“Wait,” the lady called out.
He didn’t want to stop, but she grabbed his bag spilling the contents onto the ground. The test tubes shattered causing him to turn around and glare at her.
“Do you know what you done?” He said, picking up the wet bag.
“I’m sorry. It’s just water.”
“They’re water samples. Do you know what could happen if the water is contaminated?”
He saw the image of a small casket being carried to a grave, while water samples remained untested in the room he shared with the Romanian girl. The false reports would state that the Transylvanian village ignored his warnings.
“That’s water from the Dniester; it needs to be tested for Moldova to have a chance to enter the EU.”
He realized that the woman lived in Transnistria, and probably hated Moldavians.
“Never mind.” He turned and passed the guardhouse that the Russian soldiers occupied.
“Please take me to Chisinau,” she said and fell to her knees.
“They are having auditions for the ballet,” she said.
A young girl walked toward her and reached up for her hand. She looked like a little ballerina and it caused the memory of the little girl to return. They buried her with a small music box that she coveted.
“I can’t take you to Moldova,” he said.
“Yes, you can.” She said and pointed at his EU patch.
“Leave me alone,” he said and crossed the border without the test tubes. He looked back, and saw the lady walking back into the center of Bendery.
The road to Chisinau passed many farms that used the water from the river. Cows lined a small stream and he knew that a small contamination could lead to a disaster. The fact that the lady brought back the memories of the funeral of the little girl that he effectively blocked in the past, made him shiver, and he feared making a mistake. They buried her with her whole family; a contaminated well killed them all.
The image dissipated when an electric bus screeched to a stop shooting sparks in front of him making him aware that he reached his apartment. The empty room fed his dark thoughts with fears of water contamination going undetected because of the spilled samples. What if another child died? He paced the room; the broken test tubes needed to be replaced and new samples taken before it was too late.
The Moldovan wine felt like velvet fire going down his throat warming his insides and it made him desire company. The papers at the newsstand contained page after page of the turmoil caused by the recent elections. The Communist claimed victory while others disputed it; most people just walked by on their way to jobs or other interests.
In Bendery, he received news from Moldova and Transnistria; he didn’t know who to believe. Many were written in Russia and hard to read despite his basic understanding of the language.
“Damn that lady,” he said.
He would have to return tomorrow to replace the samples. It wasn’t something he looked forward to, the guards wanted bribes all the time, and they eyed him suspiciously. He feared being arrested despite his EU credentials.
“Take her to the ballet. What nerve?” he said while walking down the street.
Her accent reminded him of Elena; the Romanian girl intrigued him, and he spent three days with her. It felt like heaven, until he forgot to test the water samples. After the family died; Elena left with his wallet and he never saw her again. He pledged to never stay with another woman.
He walked down Stefan Cel Mare Boulevard past people sipping coffee while sitting outside despite the chill in the air. A lady walked out of a store and unfurled a sign that announced the opening of The Eastern European Gift Shop. He knew the Moldovan words and stopped to gaze in the window. The window fogged up from his breath and he began to shake.
“Can I help you?” The lady asked.
“What is that?” he pointed at a pink box.
“A music box, of course.”
“Where is it from?”
“Russia. Do you want to hear it?”
Andrey backed away without answering and returned to his room.
At the border crossing, the Moldovan guards offered him coffee while checking his bags, while the Transnistria ones waited for bribes. A mist covered the stream that fed the Dniester River, and he filled the test tubes with the cold water. He loaded his pack and walked through the market area until he saw a lady selling colorful shirts. He wanted to send one to his sister in England, but feared the ballerina would appear soon.
He avoided them, and walked near the river. The water sparkled in the sun, after the mist burned off. The image of his face in the water made him grimace and he threw a rock into the center of it shattering it into pieces.
Going deeper into the city, he passed empty factory buildings decorated with Soviet Union markings from the past. He heard the clopping of boots that meant the Russian peacekeepers practiced marching nearby; they kept a force in the breakaway republic ever since the battle over the city ended.
“Broken,” he said.
Distracted, he almost walked into the ballerina; she sat on a bench not far from the border crossing. A heavy set woman with long black hair loomed over her speaking non-stop.
“I can take you to Chisinau,” she said.
“How much?” The ballerina asked.
A tear ran down her cheek, and he thought that she looked like she was a broken ballerina.
“You will have to work with me for a week.”
“What about my daughter?”
“Leave her with somebody. She can’t come with us.”
He strained to hear clearly, while remaining hidden behind a stack of boxes. The woman towered over the ballerina, and he felt intimidated by her even from his hiding spot.
“I’ll meet you at the bus station,” the ballerina said. Her voice seemed small, and filled with fear.
The ballerina got up and headed in his direction with her daughter by her side. He panicked
and ran down the street in the opposite direction. The street rounded a corner and doubled back toward the crossing. The large lady entered a black car, and sat by an older man who smoked a large cigar.
“We’ll send her to Turkey with the others.”
The smoke from the cigar hit him at the same time that he realized what they were planning to do. Sex traffickers. He learned about them from the EU training seminars, but never thought he would ever see them in action.
The car drove away, and he thought of the ballerina walking into a trap like a small mouse. He ran to the street that she walked down and found her entering a square, grey building. When she disappeared into the building; he sat on a bench across the street from it. Lights came on as darkness spread over the city. In one of the lighted squares on the third floor, he saw her spinning in circles with her hands above her head. A bow in her hair twirled above her like little wings, and he stared; hypnotized by the angelic movements.
The bench shook, and a loud noise startled him.
“Shit,” he said, and he jumped up.
A man held a cane in front of him, and looked up at her window.
