By: Kate Sakdalan
“Go Rafa. Mommy’s gonna' be fine. Your father and I love you so much. Remember that always. I love you. I’ll see you again, I promise you.”
My mother kissed me on my forehead, tears welling up in her eyes.
Her arms wrapped around me, almost like if she let go, I would fall. She tried to stay strong for me;I could tell she was holding in tears. The reason for that, I didn’t understand.
“Just go with your Aunt Karolina. She’ll take care of you.”
“Mamusia why can’t I be with you? Daddy told me everything is gonna' be okay.”
Before I could hear her answer, I could feel my aunt’s hands resting on my shoulders, slowly pulling me away from my mother’s vision. As we stepped out the door, with luggage in our hands, the rain splattered onto our coats.
“Keep your head down Rafa,” my Aunt whispered.
I did as I was told and was suddenly fascinated with the laces on my boots. Our feet pitter-pattered on the sidewalks for at least a lengthy two hours until we reached her cottage. A shack would be an understatement. Aunt Karolina’s cottage could barely be called a place to live. There was dirt spread all over the floor and white spider webs in every corner.
“I know it’s not the best compared to your old house, but this will have to do for the time being all right? Your bedroom is just down the hall.”
Without a word, I sauntered over to my room, with the wooden floors creaking beneath my shoes. I placed my pecan colored, leather luggage onto the bed, covered with lint balls in all sizes. The aroma of old lady clothes, that certainly haven't been washed recently, filled my nostrils.
Just as I unlatched the silver buckles on my case, there was a knock that emerged from the door. I could hear footsteps approaching my room when Aunt Karolina stepped out and instructed me,
“Go in that corner over there.”
She pointed her slim finger to the tight space between the wall and my closet, “Stay there until I say otherwise. If I say, I’ll be right back, go through the back door of the house and run. You understand me Rafa?”
She used her hands to shoo me away into the corner while she hurried over to the door. I instantly became flummoxed and speechless. “Why is she acting like this?” I thought, “Is there something wrong?”
The creaking of the door revealed muffled pieces of speech, but I tried to make out what they were saying.
“Miss, step aside. We have orders to search your home, Nazi orders,” a man announced.
“Oh really?” she hesitated.
I could hear her taking deep breaths, fidgeting with her hands, and shuffling her feet.
“Would just give me a moment, please. I just need to grab my robe-please, feel at home.”
With that, she turned into my room, with eyes as big as golf balls and mouthed the word,
I could tell it from her eyes that she didn’t want me to. Her brown watery doe eyes gave it all away. She knew she didn’t want to, but for some reason that I didn’t know of, I had to leave. With quiet feet, I moved to the next room, which led to the back door. I took one last glance at my aunt and exchanged words without even speaking. Her eyes told of fear and sorrow. With that last glance only held for a few seconds, I was gone and out the door.
I wandered the streets, not really knowing where I was going. Car horns were blasting, while the sounds of people were clamorous. While I was dragging my feet across the sidewalks, I saw a symbol on a building. It was a flag that was hanging down, and it was massive. The flag contained a vibrant red with a white circle containing a black logo. The black symbol inside seemed to have four “L” shaped blocks going in the same direction, all connected in the middle. A tiny shrug and a heavy sigh were all that was needed for me to keep moving forward. Just as I was recollecting my thoughts and questions, a man approached me. He had dirty blonde hair with piercing blue-green eyes. He wore a long dark coat that had a red cross on the left sleeve.
“Well hello, there young man. I dare say you look a tad bit… dusty. It is my job to help children that look like you do right now, so all I need for you to do is answer one question for me. Can you do that?” I simply nodded without making any eye contact. How am I supposed to tell if this guy wants to help me or if he’s like the people at Aunt Karolina’s house? Like the Nazis?
“Are you alone? Do you know where your parents are? Or any relative?” His kind tone helped me relax a bit. My tense shoulders gave out with an exhausted sigh. All I want to do is go home. To my mom, to my dad, to my Aunt. All of that has been taken away from me, hasn’t it? My eyes slowly rose over his face and with clear eyes, I nodded my head. The man calmly reached his hand out to mine and walked with me until we reached a truck that had the same mark on his shoulder. Before helping me into the van, he placed his hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes, “We’re only here to help you. We are here to care for you. We’re bringing you to an orphanage, where other children are just like you. When this mess is over, I will help you find your parents. I promise.”
