The next day turned out to be a beautiful, sunny Sunday. It was still winter, but as I walked on an unannounced visit to Grandpa, sunrays warmed my face. On my way there, I passed by Ben’s apartment and glanced at it, wondering if he was home, last night’s conversation fluttering through my mind. Rounding the corner, I saw Marta and Mila walking her dog. They ambled toward me. I crossed the street in hopes of evading them, but my preventative measure didn’t work. Known for her loud mouth, Marta couldn’t restrain herself.
“You’re too late! He isn’t home,” she called out through cupped hands.
“I wasn’t looking for anyone, Marta.”
“Strange, I could’ve sworn you’ve been stalking Ben for awhile,” Mila added. The girls were much closer to me now. We were almost passing, the street spreading between us.
“If you are talking about last night, I’m afraid it was the other way around,” I turned toward her.
“He was with you last night?” Mila’s voice raised an octave. In her conquest of Ben, she must have lived with the hard reality that he and I shared a deep bond that would not be easy to dissolve. After all, Ben and I had been inseparable for over a year. Not to mention that not too long ago, he wanted to make me his girlfriend.
“We had a really good time.”
“My brother says he doesn’t want to give you any more lessons. He says you lack talent and are a drag to teach,” Mila called after me.
The comment about her brother stung, even though I suspected she had made it up to hurt me.
When Grandma answered the door, I saw a look of concern flash across her face. She let me in and sat me down, asking what had happened. In neutral terms I relayed to her a summary of what had occurred between the girls and me. She waved her hand. Unless I was physically injured, there was nothing to worry about, she said. Theirs were just meaningless words.
“Where is Grandpa?”
“Went out on a walk with the neighbor from upstairs,” Grandma declared, placing a steaming bowl of soup on the table. “Eat, child, eat. It will warm you up and make you feel better.”
I dug in my spoon and stirred the colorful medley of cooked vegetables.
“How come Grandpa speaks fluent Russian?” I asked. “Did he learn it during the war?”
“Oh, no.” Grandma danced around the kitchen. “He’s spoken it since he was a child. Do you want a slice of bread with your soup?”
I shook my head. “I thought he was born in Poland.”
“He was. But his father was Russian. He was an old medic from Siberia.”
“A medic?” I asked, realizing how little I knew about my own origins.
“Oh, yes. He was a strange man. A good man, but very strange. Burly and robust. But he had a gentle soul, a good heart. Jan called his father a magician.”
I sensed I had just stumbled onto something very important. “What happened to him? How come I never met him?”
“He died before you were born. Jan was but a child. He, his brothers and his mother arrived here alone.”
“That’s terrible. To lose a parent so soon, I mean.”
Grandma shrugged. “Times were hard. People died like flies. But I don’t know. He never talked about how he felt. Not like people do nowadays. People these days are much more concerned about feelings. I like this, I don’t like that, she hurt me with this, he made me sad, on and on like that. Back when we were young, different things were a priority. Like survival. Do you want more soup?” Grandma stood next to the pot, holding a dripping ladle.
“No, thank you. I’m getting full,” I rubbed my belly, clearly disappointing her.
“You are too thin. You should eat more,” she plunged the ladle back into the pot.
“Tell Grandpa I’ll be back tomorrow,” I said, putting on my jacket.
“You’re leaving already?”
“I have some research to do,” I said to avoid making up a lie. If I was on a quest for truth, I needed to practice telling it. It was too easy to make things up for the sake of convenience; something I saw was running rampant among my family members and my peers, each day adding to the Gordian knots of falsehood tightening all around me. I kissed Grandma goodbye, and flew down the stairs.
He was a strange man. . . . Jan called his father a magician. . . . I kept thinking on my way home.
Once I was in my room, I took out the drawing Grandpa had made for me with the man dancing around the fire. Could this be how he remembered his father? Magic. That was it—old pagan magic. That was the atmosphere, the underlying current running through Grandpa’s sketches.
I was so absorbed in my world that I didn’t notice my parents arguing in the kitchen, until Dad slammed the door to the basement so loud I was sure it would come off its hinges.
