novel, "Fiction LTD" series, Polirom, 2007, 256 pages
The ground was friable and the bones came loose easily. At first the soldiers had worked with shovels and spades, even with hoes (many of them were accustomed to digging up potatoes and turnips), but after that they had switched to gentler tools. They dug with builder’s trowels and putty knives ; they cleaned each bone with soft brushes, rather like paintbrushes. It was worse when it rained, because then each mass grave filled up with water. “Look at them wallowing in the mire,” someone remarked during a shower. “You’d think they were pigs.” And that was about right. The person who had spoken (with a teacup in his palms) and his colleague (munching toast) gazed from the veranda of the cabin (the archaeologists’ house, as it was called in town), as the gendarmes, wearing raincoats and rubber boots over their uniforms, tramped through the mud and scrabbled in the clayey earth. They had given up on the putty knives and brushes. They poked around directly with their fingers and rinsed the bones in puddles. One or another would sometimes slip and fall, but this happened rarely, as a rule they tripped each other up, they shoved each other, they came up with all kinds of tricks to topple those who were still managing to keep clean. This practice, prompted by the rain, ceased as soon as magistrate-colonel Spiru made his appearance. The same as many other things.
As for the closure of the archaeological site (which around the middle of April had reached the perimeter of the armoury), the chief of local police was responsible for that, the hominid bell pepper, as he had been dubbed by one, innately taciturn research student. The same student, who was researching the equipment and battle techniques of the North-Danube legions, had sketched, after three shots of rum, a portrait of the copper : bushy moustache, crafty eyes, a gut that gestated not quadruplets but only flatulence. The major had ordered cessation of all activity in the fort area after a young lad of eleven, while looking for worms to fish for barbels, had found a skull that did not look like either a dog’s or a goat’s. And the frightened youngster, who had run for it together with his friends (after making the discovery that was to be recorded and commented by the newspapers in the first week of the summer holiday), had also quickly yelled something at the archaeologists, as they were plotting on the grass the next stage of the dig, one which would have brought it closer to the rooms of the smithy. They hadn’t been able to understand anything from his words, but later someone expressed the opinion (namely auntie Paulina, in one of her interminable discussions with her tenant) that, fleeing for dear life, the child must have put a jinx on them. Although the mass grave was situated far from the Roman site, more than a hundred metres away, the chief of police had proved hostile to synchronism and heuristics, as the coroner said. He had not permitted excavation of the furnace and the adjacent rooms in parallel with his investigations. And what investigations ! Firstly some sergeants and warrant officers had shown up, who guarded the ruins day and night and drove away the curious, later they set about carting the bones to police headquarters in a wheelbarrow covered en route with a sheet of tarpaulin. The opinion of the professor, who dated the bones at around 1800, did nothing to dull the zeal of the major, nor even stir any doubt in him, for all that it was the opinion of one who had seen more ancient and mediaeval tombs than the latter had caught pickpockets. In any case, the professor, a university man up to his eyes in research, conferences, books in progress, lectures, chansonettes and bilious attacks, had departed soon after that episode, leaving it for others to enlighten a turbid mind. And this is what he had said to them : “Lads, I don’t have time for pickling, so why don’t you deal with the bell pepper and call me when he’s done !” However, the officer, who couldn’t care less about centurions’ weapons (swords, chain-mail, lances, helmets, daggers, shields, crossbows, catapults and whatever else might lie beneath the earth), had not let himself be put in brine or vinegar ; rather he was the one who saw to them, singeing them over a low flame like aubergines for a pickle. On three different occasions (picking wax out of one ear, smoothing his moustache, tightening his tie knot), he had asserted that a few rusty bits of tin meant nothing next to so many human bones. In order to permit the archaeological site to reopen, he demanded an explanatory document regarding the dozens, perhaps hundreds of dead bodies, which had turned up in his circumscription, in clay fit only for stopping up stoves. He required evidence that would eliminate communist revolvers from the discussion and disprove the theory. “Gentlemen,” the coroner would periodically interpose, “what a pity for a militiaman to have so much bad blood !” And he would sip the tea or coffee to which he was treated at the archaeologists’ house, ever amazed at the virulence of the accounts concerning a personage who, he believed, had guzzled so many onions that his brain had seized up.
