Island of the Ducks

Fiction by Irina Hrinoschi

Lily pad flower

Andra had never really thought about leaving the city where she grew up, even as her friends were jumping ship at an ever-increasing speed. In their 20s, most of them said they never wanted to leave. Most of the country had an intense love-hate relationship with the capital, which in the national imagination, was a place of opportunity and a home for sharks and kraken-like creatures. Bucharest was a child only a mother could love, her Transylvanian cousin always said. But Bucharesters loved their city with unbridled, though not uncomplicated, adoration.

Andra would walk the streets of the city as a child, one hand in her grandfather’s hand, the other pulling a plastic ducky on a string. She would gaze up at the 10-story-high grey concrete buildings, the pride of socialist urban planning. The mammoths, she called them, felt like they were guarding the city. The other side of the brutalist facades: luscious green parks strewn all over, restaurant terraces full to the brim with people talking, smoking, drinking, laughing until 3 in the morning. Bucharest was like an exceptionally robust piñata, if you knew where and how to whack it, that is. Why would anyone ever want to leave? This is where life was, not in old Western Europe, but in young and exciting Eastern Europe.

As Andra and her friends neared 30, a nervous hum filled the air. I’m going away for a masters. I’ll work on a one-year project abroad and take it from there. And so her friends started leaving the young East for the old West. She would see them off at the airport and there would be Facebook updates and rushed coffees at Christmas, or during the summer holidays. How many had left this year? By now, half of her college friends were living outside of the country.

She had studied computer science and recruiters were contacting her more and more often, with job offers in London or Amsterdam. “How do you guys do it?” they’d ask. “All these women working in tech?” And Andra would laugh and put them on speaker for her colleagues’ entertainment. Later she’d have coffee and work on some project and look up things like: “10 things to do in Amsterdam” or “Amsterdam salaries IT,” which didn’t help.

That morning, Andra put on her yoga pants, which she never used for their intended purpose, and took her brown Dachshund Azor for a quick walk around the apartment building. She met all of the dog walkers, the other unfortunate souls dragging their bodies around at 6 am. They greeted each other with slight nods. “Sticleee goaleee, ooooh…” The resounding chant of the people gathering up glass bottles echoed through the street. She rarely actually saw any of them. They were the ghosts of the neighborhood. 

She was in early for work, as always, and saw two missed calls on her office phone. A Dutch number. She’d gotten used to the feelings they provoked: a mix of flattery and dread. Her colleague came in and sat at the table next to her.

“They’re calling you again, huh?” she said. “Eventually, they’ll get you to cave.”

 On the crowded metro home, Andra pictured herself in yellow rain boots, riding a cruiser bicycle with a wicker basket in front, the sea breeze tousling her hair. Maybe she’d even carry tulips in the basket. “Next station is Timpuri Noi,“ the announcement said. Andra started maneuvering her way towards the doors, swerving, sliding, elbowing, the faint smell of sweat all around her. This was, she‘d learned through experience, the only way to make it out before the doors closed. On the track, she walked past the wall of tiny marble squares, a mosaic of bright and mustard-yellow, which she particularly liked, when she got a voice message.

“Don’t forget, it’s café frappé night. You better be there!”

Andra smiled. Ioana was, as always, pleasantly exhausting and blunt in the way only people who’ve known you since you were both wearing pigtails and embarrassing school uniforms can be.

She walked along the block towers of her neighborhood to her two-bedroom

apartment, which she’d inherited from her grandmother. Her mother and father lived right

next door. She’d moved in two years earlier and immediately removed the heavy art-deco

furniture, her grandmother’s pride.

 “It belonged to your great-grandparents. It‘s all that‘s left of their house.” her mother said, 

aghast. The house with its unusually large garden had been in her grandmother’s family for

generations. But in 1973, Ceaușescu had the neighborhood demolished. Her grandmother

was relocated and took with her the only thing she could: the furniture. Since childhood,

Andra had disliked how it contrasted with the utilitarian architecture of the blocks — a

peacock squeezed into a sparrow’s nest. 

As she entered her apartment, Azor leaped up at her, barking resentfully. She picked him up and cradled him, which he hated and showed by winding his little body out of her embrace. “I’ll take you out for a real walk now. Let’s go the park.” As she stepped out, leash in hand, Azor followed hastily.

Andra had grown up in this park, with its unkempt grass, birch trees and willows and the green lake, which regularly claimed its victims. She was five when she saw the first one. A young man, completely naked, his skin a dull, half-transparent white, and two men pulling him out of the water. He got caught in the weeds, her mother had said, and drowned. The Island of the Drowned was hidden from view – a small peninsula of lavish greenery surrounded by cattails and more willows, ducks and seagulls. It was the place where the young came to make out. And where they sometimes came to die.

White Pond is what her family called the park, though it was known under different names and, as with many other places in the city, she wasn’t sure where this particular name came from. She had read online that, in the 18th century, her beloved green lake had served as a burial ground for bodies during plague epidemics, and that the bodies were coated in quicklime to cover the smell. She imagined them on their voyage to the bottom of the lake, like milky white color bombs. She didn’t like this story particularly and chalked it up to sensationalism and morbid imagination.

