Half Man, Half Limping Rabbit
If I didn't mention Dracula in the same breath as Romania, it would be like disregarding a pink elephant in the room, so I'll say it ... Dracula! Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler, otherwise known as the legendary Dracula, hails from the center of Romania, the infamous Transylvania. He has a castle that people may visit and an up-and-coming amusement park, and his face is plastered onto every kitschy souvenir that exists. Dracula is more than just a legend in Romania; he is an industry. My students grow weary at the mention of his name. They complain, "That's the only thing in the world anyone knows about Romania, a stupid myth."
Respectful of my students' complaints, I will leave Dracula to the movies and share a new Romanian legend. I was told this story one afternoon over a cup of strong Romanian coffee by my host-country counterpart and friend, Vanda.
She led me back long ago into the days of castles and knights, when there lived an old Romanian king and queen. They didn't live happily ever after, Vanda informed me sadly, for the queen desperately wanted a child but was unable to conceive. She consulted magicians and wizards, she tried herbs and even black magic, but the queen grew wrinkled and gray and still no baby came. At long last she gave up, convinced she was too old, but miraculously, that spring, she became pregnant. The king and queen were ecstatic and the queen's belly grew large and round. Royal subjects from all around the kingdom came to admire the old, pregnant queen and her gigantic belly.
The day finally came for the baby to be born, but the queen, in much pain, could not deliver the baby. Again, she summoned the magician and the wizard, and she tried herbs and black magic, but the baby refused to be born. Instead, a tiny voice came from her belly: "I will not be born," squeaked the unborn prince, "unless you promise me 'tinerete fara batranete si viata fara de moarte'"—Youth without old age, and life without death. The queen groaned with pain; how could she guarantee youth without old age and life without death? She pleaded with her unborn son to be born; she promised him that he would never want for anything, that he would be rich and handsome and lord over their vast kingdom. But the baby continued to make the same demand.
Finally, the king took command of the situation. He promised the baby prince that, indeed, if born, he would experience youth without old age and life without death. He reassured the queen that as the child grew older he would come to understand the impossibility of such a wish. And so, finally, the prince was born and the whole kingdom rejoiced.
The prince grew up strong and handsome, as all princes do. He never wanted for anything, as the queen had promised. But when the prince reached the ripe age of 20, he once again went to his mother and father and demanded his birth wish. The king and queen, now quite old and growing older, still smiled at their beautiful son. "Son," the queen explained, "we have given you the best of everything in the world—wealth, good looks, a kingdom of your own. But youth without old age, life without death, we do not control and are not free to give."
The prince sulked and angrily reminded them of their promise. "You promised me youth without old age and life without death, and if you cannot deliver these things, I will be forced to search them out on my own." So, against the wishes of his aging parents, the prince set off on his quest for youth without old age and life without death. He traveled near and far through lands unknown; he fought dragons and monsters, like good princes should; and he made friends with elves and fairies. He even entered the legendary bronze, silver, and gold forests.
Finally, he arrived in a new land at the edge of the world. In this kingdom, youth reigned without the threat of old age, and life was eternal. At last, the prince had found what he was looking for. As he entered a castle, memories of his old life fell to pieces on the ground. Naturally, he met, fell in love with, and married the queen of this realm, and they began to live happily together. But the queen warned him as they began their life together, "We can live happily ever after, but you must not cross the stream into the Valley of Tears." That was all she said and the prince, who was happier than he had ever been, agreed. So, they began their routine life of endless youth. Each day, the prince would go out to hunt and come back to his queen with stories of his day's hunt. Days, months, years fell away like leaves from a branch.
One day—a day like all the rest—the prince went out for his usual hunt and caught a glimpse of a strange creature in the forest. The creature, half man, half rabbit, was limping in between the trees. The prince, captivated, pursued the creature through the forest and across a stream, but the half man, half limping rabbit eluded capture. Finally, the prince, tired from hunting, stopped to rest and realized that he stood across the stream in the forbidden Valley of Tears. He stood stunned. Across the brook, the land of youth without old age and life without death sparkled in its youth and life. But he couldn't make himself cross in retreat. As he stood frozen, all of his former memories flooded back. He remembered his former kingdom and his former friends, but most of all, he remembered the warm wrinkled faces of his mother and father and his heart began to ache. He crossed the stream and headed straight to the castle. He begged his queen's forgiveness and told her of his strange afternoon hunting. He described the creature that lured him across the stream and this new ache in his heart. He then told her of his decision to visit his kingdom of old. "But, I will be back!" he declared. The queen, with sad eyes, bade him farewell, for she knew that once you leave the land of youth without old age and life without death, you never return.
So, off the prince went on his second grand adventure, but this time the country had changed. The forests of bronze, silver, and gold were now just fields of stumps. The names of his fairy and elfish friends had become legends of their own. He grew older with each step into his past. His face wrinkled and his hair turned gray. Finally, upon entering his own kingdom, the shriveled, shrunken prince found his castle in ruins and his very own name a story of long ago. In his absence, everything had changed, and he had missed it all. He sat down in deep despair where his castle had once stood and cried for all the moments he had lost. At that very moment, an ancient villager passed by the weeping prince. As the villager listened to the prince's sob story, he remembered an old trunk that had been saved from the crumbling castle. He took the old prince to the trunk and instantly the prince recognized his hope chest. The prince opened the chest, where all his hopes lay waiting for thousands of years, and out came death.
Vanda sipped the last bit of her coffee and folded her hands in her lap. "I don't get it," I exclaimed. "What is the moral of the story?"
She sighed at my ignorance and explained in a calm, all-knowing voice: "Change. Change, Nina, is an ugly beast, half man, half limping rabbit, always sneaking up on you between the trees and scurrying away, but change is what makes life interesting. Change is what makes life worth living. Youth without old age and life without death—bah! What makes youth so special when everyone is young? What makes life worth living without the inevitability of death?" She smiled and poured me more coffee. "What is the point of being young if you never grow old, Nina? Our experiences, our wrinkles," she pointed to her face, "are what make us who we are. I would never want to be 17 again, but I'm interested to know myself at 70."
The story suddenly became so clear. The prince had failed to recognize the true perfection of all the imperfections around him, until it was too late. So, too, do my students, hung up by all of Romania's imperfections, fail to see the potential and beauty that is their country. Romanians constantly ask me in disgust, "Why did you want to come here?" Though I see and appreciate a million brilliant things that combine to make up this wonderful country, I know any answer I give will never satisfy the question. Beauty, as clichéd as this may sound, is in the eye of the beholder.
Contributed by Nina Porzucki - Peace Corps Volunteer: Romania (2002-2004)