“Come on, Zambilica, come on girl…Don’t break down on me, not here!”
The foot of the salesman pumped the gas pedal. The engine protested, grumbling as though ready to draw its last breath. Constantin remembered his father more than thirty years ago saying: Let her be, Titel, you’ll fucking drown it!
He called him Titel since he was little. Not to cuddle him; the name was just his godfather’s name. A sturdy man whose belly couldn’t ever be encompassed by his belt which dangled in resign under the ‘proof of wellbeing’ as he was naming his protuberance that he flaunted all over the village. The godfather died of a heart attack one January night. Because of the blizzard, the ambulance got lost.
He turned the car key once more in the ignition, first praying, then sending layman wishes to all saints he could remember. The lame engine kept whimpering, then fell sound asleep. Don’t mock the names of the saints, Costel, you’ll need ’em in life! His mother was a simple woman; she took care of the house and raised her four children. Only she called him Costel or Costelush. Diminutives that pestered him as he grew up. When he started highschool, he introduced himself as Costin; it seemed to him it was a somewhat nobler moniker, as though he was a young man who spent his childhood downtown, not on the rutty uptown streets.
Constantin slapped his sweaty forehead. What on earth made you think of the dead now, when this junk bemocks you here in this hellhole…
Rutty too were the roads he took to get faster into the town, chased by the black clouds falling over the hills. How could you, man, beat them mattresses three times a week…but what I wonder even more is how come your goods sell while you walk around the streets all day…
His colleague, Sorin, liked to deliver only to cities, he only made exceptions for the villages with asphalt roads. Though Sorin was confused about Constantin’s choice, he was happy he wouldn’t get his shoes dirty with dust. What do you know, partner? Plainfolks live there, if I advertise deftly the Eugenias that has their validity expired in a week, they’ll buy them like Oreos. I don’t need much. I enter the store, politely say hello, pretend browsing the shelves…that is, if there are clients around. If not…straight to the saleslady! I smile to her first, ask her about her health, I know she has a sick child, I say something of the little one…she’s flattered, of course, that I remembered, that is I’m not just one of those who just bring in the merchandise, I’m some sort of business partner to confide in…her husband left her a week before the wedding, here I talk to her like a parent, I’m on the side of the women left by their husbands, the pigs…one thing leads to another and they open the drawer and start paying me outstanding invoices, then I tell them of some noodles or cereal sale…this is how I set up another invoice for the next month.
Constantin opened the car door and got off into the sticky mud. His feet bogged down into the slime. The clouds he tried to run away from an hour ago hurtled over the village. It had poured, thunders and lightnings, and the strong wind pushed him outside the road, toward the field. He gave up, angry that the wipers couldn’t handle it; he stopped the engine and wait for the turmoil to pass. He wasn’t too comfortable in the car, either; a fine curtain of water came down the window between the scorched wipe-seals of the old car. She stuck a rag full of grease up there, trying to stop the flow. When it became drenched with the cold fluid, more and more drops jumped off the driver seat on his clothes. He moved to his right, in an awkward position as he couldn’t avoid the wrath of the clouds even on the passenger seat.
He dragged his supporting foot up in the air; he stepped sideways onto some pebbles, cursing the layer of mud that clinged to the sole of the shoe. He made the same move with his right foot. He stand there with his feet bound up, in a precarious balance, looking hopefully around. He had abandoned all hope, when he saw a lonely house on the other side of the road. Held back from the village, tiny, poking white color behind a yard full of flowers. Even the cell phone wasn’t getting any signal here; he did some rope dancing, moving the camera up or down, or to the left, then to the right…of no avail. The emergency call option vanished from the display too.
“Well done, Constantin, your car broke down and you were so close to the exit for the road. Even if there were any signal, who were you going to call, anyway? Did you think someone would’ve come to get you from those god-forsaken place? Would you’ve tried to call 911? And you, Zambilica? Now you find the time to be finicky? Oh, sorry, I forgot, it’s IW Day. You must’ve hoped for a car wash, a full tank maybe…well, you’re wrong!“, he muttered, looking at the little red car that bailed out on him at the side of the road.
He locked the Matiz angrily and made to cross the road. No matter how careful he was, he couldn’t step on the rocks scattered all over, so he walked raising his muddy shoes one at a time, fearing not to drop them off his feet. He tapped on the house number plate staked to the wooden fence. After a few minutes, he started to shout:
“Hey! Anybody home?
He saw two silvery heads in the front window. He snorted. “What shall I do with two hags? They must have a landline phone, something…” he thought, tapping frantically on his own cellphone. Nothing changed; it was as though he reached the end of the world.
Out came a wiry old lady, her glasses standing in frail balance on her nose. Behind her, another woman, plumper, kept rising on her toes to see the man at the gate.
“Who you’re lookin’ for? asked the first old woman, frowning.