But the other name was even worse: IOR Park, an acronym for the nearby plant that produced optical lenses. This name felt so at odds with the park’s poetic beauty, she couldn’t bring herself to use it. For most people, both names existed alongside each other and they would use them alternatingly. Only its newest and grandest name, with its distinctly un-proletarian, post-communist, patriotic tinge wouldn’t really stick: Alexandru Ioan Cuza Park, after the first king of the Romanian Principalities.

The city was full of these renamed parks, streets and squares, and she was fascinated by people’s ability to remember and weave the name changes casually, yet accurately, into conversations: “You just go down Camil Ressu Boulevard, the former Ion Șulea, you turn right at Sălăjan Market, the former Titan Market.” The kind of orientation cues needed in a city that history had reinvented many times over, and where a person’s past was often just as important as their present.

Her White Pond Park was built in the 1960s, an urban recreational space for the equally new neighborhood.  During her childhood in the 90s, it had the feeling of a miniature jungle. Unpaved paths and overgrown grass and the melancholic willows spilling into the lake. She particularly remembered the old rusty swings and the seesaws that creaked like a legion of haunted houses, though none of this dilapidated charm had ever tempered her enthusiasm.

Things got worse before they got better. Andra remembered walking around the park with her girlfriends, Spice Girls blaring in their Walkmans — even surrounded by the protective shield of adolescent self-involvement, she could see changes in her beloved park, changes she did not like. There were the benches, or really, the carcasses of benches – on which she would sit for hours with boys she somewhat liked, the metal skeleton burrowing its way into her flesh. It was the first time she had noticed the garbage littering the tall grass and the old bright blue ship, which had once been an upscale restaurant and now left to rot on the green lake. In the evening, when nobody was around, she would climb onto the main deck with her friends, and they would sit at the empty round tables, smoking and drinking beer. “Titan Ice – a different life!” they’d giggle, thinking about the famous local ad for ice and the movie that had just come out.

Once the country joined the European Union, renovations began. The benches were repaired and painted dark green. The old unpaved paths were now laid in cement everywhere in her beloved park. The mayor was overcompensating. Then came the statues. Yes. Strange, large concrete statues: a cat perched on an armchair; the torso of a gladiator-like figure; an abstract sculpture of a woman, a kind of Brancuși knock-off. They made no sense to anyone, yet nobody minded. DaDa, she thought, but in the Tristan Tzara way, not in the sad and defeated way in which it was often muttered, YesYes, let’s move on to the next thing. People were happy because something was being built, bettered, consolidated. A new sense of upward mobility.

Back in the 90s any new investment in public spaces would be instantly pillaged to be sold on black markets in the East and West. Anything that could disappear, would: iron, copper, wood, thread, flowers. After all those years of enforced communality and building up the “Socialist Nation,” people were taking their revenge. No more we. And now, 30 years into the “Capitalist Democracy,” the thirst for personal material possessions had been quenched to some extent. So the dark green benches stayed.

She thought of her grandfather who had worked as an engineer at Tractorul, the biggest producer of aeronautic and agricultural equipment in the country.

“Founded in 1925.” That’s what he used to say.

 “Founded in 1925 and productive all through the communist period. We exported all over the Soviet Union! No longer profitable, they said. Old fashioned, they said.” The rage still fresh so many years later. She was never very sure how to react to these torrents of bitterness, or which of the they were to blame. Western investors? The Romanian middlemen and women? The government? And as she pondered all this again, she pictured herself on her city cruiser, with the wicker basket, cycling away.

Wouldn’t it be nice, she thought, to move to a place with different problems, other gaping historical wounds, ones that lie further in the past. A more stable vessel.

She heard local authorities were now attempting to rename the Island of the Drowned as the Island of the Ducks. Another name she wouldn’t use. Hypocritical — why obscure the past, even if it’s painful, she’d say to anyone who listened. Think of the future for once, Andra, they’d answer. Maybe she should just lean in, start a petition for a new statue. A bust of the poet Samuel Rosenstock, who had renamed himself Tristan Tzara and left his hometown of Moinești for Bucharest, then Zurich, then Paris. Surely, he would best embody the zeal for reinvention of the White Pond/IOR/Alexandru Ioan Cuza Park.

She walked by the spot where the blue ship had once been anchored. There was no trace of it now. She had never seen it being dismantled. One day it was simply gone. She paused here and took a moment to contemplate its absence, just her reflection and the dark green water staring back at her.

Several new restaurants had sprung up further along the lake. As she neared one, Azor started tugging at the leash.

“Andra!” Ioana yelled out. “Late as always.”

Andra smiled. “Then why are you always on time.”

“You seemed so lost in thought, I figured you’d walk right past.”

Andra picked up her dog and put him in her lap.

“I was just thinking of getting one of those city cruiser bikes, you know, with the wicker basket in front.”

Her friend nodded, “This is Bucharest. You’ll get run over. But those are very in right now.”

Irina Hrinoschi is a Bucharest-born writer and social scientist, living in Zurich, Switzerland. She writes in English, German and Romanian. Her previous work was published in La Piccioletta Barca.

Photo by Thanh Nguyen 

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