Comeliness and Communism

Her father spent most of his days helping the villagers ready for winter. Ruxandra, unable to go to school, spent her days tidying the small cottage. She was terribly lonely and bored with this life. At her father's urging, she went to the town.

The people stared at her and whispered as she passed. Ruxandra tried to ignore their remarks and smile but worry wrinkled her forehead. She went inside the stockpile where she was greeted by the clerk. There were basics, candles, and bins of hardy vegetables, trowels, yards of cloth and even a few jars of hard candies.

"Do you carry paper?" she asked.

"Well, ma'am, it depends on what kind of paper you're after." He replied as he leaned over the counter.

"The kind of paper you write on and do you have pens? Well, pencils would do."

The clerk stoked his stubbly chin and thought a while, "Well…ma'am, you see paper salesmen don't come up here often and there isn't really much demand for that sort of things. I don't reckon we sell any of that. But could I interest a pretty lady like you with some wool? We have all different colors. You'll be needing some good warm dresses or quilts. Winter's coming fast and they aren't kind."

Ruxandra shook her head and turned to leave. The boy stopped her at the door and shoved something into her hands before running to the back of the store. Ruxandra glanced behind her and walked outside. She opened her hand and saw that there was some hard candy. This village would come around in time.

On her way home she passed the forest rising on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. The trees were dropping leaves and out of the corner of her eyes she noticed a peculiarity. There was an overgrown paved path a few meters away. Out of curiosity, Ruxandra followed the path but a few steps into the woods; she was tackled by a hag. Ruxandra fell into the forest underbrush with a crunch.

"Are you messed in the head, girl? No one goes to the monastery- there are people…" she shuddered and rose to her feet.

Ruxandra followed suite and shook out her skirts of foliage, "I beg your pardon, ma'am. You see I'm new to the vicinity…"

The woman hushed her, "I know, I know everything in these parts. Just stay 'way from this monastery. Stay away if you want to see sunlight."

The hag left and Ruxandra was frozen with awe. Seconds later she began laughing wildly. How stupid did she think Ruxandra was?

Later at their house, Ruxandra and her father ate dinner. Food was a little more plentiful here though the choices were fewer. At the end she gave her father half of the candy and from the store.

Her father wondered, "Are you making friends Ruxandra?"

She shook her head and started clearing the table. Her father followed her, pursuing elusive conversation.

"Things will be better, I promise. I know there have to be some eligible bachelors in these parts and you're getting to be that age." He smiled.

"Papa…" she sighed.

They spoke no further and retired early.

Their days passed quickly as the threat of frost increased. The village women now came to Ruxandra to help her get ready for winter and with them they brought their sons. It certainly didn't bother her father. Often enough he would drop young men's names into conversations. For Ruxandra it was a trying winter made particularly difficult by Peter Dimotrovich.

He was comely in appearance, fine yellow hair, pale green eyes and broad shoulders! It was Ruxandra's impression that he was a narcissistic bore who was concerned only with his rise among the communist party and in reputation among the woman. Peter had set his eyes on Ruxandra and had become a most persistent suitor.

Frequent of her house, he offered to do some heavy chores and would dine with Ruxandra and her father. Often Peter would recount his past glories as Agricultural Foreman of the village. When the weather was foul, Ruxandra would have the peace she so desired. Spring was nearing and perhaps this village would become more hospitable. A soon as she could, Ruxandra would propose a seasonal school for the village children who were in dire need of enlightenment plus it would give her something to do and perhaps change the fate of Roman. But she would not do so.

The old woman from the woods, a ward of the village, would call. With her she brought little presents, pretty stones, cakes of scented soap and one day seeds.

"Not all that we produce from the earth must be functional, start a garden." She spoke.

It was a clumsy attempt on Ruxandra's part. She didn't know the arts of plants learned in time. One fine day, a shot formed. It was just a little green sprout no bigger the width of her finger.

Carefully did Ruxandra tend to that shoot and the others that soon followed.

When they flowered, her jubilation could not be described. By her back door step was a myriad of colors. The old woman would visit and admire the flowers and then talk with Ruxandra. One day the woman proposed a walk along the river to collect the rich silten water to fertilize the plants.

