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The Resort
by Bohdan Yuri
2017-03-19 07:24:27
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A light rain was falling throughout the day. A late August sprinkling that sometimes pretended to disappear but always left behind its chilling breath. It made the Catskills forget that summer was still here.

The cloudy shades of grey moved steadily, the lower layer more swiftly. A faint mirage glowed through the thinner layers. It was the sun, dimmed, and not nearly as warm as yesterday.

ukrain_400Some of the guests at the Ukrainian Resort complained about the weather, saying that it gave them nothing to do for the rest of the day. And yet, they always talked with one another, laughing at the slightest anecdote. They seemed happy.

I on the other hand, adored the summer rain and its impending challenge; daring me to extract a magical color from its monochromatic gray cover. I always enjoyed sitting on the porch, just out of the rain's reach, embarking on imaginary journeys that were cradled with quiet sensations of thought. Perhaps it was the natural rhythm of splashing waters that never let me disappear completely, though, it was spellbinding.

The breathless excursions of running play were usually left to the sunny empty spaces. Sometimes, I played both sides. However, on this particular day my fanciful daydreams were sliced open and, inside, I saw loneliness for the first time. I did not know that it would be so painful.

After dinner, the rain eased up a bit, enough to allow for casual strolling on the grounds by some of the guests. A group of nearby neighbors started up a volleyball game on one of the courts. A few of the younger guests joined them.

Being so late in the season, it was too cold even for swimming up here, my favorite; not too many nearby pools in the city. Unfortunately too, most of my friends from back home were either on trips elsewhere or home getting ready for school starting, and there weren't any other kids my age to play with, only Sonya and Irena. They were sisters. Sonya was the oldest, she was four. I was nine and a half.

One time, I'd asked my mother why I didn't have any brothers or sisters like my friends. She told me that she had gotten sick and couldn't have any more children, a flaw in her dream and mine. I let it go because all answers are temporary at that age anyway.

Still, I didn't mind not having other playmates, this time. Just two weeks ago when we stayed at Hunter, I got to play with lots of kids. Some that I had known from previous vacations. So it was all right that I had no brothers or sisters, I got used to it.

My childhood seemed normal though. Sure, I'd envy friends who had older brothers to play with, to show them neat stuff. But the envy was short lived, merely an occupied moment from the time a leaf breaks from its branch until it has fallen to earth. I'd always looked forward for the next leaf to grow. It didn't take much to entrap myself with the slightest whim.

So much of my time at the resort was spent wandering through the woods or pirating on the lake nearby. Sometimes I'd listen to the old people talk. Their stories were almost as exciting.

They would talk of lives that shaped their present opinions. At times, I even became their playmate; a protracted glimpse to their own past, perhaps where early years usually rushed by unnoticed. I was a breeze to their toils. But, most of all I loved exploring.

Like the time, two years earlier when I discovered an old road that was struggling to be noticed beneath the virgin growth. It carried me on a long winding climb to a clearing at the top of a hill. I remember picking up two green salamanders along the way, trusty dragons to ease the journey. The red spots on their primeval skins told me how old they were, I placed the oldest one in my jacket's right pocket, the youngest one in the left.

The tall trees hid the sun that day, coating the dark air that floated inside with a trace of danger. After what seemed like a trip to China, I noticed a powder blue edge of sunlight up ahead. I picked up my pace, feeling that safety would prevail in the light. I was cautious, though, because it was also the unknown and I was just seven and a half years old.

When I'd reached the clearing, I hid my hands into my jacket pockets and gently held on to my two salamanders. Each tiny creature with its nervous actions settled my tremors. I rubbed my fingers soothingly over their smooth skins trying to ease their distress. Finally regaining my senses with the calm I surveyed the land.

It was like a vestige of some valiant battleground, perhaps the Civil War. I scripted the final scenes: Mosby's Rangers invading the Catskills. (We'd studied the Civil War last spring hence my instinctive reference.) So, there stood before me four stubborn chimney columns. Each stack reached four storeys. They were spaced so as to divide the length of the stone and concrete foundation into three equal parts. The two center chimneys were wider and had four fireplaces, one on each side of each level. It must have been a huge mansion.

