Title banner: New World by Kuli und Heft. Art by Linn: a pencil drawing of Mischa hugging Sophie

 

One day, the elevator started working. Mischa was having a nap, and I had a chicken in the oven. After all the torment of the last months, I didn’t even want music playing; the quiet was such a blessing. I could hear whispers of sound from Peter’s television next door. I heard Juliana totter up the stairs on her daughter’s arm, the two speaking comfortably. I heard the shout and running footsteps of children using the last of the daylight on the street. Cars passed, a dog barked, and we were safe.

So long ago, we’d yearned for safety, in those years when our world and our spirits were rubble. Mischa had come back to me, we had found each other again in those long, broken months, and the miracle of it should have been sweet. It should have been our own candle flame against the pressing darkness. Instead, we could only cling to each other blindly. I refused to say the words, refused to admit to what the war had taken, but I knew: we didn’t stay together out of love. Not in those first terrible years. It was fear that bound us, the certainty that if either of us let go of the other in the terror of this shattered new world, we’d each spin and tumble out into the chaos. Better that we spun together, battle each other’s fear and anger instead of being left with our own. I couldn’t even weep for what they had taken from him, that spark of light that had drawn me to him in our youth, before everything, the vibrancy in him that had intoxicated me, allowed me the fantasy that life could be joyous, that I would be lucky. I was too angry, too terrified to weep.

And then there was the New World. A New city. We told each other it was our lives changing. We told everyone who would listen that this was opportunity, the chance to wash away the blood and the pain. We spoke the words loudly, a challenge to the world to prove us wrong, like children shouting down a thunderstorm. But everything we had brought with us, including ourselves, was from the Old World. New streets, a new language, the bump and jostle of our ways against our hosts’, and the fear continued. It would take the assurance of many quiet nights, many comfortable days, a hundred thousand courtesies and kindnesses, before we began to see the light we had shut our eyes against. It would only be after the birth of our son that Mischa and I could begin to look into each other’s eyes and see each other. I wept to see that he was still with me. I wept to feel my Joshua strong and contented in my arms. I wept for the girl I had been and the countless others who had not survived to know life and peace.

And so, these many, many years later, with three children grown and married and scattered down the coast to good jobs and good neighborhoods, with Mischa retired and both of us still healthy enough to enjoy the time, the return of peace and safety and quiet to an old man and an old woman was a fine gift, one we knew to savor. The holidays were coming; there would be grandchildren who wanted cookies and candies and sweet breads, and Mama Sophie needed a head start, just to make up for the days when the arthritis got so bad that the kolache couldn’t be rolled and cut.

In the quiet, I heard a hum out on the landing, such a familiar sound I didn’t even think of it at first. But then the rumble and scrape of those old double doors had me at the front door, staring at the locks and wondering if I should open it, what could possibly be waiting on the other side, when every new development for months had meant more hardship, more friends moved away. A cheerful rap at the door, and I covered my mouth, hoping my little cry hadn’t woken Mischa.

“Missus L? Mister L?” a young man called; Lester from down the block.

With relief, I opened the door wide so he could get past with his arms so full. Of course it was Lester; I’d phoned the grocer just that morning to see if he could send his boy up with a few things. With the elevator out, the bags of sugar and flour, the bottles of oil and wine that I wanted for my baking and cooking, it was just too much to carry up all those stairs. But Lester had grown tall and broad of shoulder; he went everywhere with a smile and a laugh, and there wasn’t a lady on the street, young or old, who didn’t appreciate either his help or the joy he carried with him.

“Sure glad you got your elevator working again, Missus L,” Lester was saying as he made quick strides to the dining room. He set down his bags and started pulling items out for inspection. “Ten pounds of flour, just like you asked, and Dad thought you might like to try one of these self-rising ones, so he put in an extra pound of that, here, on the house. Sugar. Honey. Poppy seeds. Walnuts. Almond paste. You’ll need another grocery delivery soon, won’t you, Missus L? This is all looking awful tasty.”