Eagerly, Ruxandra agreed and they departed with ready jars. The birds on the river were graceful and the flowers lustrous. Crops on the far side of the bank swayed in the breeze. Farmers lead their animals through the river.

Ruxandra walked the old woman home and when Ruxandra returned to her cottage she noticed that her father's walking stick was not by the door and her flowers had been reduced to pale green stems.

"Ruxandra! Oh you're home- I saw these flowers and thought of you…" Peter was holding her flowers, bound together at the stems by rough twine. The blooms were distressed, their petals falling to be crushed by the oaf's boots.

Ruxandra shrieked and ran away.

Peter shouted for her to stop, to come back, to listen. He cast the flowers aside and went to the village inn.

Ruxandra ran like the wind and stopped for no one. Villagers, not even her father, didn't recognize the disheveled girl, not even her father. A gnawing hollow was growing in his stomach. A fast as he could with rheumy joints, Ruxandra's father went home. There was no smoke rising from the chimney, or color by the back step, only a disintegrating bouquet of Ruxandra's flowers.

He searched house, though the man knew it to be futile. In the village square he asked the woman if they had seen Ruxandra. None had seen her recently.

At the inn he saw Peter. Suspicions formed in his minds and Ruxandra's father stormed to Peter's side.

"What can I do for you Lucian?" Peter asked, friendly enough.

"Dimotrovich, don't you 'Lucian' me!" the father growled to the young man, and then to the people of the inn he roared, "My daughter has gone missing! Please, help me. If any of you would be good enough to hint to me of Ruxandra's whereabouts, there would be no ends to my gratitude."

One cowherd with a ruddy face spoke out, "I saw your daughter 'round midday with the Hag. They was o'er by the river."

Ruxandra found herself in the woods after darkness fell and the canopy became a frightful cloak of the heavens. She was passed many animals and her scores of others. Some eyes she passed glowed with hostility, others disappeared in a blink.

Ruxandra wandered, cutting her arms on branches, snagging her skirts on underbrush and being bitten by ants underfoot. It was then that her foot felt chill and strength: stone. That rock was not alone; slabs of stone formed a path, a path to others.

The road was very short. Once the path ended, Ruxandra followed the familiar walk home. When she arrived the old woman was dozed in an easy chair. A fire crackled in the hearth beneath a brewing kettle.

"Ma'am," Ruxandra shook the woman's shoulder, "where is my father?"

The woman's eyes widened and she hugged the younger. Ruxandra fetched cups and the each had a tea.

The woman frowned, "Your father went to search for you a little before sundown. Don't you know better that to go traipsing off into the woods?"

"It was stupid of me, "Ruxandra conceded, "When do you think he'll return?"

"I should think by tomorrow morning but I wouldn't want to get your hopes up."

Again they dozed in the parlor.

The next morning, the fire was smothered, the elder had left and Lucian still hadn't returned.

Ruxandra cleaned the hearth and started a smaller fire. She warmed last night's tea and had a hard biscuit. When she had finished breakfast and cleaned her dishes, Ruxandra grew impatient.

There was a pounding at the door. Ruxandra raced to the door. Opening it, she found, that it was peter. His arms were laden with presents, which he unceremoniously dropped into her arms. He ambled into the parlor and flopped onto Lucian's usual chair.

"It's a pleasure to see you too, Ruxandra. Just wanted to stop by to say how sorry I am for your father's passing and my well, foolish mistake." He smiled, "Yes, I would like some tea thank you."

Ruxandra brought out a cracked cup and poured chilled tea. When Peter took a sip, the cracks in his cup let the liquid drizzle down his front. He yelped and Ruxandra tossed him a towel.

"Well," she grinned, "that was a foolish mistake but I can't say I'm sorry."

Peter looked at her with confusion and then threw the cloth aside, "Its all right Ruxandra but next time get a whole cup."

Ruxandra let that drop and asked, "What makes you think my father is dead?"

Peter put his arm around Ruxandra's shoulder, "I'm not lying when I say that the forest is dangerous. Men who don't come back the next morning don't come back at all."

Ruxandra drew back, "Why?"

"Wild animals, brigands, there are a few in that monastery down yonder. But that that hold you back, bury the dead in the past." He shrugged.

