Chapter 1: Born in Hell
Sector 6. Orphanage Bucharest, Romania 1980s
“Never fall asleep in the basement.” They all say that.
“Vlad did it, and when he woke up everything was missing: the nose, the ears, two fingers...”
Vlad was truly disfigured, but he didn’t say why, and if you stared too much at him he would whack you, and none had the courage to ask him about what happened in the basement.
It’s 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 lie 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.
Sometimes you fell asleep on your feet but you had to wake up immediately or the rats would come to gnaw your toes. You don’t hear them but you know they watch you, there in the darkness and their bellies are hurting from 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 it is not true. You deceive yourself and suddenly you feel the need to eat something, anything or your stomach starts to eat you. And the worst of it is that you don’t know how much time has passed. Sometimes you believe it has been weeks since you’ve been down here, or other times just a few hours and you ask yourself how long the old hag is going to keep you locked up 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 kick the basement’s iron door, but you only anger her if she hears the echoes, and then it becomes 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 realized that I interest to anyone. My world was reduced back then to an immense room in which we slept, ate, survived and especially suffered; and back then I didn’t believe that there was anything outside of it. I remember the shock I felt when they took me outside for the first time. I saw the sky, the trees, the ground, and the buildings… the world outside as it was.
And so, I was born into a world where nobody wanted me: my parents, my relatives and even… I never wanted to exist. But what did I know back then? Whoever was supposed to love me and protect me, didn’t. They just buried me there in that graveyard, that I now call my childhood… with rotten carpets and cigar-smelling drapes. They 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 that life is suffering, and death is the end of suffering. That is when you begin to imagine how you are going to kill yourself. What would that be like? Nobody will miss or mourn 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 nightmare we call Mama.
Outside, it is warm and bright and you wonder why you have you been left down there for so long in the darkness. You step toward the bright light that intoxicates your eyes and you hate her, your jailer, with all your heart. The old hag that locked you up in that black hole helps you step over the door’s big iron threshold and says:
“Oh, poor you, what happened to you…?” and then Mama kisses your forehead while you are dark blue and benumbed with cold, with red eyes from 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 try to love that wizened old woman as if she was not the one that put you in that hell.
As you go back into the room, the others look at you with pity, they all know what it 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. It 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 we give each other.
How old were we? I don’t know that, but I know we didn’t know how to count anyway.
Finally, later on, when we fall asleep, the old hag follows us even in our 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 away from him 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 clotted blood on yourself and you wonder what happened.
Back then everything looked normal and you accepted it; this is the way things are and people like us couldn’t do anything else than survive even though those moments haunt you all your life though you don’t know it yet. Later you realize you want to take revenge on those people that wrenched 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 one of the demons that tormented you for so many years and start torturing 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 a little bitterer. 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 want? 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 cling to her and she promises us that she will return but we all know that she will never come back. Who wants to come here again?
This is what hurts the most, to see so clearly 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 a normal life.
Sometimes you 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 gives her another lollipop. This is why 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 and she was hurting so bad that she was praying to die just to feel a little bit better.
But what we are all most afraid of is the old paper press machine, made of wood, iron, steel and brass. The Janitor used to put our hands in the machine and spin the lever till he 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 threw a brick at his head and he was 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 boiling oil on his face. His mother brought him here after that and she promised that she would take him back home shortly, but she never wanted 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. Jail was still hoping that one day he would come back and take him home.
Blackie and Crow were sisters, they came here when they were young but they still remembered living in a tent with lots of cows. Their skin was dark but their eyes were bright green.
Carrion had this skin disease that made his skin fall like flakes. Nobody wanted to touch him or talk to him, and he was 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 in his eyes every time he was about to do something insane.
Nelu was deaf. I don’t know if he became deaf after he got here or if his parents brought him here because he was deaf… but he was deaf. He was always carrying with him this matchbox full of flies. He had this weird dexterity and he could catch flies in his closed hands and put them in this matchbox of his.
Sometimes he gave the box to people when they asked for a match to light up their cigarettes. You could see genuine disgust in their eyes when they opened the box.
Nicu didn’t have that name in the beginning, but we started 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 while picking through trash on the quiet street.
We did that so often that Nicu started to like it and believe it, and he forgot his real name or at least he was confused when he was called by the name he had before he became “Nicu.”
We were children, growing up without love and surviving with just bread and water. But one day we grew up.