The tick was glued to the child’s belly, close to the navel, sucking his blood. Frightened more by her brother’s screams than by that black dot, the girl ran off to fetch help. It would have been normal for the screams to bring if not half the village running then at least the whole neighbourhood, but nobody came. She could have pulled out the tick for him, but what if the head was left stuck inside and another even bigger one developed or, God forbid, what if it burrowed all the way in, where nobody would be able to get it out, and went on living there, meaning her younger brother would die, sucked dry by a tick?
At first, the third child, the youngest brother, who was often beaten or wronged by the other, watched the spectacle with a certain amount of satisfaction. He kept circling his older brother, trying to see what was making him cry and howl so urgently. He looked all around, up and down, to see whether he ought to join in the wailing, but he couldn’t find anything. Dan’s hitched up shirt and his belly bared to the sun made no impression on him; they didn’t frighten him at all. And nor was he impressed by the black dot that his brother was fretting over so tragically, as he couldn’t comprehend how such a large, strapping brother could be afraid of such a little black insect clinging to his belly. The younger brother then made off.
The girl ran into the road. She could call her neighbours, but they wouldn’t be at home at that hour. The grandmother of a girl from her school lived down the road, but she wouldn’t be at home either, and anyway her eyesight wasn’t good enough to be able remove the tick, head and all. The girl set off down the road, in search of the right person. At uncle Vasile’s house she called out, but there was no answer, apart from the fact that all the dogs in the neighbourhood started barking. At the outcry set up by all the dogs, there was no movement inside the houses, no door or gate slammed, nobody came outside to see who was shouting and why. Normally, when you shouted from the road, everybody heard and there would be at least one who would answer, to say that person you were looking for wasn’t at home, that he was in his vineyard, at his godfather’s or wherever. At the end of the road she espied a mother washing clothes in her yard. She didn’t know what her name was. She burst through the gate and the woman gave her a questioning look.
“Good day! Could you pull out a tick for us?”
The woman wrinkled her nose in disgust and answered:
“I don’t pull out ticks.”
And she quickly went inside the house.
The girl went over to the well. Maybe somebody would be thirsty and come for water. She would stand there and wait.
In the meantime, the youngest brother had brought the other brother his favourite toy. The brother with the tick ignored him. Toys were the last thing he was in the mood for.
Dan wouldn’t stop crying. He had once killed such insects, when his father picked them out of the sheep’s fleeces. His father told him that unless you picked them out, they would suck the animal’s blood until there was nothing left. Dan imagined the hungry tick sucking his blood until it turned into a great big balloon, leaving him shrivelled, a sack of bones, helplessly flapping his arms and legs, while the tick floated up into the air, soaring away aloft. Hundreds of ticks bloated with children’s blood float through the friendly blue sky, while the children weep, enfeebled, drained, attached to the merciless bugs. Dan looked at the tick, which, to be sure, was no bigger than half the nail of his little finger, it was not even as big as a bean, but nonetheless he felt as if there were not one drop of blood left in his body.
Marcel remembered the lovely apple he had found the day before and hidden so that he could have it all to himself, without having to share it with his siblings. The neighbours’ apple tree had borne fruit that year and an apple or two sometimes fell on their side of the fence. They were summer apples, with sweet rosy flesh. On seeing the apple, Dan waved his hand as if to say: what is your apple compared with my pain! And then, in brotherly solidarity, Marcel began to whine too.
A cart came to a stop by the well. The driver drew a pail of water, drank, and then moistened the horse’s muzzle. He looked at the girl, who was staring at him fixedly. He was tall, thin, ugly, all but toothless, with sparse grizzled hair and large lop ears; he could have played the rôle of the Grim Reaper, if he had had a scythe in his cart. The horse was thin too, once grey, but being unwashed it was now a greenish earthy colour, and it had long yellow teeth, as if to make up for its master’s lack.
“Could you pull out a tick?”
“Yes, I could. Where is it?”
“Over there,” said Cristina, pointing at their gate.
“Whose girl are you?”
“Well I never. You’re Vikyusha’s girl? I took you for a ride in my cart when you were little. Back then I had a handsome fat stallion. Your dad’s away earning the ‘long money’, is he?” The girl nodded. “And he’s left you here at the mercy of the ticks?” The girl nodded again.
When they saw the man enter the yard, the two brothers fell dumb, forgetting even to cry.
“Where are you, tick?”
Then he looked at the apple.
“What, doesn’t he want your apple? Let’s give it to the horsey. He’ll gobble it up in a wink!”
The youngest boy offered the apple to the oldest again, who, given the choice of whether to eat it himself or give it to the horse, took it without another word. When it came to it, the man scared him more than the tick.
“You call this a tick? It’s no bigger than an ant! Let me at it!”
Then he said to the girl:
“Got any vodka or oh dee colon?”
She went to fetch the alcohol. “He wants to get drunk and toss my brothers over the fence,” she thought.
The man approached the suffering child. He gnashed his few remaining teeth ferociously at the tick, which caused the youngest boy to flee behind the house. Not hearing anything else and because he was curious, he peeked out from behind the corner after a short while.
In a flash, the man gripped the bloated tick between his dirty fingernails and flung it on the ground, after which he carefully examined the boy’s belly.
“I’ve got it out head and all,” he said with satisfaction. “Now stamp on it.”
Because the boy made no move, he called to the youngest:
“Come over here, snotty, and look at your brother’s tick.”
But nor did the youngest accept the invitation. The girl came back with a small bottle of vodka. The man poured a little vodka into his cupped hand and then rubbed it on the child’s belly.
“All done. You stamp on it,” he said to the girl.
The girl obediently trod on the bug and then stamped on it a few times.
“So, you say your dad’s away.”
The children nodded.
“He’s working. Three children are no joke. And what about your ma? Also working. They made you and then they went and left you here to your own devices,” said the man as he went to the gate. “My daughter’s abroad too, and the children have gone away. And I’m all on my own. Lucky I’ve got the horse. Come on, mare, let’s away home.”
The creak of the cartwheels faded into the distance and then there was silence.
The girl poured some more alcohol from the bottle and rubbed it on her brother’s belly. He sat solemnly, motionless, gazing into the distance. Of course, if his father had been at home, no tick would ever have clamped itself to him and got under his skin. He felt a kind of dissatisfaction at it all having ended so simply and so quickly, depriving him of an excuse to be unhappy, coddled and important.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth