Her grandmother frowned, causing the already heavy wrinkles of her face to deepen even further. “Show some respect!” she snapped back. “Your mother and father have sacrificed everything for you these past years. Everything! You should be grateful. You should be on your knees with thanks!”
Guilt made Maria choke on her rebelliousness. Ten years ago, when Maria was a toddler the tender age of 4, her parents had sought out a matchmaker on her behalf. Maria had barely understood that there was a difference between boys and girls and yet her parents had already been setting up the rest of her life and who she’d spend it with.
In an immense stroke of good fortune, according to Maria’s family, the wealthy Rosu family had taken an interest in Maria. Actually, it was not in her so much as in the family’s farm. The Rosu family birthed many sons and was looking to expand its already impressive holdings even further. They had a boy of 6, Ion, their sixth boy, and were willing to pledge him to Maria in exchange for much more than a typical dowry of embroidered linens and pillows. Along with Maria, they would also take possession of her family’s farm. Her parents would be reduced to mere tenants during their remaining lifetimes. Maria would become a Rosu and her own family’s legacy would disappear, forever.
Maria turned to her parents, tears forming in her eyes. “Mama. Papa. Please, do not make me marry him. I hate him. I loathe him. He’s a selfish, mean, stupid bully.”
“But his family is rich,” her mother countered, “and that’s incredibly fortunate for you.”
“Why?” Maria cried. “His family is horrible! I hate them. You hate them. Everyone does. They bully the whole village with their influence and money. They’re spiteful and greedy. Why would you want me to marry into such a pit of snakes?”
“Because they’re rich,” her mother repeated. “Once you are married into a rich family, your whole future will be bright. And that of your children and their children. We have been over this many times, child. It is a great opportunity!”
“Papa,” she begged, “please do not let this happen. I don’t care about the money! I love Dimitru. It is him I want to marry.”
He shook his head, seemingly sad, but resolute. “Dimitru’s family is poorer than we are. It makes no sense to marry him.”
“But I love him! I love him so much. He is everything to me. And he loves me just the same. Isn’t that more important?”
“Listen to your mother, Maria,” he chided her. “This is what we sacrificed for, all these years. This is why we never had any other children, never risked giving birth to a boy who would need land of his own. The bargain we struck with the Rosu family will ensure more than survival, it will guarantee prosperity for many generations to come.”
“It will ensure my slavery!” she scowled and slumped into her chair.
“Marry for love? Ha!” her grandmother barked harshly. “You see? You know nothing. Too young to appreciate hardship. Too foolish to appreciate what a gift this marriage is for you. And too ungrateful to understand the huge sacrifice this family has made for you. Birthing only a single child. Putting all of our hopes and dreams into you. Dedicating our lives to teaching you manners and skills so that you may be worthy of your new family.”
“I didn’t ask for it!” Maria shouted, panicking at how much pressure they were putting on her. “None of it! I don’t want it! I want to marry Dimitru. I want to marry for love, not money and land and becoming some evil boy’s slave.”
“Enough!” Her mother slammed a heavy wooden ladle on the kitchen countertop, causing Maria to jump in her seat. The woman shook with barely restrained emotion and glowered at her daughter. “You will marry Ion. It has been decided.”
Tears formed in Maria’s eyes. She felt helpless and frustrated. This wasn’t fair! “But mo-”
“Enough!” Her mother slammed the wooden ladle on the countertop again, then came towards her daughter, brandishing it, eyes narrowed and face clouded with anger. “This is not a debate. You will do as you’re told! Now go to your room. There will be no supper for you.”
Tears falling openly now, Maria turned to her father for support but there was none to be found. He looked sympathetic for a moment, but one glance at his wife and his features firmed into sternness as he followed her lead, as he always followed her lead. Maria sobbed and fled upstairs to her bedroom.
The room was tiny, barely big enough to fit two single beds and two wardrobes, with barely space to stand between them. Knitted tapestries and a charcoal sketch of her grandparents when they were married decorated the walls. Maria threw herself onto her bed and buried her face in her pillow as she wept. It was so unfair! How could her parents do this to her? Didn’t they love her? Didn’t they care about what she wanted? What made her happy? Why couldn’t she decide her own future? Why couldn’t she just be with Dimitru? Her tears flowed and soaked the pillow below.
Eventually, the tears slowed and stopped. Dinner was finished but her parents and grandmother still chatted in the kitchen below. Maria wanted fresh air but had no desire to go downstairs and be seen by her family right now. So she wrapped herself up in a thick blanket, opened the door to the tiny balcony outside the bedroom and stepped out into the night.
