When arriving in the Moldovan commune of Trușeni, the first thing one sees is an unimpressive, underdeveloped town square skirted by small drab stores whose owners spend little time—if any—on proper stocking, leaving heaps of goods scattered around. A badly paved road then branches out from the extreme end of the square and penetrates into the hill where the residential area begins. Despite its miserable atmosphere, Trușeni is home to both the rich and the poor. Thus, neatly painted and fenced houses stand side by side with the ones drowning in decline.
Close to the square lived Ivan Ciobanu with his girlfriend Masha Grigoreva. Ivan was a tall, handsome man in his mid-thirties. His pointy nose, slicked-back black hair, and thin face made him look like an actor from the Fifties. Masha, still in her early twenties, was often envied by her peers for her wavy golden hair, vast green eyes, slim figure, and ample bosom.
The pair had met some years back when Masha had just turned eighteen. At first, she was fully enamored by the older guy, but the things that made her fall for him gradually became irritating. His intellectualism she began seeing as pretentious, his cynicism as spiteful, his rationality as callous, and his aloofness as antisocial. She’d settled for him because she knew that a generous non-drinker who owned a house, had a good job, and never laid a hand on her was a rarity in Trușeni.
Such fatalistic acceptance is rampant among young women in Moldova. With their light-colored eyes, slender bodies, and fair skin, they enter adulthood often with high spirits yearning, only to meet a harsh reality of corruption, indifference, violence, and poverty. After graduating from college, unless they escape to some other country, they usually end up marrying someone from their village and having kids. Depression then sets in, and their beauty begins fading until they suddenly find themselves in their forties—shackled by their ungrateful children and unnoticed by their alcoholic husbands. They hence turn into obsessive religiosity, calling their miserable existence an act of fate.
Men in Moldova are often oblivious to the plight of their women. Centuries of normalized misogyny have endowed them with unparalleled callousness. To most of them, breadwinning is a man’s sole duty. Emotional availability and presence are simply foreign luxuries, much like chewing gum in those awful communist times. Men are taught not to show emotions. And when the latter rear their unwelcomed heads, a good man must calmly drown them in vodka.
Masha was initially fascinated by Ivan because she thought he was different. But after getting to really know him, she realized that instead of drinking, he found superficially intellectual ways to suffocate his feelings: he read fanatically, talked about humanity as if he did not belong to it, and always trivialized tragedies by over-rationalizing them, often regurgitating stoics’ ideas about the neutrality of pain, suffering, and death. “Thinking about how suffering and death never spare anyone makes me accept them without feeling bitter. If everyone embraced such ideas, our collective reaction to these plights would be much better. Depressing things like funerals wouldn’t even exist. We’d have only burials and celebrations of the cycle of life and death. If you adopt such an attitude, nothing would upset you. You’d be able to achieve peace of mind. Nothing that falls upon your ears can harm you. All news is good. All sounds are similar in the end. They’re merely noises echoing in this vast universe.”
But that is precisely the problem with stoicism. Not all sounds are the same—news also. Certain sounds break us, and certain news changes who we are. Some suffering is beyond impartiality. Imagine being told that your spouse has been murdered or that your child was obliterated into pieces in some freak accident. To take such news stoically, you must be either deluded or psychopathic. Even the all-knowing Son of God did not take his pain on the cross neutrally. Instead, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Ivan was a man, a terribly-flawed one. And his ideas about pain and suffering would surely be impressive in books, in writing, in the realm of ideas. But in the real world, where one is subject to the tragedy of existence, one needs more than ideas. One simply needs faith. Not necessarily religious faith, but a source of hope that one day, there might be a meaning behind it all, that something good may come out of our suffering. If someone cannot find faith, then agnosticism may do. But to just sit on the edge of the universe observing the cycle of life and death (and all the suffering in-between) and then claim that it is all neutral is simply the intellectual equivalent of primitive superstitions.
One night, almost when it turned twelve, Ivan and Masha heard a concerto of unnerving screams coming from the neighbor’s house. “Aaaah…aaaah!” Brimming with agony, the shrill uproars of an old woman pierced through the starless sky for almost half an hour. For a few nights, Ivan pretended to ignore them, but they only grew more poignant.
“Is she going to do that every midnight?” almost shuddering, he asked Masha as they sat in the living room.
“The poor woman,” she said and shook her head.
“What the hell is wrong with her?”
“Don’t you know?”
“How would I know? I don’t even know her name.”
“Her name is Vera. She’s been your neighbor for years!” Her eyes grew in surprise. “Everyone in Trușeni is talking about her tragedy! She recently lost both of her sons and her husband in a car accident. The other day, someone told me at the church that their bodies were completely mangled. I now often see her praying and lighting candles for them.”