“Why don’t you just leave for good?” I heard Mom’s angry yell. “Go back to your mistress and never come back!”
My nerve endings coiled up like fire-singed hair. After a month of relative peace, they were at it again. I heard Dad running back up the basement steps before stopping right outside my door.
“Oh, yeah?” he screamed. “And what are you going to eat? Dirt?”
“I can manage fine without you!” she cried. “I’d rather live on air than have you infest this house with your poison.”
“I don’t think so,” he laughed. “And frankly I think your parents are sick of having three more mouths to feed!”
“Get out!” Mom screamed. “Get the hell out!”
I heard them grappling and I stormed out of my room before anyone got hurt.
“Stop it!” I screamed. “Stop hurting each other, please! I can’t take it anymore!”
“Go back to your room!” Dad ordered, looking at me over his shoulder. He was holding Mom by her wrist but she managed to wrestle herself out of his grasp.
“I won’t go anywhere until you stop,” I said, and wedged myself between them, to shield Mom with my body. I had no idea where all this courage was coming from.
“Of course!” Dad burst out, throwing up his hands. “They are always on your side. My own children,” he said, and turned away. Mom and I stood there together, trembling, until the sound of the car engine was beyond the range of our hearing.
“Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” I asked Mom.
“I’m fine. I’ll be fine,” she nodded, wiping her tears.
“Let’s just run away.”
Mom laughed. “To where?”
“Anywhere. Just away from here.”
“He is right. How will I feed you?”
“You’ll find a job.”
We entered the kitchen and Mom sat down at the dining table. It hurt to see her looking so battered and helpless.
“I’ve been trying for years. It’s harder than you think for someone as old as me.”
I spent the afternoon with Mom in the kitchen. While she drank the tea I made for her, I plotted our escape routes all the way to the Baltic Sea. When a television anchor announced a travel documentary, Mom went to the living room, her attention quickly absorbed in a narrative about a mountain trekker. Painted on her face I saw a desire to be free.
My parents’ fight, and my earlier squabble with Mila, affected my mood but not enough to pull me away from my goal. With the night of the full moon approaching, I was hoping for an opportunity to make contact with Sariel, but I had no idea where to begin. Up to this point, he was the one who came to me. Still if the investigation into my ancestry was on the right track, I may have had the blood of a magician running through my veins. I looked at Grandpa’s drawing hoping it would open the door to his mind. I wanted to go deeper, but I was getting a strong sense that Grandpa would be highly against me using my ancestral power, if I had any, to invoke a fallen angel.
I reached for the feather I had hidden under my pillow. It was as real as my own hand, and as soft as his touch, a gentleness that stood in stark contrast to the volatility I had just witnessed play out at home. How could Sariel ever be thought of as dangerous, when my own parents were capable of hurting each other so much? All that the angel wanted was to be free. Was this desire really that dangerous? One would think that in a world marred by possessiveness, control, and violence, the desire to be free would be revered.
Later that night Mom made supper for the two of us, and afterward sat down on the couch to escape into the fictional world of a novel. Conducting a small reconnaissance, I asked her about Rena’s whereabouts and she said that my sister was spending the night at our cousin’s house. I knew that meant that both girls, who were roughly the same age, were going to sneak to a discotheque, taking advantage of carnival before Ash Wednesday, which marked the beginning of Lent. Without the need to say it, we both didn’t expect to see Dad home tonight. She said that she suspected Dad wouldn’t be coming home tonight.
The phone rang, startling us both. Since I was standing next to it, I picked it up.
“Eve, hi, it’s me.”
“Will you be home tonight?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Maybe. Why?”
“I need to see you. Can I come over?”
I had no intention of spending my entire evening with Ben. I had preparations to make. After being left a feather, I had high hopes for the night. Sariel was listening. His presence was near; I could feel it. Still, hearing the near-desperate need to see me in Ben’s voice made me feel like I had won something.
“Not sure. Ten maybe?”
“Eight,” I said. He agreed and we hung up.
“Are you and Ben friends again?” Mom asked without lifting her eyes off her book.
“I’m glad. He’s a nice guy.”
