Prima Noctis

Romania, 1971

 

This woman in the stained wedding dress isn’t really Alina, bending over Stephen as he searches for blankets in a huge wooden trunk at the foot of his parents’ bed. Her ankle-long tulle veil shouldn’t have been ridden with dust, after being trampled under so many rubber-soled boots, hardened bare feet. Her head shouldn’t have been spinning from all the whirling on the dance floor, or from the homemade plum schnapps, or from struggling to understand what was being said to her in the strange mountain dialect. It was not a wedding, but a documentary about customs and traditions, that she’d been watching, trapped inside the bride’s body. Not only had the guests at the ceremony been so queer and unfamiliar, even her Stephen looked foreign in the traditional costume he changed into shortly before midnight.

“Are you even listening?” asks her husband.

“Huh?”

“The carpets hanging on the walls. My grandmother made them,” he says. “She had an Austrian weaving loom. It was a huge, beautiful thing. When the communists came to power, they took her weaving loom, her lands and her husband.”

“Stephen. I don’t need a history lesson right now,” says Alina. “Keep it for your class.”

She doesn’t want to remember that their family histories grew in parallel realities. When the communists came, two years before Alina was born, her mother lived in a mansion in Bucharest, complete with a team of eight servants. Alina is now glad that her mother refused to accept the convergence of histories and come to the wedding. She would have been ashamed of the heavy, bug eaten furniture in her father-in-law’s house, of its floors made of compacted earth, of the dust covering the streets like an ill-willed layer of snow, of the men’s queer accents and their bawdy jokes, of their fingers stained with the liquid oozed by the cabbage rolls, of their onion and cheap alcohol breaths that came too close to her face as they danced with her, kissed her on the cheeks, hugged her.

 

Stephen is done raising his eyebrows and takes another blanket out of the trunk, tosses it on the bed.

“Don’t we have enough? You already pulled out three.”

“It can get really cold at night,” he says. “Besides, I was looking for some clean sheets.”

The soft inflections of his dialect forgotten, Stephen talks again like the history student he was when they met. Back then, his eyes became glassy when he told her about Dacian excavation sites discovered in the heart of Transylvania. There is a gap between the way he speaks and the way he looks: loose white pants, knee-long black boots and an embroidered wool vest. Whenever she gazes at him, she hears a single word, spoken in her mother’s voice: peasant peasant peasant. Alina cannot escape this house, this evening, this man. Even worse, she cannot escape herself.

Alina sweeps her hand over the rugs on the walls, the ones Stephen was talking about. They’re rectangular, with a geometrical pattern in red, white and black, a form of controlled chaos. A thick layer of dust, like talc, has seeped through the fabric, and it now glues to the skin in her palm, where so many layers of sweat have dried. Her dress is just as sticky as the rest of her, and makes her think of Hercule’s poisoned shirt.

“Can you please help me get out of this dress?” she asks, turning, but he is no longer in the room. “Stephen?”

“In here,” he yells from the main chamber.

Alina follows him and sees the blankets and sheets tossed on the narrow, plain bed across from the hearth. She points towards the pile.

“What is this?”

“We’re sleeping in here,” he says.

“Why?”

“I can’t spend my wedding night in my parents’ bed,” he says, recoiling and pursing his lips. “It’s disgusting.”

Alina is too tired to argue. She turns, pointing at the hidden zipper that runs across her back. As Stephen’s greasy fingers, clumsied by wine, stray along her spine, she closes her eyes. He could be any of the men who had been at the wedding feast, with their blackened feet, coarse beards, rough hands, but now she is as dirty as any of them, a princess dragged through the mud.  The day lingers on her skin, in the sweat mixed with dust and frankincense smoke, cabbage and garlic vapours from the kitchen, and she is not Alina. Maybe she is one of her noble ancestors, a spoiled girl held hostage by a peasant, and his callused hands are tearing the dress off her, throwing her on his humble bed and there she lies, trembling, eyes half closed, waiting for the prick.

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