And what was there to do except laugh and promise that he was welcome any time, groceries or not, and I had a feeling the ingredients spread over her dining room table would be a whole lot tastier in about three days’ time.

The clatter woke up Mischa, who came out to say hello and to ask how many royal families I was baking for this year. Lester stayed to help move everything to the kitchen and solicit some advice on what a girl might find more romantic, chocolates or flowers. Mischa saw him off with a good tip and greetings to his parents.

“When did the elevator get repaired?” I asked as soon as the door was closed.

“I don’t know. I never saw any workmen,” Mischa answered.

In fact, no one in the building had seen any workmen. The Super knew as little about how it had got working again as he did about what had broken it in the first place, and in the end we could only shrug and be grateful.

Thanksgiving came and went in the usual fuss and flurry of feasting and family. The days grew almost unbearably short, and it was mid-December when I found Mischa standing over the radiator in the living room, frowning at it.

“Broken again?” I asked. Even without those thugs and their sabotage, it was about time for the troubles to start.

“That’s just it,” he answered. “Weeks, we’ve been running the heat. And weeks, not a single problem. I’ve talked to the others, too. No one’s had a problem. Not with their water, not with the radiators. Now tell me, Mother, when was the last winter there wasn’t even a hiccup?”

“Maybe this is a year for better luck. We’ve had enough worry, Mischa. Come sit with me.”

The winter days passed slow and gray. The chill seeped into our bones even easier than the year before and the year before that. Hanukkah went by quietly. With the children all moved away and so many of our neighbors also gone, there was little to do once the candles had been lit, except to be grateful to know that there were no more men with guns or firebombs or knives. Mischa and I both felt all the better after the evening Cathy stopped by to give us an update on the men who had attacked us that night.

“They won’t be out of jail for a long time,” she assured us. “And even when they are, they don’t have any reason to come after you anymore. The person who’s behind all of this…well, he’s not interested in this building anymore. You’re both safe now. Everyone here is.”

I hadn’t realized how much I needed to hear those words from someone else, someone who knew everything we had gone through and the law, too. It was a relief to know that this time, the bullies who took what they wanted had been stopped.

“Anyway, I brought you both something.” She reached into her case and produced a flat, white box with a silver ribbon around it. She put it into my hands.

“Cathy. You’ve already done so much. We don’t need presents.”

The words merry Christmas hadn’t been spoken, but Mischa and I both knew. Cathy wasn’t our first gentile friend.

“Please,” she insisted. “I wanted to.”

I looked at Mischa, who could only shrug; it would be rude to refuse the gift outright. So I untied the ribbon and lifted the lid. There, under a few leaves of crisp, white paper, lay a bright silver picture frame full of delicate scrollwork. And at the bottom, in script, a quote I didn’t recognize: How far that little candle throws its beams!

“Cathy…”

“The picture you showed me, of your wedding day. It was so beautiful. And you looked so happy seeing it. I thought you might like to display it.”

“It’s too much,” I said.

“It’s nothing,” she answered. “I want you both to remember that you have friends who look out for each other.”

“It’s wonderful,” Mischa said. “I’ll get the picture book.”

He went into the next room, and I put the frame in my lap so I could take up Cathy’s hands in my own. “It’s beautiful. We’ll both cherish it. But Cathy…who are these friends? That…man. He saved us once on the street. And again that night. I can still hear the way he roared. But somehow, I’m not afraid. I saw him, just for a moment, before he left. His eyes…Mischa will only say he’s a friend. Cathy. Who is he?”

“His name is Vincent. He’s…extraordinary. He’s the best friend you could hope to have.”

“How do we say thank you?”

“By living happily and in peace.”

Mischa returned then with the book. With careful hands, I pulled out the picture. We placed the new frame next to the table lamp, where it would catch a bit of morning light, and I slept more soundly that night.