Ben knocked on the front door a half hour before eight. He looked distressed when I opened the door. Mom made us lemon tea, and on a platter arranged whatever she could find—stiff raisins, cracked marquise cookies, leftover pieces of hardened marzipan. We didn’t even touch the plate.
Sitting in my room in silence, me on the revolving stool, he on the carpet, our eyes meandered without aim. It was like the old days and yet very different. Occasionally, our gazes would brush against each other, he would smile and I would catch a glimmer in his eyes, which made the eight-hundred-year-old Hildegard von Bingen composition playing softy in the background sound more like a requiem than a celebratory hymn.
Ben extended his lean arm to set his empty cup to the side. “I need your help,” he said.
“Help me break up with Mila.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’m totally serious. It is not right for her or for me.”
“What isn’t right?”
“Me staying with her, keeping her around, while she thinks this can actually go somewhere.”
“Please, Ben, be specific.”
“She’s just . . . so different from you,” he began, and soon the dam cracked and he went on and on about how she is becoming jealous and obsessed, constantly checking his whereabouts, how he feels trapped and even bored, all the things I knew that would happen.
I didn’t hide the hint of a smile dawning on my lips. Though, on the other hand, I feared that he was here not only to figure out how to end it with Mila but also how to rekindle things with me.
“She doesn’t understand the things that come so naturally to us. It’s like I have to explain everything to her a million times before she gets what I’m trying to say.”
“How am I supposed to help you? Isn’t this something that’s entirely up to you? If you don’t want to be with her, why don’t you just tell her?”
“I wish it were that simple.”
“It is, Ben!”
“No, it’s not. She is too sensitive. Too delicate. It will break her.”
“Then I think you only know half of her.”
“No, you don’t understand,” I saw desperation in his eyes. “She threatened she’d hurt herself if I broke up with her.”
“And how am I supposed to help you prevent that? You can pick pretty words, but the meaning will remain the same.”
“I don’t know,” he said, looking lost. “Maybe I just needed to talk to you again, to feel you still cared about me. You do, don’t you?”
“Is this why you really came, Ben?”
“I wanted to see you again. Last night I felt like we ended on a bad note.”
“You asked me for forgiveness.”
“I forgive you, Ben. But past is past. We can’t go back,” I said, simultaneously feeling the urge to hug him.
“I wish we still could.”
“Unfortunately time moves only in one direction.”
“Evelina?” He reached out his hand and touched mine.
He held it, rubbing my skin with his thumb. “I’m sorry.”
“Why do you keep apologizing?”
“I don’t know,” he said, slumping briefly before he withdrew his hand and stood up. “I guess it’s because I have nothing else to say to you.”
The sadness in his words made everything around us go cold and still. Part of me wanted to believe that we could recover the connection we once shared, to mend things, before we lost it all. But another part of me already gave up. I was caught between wanting him to stay and go away.
“I’d better go,” he finally said. “Thanks for the tea.”
Alone, standing in the middle of my room, I listened to Ben put on his shoes in the foyer before exiting my house. I squeezed my fists and took a deep breath holding back my tears. I missed him already. And yet, it was so hard to be with him these days. When he wasn’t around, I wanted Ben near me, but when he got too close, I’d push him away. It used to be so easy between us. So much had changed. I knew the direction in which he wanted to lead us. He wanted the language of the body to play a part in our communication. But I only wanted that with Sariel, the one I couldn’t have, or even touch.
I checked on Mom, who was in the living room watching a movie, and quietly went to the bathroom to wash the crystal wine glass in the sink. Tidying up my room, I waited for the moon to rise above the neighbor’s roof and for Mom to go to bed. Once the house was quiet and still, I began lying on the bed with the feather resting on my heart.
From the moment I shut my eyes, things were not going the way I had hoped they would. Halfway down my descent into a dream state, I was losing control. My visions of flying, and my chant, Rise up, fall in love, became Descend, fall into the pit. I searched for Sariel, stumbling through the endless expanse of gray rocks, ground splitting underneath my feet, the hollow abyss trying to swallow me whole. Until, it happened. I fell in.
My body hit the bottom of a pit. Bruised and aching all over, I shivered as pairs of shining eyes blinked around. Creeping out from the darkness, demonic bodies crawled toward me. Claws, fangs, distorted faces, torn, decaying bat-like wings growing out of their backs.
