One day in 1982 I got home from school to the phone ringing in the kitchen. It was my mother calling from work. ‘The neighbours called. Your grandfather’s in the tree tied to a rope.’ I ran to the back garden. He was six feet up the old oak, a fifty-footer, twice the height of our 1950s suburban ranch house. The tree was infested with oakworm, and my grandfather had been monitoring its lean towards the house. But every time he mentioned cutting it down himself, my mother would dissuade him. She didn’t point out that he was 76 years old with angina, high blood pressure and arthritis, but bemoaned the American legal system’s permit and insurance requirements.
An old axe hanging from his belt, his legs gripping the trunk, he was manoeuvring the rope tied round his waist to swing it around the trunk, tightening it to give him leverage. His footing secured, he yanked the axe out and lashed at the branches. As far as I could tell, he was planning to climb up until he was high enough to cut off the top of the tree and then work his way down.
My grandmother was standing at the base of the tree in her apron. She held one end of the rope and looked up. ‘Hello, Boy,’ she said, the only English words she knew, and for some reason her nickname for him. And then in Romanian: ‘I have dinner in the oven.’
I yelled up to him: ‘We need a permit, Moshu!’
He turned and glared at me, muttering something about throwing money down the toilet, and waved me away like the crows that pecked at his patch of newly seeded lawn. He swung the axe.
I’d always thought my grandfather was an oddball. Once I woke up to find him talking to a maimed pigeon he’d made a bed for in the corner of the kitchen. He seemed to take more interest in ants and wood beetles than me. He would often wander around the back yard, lost in his own thoughts, surveying the perimeter. I wondered if he was on the look out for Soviets, still hiding from them, somewhere in his mind, in the woods of the Carpathians.
After the Potsdam Conference gave Romania to the Soviets in 1946, nearly all government officials, including my grandfather, were purged from their jobs. The eldest son of a Romanian Orthodox family, he found the smell of incense nauseating and opted out of the priesthood to be a notary instead. For years he had documented land ownership, births and deaths in ornate handwriting on onion-skin paper neatly tied with ribbon. Then, at the age of 39, he left his wife and daughter in town and fled to the Carpathians to escape the gulag. He survived for the first few months relying on his hunting skills and eating whatever he could forage or kill, in forests with the highest concentration of bears, wolves, wild boars and lynxes in Europe.
He didn’t meet anyone in the forest apart from the shepherds in flokati coats and black pillbox hats who took him into their homes. After a time, he made contact with villagers he’d helped in the past, resolving boundary disputes and so on, until he eventually found work felling lumber. During that time, he learned to rope-climb. Once the trees were bucked into logs, he would stand hip-deep in icy water loading rafts that delivered the wood along the River Jiu. Then he would send home, through his network, a steady stream of pheasant, venison, mushrooms, milk and cheese. One year he cut down a twelve-foot spruce and sent it to his wife and daughter in time for Christmas Eve.
He eventually cut down the oak in our back garden. We never did get a permit but no one was hurt and nothing was damaged. He died seven years later. Thirty years on, the house belongs to a family from Colombia. My mother gave them a Romanian tablecloth; the woman told her it reminded her of a blanket she had as a child in Cartagena. The lawn my grandfather planted is thriving and the tree stump is still there, swarming with ants and beetles.