As a child I never minded bugs, mice, or other small creatures. My grandfather had this ambition that his granddaughter never fears any bug that crawled on earth like all the other women who surrounded him. It was especially one story that made us all laugh when an electrician came to repair some burnt outlet. He was on his knees mending the wires casually chatting with my grandmother when from behind him a mighty screech was heard.
He turned around to see what tragedy had happened only to see his host climbed on a chair and wailing. For a moment his only thought was how to escape, it was obvious that she had lost her mind and now was having a violent fit. It took some minutes between his panicked thoughts and my grandma’s shrills to realize they were not alone in the room: there was a tiny mouse in a corner.
So my grandpa decided I should never have fear or repulsion towards the “natural little creatures”. We were strolling our garden all day long collecting insects, look at them from close, decide how many legs one might have, collect others for a potential insectarium, in a word behave scientifically and calm. Especially in May the beetles were my favorite toy. I would catch a few, store them in a jar then fascinated watch their crawling and the mechanics of their wings. I remember I realized they had a special smell that you don’t feel while they are in free air but once in a jar you could recognize. It wasn’t anything disgusting, just knowing the big wide world.
We never killed them just for fun. We would pour oil on ant colonies who decided it’s a good idea to dig a nest inside the walls of our house but my grandpa was never happy to see me hitting an ants nest in the wild. He would kill the silly bee who decided my scruff was a good landing site, but never killed bees free in the garden. We caught tons of grasshoppers and let them free after looking at them from all angles. He would trap and kill any mouse who got the idea of walking in the attic but mice in the backyard were left alone. Only the rain worms didn’t have many chances because grandpa was a dedicated fisherman so they were needed.
It was an hour or more walk to his fishing spot, on the way we would annoy the butterflies who made a very desirable prey for my little white hat. We would crouch next to ants nests to see how they are carrying the food, run around, stumble, sometimes embrace each other. At certain times of the year we would admire the ants queens with their escort flying around in search for a new place to dwell.
While it was unadvisable to kill insects that do not hurt you, it was completely forbidden to catch the queens, people thought it brought bad luck. However for my head, full of princesses and queens from the stories, the ants queen was untouchable enough without any secondary belief. Late in summer over the hills we crossed to get to the river, in the tall grass thousands of chickadees voices were ringing creating a sort of rhythm to our walk.
Close to Hălmagiu laid the smaller village of Leștioară. A carriage road united them and people identified it as “the road to Leștioară”. It didn’t probably lead anywhere else. In June grandpa and me would take a stroll on that direction. We weren’t interested in Leștioară, not even got there ever, the real passion was: caterpillars. All the road was lined with mulberry trees and the future butterflies found a heaven on the little walked way. There were caterpillars everywhere bright green, dark green, almost golden, fluffy and soft to the touch. Grandpa wasn’t too happy about them, he thought they might destroy the trees. Still we didn’t try to kill them, we just walked among them picking one or two to feel their smooth fur, count their 5-6 pairs of legs and make a good story for grandpa who explained their mysterious transformation into butterflies.
In August grandpa and me spent the evenings in front of our house fence watching the stars. He would tell me stories about the big Dipper, or the Wain as we called it, locate the Evening star and Mars. Discovering falling stars was a constant contest. The whole universe understanding of countless generations could fit in a small chit chat between a grandfather and his 4 years old granddaughter. When we would come back to Earth we would discover a stag beetle at our feet and try to follow it see what business it had on our street. A couple of times we tried to catch fire flies that were wandering the bushes separating our garden from the front yard. But after seeing how powerless and common they looked when not glowing we left them alone. One particular war was against crickets who wanted to live in wall cracks. One cricket alone could sing for you the whole winter if he’s well enough hidden. I still have no idea what a cricket in the wall could eat during winter but I am sure they survived for months.
Once I started to walk well it wasn’t just mom coming to see us, we would also go and spend some weeks with her in Bucharest. That was a terrible and dangerous adventure. The luggage was prepared weeks before. Then someone who had a gig or even a dray was hired to take us to the station. During the last two days I was always extremely sad because one or two chickens would be sacrificed for the trip. I accepted it was their fate, but still they were my friends. The night before my grandma would make apple pie and fried chicken and carefully line them in vanilla sugar cardboard boxes lined in cellophane. The smell of fried chicken in cardboard and the seeing of a cold water thermos meant travelling is at hand and inevitable.
Early the next day my grandma and me would sit high in the gig, perched on top of our two big suitcases waiting for grandpa to lock all doors and say goodbye to one of our neighbors whom we asked to have an eye on the property. Finally we would drive to the station where a small steam train would lead us to Arad to catch the powerful electric speed train to Bucharest.
Grandma had a very bad back and she couldn’t carry heavy loads. I remember at home there always was a quarrel between her and her husband, who’s going to carry the big boiler full of hot water for washing the laundry. She had two macerated vertebrae, he had umbilical hernia. Surgery for them was both too dangerous and expensive. After a ferocious quarrel usually they ended by carrying it both.
So here she was in her black coat leaning on her tall cane with silver head sculpted as a peacock. My grandpa had a different one, a bamboo dark yellow cane he pretended to use only as a fashion accessory. He had received it as a gift from his best friend back in the days when he was just a fresh graduated from the Law school in Cluj and he wore it all his life.
Once in the speed train the agitation was over, the chicken boxes were opened and we took our well-deserved dinner after that much agitation. There was nothing to see on the windows anymore as the dark had already covered the world; along the train you could only watch mysterious dark bushes rolling fast keeping their secrets tight. My grandpa would climb on the higher bed, I would fall asleep on the lower one while my grandma was sitting guard next to the window. She couldn’t sleep in a train she said.
The best part of the trip though had been from Hălmagiu to Arad, the little trip with the steam engine. The train was slow and I had my head on the window every minute to see the hills flowing around us, the small stations filled with men in creamy clothes, the traditional clothes for men with large pants ended in elaborated punctilious engrail in same color. They were always boarding the second class wagons so I was to see them only on the platforms.
In one particular trip mom was also coming with us. For some reason that year she had come to visit then accompanied us back to Bucharest. It was raining and the windows weren’t that interesting for me at the moment so I got out of my purse a tin jar that once had contained soluble coffee, my mom’s favorite drink; we must have had hundreds of them. Slowly I lifted the lid and after one or two minutes the whole compartment was filled with running bodies, horrified eyes, and muffled shrieks. From my jar two or three May beetles were crawling out to freedom. My grandpa laughing his heart out helped me free the poor creatures out of the compartment window.
Some three, four years later, in mom’s Bucharest apartment a huge black cockroach appeared out of nowhere. My grandpa was in town. After some deliberation my mom and grandma decided I was the only one not afraid of the bug, they armed me with a broom and a dustpan, both enormous compared to the bug’s size and pushed me in to catch him. I made some steps on the corridor where he had been last seen, then something inside me changed, slowly fear overcome me. Both women behind me were terrified of this black spot on the floor, it wasn’t a May beetle, not even a rhinoceros beetle, it looked luscious, fat and completely black. I ran back and confessed I couldn’t go near it. I still think a lot of my grandfather’s work with me on the bugs crumbled to pieces that day.