The dead-end

There’s a previous part to this, available here.

I get off the train feeling thirsty and scattered as if I couldn’t put myself together and I left an undefined part of me in that compartment. I breathe in the cold morning air, petting a stray dog, and then I start walking on the side of the road towards my destination. Apart from the single employee of the train station, with a uniform that he seems to have worn continuously for the last two decades, and a couple of alcoholics having their first vodka and beer at the tiny bar of the station, there’s nobody around.

The town was built on a large salt deposit that was mined from Roman times until a few decades ago. The only notable local industry, a chemical plant producing sodium hydroxide, ceased its activity. Part of the old mine ceiling collapsed in the 1970s and then again a few years ago, forcing the town to rearrange its activity and relocate its center around the newly-formed salt lakes. The former spa was closed. Young people leave this place as soon as they can, looking for work or continuing education in the big city. The town is a few kilometers away from the train station and the highway, so no tourist, no matter how lost, is likely to end up here. Its distance from the main transport networks only makes its obsoleteness more visible. It’s a dead end.

I am here precisely because this is a dead end. In fact, it’s a thread of dead-ends coming together. Me, my dad, this town. Our traumas intertwined, passed on faithfully through generations. Reenacting the things you hated the most and told yourself you will never ever become.

Here I am, wandering through the streets of a dying town in Transylvania where nobody knows me anymore, carrying my shame and guilt and sadness like millstones chained to my neck. I wouldn’t be able to explain to anybody, including myself, why I came here. I just know I had to.

Buildings have their own smell, just as people do. Take this building where grandma used to live. It smells of mildew and old age and struggles and the nostalgia of seeing the world passing you by, with the knowledge that you’ll be cut from it shortly. I pass by it and take the main road towards the center.

I wander around like a ghost, remembering everything methodically, like an obsessive-compulsive masochist. Then I land in a seedy bar across the road from the church, where I spend a few minutes, or maybe a couple of hours, or maybe half a day. Right in front of me, four guys with red cheeks cheer continuously, as if the occasions that call for a celebration just keep popping up. They are stuck to their chairs, in front of a table demonstratively full of empty beer bottles. All the other tables see the usual circulation of locals coming in for their fix before work, during work, and after work.

One hour in this place gives you a complete update on town life: births, extra-marital affairs, sickness, and death. The local funeral home has a billboard with a promotional offer for complete funeral services. It has no expiry date.

As the light begins to fade, there’s a change in the air. A strange energy seems to flow from table to table and then outside, radiating across the houses. The drunks around me have straightened up as if woken by an invisible call that they cannot ignore, even if they can barely move. The passers-by greet each other and discuss with loud voices and bright eyes. There’s excitement but no anxiety. They wear their good clothes, those usually reserved for marriages or funerals, including their own. Many of them have flowers.

The energy is now palpable, like a draft of cold air in an unventilated room. It slowly orientates everybody in the same direction and pushes them to advance. There’s not a single person swimming against the current. A zombie scene without zombies. The discussions have stopped, the high voices have faded as if they’ve suddenly entered a sacred place. Everybody is marching towards the hill.

It’s All Saints Day or Illumination Day as it’s called here. With calculated movements that try to give a slight impression of soberness, I leave the table and take my place in the human river flowing upstream, towards the cemetery on the hill. I’m walking alongside these strangers and suddenly, for the first time in a long while, I don’t feel completely alone anymore.

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