Liliana, an enigmatic and vivacious young girl, found herself in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, in the northern part of sunny Romania. Having remarkably managed to flee her old town, her previously well-kept feelings of anguish had diminished: she was now the proud owner of a fighting spirit (which she’d wrapped with some coins in a bluing handkerchief and placed firmly beneath her brassiere; quite close to her heart in fact). The healing of her bruised and battered body proved that any potential threats could be dealt with; escaping from a past so tumultuous was a victory.
Liliana lay still beneath a scorching sun, it spread over land like an undesired blanket on a tediously warm night and the inside of her mouth felt as if she’d swallowed litres of sand. It would be a while before she reached the next town. Crouching on both heels she tiptoed cautiously, the body of her skirt draping behind her. Ignoring the bitter sting, Liliana cupped her hands tightly beneath her crotch and began to urinate: a golden, flowing liquid, passing achingly into the cave of her palms. Ambitious desires twisted and turned as she brought the toxic substance to her mouth and backed it with not so much as a grimace: she was numb but not defeated. Liliana wiped her hands against a mound of hay and dusted herself off, the journey was yet to unveil.
It took 2 days of painful hiking through hills and mountains before Liliana reached a live town. Feelings of relief and exhaustion made her jade coloured eyes fill with tears; a watery shine which reflected the unfamiliarity of livelihood. Pastel coloured houses, old women knitting on patios, farmers tending chickens and cobble stoned pathways all awaited her at the bottom of a hill. Liliana inhaled a breath of the open summer air and felt a surge of fear rush over her, she was alone, the same way she had always been. Intimidation was now just a mere, lost acquaintance; so long as nothing could reveal the daggers lodged in her heart, she was invincible.The locks of her hair blew daringly behind her and with a brazen glare she walked briskly toward the town, anxious to meet the new faces; praying for little bloodshed.
The immediate presence of unwelcome eyes made Liliana’s back tense; she imagined drowning in a sea of their attention and became increasingly self-conscious. Nosey old women peered over needle and thread, farmers momentarily forgot their labour and children’s kites wandered until they were no more than black dots in the sky. The image was a picturesque illusion: Liliana’s downcast eyes darted carefully between the faces and with a feline sway accepted the attention like a phantom presence.
Despite having spent her younger years travelling all over East Europe, Liliana was unaware of her true origin. Charcoal, back-length, tousled hair fell raggedly past her waist and tickled her skin – which was one shade darker than cocoa. Bright green, serpent-like eyes gave her a strikingly unusual appearance – she was undeniably beautiful, but perhaps an acquired taste. Locking eyes with an elderly fruit seller, Liliana felt a surge of disgust as his mouth stretched out into a welcoming smile. His hair, a dull wispy blonde, clung to the surface of his scalp, whilst his back, a stooping C-shape, made him seem far older than his age. Liliana looked at the man as if he were a human shelter, a mere necessity used in the event of torrential rain. Memories of the past swept her mind, a rage so raw that she bit the inside of her mouth and tasted blood.
“Good day, Sir” she said, forcing a mastered smile that over the years had disguised many tears. The man blinked, feeling a warmness reach his cheeks. “Hello young girl, please, come closer. Can I offer you a fruit?” Liliana swallowed and nodded, her smile wide enough to reveal several shining teeth. “Are you new here?” he continued. “It’s a rare chance to meet such a beauty”. The gentleman bowed, tossing a fruit into the grips of her palms. “It’s on me”. Liliana’s heart began to race, she used a manipulative charm to melt the coldest of hearts and yet, fear always shook her. Why are men so transparent? She thought. With just the touch of an arm or a doe-eyed look and suddenly they wish to “help” me? Nothing will ever be free in this life.
Adhering to converse, Liliana discovered that the man’s name was Danut and that he’d been selling fruit for the best part of his life. It was a modest depiction – he was actually the humble owner of a vineyard and kept a vast collection of trees and fruit patches – the most sought after produce in town. Liliana bit into the well-fetched plum and let its juice trickle down her chin. She paused for a moment – a split second spent without thinking – and savored its fleshed burst of purple.
After an hours’ worth of excruciatingly hard pretense (smiling, mm-ing and aah-ing; firing questions to convey polite interest), Liliana decided to be brazen. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt your story Danut but I’m feeling rather helpless. You see, I haven’t yet sorted a place to sleep – you wouldn’t happen to have a room going spare, would you?” Danut felt his heart sink. He knew that it would be too rare to meet a woman interested in a simple no-gains friendship. These days, every action came with motive. He didn’t bother repeating his story, which was that his father had been trampled to death by a herd of cows and that he’d buried him under the vineyard. Instead, he concluded that it had been a long time since he’d had company and that he had plenty of space to spare. “Oh dear….well, I suppose if you are willing to contribute – house chores, rent payment and so forth; I can make a space for you in front of the furnace. I’m a courteous host, I expect considerate guests”.