Spring finally came to the city. The chill faded from our bones, but the churning weather brought storms that made Mischa’s knee and my hands ache. On the first dry, cool day at the end of March, he helped me take down the curtains and the sheers so I could get everything washed for the summer. We each took a basket down to the washing machines in the basement.

Peter was there putting his shirts on hangers. After his long winter cough, he looked much better. He smiled when he saw the bundles we carried. “Mischa. Sophie. Is it spring cleaning already?”

“Just the beginning,” I told him. “You look better.”

“I’m trying a new doctor. My son insisted. He’s already sure it’s working, but I say it’s the turn in the weather.”

“Now that you’re better, you’ll join us for dinner, yes?” Ever since Marta had passed, we worried for him. Those TV dinners were no substitute for real food, but he didn’t take being looked after very easily.

“Of course, Sophie. Give me the day, and I’ll come.” He gathered up his hangers and his basket and said goodbye.

I turned to my sheer curtains, pulling them out of the basket and onto the table while Mischa collected the mop from the corner. There was a window that leaked when the spring rains got bad, and no amount of caulking had ever fixed it for good. The water had formed its own discolored ring on the cement floor over the years and needed to be sopped up regularly through spring to keep it from spreading or turning to mildew.

“Mother. Look here.”

I left the curtains to stand at Mischa’s side. First I noticed that the floor was dry. “Peter must have cleaned it.”

“I don’t think so. Look at the window.”

“It’s been fixed!”

“Part of the casement has been replaced,” Mischa said, touching the newly painted section of wood, crisp and clean where it had been worn and black-green with mildew only a few days before. “This isn’t the Super’s work.”

“All of these secret repairs. Cathy said we had friends who would look out for us. Do you think she and Vincent are behind this?”

He looked at me sharply; we had never spoken the name Vincent to each other. But the question didn’t last long in his eyes, and he only shook his head. “I don’t know. It could be.”

I went back to the curtains, looking for the tell-tale gray where we had touched the edges again and again through the winter. After a few moments, Mischa came to me, laid his hand over mine.

“Sophie. I just realized, it’s Thursday. The curtains can wait. Rosalie will be having the other ladies for coffee.”

I pulled away from his touch to pick up the bottle of dish detergent I had brought with me. “My ankles are swollen today. I shouldn’t make the walk.”

“You’ve hardly been outside since those punks broke into our building. But it’s safe now. And the weather is good.”

“It’s a long walk. Not today.”

“It isn’t two blocks. I’ll go with you.”

“Not today, Mischa,” I told him sharply. “Perhaps next week.”

He sighed, relenting. “All right. Next week. I only want to see you happy.”

I fumbled with an edge of curtain for a moment before dropping the fabric with my own sigh. “Mischa. I’m an old woman. I’ve never felt it so much as I do now.”

He pulled me in against him, and I let myself be held. There weren’t any more words worth speaking

More weeks passed, but I didn’t make it down to Rosalie’s, or any further than the corner store. On the afternoons when the sun streamed in through my bright curtains, I found myself staring out to the street, working up the will to go down, to walk past all those people and cross the road, but the thought of forgetting anything I might need out of my purse or not wearing a warm enough coat, or slipping and falling in my old shoes, these things kept me at the window. When the weather turned gray, I stayed in the kitchen, adapting recipes I found in cookbooks that I hadn’t touched in years.

Mischa started staying downstairs later and later at night, and he didn’t have to say anything; I knew he was trying to catch our secret repair men. I only prayed that he was careful.

So on the night I heard the front door open and several pairs of feet hurry in, I clung tight to the bowl I had been drying and listened, remembering another night that there had been strangers in the building.

“Mother?” Mischa called, and I sighed with relief.

I set the bowl and towel down and started out of the kitchen, but he appeared in the doorway. With a hand on my elbow, he guided me back in.

“Mischa. What is it? Who are they?”

“They’re friends,” he assured me. “I found the ones who have been helping us. You were right. It is Vincent.”

I clutched his arm, shocked and fearful and pleased all at once. “Is he here?”