The doctor counted among the few who were welcome at the cabin. This cabin was shady on sunny days and dry when it rained. Others who were invited or received there included Mr Sasha, the photographer, who used to tether his dromedary to the small handrail of the steps ; Titus Maeriu, the representative of former political prisoners at the exhumation of those unknown bones ; a few journalists, who inclined towards the version of a republican massacre, but had grasped that the chief of police was aiming at an advancement in rank ; Mrs Embury’s niece, with all her freshness ; and a biologist from the town, with the beard of a Dutch navigator and irrepressible outbursts against the major after having lost the local elections. To return to the coroner, not necessarily to his beige suit, it would chance that he sometimes made more placid appearances, during which he did not argue with anyone. As a rule, his good moods were the result of nights at the hotel, when he was visited by a lady journalist fond of red wines and the gentle strokes of his bottom, broader than his shoulders, at the end of which he used to sleep soundly. And in one of those relaxed, matutinal moments, subsequent to cabernet and tactile ardour, he had come up with the idea that the military magistrates were assiduously working on a huge puzzle, with thousands or tens of thousands of pieces. “How is that ?” someone had asked, in passing, unsuspecting as to what would follow : a lengthy and convoluted description, in which the doctor imagined the mass grave being emptied to the bottom and all the bodily remains spread out separately on the grass by the prosecutors, filling the precincts of the fort. He imagined Colonel Spiru strolling among them, hands behind his back, now and then picking up a bone and attempting to discover its correspondent, more often than not getting the match wrong, losing his temper and punishing the hapless gendarmes with orders to lie down and then stand to attention, or to do push-ups, then proceeding on his way, as if through a labyrinth, ever more rapidly and more confused, not at all prepared to give up, dreaming of a finale in which the reassembled skeletons would stand all in a row, dozens, perhaps hundreds, each perfectly reconstructed, with not a single element missing and in no case with a humerus or even a metacarpus positioned anywhere other than in its proper place. In reply, a voice from the cabin had proposed a game of baccarat or poker. And there had been plenty of punters, among them the owner of the dromedary. They never could have imagined that Spiru himself was appropriating the phalanxes of the little fingers and hiding them beneath a bundle of white shirts, something which would have prevented him (due to the shortage of pieces) from completing such a puzzle.
In addition to the major, nor were the prosecutors in favour at the archaeologists’ house. Once, during a chilly shower, a drenched captain had striven to smile and seek shelter, but he had been recommended to buy an umbrella. Another time, in torrid heat, even the colonel had hoped for a patch of shade, but he had been shown the woods and told about a cool spring in the vicinity of a pine tree. From the cabin, they followed the events in the mass grave, without missing a single detail. If they were forbidden to research the armoury of the fort, then at least they should be able to enjoy the show in the company of whom they pleased. They witnessed, for example, the transportation of the bones back from police headquarters, a return journey devoid of glory. The bones had been carted back by the same sergeants and warrant officers, with a wheelbarrow once again, except that this time they had not covered them with a tarpaulin and had lost their air of cockerels strutting among hens. They resembled trembling sparrows, who did not know how to vanish quickly enough from the sight of an old tomcat that was as yet indulgent, with prominent cheekbones and colonel’s pips. They approached slowly, perhaps because of the gradient and the weight, they emptied the wheelbarrow where they were ordered, and hurried away. Because their trips were repeated and it was never clear whether the scene was unfolding for the last time, hefty bets had been placed in the cabin, from which the doctoral student, the one who was studying the armament and battle techniques of the North-Danube legions, had won almost a quarter of a month’s wages. Then the archaeologists were witness to the “great inventory,” which had commenced with the placement of four folding tables at the sides of the mass grave, next to which the prosecutors with not yet white hair were posted. Under the supervision of Colonel Spiru, whose hair had been white for quite some time, the magistrates distributed to the soldiers transparent bags of different sizes, arranged from the femur to the tarsus and from the tibia to the sacrum, to which, on their return, were attached white labels with a code number and a few basic observations. Not so much as a week after the inception of the operation, folding chairs had been added to the tables, and in addition a chaise-long had appeared, which could be positioned anywhere and, indeed, was moved all over the place, according to the whims or intuitions of the colonel. After they had finished sealing into crates the heaps unloaded from the wheelbarrow and recording them in ledgers (and after they had made a habit of lunches at the Matilda House), the prosecutors had gone on to the strata of bones in the friable earth. They were interested in whether they could identify traces of bullets ; they put questions marks next to any broken or fissured skulls that could be argued to have suffered blows. The four folding tables did not follow the cardinal points, but were situated at intermediate points, so that the sun beat down on each of the magistrates in turn. Although they had chosen their places in hierarchical order, depending on the hour and the temperature of the summer days, the one affected by the glare of the sun would be sweating and seem more intent than the others. It was worse when it rained, because the mass grave would fill up with water. Then, those watching from the veranda would go into the small room of the cabin, the only room, which served as a cloakroom, storeroom, dining room, office and much more, and they would try to find themselves a chair among the jumble of that cramped space. They would wait for something to boil in the coffee-pot on the Primus, maybe some milk, maybe some wine with sugar and spices, and at least one of them would always ask himself how that ramshackle building could ever have been christened the archaeologists’ house.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth