Two OLD MEN WERE STANDING in a vegetable garden. One of them was very big, and you could tell by his full head of grey hair and particularly by his grey moustache, long enough to curl at the ends, that he had a good opinion of himself. Ion could dress up and go into town and not let himself down. He always wore a shirt. When he worked by himself in his garden behind the house he might unbutton it and let the sun on his big gleaming bronzed belly. Only when it was very hot would he take his shirt off entirely. Ion liked to work in his garden. He had grapevines and plum and pear and apple trees. Then there were the vegetables and at the end of the garden was a stand of poplar trees, the leaves of which flickered in the sunlight when the breeze brushed through them. Beyond the poplars was the field of corn his son had planted with the tractor. Ion was standing with his friend Mircea admiring the progress of the beans, tomatoes and the other plants.
Mircea wore shorts. He was the only man in the village who wore shorts. He was bald. He wore a white T-shirt with ‘Freddy Mercury’ written on it. There was a faded picture of Freddy.
– You’re dressed like a twelve year old, said Ion. Makes you look like a scarecrow.
-Is that a fact?
-And you don’t even know who Freddy Mercury is.
-A singer from France.
-He’s neither a singer nor French.
-If I had jugs like that I’d keep my shirt on.
-When you walk down the road…
Mircea seized Ion’s wrist. He was pointing at a creature not more than ten paces from them, nibbling at the dill.
Ion had seen just about everything. As a young man, after the war, he had to sign away ten hectares of fine land outside Timisoara to the collectives. Then he cried. When they shot the dictator he laughed. By then he was too old to work it properly. But his son, who lived in the city, bought a tractor and planted corn, and returned on weekends and holidays to the land.
But Ion had never seen anything like the creature that was in his vegetable garden that evening.
They were very still. They expected the animal to flee at any moment.
Mircea pointed to a net by Ion’s foot. It had been for protecting strawberries from birds. It was June and the strawberries were finished. Ion picked up the net and gave a corner to Mircea. At the same time he didn’t take his eyes off the creature. They advanced slowly through the rows of beans. They could not help feeling dramatic as they did this. This was hunting. They went very slowly. They were both nearing eighty and tended not to rush things anyway. But, in this case, with stealth called for, and under pressure, they managed to move with uncommon grace.
The creature looked up at them. It did not seem interested in escape. Perhaps it was a very stupid animal. The net fell on the creature. It continued watching them, twitching its nose. Ion leaned down to seize it behind its neck so that it could not bite.
-Careful, now! said Mircea.
The creature offered no resistance. They went to the yard beside Ion’s house and disentangled it from the net and put it in a box and had a good look.
It was hard to explain. After all, they had both lived in the area nearly eighty years. In a hundred and sixty years you could expect to see just about every animal there was, even the rare and shy ones.
The creature had little ears like a mouse, and walked more or less like one, and had hair rather than fur. But it was the size of a young rabbit and had no tail. Its face was neither rabbit nor mouse. It did not seem upset at being captured.
-Maybe it’s a cross between two animals, said Mircea, speaking what had crossed both their minds. Like a mule.
-Like a mouse and a rabbit? Don’t annoy me. Maybe a mouse and an elephant!
They both laughed. This referred to Mircea’s favourite joke. Mircea had no memory for jokes so he held onto just one, which he would repeat whenever he was with someone new and a joke was called for: A mouse is in love with an elephant and tricks her into letting him have his way. During the act a branch falls from a tree, striking the elephant, who cries out in pain. Take it all, baby! snarls the mouse.
Ion always considered this an inappropriate joke from a small man who had a very large wife, but had never said this to Mircea. Some things you could never say. Ion’s wife was herself rather frail, so the conjugal beds of each of the friends took roughly the same cargo. Finally they became tired of standing and the strength had gone from the sun. Mircea walked home to eat, down a dusty dirt road striped with the shadows of trunks of trees.
THE BED CREAKED when Ion got in bed that night. It creaked every night. It was that kind of bed and he was that kind of man. He was troubled. It was only a matter of time before Mircea started blabbing and his yard was full of people wanting to see the creature, all standing about and gawking and chattering like monkeys and him expected to provide food and drink for everyone. He would have to be there to keep an eye on things and would never get any work done. The gypsies from the other side of the village would come over his fence in the night and try to steal it. If they stole fruit off the trees at night they would be interested in a strange animal too. One that might be of great value. Of interest to scientists, perhaps. There might be a reward involved. A quite significant sum. Ion got out of bed and brought the cardboard box, which contained the creature, from the living room into the bedroom and set it on the floor at his side of the bed. He stroked the top of her head. She seemed to appreciate the gesture, lifting her head and twitching her nose. A gentle smell of warm hay and fresh droppings rose to his nose. It really was a placid, affectionate little thing, and possibly quite intelligent.
-There now, Brigitte.
