It was one of those summer days during which the heat pushed and spread and swarmed across the land. Serghei Patrescu and his cousin Corneliu were returning to camp after a taxing day spent crawling up and down rows of fruit bushes in the fields. They had consumed the larger part of an unlabelled bottle of vodka and were about to open their second when Corneliu fell into a terrible state of agitation.
“Tell me I am a fool!”
“You’re a fool, Corneliu Patrescu, but you don’t need me to tell you that. What is it this time?”
“I have fallen in love.”
“Again? What about that doctor from Budapest?”
“And what a stuck up one she was!”
“She helped you through a panic attack because you missed your station.”
“A false diagnosis! I had merely eaten too many cabbage rolls; you know how sensitive my organs are. No, this time it is different. I am in love with the category of female that comes but once in a generation. She is called Nella and she is the prettiest, most intelligent creature ever to know and say my name. All I can do is think of her face, her chocolate hair and her eyes, which are like the darkest of cherries-”
“And don’t forget her skin, which looks like whipped cream!” Serghei laughed. “Tell me more, I’m getting hungry.”
“If you were to see her, cousin, you would understand,” Corneliu said. “I say this in all seriousness, she is nothing other than gorgeous and unique and sincere combined in way that arrests your heart and mind, certainly not shaped from the same mold as the women we are used to.”
“Have you told her of your love?”
“Well, no, not exactly. I have tried to reveal my feelings, but on each occasion my attempts were thwarted by an insufferable dog. Can you believe it? I wish to kill it and hang its matted hide over the front of my van.”
“You mean she’s got a guard dog?”
“Impossible! No sane person would keep such a monster. He is the ghastliest kind of mongrel you have ever seen with fangs like rusted nails and a growl like it is gargling gravel. No, his sole purpose is to torment me it seems. It all started last week during afternoon rest; Nella was at the water, standing before me, barefoot and arched over the tap like a stem that could not bear the weight of a magnificent flower. She was drinking and cleaning her feet and I watched her as the wet hem of her crimson dress stuck to her calves. I stood paralysed. I am fortunate that she did not witness my abject leering, for my tongue was without doubt waving about loosely over my jaw. And then, just at that moment, as she rose to face me, the sun came out and shone down on us.”
“A sign from heaven.”
“And what about these wet calves?”
“I told her my name and she told me hers. She asked me why I wasn’t in the field with the others and I told her I had taken ill, that the weather in this country does not agree with me so. Well, she placed her hand on my stomach and gave me a look that sent the acids frothing in my gut. I had a septic case of gastritis she said, and a tonic of cardamon and peppermint would help, if only I would come back with her to her caravan, she had plenty in supply.”
“Tell me you didn’t go with her!”
“I said yes and do not dare call it ungentlemanly and say that you would not.”
“But Corneliu,” Serghei cocked his head. “I would’ve at least asked the price beforehand.”
“Oh, how clever of you. This is not a woman who needs to sell herself, and indeed not to people of your portly composition, for there is no price which can be set on her except love. I agreed and without a lewd thought in my mind. We were leaving when the beast came careening out from behind a bush and drove a hairy wedge between us. Nella screamed and fled towards the camp. I undertook to pursue her, to protect her from this evil thing, but I fell and found myself right under his nose. It still makes me nauseous to think of the foulness of his breath. Be gone! I shouted, but he moved not a whit and held me there for what seemed like an hour, staring at me with those yellowed, dog eyes. I was too petrified to move.”
“What did it want from you? A kiss?”
“How should I know? The devil didn’t reveal his plot to me. He must have decided eventually that I was no sport as he removed his paw from my breast and trotted off back from where he came. I was too traumatised to give chase. After work I looked for Nella everywhere, asked the Romani and even bothered the poor Bulgarians with the search, without result. I started to wonder if she did in fact exist, or if she was part of some dream. But the feeling was real: I was left with an emptiness I’d never experienced before, like someone had cut a piece of me and stolen away with it.”
“Perhaps the dog took a piece of your brain without you noticing, cousin.”