With those last words, the white truck with the cherry colored logo began to move and take me away.
I guess that somehow explains how I found myself in the orphanage. In a rusty building, surrounded by other kids: some my age, some younger, and some older. It’s been about a week since I left everything. Since the heartache started - since the nightmares began and the chills I got every time I heard older kids talking about stuff that’s happening outside. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone approaching, but I just shrugged it off. It’s probably just another nun coming to ask if I’m okay.
“Hi-de-ho. Whatcha' doin’? You look like you could use some company.”
I peered over my shoulder to sneak a peek at this boy that seemed to have appeared from nowhere. There was a mass of jet black hair placed atop his head with keen grey eyes to match. No older than ten, I thought, but there’s no way he’s younger than me either.
“The name’s Patryk, but you can call me Pat if you’d like.”
I looked at him with a befuddled gaze, still not understanding why he’s talking to me, but I tried to appear nonchalant. He poked his hand out in front of my chest, still waiting for me to speak. He seemed to be amicable enough and I didn't exactly have any friends here yet, so I figured I should at least show some sort of compassion to him.
“Oh uh, hi my name’s Rafal, people call me Rafa.”
I reached out and shook his hand with a curt nod, trying to emulate my father.
“Sorry if I seem a little eager. It’s just that I’ve only gone there a few days ago and I was hoping’ to make some friends while I’m here. I’m nine years old by the way. How old are you?” he blurted with a faint florid flush of embarrassment.
“No worries,” I assured with a smile, “I just got here last week too. And I’m eight, by the way.”
Days of playing with Pat turned into weeks. The adventures of Pat and Rafa were endless, we had different journeys and stories every night. From playing pirates to pretending to be in the army, on enemy lines, our minds could take us anywhere. Until one night, in late November when Pat wanted to go to sleep, but I wanted to stay up for a bit.
“You go ahead, I just wanna' stay up for a bit,” I whispered to Pat, signaling him to go off to bed. I tiptoed across the halls and up the stairs until I reached the top level, with curiosity running wild in my mind. I’m not really sure what drew me toward that room. Maybe it was because it was slightly opened, or maybe it was because of moonlight in the crack of the door. I opened the door, to find a small room, no bigger than a walk-in closet. The whole room was bared in white and with an arched window, with two panels on each side. That was when I noticed the walls. Tiny cracks were covering the entire room, some large enough to have rays of the moon slide through.
Moonlight wasn’t the only thing coming through the cracks. Voices. Of my mom. Of my dad and of my aunt. I can see their faces as each whisper told of a memory.
“Go Rafa. Mommy’s gonna' be fine. Your father and I love you so much. Remember that always. I love you. I’ll see you again. I promise you,” my mother kissed me on my forehead, tears welling up in her eyes.
My mom’s voice led me into that room. Her melodic and peaceful voice led me to believe that she was on the other side of the wall. Quickly, I pulled out a piece of paper out of my short pockets and a minuscule pencil. I needed a way to talk to her, and let her know that I’m all right. With the flick of my wrist, my pencil was on the paper as I began to write,
November 23, 1942
I just wanted to let you know that I’m okay. How are you? Has Daddy come back yet from the war? I have so much to tell you. I’ve missed you so much, but I’ve made some friends here at the orphanage. I can’t wait to see you again Mommy. I’m waiting here for you. Where are you? When are you coming?
I slowly aligned the edges of the paper and folded it in half. I inspected the room, looking for the perfect spot to send my letter. I wandered over to the right side of the room and carefully placed my letter inside of the crack. “There we go,” I sighed to myself, “Now she’ll for sure get my letter.” I shuffled over to the white door, with tan streaks of wood showing, and lightly closed the door.
Night after night, I came back into the room, diligently writing to mom, and telling her about my day. It was my refuge in the middle of all the problems around me. Sometimes I wonder why she never responds, but then I just assume she’s busy trying to get our family together. Writing to her became my everyday routine. Sometimes I would look out the window and see boys playing on the streets with white and black uniforms. I’ve been offered to play with them, but I’d rather not. I mean who wants to get all dirty trying to get a single ball? I know I wouldn’t. Pat has been asking for me to play with him and he’s been wondering why I disappear right after dinner. I could tell him where I’ve been going and how I’ve been able to talk to my parents, but he would steal the room for himself.
In the middle of my thoughts, one of the nuns stood in front of the dining hall and called everyone to her attention.
