September at the university was warmer than Irina had expected. Those who knew the area called it an Indian summer. Those from other parts of the country wondered if fall would ever come. To get away from the confusing youthful buzz of the dorm, Irina walked to the adjoining town on a weekday afternoon when she had no class. She looked into shop windows, strolling slowly along the sunny street. There were few people. In the courtyard of a bookstore that had formerly been a movie theater, there was a small fountain. The water glittered like an invitation. Irina took off her sandals and sat on the edge of the fountain, dipping her feet in. The slight shock of the cool water made a pleasant shiver run through her. She gazed at the Italian tile work under her submerged feet, losing herself in the bright, tiny squares.
“Does that help?”
She looked up at the source of the voice. A man was standing there looking at her with his hands in his pockets and the sleeves on his white linen shirt rolled up to his elbows. “I’m sorry?” she answered, though she might have preferred not to.
“Does it help against the heat, to sit with your feet in the water like that?”
She shrugged. It would be best to ignore him, but she couldn’t look away from his eyes. They were so dark that she couldn’t quite tell the irises from the pupils, as if he were looking out at her through two vortices. She watched him untie his shiny black leather shoes and ball up his socks inside them. He rolled the cuffs of his slacks to just below his knees and sat next to her. She stared at his bare feet next to hers in the shimmering water. He had tawny skin, delicate bones. She considered picking up her sandals and running away.
“I am sorry. I am very forward. But are you, perhaps, Romanian?” “No,” she answered, before she had time to be surprised at the question.
“Ah. It’s just that…you look like a girl from the old country. You have a Romanian face.”
What precisely about her face was Romanian? How could she resist this observation? She had to relent, had to allow him to reel her in at least a little bit. “Well, I’m of Romanian origin.”
“Oh? What is your name?”
“Greene? You must be Romanian through your mother.”
“I was adopted by Americans.”
“So you were born there.”
There was a silence while the idea of Irina not having been born an American hung in the warm air between her and the strange man. If Irina were older, she might have said that he was undressing her with his eyes. But she was young enough to know that what he was doing was entirely more alarming than that. He said, “I was in the eastern side of your country this summer, and I heard a sound there that I had never heard before. Have you ever heard cicadas?”
“No, we don’t have them out west.”
“We don’t have them where I come from either. It was prodigious, like a jungle sound. I had to ask people what it was. They said that it was the insect’s mating call. Only the males make this sound.”
“The females don’t say anything?”
“Yes, they are silent. When they are receptive they flick their wings. Then afterward they lay eggs in tree bark. When the eggs hatch, the nymphs fall and burrow in the ground and come up seventeen summers later. To live only a few weeks during which they do not eat, only fuck. And once they do they all die. There were little rotting shells all over the place. They will dissolve into the earth to feed their brood.”
“Yes, but in English you can only dissolve into a liquid. Decompose, more like.”
He gave her an evaluating once-over. “Ah, you are clever, I see.”
“Sorry,” she answered tartly.
He laughed and said, “Don’t worry. Being clever is forgivable when you are so pretty to look at.”
He laughed some more at the look she gave him, flashing his perfect teeth. She didn’t know what to think of him, whether she found him interesting or completely ridiculous or frightening or all these things at once. He made it difficult to think when he wore his shirt with the top two buttons undone like that. She wanted to put her face there and peer at what was inside. “Are you a student at the university here? You look almost too young.”
“I skipped a grade.”
“What does this mean?”
“It means I didn’t go to fourth grade. They put me in fifth grade after third.”
“Then you are very clever.”
Irina shrugged. “Maybe,” she said, attempting to cover her growing embarrassment with worldliness. “Fourth is a fairly disposable grade. What’s your name?”
Still smiling, the man spoke with mock solemnity. “I am Andrei Vadrescu. I was born the Gypsy bastard of the village whore, and now I am a respectable American entrepreneur. Pleased to meet you, Irina Greene. Very pleased to meet you.” When he extended his hand, she had no choice but to take it. When he offered her a ride back to her dorm, she had no choice but to accept, though it wasn’t the sort of thing she would normally do, get in some strange man’s car. What called her there? The air-conditioned chill inside his nearly soundless luxury sedan? What made her ask him, on the drive back, to tell her a story?
“What sort of story?” he asked pleasantly.
“Tell me a Romanian story.”
Once upon a time something happened. Had it not happened, it would not be told. At the end of the winding trail, at the foot of the high green mountains, three shepherds tended their flocks. One of them was Ungurean, the other Vrancean, and the last Moldavian. The Moldavian was the handsomest and richest of the three. The other two were jealous that he had the finest flocks with the softest, whitest wool; the biggest, most beautiful dog, bigger than the sheep, even, with shining, alert eyes; and the finest, most beautiful horse, all black with a white star on his forehead, who was more finely muscled and could gallop faster than any steed of the royalty. The Ungurean and the Vrancean plotted in their rotted hearts to kill the Moldavian and split his possessions among themselves.
