Alexandru Balaur, bear of a man and Head of Security, needed a witch.
“I’m in love.”
“This time is different.” Alexandru was visiting one of the engineers living in the old Soviet barracks. Daniela was like most of those living in the dorm; they had come from all over Romania to help build a new shopping centre in a remote corner of the country.
Daniela took a draw on her cigarette (the pack had been a gift from Alexandru) and stubbed it out in the cracked glass bowl put into service as an ashtray. She shivered as a gust of wind blew through the poorly-insulated walls and pulled her cardigan closer. “This time she’s married.”
“You want?” She held up a mug with a faded red symbol on the side. At his nod she continued. “You can’t have her, not this time.” She put out sugar (another gift) and milk as the smell of coffee filled the room. Seeing the look on his face, she raised a hand to stop him speaking. “You may run this place but you can’t have everything you want.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t stop thinking about her. I don’t care about her fool of a husband, I must have her.” He threw his large hands up in the air.
Daniela watched him, slowly sipping her coffee, letting the steam warm her nose. She’d known Alexandru for just over a year; he’d introduced himself a few days after she’d arrived at the building site and after a brief chat discovered that they were born only a few villages apart. After that instead of demanding security payments from her, as he did with the others, he brought her small things: food, cigarettes, matches. She would have liked to call him her friend but could anyone be comfortable with a friend so closely allied with the government security department?
“When the shopping centre is completed, we’ll all move on to other projects. She’ll leave, with her husband. You’ll never see her again.”
“Then I’ll persuade her to be mine. To leave that idiot.” He stared directly into her eyes. “There must be something I can do.”
Daniela drained her coffee and lit another cigarette. “Go see Ileana Ispirescu.”
“The witch?!” Alexandru’s eyes widened for a moment before he composed himself.
She stifled a laugh. “Sure, why not?”
Alex’s dark blue eyes now glanced away. “We have a history.”
Daniela shrugged. “You have history with everyone.” She flicked ash into the bowl. “She’s helped many.” Now it was her turn to look him directly in the eyes.
“How badly do you want it?”
The house was modest, with vivid blue curtains hanging in windows. The door was painted yellow and obvious effort had been put into a small herb garden at the side of the house. Alexandru ran his tongue over his lips, his mouth suddenly dry. He stepped forward and, taking a deep breath, knocked.
The door swung open; the witch was there, watching him.
He took an awkward step forward. “Ileana.”
“Alexandru. What brings you here?” Her lips, coloured bright red against her olive skin, curved slightly.
Head of Security or not, suddenly Alex felt like a child. “I need your help.”
“An, um, a …”
His jaw and shoulders suddenly relaxed. “Yes.”
He followed her into a back room, a small part of him admiring her dark hair and the fit of her black dress, but quickly cast his eyes down when she turned to look back at him, a smirk dancing on her lips. As if she knew what he’d been thinking.
Alex looked around the room, his gaze taking in every dark corner. His inspection was interrupted by Ileana’s laugh.
“What did you expect, black cats? A cauldron?” She giggled again. “Here, let me put on my black hat for you.”
The security man rose, his bulk nearly knocking over the chair.
Ileana grabbed his arm. “I’m kidding, sit. Here, look,” she rolled up the sleeves of her dress, “no warts.”
Mumbling under his breath Alex sat back down, feeling the heat rise from his face. Ileana sat across from him and, taking the shawl from her back, spread it across the table. The sudden absence of the bright red roses around her shoulders made her appearance more sombre.
He looked around the room again, taking his time. It was a small sitting room, a sagging brown couch on one side, the table at which they now sat was opposite. Shelves filled the spaces in between, with books stuck in every available gap. There were no windows; the only light came from a small lamp perched atop one of the shelves. The smell of candle wax and boiled cabbage hung in the air.
“I light candles.” Her voice startled him. “I like the room but there are no windows. Electricity is expensive, as you know,” she glared at him then reached up to a ledge above their table, “so I use candles.”
The small wooden box she’d retrieved contained her cards, faded and worn but beautifully decorated with a variety of detailed plants and small animals. Ileana took the cards and held them in both hands, her head tilted toward them as if listening. Satisfied she shook her head and placed the cards on the table in front of Alexandru.
“What would you like to know?”
Alex shifted in his seat. “I can’t tell you.”
Ileana raised an eyebrow. “It’ll be difficult for me to help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.” When he didn’t answer she sighed. “Shuffle the cards, perhaps they’ll tell me what you won’t.”