Danut combed a bony hand through his hair, his eyes still simmering with disappointment. Liliana, taken aback by the assertion, hadn’t imagined this creepy old man to consider the boundaries of fairness. Needless to say, she knew that there was much power in being an indispensable house guest and had every intention to contribute. “Of course, of course! I have plenty of tricks up my sleeve, you’ll see. You won’t regret such kindness!” She pressed her hands to her chest, subconsciously checking that her fighting spirit was still intact. Danut smiled and offered Liliana a feeble hand, pondering a friendship unknown.
BANG! A clashing tambourine hit the side of Liliana’s hip and sent the jingling sound of coins throughout the town. It had been two weeks since Liliana approached Danut and she’d managed to keep her promise. Each day a crowd encircled her, infatuated by the sight of her rotating hips and the vacillating “S” shape of her body. Whilst Danut was secretly impressed with the talented young girl, he couldn’t help but feel slightly embarrassed. What might the locals mistake for my intentions? He thought. After all, hosting a beautiful girl with such a provocative disposition is bound to make some rumors fly.
The only time that Liliana felt free, was through dance. It was the one place where she could share a part of herself that longed to be appreciated – seen – but never touched. Her mind found stillness in the movement, owning a confident stature that belonged solely to her. It was only when she came out of the freeing disposition, that she remembered a darkness which followed. The leering eyes of men made her skin itch; their empty and meaningless praise churned her gut like bitter cream; despite feeling alive from such expressiveness, there was a torment within that left parts of her dead.
It didn’t take long for chattering locals to spread the word of such a strange and sultry woman. People from all over began to hear of Liliana and even the females of the village – who stared with venom in their eyes and envy in their hearts – went home to imitate their sightings. It always came down to the desperate need to lure their husbands’ affection. All over, more and more people arrived to watch Liliana dance; it wasn’t a common sight in such a shy and humble village. If she chose to trust him, both Liliana and Danut’s income would rake a fortune. Instead, Liliana downplayed half of her earnings, making sure to take whatever she could, be it food or clothes or liquor. It wasn’t so much that she was selfish by nature, but the need for back up was essential; she knew one day she might need it.
Although plagued by inner turmoil, Liliana made it seem like she belonged. It was beneficial, being able to practice her craft and she felt acknowledged, thanks to the power of her bodies command. Each day she would finish dancing by 3pm and then rush home to complete her idea of household tenancy: sweeping, polishing, dusting and light gardening. By 6pm, Danut would enter to a wondrous smell which filled each corner of the house deliciously. Stuffed tomatoes with roasted paprika and salt, a chunky soup served in a bowl full of bread, fried meats and honey-lavished pastries, would all await him as if he were royalty. The pair would sit down to eat; Liliana would stare at her plate, whilst Danut filled the room with stories from his day. Albeit reserved, Danut was glad to have agreed to Liliana’s stay; for she was feeding an appetite for a life presumed lost.
Weeks passed and Liliana found herself feeling a little safer, more than that, a smidgen stronger. She had managed to build a (guarded) rapport with the locals and they would routinely visit to watch her dance, tipping generously. Danut, who was extremely happy with the way things were going, was fond of Liliana. Despite his previous assumptions, he believed she had a sincere heart with many barriers to break. Liliana on the other hand still felt cautious and unsure. Whilst it were true that she believed Danut to be a worldly and intelligent man, she couldn’t help but anticipate his true motive: to pounce on her like a savaged beast and drop his façade completely.
One afternoon, as Liliana was preparing to make her way home; a merchants’ wife approached and asked if she would perform for her at her birthday. “It would be wonderful if you could join us Liliana. We’ll be celebrating with food and drinks and would love to get to know you a little better. You’re still so shy with all of us. Your dancing is louder than you for gods sake!” Liliana felt her heart thaw – it was the first person besides Danut who seemed to be interested in her. Don’t buy it. she conflicted; you know the outcome of what happens to people who try to be your friend. Liliana brushed away her muddled thoughts and smiled at the lady equitably .”I would be honoured to dance at your party, Mrs. Andreava…but first, we will need to discuss rates”.
