By Anca Segall
When I was seven I defied gravity, and lost.
It was a gray, frozen day in mid-winter 1967. School had been let out and, as neither of my parents would be home for a few more hours, I joined three girlfriends in our little neighborhood park in the middle of Bucharest. Its grounds were covered in hard packed snow, stained with brown mud and glistening with occasional patches of ice. It was surrounded by the reinforced concrete of the wall around the school ground across the street, and all the apartment buildings nearby. It would be weeks before the green of spring would make any headway.
The meager little park was only half a city block, equipped simply with a wood plank with two metal handles barely qualifying as a see-saw, a rickety merry-go-round, a couple of screeching swings, and a slide. The wood was rotted and splintering, and covered in peeling paint.
We knew no better and would not turn down even these poor excuses for play. Later in the spring the park would be ringing with kids’ laughter and the shouts of grandparents and mothers, taking time out from neighborhood gossip to give a warning or a reprimand. We kids were attuned to every nuance and, as if reading a code, minded only when the voices turned to angry, last-chance screams.
On this particular day, an hour after the first four grades had let out, there were no shouts or warnings. My friend Olivia’s nanny, a stout woman garbed in shades of gray and brown, looked in our direction only now and then. She was more preoccupied with whether the line at the butcher shop held any real hope for a gristled cutlet than she was worried about us. There were hardly any cars about, and the park, bordered on two of its sides by sleepy streets, sat well back from the tram tracks.
Olivia’s (Oli’s) parents were minor royalty in the Communist party. Her family lived in a luxurious—to us— apartment on the Boulevard of the Republic, and somehow managed to serve imported delicacies like bananas (underripe) and oranges at Oli’s birthday parties. Her parents were busy rising in the government’s ranks, and would often leave Olivia in the nanny’s care.
The nanny, whom we knew as Auntie Tantzi, was quietly and very privately religious. Just a few weeks back, she had collected Oli after school and taken her tag-along friends on a walk around the neighborhood. On the way we passed the local Eastern Orthodox Church. This time she shepherded us into its musty dark interior to light a candle in memory of a relative who’d recently passed away. I had walked by that little church nearly every day of my life and had never been inside, and if only for that very reason, I was too curious to say no when Tantzi suggested we stop.
We walked surrounded by a heavy silence through a dark vestibule into the main part of the church, where stood a few pews and a small forest of easels holding icons in front of the shrouded altar. At first it looked like no one was about. The icons were painted in gold leaf, dark greens, reds, and browns, flat faces with large, haunting eyes and thin mouths, their heads surrounded by golden haloes, silent and mysterious and obscured by webs of spidery cracks.
“Hello, little one. What is your name?”
I jumped at the disembodied voice in front of me. It came from behind the icon I was examining, and belonged to a tall, corpulent man with a full, rangy white beard streaked with gray. He was clothed entirely in black, a tall toque on his head, and was re-lighting candles that had flickered out. The church smelled of stale air and something cloying, which I’d later learn was incense.
“Mara,” I whispered.
“That is a nice name. From the bible, isn’t it?”
His gravelly voice rumbled, not unpleasant. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Have you never been in a church before?
I shook my head. He nodded, thoughtful.
“They are pictures of saints. If you pray to them, believe in them, and show them respect, they may answer your prayers,” he said. “What do you most wish for?”
I tried to think what it was that I most lacked in my life, and couldn’t think of anything. I was too young to know what I didn’t have.
“You must wish for something. Go ahead, try it.”
“How do I show my respect…sir?”
“Ah. You kiss them.” He came around to stand next to me, and put his hand on my shoulder. “Like this,” and he leaned forward, pausing for a second or two with his eyes closed before kissing the painted wood. “Go ahead,” he said.
I leaned forward and pecked the surface of the wood.
“Did you pray for something? Something you wanted very badly?”
I had almost forgotten, so focused had I been on the icon and the kissing of it in that dark, claustrophobic space. At the very last moment the only thing that I could think of popped into my head, just before my lips had left the hard panel.
“Well, then. If you pray hard enough, and if you truly believe, your prayer will come to pass,” he said, and moved on to talk to Tantzi.
Soon she rounded us up and walked us back to the park, and I headed home. That evening, by way of dinner conversation, my parents asked me how I’d spent my time with my friends. At first I avoided the highlight of the afternoon, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and soon blurted it out.
“We went to that little church.”
Stiff silence, then a careful, “You went…to church? What church?”
“The one by the park.”
