Alina Stefanescu
If Death is a Dancer
The first time I meet death, he is tucked between Carpathian mountain hips. See, I am already lying. Death is nestled in the valley of a small Transylvanian village. Death lingers in warm cleavage. I am thirteen years of American socialization trained to blush when a woman uses her voice in strong ways. Lying, again: the retrospect. I am blushing as Mom’s arms swoop through the air as she speaks fast Romanian to neighbors. "Old peasants," she says. "Gesticulations," she explains. All interactions are rendered emphatic, vivid as the skein of fat pulled back from the fresh-milked morning. I discover Mom is a different person in Romania--a more certain human, steady on her feet. As for me, only my name looks Romanian. When no one says my name, I am the American girl, the baby who left, the creature whose parents defected. The American girl doesn't know what to do with her hands so she rubs them against the waist of her pants until music emerges. And then stops. I cross the street with Mom. She says we must pay our respects to the dead man, the neighbor. His rickety wood cart is parked near the front gate, minus horses. The old man is stretched on the massive dining room table, one foot towards the open door, his detachable wooden leg posed beside it. Not attached. Loosely affiliated by silhouette. The windows are open wide so his spirit can leave when the time comes. "He will know," says Mom. He may be dead but he's not done yet. The man is still doing things. The American girl who is only American when she visits her birthland asks her mom about the widow, the wife. The mother of the girl who is only Romanian when living in America says the widow is busy, readying the old man for his voyage. His body is now a vessel. Two coins sit on top of his eyes, dues for the ferryman that will carry the old man over the river to the next life. All knives have been removed from the house lest his soul ride by on a blade. Three women in wool skirts sit near the plaster wall, their hair hidden by scarves, their faces torn by wails and complicated moaning sequences. The Romanian mother's daughter knows the women will wail for three days and three nights, covering the room with stories of praise for the man's life, his successes, his good harvest, his tall sons, fertile daughters, grandchildren. The paid mourners will pause for a shot of tuica and small bowls of ciorba, their ears sucking up stories from visitors. In this way, the stories of the man’s life will be scrubbed into songs. Absent from the music-making and wailing is the widow herself. Dry-eyed near the door, she greets friends and family like a bride on the day of her wedding to the man who made a bedtime ritual of beating her. "Gestures," Mom explains, her eyes blue as the hottest part of a fire, the part you shouldn't touch.
At the graveyard near the small creek, willows rustle their skirts. A priest with a long white beard and yellowing ponytail swings incense over the earth, the body, the coffin, the wooden leg. He chants liturgy with a terrible, beautiful voice reserved for death. "He was a communist, a member of the ruling class," Mom explains. The priest pauses to bless the bread that will nourish the man on his voyage. A large loaf placed near his bald head, and seven smaller loaves laid around him, one for each day of the week. The American girl is confused. The mother tells the American girl that, one week from now, another pomena (feast) will be held in his honor to refurbish his supernatural pantry. I am parched, afraid. I am already lying when the dead man's three brothers begin shoveling soil over the coffin. They stand back from the grave and lift each shovel with care, tossing fistfuls of dirt into the pit. The brothers guard their shadows. If a shadow falls over the grave, death will find them. Mom lifts her heels, sways a little. "Death is a terrible dancer," she says. "We must dance to keep death away." I am already lying, dying. And I cannot stop.

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama. She serves as Poetry Editor of Pidgeonholes and President of the Alabama State Poetry Society. Her first poetry chapbook, Objects in Vases (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016) won the ASPS Poetry Book of the Year Award. Her first poetry collection, Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus (Finishing Line Press, 2017) included Pushcart-nominated poems. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize and was published in May 2018. More online at or @aliner.