He did as commanded, feeling the smooth cardboard soothing his calloused hands. When he was ready he handed them back, face down.
Sniffing the cards she gazed at him through her heavily made-up eyes. Only then did Ileana start the reading.
He waited, watching her turn one card after another, sometimes stopping to gaze at one, sometimes moving to the next with a quick flick of the wrist.
“I see a woman. Pretty.” Alex watched her as she stared intently at the cards, flipping another. “And a man.”
Alexandru began to subconsciously play with a ring on his finger, a large silver thumb ring with a green amber stone. While he wasn’t aware of his actions, Ileana was. She turned another card. “And you.”
She put down the deck and looked directly at Alex. “Just tell me. You and I,” she waved a hand in the air, “we’re like the words we speak, full of meaning as thoughts but once spoken are gone, lifted into the air and forgotten, to contribute to history.”
The large man slumped in his chair, making him appear half of his original size. With a sigh he blurted. “I’m in love.” His words garnered nothing but a raised eyebrow. Hesitating for a moment, he kept going. “She’s wonderful and beautiful and I must possess her.”
Ileana nodded. “But there’s someone else.”
“She’s married.” His voice cracked as he spoke the words.
She sat back in her chair, biting her inner lip. Then she suddenly sat back up. “I know what you must do.”
Alexandru got up extra early; he felt more and more foolish as he made the trek to the river but pushed himself forward with thoughts of his reward. He wanted the woman and Alexandru Balaur always got what he wanted.
It was April and the river ran high and fast with the recent snow melt. He took off his shoes and clothes and stepped into the water, yelping involuntarily as the cold instantly numbed his foot. Shivering, he recalled the conversation he’d had with the witch last night.
“But why, for God’s sake? I’ll freeze!”
Ileana just shrugged and sipped her tea. “You must bare all before the forces greater than you.”
He was interrupted by a noise she made in her throat, which, accompanied by a hand gesture and a frown, meant the conversation was over.
The water closed over his knees and he struggled to keep hold of his clothes, stuffed hastily into a plastic bag that he now balanced on his shoulder. The current nearly knocked him over and he was forced to stop a few times, regaining his balance. He continued slowly, feeling the water rise to his thighs then to the part of his body that would be most rewarded by this crossing.
He inched forward, his breathing getting more and more shallow until finally he was closing in on the opposite side of the river. The cold and anxiety took over and he rushed forward, slipping on the rocks and cutting his knee. Scrambling to shore, he sat for a moment, cradling himself, rocking back and forth, desperately trying to find some warmth.
Shivering violently, he finally stood and dressed, his hand so frozen it took three times as long to dress himself as it normally did. The clothes warmed him somewhat but he couldn’t stop the chattering his teeth made. Even standing beside a fire in an old metal garbage can did nothing to warm him up. For the first time in years, he went home early.
A few days later he visited Daniela.
“You look awful!” She put water on to boil for coffee. “What’s wrong?”
His hands shivered as he lit one of Daniela’s cigarettes. “Just a cold.” This was accompanied by a hacking wheezing cough.
“You sound like a dying bear. Go to the doctor.”
“No, I don’t need to. I’ll be fine.”
Daniela poured the coffee and placed the mug before him, watched him grab the cup with two shaking hands and lift it to his grey face. “You’re not fine, you’re ill. Go, or else I’ll report you.”
Alex’s eyes grew wide. “You wouldn’t.”
She reached across and patted his hand. “If it’s the only way to get you to see someone…” She shrugged.
“You really told him to cross the river?” The laughter could be heard outside the house, where Daniela was having tea with Ileana.
Ileana just nodded, her smile not quite hidden behind a teacup.
The smile grew into a wide grin.
“He’s very ill you know.” Daniela frowned. “Pneumonia.”
“He’ll be okay, it’s mostly his pride that was hurt.” Ileana leaned in and whispered, “His love and her husband were called away last week.”
“You knew this before he visited you but made him cross the river anyway?”
All Daniela received in reply was Ileana’s raised eyebrow. An entire language is spoken by a witch’s eyebrow.
Eventually the laughter subsided and the tea pot grew cold.
“It certainly took the wind out of his sails.”
“But for how long?”
“Who knows. Enjoy it while you can.”
The women clinked their teacups. “Mother would be proud of you.” Daniela beamed.
“And you! An engineer! But you would have made a fine witch, sister.”
Daniela smiled and raised her teacup, leaving the words to history.
Copyright Kelly Evans