“Okay, I am sorry for her.” He got up, went to the kitchen, and came back with a glassful of water. “I can’t quench this thirst.” He took a couple of sips. “Anyhow, her screaming is terrifying. I just can’t take it. Someone should talk to her, take her to a psychiatrist or a therapist or something. She needs a cure.”
“The woman is in her seventies and extremely poor.” She paused. “And not everything can be ‘cured.’ Sometimes, people just need to grieve, to be broken.”
“But also, people have to heal by coming to terms with their tragedies. Look at me, for example. I lost both of my parents when I was in my late teens. Did I suffer? Sure. Was I heartbroken? Most definitely. Did I become an alcoholic like most men in this commune? No. Did I take it as a stoic? Yes, because if you’re alive, you can tolerate anything. The minute life truly breaks you, you’re dead. In any case, death is not terrifying, it’s just going back to the ‘elements of the universe,’ as Marcus Aurelius would put it.”
“How comforting?” Masha rolled her eyes. “Do you really think that a woman who’s just buried a husband and two sons would be consoled by such ideas? Such ideas seem impressive in books, but they’re irrelevant in real life. If anything, in such times, it’s good to have some faith, some—”
“Okay, again, back to your spiritual nonsense.”
She turned away and sighed. “You know, it’s a good idea not to call other people’s opinions nonsense.” She looked back at him, this time in disgust.
“Let’s be rational. Was she under the impression that her loved ones would live forever? We all die in the end, just like the billions that died before us and the billions to die after us. It’s a natural process. It is ‘like birth,’ as Marcus Aurelius says. Once the old woman realizes this, she’ll feel—”
“It’s insane to think that such things would make a grieving mother feel better. ‘Oh, Vera, don’t mourn. Death is like birth; it’s going back to the elements. Can’t you understand? Now, whenever you remember the mangled corpses of your sons and husband, remember that. It will take the pain away.’ Is that what we should tell her?”
He ignored her. “I can’t quench this thirst,” he mumbled, grabbed the glass of water, looked at it for a second, and gulped it down.
Months passed. Vera’s ominous screaming never ceased, neither did Masha’s frustration with Ivan’s irritability and spite. “Idiots. I work with idiots,” he would often complain upon returning from work. “My colleagues are useless. They can’t get anything right apart from talking about football, pop culture, and women. I can’t take another day at the office.” He would then go to the kitchen and grab a big glass of water, muttering something like, “This thirst is killing me. It must be my diet. I should eat less meat.” And whenever he saw Masha reading something he did not like, he would go on about the value of time. “Life is limited, Masha. Sadly, we must waste time on meaningless stuff, like our day jobs, to put food on the table. But why would you voluntarily waste your time on meaningless reads?” He got angry when she talked back. “I sometimes feel that you’re still too young. I hope you’ll understand better when you are older. Don’t be an idiot like the rest of those naked apes.” He would then sink into silence and drink his water.
His most repugnant words, however, were reserved for Vera. “That whore! That cow! I can’t take her shrieks anymore. She’s making me anxious. Someone should stop her. Maybe the government should hospitalize her.” He even called the police several times, but to no avail. Two kinds of people don’t like to act in most post-Soviet countries: policemen and doctors.
On a Sunday morning, he followed the unwitting Masha and waited outside the church during the Divine Liturgy. Once he saw Vera coming out, he pulled her aside. “Do you love your husband and your sons?” When the gaunt woman nodded, he continued, “Great! Hear me out then. The dead don’t fear anything; they don’t have unfulfilled desires; they don’t suffer, feel hungry or thirsty, or get sick or depressed. You are, at this very same moment, worse off than your husband and sons. They’re free, you’re not. They’re in total bliss, you’re not. If you looked at it this way, you’d begin accepting the whole matter. Screaming is just—”
The poor woman broke into tears.
“Please stop crying.” He exhaled his frustration. “I just want you to stop shouting every midnight. You’re howling like a wolf. I can’t take it. It’s so unnerving. It gives me anxiety, one I’ve never had before.”
Vera did not reply. She just looked at him with a pair of hopeless, protruding eyes.
He suddenly felt someone grabbing him by the arm. “Are you insane?” said Masha, pulling him away. She then went to the woman, held her hand, and rubbed it compassionately. “I’m sorry. My boyfriend is an idiot.” She embraced the old woman. “If I can do anything to make it a bit better, please let me know. I can’t even imagine how you must be feeling,” she whispered in her ear.
The couple walked back home in silence, one that was pregnant with tension. As soon as Ivan unlocked the door, he headed to the kitchen and poured a glass of water. “I can’t quench this thirst.”
Masha followed him. “Did you think you’d get away with it?” Her face was now fully flushed.
He turned towards her. “Get away with what?” He raised his eyebrows, shaking his head.
“With how you treated the old woman.”
“I just want her to stop. That’s it.”
She took in a deep breath and exhaled. Her eyes were now brimming with something worse than anger; it was pure disgust. “You could’ve been more compassionate.”
“Why? What did I say wrong?”