“She is great.”
“How do you know I was looking at her?”
“It’s obvious. I don’t blame you; she is beautiful.”
“I didn’t notice.”
The old man laughed, and sat down.
“Olesea should be in a ballet instead of living in this dump.”
“How do you know her?”
“I live up there,” he said, and pointed his cane toward the apartment building.
“What happened to her?”
“She came from St. Petersburg, where she was a prima ballerina. An army officer stole her heart and she followed him to Moscow. Things changed when she got pregnant and he drank a lot, and beat her in the stomach because he didn’t want the child, but she refused to get an abortion. The baby caused him to drink even more, and the army sent him here to Transnistria.”
“Where is he?”
“He died from his drinking, or he committed suicide. It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s a sad story.”
“At least she survived his beatings, but she never performed in the ballet again.”
Andrey stood up. “I have to go.”
“Do you know Olesea?”
“Maybe,” he said.
“We’ll that’s an interesting answer. Just don’t hurt her. She has suffered more than most people do.”
The image of the heavy woman taking her to Turkey entered his mind; he remembered his refusal to help her. But what could he do, he suffered a lot too.
The next day, at the border crossing he saw the heavy set woman standing near the bus stop alongside a big man dressed in a black jacket with Russian writing on it.
He walked away from the scene until he heard Olesea.
“Hi, I’m ready,” she said.
It caused him to freeze, and the water samples rattled together in his pack. The traffickers unconsciously clapped their hands together.
The lady put her arm around the smaller ballerina,
“Did you find a place for your daughter?”
“A neighbor will watch her while I’m gone.”
“That’s good. We would have taken care of her ourselves, but it would have been an inconvenience.”
The way they said that sent chills up his spine. A bus stopped and a man with a cane got off. The city seemed filled with older people and he remembered what the old man at the apartment building told him about the prima ballerina.
The traffickers led her toward a long black car that idled in the square. They opened the back door and almost shoved her in; the man in the black jacket looked around before moving toward the driver’s seat.
Andrey couldn’t move except for his arms and the test tubes rattled in his bag when they shook. He took a slow step forward when he saw Olesea put a leg into the car.
“Olesea, don’t go with them,” he yelled.
She backed out of the car. “How do you know my name?”
“That doesn’t matter. Just don’t go with them. They’re traffickers.”
The man moved with lightning speed and hit him with such force that he fell backwards to the ground. The test tubes shattered under him and it felt like a hundred bees stung him at the same time. He tried to stand, but the man pushed him down.
“Get in the car,” the lady yelled.
“No,” Olesea said.
A jagged piece of glass stood at an angle near his face and he managed to grasp it in his hand while the man watched the car. With all his strength he jabbed it into the back of the man’s leg, and twisted it.
The man screamed, and fell to one knee while a crimson spot appeared on his pants.
“I’ll kill you,” the man screamed in his face.
He lifted him up by the collar and reared back his fist. Andrey saw a blur, before the pain seared through his nose into his head and darkness soon followed.
He opened his eyes, and saw the Transnistria border guards looking down on him. They lifted him up and took him to a Moldovan taxi.
“Wait,” he said. “What happened to the ballerina?”
They shrugged their shoulders, and handed him a shredded pack. Drips of water fell from it when he lifted it up. They started to walk away.
“What do you want?” A young guard stopped while the older one waved, and kept walking.
“Do you know the ballerina Olesea?”
“I think so,” the guard said with a Russian accent.
Andrey dug through his pack, and found the hidden compartment. He pulled out Rubles, and handed them to the guard.
“If you see her, can you make sure she gets on a taxi to Chisinau, with her daughter?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Andrey handed him all the money he hid in the pack.
“Please,” he said, and looked into the eyes of the young soldier.
After a long silence the soldier took the money.
“Okay, if I see her. I’ll help her get there.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Give her this too,” he said, and handed the man a music box.
The fall dented it in places. The guard opened it, and the music of Swan Lake filled the air. He held it up, and listened in silence with a look of longing in his eyes.
“Okay,” he said, and shut the box when he walked away.
The Dniester River’s water passed all the tests and was declared safe to drink. Andrey took his last trip to Bendery during a rainy day; he kept an eye out for the broken ballerina, but saw no
sign of her. He bought colorful clothes to send to his sister in England and would include a note stating he would come for a long overdue visit soon. His next assignment would take him to the Ukraine and a village near Chernobyl. He dreaded going there. The square near the crossing seemed tranquil until he heard a loud voice. The heavy woman stood in the exact same spot by the bus stop with the man in the black jacket.
Andrey ducked behind an empty cart and rubbed his nose which started to bleed. He took the long way around, and left Transinstra for the last time without any remorse. He wished he knew what happened to the ballerina, but feared to stay any longer.
The night sky lit up with stars, and Andrey walked down Stefan Cel Mare Boulevard, he paused outside the Theatre of the National Ballet of Moldova. The sign advertising an upcoming ballet caught his attention; it showed a familiar face as the prima ballerina. When he saw the name Olesea, he smiled and approached the ticket window.
“I’m sorry, the only tickets available are for single seats weeks from now,” the ticket agent said.
“That’s okay. I only need one, and I might stay around for a while” he said, and smiled when the music of Swan Lake drifted out of the theatre.
-William Falo’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Skive Magazine, Delinquent, Delivered, Mississippi Crow, Bottom of the World, Cantaraville, 34th Parallel, Skyline Review, First Edition, Oak Bend Review, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Four Branches Press, and many others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
-Photography by Christopher Barrio
-Models in Photographs: Lisa Damiani, Michael J. Kannengieser