“Yes. And two of his friends. Come and meet them.”

He took my hand and guided me out. There were three men in the living room, standing close together, their postures tense. It might have been funny, the deeply suspicious look the blond boy gave this little old lady, if I hadn’t been so caught up in my own worry and curiosity. Beside the boy stood a wiry man in his early forties, his hair showing a bit of gray. And behind the first two, the tall, shadowed form I had seen twice before, only now the hood of his cloak hid some of his face. In fact, all three of them wore strange, homespun clothes and heavy boots.

“Mama, this is Cullen,” Mischa said, gesturing to the man. There was still a wariness to him, but he smiled and shook my hand gently.

“And this boy is called Mouse.”

“’Lo,” Mouse said, still watching me as though I might pull a gun at any moment.

“And of course, you remember Vincent.”

“Sophie.” The hood dipped slightly as he nodded his head. “I’m glad to see that you are well.”

We all stood in silence for a moment before my manners caught up with me. “Well! Please, won’t you come sit? Can I get you tea? Coffee?”

“Coffee would be a treat,” Cullen said at once.

“Tea, if it isn’t any trouble,” Vincent answered.

“No trouble,” I said with a wave of one hand. “Sit. Please. I won’t be long.”

While I waited for the water in the kettle to boil, I set up a tray with cups and milk and sugar. And of course, three young men were sure to be hungry. I plated some shortbread cookies and a few slices of an almond roll I’d baked the afternoon before. After a moment’s consideration, I took out the bread and deli meats to make a few quick sandwiches, each cut into fourths, so our guests would see there was plenty and not be shy about eating.

By then, the kettle was whistling. Most of the water went into the teapot, and the rest went into the coffee press. While they sat to steep, I took the food tray into the living room, where Cullen stood up at once to take the weight from me and lay it on the table before resuming his seat on the sofa. The boy, Mouse—and what a strange name for a boy, clearly a nickname of some sort—was cross-legged on the floor with every appearance of being very comfortable there. A chair had been pulled out from the dining table, but Vincent wasn’t in it. He had at least lowered his hood as he stood, listening to Mischa.

“It was Sophie who first thought you must be behind these mysterious repairs.”

“Fixed the elevator,” Mouse said, a cookie already in one hand and a sandwich in the other. “Easy.”

Cullen met my eye for a second before he took a plate from the tray and handed it to Mouse. The boy stared at it with displeasure, but after a glance at Vincent, accepted it and made a pointed effort to eat over it.

“And our heating?” Mischa asked.

“Needed parts. Took longer.”

“Mouse is quite gifted with machines,” Vincent said by way of explanation. “And ingenious when it comes to repurposing things that have been discarded.”

“Find almost anything in the city,” Mouse added.

“But it was clear that the last couple of repairs required a carpenter’s talents. Cullen agreed to lend his considerable skill.”

“Least I could do,” Cullen answered quickly.

I went back to the kitchen to fetch the tea and coffee before I could sit next to Mischa. Everyone settled into fixing their drinks and nibbling on the snacks. It was in this silence that I saw Vincent’s gaze land on the picture frame under the table lamp. He moved closer, studying the photograph closely.

“Cathy gave us the frame,” I told him.

Vincent touched the glass with an intense reverence, as though he thought he could reach through it to a time long, long past. “Yes. She told me of this picture. She told me it was beautiful.”

Mouse frowned at the frame, then at me. “Cathy? Vincent’s Catherine?”

Vincent pulled his fingers away from the glass and stepped back with straight, stiff shoulders, his moment of soft reverie broken.

“Likes to give people things,” Mouse continued without apparent notice. “Gave Mouse tools. New. And explosives. Big kaboom. Neat.”

From the sofa, Cullen cleared his throat loudly.

Mouse glared at him. “Isn’t a secret. Isn’t dangerous.”

“You’ll give them the wrong impression, Mouse, that Catherine goes around buying things off the black market or something.”

“Has a big friend. Likes to give things, too.”

