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THE GIFT OF DIAMONDS

diamond

CHAPTER SAMPLES    


PROLOGUE

Every year on my birthday, my father and I would talk about monsters and vampires. Tata was a wonderful storyteller. I would cuddle in his arms and listen to tales of what happened in the woods of Transylvania where we lived.

In Romania, when we speak of vampires, we mean Count Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, on whom so many legends are based. Paradoxically, he was remembered in our small town of Orad as a prince, a leader who protected his people from the Turks when they invaded Romania in the 15th century. Still, we had to accept that his heroic deeds were masked by blood-thirsty evil. He believed that blood preserved his youth; thousands of innocent people died at the flick of his hand so he could fortify himself.

Mama did not approve of Tata’s stories which filled my mind, but she never stopped him. As she cooked, she’d frown while Tata laughed with joy, telling me his tales.

As I became a teenager, what he shared became more complex. My father explained how the behavior of monsters and the character of man can intersect. Tata was an engineer, and he constructed a stage for me where his stories became lessons in history.

By the time I was sixteen, they had taken a different route. The characters were no longer based on legends or fairytales. I became the protagonist. My father was preparing me for what I would need to know: I was the daughter of a revolutionary.

Father was the leader of the Transylvanian anti-Communists, which proved very dangerous for him as well as for Mama and me. My mother feared that Tata’s secret mission would make me grow up too fast; she realized his work would affect my entire life.

She tried to counteract the dangers by preparing me for the future: I would get to America.

She taught me English and read Shakespeare to me. When Tata was not home at night because of his clandestine activities, Mama would take me into the kitchen, run the faucet water strong so no one else would hear her words, and take out the short-wave radio. She’d translate the broadcaster’s English words to convey political truths.

Now, as I look back at my childhood, it seems that Tata’s vampire stories turned into prophecies. And as politics during that time in Eastern Europe turned inhuman, his tales became guiding principles that helped me survive. My father’s monsters taught me there is evil in man. Given the proper situation, man is capable of becoming cruel and sadistic. It is difficult not to become a victim.

But Tata’s passion for life overruled the savagery that surrounded us. He was optimistic, determined to do what was right. He had a secret treasure, which he believed could open the door to dreams. In turn, those dreams would change our lives. I inherited his treasures.


* * *

PART ONE: ORAD

CHAPTER ONE
Orad, (Transylvania) Romania, 1965

"No, no, Juliet. Not like that!" the white-haired director yelled. Mica stopped reciting her lines. She hated displeasing Mr. Marinescu. From the side of the stage, he lowered the curtain. "Your words must come from your heart," he explained. “Speak as if you’re a woman – not a child. Think of everything you are losing!”

Mica squeezed her eyes tightly. It was difficult to be unhappy when she was playing Juliet, and Romeo was as handsome as Petre. But now she bit her lip, unable to shake the memory of the Secret Police, who came to the house yesterday in the middle of the night. “We’ll be back. Every night. Until we find your treasures.”

"That’s it, Mica. I feel your fear,” the director shouted. “You must get this right because Romeo and Juliet is the first Shakespearean play the people of Orad will see.”

Right, she thought. What a perfect way to introduce Romanians to English, the language of the free world. Her eyes wandered past the chandelier with only one 40-watt light bulb on, to the tattered red velvet curtains and crumbling cement walls. Modern times seemed to have forgotten her town at the Romanian-Hungarian border.

“Start from the beginning,” the director said.

Mica tried to forget that the freezing room was no longer an elegant theater; that the broken chairs hadn’t held an audience in years. She concentrated on being Juliet.

Marinescu raised the curtain. “Everyone to the balcony scene one more time,” he shouted. “Remember people, tomorrow is opening night.”

Mica moved closer to the edge of the stage. Taking a deep breath, she recited her lines:


My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

My love as deep; the more I give to thee,

The more I have, for both are infinite.

And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay

And follow thee throughout the world.”


Marinescu stood up and applauded. Waving his French béret, he yelled, “Bravo, Mica! Spoken like a woman with heart!”

Mica watched as the threadbare curtain came down with a thud. She took a deep bow and, smiling, imagined how everyone in Orad would applaud her tomorrow night. Émile Marinescu’s production of Shakespeare was such a big event that even people from Bucharest were traveling to their small town to see it. And she was the leading actress.

Holding Petre’s hand, she practiced a curtsey while he bowed and kissed her hand. Then he led her into the wings, where he put his arms around her waist, pulled her near, and brushed her lips with his. It was magical- better than she’d imagined it, but Mica was pulled instantly back to Earth by the sound of the tram station’s clock striking 5:30. “Oh, no,” Mica whispered to Petre. “It’s almost curfew.” She had to get to her father and then home before seven.

Mica ran away from Petre. She smoothed down her short, cropped black hair, pulled up her black woolen leggings, and covered her thin frame with Juliet’s Shakespearean coat.

She knew how strictly the police enforced curfew. After having them invade her home, and living all her life under Communism, Mica knew too well that she could be dragged into Headquarters for no reason at all. Her father had told her about two of his students at the university who had been beaten up and thrown into jail for a week without food just for being on the streets too late. She intended to be on the stage tomorrow speaking Shakespearean English to handsome Romeo, not sitting in the police station being interrogated.

Mica raced through the theater’s dark corridors and climbed the broken stairs. Still feeling tingly from Petre’s kiss, she was struck by the freezing cold outside. Her hazel eyes teared and her face stung as if tiny knives were piercing her skin. Running in the dark, she shuddered at the thought of being alone in the empty tram station where she had locked up her bike.

She repeatedly turned her back to make sure no one was following her. She listened for footsteps.

She moved toward the shadow of the barbed-wire fence where she had locked her bike. Quietly, she walked toward it. As she put her key to the lock, she felt someone tap her shoulder. She stopped breathing and turned around slowly. She exhaled, relieved, as she saw Petre, her Romeo, grinning down at her. In the shadowy station, his face looked sculpted, soft and strong. When Mr. Marinescu had chosen her out of twenty-five girls who had auditioned, she had thought only of her role. And then when she saw Petre Strancusi, a nineteen-year-old engineering student at the university, she couldn’t believe her luck. He was so handsome. After six weeks of rehearsing together, she felt she could truly fall in love with Romeo.

Petre leaned toward her and rested his elbow on her bicycle seat. “’Delay this marriage for a month, a week. Love only me,’” he told her, reciting his lines.

Mica blushed and laughed, pleased as she climbed on her bicycle and adjusted her father’s dinner in the front basket.

Petre took her hand into his. “Let’s practice our lines together. Alone. We have an hour and half until curfew.”

She was so tempted to say yes.

“I can’t,” she replied with a sigh.

He unclasped her fingers and softly kissed the open palm. “Don’t forget tomorrow’s cast party. We’re having Champagne and caviar. One of the actresses got these from her boyfriend, who’s a Securitate agent.” Then Petre’s face turned sad. “Only a Secret Police agent can find Champagne in this country when there’s not even milk for a baby.”

Mica nodded in sympathy. She hated the Secret Police, especially after they had raided her home and threatened her father. “You’re on our blacklist now!”