There was no place for me to run. The demons surrounded me from every side. The ground beneath me was translucent. Below it, in the subterranean pit, blazed an inferno. The surface separating me from the fire was thin, and soon the flames broke through and my body began to burn. I felt the scorching heat sear my skin and smelled the stench of burning flesh. The creatures howled at the inevitable loss of their prey, their shrieks threatening to explode my brain.
Sariel! I called, but no reply came. I kept calling his name until I lost my voice and my call became a distant echo.
The loss of my body was painful but also liberating. The fire vanished, the burning sensation receded, and I found myself drifting through an empty void, free and no longer in pain. Would I find him here? I looked up and down and all round me, but I saw nothing but blackness. That’s until my sight caught a white speck floating in the distance. It became larger as it drew closer. I instantly recognized the moon that was hurling at me with unbelievable speed. I shuddered and opened my eyes.
I was still on my back and in the same position as before the dream. Besides my aggravated breathing, I could hear another sound, like a muffled commotion. My father had returned and he was hitting my mother, trying to do so quietly. I heard her stifling cries and my heart sank, giving rise to a wave of deep-seated anger.
Tearing off the sheets, I ran out of my room and into the kitchen. Dad had his back turned toward me. Mom was seated on a chair, covering her head with her hands. His arm was raised, ready to strike.
“Stop now, or I’ll kill you,” I said with a tone that was as foreign to me as it must have been to them. Dad froze and turned around slowly. My eyes must have been shooting daggers because even though his mouth opened, he couldn’t say anything. He simply walked away, slamming the doors to the garage behind him, as he usually did when he had nothing left to say or do. Mom removed her arms and I saw that her face was red, bearing marks of Dad’s fist.
“He hit you?” I asked, although I already knew the answer. The rage boiling in my veins compelled me to run downstairs after him and hit him with my own small fists. But Mom stopped me.
“He is drunk and could be dangerous. We have to get away. Go to your room and change. Hurry.”
Mom and I jumped out of the back balcony onto a blanket of fresh snow. Crouching, we ran along fences until we reached the street. We had to be wary, as Dad could’ve been lurking inside any of the passing cars. Chased by fear, adrenaline pumping through our veins, we made it to Grandma’s apartment an hour later. Their lights were already on.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re finally here,” Grandma lamented, opening the doors for us. “I tried calling you. The ambulance is on its way.” Her face showed great distress. “My God! What happened to you?” she added, seeing Mom in bright kitchen light. Mom’s hand ventured to her temple.
“Dad did this,” I said, hoping this would convince her of his true character, which she kept defending. “How did you know we needed help?”
Grandma looked confused. “I didn’t. I called because Jan has another attack. He couldn’t breathe.”
Mom rushed to his room and we followed. Grandpa was still coughing violently. Upon seeing his daughter’s battered face, his coughing increased. I could see anger in his eyes and a terrible sense of hopelessness.
“Don’t worry. I will not let him touch her ever again,” I said, taking his hand into mine. He looked at me and for the first time in my life, I saw fear in his eyes. Mom sprang to action, piling pillows behind his back to prop him up while Grandma gently patted his back.
The ambulance came and took Grandpa, his wife and daughter away. I stayed behind in my grandparents’ apartment and bolted the door. Crouching beside it, hands on my forehead, body slumping in shock and exhaustion, I let out a loud cry and a long stream of tears flowed from my eyes. When the emotional storm passed, I got up and went to the living room where I curled up on the sofa and shut my eyes.
When I awakened, it was already late afternoon. Grandma was home and busy in the kitchen. A mouthwatering smell was seeping into the room. Through the glass doors that separated the kitchen from the living room, she saw that I was up and came in to tell me that she had made pancakes. Sitting at the table, I asked about Grandpa, and she said his condition had stabilized. The doctor said that he had contracted pneumonia and needed to stay under medical supervision for a few days. I asked her about Mom, whom she said had gone to her brother’s house to ask him to get Rena.