“And to take them away again, if there’s a dollar to be made,” Vincent answered solemnly.

I looked to Mischa, who seemed equally baffled. Vincent’s Catherine, the boy had said. I thought back to those brief moments in the hall, when the fighting was done, when the fury had faded away from that extraordinary face, and there had been something else in his eyes. Something…pained. Yearning. And, yes, now I realized, he had been looking at Cathy, hesitating, as though he wanted to speak. She hadn’t given him the chance.

“We’ve wanted so much to say thank you, Vincent,” I said into the silence.

He regarded me slowly, as though returning from some great distance.

“Twice, you saved us.”

“Three times,” Mischa corrected.

Of course. The firebomb. I clasped one of his hands in both of mine.

“Vincent,” Mischa pressed, “we owe you our lives.”

“You owe me nothing. You must remember that you have friends, that some strangers in this city care for each other because we should, because it is the only safety we have.”

“Tell us where it is you come from,” I said. I didn’t expect a clear answer, but something about the three of them spoke of a separateness, and I needed to ask.

Neither Mouse nor Cullen answered; they both looked to Vincent, who thought for a moment before speaking careful words. “We live in a different place, a safe place, away from the city, where people watch over each other. We have many friends in the city, helpers who give us what they can of food and clothing and tools. Most of them have spent time among us, healing and regaining their strength when the cruelties of the world have become too much. Sometimes they bring others to us, the wounded and heartsick who only need time and love to heal again, but who only seem to find cold and pain around them.”

“They took me in,” Cullen said. “I was a salesman, in that old life, with nothing to my name except a beautiful wife who loved me for some crazy reason. I promised her…so many things. Things that I would get for her, anything to make her happy, just as soon as I made it in the business. But she got sick. And there was no money for fancy doctors. When she was gone and I owed more money than my whole life had been worth up to then, I just…walked away. I walked the city, just days, months of nothing. It was cold and hot and wet and dry; I don’t even remember anymore, really. Then this grocer caught me eating out of his garbage can one night, and he gave me the leftovers from his family’s dinner. We sat in the alley and talked. He said, if I came back the next day and helped unload the delivery truck, I could have dinner with him and his wife and the baby. And I kept coming back to help, until I had a place to sleep in the basement and a full stomach every night. I even got new clothes and a haircut so I didn’t put the customers off. And then I was being told this crazy story about a secret world where people look out for each other because it’s right, where people really care, and once you’re in, you’re in for life.” He looked at Mouse, then away. “That part really saved me. I sure as hell haven’t given them a good reason to keep me.”

“Family,” Mouse said. “Don’t need a reason.” He looked at Mischa and Sophile. “Was small. Alone. Wasn’t Mouse then. Wasn’t anybody. Always dark. Always hungry. Cold. Found people. Sang songs, told stories. Afraid they would hurt me. Stole their food. Watched. Quiet as a mouse. Never catch me!” He did a funny thing with his face that was half chagrin and half irony. “Vincent caught me. Had a family then. Missed me when I went. Happy when I came back. Not alone. Never dark. Never hungry. Best.” He frowned, as though in distaste. “Even Cullen.”

“Hey, now!” Cullen punched him in the arm, but there was no heat in the gesture, and Mouse only grinned at the reaction to his joke.

“We depend on secrecy to keep us safe,” Vincent said, “and on the help of many good people.”

“It’s a different way of looking at the world,” Cullen said. “You think you know all about right and wrong. But…you still always have to make compromises up top, how much you want to do what’s right versus how much you want to eat and live peacefully. They’ve made it so there isn’t a compromise Below, not one you have to make alone every day.”

“Not they,” Mouse admonished Cullen. “Been Below longer than Mouse. Made lots.”

If their story wasn’t convincing, the very fact of them, somehow, was. Man and boy each revealed so much of themselves, careful in what they said about their secret world, but uncommonly open about who they each were with little regard for the conventions of small talk and posturing. And for all his pressing silence, his economy with words, the very fact of Vincent, his strange and fantastic face, his intense, penetrating gaze, the height and breadth of him, all spoke of someplace else, someplace extraordinary.