She turned to Petre and whispered, “I can’t talk… Forgive me. ’I must be gone and love, or stay and die.’” And as she started pedaling, she tried to sound more cheerful, “Till tomorrow, Romeo.”

Petre wanted to see her again, Mica thought dreamily as she rode her bike through the winter rain. She replayed the kiss, but didn’t allow herself to feel or think more. She had to get to the abandoned glass factory where her father went every day after teaching at the university. He was the leader of the anti-Communists for Transylvania, the factory their secret meeting place.

Mica knew he and more than one hundred of his followers were planning to overthrow the new Communist leader. Her father was strategizing over every detail of the rebellion. It was Mica’s duty to bring him the dinner that her mother prepared each evening. The food was a subterfuge and receptacle for the notes her mother included.

It was not just the Secret Police Mica was afraid of, but also the wild dogs that roamed the village searching for scraps. There was no extra food anywhere, not even for people; yet, hundreds of savage dogs persisted in hunting for anything, even if it was something dead and rotted.

Mica hated Orad after dark. This little town near the border of Hungary was eerie at night. There were no lights anywhere, no cars, no people, no life. Only the sounds of wild dogs howling. They were known to nip at cyclists’ legs, even maul innocent children. People were afraid to walk out of their houses after dark. And tonight, the dogs’ cries sounded sinister.

Mica turned around while still pedaling and took from the rear basket a wooden club her father had hidden there. “Just in case,” he had told her.

Riding extremely fast to prevent a stray dog from biting her was a challenge. Mica appreciated having a bicycle so she could deliver her father’s dinner and then get home quickly.

That afternoon, her mother had said, “Very important,” as she folded a note in four and hid it in the mamaliga, corn meal porridge. Her round cheeks, usually flushed and full, appeared pale. “Tell Tata to eat this dinner only when he’s alone. Then bike home as fast as you can. You know I worry about you.”

Ever since Mica had joined the amateur Shakespearean troupe in town four years ago, she had her own bicycle. It hadn’t been easy for her father to buy one. Bikes were impossible to find in her town, even on the black market. No one in her school, except for her history teacher, had one. Mica was lucky her father had connections.

She knew that he’d be a rich man if they could ever get out of Romania. But he kept saying the timing wasn’t right to get past the border into Hungary without being seen by the Romanian Secret Police. He believed the moment would come when the Communists changed leaders, when there’d be total disarray. He said it could happen any day.

Even though her father had a cache of diamonds, they tried to live like everyone else, to keep people from talking about them. Jealousy made people evil – denouncing others, police raids in the middle of the night, arrests, prison, murder.

Unlike others in their town, her parents had some American dollars. To have foreign money in a communist country is a crime. Tata once told her that he got the dollars as a gift from his brother. Perhaps they came with the diamonds he kept hidden in their basement. She dreamt of the time when her father could trade the large red and green gems for three American visas.

Mica suspected her father was afraid and ashamed of what he had. Once when she was delivering dinner to him in his office, he had told her, “I received 20 colored diamonds by chance from Uncle Simion. I didn’t go out and seek them. I just wanted to help my brother so he wouldn’t be arrested.”

He rubbed his bushy red mustache. “I don’t know if it was my good luck or bad luck…. I believe the green and red ones came from victims of Auschwitz.”

“Auschwitz? What is that?” she had asked.

He sat her down in his office, which was full of maps and electronic machines, and explained.

“You are no longer a child… you should know. Auschwitz was the largest of all the Nazi extermination camps during World War ll.

“It was the size of a small village, about 15 square miles. Late at night, when light left the Earth, there was always a stench of burning flesh and burned hair. The nauseating odor and red sky from the ovens reminded everyone imprisoned that they could be next.”

“Burning flesh?” Mica covered her mouth with both her hands. “Why?”

“The Nazi goal was to kill every Jew in Europe. In Auschwitz, they killed 9,000 a day. More than a million human beings were murdered in that hell. Only 60,000 survived.”

When her father spoke about how they were killed, in crematory ovens, Mica bent over, holding her stomach.

“Should I continue?”

She shook her head yes and looked down, ashamed of her reaction.

“If it is too hard for you, I will tell you another time.”

“No,” she insisted and straightened up. “I should know.”

He continued slowly, trying to soften the effect of his words.

“Dr. Josef Mengele was the senior doctor of the women’s section. He set up a lab with surgical operating rooms to experiment on human beings. He even built a kindergarten for the children he experimented on. Called it the Zoo.

Mica was horrified. “How could anyone experiment on children? On people?”

And then her father sat beside her, took her hand, and said in a gravelly voice, “No more questions now, Draga. I wonder if I should share these stories with you at all….” And he sighed, his sadness palpable. “I agreed you should know. I will tell you about Mengele’s diamonds but only one question at a time. Otherwise it will be too difficult for me.”

Mica recalled Tata’s watery blue eyes, his broad shoulders slumped forward. She concentrated on riding her bike as fast as she could, trying to push Auschwitz out of her thoughts.

She loved cycling. It was the only time she could make believe she was free. She liked to feel the strength of her legs pushing her bike forward. Sometimes she pretended she was a boy. With her short hair and thin body, she could easily be mistaken for one. Being a boy allowed her more liberty to bike through town. And as she’d pedal, she’d feel carefree, enjoying the wind caress her face. She’d imagine she was a beam of light slipping through the night. That she was cycling to a land beyond Romania or Hungary.

A place like America, where people could work to make their dreams come true.

Mica pedaled faster as she passed Gypsy Town. The people of Orad believed gypsies stole children and took them far away. Whenever gypsies marched through town, parents took their children’s hands. The Pied Piper was a gypsy, who led the children away forever with his magic flute. Yet, when Mica watched them dance with their colorful costumes and their arms thrown upward to the sky, she was surprised to see how they looked like everyone else, except they were so happy.

Now Mica shuddered and held on tightly to her wooden club. She stared at their broken-down shacks and noticed that rats were scurrying into ripped garbage bags. Cracked flower pots with garlic pushing out of the earth were thrown all over the muddy ground. There was no food to buy in stores, so the gypsies planted garlic that they ate whole. Some people said they ate dandelions from the mountains and even pink poppies. Mica wondered if that’s why they acted so strangely.

She rode on, her athletic frame pushing her forward. A stray dog ran after her, barking and growling while reaching for her boot. Another dog came, and then another. She kicked them away, tried to hit them with her club. She was afraid of rabies. Her mother had cautioned, “Look at the tongue. Is it white? Are there white bubbles at the mouth?” Twice a week in Orad, a dog-catcher would search for strays. He’d arrive by van and announce himself with his loud voice: “Hingherii! Dog catcher!”

Mica pedaled past the decrepit huts of Gypsy town. The shacks had doors made from old cars, the windows had no glass. Instead, strips of plastic paper were nailed to wooden frames. As she rode, she feared people were watching her, ready to stop her and ask questions. She willed her legs to push stronger. Harder. Tonight she felt more frightened than ever.

Mica gripped her wooden club tighter. All she wanted was to get home quickly so she could sit by the fire with her mother, safe and protected.