The world was now in darkness. A few faint stars were just visible overhead in a sky not yet full dark, but still edged in the deepest indigo. The bonfire was on the opposite side of the house, thus its light and warmth were blocked, but she could hear the sound of beech logs popping, crackling and burning, with the occasional snap almost loud as a gunshot. In front of her, the woods were a wall of impenetrable blackness. She leaned against the door frame and inhaled the evening air, smelling pine, the sheep pens to the north, scents from the remnants of dinner below, and smoke from the bonfire. She tried to push the sounds of her family below out of her mind and embraced the cool night, seeking peace.
A soft whistle came from below.
Maria looked down but saw nothing in the deep shadows. She looked harder.
The bushes nearby rustled.
Despite being safely out of reach of any predators, Maria took a half step back into the house.
A young man’s voice gently called out from the darkness. “What is that radiance yonder, in the east? It is night, yet it lights up my world. It can only be my Maria, whose beauty and heart are as bright and golden as the sun.”
A thrill of excitement swept away all of Maria’s ugly feelings. “Dimitru?” she whispered, smiling and stepping back onto the balcony.
The young man, two years older than her, cautiously stepped out of his hiding spot. He wore a suman, a long, black woollen coat, over gray trousers, making him very difficult to see in the dark, which was no doubt their purpose for this nocturnal escapade. He was a handspan taller than her, with a farmer’s tough build but a poet’s soft heart. His features were simple but handsome enough to her, especially the dark blue of his eyes. He glanced around, no doubt making sure that her father wasn’t around, and then came closer, grinning eagerly as he approached the balcony. A creak of metal and the iron, oil-burning lantern in his hand opened, revealing his face.
Maria hastily closed the doors to the balcony behind her, so that she wouldn’t be overheard. “What are you doing here?” she hissed, tremendously happy that he was.
“Look.” He pointed at the silver crescent just rising above the tree tops. “The cold moon is so jealous of the light of your heart that it hides its virgin rays in the face of your brilliant passion. I, too, have been cold without you. I beg thee, Maria, shine your warmth on me this night.”
Maria laughed and slapped her hands over her grinning mouth to keep from being overheard.
He dramatically clapped his free hand over his heart. “Those eyes! When you laugh, I think two stars must have gone away on business and asked your eyes to take their place, for they are just as bright and sparkle just as preciously as any in the glorious sky above.”
Maria giggled. “What on Earth are you saying?”
“Oh, that voice. In it I hear birds singing, hastening the dawn in their eagerness to celebrate you. I am enchanted. I am yours. Dearest Maria, I am forever yours.”
Maria swooned and leaned forward on the balcony to catch herself. “Silly boy. You’ve ben reading too much Shakespeare.”
He grinned wider. “Come down, fair lady. Join me.” He nodded towards the woods.
Maria bit her lip and glanced behind her. “I – I can’t.” But oh, she wanted to.
“My family. They’ll know I’ve gone. And-and I’m not supposed to leave. My mother specifically warned me not to.”
He winked. “But they won’t be able to say anything about it until after you’ve returned.”
“They’ll see me leave.”
“Climb over the balcony. I will catch you.”
Maria’s gut twisted. She felt guilty at the thought of disobeying her parents, even when she was angry with them. She felt excitement at the idea of being with Dimitru, her true love. An image of her wedding popped unbidden into her mind. And that’s what finally drove her to act. She tossed him her blanket, for it was cold and she wasn’t about to fetch a coat from downstairs. Then she climbed over the low railing and lowered herself down the outside. When she let go, Dimitru’s strong hands caught her and put her safely on the ground. She spun around and happily threw her arms around him.
He pulled away and took her hand. “Let’s go!” he urgently whispered.
The young couple quietly made their way into the edge of the woods. To Maria’s relief, there was no sound of them being followed, no outcry to prove that her escape had been discovered. Quite soon they came to where Dimitru had tied his horse, and old white mare, to a tree. He hoisted her up into the leather saddle, handed her the lantern, then untied the reins and climbed up behind her.
Maria felt his body pressed tightly up against her own, conscious not just of his chest pressing into her back and the way that his arms wrapped around her as they rode, but also especially conscious of the way that the lower parts of their bodies fit snugly together as well. It made her blush and her whole body heated so much that she barely noticed the chill in the air. She made no effort to move away, letting him touch her anywhere he chose.
“Where are we going?” she asked him.
“My uncles hunting cabin.” he replied. “He’s in town and it will be empty.”
She glanced over her shoulder, worried. “Really? So deep in the forest? At night?”