In front of what appeared to be the entrance there were scattered sections of large wooden columns; some were still painted white, the rest were bleached grey. Snakes liked to live underneath them.

Last summer, I had managed to catch a garter snake. I was determined to keep him as a pet that year. I got a large glass jar from the kitchen, poked holes in the metal top and filled it with an assortment of leaves and sticks, stuff that made him feel at home. I kept the jar hidden in the woods so my mother wouldn't know about it, checking every day. I even caught flies for him.

When it was time for us to leave the resort I packed the jar into my knapsack and placed it on a comfortable spot inside the car trunk and then sneaked it into my closet like the coolest spy.
Two days after we returned from the resort the snake got loose in the house. Actually, Mother found the jar, opened it and the snake opted for freedom. I never heard my mother scream so loud.

She ran into the bathroom and wouldn't come out until I caught my friend and put it back into the jar and set the jar outside in the back yard.

That afternoon, my father and I dropped him off at the South Orange Reservation. Wally was his name. My father didn't seem as upset over the incident. "I wished I'd been there so see your Mother's face," was all he said, repeatedly, with a head-shaking giggle.

Anyway, as I stood before this once magnificent structure, I noticed another fairly large building, what must have been a carriage house. It was set further back, amidst the trees.

The bare, weathered walls were leaned into a swayed distortion by the large ancient trees pushing against the outside walls, I wondered how much longer before it's a memory. Only the younger saplings, their branches peeking out of every window kept the structure alive, in time.

I remained at the center of the estate, exploring; dodging imaginary walls, as I weaved my way across the floor plan of the foundation. Stairways, now gone. Vanished dreams and voices shrouded in muted times; as if an evil sorcerer had cast spell demons to ravage pillage and burn great things.

I played out a distant dream of my own, hoping to hear an echo. None arrived, so I made them up with each bit of charcoaled evidence I picked up. Railing posts, (weapons), once exquisitely carved now partially consumed by its destiny. If the air had voices...?

When the sun's reach let go of the far chimney I headed back. But not before pulling out my trusty companions, Howdy (the older one) and Doody. I gave them a real good pep talk saying how this next thing is gonna be something really great. Then on the count of three I threw Howdy up into the sky above me. It looked so cool, his feet swimming in air. He was flying, what a lucky fellow, I thought...then the frantic realization: timing and soft hands. Luckily he survived.

Then it was Doody's turn, I'd kept him in my pocket because I didn't want him to be scared watching Howdy fly......Same thing, little rougher landing but he was quick to regain his composure. I was sure that it was gonna be the highlight of the tiny creatures' lives. I couldn't help but think, what a story they had to tell the guys back home.

On the return, I wondered, what it would be like if all the salamanders were suddenly able to fly. Would they chase the birds down, into walking, because of the reckless way that lizards flew. And what if frogs were also allowed to fly....oh the possibilities drew no boundaries.

Halfway down I let Howdy Doody go, returned them to their large living room. They looked up, moved slowly at first, confused, then in a blink they disappeared beneath the leaves, I continued on.

It was easier going downhill but I felt more tired, each step pounded rocks and dirt while slipping into rain gutted ruts. Leaving anywhere meant you were somewhere, but where was that mansion I wondered? I don't know why I never went there this particular summer.

Anyway, I had stayed inside the large Victorian style resort building throughout most of the rainy day; watching two older men play chess. They played slowly, as if the fate of the world were being determined by each decision. I studied my own options of strategy with each of their moves.

My father had taught me how to play chess, when I was six. I never was able to beat him. I did manage to play him to a draw once when I was 12. I think even he was surprise at that time.  Although, I did checkmate my mother. The first time was just after that summer. I always wondered if she let me win that time. Took me 5 years before I did it again. So yeah, I'm sure she did.

Both of my parents were extremely good chess players. They'd said that there were times that that was their only form of entertainment.

After recessing for dinner, the men returned with glasses of beer. They began to play carelessly after their second or third. That's when I went outside.