The village of Orad was in sight; Mica could see the church steeple. Free from the dogs, she slowed down while passing the infirmary, a dilapidated two-room shack. Her arm ached as she recalled going there to get shots for typhus fever when she was small. Now the facility was closed. The doctor had disappeared one night with his wife. People said he had bought visas for France, visas that cost a fortune. Her mother had said, “Lucky man. He traded his Brancusi sculpture for freedom.”

Suddenly, Mica heard a shrill noise. It sounded like a gun shot. She biked faster. Another gun shot. Up ahead she saw a girl hurrying through a dark alley. As Mica got nearer, she slowed down to look at the girl’s face.

“Christina?”

The girl kept walking, clutching her scarf tighter around her head to cover her face. It was as though Mica were mistaken, as though this figure were somebody else. But it was Christina. Mica recognized her. The two girls sat next to each other in school. Christina was one of her best friends. What was she doing in an alley at night?

“Christina!” This time Mica called louder, loud enough that she couldn’t be ignored. But the girl kept walking.

“Christina, get on my bike.” Mica sensed danger. “I can get you out of here.”

“Go home.” The girl walked faster. Her words were a sharp flutter, like a bird in danger. “Don’t let anyone see you talking to me. It’s not safe here.”

“Is anyone after you?”

Her friend didn’t answer. She ran away.

Mica glanced around. A garbage can moved slightly in the distance, likely pushed by the wind. She pedaled harder to catch up with Christina, to try to help. Christina started running down the road and Mica gave chase. She was about to call her name again when Christina ducked into another alley and disappeared. Mica glanced from right to left, wondering where her friend had gone.

Another garbage can fell to the ground. Mica biked over to look. A boy rolled out; he jumped onto the ground holding his arm. Blood was dripping from his coat sleeve.

“Let me help you,” Mica yelled, recognizing Georgie, Christina’s little brother.

He took off.

Mica saw Christina hiding behind a building. “Jump on my bike,” Mica pleaded. “Quick. I’ll get you out of here.”

“No, you’ll get into trouble.”

“I want to help you.”

Christina started to run.

“C’mon. Get on now.”

“I’m too heavy.”

“I can do it.”

Christina climbed on the back bumper. Mica pedaled through a dark alley that led to a side path.

“Where are you going?” Christina asked her.

“I’ll take you home.”

“No, it’s too risky. Stop after the next street. I’ll find my brother.”

As Mica approached the crossing, Christina jumped off. Mica felt the bike’s weight shift. Christina became a shadow, then Mica saw another, this one smaller, bent low, holding his arm. The shadows became one. Mica threw her scarf to them. “Georgie, keep your arm warm.”

And she pedaled away.

The biting wind pierced Mica’s face. The road was completely empty but she couldn’t help feeling as though someone was watching her. Something moved against the wall of an abandoned building. She glanced from one side to the other, looked over her shoulder and moved faster. A noise from a motorcycle; it grew louder. Someone was breathing. There was the slow tapping of footsteps down the cobblestone street.

Mica’s heart pounded as she accelerated her speed, frantically. She raced through the darkness, thinking of the big green armchair at home by the fireplace.

“What’s a school kid like you doing out so late?”

A man’s voice made her jump. It was right next to her. She froze, stopped her bike, her heart beating faster. She noticed that his nose was red and swollen with streaked blood vessels. She had once seen a man with a nose like that and her father had told her, “Too much drinking.”

The policeman ordered her to get off the bike, and to drop her club. She noticed he couldn’t walk straight. He searched her, starting with her back, touching her shoulders, and moving from top to bottom, down her legs.

“Turn around.”

As he frisked Mica’s chest, he jumped backwards. “My God. You’re a girl!”

She pulled away before he could touch her again.

“Show me your I.D.”

She handed over her card and got on her bicycle to show she wasn’t afraid. The policeman leaned on her handlebars, tugged her bike and pulled her toward him. She smelled his clothes, bitter with nicotine and sweat. “You shouldn’t be out this late.”

She thought about escaping, but was afraid to take the risk. He could shoot her.

“Where do you live?” he yelled, picking up her club from the ground and throwing it far into the brush.

Mica pointed toward her parents’ house beyond the road stretching ahead.

“I’ll teach you kids to mess with me. No one throws a rock at me.”

Mica stared at him. What should she do? She remembered her father’s advice last night after the raid. “If a policeman should ever start questioning you, cooperate. Don’t fight. And don’t get angry with yourself for giving in. Pretend you’re acting.”

She blinked her eyes and put on the flirtatious voice she had seen in a French movie that had been shown months ago in their little theater. “Yes, you’re right. I’m going straight home. Need to do my homework.”

He glared at her, then pushed her. She almost fell down. He pushed her again, harder, and laughed.

“Go! Vede-ti de treaba,” the policeman yelled, puffed up with power. “Get out of here before I put a bullet through you, too.”

Mica looked down so as not to show her defiance and get him angrier. She didn’t want to give him the pleasure of seeing how terrified she was. She pedaled faster than she ever thought possible. But she knew she couldn’t go home, not yet.

* * *

CHAPTER TWO

Arriving at the factory, Mica got off her bike and pushed it up the broken cement path. She studied every tree, every bush. Had the policeman followed her? Was he hiding? She listened; only the wind shrilled.

She placed her bike behind a hut where there was a deep pit and covered it with dried leaves and dead branches. She hid behind a tree, leaning her thin body against the trunk. Once she felt sure no one had followed her, she walked toward the demolished building and descended a secret staircase to an underground bunker.

Atentie. Stop.”

She raised her head and waved to the voice.

“Oh it’s you, Mica. I didn’t recognize you in that long coat.” The guard put down his rifle.

Mica wondered why Luca was armed. She had never seen him with a rifle before.

“I’m going to see my father,” she said pointing to her tin pot.

She continued walking through the endless stone tunnel that her father’s group had built. The secret underground bunker, underneath the old glass factory, was equipped with food, weapons, medicine, and enough supplies for several hundred people in case they had to go in hiding from the Communists. Her father had designed the labyrinth, built years ago by his students and followers before the Communists took over Romania. He said one day his group might need it. They had left it abandoned until recently.

It now included a medical dispensary, a large open kitchen with dining hall, dormitories, and sleeping areas for families, several rooms for the armory, and a private office for her father, their leader.

Mica continued through the tunnel’s stone archway that led to the arsenal, which had dozens of machine guns lined up against a stone wall.

Buna seara,” she greeted another guard. They all knew her, Professor Mihaescu’s daughter.

She moved toward an opening that was hidden by a stone wall and inched her way toward her father’s office. Suddenly she felt the cement floor vibrate; she heard a metallic sound, like wheels rolling against stone. A hissing sound echoed throughout the underground. She quickly hid behind a stone column to sneak a look. A slab of wood moved on four wheels. On top of the plank was a man, his body cut off at the waist. He had no legs. She studied the torso sitting on the wooden plank.