I picked at the food on my plate while a movie was playing on the television, but once the sun had set and darkness of the night began creeping into our town and Mom was still not back, I told Grandma I, too, wanted to go home to fetch clean clothes and get my textbooks, since we would likely be spending another night here. I was not afraid of Dad. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me and that the most vulnerable person before him was Mom, never me or Rena. If anything, he sought to make amends with us, hoping that we’d side with him.
Reluctantly, Grandma conceded under the condition that I wear warm clothes and come back right away. I did not plan to hover at home for long. My plan was to get my things and turn right back. But most of all, I felt a pull to go outside and clear my head. Putting Grandpa’s ushanka hat over my head and surrounding my neck with an extra layer of wool, Grandma sent me off with a wave and a request to hurry.
Traversing the desolate streets, I crossed the market center, catching shadows of people on foot scurrying to get somewhere. I passed by the town’s castle and a small lake with plastic bottles and empty wrappers lining its shore. After that, there were no more people or cars in sight. I quickened my step, passing by an entrance to our town park, shielded from the sidewalk by thick shrubbery. It was a rather low-spirited place with old chestnut trees, rusty swings that hung from their frames like discarded pieces of scrap metal, and a broken fountain that for as long as I could remember had not spurted a single drop of water.
Brushing against the bushes that fenced the park from the street, I felt a sudden pull toward the yawning entrance to the park. I lost balance and almost fell sideways. I panicked, but before I had a chance to utter a sound, an icy hand covered my mouth and stifled my cry. The attacker dragged me into the lightless belly of the park. Struggling to free myself, I waved my hands until they also became immobilized.
“Calm down. I won’t hurt you,” his voice broke through my muffled calls. “I only have a message to relay.” His clothing smelled of mildew, and metabolized alcohol.
The fact that his voice lacked malice calmed me slightly, but it took a few long breaths to steady my breathing. He turned me to face him and placed both of his hands on my shoulders. I looked at him and noticed that his face was serious but not threatening. He was the coated man from the cathedral,
who not too long ago had followed me home. I shivered again. It was always so cold around him.
“What do you want from me?” I asked, my fear returning. “Why have you been following me?”
“I have something to tell you,” he said in a low whisper. His voice was coarse and dry. “But you keep running away.” The man reached inside the flap of his coat and produced a flat object, which he handed to me. A book. I ran my hand over its rough surface, detecting an embossed circle.
“You thought you lost it, but it found you again, see? Every object will eventually find its rightful owner.”
“But how? How did you come upon it?” I pressed the book to my chest.
“I promise to leave you in peace and never return if you promise me one thing,” he said, evading my question.
My mind raced. I had so many burning questions. Who was this man? How did he know so much about me? “What do you want me to promise?” I asked, hoping that his reply would reveal more than one answer.
“That you will find Daniel and help him.”
I felt my eyes widen. “Daniel is alive?”
“Daniel is in terrible danger. He needs help or he will die.”
“But where is he? How can I find him?”
“The answers are in this book. You should read it carefully.”
“Daniel need help,” I repeated. “He’s alive.”
“But you mustn’t tell anyone about this. People will only slow you down. And don’t be afraid. It will slow you down too.”
“I am not afraid. Not anymore.”
“Good. Now go home, and start getting ready. There isn’t much time.”
“I will do that.”
“And when you finally find him, please tell him I am very sorry,” the man said and took a step backward. “That’s the favor I ask.”
“But wait! Who are you? Can you at least give me your name?”
“Stanislaw,” a whisper echoed through the park after his silhouette blended with the shadows of trees.
Where had I heard that name? And why was he sorry? What had he done to Daniel? Holding the book close to my chest, I stood shrouded by the steam of my breath.
And then I remembered. Stanislaw was the name of Daniel’s adoptive father. The truth reached me slowly like the hum of the engine in the approaching car outside the park. No wonder Mom hadn’t seen this man in the cathedral. No wonder the night Stanislaw followed me on the bridge, my neighbor thought I was running from cold when I asked her to drive me home. The neighbor couldn’t see my perpetrator. This would explain why he left no footprints in the snow outside Daniel’s hospital window.
Stan was long dead, a ghost haunted by guilt, seeking redemption through Daniel’s forgiveness.