Mortar and Brick By Laura Kuhlmann (Part 1)

Mortar and Brick tells the story of Daria, a young woman growing up in post-communist Romania. As she rejects the oppressive customs that had held her family and society together, Daria searches for a new home where her dreams can finally flourish.

Laura Kuhlmann is a cancer researcher and emerging writer from Romania, currently living and working in Toronto. Her short stories and flash fiction have been published online at reflexfiction.com and have been included in several anthologies, including “Barely Casting a Shadow” (2018) and “Voices” (2018-2020). She is a member of Sisters in Crime International and is currently editing her first novel, a mystery that brings together scientists and narcotics detectives in the search for a deadly new drug. 

PART I

Wads of cotton, soiled red. They rise from Ana’s knuckles like frozen red flames. Little Daria stares in fascination at her aunt’s bloodied fingers, while her grandmother, Varvara, tries to pick the cotton out of Ana’s cuts. But congealed blood has anchored it to the wounds and the light from the candle Varvara is holding is too weak.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” Ana cries. “What do I keep doing wrong?”

Varvara shakes her head and points a bony finger towards the kitchen, lit by flickering candles and the dying twilight. 

“It will come off with some warm water.”

Daria follows the two women inside the kitchen, but they ignore her. Varvara fumbles around the table for a matchbox, pushing aside an old paper, dated December 1st 1989. She squints at the black-and-white picture of Bucharest’s Opera House, before turning towards the

gas stove and lighting a match.

There’s no running water again, but Varvara has saved some from the day before, in the large blue bucket. She keeps it close to the window, next to the radiator, where it stays nice and cold. Not a drop of hot water has run through the metal ribs of the heater since the revolution started. Not that there had been much hot water circulating through any of the pipes in the previous months. Or years. The air in their apartment is just warm enough to allow quick dashes from one blanket to another. 

Daria’s big black eyes study Ana’s fur coat in the weak light: white, with black stripes. Red streaks adorn the sleeves and the area around the buttons. Ana’s swollen stomach protrudes through her coat. 

“Child, why don’t you go back to your room?” Varvara tells Daria. 

A loud crack, like a firework, resonates from the street. A second, a third and then a fourth. Daria rushes towards the window.

“Child, no!” 

Varvara catches Daria by the elbow and flings her towards the door.

“What did we tell you?” Varvara asks. She bends over and brings her face close to that of her confused granddaughter. “Stay away from the window, sweetie. The glass may break.”

“But why?”

Image by Laura Kuhlmann

Illustration by Nina Kuznetsova

Her innocent voice slices through Varvara’s heart.

“Some people have stolen guns, Daria,” Ana answers. “The army is fighting side by side with the people now. Your uncle is fighting with them.”

Varvara straightens her back and shoots her daughter-in-law a menacing look. “Why don’t you go check if the electricity is back?” she tells Daria and nudges her out of the room. “See if the TV will turn on.”

Daria backs away from the kitchen and dashes behind the door of the living room, only a few meters away. She peeks from behind the threshold and smiles at her grandmother. Varvara raises a finger and shakes it at her granddaughter, too tired to make her threat look convincing. Daria’s head disappears in the darkness again.

The pot of water bubbles quietly on the stove. Varvara picks it up and drops it onto the table next to Ana.  

“Why do you tell her these things?” Varvara asks. 

“If you’re so worried, why didn’t you leave Bucharest with her? You’d be safer in the countryside.”

“You know we can’t leave.” Varvara gestures for Ana to sit. “Don’t confuse her even more, please. She’s only five, she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know what it means that her uncle is a general. She just knows she saw him on TV with Ceauşescu. And because you like to play tricks on her, now she thinks that Ceauşescu is also her uncle.”

“He won’t be for long,” Ana whispers. 

Varvara grips Ana’s wrist and squeezes it tight. “What did he tell you? Where is he now?”

“He left. Emptied the last bottle of whisky we had. For courage.” Ana scoffs. “Then disposed of the bottle by throwing it at me.”

“He told you where he left for?” Varvara’s voice is shaking.

“Why is he always so angry at me?” Ana’s eyes glaze over. “How could he be so sweet before we married, then become…” She spreads her cotton-wrapped fingers.

“Where is my son?” A glob of spittle escapes Varvara’s mouth, and lingers on her chin.

“Târgovişte-city. The Militia caught the Ceauşescus. They’re turning them over to the Army.”

Varvara releases Ana’s wrist and wipes the saliva from her chin with the back of her trembling hand. 

“I told him not to go,” Ana says. “I told him to send someone else.” 

Varvara averts her gaze and heads over to the cabinet above the sink to pick up a roll of gauze and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Ana’s fingers curl in anticipation of the pain. She sinks her teeth into her lower lip as her mother-in-law dabs an alcohol-soaked cotton wad on her knuckles. 

Daria’s breath gets stuck in her throat. From the living room, she watches as pain distorts Ana’s face. Her aunt whimpers and the sound chases Daria deeper inside the living room. She takes refuge in the corner, next to the TV, and fumbles for the switches. The ceiling light. The TV. On and off again. The house remains dark and quiet.

“Child, leave them on,” Varvara orders.

Hesitantly, Daria shuffles back to the kitchen, now smelling like disinfectant.

“Where are her parents?” Ana asks in a shaky voice. 

“Hospital. All doctors are on call for Christmas this year.”

“Forgot. Merry Christmas,” Ana whispers and smiles shyly.

“Godless Christmas.” Varvara wraps the gauze tighter around Ana’s knuckle. “No light. No snow. No tree. No church.”

The light erupts from the living room and the TV zaps to life. An angry female voice booms across the hallway: “Shame on you. Shame!” 

Varvara and Ana run to the living room. Daria follows them and stops close to the door to stare at the uniformed men filling the TV screen. 

The camera moves and zooms in on two people sitting behind a wooden table. A man and a woman, grey-haired, wearing bulky winter coats; his–black; hers–white with a black collar. Varvara and Ana gasp, and drop onto the couch.

“Gran’ma, is that uncle Nicolae?” Daria asks, pointing at the image of Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena. 

“This is a new beginning,” Varvara says in a softer voice. “For this country, for our family…” 

Daria grabs the wood chair sitting next to the door and drags it across the carpet, toward the window. She pulls the drapes apart and climbs on the chair. Daria leans her forehead against the cold window and looks down at the row of streetlights coming to life. This year, there had been no snow. No coat of white to hide the grey asphalt, the yellow and rusty leaves rotting on the sidewalk. 

Rain pummels her window. The little girl tilts her head to study the small hole that has appeared in the wall, just outside her window. Rainwater has filled it and is now oozing out of the hole, dripping down the concrete. 

“A new beginning…” Daria whispers. Her grandmother’s words echo in her head, alternating with Ana’s sobs.

Her stomach growls.

Daria closes the drapes and leaps off the chair. She opens her door cautiously and peeks out. 

“Gran’ma,” she calls. “I’m hungry.”

***