The man’s head was over-sized, out of proportion to the narrow chest. His long spidery arms extended to the ground as gloved hands moved him forward. His face was dark in the shadow, its features deformed. Long black hair fell on his shoulders in braids. Attached to a pompadour above his forehead was a small stick and curling around the stick was a black and yellow snake. The reptile was so still that Mica couldn’t tell if it were dead or alive until she saw its slithery tongue snap out of its mouth.

Mica held her breath but stared at the man as she watched his arms maneuver his slab of wood and disappear into the shadows.

The “Snake Man,” that’s what her father and his group called him. This was the first time she had ever seen him. Her father had said, “He’s our man. He’ll pretend to work for the Communists and become our decoy.”

She wondered how he could be a good guy. He was so spooky looking.

Mica climbed up a small staircase to her father’s office. She knocked on the door, heard his deep voice ask, “Who is it?” and then she entered the room.

“Tata,” she whispered.

He turned around and when she saw his full head of bushy red hair shine in the light, she suddenly felt reassured. Looking around the room, she saw he was alone.

“I saw the Snake Man.”

He nodded his head, but didn’t take his eyes away from the map he was studying on the wall.

“Poor man. He wasn’t always like that. I knew him when he was a tall, handsome student. He was the son of a wealthy landowner. The Communists had him on their blacklist just because he was born rich. One day they arrested him for no reason and then they found out his father was on the wrong side.”

“On the wrong side?”

“They tortured him. Hung him upside down with his head down and his legs up. For several days, when he had no more circulation in his legs, they threw him in the mud. Both legs got gangrened. Had to be amputated.”

“How awful,” she winced and rubbed her thighs.

Her father sighed. “That’s why he’s so full of hate against the Communists.”

He turned his attention back to his map and took a red pencil to circle a specific spot.

“Mama said to eat this when no one is near you,” Mica said, remembering her mission. “She put a note inside.”

He took the tin pot and nodded without saying a word.

After several seconds of reading the note, he turned his back to the map and went to her.

Merci, draga mea, my dear,” he said and put his arm around her shoulder. She felt his bristly red mustache rub her skin for longer than usual. It pricked her but she didn’t move, wanting to hold on to the moment. Her father didn’t move either. When she looked up at him, she noticed his taut face showed signs of creases; his broad 6’ frame appeared less powerful.

“Mica…” Then he stopped.

She remained silent, sensing he was thinking what to say next.

He went to his desk, opened the bottom drawer and took out a small map of Transylvania. She noticed it was marked with many red dots.

“I keep telling myself you’re a young woman now.”

“Yes.” She felt he needed her to act like an adult. But why was that making him sad? she wondered.

“I want you to know a route I took years ago, during the war, when I worked in the resistance. It’s through the forest, going from our town to the Hungarian border, where there is a train station.”

She wanted to ask him why he was telling her this now, but was afraid to ask, and more afraid to know.

She felt her legs getting weak and sat down.

“I traveled by foot. It took me seven hours in the middle of the night. It can be done faster by bike.”

He took out a red pencil, made marks and explained what each red dot indicated: the fork in the forest, a grove of pine trees, the fence at the border, the electric wires. “I will explain everything and you must memorize each detail.”

She nodded her head.

“To be sure you know this, I will go over it several times.”

From his drawer he pulled out a pile of black and white photos of the border area. He showed her shots of a forest, pointed to a grove of pine trees, several buildings, a 12 foot fence, a cable box. Then from another drawer he took a box hiding a ruler and compass.

“I am going to teach you how to navigate through the forest by using trees and buildings as markers, while making angles with your eyes.”

After a half hour Mica’s sweater was soaking wet despite the unheated room. She noticed her father’s face was red and a vein under his left eye twitched. She watched him rip the map and photos into tiny pieces and light them with the candle on his desk.

He took her hand, put her palm against his lips. For several seconds he stroked her fingers. “Draga,” he whispered. “Whatever may happen, you must be strong. Think with your mind and act with all your heart. When in doubt, go with your instincts.”

His face looked strained, as if all the blood had left his lips. She swore she could hear the pounding of his heart as he kissed her cheek. His skin felt warm.

She put her arms around her father and hugged him hard. She took his silence as a signal to leave and kissing him good-bye on each cheek, she moved away. His eyes lingered at her as he whispered, “I love you more than life. Never forget that.”

She wanted to answer, “I love you too,” but was confused by the map lesson and his not telling her why she would need to know it. She felt nervous, felt like running away. Hiding. Going somewhere safe. Loving her father hurt so much. Trying to gain control, she walked toward the door and mumbled, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

She waved good-bye and left him to his work. Slowly climbing down the hidden staircase, she tip-toed through a secret corridor and came out at a different section of the underground tunnel. She found the trap door and pushed open the heavy steel covering. As she inched her way out, she looked to see if anyone was watching her. She glanced from one side to the other, searching for a moving shadow or noise. She waited and listened. Was the policeman near? Did he follow her? No one, just rats trying to move faster than the bitter wind.

She buttoned up her coat and took a deep breath to gain control. After several seconds, she was ready to dig up her bike. Quickly, as if her life depended on it, she rode away as fast as her legs could take her.

As Mica biked along the last kilometer to her house, the wind lashed her cheeks. Her eyes watered and her bike swerved. Several times, she almost fell off and lost her balance. She pedaled faster to defy the night.

“I’m stronger than you,” she yelled at the wind. But she knew she wasn’t.

Arriving home, Mica pushed her bicycle up the cement walkway to the small bike rack and waited for her mother to answer the door. She was eager to tell her about Christina and Georgie. And to ask why Tata gave her a map lesson.

As her mother opened the door, the smell of mititei greeted Mica. The meat sausage, grilled with garlic and herbs, was her favorite dish. But tonight she wasn’t hungry.

“Did you give your father the mamaliga?” her mother asked, leading Mica down the dark hall to the kitchen.

Da. Yes.”

“Was he alone?”

Da. Da.”

“The note was to warn him to take special care tonight.”

Mica didn’t say anything. She started to feel nauseous.

“We’ll eat together while we listen to the radio,” her mother suggested. Mica watched her mother’s nervous looking fingers move the radio dial. “Radio Free Europe is on in English.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t put it on tonight. If a neighbor hears the English, they’ll report us to Headquarters. They’ll get an extra ration of sugar if they denounce us…” Mica stopped talking. Something about her mother’s manner made her reluctant to continue.

“I think I’ll put on a Romanian station,” her mother said. “Or maybe I should put on two Romanian stations at the same time?”

“I thought you wanted to put on Radio Free Europe. “

“Maybe the neighbors want to hear something else. I want to keep them happy.”

Her mother’s words were strange. Usually she was so precise about what she said and what she did.

“I’ll first put on the portable radio with the Romanian station,” her mother decided. “See, I’ll set it here by the window so the neighbors will enjoy the Romanian news. Let’s go to the kitchen table where I’ll put the short-wave radio on for us.”

Mica nodded. She watched her mother take their secret radio from the back closet to the table. “I’ll put the volume on low. Let’s huddle close to hear.”

Mica wanted to hold on to her mother, hug her. She wished her mother would say something reassuring.