I noticed my parents, walking towards the granite monument of Ivan Franko, a Ukrainian poet. With them was an older gentleman who I later learned was a history professor at a German University. The other woman was "Aunt" Helen, a frequent visitor to our house in Maplewood. She wasn't really a related aunt but real aunts were scarce in this new country at the time, the fifties. Most family relatives were still left behind in Ukraine.

Aunt Helen was a good person, fun loving. She always showered me with presents on my birthdays and Christmas. It was God's cruel plotting to leave her single and childless in her lost loving years. Her husband had died in the early years of the war. Afterwards, she had forgotten the reasons to become a mother. I was a convenient replacement.

My father told me that they had traveled to America together. The professor and Aunt Helen's husband had been good friends before the war. They were both from the same village in the Lemko district of Ukraine. He'd first met the professor while studying at Heidelberg.

There were many other such conclave circles that had traveled similar roads, Fate mapping the course. Those that were strangers in Europe let that road begin in this country. Being Ukrainian, our common bond made it easier to begin anew.

My parents were always introducing me to newfound "old" friends. Each time they'd all start recalling what they had  known in Ukraine. My mother's  memories were the best. She grew up with three sisters, and her sinewy youth glowed with childhood escapades. I always wondered what their versions of her stories would be like.

My Father on the other hand was often recalling the darker days of war. His father had died in 1918 on the Eastern Front in the First World War, six weeks before he and his twin brother Mikhaylo were born.

Nobody knew too much of how or why except it was when the battlefront suddenly shifted.

His Mother remarried and had more kids but he said people in the village told him she was never the same after Jacob died. (Two half-brothers and two half-sisters, and again, no nearby relatives, all in Poland and Ukraine...including, Uncle Mikhaylo, Father's twin.)

Throughout the years I'd observed some of the obstacles that had challenged my parents. Most of the earlier ones were born and spiked with the "Red Scare" McCarthy hearings that gripped a tighter prejudice during the Cold War.

Then in the Sixties returning to the simpletons' correlation code of judging accents with intellect; I'd sometimes overhear Father's remarks about the many promotions that went to those less deserving. Many nights I'd hear my father practicing speech sounds. He worked hard but his accent stayed with him till death...and I was glad. It was our most connecting waveband.

Somehow though he'd managed to overcome each obstacle in his own fashion. One time, I watched him punch a man for telling my mother to go back where she came from. It wasn't common for my father to use violence to solve things but this particular man was making my mother cry with his constant harassment. I didn't know it at the time but I was very proud of my Father.

As the sky lost its light the guests retired to their respective nightly habits. The nearby neighbors, playing volleyball, stopped by the bar for a few cold drinks before returning home.

If it were the weekend most guests would be getting all dressed up for the dances held in the ballroom. But Wednesdays were usually a day of mid exchanges and subdued vacationing.

Most of the other guests returned to their rooms or cottages, perhaps eager to catch all of tomorrow's promised sunlight. A few regulars stayed on in the large lobby, pairing off with like company, including my parents. They would always let me stay up late with them during the summers, sometimes as late as midnight.

Night time, to me, had always been the most interesting part of the day because I'd get a chance to pretend that I was also grown up. It'd made my dreamy games always seem more mature.

My nightly parlor activities usually amounted to wandering from group to group, listening. A game of checkers, chess with anybody, including myself, sometimes I'd be a fill-in for card games. Tyshachka (Thousand) was my favorite.

Only three people can play a hand at a time but a fourth player could be added if each player rotated to skip a turn on each new deal. The first player to accumulate one thousand points won the game.

I could never learn to win at it, always took too many reckless chances on my bidding. That usually made me the center of attention though. Still, the other people didn't mind; lotta laughs came with my style of play and I got to know many of the guests that way.

Nevertheless, despite the consuming interactions with the older guests, I always managed to devote a good portion of each evening to curious scenarios that always promised adventures.

The main building at the resort was once the summer home of a wealthy industrialist. When he died, the family squabbled over the estate until it was finally sold to a young entrepreneur.

He tried to establish it as a hotel for the rich and famous, who often visited the area. After the stock market crash most of the rich stopped coming. In time other homes were also sold and later also converted to hotels. That's when the whole Catskills thing took hold.

