Bella Codreanu came into my kindergarten in the middle of the school year. She’s a weird-looking girl who wears peasant dresses and scuffed black shoes to school, and has her dark hair braided in pigtails. If she knew any English at all that first morning, she didn’t speak any of it. But she did say “Goodbye, Miss Johnson” to me at the end of the day, and picked up the language quickly in the days that followed.
“My daughter is very smart!” her father had exclaimed to me when he came to enroll her in school. “She will learn English very fast! I am going to only speaking English to her at home.” He was a heavy man and looked far too old to be a kindergartener’s father. He walked with a cane, and one shoe had a high platform. He wore a suit that looked very old and greasy.
I really didn’t like him. He wasn’t interested in anything I had to say about the curriculum, but he did have a lot to say about his own importance. “I was very rich before I come to America. I lost my rich when I come, but I will be rich again soon.”
Benson is a tiny town. How he thinks he can get rich here, I can’t imagine.
Bella’s father was right about her — she is learning English quickly. But the things she says are so strange sometimes.
One afternoon the children were drawing pictures of their homes and families. “Very good, Bella,” I said when I stopped to admire her work. “Is that your little brother?”
“Yeah. He’s a baby.”
“His teeth aren’t really that pointy, are they?”
“He bites a lot.”
“Your mother’s hair is so long.”
“Yeah. Like Rapunzel. She’s pretty. Miss Johnson, people who don’t have heads don’t look like people. They just look dead.”
That was a non sequitur, to say the least. “Don’t draw dead people, Bella,” was all I could manage. “Just draw your family.”
I wonder how she lives at home. Bella brings money to school every day and buys lunch in the cafeteria. She eats ravenously, and I sat next to her yesterday and asked why she eats so fast.
“I like school food,” she said. “It’s good!”
“Do you have good food at home?” I asked. “What do you eat at home?”
“We eat beans.”
“What else do you eat?”
“Just beans. Daddy says only beans are good to eat, so we have to eat beans.”
“Bella, you can’t just eat beans.”
“Yes, we can. They’re special beans.”
“Well, what kind of beans are those?”
“I forget. Daddy knows. But they’re special.”
I let it drop, and Bella resumed wolfing down her pizza.
I guess she’s being no weirder than usual, but I’ve become worried anyway. When a kid talks about people without heads, draws babies with fangs and says she subsists on nothing but magic beans at home, something is a little off. Today is Saturday, and when I go for a walk this morning, I go out of my way to pass by Bella’s address. I was prepared to see an Addams Family style house, but it’s nothing special. Small, but it looks nice enough from across the street.
The front door opens just as I am directly across from the house. Bella and her mother emerge. Her mother, wearing some kind of a gypsy dress, is pushing a baby carriage. Bella has seen me and calls me over. I am nervous, but I cross the street.
Bella’s mother doesn’t speak English. She wears her black hair in a single enormous braid hanging down her back. Her dark, bloodshot eyes are sunk deep in her wrinkled, warty face. She looks just like a witch. She’s a perfect match for her husband, but I don’t know how she can be the mother of Bella and the infant in the carriage.
She seems twitchy. Now she’s looking at me, now she’s turned her head to look off in some other direction.
She says something to Bella, who tells me I am invited inside. The living room smells of tobacco and mildew, and is furnished with cheap chairs and a sofa. A bright oriental rug is spread over the drab carpeting and covers most of the floor. Strange icons hang on the wall. There is no TV.
Bella’s mother gestures for me to sit on the sofa. The baby crawls on the floor, and I can smell that he needs a new diaper. I don’t notice any fangs. Bella and I sit and chat. Her mother has left the room, but now comes back to serve me tea and cookies.
Bella translates as I try to make small talk with her mother. I feel so very sleepy.
Thunk thunk thunk. The sound awakens me, but I can’t open my eyes yet. I feel kind of sick. My head is throbbing. I’m curled on my side in a fetal ball. My arms and legs are cramped, and I try to stretch, but I seem to be stuck in a small space.
Thunk thunk thunk. When I can open my eyes, I see the bars of the wicker cage that holds me. The cage rests on a floor of cracked and stained vinyl tiles. My side aches where the sticks press into my ribs beneath me. My wrists and ankles are tightly bound by cords, and a strip of heavy tape covers my mouth. Something is definitely off, and not just a little.
Thunk thunk thunk. I know that sound. It’s a kitchen knife hitting a cutting board. I smell fresh cilantro.
Now I hear a new sound — the clatter of a small person running across the floor. Bella’s black shoes and white socks appear before me.
“Miss Johnson!” she says. “I remember now! Daddy says we only eat human beans!”
Carl Steiger lives at a slight, but noticeable, angle to reality.