Corneliu didn’t reply. They reached the tent and dropped their gear. Serghei kicked an overturned trolley that had served as their barbecue and, satisfied that it was still full of burning coals, began collecting leaves and sticks to build a fire. Seeing that his cousin had more to recount, he prompted: “But it was real or you wouldn’t have seen them again, the girl and her pet.”
“Oh yes, she is real and so is the beast, unfortunately. A day later I woke earlier than usual and went to the Romani camp to look for her. I waited under a tree, pretending to repair my boots – but I was really inspecting the women who were already awake. They were hanging out washing and filling up water bottles, as they do at that hour. But none of them was my Nella. The men woke shortly after and there was much commotion around the camp. Still, no one noticed me sitting there with my head down. Eventually they all filed out into the fields. I too was about to leave when suddenly I heard the singing of bells. A caravan door opened and-”
“There she was, like an angel floating out of the clouds. Am I right?”
“I am beginning to think that you are not taking me seriously.”
“That statement is not wholly right, cousin. It’s true that I’m not taking you seriously but I wouldn’t say that you have at all begun to think.” Corneliu lit a cigarette and handed it to Serghei. “Those our last?” Serghei asked. Corneliu nodded and continued:
“She came forth from the red vardo. You have probably seen it already – it is an exquisite house with modern accessories and truly the only caravan in the whole camp fitting for Nella. She was wearing a creme skirt and t-shirt, which was so tight around her chest I almost tripped over. She was weighed down by a load of laundry, so I ran to help her and we set it on the line together. We talked and talked. I told her how we were stopped at the border, that they found the three cartons of cigarettes under the seat but not those down your pants. Oh, how she laughed! I discovered she is from a place not too far from our village, but that she was taken to the capital when she was very young. She wanted to know how I was after the incident with the dog and was very sorry for having ran away. When I recounted to her how the beast had attacked me, she dropped everything, touched me gently on the shoulder and thanked me. You should have seen her eyes, cousin – so full of concern and gratefulness.”
“I’m not surprised. You beat the creature back with your bare fists, practically saving her life.”
“Yes, but poor Nella received a far greater fright than I. Oh, how I wanted to comfort and protect her. I would have stood guard by her door every day should she have wished it. But I thought that offer too advancing.”
“That is one word-”
“Instead I asked her if she cared to share dinner with us. But no sooner had the question left my lips than we were struck in the face by a shower of mud. It landed over the white sheets and all over Nella’s t-shirt. It was that blasted dog again. He had obviously been at the lake and had come to dry himself right where we were standing. Nella squealed and I threw a sheet over the brute’s head hoping he would become confused and retreat. But it charged through the camp wrenching one of her clean sheets with it. Nella was beside herself. I ran after the mutt in an effort to retrieve the linen. I chased it through the camp, under cars and over ropes; the sheet meanwhile had coiled itself around the dog’s black fur and had become horribly stained. He was fast I tell you – big and fast and he sped ahead of me like a comet. I kept him in my sight though and chased him to the lake, where he launched himself from the bank and into the water. There was an enormous splash and the sheet flew free. The dog had gone but I managed to collect the sheet from the water and ran back to the camp, but Nella too had disappeared. Curse my luck! I knocked on her door, waited a while but to no avail. What an infernal animal to have come between us again.”
“But it wasn’t all a waste. You know where she lives and can pester her for the rest of the season if you want.”
“That was exactly my intention, although not to pester her of course, but to be close to her, to reveal my feelings. That evening before anyone had returned from the fields I returned to give her a kilo of berries that I had picked for her.They were the biggest and juiciest you have ever seen and cost me at least half a day of work. I even wrapped them in the silver paper that Domnul Petru had given me and rested the parcel on the front step of the vardo with a note attached, inviting her to meet me later by the lake for a picnic. For humour I added that if she would like to eat meat, I would also bring a hunting knife should our friend the dog turn up. Well, that I had that knife right there and then as I had not walked ten metres when the loathsome thing skipped out from under the caravan, ripped open the package with its claws and proceeded to eat the contents, note and all. I was livid and cried after him, stomping and rushing to scare him off but do you think he paid any interest to my protests?”