I often wondered which was larger: the burned out hideaway or the resort bu11ding I let the ghost remain greater. Still, replace the intricate moldings in the resort that were masterfully carved into the dark rich walnut with stonework and it becomes a castle in Camelot. The surrounding porch, covered on all side of the house was the castle wall, from where I observed the kingdom.

During the day I fought off attacking armies or dispatched knights including myself to defend the kingdom against marauding Vikings. Sometimes I was the Viking, stalking, looking for any opening to attack and plunder. At night, when there was darkness and the unknown facing all sides, the enemy was a dragon. I slew two before returning inside.

Most of the guests and workers had retired for the night. There was old man Kalba, resting in his usual chair near the window. His head leaned back against the cushion. His right hand griping his cane as it too rested against his leg. A subtle snore passed his lips.

Most of each day the old man would walk the grounds stopping to talk with everyone on his route. The amount of dialogue usually depended on how tired he was. At the end of the day there were many long seated discussions. He always had a friendly smile as wide and cheery as his rough white beard.

I never stayed up long enough to find out, but I suspected that he slept in the lobby all night. Because each morning at breakfast the old man was cheerfully up and about. Always the first one to be served; filling up with fresh nourishment for the day's new journey. Even when it rained he would still follow his daily r1tual, holding a large black umbrella with his free hand. Although for not as long because the dampness made his bones hurt.

There were two more people. A young man and a young woman were sitting near the library. The man had his arm around the woman's shoulder. They were talking mostly about themselves in between a few kisses. The only other people in the lobby were my parents, the professor and Aunt Helen.

They were all sitting around a card table in the far corner of the room playing tyshachka(thousand). They hadn't noticed that I sat down on the couch.

Aunt Helen was in her forties. My father was thirty-seven at the time, three years older than my mother. I don't know how old the professor was but his dark grey beard, neatly trimmed, made him look older than anyone else sitting at the table.

For some reason I was very tired that day. Probably the second dragon did me in, he was a ferocious one. I had to fight him off with my wooden sword while holding on to the columns along the porch. I wasn't going to tell my parents that I had slipped on the wet railing and fell to the ground, twice. My left side was still a little sore so I lay down and stretched out my limbs.

Behind me, the card game sparked many conversations. As usual, they talked of old times in Ukraine and throughout Europe, and the war and what followed.

Then my father mentioned  something about me being born in 1947, in Germany, saying that he'd had to leave the hospital while my mother was in labor because he had to take an important exam for his doctorate and that his professor was not one to bend the rules.

He told them that he finished the test in half the allotted time and still managed to come ahead of the baby by nearly three hours; also that it was the least amount of time that he had spent on any test. Expecting to do really bad on the score it turned out to be his highest mark all semester. It had been a very good day for him.

Each of the other players also took turns at telling their stories. I was fascinated by some of the tales. That night I found out Aunt Helen was once a ballet dancer in Kiev.

I had often heard these kind of stories late at night, conversations actually. But when I listened to them the moments came alive. I hardly ever had to ask to hear them. It was always around me and I had become accustomed to listening.

Most of the sad stories were from the war years, whose memory still swirled fresh in the hearts of the countless refugees who emigrated to America. Sometimes I would almost cry when I heard them. Still, I always felt better for having at least heard the tale. Perhaps because it allowed me to understand better the things that shaped the adults' lives, my parents' generation.

Although, I didn't realize it at the time but they were also telling me what the coming years of adulthood would feel like. And yeah, I was still too young to care about anything like that at the time. However, that night changed everything.

Suddenly, the tune of the conversation strummed heavily on higher chords. I heard Aunt Helen's voice crack its composure while saying "Ostap" her late husband's name, "I watched him die!" she
burst."I watched him die," she repeated, tailing off into tears.

My eyes opened wide, keenly alert, my thoughts were committing to her story. I'd never heard this told before. "What a waste, what a stupid, stupid waste," she lamented, less tearful in composure.

"We were crossing the railroad yards just outside of Lviv," Aunt Helen continued. "There were hundreds of us fleeing the Nazis. Dead bodies everywhere.