My mother gave that crumbly laugh she had when she was embarrassed and at a loss for words, and exchanged glances with my father.
“But whatever did you do there?” he asked.
“I… ahh…kissed an icon. And prayed.”
My mother’s tone rose. “You did? Who told you to do that? Did someone make you?”
“No. There was just this man in a long black robe-thing. He said if I kissed the icon and made a wish, if I prayed, my prayer would be answered.” As I finished, I realized that I had rather exaggerated his promise, but figured it’s what he’d meant, even if he’d erred on the side of caution. Responsible adults always erred on the side of caution, my parents said.
“What did you pray for?”
“Well… I’m not sure I should say.”
“Did he tell you to keep it a secret?”
I was confused. He had not, but something about the way my parents were staring at me so intently, as if waiting to pounce, made me think I’d done something very wrong.
“What did you pray for?”
I looked from one to the other. “Nothing bad.”
“I prayed for a brother or a sister.”
A bit of the tension drained out of their shoulders and faces and I sensed deep relief, though I had no idea either what had caused the tension or why my answer had provided relief. They only nodded.
“Honey, we… we’re Jewish. Jews don’t pray to icons in churches.”
“Jews? Where do Jews pray?”
“They’re called synagogues. They’re…different.”
“I’ve never been to a synagogue. You’ve never taken me.”
“Well. Yes. We, you see, don’t believe in god. Or saints. We are not religious.”
“So, then, what are Jews?”
My father referred to history and tradition to explain nearly 5000 years of culture transplanted and squashed, one way or another, and now moribund and nearly extinct in this place. “It’s not just us who aren’t religious. It’s an outdated belief. It’s not something we… dwell on.”
I nodded as if I actually understood. In reality I understood nothing. “Why is it bad that I went into a church and kissed an icon?”
“Honey, it’s just that… well, she shouldn’t have taken you. Not without asking us. If she takes you there again, just come home. Or wait outside. OK?”
I doubt if my parents ever talked to Oli’s parents. Still, Aunt Tantzi never took us to church again, though once in a while she gave me a hard sidelong look. I didn’t think much about my prayer after that day, and no brother or a sister ever turned up.
I had been tagged, amid giggles and screeches, and my friends were dancing about, just out of reach. I’d tried to catch one of them but she’d run around the see-saw, then another, who escaped around the far side of the merry-go-round. Oli weaved through the slide’s supports, and as I darted after her and failed to tag her, I leaned on the metal scaffold. For that’s all there was of it in the winter, a scaffold, a mere skeleton of a slide. The actual slide had been dismantled at the start of the season, presumably to keep us kids off it in case we might harm ourselves. But the ladder was still there, irresistible, and I climbed to get a better look while catching my breath.
The rungs were hard and cold through my thin gloves, but the further I climbed, the more beautiful the view. I skimmed the tops of the trees and the park turned into a starker yet more fairytale version of itself. My friends appeared a little smaller and more bucolic in their winter coats, dark against the snow. They laughed and ran around each other, and giggled while pointing, looking up at me.
I could jump, I thought. That way I’d get down faster than they could avoid me. I would fly, like a crow, and land next to Oli, who was now prancing and jumping about. Aunt Tantzi was still looking toward the butcher shop, daydreaming and not paying us any mind.
I would jump and I would flap my arms, like a bird flapped its wings, to slow my fall. If I concentrated and did it fast enough, if I prayed to catch the air currents, I would fly. I would soar and then land, softly, elegantly, and surprise them all. I felt the blood pumping in my arms and my legs as the idea took hold.
Everything was quiet as I looked out over the treetops, and jumped.
I did not fly.
I hit my head on the ice hard enough to knock myself out, and broke my arm. My parents were called by the butcher, who’d come running when he’d heard Tantzi and the girls scream. My dad arrived just as the ambulance got there.
After a couple of months, my arm emerged, pale and weak, from the dingy, unsightly cast. The brain wave patterns took longer to return to normal. Once a month for a year I made a pilgrimage to a clinic where the nurse carefully wrapped a mesh cap of wires with little sensors at each end, like a medusa’s snakes, around my head and hooked me up to a machine that bleeped and winked with little red and yellow lights. My mother’s obsession with keeping me safe intensified, and on visits the family shook their heads and whispered of something called epilepsy.
I remembered the icon with the haunting eyes. Like my prayer for a brother or sister, my prayer to fly had fallen on deaf ears. God must have been busy elsewhere. I’d have to learn to fly all on my own.