"My father isn't dead, I'll prove it!" Ruxandra ran out the door and back into the forest. There she wandered until she found the paved path but rather than following the back home, she went deep into the forest.

There at the end of the path was an enfortressed monastery. The gates opened easily but still Ruxandra struggled. The metal handles were rusted and jagged but more importantly the gates couldn't be pushed forward. Gingerly she took the handles and pushed. With no luck she tried again. She cut her hand and dragged it away. It was then that the gate creaked open a crack.

In her skirt she wrapped her hand and pulled the handle. With another protest, the gate was cleared. Once inside the walls, Ruxandra observed the courtyard. A roofed well was far to her left and the paths to the outbuildings of the monastery started to her right.

Quickly, Ruxandra drew water from the well and splashed it on the broken skin. She tore her sleeve and was quick to bind her hand. There was nary a bird in the courtyard. The turf was overcome by weeds but there was not a flower in sight. The monastery was fast returning to nature.

Looking around wouldn't hurt anything. Perhaps her father was somewhere in this place. Ruxandra made way to the nearest outbuilding. A dusty store room she found with the corpses of insects and sparkly eyed rats. Little did she care to venture further into that shed.

There were many rooms in similar states to that of the first. The chapel was crumbling with mold crowing on the magnificent frescos. The monk's bunks were ominously stained and the very rooms left in shambles. But it was there she heard the scrape of boots over head.

Fear seized Ruxandra's chest. Who could that be? Had someone followed her or had the monastery truly been abandoned. There was a way to find out.

Outside, there was a stair that hugged the northern wall of the monk's bunk. Ruxandra was cautious as she climbed the stairs, creaking and groaning 'neath her weight. At the top of the stairs was a door with a broken pane glass window. She opened the door with little trouble and stepped inside. A hearth glowed opposite a decrepit easy chair. Aside the chair was a cool pitcher of water and an elaborate goblet.

It was when she wiped the sweat from her brow that Ruxandra saw the virtues of the chair and fire.

"Ruxan-"

She spun around and saw none. Uneasily she made herself a place in the room and drank heavily. When she drew away, did she examine the goblet. The cup, once shining silver was in places tarnished and black. Ruxandra ran her fingers over the surface and found it was not smooth but etched. Designs she couldn't see tore at her conscience for abusing such a beautiful artifact.

"Rux-" coughed a man she could not see, "Ruxandra! Get away from here, it's too dangerous!"

She froze and timidly called back, "Papa? Mister Lucian Ciprian?"

"Ruxandra, go!"

"Papa?"

The door slammed against the wall and three ill-kempt young men with bramble in their beards and hunger in their sunken eyes came forth.

"My, what a pretty daughter you have, Lucian. If you had told us to expect her, we might have spruced up and made these ruins almost suitable for a lady." The shorted chortled.

The others followed and Ruxandra took a chance, "How can you be so cruel? This man is sick and old, let him go!"

Again they laughed and another said quietly, "If we were to let either of you go, we would be discovered by those idiots. Our cause outweighs two lives."

Her father coughed, "Well this is just a silly idea of mine but maybe a hostage could further this cause?"

The men looked at each other and without hesitation, Lucian continued, "People know we're missing but if you keep me here and send my daughter to the village with your demands- she's much favored by Peter Dimotrovich, up and coming in the Party- he could get you what you want. And if he doesn't, I die here and your secrets are safe."

The quiet man snapped, "Shut up! Gheorghe, fetch bread and water for our esteemed guests."

Ruxandra was locked in the chamber alone. She didn't know where her father was but every so often a boot scraped or a cough was heard.

"Papa, are you all right?" she called.

From the vents a voice was heard, "I'm as well as can be expected. But how are you, daughter?"

"I'll be fine. Who are those monsters?"

"Those men are outlaws, rebelling against the Leader. They want to bring about the fall of communism in Romania."

They were silent and the door groaned on its hinges. One of the men, Gheorghe, came bearing a tray of vittles. He sat that on the mantle and brought a key out of his pocket. He went to the wood paneled wall and put the key in a niche then turned it. There was a click and a hidden door swung open.

He growled as Lucian made a swipe for the food, "You eat later, He wants the two of you in the Great Hall."