After weeks of little sleep and feeling scathed by haunting visions, Liliana opened her eyes to a strong sense of dread. It was the day of the celebration and for some reason a feeling in her stomach suggested fright. As a child, Liliana was mostly bold and happy, surrounded by stability and love. She reflected back to simpler times, when she would climb upon her mothers lap and run sticky fingers through her hair, content with the familiarity of her guardian. Her mother would remove a bluing handkerchief from her pocket and lovingly wipe her daughter clean.
The reminiscent sound of her mothers laugh rang in her ears so loudly that she feared her eardrums might burst. Isn’t it strange, she thought, that the people we take for granted are the ones we miss the most. She was fully aware that if it weren’t for her mothers passing, life would have taken a different route. The thought in itself was supposed to bring comfort – knowing she was loved – but instead it choked the back of her throat as a suppressed scream and filled her with heart with resentment.
She began to get ready at 4 O’clock, feeling her nerves pulsating to an anticipated rhythm. Lathering her body in pistachio milk, Liliana tended to the softness of her womanly curves and suddenly let out a shudder. The thought of a temptation most pleasurable crept into her mind and filled her with an instant sense of shame. Batting away what she considered to be perverse thoughts, Liliana proceeded to outline her eyes with a jet-black coal, highlighting them like hooded marbles. She stared in the mirror and recognised herself as a shell – a vessel – which held so much, yet contributed nothing. Everything she felt about herself seemed worthless; the features that women would secretly covet were a burden…they lured much attention when all she wanted was to be invisible. Inspecting all the lines beneath her eyes, Liliana imagined lodging her fingers down her throat and tugging at her soul, setting it free once and for all.
Chattering guests holding flutes of wine and fistfuls of grapes all laughed and joked loudly inside the merchant’s house – there was a celebratory buzz, silenced by Liliana’s arrival. The space to perform had clearly not been considered, with rugs and pots and tables spread out across the wooden floor. Liliana glanced at the end wall as the crowd began to shuffle to either side of the room, creating enough space for her to move. Danut joined as Liliana used the obstructed pathway to reach her position, nodding at charmed guests respectfully. Facing her back to the audience she raised her arms and shook the instrument, commanding all attention at once.
Barraging into a series of snake-like movements and double-jointed back bends, everyone stared in wonder at the boldness of her style. She wore a striking cream ensemble of just pearls and string and looked ready to break free at any second. The dark softness of her skin bulged slightly through the gaps of wire and captured her body like a net to a mermaid; a creature from the water meeting land.
The show ended as guests flocked around Liliana, barricading her with questions and praise. Liliana responded with courteous enthusiasm, using her hands animatedly to accommodate the expression in her eyes. When the enthrallment lessened, guests began to drink Tuica, a traditional spirit made from the plums of Danut’s trees. Not much of a drinker, Liliana helped herself to several shots as a means to celebrate. The guests continued to laugh and socialise, whilst a few of them paired off to dance. Danut approached Liliana and held out a hand, to which she politely declined and moved away, leaving him scratching his head in confusion.
Feeling slightly light-headed and a little bit nervous, Liliana decided to get some fresh air. Danut found her standing in a patch of grass in the front yard, hands on hips trying to maintain balance. Creeping behind her he pinched her waist, causing her to spin around in exasperated shock. “What do you think you are doing?!” she asked, her eyes a fearful blaze. Danut recoiled in embarrassed, with eyes a mixture of shame and shock. “Liliana…are you okay?” he asked. She snarled and spat, a sour taste which had unwelcomely subsided in her mouth.
“Why are you so angry, Lili? Would you like to talk about it?” Liliana laughed. “All these weeks spent with you talking and talking about your boring life and myself, the therapist, just listening. As a matter of fact yes I would like to talk, because I’m sick of listening to self-centered men.” Danut stared patiently, his mind now a field of confusion.
“As a child, I was made to hide in the closet as if I were a shameful secret. My uncle, ‘the keeper’, had a wonderful life: a beautiful home, a beautiful family and there I was, forced to serve. I wallowed in the resentment of their joy for years; their house was always so full of laughter somehow. It was my 18th birthday, not that anybody remembered, when I simply just couldn’t stand it any more. The heaviness of his body along with the roughness of his cheeks – that rancid smell which made me want to peel my skin off – ignited a fire within me so strong that I decided to remove his instead”. For the first time Liliana stared directly into Danut’s eyes and held his gaze, surprised to see them filled with tears.