“He didn’t growl at me and not once did he look up from the berries before he had taken his fill. Then he regarded me once more as if to report on the mediocrity of the meal and vanished. I left the camp and have not returned since, nor have I seen poor Nella. I wonder if the beast will ever leave us in peace.”
While Serghei prepared minced pork for the fire, massaging salt into the meat and shaping it into long batons, Corneliu opened a second bottle and they each drew a long dose.
“Maybe it’s destiny telling you that you and the girl are not meant to be,” Serghei said. “What a shame! This Nella lives in the best caravan in the entire camp, she’s probably rich and, stranger still, might even be interested in you.”
“I didn’t take you for a fatalist, cousin. You know it yourself, love in itself is no miracle, it is merely a signal – like the call of a trumpet that we have to follow until we find from where the music has come. Whether we follow it is up to us. A stray dog may have foiled me but it will not outsmart me.” Corneliu wiped his chin. Then a thought stirred him and he leapt to his feet. “Perhaps I shall go right there now and tell her plainly in front of everyone how she has stolen my heart!”
“Wait until we finish eating, that’s something that I don’t want to miss.”
The two men fried their meat in silence and then sat in the grass to dine. As they were finishing off a dessert of stale bread and berries, a man paced towards them from the direction of the camp. He was a large man with thick legs compacted into grey trousers and tattooed fists each as big as melons, which swung low as he walked.
“Cousin! Is that Domnul Nica?” Corneliu whispered when he saw the man.
“I think it is.”
“What is he doing here?”
“I don’t know. Do you owe money?”
“Of course not. Quiet! Here he comes.”
“Domnul Nica,” Serghei said and stood up. “Come, share a drink with us.”
Domnul Nica’s bald head and dark eyes gyrated for several seconds, taking in the men’s camp, examining their clothes, their torn sneakers hanging from ropes, and ripped newspapers that served as the threshold to their tents. “I have not come to drink. I have come about my wife.”
“Your wife?” Serghei asked looking at Corneliu. “I didn’t know you were married, Domnul Nica.”
“A Buzescu girl. I’ve heard that your cousin here has become acquainted with her.”
Serghei’s shoulders fell and he started blinking as if some bug had flown into his eye. “What is it, Domnul Nica? Has something happened?”
Domnul Nica lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “Yes, something has happened,” the giant man said and reached around his back and withdrew an object from his pocket which he threw at Corneliu. Corneliu held his arms over his head as if to prevent an attack, however the defence proved ineffective as the carton of cigarettes hit him in the face and bounced off his knee.
“Nella was attacked by a rabid dog, ” Domnul Nica said. “And she tells me that you fought it off so that she could escape. The cigarettes are for your trouble. Much better than the cheap stuff you people smuggle in.”
“Thank you, Domnul Nica,” Serghei sighed and smiled at Corneliu who was in shock. “But there’s no need for such generosity. Both I and Corneliu would’ve done it for anyone.”
“I am not anyone. I found the dog and killed it with a shovel. Thank you and goodbye.” Domnul Nica turned and left. As he strode away, Serghei and Corneliu caught a glimpse of a tattoo on his back of a woman holding a rose with the words ‘Love is fear’ written in cursive underneath.
“Goodbye, Domnul Nica! You can get up from the ground now, cousin. He’s gone.”
“Oh, Serghei! I was sure he had come to break all of my fingers, tear off my legs and bite my ears. And if he had hurt you as a result of my imprudence… but how could I know?”
Serghei closed his eyes and drew the palms of his hands to his face. “Corneliu, you wanted to know if you were a fool, well here is your confirmation. If I ever find the carcass of that blessed animal I will kiss it ten times and then force you to take it home and place it in the garden a reminder of your derangement.”
“I’m sorry, cousin. But now you believe me, don’t you. Now you believe that my love for her was real.”
Serghei paused and looked into the distance. “Give me a cigarette,” he said.
The two men unwrapped the carton and shared the cigarettes equally between them. It wasn’t such a bad life, each of them thought, not knowing tha the other was thinking the same. Not a bad life at all, they thought as they sat in the grass and smoked and watched the sky turn from light to dark.