“They’re enforcing the curfew strictly today for

a reason,” her mother said instead, turning down the volume. “Your father told me that he might be a little late tonight.”

She whispered so softly that Mica had to lean forward to hear her.

“Tomorrow night might be the day we’ve been waiting for.”

Mica tried to keep from shivering. She wanted to think good things. What if the Mihaescus could escape to America? They had waited so long. Their friends who had survived the war had left between 1945 and ‘48, when there was a window of freedom to emigrate. Then the Russians took control and the iron curtain was locked shut. Her parents had lost their chance.

Mica closed her eyes so she could hear better. The broadcast was full of static, but it could get news from England and America. The short-wave radio was the only link they had to the free world.

Several years ago, during the red hot summer of 1962, Gheorghiu-Dej, the dictator of Romania then, thought Khruschev had weakened because of losing the Cuban Missile crisis. The Moon took an independent stand against the Sun. Now the Romanian dictator of 17 years is dying of cancer.

Intelligence information indicates that a Russian radioactive doorknob was installed in his office.”

Mica looked at her mother to see her reaction. But she didn’t move a muscle on her face, so intent was she on deciphering the hidden meaning of the broadcaster’s message. She explained to Mica:

“Rumors are that Dictator Gheorghiu-Dej has been irradiated by the KGB. They weren’t happy with his reducing Soviet influence in Romania and increasing his own form of nationalism. He’s paying – lung cancer.”

Now Mica understood why there was an eerie feeling in the streets. “Does this mean there will be a new dictator?” She didn’t want any change to come this week because of her début as Juliet. She wanted Romeo to love her, or both of them to die for love.

“Your father says there will be a struggle for power among the communist leaders. Ceausescu is the inner group’s choice, which means he’s the most dangerous.”

Mica thought all Communists were dangerous.

“In school last week,” she started, “we learned about World War ll. Our history teacher said that although Mihai was still King, the real power was with General Antonescu, the head of the Army. In 1940, the General became dictator and allied Romania with Germany. Then in 1946, under orders from the King who switched Romania to the Allies, General Antonescu was arrested and executed. Unfortunately, Romania together with seven other countries in Eastern Europe were given to Stalin at Yalta and the King left in exile. That’s when the Communists took over.”

Mica stopped talking. She knew her teacher’s history lesson was incomplete: the Jews. Her father had told her that in 1930 there were 750,000 Jews living in Romania. By 1945, more than 250,000 Jews had been exterminated, mostly from the areas of Bessarabia, Bukovina, Ukraine and Transylvania.

She remembered her father had explained to her that the Jews in Bucharest had not been killed because General Antonescu was considering what to do with them. Some people say Antonescu was waiting to get the best price to sell them as if they were cattle. Others say he was using them as collateral to get immunity in a post-war trial.

Her father always shook his head when he spoke about Antonescu. He’d end the conversation whispering in hesitant breath, “It’s hard to know what’s the truth from such a double-crossing, evil time.”

Mica turned to her mother and asked with a feeling of horror, “Is Tata’s group staging an uprising?”

“I don’t know,” her mother said with an eerie calm.

Mica stared at her. She had a strange expression on her face as if she did not understand her daughter’s question. Her eyes looked vacant. Mica was startled. She wished her father would get home soon.

Her mother got up. The log in the fireplace had turned to ashes. The meat for dinner sat on the table, cold and hard. There wasn’t a ray of heat left in the entire house. Her mother put her coat on Mica’s shoulders and walked to the window. The coat hung over Mica as if two girls could fit inside. Mrs. Mihaescu was a head taller than Mica and broader, but their faces were similar with the same full lips, dainty noses, and short black straight hair cropped softly around their foreheads.

Sometimes Mica thought she looked very much like her mother, but in reality Mica resembled no one else. Her eyes were hazel but if she wore green, they changed to emeralds. If she stared at the sky too long, the blue of dreams colored her depth. Her high cheekbones were as soft as a sculptor’s touch.

Petre had once told her that she had an exotic beauty.

Her mother kissed her check. “How was rehearsal? Was Mr. Marinescu there the entire time?”

Before Mica could answer she saw her mother’s lips twitch. In a quivering voice her mother continued, “Did someone visit him?”

Her mother must have realized she was frightening Mica. So she tried to change the conversation and her voice took a lighter tone, “Let’s talk of something pleasant. Tell me about Romeo. I hear he’s very handsome. I’m sure he likes you.”

No matter how bad things got, Mica’s mother always tried to think of something good and she encouraged Mica to do the same. That’s why she had taught Mica English. “One day you’ll need English to make your dreams come true,” she had said.

“Would you like some tea?” her mother asked, returning to her chair at the table. “I got your favorite rose honey from a friend of mine. I traded some sugar for it.”

“No.” Mica felt her stomach tighten as if it had been strangled. “I think I’ll go to bed, or should I wait with you for Tata?”

“No, maybe he’ll be home later,” her mother said in an odd way as if her words had been said by someone else. “You should go to bed. Tomorrow is your big day.”

Mica bit her lip and stood up. She wanted to go to sleep and pretend she was Juliet and Petre was wooing her like Romeo. But the child in Mica longed to stay near her mother. She had the urge to go into her mother’s arms and cuddle with her like a little girl.

Instead, she sat down and took her mother’s hands in hers. “Don’t worry, Mama.” She kissed her mother on the cheek.

Mica closed her eyes and remained still. With her mother’s hands in hers, she was afraid if she’d moved, she’d lose this closeness forever.


* * *

CHAPTER THREE

Mica woke up the next morning to find a layer of snow covering their house. Pulling the blanket to her chin, she lingered lazily and recited her first lines: “’O Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou Romeo?’”

But then suddenly, as if a knife had jabbed her in the stomach, she remembered the reality of the night before. Her father hadn’t come home. She and her mother waited together, until long after midnight.

She looked at the clock on her night table: seven. The glass of water next to it had turned to ice. She jumped out of bed, put on a bathrobe and slippers, and went to see if her father was home.

She looked for his hat at the front door; it wasn’t there in its spot. Same for his boots and coat. Nothing. She ran into the kitchen, where her mother was alone, quietly preparing toast.

“Where’s Tata?” Mica demanded.

“I’ll take you to school,” her mother answered in her same eerie calm of last night.

“Where’s Tata?” Mica asked louder.

Her mother didn’t answer. Instead, she moved closer to Mica and whispered, “Before I go to work, I’ll go over to Police Headquarters and walk around the building. I’ll try to see if there is anything unusual going on.”

“No! It’s too dangerous,” Mica protested. ”Too risky. They’ll arrest you. Please! Don’t go!”

“Nonsense,” her mother said, as if the words were coming from someone else. “I’m just going for a walk. Nothing wrong with that. Even the snow has stopped.”

Mica stared at her mother in horror. She wanted to shake her, to shake out all the insanity she was spewing.

“Mama, tell me the truth. Do you know what happened to Tata?”

Her mother leaned closer with the seeming intent of giving an answer, but instead shook her head and softly said, “No. I’m so sorry. I don’t.”

Mica saw the tears rolling down her mother’s cheeks.