Just then, Ostap heard a child crying. He saw it laying on its back next to one of the tracks, its face distorted from fear and crying. Arms and legs flaying as if to tell God he didn't want to be there. Well, you know Ostap, he immediately rushed to its aid."

"About 10 feet from it he stopped and turned to look at me. He was holding his hand on the side of his head where the bullet had gone through. I could see the blood and fleshy fibers oozing out between his fingers. Then, he fell to the ground away from the baby....he just fell. I looked around, confused.

Then I saw him, a soldier lowering his rifle from its aim. He was leaning against an empty wooden boxcar, a half smoked cigarette hanging on his lower lip. At that instant I could only do one thing, I ran towards him swinging my suitcase even before I could reach him. I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't knocked me out with his rifle butt."

"It's a wonder he didn't shoot you as well," interrupted my mother.

"Yes, that's true, I suppose," agreed Aunt Helen, "but maybe I wished he had. When I came to, the yard was empty, except for the scattered bodies. My suitcase was gone, as were those which Ostap had carried. The baby was also dead, shot in the head. I stayed in the yard until dark holding Ostap's bleeding head in my lap. When the Germans finally overtook the city they took me away."

"You mean...?" my mother was about to ask.

"Yes the soldier was a Russian Bolshevik," she answered. "You know, I  didn't even think to bury Ostap. I should have stayed, I went back but there was nothing, just broken dreams left amidst the carnage."

"Maybe I wouldn't have been able to. Who knows what the Germans finally did with those bodies. But to this day I still don't know why Ostap had to die. It was just a stupid, senseless sport to him, a stupid game."

"There was nothing different you could have done," the professor's assured her. "Fate has no feelings."

"Well if Fate's just another name for God then I am so upset with God. He just allows too many stupid cruel things to happen. I,I,(a trembling pause) ...and may God forgive me but...(another  pause, I wondered)...sometimes,... I just Hate Him," she confessed.

"That was no more stupider than what He allowed to happen to us," I could feel my father's voice harden, "right Ivanka?" I pushed myself up against the back of the sofa to see if it was really his voice. It was and he was looking directly at Mother; clenching her hand.

"Yes, I suppose we've all had a part of our dreams taken away, she confirmed. "We had a part of ours taken away from us by a beastly head nurse. She was like the Devil's own sister. Choosing who lived and who died according to her private deceptions."

"I remember Ivan telling me about this incident," Aunt Helen interrupted. I was glad that she did, momentarily delaying what I felt was my mother's unfolding hatred. "You're right, Ivan. No less a tragedy."

I made sure I stayed hidden, so as not to trip a change in the subject being discussed."

"It happened during the last year of the war, April," Father explained for the professor's benefit. "We were still at the labor camp at the time, the one near the Stuttgart road. We were assigned to remove the bombed out bricks in the city. Ivanka had just given birth to our Danchik short time before."

My heart almost exploded....A son! A brother! I had an older? No wait, Danchik, that's my name...were they talking about me? Was I born during the war. No wait, I was born in 1947. I would be two years older...9th grade - why was I held me back two years? What was all this nonsense? I tried desperately to hold on to each spoken word but couldn't remove the impact this new sidelight had inflicted. Finally, the questions in my mind forced me to sharpen my listening skills as Father continued.

"The Allies were bombing us heavily during the time," he said. "Probably to make up for the two quiet weeks due to bad weather. I remember that there was a chilling dampness throughout Berlin. Our barrack building had water dripping along the bomb scarred wal1. And the Autumn wind flew directly from the north," I sensed a melancholia dimming his tone.

"He caught pneumonia," Mother drifted in. "So we had to take him to the infirmary which at the time was just a halfway house for wounded soldiers on the way to their graves. There was blood and guts, screaming, dying everywhere."
Her mood dredged into the dark.

"The fighting was moving closer all the time. Fraulein Gerlich was in charge of the wards. She was a large woman with such cold eyes that, I swear, they belonged on some flesh eating rodent."

I'd never heard Mother talk like that about anyone.