“Now I just wanted to inform you all that the Red Cross might not visit us as often as before. Also, new children will be arriving daily so I except all of you to be on your best behavior,” she declared.
She fiddled with her hands and was muttering something, but I couldn't make out what she was saying. She seemed to be nervous about her statement as if there was a severe consequence that would happen later on. It can’t be that bad, a couple of visits less from the Red Cross can’t hurt anyone, can it?
“Hey, Rafa! Where are you heading now? You’ve only just finished your meal! How bout’ we play some pirates?” he quickly ended his sentence with a couple of monstrous coughs. He sounded terrible and looked just the same, but I really needed to get away from him before he started asking too many questions.
“Uh, no thanks Pat, but I’ll be back in a jiffy, then we’ll play. Is that all right with you?” I said with a hopeful voice that he wouldn’t find me suspicious. He squinted his eyes a bit as if he could see right through me.
Something was off about him, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. His eyes were hooded as if he was just trying to stay awake. We stood like that for hours as though it seemed, even though it was only a few minutes, in the dining hall filled with other kids. My lips were in a pursed line while his eyes seemed to get narrower every second, staring right at me. Our gaze finally broke, however, with his eyes, never leaving mine, even as he fell to the floor clutching his stomach with the grip of a vice.
“Oh my goodness! Help! Help! Get the Red Cross here as fast as you can. Someone help me lift him,” a nun instructed to others.
It was lightning quick, from having a stare down with Pat, then seeing him collapsed on the floor, unconscious. Some of the older boys here lifted my best friend’s body over their broad shoulders and carried him away. Still left with confusion, I sprinted down the hallways and chased after the boys that were carrying my friend. They brought him into a room, which I noticed to be apart of the medical wing and I hid behind a corner as the boys all left the room. When I was sure the coast was clear, I snuck behind the door and peeked through the small crack that allowed me to see the nuns and Pat.
“I’m afraid we can’t do anything until the Red Cross comes back, which you know might not be until a couple of weeks,” one nun from the right side of Pat’s bed announced. The others all slowly nodded their heads as if they were silently agreeing there was nothing to be done for my best friend.
“With all of these new attacks, there’s a bigger need for places to keep children. Clearly, we can’t keep up with the food supply and the medications. This endangers all of the children here. I’m not even sure if this is safe anymore,” the nun in the back of the room sighed. One of them, with a frown, etched on her face, placed her tiny hand on Pat’s hand and with a bow of her head, they all marched out of the room one by one. I went back to my place behind the corner and waited for the feet to stop moving. When the entire world seemed to be as quiet as a mouse, I opened the squeaky door and sat in the white chair on the right of Pat’s bed. As I was staring at him, his one eye slowly opened and he turned over to fully face me on his side.
“Did ya' hear what they said? I was awake the whole time ya know. I only woke up-” he paused as he closed his eyes and coughed, “I only woke up when they placed me on the bed. There’s no cure for me Rafa. I know it, I can feel it. But I guess it’s all right; it’s just one step closer to meeting my parents.”
His last sentence caught me by surprise.
“What do you mean? If you die you’ll never meet your parents Pat,” I shouted at him, enraged at his idea. He looked back at me with pure annoyance evident in his drowsy eyes. I guess I must have sounded condescending for Pat to say his next response.
“What’s wrong with you Rafa! You’re such a fat-head! Did you really think our parents are still alive? Why do you think we’re all here? We’ve all been left and they just throw us in here cause’ they don’t know what to do with us! Did you really think your mom gave you away just because she wanted to put you with your aunt? Or that the reason that your parents haven’t picked you up in months is that they haven’t found you?” he screamed.
I jumped at his sudden outburst. How can he say that! There’s no way they’re dead. What about my letters? They have to make it to my parents… right? I questioned myself.
“Just because you’re convinced your parents are dead doesn’t mean mine are! If you want to think that way go ahead, but you don’t have to snap your cap at me.”
With that, I stomped my foot and walked out of his room with clenched fists. I stormed upstairs to my letter room and closed the door, locking myself away from everyone. My back fell against the door and I sank down onto the floor. I felt as if I had been lied to this whole time, but at the same time, I knew it was inevitable for me to find out eventually. My parents were dead and there was nothing I could do about it. The thought of never seeing them broke my heart into two pieces. My elbows were placed on my knees as I put my head in my hands and silently wept. I cried for my mom who gave me away even though she knew she would be dead by the morning after an attack on our town. I cried for my father who went out to war knowing that he would never come back. The final tears were for Aunt Karolina who got dragged and ripped away from everything she had, even her dirty little shack. The sound of my sobbing brought me closer and closer to slumber until I slowly fell into the hands of sleep.