“Everything! You bullied her. You made her cry. You offered no compassion—”
“I was rational, simply.”
“You were psychopathic. I heard everything; I was behind you from the beginning.”
“I just want her to stop. Her wailing is driving me insane. The cow should stop. I hope she dies and follows her sons and husband. The crazy old hag; did she think that people usually live forever? Everyone dies!”
“Stop saying that. I can’t take it anymore.” She started trembling. “I can’t take you anymore. I don’t think we’re working out.”
His eyes widened in disbelief. “What do you mean?”
“I want to leave you. You make me anxious and miserable. You’re heartless, inconsiderate, and obsessive. You keep on referring to people as idiots and apes. Well, you’re a person, aren’t you? You’re as much an ape as anyone else. Hiding behind a veil of superficial rationality doesn’t make you superior. It makes you pathetic. You could’ve shown more compassion to an old woman. Maybe her shrieks are just cries for h—”
“I lost my parents as a teenager. I was in pain but didn’t burden other people with my suffering. I was stoic about it.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have been. Maybe you should’ve allowed yourself to be broken for a while, to howl like a dying wolf, to feel that your pain is a bit more than just random suffering. It’s clear to me that her screams are resurrecting the unprocessed angst lurking in the deepest valleys of your miserable soul. Maybe because you’ve experienced profound loss, you should be more sympathetic.”
“No, you’re peevish.” She left to the living room, sat on the couch, and wept.
Still holding his glass of water, he followed her. “I can’t believe what I heard.”
She wiped her tears and gazed at him in defiance. “Well, believe it. Why didn’t you insult me back?”
“I don’t know.” He looked away.
“I know. It’s because you don’t know me. You don’t know me enough to insult me. To you, I am the thing you occasionally sleep with and always complain to.” Her breathing gradually became heavier.
He sized her up, then smashed the glass against the wall behind the couch. “Get the hell out!” he yelled.
“You’re insane.” The terrified Masha got up.
“I’ll leave now and be back at eight. Pack your stuff. I want you out.”
Loneliness broke him when he returned to an empty house that night. He sat on the couch and spent the next four hours or so blankly staring at the wall, and for the first time, Vera’s shrieks did not bother him. They were now the echoes of his own agony.
Several months after their breakup, Masha found a job in Chișinău. She terribly missed Ivan in the beginning. She would often hold her phone and dial his number, only to change her mind and throw the phone away. Soon after, however, the longing turned into disgust. Then, the disgust became indifference.
Ivan could barely tolerate life without Masha. Now that she was gone, he realized how much he loved her. But his pride was strong, very strong. He twisted and turned in bed every night, thinking of her green eyes. He would then get up, pick up his phone, and stare at it. “To hell with her,” he would tell himself, then go back to bed, uselessly gazing at the ceiling until he fell asleep.
His voracious thirst only got worse and was now coupled with a crippling frequent need to urinate. He finally decided to seek help. Upon reviewing his blood work, the bald doctor shook his fat head, pursed his lips, and said, “Mr. Ciobanu, you have diabetes. Your blood sugar levels are very high. We should immediately put you on insulin.”
Ivan clasped his hands behind his head and nodded in agreement.
The disease was very hard to control, however, and diabetic fatigue became his worst enemy. At work, he often sat behind his desk, staring into space and then dozing off. After his colleagues would gently shake him awake and ask if he was fine, he would smile at them, then go to the bathroom to wash his face. “I’ll get through the day. I can do it. I’m strong,” he’d say to himself. He then would go back to his desk and work for a while before beginning to rub his eyes and yawn. “Can I take the rest of the day off? I’m not feeling well,” he’d finally ask his supervisor, who always reluctantly agreed.
Eventually, the supervisor called him to his office. “Here, Ivan.” He handed him a thin dossier. “Take this to the accountant to claim your severance package. You’ve been relieved from your duties. Please clear your desk.”
Ivan did not say a word. With a bitter smile on his face, he just shrugged his shoulders and left.
His life was in the throes of collapse. Everything he’s taken for granted was gone: Masha, his health, and his job. The only thing that remained for him was Vera’s terrible screaming.
Now, whenever her shrill voice fills up the midnight skies of Trușeni, Ivan eagerly joins in. He hurries towards the window facing her direction, opens it, and begins shouting with tearful eyes. “Aaaah…aaaah…aaaah,” he repeats until he collapses. It is known to everyone in Trușeni that nothing is more depressing than hearing these two broken souls scream.
Zaher Alajlani is a Syrian short-story author, researcher, and translator living between Romania and Greece. His stories and articles (in Arabic and English) have appeared in Syrian, Greek, Romanian, British, and Indian periodicals. In addition to reading fiction submissions for Bandit Fiction (UK), he is a proofreader for the peer-reviewed Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory (Romania). He is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca. Zaher is fluent in English, Arabic, Romanian, and Greek.