FIVE MILES NORTH OF BRASOV, ROMANIA—11 A.M., NOVEMBER 13, 1983
THE stranger said, “I’ll buy your children.”
The father gawped. He looked at his wife. The wife put her face in her hands and whimpered.
And the stranger said, “I’ll pay a good price. Do the men in the town pay a good price? I will better it and take them away from you. Your lives will improve with all that money, yes?”
The father’s face tightened. He glanced across at his children. They were huddled together near the door. His daughter glared at him, and hatred shone in her purple eyes.
But we have to survive, he thought, and your beauty sells for a good price.
The wife looked up at him, and her face flushed with grief. She said, “What if we become poor again? We won’t have them to provide for us. No one will buy me, will they?”
“You’ll not want,” said the stranger. “What I give you will last until your old age. I will pay the highest price for your children and”—he stared down at the rags on the table—“for these.”
The father shook his head. “I’ll want double for these.”
The stranger’s face reddened. “They’re not yours to barter with, sir.”
“They’re in my house, in my safe keeping. I’ll bloody well barter if I want to.” He leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Do you realize how difficult life is in Romania? They say we live well. They say we should love Ceausescu. We’re better off than the Russians, better off than the English and the Americans. We’re all equal, a Socialist paradise.” Sitting back, he folded his arms. “That’s bollocks. We’re starving. We can’t work unless we suck up to the Party, unless we join the Party. We can’t eat unless we sell our daughter for sex. This is our life, and if I have something to sell, then you’ll have to name a price.”
“I will,” said the stranger. “The price is your life.”
The wife gasped and clutched at her breast. The son, cowering in the corner in his sister’s embrace, cried. The boy’s tears ran into the blood smearing his cheeks.
The father felt a chill spread through him. He looked at the stranger and studied his eyes. The man had a Middle Eastern look to him. His brown eyes were like bottomless pits, sucking the will out of the father. The stranger had already killed two men today. And the father was sure he’d kill him and his family, too. But bartering was a way of life for him, so he had to keep his nerve.
He said, “Give me half again what you give for the kids, and you can take these rags.”
The stranger slammed his fist on the table. “They are not yours. You’re only their keeper. I’ll take them if I want, do you understand?”
The father’s throat dried out. His wife grabbed his arm and squeezed. She leaned into him, and he smelled her sweat. Whispering, she said, “Get a good price for the children, give him this shit. He’ll kill us, Constantin.”
The father swallowed and said, “Give me a good price for the children, and you can take this rubbish.”
The stranger relaxed. His shoulders sagged, and a smile spread across his face. “Good, good.” He stared over to the children.
The girl rocked her weeping brother. She stared at the adults sitting around the kitchen table—the adults who were buying and selling her flesh.
The father looked away, fixed his gaze on the slices of material spread out on the table. He said, “How much will you give? The girl, she’s fifteen, she’s—soiled”—his wife blew her nose and sobbed—“but the boy, he’s twelve, he’s—he’s untouched. Apart from the wound his stupid sister gave him today.”
“She gave him that to protect him from your schemes, sir,” said the stranger. “To make the boy ugly to your monstrous customers. She’s brave.”
“She’s a fool,” said the father. “He’s damaged, now.”
“But you’ll still sell him.”
He stared into the stranger’s eyes and the desperation flickering in his breast blazed. “We must live, we must eat. I’ll sell you my children.”
The stranger said, “Good, then I’ll take them.” He stood up and perched his trilby on his head.
“Where—where will you take them? To your country?”
“Yes,” said the father. “You’re—Egyptian? A Palestinian? Fighting for your freedoms from the Israelis?”
The stranger chuckled. “I’m not. I’m a Babylonian.”
“An ancient culture. Which spawned you and your family, too. But you don’t seem to care about culture, do you?”
Anger ignited in the father’s heart. “Culture doesn’t feed you. Give me my money, and take these creatures with you. You’ve worn out your welcome.” He jumped to his feet. He towered over the stranger, and for a moment he felt strong and powerful. He could steal this shrunken Arab’s money and drive him out of his home. Then he’d have the children to sell to his regular customers—and he’d be laden with the Arab’s stolen money. He stepped round the table with this in mind.
The stranger whipped out a gun.
The father froze, and his wife gasped.
“I’ll pay you for your children, now,” said the stranger.
The father tried to speak. “I—yes—I—good, good—we can—settle—the—the price—”
“The price, sir, for being willing to sell your own children, is death.”
The gun fired. The father ducked, and as he ducked he saw blood burst out of his wife’s face. He screamed and covered his head. Silence fell. He smelled the cordite. His son whined. Rolled up into a ball, the father prayed.
The stranger said, “You’re a coward, and I am ashamed of you, brother.”
The barrel pressed against the back of the father’s head. It was cold and sent shudders down his body. His bladder felt queasy. He started to beg for mercy. A deafening noise filled his head and the world went black and still.
Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Emson