“Ma’am, my car broke right here, near your house. It won’t start, I have no signal on my cellphone and I thought maybe…
“You thought we could help you? We, two old ladies?!” muttered the woman grumpily.
“Well…I didn’t know…but maybe you have a phone, to call my company…or tell where to for the road, maybe I can get a ride.”
The other woman whispered in her ear, and the wiry one tried to push her away, shaking the shoulder the plump one leaned on. She snorted in disdain:
“Fine…come into the yard, don’t just sit there, the whole village will hear us.”
Constantin looked around: the nearest house was nine hundred feet away. Hardly anybody would’ve paid any attention to the guest of those two old women in that cloudy night after a storm that drowned the village. He stepped along a narrow concrete path. He took two steps, then looked behind him. His trails were red with mud. He stopped, ashamed. The old woman waved, urging him on:
“Go inside, what’s done it’s done now! We’ll clean up in the morning!”
Having been cleared off, Constantin approached the door that stood ajar. The woman peered at him, sizing him up.
“Who are you and what business do you have in this village?”
“I’m a salesman, ma’am. I cater supplies to the village store. I wanted to take a shortcut here and the rain caught up with me, my car won’t start…” the man fumbled. The old woman made him uncomfortable, reminded him of his first teacher who untaught him of his left-hand writing using a sharp-edged wooden ruler.
“And you expect us to believe all this hogwash?” the host snapped.
“Ma’am, this is not hogwash…I swear…”
His voice caught in his throat like in the third grade when he played with the pen the whole class and wrote that essay about the injured deer using half the nib. The ruler not only punished his fingers, but also his bent spine.
“I don’t want to intrude, I’d better go now! Thanks, anyway…”
“You think you got me out of the house in that cold just to make conversation?” the wiry one raised her voice.
“Yes, yes, rightly so…” the other one squeaked.
“Mind your own business, sis!” retorted the bespectacled old woman. She turned toward Constantin:
“Leave your shoes here, on the steps, and come inside. We’ll see what’s to be done.”
He almost wanted to turn around and leave. He looked up. Other black clouds covered the blurred spot that was the sun over the hill behind him. He trembled and accepted the invitation.
It was warm inside the house. There was a smell of cooked apples and vanilla cookies. He followed the wiry woman to a neat den. He sat into the armchair pointed out with a spiky finger. The other woman wandered around the room, sizing him up. She pretended to calm down a restless parrot in a cage. The bird smashed into the metal bars, making guttural sounds.
“Veronica! Get your bird out of here and make some tea! The man must be frozen from so much rain!”
The plump one gladly obeyed. Constantin thought he even heard her humming through the noise made by chinaware striking each other.
“You’ll have to excuse my sister, she’s quite clumsy. But she make excellent tea! So…let’s start over: what’s with you here?”
“I told you already, I left some supplies to the store, wanted to get quickly back to the city, but the rain caught with me. The wind pushed me toward the fields so I decided to wait for the rain to stop. When the storm settled down, Zambilica – I mean, my Matiz, that’s how I cuddle it – wouldn’t start. I have no cellphone signal, so I thought I’d find some villager to help me.”
“And you ended up here with us! said the one entering the room, laughing over the silvery tray that carried one teapot and three cups.
The wiry one gave her an admonishing look over the glasses.
“Sis, watch out or you’ll spill the tea! Sir…I’m sorry to say this to you, but we have no landline phone. Nor a car, so we can’t help you.”
Constantin swallowed hard. Why didn’t you say so from the beginning, lady?! We wouldn’t be wasting our time with pleasantries and, by now, I’d have been the hell out of here, off for the highway. Now, in the middle of the night…
“Now, in the middle of the night, we won’t let you wandering”, the wiry one seemed to guess his thought.
The man shuddered. He sipped twice from the fragrant tea, wishing to shake off a foreboding thought. A cold shiver trickled down his spine.
“If you want, you can stay over with us,” Veronica invited him. “We have a guest room in the back.”
“No, thank you, I wouldn’t want to impose…” Constantin muttered, softened by the hot potion that oozed down his esophagus.
“As you wish,” the wiry one said. “At least, finish your tea. We’re sorry we can’t help you.”
“Yes, yes, we’re sorry” the plump one followed suit.
“Do you have a wife that could worry if you don’t get home? A friend, anyone?”
“No, I don’t…unfortunately…” the man shrugged.
“Unfortunately…” Veronica mimicked him smiling, hurrying to refill his cup.
He tried to stop her, but the frail obliging smile of the granny made him accept the second round.
“You have to admit that the tea is good. Veronica, bring some cake, too. I hope it’s cooled down by now. You know, I cooked it around noon, when the clouds started to gather”, the host said with a conspiratorial whisper, watching out of the tail of her eye how her sister ran spritely towards the kitchen.