It was a strange thing about war, a thing I hadn’t even recognized until some years later, that that which could provoke the very worst the human soul has in its power to unleash could in the same moment inspire the very greatest. There had been so much darkness to overcome, to survive, a world descended into madness and tragedy, tearing itself apart. But some scarce few had met the darkness, stood strong in the face of terror. Mischa and I knew. We wouldn’t have survived the war if we had stayed in Ostrava, and there had been many hands to help us. Most had to be paid handsomely, but there had been those who were true friends. I had railed at the waste of it all, passing through those iron gates, the wide, desperate eyes of the trapped as terrifying as the cold gaze of our captors. After, the names of the dead had stacked up, and none of it had mattered. So many heroes gone, their families and neighbors gunned down or starved or bombed or gassed, and what point was there to standing up to any of it?

Except that Mischa and I had survived. An aunt, a pair of cousins, a neighbor’s child, each trickling back, each facing the new day and the rubble. I would be in the New World before I felt grateful to be alive, before peace was more than a word for political powers, but also a thing in me, a thing I remembered how to feel. Slowly, the names and faces of the dead haunted less. They became memories, cherished and honored, instead of ghosts. In remembering, we found a reason for today, the knowledge that darkness can strangle and terrify, but the spirit could not be broken. Somehow, in these last months, I had begun to forget.

Our three mysterious guests didn’t stay much longer. The tea and coffee were gone, and the last of the almond roll disappeared into Mouse’s pocket. Cullen started to say something, but I rushed in to remark that they had done us a service by finishing up the sweets, as the two of us couldn’t possibly by ourselves. In any case, it was a relief to see everyone so much more relaxed than when the visit had begun.

Cullen and Mouse made their goodbyes quickly, and with many thanks for the food. Then they slipped out into the hall to see that it was clear. Vincent lingered a moment longer.

“Come back and see us again, Vincent,” I told him. “You’re always welcome. You and your friends.”

“Thank you, Sophie. You’ve been very kind.”

“I’ll see to it you get back downstairs,” Mischa said.

Vincent nodded. He looked at me once more. “Be well.”

My hand was still raised in a little wave when Mischa shut the door behind him.

The next morning was gray and windy, and it didn’t clear up even after lunch. The people on the TV had said we’d see a few days of blustery weather. Well, it couldn’t be helped.

I was tying my kerchief when Mischa came out of the kitchen. He stopped at the sight of me in my coat and shoes. “Mother! Where are you off to?”

“I’m going down to Rosalie’s for coffee with the ladies. Tell me what you need, and I’ll stop at the store before I come home.”

He raised his eyebrows, and I met his gaze steadily.  

After a moment, he looked out the window. “It’s bad weather. Do you want me to walk with you?”

“Mischa. It isn’t two blocks. I can still manage. I thought we’d have fish for dinner. How does that sound?”

He stepped forward and pulled me in for a brief kiss. With his hand still on my cheek, he smiled. “Fish sounds wonderful, my brave Sophie. Enjoy your time with the ladies.”

“I will.” I had my hand on the door when I paused. “Oh, Mischa?”

“Yes?”

“I was thinking I’d call Cathy tonight. I think we still have a few boxes of the children’s things in storage, old clothes and blankets and things that don’t mean much to anybody anymore. I’m sure she knows how to give them a good home.”

“I think you’re right.”

“Someday, I want to see their safe world,” I added. “I’m sure it must be a wonderful place.”

“Someday, Mama, I’m sure we’ll see it.”

“But you know, it doesn’t take a different world to be a good place, full of people who look out for each other.”

Mischa smiled that smile that I had never grown tired of, the one that made his eyes bright. “No, Mama. I don’t think we have to travel far for that.”

 

Art by Linn: Mischa hugging Sophie.

 

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