"I don't know why she even chose to become a nurse except maybe to become a part of the ruling authority. Once I saw her actually pick up an old man and throw him across the room only because he had accidently walked into a restricted  area. The old man was blind and one arm was lost in a bombing raid. I think that they finally shot him soon afterwards. Horrible, she..."

"Everything was for the military by the military. They'd even posted SS guards ," my father broke in. "We were lower than dogs to them, easy to kick around anytime. If someone was dying then it was up to that individual to find an empty corner, or better yet - get out! None of us ever received any of the medicines. I begged the Fraulein to give our son some medicine. It was Danchik's misfortune to become ill at such a time."

I could feel his tears welling. I'd never seen my Father cry, ever.

"Ivan had a hard enough time just managing to secure a place on the floor for us when I gave birth," Mother added. "One of the Austrian officers, he..." she hesitated I could sense her rage was taking hold again.

"But they still wouldn't give in to the medicine,"  Father said, covering Mother's pause. "On that point the Army had backed her.

So finally, I'd decided to go on the black market. It took me two days to raise the money, sold my only revolver, but I was able to make the contacts and rushed to the infirmary."

"When I returned to the hospital with the new serum I'd noticed that my wife's bed was taken over by a battle scarred soldier, his legs were bleeding severely. I asked the Fraulein where my son was. She told me that he had died while I was away. I then asked about my wife."

"'The barracks, I suppose,'" she replied. "All the time curling her lips into a grotesquely smug smile as if to let me know that she had been right; that it would have been a waste of medicine to use on the baby, even allowing his admittance was as such."

I went to see Ivanka, only, Gerlich hadn't bothered to tell me that Ivanka had also been beaten up. The whole side of her face was discolored, with a puffed up purple knot along her right cheek....and blood everywhere."

"When Danchik finally died," my mother broke in, choosing what part of the story was more important to dwell on. "I could blame only one person, the head nurse. And when she ordered the body to be removed and the bed made ready for, in her words, '... someone who can help the Fatherland, not this Ukrainian pig.'"

"That's when I lashed out at her, I managed to scratch he neck and kick her in the groin a few times before the SS guards used their clubs on me. I was surprised, like you Helen, that I was allowed to live. They just threw me out and left me unconscious in the mud I don't remember who carried me away. But I never let go of Danchik." My Mother's words were astounding me. I had never imagined her to be so powerful.

"All I could think of was to take Ivanka from this death hole to safety and then bury Danchik," my father's turn. "And then settle the score," revealing his determination.
"I took Ivanka to her sister's. She didn't want to let go, but she had to. On the way back, I stopped by Father Lapka's. Danchik had already been baptized on the second day...now, Last Rites......", another unguarded moment choked itself. "How lucky too, the priest had a small metal casket in the church's storeroom. From there I held Danchik, wrapped in his baptismal blanket and along with Father Lapka I carried our ten day old son to the cemetery in my arms."

"Yeah, nothing like being lucky enough to have a spare casket for your son," Mother's sarcasm I'm sure was directed at Mr. Fate himself - God.

"Ivanka also wanted to come along, I had no right to stop her but she was physically unable," he paused. "The bombing was very heavy that night. Searchlights and anti-aircraft guns reached high into the dark sky hoping to meet inside a British bomber. Tracer lines and flares added to the spectacle. The bombs exploded all around us, a few came very close to hitting us along the way. I asked Father Lapka if he wanted to wait until after the bombing, but I think that he understood my needs. So we kept on."

"When we got to the cemetery I dug out a small grave while all around us bombs dug out larger ones. Some gravesites were even raising the dead, it was really bizarre."

A brief headshake for the memory before continuing. "So then, I cradled our son into the past, tightening the wrap of his blanket. One final kiss as I gently placed him in the linen lined coffin.  Father Lapka said the prayers, loudly, as if to defy the reason for the noisy explosions. When he finished, the Father blessed Danchik with holy water and said to me, 'Do not blame God for man's sins.' He didn't have to alibi his employer. As I filled in the earth, my only thoughts were filled with revenge. Those responsible for such an act must be punished. I vowed this, on my son's grave."

I expected  Mother to say something I think Father did too. It was hard for him to continue right away. Instead, Mother said nothing, no words but, I knew that inside, her feelings were drowning any logic.