The man thought he heard her humming again, a little louder this time. He looked around the room. Nothing from outside made an image remotely close to what he saw inside. The room was cozy, a sofa between two armchairs covered in purple plush, a coffe table of the same whitish wood as the bookcase. Hundreds of tomes were crowding its shelves. It all seemed out of place at that edge of the village. Like he thought that out of place were also the silvery tray and knock-off chinaware.
“Do you like our place?” the wiry one asked, carefully watching him.
“Yes, it’s…I wasn’t expecting…it’s a village, after all.”
“You’re being sincere! Well, I was a teacher at the village school; after I retired, I convinced Veronica to move here. I sold my parents house in Bucharest, took whatever was valuable from there, then came to find peace. Plus, she’s nuts about animals. In the city, with the neighbors, it’s hard…you know how it is. Here, she can bring anyone she wants. Nobody asks her anything, nothing.”
The old woman’s explanation seemed plausible. Constantin relaxed. Through the window curtains, he noticed it was full dark by now. He should’ve accepted the invitation to stay over night. Next day, he could’ve sought help in the village.
“I’ll go make the fire in the guest room and search for some clothes”, the host seemed to guess his thoughts for the second time. “My, how clumsy of me! I didn’t introduce myself! I’m Adela, and my sister is Veronica. You know, my mother read a lot…” the wiry one chuckled.
Veronica came through the door with a tray carrying slices of yellow puffy cake. After a short exchange of looks with her sister, she put it on the table, then sat in the armchair, in front of the man. Without knowing why, he saw her just like one of those gaudy characters in Miss Marple’s movies. She wore a purple dress with flounces, mauve socks and pink slippers. Her white hair was hoisted up in a perfectly round bun. She dressed as if she expected guests. Or suitors! Constantin thought. He stifled a smile, and a second shiver went through his spine when the plump one started cooing:
“No one comes here much. We don’t know when somebody really knocks to our door. So we’re always dressed ready for guests. Especially today, women’s day…”
The man sneered. He had that feeling again, a boy caught with his lesson unlearned. Adela saved him as she entered the room carrying a bunch of clothes. A spotted cat sneaked in between her legs. It meaowed, rubbing against the Veronica’s armchair. When the old womand wanted to take it in her arms, it arced and jumped on the Constantin’s thigh, its hackles up and fangs showing. It slided down as if it wanted nothing more than caught his attention. One step in front of him, it gave a prolonged meaow. Adela put the clothes on the sofa and tried to pick her up putting her hand underneath it, but the cat clawed her arm.
“Sis, take this pet and…” she stopped, looking at her menacingly.
Veronica got down on the carpet, beside the cat. She whispered slowly, while her palm got closer to the electrified fur. The animal whimpered toward Constantin and let itself be carried out of the room.
Rubbing the bloody injuries on her skin, Adela made an excuse:
“My sister and her animals…They get nuts, sometime…”
“But have a slice of cake! It’s a family recipe, we didn’t change it in decades, not a single ingredient!” the wiry one added.
Veronica came back, paler than when she left. He sipped from the tea, detached from everyone around. He looked blankly at the clock on the wall.
“Oh my, it’s so late…We should go to bed.”
Constantin accepted reluctantly the indication of the clock. It was ten after ten. He could’ve swore he arrived here only half hour ago. Besides, the tea was still warm. Veronica poured the second cup right after he finished the first. Beyond the window, you could only see the tarry night.
“Yes, to bed…” Adela repeated. “Sir…you didn’t even tell us your name…” the old woman trailed off.
“Co-” the man started and stopped. He was going to sneeze. He raised his palm, asking the ladies to excuse him. He tried again: “Co-“, but then he sneezed.
“Coco? How nice! What a proper name!” Veronica exclaimed, clapping. She laughed with her head bent backwards, under the admonishing look of her sister.
“Forgive me! My name is Constantin…”
“But of course, that is your name. And you please forgive the outburst of my sister. It was a hectic day for her, you understand…” Adela whispered to his ear, looking at him meaningfully.
They followed Veronica down the long hall, along a dozen of doors that led into it. The man was intrigued again, looking at this house like to an oddity. Not in a thousand years he could’ve believed that the whitewashed walls beyond the flower garden could’ve hosted so much rooms.
“Here, this is the guest room”, said the plump one, putting her hand on the door handle. “There, at the left, you have a small bathroom. A little rustic, but…” the woman chuckled and invited him in.
Adela was watching them with her arms crossed. Her nose seemed pointier, her glasses threatening to fall down at any moment.
“Good night, sir! See you in the morning!”
“Likewise, thank you!” Constantin whispered.
“Good night!” Veronica said too, then the man had the impression she added: “Lock the door and never open it over night!”