When the front door slammed shut, Mica ran to the door. “Tata?” There was no one there. All she could see was snow covering the ground.

“Wind,” her mother said, as if trying to sound in control. “Your father was probably late because of the snow and couldn’t walk home. You know the tram doesn’t run after curfew.”

Mica nodded and then sighed. “It’s my fault. I should have given Tata my bike.”

“Then you would have gotten home late,” her mother replied.

“In America everyone has a bike or a car and there’s no curfew. No Secret Police. No…”

“You’re being dramatic.” Her mother turned away.

Mica tried to contain herself. She had lived all her life with secrets and codes. Hushed voices and whispers had become a way of talking. People disappearing in the middle of the night was becoming a fact of life.

Her mother walked over to the sink, interrupting Mica’s thoughts. She turned on the water as if she were going to make tea for breakfast, but Mica quickly realized the intent was to drown out the sound of her voice.

“After school…” Her mother struggled to keep her words steady. “When you get to the theater, ask Mr. Marinescu if he wants to come to our house for your father’s birthday.”

Mica was startled; they had just celebrated that last month.

Her mother continued talking over the roar of the running water. ”Ask him if he wants to go swimming with your father. He knows which sharks to avoid. He has spent so much time swimming and fishing with your father. They’re best friends since childhood.”
She stopped talking, took a deep breath, and leaned closer to Mica. “Do whatever he says,” she whispered. “No matter how hard.”

“Are you sure I can trust him?” Mica asked.

“Yes. But make sure you speak to him in English. Only in English.”

* * *

After school, instead of going directly to the theater, Mica raced home to see if her father was there. After opening the door, she slowly tip-toed into the house. While moving her eyes around, she looked for her mother. The house was empty, but appeared as if it had been torn apart. Lamps were broken, the table was overturned, drawers had been emptied and thrown to the ground. Even the cement walls had been slashed.

Mica looked with horror around her ransacked home. Sitting down on the floor, she buried her face in a torn book and cried. She knew her mother couldn’t be there; she hadn’t come to her. To be certain, Mica walked through every room of their small house. With tears streaming down her face, she entered her parents’ bedroom and yelled, “Mama?” There was nothing but clothes, which were strewn all over the floor. She went into the bathroom. “Mama?” She looked in the bathtub, fearing she’d see a tortured body. “Mama?” she yelled as she walked into the kitchen. Broken plates and silverware were scattered everywhere.

Sobbing and riddled with panic, she worried her mother had been arrested. And that she was now all alone.

Afraid to remain in her house for fear the Secret Police would return, she remembered her mother’s words, “Go to Mr. Marinescu.”

Jumping onto her bicycle, Mica traveled through the back roads rather than through town, for fear of being seen.

Arriving at the entrance of the theater, she hid her bike inside a broken-down shack. She knew none of the actors would be at the theater yet and she hoped Mr. Marinescu would be alone. She was overcome with worry about whether or not she could trust him, if she could believe what he’d tell her.

Behind the stage, she glanced at the costumes she had sewn just days ago, and continued toward the director’s office. Putting her ear to his door, she listened for several seconds. Hearing nothing, she tapped softly. The door opened a crack, just enough for two eyes.

Intra. Come in,” Mr. Marinescu whispered.

Mica stared at the short, squat man, his cheeks red from cuts, dried blood all over his face. His eyes were bruised and swollen. There were gray ashen circles on his cheeks that looked as if burnt cigarette tips had been rubbed into the puffy skin. His chin had one deep cut and seemed as if punctured by a sharp object, and his lower lip was split in two.

“Oh no, Mr. Marinescu, what happened? Can I help you?” she asked in English.

Nu, merci.” He switched to English. “They interrogated me. But I swear I didn’t squeal on anyone.”

She stared at him, wondering if his denial meant he had, in fact, done just that.

He dropped his head into his trembling hands. “’Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’”

“We’re in Romania,” Mica said, overtaken by panic. “Why are you quoting Hamlet?” She looked around the room, surveying the ceiling, the walls, the floor. Searching, urgently, for a recording device, she wondered if someone were spying on them.

“’Your father’s spirit. All is not well. I fear some foul play.’”

“My father?” she responded too loudly, and then threw her hand over her mouth.

“’If thou didst ever thy dear father love.’”

“Oh God!”

“’Revenge his foul and most unnatural arrest.’”

“Unnatural Arrest? No, no! Please no,” Mica cried.

“’To be, or not to be – that is the question.

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings

And arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms

Against a sea of troubles.’”

Mica fell to the floor, cupping her face in her hands. She couldn’t control her whimpering. “What has happened?” she cried out like a little girl. “When is Tata coming home?”

Mr. Marinescu sat down next to her and rocked her in his arms. Without saying a word, he pointed to the walls as if to remind her they had ears.

Standing, he went to his desk to get pen and paper. He wrote: “There will be an uprising today in the middle of the night. It will start here in Transylvania and then ignite the entire country. All the police at the Romanian-Hungarian border will leave their posts to go to Orad to protect the new dictator. The Central Committee will most likely choose Ceausescu.

“There will be pandemonium. That is the moment you must leave. That is the moment your father had planned to escape with you and your mother, when all the police will be in town and not at the border. You must cross alone and get into Hungary. There’s an American Embassy in Budapest.”

Mica read nervously, and looked at him in shock. Could she believe all this? she wondered. How could he be so sure there’d be no Secret Police at the border? They were always there, with their growling dogs and machine guns, ready to kill. How could she know he wasn’t working with the Secret Police? That he wasn’t putting her into a trap to save his own neck.

Mica closed her eyes to block out his battered face. She didn’t want to even think it was possible that he had denounced her parents to avoid more torture. He had been arrested and then released. He was free.

“Why wasn’t my father released like you?” she asked.

To which he wrote: “They know he’s the anti-Communist leader.”

She took his pen. “What happens if my parents come home and I’m not there for them? Maybe they’re hiding together underground, in the tunnel?”

He looked down and shook his head. His shoulders started to shake. Mica realized she had never seen a man cry before.

He wrote, “Your father was still being questioned when they threw me out of Headquarters. They were looking for your mother to put pressure on him to talk.”

Mica knew full well the Communist way of justice. Arrest. Interrogation. Pressure the victim by threatening the family. Then prison. Disappearance. Most vanished forever.

He took the paper from her hands and wrote: “If the Secret Police find you, you’ll have the same fate as your mother. You’re next to put pressure on your father. You MUST ESCAPE tonight.” He underlined the words with such vehemence that blood from his cut fingers colored the paper red.

Then taking the pad of paper from Mica’s trembling hands, he wrote: “You must trust me. Believe me. You must save yourself. You can do it. You’ll get through this if you think of it as a role. Your stage is America.”

After giving her a minute to read, he took a match and set his words ablaze.

Mica began sobbing, her whole body feeling like it was breaking down. “But I forgot to tell Tata I love him.”

Her father’s best friend wiped the tears from her cheeks. He picked up his pad and wrote: “You will have your opening night. That will be a perfect alibi. But afterwards, don’t stay for your bows. Bike to the Hungarian border and find the train to Budapest. You must save yourself first so you can help your parents.”