The pair were interrupted by a hushed gasp: the merchant’s wife, creeping behind them with a hand to her mouth. “Get that witch off my property!” she yelled, with an expression so loud that it rippled with fear. Liliana, semi-relieved to finally end the painful exchange, sprinted away from the house, with Danut and guests following.
After a tiresome wild goose-chase through sticks and hedges, Danut found Liliana face-down at the bank of a river, panting in submissive defeat. Danut threw himself over her and wrestled her to face him, the beads of sweat meeting her head like stones to water. “Stop it, Liliana!” he gritted, as Liliana wriggled ferociously in a frightened attempt to get away.”just play dead”. Giving the guests enough time to catch up, he placed his hands loosely around her neck and began to shake his arms theatrically; marking the performance of his life. Liliana didn’t understand nor trust Danut’s intentions, but accepted that whatever fate she had left was now in his hands. Partaking in the silent play, she felt her body go limp and met her head with the dirt, as a gather of people encircled them.
“SHE’S DEAD!” Danut cried. “The girl is dead! The panic is over!” Cheers beckoned from the sheepish villagers, their loyalty proving to be fickle and scarce. “But what shall we do with her body?” someone chimed in. “BURN HER!” yelled another. Danut felt fear formulating in the pit of his stomach, as Liliana’s eyelids flickered with panic. Conjuring up the most practical solution, Danut knew that such an impressionable tribe could only be swayed by superstition. “Well, what about her spirit?” he inquired.”Do you think it’s wise, her haunting us here?” The guests began to quietly mumble among themselves, whilst Danut slowly rolled Liliana into the river, feeling her body acquaint with the cold. “The current is weak” he whispered. “It will carry you through until you reach the next town”.
Despite the knowing that he would now never reach a shortage of friendly acquaintances, Danut returned to a house which was empty; a quiet stillness to welcome him home. He felt a tortuous void re-emerge and for the first time in twenty years, fell on his bed and wept. The events of the day had left him depleted and bewildered; pain at Liliana’s revelation, a regret that his intentions had been misjudged. He understood her immense trauma and thus forgave such a sporadic defense. Tears flowed as he cried for Liliana and for loneliness, wishing she could have seen him through a different set of eyes.
During the tranquil summer of a time unknown, a movement of meringue-white, cotton-like clouds, passed over a sea of greens and browns; grounds which beckoned aliveness; an ever-ascending flow of recreation and nature alike.
A year had passed since Liliana’s departure and a delicate Danut adorned a usual routine; this particular afternoon found him in the kitchen, halving figs. Surpassing it as a friendly breeze, he flinched at the sound of a door knock and simply kept on chopping. He led an orderly life, where the structure of every day could not just be disturbed.
The door knocked again – this time with more conviction. Danut scuttled toward it impatiently; hoping that whoever it was would go away.
He opened the door with a sigh and blinked disconcertingly: there before him stood a strapping brown horse with smiling eyes; its face lowering to meet him at eye level. Danut chuckled and reached an arm out, noticing something tied around its neck. Worried that it might be cause some discomfort, he removed the item and stared at the content: a bluing handkerchief, bulging like an apple-knotted pastry. He unravelled the cloth like a flower in bloom and gaped at a generous pile of coins; which then slid across the width of his palm. Among them, a note which read:-
There are not enough words to express how thankful I am that you protected me and managed to restore my tired spirit. I would like you to accept my most meaningful possession as a token of my gratitude, or better still, for you to visit me. To leave where you are and stay.
The clever horse prodded Danut enthusiastically with its muzzle, as if willing him to climb its back. Danut shook his head in disbelief and stepped inside, shutting the door in a panic. Perhaps he was better off living alone in self-preservation: the calmness of his rather dreary life provided guaranteed safety from dysfunctional humans. The horse, not quite sure whether to make a sturdy departure, hesitated at the thought of pursuing a lonely return. Three seconds later the door flung open and Danut appeared, with his hat, his bag and a box full of figs.
This short story was written by Chelsea Hipwood
Chelsea did an interview with ASLI about this piece and her current/future projects:
If you would like to know more about Chelsea please visit her blog: chelseareveals
Also here is Chelsea’s first article with ASLI: CHELSEA-ANNE HIPWOOD “I WROTE “DELPHINE” TO FOCUS ON A WOMAN’S FRAGILITY AND TO REMIND MYSELF AS WELL AS READERS THAT WE SHOULD NEVER BE TOO PROUD TO ASK FOR HELP.”
If you have any feedback for Chelsea or the ASLI team please leave a comment in the form below, thank you.