He got back into bed. The name had come in a flash of inspiration. He had always been good at giving animals names. It was one of his talents. It was after Brigitte Bardot, a great star of his younger years and, furthermore, a great lover of animals. She had visited Bucharest a few years before, concerned about the stray dogs, and had even adopted one and brought it back to France. She was on the news about it. Still a fine-looking woman, Ion thought.
Along with the creaking of the bed, there was also always much groaning and grunting before he settled. But this night there was too much going around in his head and he was unable to sleep. As well as all his other concerns, Mircea was troubling him. In fact, the truth was that Mircea had been troubling him for over seventy years, since they were boys. Even then Mircea had been rather spindly and awkward and had tended to get in his way whenever there was something serious to be done. They had had their disagreements through the years. There had been patches when they had not spoken for months. But Ion did not consider a month or two a particularly long time. Certainly it was a shorter period of time than it had been when he was twenty. Yes, thought, Ion, there was something flimsy and unreliable in Mircea’s character. You could see it in the way he dressed. Who wanted to see his scrawny legs? And the way he spoke about Brigitte, as if asserting his rights as proprietor. He was probably already thinking about money.
– I don’t know if we can trust him, said Ion to his wife, who had been drifting asleep.
-Mircea. He’s not the kind of man who you can entrust something important to.
-You shouldn’t have drunk coffee after dinner. Don’t pester me.
Ion lay awake for what felt like a very long time. His mind whirred unpleasantly. A man could find himself burdened with responsibility when he least expected it. Then, just as he was drifting off, he was shocked into full consciousness by the strangest noise. It was a high-pitched birdcall. Coming from Brigitte’s box. He turned on the lamp and the noise ceased. His wife sat up, squinting in the light, her face crumpled with sleep.
-What was that?
-Brigitte! She sings!
The world was getting stranger.
MIRCEA, TOO, SLEPT BADLY. He was troubled by Ion’s attitude to the animal. It was clear to Mircea that the animal was half his by rights and it would have been nice for Ion to have acknowledged that. Ever since they were boys Ion had wanted to be the boss. Ion had been a year older and much bigger and they had always played the games he wanted. And Ion’s family had owned more land. Even after the land was taken away the better families remembered who they were. Usually Mircea did not mind Ion taking the lead since there was no point arguing over every little thing. But in this case Ion would be figuring that the strange animal might bring in some money. Or, perhaps, attention from the media. Ion would stand in the garden in his best shirt telling the people from the television how he had caught the beast.
As usual, Mircea woke far too early because he had to get up and go outside to relieve his bladder, but on this occasion he was unable to get back to sleep. It was already bright outside. He rehearsed the argument he would have with Ion. It was like playing chess. When he says that, I’ll say this, then if he says…
At one point Mircea spoke aloud:
– Are you telling me straight to my face that…
His wife opened one eye and looked at him.
He got up and boiled some milk for his breakfast and after he had drunk it he fed the chickens and the pig. It was still too early to go to Ion’s house so he fixed the fence around the vegetable garden where some of the smaller chickens were getting through and attacking the tomatoes and peppers before they could even ripen.
– UP EARLY! said Ion heartily, when Mircea appeared in his yard several hours later. Rather too heartily, thought Mircea. He’s a little too eager, thought Ion, determining not to tell his friend that the beast sang. They walked back towards the garden where they had first found the creature, circling around the subject, each waiting for the other to begin. Finally, Mircea came out with it.
– You know, I’ve been thinking. Perhaps we should involve the authorities.
– Authorities? What authorities? What are you talking about?
– I mean the animal.
– Brigitte, yes. Since we don’t know what we have on our hands here. We have to go to town. Go public. The press. Or some government department which deals with unusual phenomena. And, of course, as you well know, there may be a sum of money along the line.
Ion, tight-lipped, dug his toe into the earth by the vines.
– We? What we have on our hands? I might have known. You probably didn’t sleep a wink all night, thinking about reward money.
– Don’t tell me it hasn’t crossed your mind too. Ion cleared his throat.
– I’ve always been happy with what I’ve got. This is a scientific discovery, not a lotto ticket. But if I receive any payment you won’t be forgotten.
– How can I be forgotten? said Mircea, his voice rising. She’s half mine and you know it! It’s only fair!
– Don’t get excited now! See this land? Mine! My father gave it to me and his father gave it to him. I had to wait forty years to get it back. And I caught her here so that makes her mine.
– I saw her first and then we caught her together, with that net there. So it makes no difference where she was caught. Under the law she’s mine.
– I know the law. If my neighbour’s apples fall on my land then that makes them mine. So she’s mine, one hundred percent, and if you get a penny it will be the result of my generosity. At right this moment I wouldn’t count on it.
– We’ll see!
– Indeed we will.
Ion escorted Mircea to the gate, where they parted.
– GUINEA PIG, said Ion’s youngest son, who had driven out from the city, where he worked as a schoolteacher.