But the last words were just so, like a breeze, and Constantin sat for long minutes on the threshold, his back leaned on the woodwork of the door, thinking whether those words were really uttered. For his peace of mind, he turned the key into the lock.
He was dreaming, of course. It could only be a dream if a spotted cat opens the cage door to free a parrot. Only in a vision, the quadruped would let itself be ridden by the bird and dance to a tune hummed by the voice of a little old woman. The voice surged, you could almost hear the lines in a strange language. The rhythm quickened and the cat jumped on all fours and got bigger with every leap it made. But just in his eyes or his eyes in the dream…
The parrot circled above the animal. Its wings fluttered around its ears. It was now the size of a seagull, cawing in unison with the unseen singer. The cat locked its gaze on Constantin, eyes almost human. You could’ve swore it sneered. He saw himself as if from the outside, amazed by the show of those two creatures. He stuck against a door, in an empty room with whitewashed walls. The dancers stalked him.
The voice of the woman drew nearer. A strange song, march-like, was intoned on the other side of the wood board. The spotted cat made prolonged meaows while its leaps got her closer to the man. Constantin could’ve swore it was the size of a child, and the parrot was now like a vulture. The floor shuddered under the feet of the animal, rippling toward the middle of the room. The door throbbed, hitting his back.
He forced himself to wake up. These nightmares happened before; he considered himself lucky that he could wake up from any unpleasant dream. He got back to sleep almost immediately, banishing the creepy images.
Constantin opened his eyes. He was awake, surely. The mattress vibrated underneath him like the door in the dream. The floor and the walls crackled. He looked at the light appliance hanging from the ceiling. It dangled above him. “Earthquake!” he said to himself. “It was just an earthquake! he tried to reassure himself. He went to the bathroom, took his time washing his face and drank cold water from the cup of his palm. It was over. The frame of the bed crackled one last time before the man got back to sleep. He was almost asleep when he heard a knock on the door. “Lock the door and never open it over night!” he was told. He’d rather follow that advice, even if he wasn’t sure it was only suggested or given, or…
“Mr. Constantin, it’s me, Veronica”.
He chose to shut up, pretending to be asleep. He thought he was, after all, the guest in the old women’s house. It would’ve been only polite for him to check on them, to see if they needed any help after the earthquake, if they were afraid…
“Don’t open it, don’t open it!” a spotted cat from a dream shouted. “Over night, over night!” a parrot cawed.
He stood up, hoping to get rid of these imaginings. He cleared his throat and asked:
“Are you alright, ma’am?”
“Yes…I was afraid you’d be scared. It happens around here…This was a mild one.”
“I’m fine, thank you. Good night!” Constantin said with a sigh of relief.
A shuffle made him think the woman left. He heard her, though, just like the first time.
“I brought you a tea. You know, Adela says it will calm you…”
“No, thank you, I don’t think I need it…”
“As you wish”, the old woman said with dissapointment in her voice.
Constantin made for the bed. Even he was doubtful now that he could fall back to sleep so quickly. No matter what, he kept hearing: “Don’t open it, don’t open it” followed by “Over night, over night”.
He turned back, twisted the key in the lock and took the cup from the hand of the woman who never left from the door. She wore the same flouncy dress, as if they just parted. She didn’t even untie her hair for the night. She grinned, assuring him:
“It will be alright…”
He closed the door with his free hand. The other one was shaking, making his cup clink on the saucer. It was full to the brim. He sipped the liquid so as not to spill it. It had a different fragrance. He gulped down half a cup, then fell sound asleep.
The tea must’ve made him sleep like a log, because he couldn’t remember dreaming again. His only problem was how he ended up on the floor. It was cold by now and he woke up curled onto the woven carpet. And the window was farther, the bed higher. He wanted to rub his eyes, but he saw a paw getting close to his face. He looked at his hands. He had paws covered in reddish fur. Four of them. Plus a tail which he could move as he wished.
“Let’s see now how will you get out of this, Constantin!” he said to himself jokingly. He crawled under the bed, compelling himself to wake up. But is wasn’t a dream, nor some figment of his mind. The clothes he put on when he went to bed were lying on the floor.
He wanted to shout. The coppery tomcat made a prolonged whimper. From behind the door, he heard:
“Coco, darling, come here right away!”
For a few minutes, he only heard a rasping, metal to metal, then Veronica entered the room. She threw away the screwdriver she whacked the old hag with and got on all fours to pull him to her. Constantin resisted, shouting the worst damnations, but his throat only made plaintive meaows. He got back, as far as he could, threatening her with his claws. The old woman smiled to him. She hummed a tune which seemed familiar. He’d had a dream with another cat, a parrot…What if them too…? He almost understood what the woman was saying.
“Cursed night!” he thought before he felt the need to cradle into the bosomy chest of the one who wore a purple dress with flounces.
Translated into English by Dan BUTUZA