I woke up suddenly to screams coming from the road below my apartment. I jumped up and went to the window. It was almost midnight and the road was deserted. Then I saw the small figure shrinking back against the wall on the edge of the streetlight’s circle of light.
What should I do? I had only been in the country for two weeks and I didn’t know the language beyond basic phrases. I stood there for a few moments, listening to the cries and praying other neighbors would call the police and relieve me of any responsibility.
The windows across the road from me remained dark and I saw one light go off and unseen hands pull the shutters closed. So that’s how it was.
I thought of just going back to bed, but how could I sleep like that? How could I stand by and do nothing while someone was suffering? I had always been appalled at stories of people who heard muggings and murders going on outside their apartment and did nothing for fear of getting involved. On the other hand, I didn’t want to go get involved in something that was none of my business.
Finally, I got dressed slowly and went to the door. I would at least go try to get a better idea of the situation. I went down the stairs and peered out the front door.
The figure—it was definitely a woman—was in the same defensive position, but I could not see anyone else. I took a step outside, still scanning the shadows. The fact that she was apparently alone alarmed me almost as much as if someone had been there beating her.
I walked into the circle of light and the woman abruptly went quiet. The next thing I knew, she was clinging to me, looking back over her shoulder at the empty road. She was talking to me, fast, but I had no idea what she was saying.
She seemed to be in her 20s, long black hair, and almost freakishly thin. Her skin was cold against my arm. Strangely enough, she smelled of wood smoke, a smell I have always loved.
“Uh, are you okay? Okay?” I said. She gave me a look of incomprehension.
What was I supposed to do? Finally, I asked, “Do you want to come up for tea? Tea?” I made a drinking motion, then hoped she didn’t interpret it as alcohol. I remembered the word for tea and said it and she nodded.
I lived alone and my apartment was not exactly neat. I blushed and tried frantically to clean up, at least superficially, as we walked in. She didn’t seem to notice—just sat on the couch and looked around. I was glad she had calmed down, at least.
As the water was boiling for tea, I tried to make small talk, which is very hard without a common language. I showed her my language study book and she seemed to approve. Then we silently sipped at our tea and smiled at each other when our eyes happened to meet. Finally, she stood up and took a deep breath.
“Thank you,” she said, one of the few phrases I knew in her language. “Thank you, thank you.”
“No problem,” I said, completely forgetting the appropriate response.
She walked to the door and put on her shoes.
“Uh . . .” I began—she had walked out with my mug in her hands. But then she turned and gave me such a radiant smile that I let her have it. “Have a good night,” I said. “Bye bye.”
“Bye bye,” she said, in English, and giggled.
The next day, I asked my landlord about her. It took him a few minutes to understand. “Ah, I know. I know the girl,” he said at last. “Yes, she is not . . . not okay in the head, you know? Sometimes she cries at night on the street. Don’t worry, don’t worry.”
“Years before, she had a boyfriend, he was very bad. He hit her a lot, very badly. Then one day he hit her on the road right there and she hit him back with rock and killed him. No trouble with the police—not her fault, but after that she not okay in the head. If you see her, don’t worry.”
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I had made her tea in my apartment and that she hadn’t seemed crazy to me.
Two days later, I opened my door to go to work and found my mug sitting in front of the door. It had been washed and was stuffed with money, mostly dirty and wrinkled bills. There was about $25 worth in all. After that, other cups and containers appeared in front of my door, all filled with money. After six months, I had over $300 collected.
I didn’t spend the money—I felt bad just having it. I wanted to give it back, but I never saw the woman again. I looked for her but couldn’t find her. No one seemed to know where she lived. Based on the smell of wood smoke, I even wandered out into the forest, wondering if she lived in a cabin out there.
Even now, a year later, the money still comes from time to time. I’ve thought of hooking up a camera to catch her in the act. I just want to tell her thank you, that I don’t need the money, that I want to know more about her. All I can do now is study the language and keep my eyes open.
What else can I do? What would you do in my place?