With Lucian in one arm and Ruxandra in the other, they left one by one down the stairs. At the bottom, their captor waited to recast their link. He led them through the courtyard and over footpaths when they came to the square of the monastery. There were tall and wide buildings clustered around a statue of a saint. The face was cracked and lined by time but it was kind all the same.

Ruxandra and Lucian were dragged into the dining hall. At the head of the high table the other rebels sat. On the grandest chair was the dark, quiet man and to his right the short quick one. Ruxandra's escort pushed her into a chair and then her father accompanied her.

"How has your visit been, Mr. Ciprian?" the little man sneered.

"Visit…are you going to shoot us? Please spare my daughter. She's young and hasn't done anything to deserve death!" Lucian begged.

Their leader spoke, "Peace, sir, peace! We'll do nothing so savage as to murder a girl! But you, Lucian, you cannot stay. We're letting you go on two conditions. Firstly, you must leave you daughter behind, she will never return. And most importantly, tell no one of what you have seen or heard? Don't make me say what will happen if you don't comply."

Lucian stood, "I will eave only if my daughter wishes!"

The three men stood around their elder, the quiet man warned, "Careful, old man, you're in no position to make demands."

Ruxandra clutched her father's arm, "Just go Papa, I'll be fine. Don't try these beasts."

All was silent. The candles in the chandeliers flickered and their vessel swayed. There was light in the leader's eyes when the leader gave his orders to have Lucian left at the gates.

"Wait!" Ruxandra cried as her father was wrenched from her grasp by Gheorghe, "Can't I say goodbye?"

The man quickened his pace and before the girl could rush after him, the quiet man was at her elbow, holding her back. Soon enough her father was gone and his protests could not be heard. She sank to the floor weeping and was left alone.

It seemed like eternity before she heard another's voice, "Don't cry, we're not so bad. Are you from the Landing?"

Ruxandra got to her feet and sniffed, "Sort of, you know it?"

He laughed, "I risk my life once a month to get food from the stockpile. Are you hungry? I would have let you eat but Iancu was impatient."

"What's his problem? Who gave him the power to boss you around?"

The boy held the door for her as they walked outside into the twilight, "Iancu's seen a lot, it's hard to judge him. Well, like this monastery, it's not so bad."

A question formed in Ruxandra's mind but she didn't dare voice it. They came to galley of sorts where Gheorghe started banging pots and pans about and smoking the stove. By sundown there was pleasant aroma of warm stew permeating the air. When she was asked to set the small table in the corner, Ruxandra welcomed the diversion. Gheorghe went find the others and she was left to watch the stew.

When he was gone, she took a taste and shuddered. The cupboard was almost bare when she took a dash of salt from its cellar and tossed it in the mix. The men came back together and found her stirring the stew. They shrugged and Gheorghe served each. From a bucket they dipped their rough cups full of water. The small man went into the back and brought out a folding chair and set it at the table for Ruxandra. The rebels didn't touch their plates as they waited for their guest.

Ruxandra turned and left without a word and went back to the office at the top of the stair. The food on the mantle was hard and the water too warm for her throat, she consumed none of it. She looked out a dismal window at the yard and saw how sorry this monastery was. There weren't any animals, only wretched plants, and she was alone, perhaps until she died. Those morbid thoughts occupied her mind until there was a knock on the door.

She didn't know who it was and her heart was racing when she called the person to enter.

It was Gheorghe with another tray of food and tea. He set that on the desk and the other at the head of the stair. Ruxandra dove into her meal while her companion sat on the sofa.

"Iancu's just a kid, Ruxandra. He's a little angry with the world. Just give him a chance, please." Gheorghe implored her.

Ruxandra bristled, "Have you taken leave of your senses? He's the one one imprisoning me and you me to cut him some slack?"

Both sighed and he asked, "What's your name?"

"Ruxandra Ciprian."

"Ruxandra, why won't you help us?"

"How am I to help if I don't know that you need it?"

"Iancu won't listen to us. All those stockpile raids are catching up with us. As soon as he can, Peter Dimotrovich is going to come get us. We, Vlad and I, need you to persuade him to get out of here."

She ate her food and bid Gheorghe goodnight. He left sadly but Ruxandra had no trouble going to sleep that night. The next morning she rummaged through the closets and found a wash basin and pitcher. She went to the empty courtyard well and filled the pitcher.