"So, I thanked Lapka and told him to leave --- that what had to be done now was no longer his responsibility. He made the sign of the cross and returned to his small parish, where the bombs were falling heaviest. I used a rock to nail together two pieces of wood I'd picked up and carved Danchik's name in it with my pocketknife. When I finished I had only one more duty to perform, to get even for this senseless death."

"Seems he was too late, though," Mother chided in. "As if Fate didn't ruin enough plans."

A slight snicker could be felt with his next words. "Yes, war loves death." He went on, "When I got back, the infirmary was gone, the barracks, outhouses, everything...just a bunch of big craters. I had no one left for revenge, and I wanted it --- we both did.
"Yes, it seems that the new serum that Ivan bought would have saved his life, doctors told me later it was penicillin. And we found out that the infirmary had had some available."

"And I can still see her grin when she told me Danchik was dead. I'll never forget it." Then stumbling her thoughts she finally broke down and cried from long remembered sorrows. I peeked out again. My mother's eyes were flashing as the hanging table lamp left a clear view of her grieving heart.

My father released the deck of cards that he was holding throughout the telling of the story and let them fall on the table. He moved closer to Mother and comforted her. When she composed herself Father continued.

I peeked out again. My mother's eyes were flashing as the hanging table lamp left a clear view of her grieving heart.

"But that wouldn't have been the only reason to kill the bitch," Father continued. "Do you remember those years, Basil? There were millions of reasons to kill someone. Betrayal, torture, death.... I felt I had to avenge everyone, but most of all our hearts, Ivanka's and mine. And yes, I did only have a pocket knife, but I was certain I would have killed them all, Gerlich and all the officers who allowed her to rule over death. I would have sold my soul to the Devil if he'd guarantee that I could."

"That's what I mean," said Aunt Helen, usually the first to break free, "I'm almost forty-six years old and I still don't understand the stupid things that change our lives, why they were even allowed to happen. Not just by God but by us as well. Stupid Ostap, if he'd been like all those Bolsheviks he wouldn't have even cared about the child."

"It's not the events, it's what happens after the fact, that is our sum," the professor offered. "We almost always change ourselves only after something forces us to act differently. In less clinical terms, it's what makes us grow into who we are, before we all turn to dust anyway."

"Come now, Basil," Aunt Hellen, countered. "You're not saying in order for us to grow we need all these tragic episodes in our lives just to fulfill our destiny."

"No it simply becomes your destiny as you shape it," he explained. "Just imagine if Ivan had seen Nurse Gerlich and confronted  her, with only a pocket knife I believe, ...Well, he's a smart fellow so I imagine he could have done it and gotten away with it, or he'd been shot. And I know that Ivan had killed his share of Nazis and Bolsheviks in that war but how much differently would this one had been, it was so personal."

Huh? Did I hear right.....killed? Who did he kill, was he a soldier? But couldn't stop to think, I had to keep listening.

"And yes Fate, the hand of God must have play into it all. So we can only control ourselves not what's outside of us, no matter what any Nazi nurse or Bolshevik bastards do, don't let them control your inside....that is where we keep our destinies."

"Well, if these intricacies are planned by God, then He'd better get a new script, choreographer, and director otherwise count me out." she offered her review. "It doesn't require a Higher Being to hand out death. I could do it for him for half the price and I would make sure only those that deserved it would die, and suffer, if so deserved. I mean so far he's doing such a lousy job, I mean a whole camp just to get rid of one lousy nurse. Wasteful and stupid." And in the same breath Aunt Helen suddenly brought us all back from the dead. "Now why doesn't God do his extra special magic and finally give me a hand by which I can skunk this intellectual imposter sitting to my left. Deal Ivan."

Father deliberately picked up the cards and began shuffling. He watched Aunt Helen reach out her hand across the table and warmly clasp  Mother's arm. Mother wiped her eyes and returned the supportive smile that Aunt Helen had so graciously offered.

