stuck it in his jacket. My father remained thoughtful in the midst of the discordant hammering of the hooves and metal wheels. "You don’t happen to have an adder also?” he said at last. The old man, whispering unintelligible words, looked for and finally found a beautiful adder, the pale colors of which were not due to age. On the contrary, it looked young. He gave it to my father, who held it by the neck.

“‘Be careful,” warned the old man, “it’s not mean, but with adders, one never knows.”

The snake was drowsy. It writhed lazily, without conviction, trying to bite my father’s thumb. You could tell that it intended no harm, but was, rather, trying to live up to its legend. My father was playing with it, caressing its head, which didn’t seem to displease it.

“`Where do you come from, old man?” asked my father.

“`From Dobroudgea,” he answered

I was almost asleep. “Dobroudgea.” The word echoed in me: the dust, the heat, the winds eroding the oldest mountains in Europe, the poverty; but also the swamps and reeds of the Danube delta. I had heard the tale of a traveler for whom the night had prepared a surprise there.


Fishermen had been hospitable, but the atmosphere in the shack where he was lodged had been too stifling, and he had voiced the desire to sleep under the stars. “Do as you please!” his host had responded as the other fishermen exchanged amused glances. The traveler had a night of sleep, a deep and drunken sleep as if in the forgotten cradle of his childhood. He was awakened by a tender ray of sun chasing the last dreams from his eyes. Happy, he stretched his muscles; they were not stiff, but swollen, as if doubled in size. And then it happened: on his chest, darting out between two buttons of his shirt, an inquisitive head appeared like a periscope. A water snake, a green snake, gently unfolded its segments, undulating and hissing slightly, and left to go about its daily occupations. Then, it was like a blanket of intertwined snakes detaching themselves from the traveler’s skin. Very grateful for the warmth they had found in the cold of the night, they unraveled and left merrily…

“‘Oh! It has bitten me,” said my father showing a drop of blood in the palm of his hand.

The beggar seemed preoccupied. He stood up and placed his frail hand on my mouth: “Bite it, little girl,” he said. I was carried away by a sudden wildness. Fiercely I clenched my teeth until the skin broke. Then reluctantly I let go. The old man gathered a drop of blood from my father on a straw. He plunged it into his own wound. Next he bent over and sucked the venom from my father’s hand. After which, he tore out the adder’s teeth, one by one, and threw it toothless by the side of the road; he abandoned it to its destiny.

Now, it’s precisely at this spot that the road opens onto a prairie where the young girls of the village lead the cows for the day. The color of the sky was rapidly becoming a more somber blue. The silhouettes of the girls, who were standing silently scrutinizing the heavens, wondering if perhaps it was going to rain, curiously touched me.

"Stop here, brother!” said the old man. My father protested with all his heart. “What are you going to do in the fields? Come along then and spend the night at my home.”

“‘There is no more home for me,” said the other in a tense voice. We stopped.

The old man had a strange authority. He jumped out of the wagon.

“Take the snakes, sir!” I cried to him. “They are all over me.” And I hurriedly pulled by the tail a long, scaleless serpent, which had left on my ribs a viscous trace, which nauseated me. I threw it in the grass. And I pulled two others off— lovers, obviously—which I threw out, under the opaque gaze of the old man. As  for the latter, he calmly laid down all the little people swarming over him. Every-thing was calm and still. The old man had, I believe, the melancholy of a fulfilled dream, the appearance of someone who has left behind the things he loves to follow a vision. Why did these lands fulfill his soul’s yearning? His eyes took on a distracted expression, became dim, were covered with a gleaming veil, as he showed his teeth with the smile of a happy father; small teeth, half circles bordered in black, real serpent’s teeth, I realized at last. He’s dying, I thought, my heart full of pity. He paid for the fault of the adder. And also: snakes love milk, it’s true. In my half sleep, I was given to this prosaic explanation, for I saw the tribe of serpents gliding in the grass. Shuddering, I closed my eyes. On the legs of the cows, ivy on a column, the snakes climbed, coiled, their mouths innocently reaching for the milk. Poor serpents of Dobroudgea!


All Rights Reserved © 2003 by Aurora Cornu



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