After washing up, she went back to the kitchen and found Gheorghe at the stove. He poured some hot cereal into a bowl and motioned to the tea kettle. She sat at the table with her breakfast and proceeded to stuff her face. Iancu and Vlad came in and quickly followed suit. Gheorghe sat down with them and started talking, "Did you hear that Germany's made a deal with the Government to get the German's out of here?"

Vlad learned in, "Yes, and we're all German, how fortunate! Are you German, miss?"

Gheorghe looked at Ruxandra significantly. She folded her hands in her lap and said she was indeed half German.

Iancu sat back in his chair and scowled at Gheorghe and Vlad. He didn't stay long in the galley, rather he left shortly after finishing his meal. Vlad followed behind him and Gheorghe went about house keeping. Ruxandra wandered about the courtyard, poking her nose into unfamiliar rooms.

It was by accident that she found Iancu's office. It was filled with pictures of smiling adolescents and children in communist grade uniforms. In the corner was a violin and sheet music. It was nothing like she expected.

"What are you doing here?"

Iancu was behind her, his eyes burning with anger, "I never want to see you in my office without my permission ever again! Get out!"

Ruxandra didn't need to be told twice. She ran past Iancu and back to her room. There she stayed until Vlad and Gheorghe came back.

"He didn't mean it, Ruxandra. You just touched a sore spot for him. He doesn't like to talk about his past." Gheorghe pleaded.

Vlad didn't say anything; instead he looked out the window for a while.

"We have to leave before fall, if we don't we'll never make it out in time. Why don't we leave him?" Vlad asked.

"Because friends don't do that. We promised Vlad, he won't be left behind."

When they had finally left, Ruxandra was deep in thought. Hours later, as the sun fell over the canopy when she was going down the stairs to the well when she bumped into Iancu. He smiled faintly in the dark and he walked with her to the well. At first they were silent.

"I'm sorry."

Ruxandra shook her head and shrugged.

"We don't want to keep you here, but you see, if you're really that close to Dimotrovich…"

The girl began laughing hysterically. How long had it been since her first flight from the Landing? She couldn't even remember. It made her want to cry, she could barely remember why she was trapped among these savages!

"…you might clue him in on our whereabouts and that just isn't desirable."

"So why don't you leave?" Ruxandra asked.

Iancu looked away, "I can't let their memory fade."

Ruxandra went back to her room and Iancu stood by the window. Gheorghe leapt in over the wall with a burlap sack over his shoulder. The two rebels made their way to the kitchen where their conference began.

"That was a close shave. I don't think I can risk another raid. Dimotrovich had dogs at the entrances and at least six boys. Iancu, please!"

"I'm thinking, Gheorghe. We can't just go willy nilly, the government will toss us behind bars! It would be unfair to Ruxandra…"

The leader was quiet and the other looked at him sidelong as he put their prizes away.

"We could come up with some forged papers, Vlad's pretty good at that and we could disguise ourselves." Gheorghe wheedled.

"Gheorghe, I know how you feel about it all and I'm going to think about it. Has Ruxandra eaten?" Iancu asked.

"I called her down to dinner before I left."

After the goods were stowed, Iancu went back to his study and Gheorghe went up to Ruxandra's bunk. There she was reading one of the old books of devotions and was pleased to see the rebel.

"We might have him out of here by midnight tomorrow. But you have to help me, Ruxandra. We're going to come up with false papers, but you need to get him going." Gheorghe smiled.

Ruxandra sent him away and she began to cry. She was never going to see her father again. Never would she see the little chimney or the flower patch. Quickly she went downstairs and knocked on the door to Iancu's office where violin music played. Abruptly, there was silence and Iancu came to the door.

He asked what was the matter and Ruxandra smiled, "Tomorrow."

He grinned and kissed her on the forehead. Iancu left and Ruxandra went to sleep and had the most pleasant dreams she had in a long time. The next morning went by quickly with crusts of bread and weak tea.

Vlad came with papers and Ruxandra became Caecilla Etzel. Together they helped Gheorghe pack provisions and Iancu file his photographs and repair his crackling violin case. When night fell they went past the gates. Ruxandra was on Iancu's elbow and in the night they headed toward Bucharest.