The tune soon returned to the flow of numbers and bids as the card game continued. Sometimes, one of the players would start to hum, or whistle a familiar Ukrainian folk song. Almost always, someone else would join in. And as the cards passed through, everyone sitting at the table would soon joined in, softly singing the words.

As the game neared its conclusion the pace of laughter increased with hopeful bids being skunked for minus points. I let them play as I slid into repose.

All those years, I thought to myself, I could have had a brother. I tried to understand but there was no meaning to it all. I mean, I could have had had an older brother.  Someone who could have shown me. things, played with me, made things easier for me. I didn't fully understand what I had missed out on until that moment.

Granted he would have had to assume my roll, that of having to be the one heading first into any potentially shattering spaces  but I would have helped him along the way. And he could have told me what was on his mind, unlike my imaginary characters who only spoke my words..

I quickly attained a longing for my missing brother's presence. A confused longing for something that not only had been denied me but had actually been taken away as an afterthought. It didn't matter that the revelation had come late, I yearned for all those years lost, and, I suddenly became lonely. Like an older person I wanted to cry out loud, but I made sure I didn't.

Also, for the first time, even my imagination was betraying me. I could no longer play with made up names and games anymore. They could never fill in the sudden void that would forever stay near me.

It wasn't until much later that I would learn to live with that tragedy much as my parents had. They had lost a son as well; they touched those tears even closer than I had, and longer.

When the game finally ended, signaled by a hearty laugh from my father (win or lose he always laughed loudly at the end); the professor had won. Aunt Helen fell short by thirty-five points and blamed it on "idiot sitting on my left."

That night, my parents found me sleeping on the sofa. Father carried me in. The next day, they both told me the story of the first Danchik, only less dramatically. When I informed them that I had heard them talking during the card game, they said that they had suspected as much.

My mother told me that they had never spoken about the first Danchik because I was still too young and might not understand. I assumed the same. That night, I told my parents that I was ready to return home, I missed my friends. We left the resort the next morning.

My parents are dead now, so is Aunt Helen and the professor. I read about the professor's death last week in the newspapers, mugging victim.     He was a very important individual, the papers carried a very flattering obituary, taught Slavic History at N.Y.U. Aunt Helen never did remarry.

And, as my parents grew older, they often spoke of returning to Germany, to visit my brother's grave. But they never did. Perhaps, some day, I will.

My father once told me, during his long illness, that after the war, he had returned to the cemetery where Dancik was buried. And, that he had placed a marble headstone over the grave. He said that the grass had been thick, like a soft bed. He also said that he left the wooden cross in its place, his marker from the past. "When the wood finally crumbles," he told me, "the story of Danchik will end."

And then in a moment recalling Danckik's birth he said, "When Danchik was born and your mother first laid eyes on him, the first thing she said was, "from where did such a beautiful child come?'. And I said, from God's heart to yours....I hope they're waiting for me."

That did me in, I couldn't keep my tears in. I stepped out into the hallway, I didn't want him to see, and I cried my heart out. What a cruel, cruel April Fool's Day joke that was, was the only thing I could think of.

My sons often ask me how come I have no brothers or sisters who could be their uncles and aunts. More presents during the holidays, and birthdays. I understood. Luckily, at least they have two aunts, my wife's younger sisters. Perhaps, some day, I'll tell them about Danchik, who was born on April Fool's Day and died ten days later. The brother whose name I also carry as mine as do they in their middle name.

Or, would it still matter to them. I wondered.


Note: Bohdan...(in Ukrainian, this name translates as: "God-Given".) - nickname: Danchik

This is based on some actual events: dates, name, Nazi nurse, etc., and what my mother said when he was born....bombs did not blow up the compound though. Karma is not always just.

And I still cried writing it......suck.

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Emanuel Paparella2017-03-19 17:16:48
Thank you Bohdan for sharing those poignant memories of a family resort in the Catskills. I and my family used to have a resort place in the Catskills (Sullivan county) when living in New York. It brought back quite a few pleasant and unpleasant personal reminiscences...This is confessional writing at its best, appealing to the universally human and the common good, and avoiding the pitfall of mere narcissism...

bohdan2017-03-20 22:32:30
Thank you, Emanuel. Your words express the kindest thoughts.

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