Bright rays of the sun were drawn to my eyes as I awoke in my hideaway room. Hastily, I pulled out a piece of paper that I had been planning on using the night before, after seeing Pat. I brought out the pencil that I carried along with the paper and began to write.
July 8, 1944
Dear Mom, Dad, and Aunt Karolina,
I’m sorry it has taken me this long to realize the truth. I’m not even sure why I’m writing this. I know now that not everything was a game. I know what’s going on outside. I know why the Red Cross hasn’t been visiting. It’s really the war’s fault, isn’t it? That’s the reason why none of you are here anymore. But I can’t change anything, can I? I think that’s what upsets me the most. The fact that everything is changing and I can’t do a single thing to stop it. I don’t think they’ll be any more letters to hear from me now.
I folded the paper just like I did for every letter I ever wrote, but this time I didn't even bother to put it through the wall. I knew it would be the last time I stepped into my room to escape the real world, so I left the letter, laying on the floor, waiting to be opened. I rubbed my eyes as I opened the door and trudged down the stairs. Just as I reached the bottom of the stairs, I made the decision to see how Pat was feeling and maybe even talk about last night. Just as I was approaching the door to the medical room, I heard people talking.
“Polio, that’s what it was. Unfortunate that we couldn’t get him the medications in time. I think he could have been saved.” a woman spoke. “At least he’s found peace with his parents now.” I looked through the crack that I watched from the other night and saw the nuns placing a white sheet over a figure lying in Pat’s bed. He’s gone. I thought to myself, He’s gone for good now. A tear escaped from my eyes as I watched my friend lay motionless on the bed. Another life was ripped away from me. At that point, there really wasn’t anyone else I could turn to.
Out of nowhere, a different side of me took control. I wanted to do something in my life that would change someone else's. Just like my mom, dad, and aunt did for me. It might have been the thrill of going on an adventure like Pat and I used to do that told my instincts to go down into the basement or even just my bare instincts I observed my surroundings before I made another move since I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. The basement of the orphanage somehow reminded me of Aunt Karolina’s shack. Filled with cobwebs, and grimy walls, with two wooden doors at the very end. I raced toward the door and ripped them open as I found myself facing the streets outside of the orphanage. I lifted myself onto my feet and eyeballed my left and right. That was when I heard a cry of help. To my left, I saw a boy that looked no older than me, bolting right toward my direction. Behind him, were two men dressed in the same uniforms that I remember to have seen at Aunt Karolina’s house. The boy never took his eyes off of me as he desperately charged at me. I didn’t even know him, but something told me that I needed to help, that I needed to escape from the mundane world that I inhabited. Our eyes locked, sending the message that I was willing to collaborate with him on his escape.
“Come on, come on!” I screamed, “In here!” I pointed to the wooden doors that led into the basement. The scene of the chase was drawing closer and closer to me as I stepped aside to help the boy get into the cellar. In a flash, the boy dived straight into the doorway, with the two men only 20 paces behind him. I took one last glance at the men that were racing right to me. I briskly shut the wooden doors and stood proudly in front of them. They had army green suits on, similar to the toys I used to play with, however, their faces were plastered with hatred and vile sets of eyes. Behind them, was the same red flag I saw before with the black symbol in the middle. These were the men to blame for everything. They were the reason why I didn’t have a family or a friend anymore.
I didn’t feel the need to run anymore. I was done trying to hide from everything that was going on. I looked the men square in the eyes, proving to them that I was not going to move. Once they got to me, I felt hands on my back as they shoved me to the ground. The sidewalk was coming at a rapid speed towards my head and that was when everything blacked out. All of the commotion, that would normally be heard, came to a halt. It was pitch black with complete and utter silence. Maybe my mom was right about what she said, that everything was going to be fine. Once I realized what was actually happening around me, was when I knew what to focus on. I had lived my life focusing on the wrong things because I was too blind to see the truth. I was going to a much larger and grander place of refuge. Somewhere I didn’t have to write letters anymore since I will be with my family and friends there. The room would be for everyone that wanted to be heard in the midst of all problems if they focused on the truth.