They thought about it for many days. Then, one cold, clear night, they met in the darkness and they agreed to stalk the Moldavian every evening while the sun died on the horizon. They would hide in the trees and wait for the big guard dog to leave the man’s side. When the man was finally alone, they would take him from behind and slit his throat. They did not know that in the bushes behind them was a tiny lamb who heard what they had decided, and this lamb was the Moldavian’s favorite. The lamb’s name was Mioriţa. She was the smallest of all the lambs, with the softest, whitest wool, a little black snout, and big orange eyes.
For three days, the Vrancean and the Ungurean hid in the trees with their blades ready to cut the Moldavian when the sky darkened, but the big fierce dog did not leave the man’s side. For all three of these days, the lamb bleated sadly until her voice cracked and almost broke. On the third day, her master came to her and said, What is the matter, little Mioriţa? Are you sick? Is the grass bitter? Don’t be scared of wolves; the hound will keep them off.
No, master, the little lamb said, it’s much worse than that. Don’t let your big brave dog leave your side when the sun sets. Every night when it gets dark, the Ungurean and the Vrancean mean to murder you. They wait for the hound to leave so they can strike.
Sweet lamb Mioriţa, the dog must leave my side sometime, and if what you say is true, then my days are over. Tell the two of them to let my bones lie here on this hill and let my blood soak into this earth to feed this grass, so that I’ll always be here with my flock. And if anyone should ask after me, don’t say I am dead. Tell them…a beautiful story.
The next night, one of the sheep got lost as it was getting dark. The dog left the man’s side to go look for the sheep. The Moldavian sat on a rock and did not move. He watched the sun dissolve into the beautiful green hills. He waited as the Ungurean and the Vrancean came up behind him. They put their hands over his face and cut his throat and he died very quickly and almost without pain. After that, the killers took the possessions of the murdered man—but the horse and the dog ran away, for they would serve no one but their master. The lamb Mioriţa ran away also, and when she left the flock, the whole lot of sheep was taken by a plague that rotted their hides and poisoned their meat. The disease spread through the flocks of both men, and they wound up with nothing. They were too ashamed to go back to the village for having lost their wealth, so they died of hunger up in the mountains.
The lamb Mioriţa had many adventures on the way home, to the Moldavian’s native village. She went to the house where the shepherd had been born, to his old mother with a yellow scarf over her gray hair and a rough wool girdle. The mother recognized the little lamb’s bright orange eyes and said, Mioriţa, why have you left my son’s flock?
Dear Mama, your son’s flock was dispersed to the four winds. Has something bad happened to my boy? No, dear Mama. A beautiful pale princess with fiery hair like the setting sun passed through the hills in her royal carriage and saw your beautiful son, slim as a willow leaf; and his dear face, fair as the moon; and his curly hair, black as a crow’s feather; and his bright eyes, blue as a summer day. She fell in love with him at once and took him as her bridegroom, to go back to her kingdom, where they would reign together. They were married that very night. The mountain was their priest, the birds were the fiddlers, and the sun and the moon came down to hold your dear son’s bridal crown. The stars were the torches, and a bright one fell from the sky that night to bless their union.
Oh, dear Mioriţa, the mother said with tears in her eyes, my son has been blessed, and I saw his star fall that night. I hope he will come again one day to show me his splendor and the children not of this earth that the princess will bear him. Perhaps he will, dear Mama, but he will be very busy with affairs of the state, and he lives so far away.
The mother accepted Mioriţa’s answer and took in the little lamb. They lived a quiet life together. Every night the mother would sit and hope her son’s royal carriage would come rolling into the village. She watched the bright orange sunset, thinking of the fiery hair of the beautiful princess, waiting for stars to fall.
Andrei didn’t waste any time. After he told Irina the story, he stole a kiss from her. She had just released her seat belt and let it snake itself open across her; she was about to say thank you and good-bye when he leaned swiftly across the car. The shock of his tongue in her mouth made her raise both hands as if she had the flickering notion that she would push him away. Instead she braced herself as if for a crash, one palm pressed against the coolness of the windowpane.
It was her first kiss. He had her cornered. He must have known it would be a fortunate gamble. Clearly the newness of the experience had its charm, given how Irina’s back arched to meet Andrei’s hand when he reached for her breast. It was a disaster. Irina had been trying to believe that she was an intelligent, rational person, and now this. How much would it have cost her to turn her face away? How much did it cost her not to?
Excerpted from In The Red by Elena Mauli Shapiro. Published in September 2014 by Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2014 by Elena Mauli Shapiro. All rights reserved.