She stared at his face, so scarred from suffering, and remembered her mother’s words: “Do whatever he says. No matter how hard.”

It was her turn to write. “How can I escape? How can I do it alone? I’m only sixteen.”

With another match, he put a flame to her fears. He took her hands in his and softly whispered, “You’re an actress, an artist. You must be free to live. You must take the risk.”

Frightened, her breath catching, Mica couldn’t say another word.

“Your father has given you all the cues. He has taught you what to do. Tonight will be Act One of your greatest role yet.” After kissing her on both cheeks, he let her go.

* * *

Mica biked back home, taking another route through the forest. Never before had she pedaled so quickly or so quietly. She kept thinking of her father, terrified he’d been tortured like Marinescu. And her mother. Tortured also? When her bike swerved, she nearly fell. Trying to remain composed, she focused on her father’s map lesson, his way of preparing her for escape.

She pulled up in front of her house, and dropped her bike. Her wobbly legs could barely climb the three front steps. When she opened the door, she had to fight to keep herself from screaming. The ransacked room told her she’d be next.

Her eyes fell on her father’s green armchair, now ripped apart as if someone had been searching for something very specific. She sat on the torn fabric, hoping to feel her father’s strength while she plotted her next move.

It was impossible to think straight. She was cold and her stomach ached too much to get up and go to the kitchen to start a fire. And then she remembered that her mother had used the last log waiting for her father to return home.

Mica dug her nails deep into the chair’s torn stuffing to keep calm. She tried to concentrate on Mr. Marinescu’s words, wondering if she could really do what he said. Leave everything. Everyone. Go into the unknown. The risk of being caught was so great.

Tears ran down her cheeks. Raising her trembling hand to wipe her face, she poked her eye. Frustrated with her own ineptitude, and growing increasingly angry, she felt the urge to throw herself on the floor. Only her fear of getting hurt, with no one to help, held her back.

Closing her eyes, she tried to conjure the smell of yesterday’s meat, the fireplace, her mother. “Mama, Tata,” she whispered. “If I save myself, I will do everything I can to save you both.”

Opening her eyes, she glanced at a photo on the mahogany bureau that had been knocked down. Her father and Uncle Simion, his brother, just before her uncle escaped to America during the war. He was leaning on a walking stick.

“The walking stick!” Mica yelled, remembering her father’s story of how Uncle Simion had hidden her father’s share of diamonds in it. She jumped to her feet.

Wiping her tears, she rushed down the basement stairs.

Finding the special hand rake and shovel that her father had hidden, she retraced the very steps he had carefully taught her so many times.

At the opposite corner of the room, she placed her back to the wall and took three giant steps forward. When her toe stepped on the instructed spot, she went down on her knees to dig in the muddy floor. Several minutes later, she heard something click – the steel box. Quickly, she took a brick off the shelf, picked up a key, and opened the steel box. Taking out a leather pouch, she untied the string. Twenty precious colored diamonds lit up the dark cellar. Mica rolled the diamonds in her hand, the green and red ones so brilliant they created a rainbow in the dust.

“Yes,” she said, stuffing the pouch into her palm.

She felt a gambler’s passion overtake her, and realized,

instantly, that she would have to take the risk. She had no choice.

Mica closed the steel box, returned it to its hiding place, and held on tightly to the leather pouch that contained the jewels. She placed them in her pocket; feeling their weight gave her strength.

Back upstairs, she triple-locked the front door, closed the living room curtains, and went to the kitchen, where she turned on both radios and the faucet and went to work.

She stared at the bright red diamond. The light entering the round-shaped jewel so deeply made it seem to throb, blood-like. She remembered when her father showed her the red and green diamonds. He had mumbled, “From Germany… Mengele…” And then he stopped talking and put them away.

“Mengele. A monster,” he told her. “How cruel man can be. The other face of diamonds - Evil.”

She wondered then why such a treasure would make her father unhappy. Several years ago on her birthday, she reminded him that he had promised to answer one question at a time about the gems. She asked about Mengele.

“Yes, I promised.” Reluctantly, he started. “Dr. Josef Mengele was in charge of Selektion – it was up to him who should live and who should die. One million souls in Auschwitz left the world as smoke.”

Mica gasped and covered her mouth.

“They let him do this? People outside of Germany?”

He stared at her. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in seeming disbelief. “A mystery.”

“Why didn’t the Jews fight? I would have fought!”

Her father took her hand and kissed it. “There was only one protest in Auschwitz – an uprising by the Greeks in October 1944. Two protests at Sobibor concentration camp and one at Treblinka. But that’s a pitiful number.”

He took her hands in his. “The rest of the world did not know or did not wish to know. And if the truth had come out, no one wanted to believe it.”

“What did Mengele do to the Jews?” Mica asked.

“This is too much for me. Please, one question at a time.”

He placed his head on the table and hid his face.

* * *

Now, Mica went to her mother’s sewing box, took a needle and thread, and removed her bra. From a kitchen drawer, she took out a razor, knife, screwdriver and shoemaker’s glue. From the refrigerator, she removed meat and a small plastic container of honey, then continued on to her father’s closet, where she searched desperately for his black engineer’s bag.

She returned to the kitchen to put together her costume. Remembering the many afternoons of sewing with the costume designer of their troupe, Mica began with her Shakespearean coat. She opened up the hem and hid the green and red diamonds next to the seam, and sewed a circle around each jewel. Next, she put on her bra and counted the number of protruding bumps from the six diamonds she had just secured tightly in place. Last came the soles of her boots. “Juliet’s shoes will bring me good luck,” she said to herself, recalling what Uncle Simion had done to hide his diamonds before he had escaped. Like him, she hollowed out the soles and heels of her boots.

Afterwards, she got dressed, put on her tight black Elizabethan leggings and a black sweater, covered her thin frame with her long coat, and sat on the floor to pray like Buddha. She remembered her father telling her when and how the colored jewels had entered his life:

“It was early in the war that General Antonescu realized he could make money from the Bucharest Jews. He negotiated to send them to Palestine. The British, who controlled Palestine at that time, called the offer slave trading. They were against it. On the other hand, Ben Gurion wanted to negotiate. When the news leaked to the press, the Committee for Romanian Jews placed an ad in The New York Times that said General Antonescu would give Jews away practically for nothing. That thousands were waiting in a Romanian concentration camp to be bought.”

“Where was the camp?”

“In Transnistria, near the Ukrainian border.”

Her father continued. “After little interest, Sulzberger, the publisher of The Times, wrote an editorial, asking 20,000 Leis ($50) to save a refugee from Romania. Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Secretary of Treasury, took the editorial to President Roosevelt, but the President stalled and the plan fell through. Thousands more died.”

Her father stood up, left the kitchen table where they were talking, and put another log in the fireplace.

“Are you cold?”

“No. Please, Tata, I want to hear more.”

“I am telling you these stories for a reason.” He hesitated, sat down next to her. “I want you to understand an important element that is necessary for survival- will power. Whenever life seems at the lowest, that’s when you must rise. Use your will power.”