– Doesn’t look much like a pig. She squeals though.
– They’re from South America. The Indians in Peru eat them. Maybe that’s it.
– Really? Think she’s worth anything?
– No. And she’s a he. Look.
– That would be a guinea pig tool, I suppose. What can I say, you’ve let me down Brigitte. Or whatever your real name is, you Peruvian piglet.
Ion put the ‘pig’ back in the box.
They went inside for lunch. It was Saturday. It was always nice when one of the boys came home. Ion’s wife became very lively and it was a good excuse to sit around and have a good feed and some plum brandy. Then Ion would lie on the couch in the afternoon, listening to the chickens scratching, and fall asleep.
MIRCEA WAS ANGRY all day but by late afternoon he ran out of energy and was merely depressed. He turned on the television but was not interested in anything so he turned it off and sat quietly in his chair while the sun grew swollen and low over the fields, and he did not tum on the light, so the only light was the fading light through the window. In all probability the creature was Ion’s by law. But it was Ion’s arrogance which offended Mircea more than the money he would lose. The way he had been dismissed from consideration. A little bit of good luck and Ion could not bear to share it. So much for friendship.
He heard the gate clacking shut. They were the footsteps of a woman but lighter than those of his wife, who was visiting relatives in the neighbouring village. A head appeared around the door. It was Ion’s wife. She told him that Ion wanted him to come around for a glass of wine a little later.
Mircea perked up immediately. He had been right to be assertive, to show that he would not be walked over. It was the right approach to take with one such as Ion, who tended to get puffed up very easily.
As Mircea walked down the road the houses and trees were silhouettes. The branches of the trees in particular, having surrendered depth and colour, now stood out as an intricate black lacework against the sky. Or if he looked at it differently, the light appeared as that which was solid, a mosaic of a million irregular bright shards. You might live forever and such things would amaze you, because always you forgot. You could never really know things, because always you were forgetting. If a man wanted to paint such a thing it would be impossible. He would never have enough time. He would get hungry, become sleepy, and finally discouraged at his lack of ability. Behind the high wooden fences he could sometimes hear sounds. The voices of children. Music on a radio. The clank of a metal pot as a woman got a meal ready.
The sounds behind the fences were peaceful sounds. He saluted a neighbour taking a tethered cow back to its stable after its last feed by the roadside. He passed a boy and girl. They had been kissing and he had disturbed them. They separated and greeted him politely and did not resume speaking until he was safely passed. They were both perhaps sixteen. He knew the families they came from, knew more about their grandparents and great-grandparents than they knew themselves. But the knowledge of their grandparents meant nothing to them.
The old were fading and disappearing and the world needed to be discovered again, for the first time. Only kisses on warm summer evenings, the first ones in the history of the world, were real to the young. And the young were right, he felt. Kissing a girl under a tree and looking at the road and not knowing or caring what it meant. Then you blinked and you were an old man, walking down the same road.
A bat flitted ahead of him. Or perhaps more than one bat. It was more a movement than a shape, an agitation in his field of vision, gone before he could focus on it. He had no wish to be elsewhere in the world. He did not know very much but somehow he felt it was enough. You were born, you died, and meanwhile life was often strange. He had a presentiment that he would die before his wife and he felt a little sorry for her. She had got very used to him. And Ion would die too. One of them would die first and then the other would be unable to visit, to drink wine and talk. There were other houses but it was not the same.
Ion met him at the gate and shook his hand warmly. So they were still friends and equals in any dealings concerning the animal. It was not about money. It was about respect. They sat down at the wooden table on the porch. Ion poured red wine from a jug. It was better batch than the year before. They sat and listened to the crickets and talked of inconsequential things. Talk of the creature could wait.
– I’m peckish. You’ll join me?
Ion brought out a pot and plates and Mircea cut a loaf. They ate in silence until they were both full. Then they ate a little more. It was a fine stew of various meats and even some smoked sausage which had softened nicely in the cooking. It had onions, garlic, green beans, peppers, tomatoes, and thyme and bay leaf and dill and parsley – everything from the garden – and the sauce was rich with black pepper and paprika and sour cream had been stirred in at the last moment. Mircea mopped his plate with bread and took a good swallow of wine to wash it down and leaned back in his seat and burped without restraint. Ion refilled his glass. Nothing better in life than to sit at the end of the day with an old friend and share a meal and a few glasses and talk.
– About Brigitte, said Ion.
– Everything you said. Quite right.
Ion leaned over and put his hand over Mircea’s and clasped it, looking him in the eye.
– Fifty-fifty, said Ion, smiling.
– That’s fair.
– Shared! Right down the middle!
Ion leaned back. He began laughing silently, his hands on his quaking belly. He looked ready to burst. His face was bright red. Then he laughed aloud until tears rolled down his red cheeks.
Mircea looked down at the little pile of bones on his plate. His mouth fell open.