He kissed her on the cheek, smiling sadly. “Before we could escape, Hungarian Fascists stormed into our town and ordered all Jews to be at the train station in an hour. Thousands from Cluj, Dej, Satu Mare, and northern Transylvania lined up. Those who were in front were shot dead.

“When the soldiers went to sleep, your mother, Uncle Simion, and I, who had been hiding in the church’s cellar, came out and buried ourselves underneath the dead bodies.”

He stopped talking, put his arm around Mica, and waited several seconds as if to collect his strength.

“The three of us walked by night and slept by day in the forest until weeks later, starving and exhausted, we got to Bucharest. There, we joined the Resistance.”

“Is that how you got the green and red diamonds?” she asked.

“Not me. Simion. It was Christmas day and your uncle was working alone in the underground cellar. He was our expert in forging passports. A man dressed in a fur coat knocked on the door.

‘Pax-tibi,’ the voice said. ‘Peace to you.’

“Simion looked through the peek hole. Upon hearing the code word, he let some light sneak in.

‘I need three passports immediately,’ the man stated. ‘For myself, my wife and my son.’

“Simion said nothing, but he opened the door.

‘My wife is pregnant. I don’t want her to give birth in this country.’

“The man pleaded with Simion. ‘You have connections with the Swedish Ambassador and Raul Wallenberg in Budapest. They’re arranging protective passes for Hungarian Jews. Documents that say the holder is a Swedish citizen. I speak Hungarian. You must arrange it!’”

“What did Uncle Simion say?” Mica interrupted.

“Before Simion could answer, the man took off his coat and opened a sack that was hidden in the fur lining.

‘I'm a jeweler. I have a fabulous treasure.’

Diamonds rolled on Simion's desk. They were red, green, yellow, white, and blue.

‘Don't be a fool,’ the jeweler insisted. ‘You can have these diamonds. I will also give you American dollars. No one will ever know.’

“In one week, Simion, now the owner of the diamonds, prepared documents – visas to Sweden- three for the jeweler and one for himself. With his contacts and the American dollars, Simion was able to arrange a plane for all of them to Stockholm and then on to New York.”
“He had no problem entering New York?” Mica asked.

“No, he became a political refugee.”

She remembered those words. They sounded important.

“That night Simion hollowed out the heels and soles of his oldest shoes. He burrowed the white diamonds there. The colored diamonds he hid in an over-sized pocket watch and its tubular leather strap. The largest diamonds, the green and red, he clamped inside the handle of a walking stick.

“On the day of his departure he was so nervous he’d be caught that he gave me the pocket watch with its strap and the walking stick. He stuffed into my pocket American bills- $500. He kept his shoes with the hollowed out heels that hid dozens of white diamonds.”

“Did you go to the airport with him?”

“Yes. There were more security guards than Simion and I had ever seen at one time. They searched him from top to bottom but forgot to inspect his shoes. After one hour, they turned to him and said, ‘Nothing, we found nothing. You can go.’

Mica smiled. “Sometimes there’s good luck.”

Her father nodded. “He boarded the plane and I returned home with my treasures. Inside the handle of the walking stick were the green and red diamonds. I studied them under my microscope and saw two very fine lines and a dot. That was the Nazi sign the Fascists used to brand their diamonds.”

“Like branding numbers on prisoners’ arms,” Mica added.

Her father walked around their small kitchen. The log had extinguished. He made a sign to Mica that there was no more heat. No more logs in the house.

She shrugged her shoulders, accustomed to the cold.

“I remember what hurt me a lot.”

She picked up her head.

“When I returned to Orad after the war, the first person I saw greeted me with, “Jew, you’re back? Too bad they didn’t kill you all.”


* * *


Needing to finish, Mica arranged her socks, hiding in her left cuff a silver charm in the shape of a small pillbox. For later, she reasoned, and sadly remembered how she had just chopped up some medicine and mixed it into the meat.

She had learned how to make the potion when the theater was invaded by rats and a gypsy in their group had made a poison.

Mica wasn’t happy that she might have to use the meat during her escape, but rationalized she’d have to use any means necessary.

She looked around the small house, the home that had been hers since she was born. How hard it would be to leave her bedroom and her beloved books, her Beatles records and Shakespearean plays. Never to see Petre again, her Romeo. Never again to talk to her friends, Christina, Anca, and Mariana. Could it be possible that she’d never laugh with them again?

Once a month on a Saturday, the four of them would go to the open market in the Square. It wasn’t exactly a “Black Market.” Those were secret, never held in public, based on contacts- a circle of people one could trust. In their houses behind locked doors and closed curtains.

But Saturday market was in the open. Mostly gypsies who sold whatever they could find or make themselves. It was risky to shop there because the Secret Police posted themselves in the corners, writing names in their notebooks, looking for anyone suspicious. Thankfully, they never bothered the kids.

One day a gypsy sat in a corner hiding, selling something that Mica, Christina, Anca, and Mariana had never seen before: a lipstick, not completely new, but more than half full, of a hot pink color. Next to it in the gypsy’s rough hand was a little pointed glass of nail polish, also half full, of the same color pink. Mica ran home and got some money to purchase the treasures. Every Saturday, for as long as it lasted, the girls put nail polish on their toes. They wore the lipstick on special occasions.

Everyone in class called them the Four Musketeers because they always had lunch together. Anca was the poorest of the four. Sometimes, she had only bread for lunch, which she carefully packed herself, day after day in the same old gray dirty scarf. Mica always shared her lunch with Anca.

On Friday evenings, the four friends went to the Youth Center to listen to records. Often the boys joined them and they’d all dance to the 45 rpm Beatles records Mica’s father had given her for her 14th, 15th, and 16th birthdays. Mica loved to dance. It was the only time she could stop thinking.

She never knew exactly where or how her father got Yesterday and Michèle. When she asked him, he smiled and answered, “My friends want you to have a happy birthday.”

What Mica enjoyed most was going to the movies with her friends. Every two months, Mr. Marinescu got a reel of a 16- millimeter film that he showed in their little theater. Usually it was in Romanian, but sometimes in Hungarian or Russian. Once, he showed a film from France with Yves Montand. Mica couldn’t believe how beautiful Paris was. For months afterwards, she dreamed of strolling on the grand boulevards of Paris or chatting with her friends at a café. At night, she’d go to bed and imagine how sweet a chocolate croissant might taste. Those films offered the only chance for Mica to glimpse the free world.

She was heartbroken to leave her friends. She worried if Anca would get enough to eat, and if Christina would get help for her brother’s arm.

She wanted to take something from home, but what? One of her 45s? No, too big. She had to be free to run. She needed to have a reminder, something she loved. Something she could hold on to when she was lonely.

She remembered her father’s small flashlight, which had lit up the diamonds the first time he took her to the basement. Yes, it would serve her well. Another gift from her father to help her.

Mica stared at the big green chair so stained with life and love, the table so scratched with memories. Her eyes became fixed on two photos on the wooden table. One was of her mother and father hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, the other the three of them during their short vacation to the Black Sea.

“Yes!” She grabbed the photos. “To give me courage.”


* * *

 

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