I can't remember how I found AP. I think the first thing I read was Aisling's "You Know You're a Homeschooler When..." It was shortly after we moved overseas. I followed AP for a little while, but didn't really get involved. Then I stumbled across it again later and decided I wanted to stay for good that time around. I remember days I'd daydream about years from now when our children and grandchildren would be writing on here.
I'm very sad that won't be happening, but am looking forward to embarking on a new adventure at APO. No, it won't be the same. I'll miss the old content, the familiar look of the site... but I can't wait to see where we go with APO.
This is the last thing I post on Apricotpie. It's not really a farewell or a requiem, just a favorite piece I finished recently - and that you've been anticipating.
We are going to America, my family and I. Things have not been good in our country for a long time. We will take a train from our country, Romania, to Germany. We are traveling on an airplane, from Germany, to England, then to America. We have been trying to get out of Romania for many years. The first trouble I remember hearing of was World War II, but I know there was trouble before that. After the war our country was overrun by communists. They introduced a new way of life, one that would solve all of our problems. My grandpa and all of my family thought it would work. I don’t understand it all, but this thing called communism did not make our country better, only worse. Papa says before communism we had enough food. I cannot remember a time before Communism. We tried to leave, even once before I was born. But there was no way out. Now there finally is. A wall is being torn down. I don’t understand how a wall could keep us from leaving, but it did. Everyone was happy when the news came. Us especially, because it meant papa could leave, and make money in America, then send for us, to come by plane.
None of us have ever been on an airplane before. My cousin and I used to go out and watch the planes fly overhead. But that was before she died. We all came close to dying, when there was war in the streets. People were angry about communism and the lies our leaders told, and the promises they broke. The fighting scared us all. Sometimes planes flew overhead. We liked seeing the big planes, but sometimes they weren’t good planes. Sometimes they dropped bombs on us. They destroyed crops, so that there was very little food for us.
But in America! They say it will be different there. They say the streets are paved with gold. The place we are going to, it is called New York, but also “The Big Apple.”
We often ask papa in his letters what America is like – papa has been there three months now – he says that it is not quite like what we think, we have to wait and see for ourselves. He writes that he misses us and loves us, and prays for us. He sends us verses to read from our family Bible, and talks about when we will get to America.
There we will all be together again, except for my brother Nikolai. He played a big instrument - like cello, only bigger. Bass, he called it. My brother Vlad played the cello. And my brother Rami played something a little smaller - the viola. And me, I played the violin. My mama and I, we would dance. My papa would stomp his big boots on the floor and sing. Sometimes he would take the violin and play, and leave me to dance. We would dance, and dance, and dance, late into the night, until we were too tired to go on. Then we would go to bed, even though we wanted to play more and be with each other more.
That was before the bad men came. They came many times and took our food, they took our horses and machinery for the farm... and they took my brother Nikolai. No one knows where he is now. I miss him. He made me laugh. He was like a monkey - he climbed the trees and jumped and flipped... and played his bass, and showed me how. I would play, and Vlad would tease me because it was bigger than I.
My papa left before they came. When we took him to the train to say goodbye, he stood Vlad and Nikolai and Rami before him. "You are the men of the family now," he said. "Protect your mama and your sister with your lives. Especially your sister. Let no man touch her, let no man take hold of her heart. Guard her the best you can." All three nodded.
Just two weeks later, they came with big weapons and loud voices. And they took Nikolai away. Vlad and Rami protected us, just like papa commanded them. But now they must do it alone, without Nikolai. Vlad is only seventeen, barely a man, and Rami is even younger. But I know they will do it. Papa has entrusted us to them - he is assured of their ability.
We didn’t play our music for a long time after they took Nikolai. Only Vlad felt like it, but when he touched his cello, only sad music would come out, so we told him to stop. Nobody danced. Even mama did not sing. We had no joy in our hearts, and so no music came out, except for Vlad, whose music sounded like weeping.
We are on the train now, going to Germany. Mama says it isn’t that long of a train ride, and Germany is not far compared to America. Maybe she is right, but the ride feels very long to me. I tried to sleep some. I slept on Vlad’s shoulder and he tried to fall asleep with his head on mine. Mama held Rami close to her and they tried to sleep. I don’t think any of us fell asleep, but we did rest some. The train is loud, and crowded. It shakes, and I don’t feel safe. Vlad reassures me that it’s alright. We try to pass the time by telling stories and playing games with our hands. All of us want to sing, but mama says it would disturb the people around us.
This is the first time I have wanted to sing since they took Nikolai. Maybe the thought of America brings hope to my heart.
It had taken us months to get ready for America, even though we were rushing. I can’t help but hope that maybe Nikolai is already on his way there. But I don’t think the loud, angry men would let him go like that. None of us know exactly why they took him. There was supposed to be peace when the wall came down. I don’t understand what a wall has to do with peace. There is a lot I don’t understand. Nikolai would have been able to explain it all to me. Vlad just quotes the radio or newspaper, which only confuses me. These things, politics, Vlad calls them, make no sense to me. Rami doesn’t care, and mama says she feels like crying whenever we talk politics, because it makes her think of how much of our family died when things were so bad, and that Nikolai is gone. Maybe someday politics will make sense, when my brother Nikolai is with us.
My brother Nikolai. How I miss him.
I remember the day they came. We had worked outside all morning, trying to salvage food they had not taken from us. The sun burned us all, but we liked hard work. In the afternoon I helped mama in the house. We ate a meager dinner, then as the sun went down I sat with Nikolai on chairs outside the house. He was talking with me and playing his bass. We were laughing. He would tell me a story, making noises with his bass – the creaking of a door, the pop of a cork, someone whistling. He told me story after story, all made up from his head, and all better than any I heard from any storybook. But then he grew serious.
"Elena," he said. "They've been taking the other young men in the village."
"Where?" I asked, sliding my hand along the biggest string. Nikolai always wanted to go places, but this time he didn’t seem excited about people going, instead, he worried. He stopped my hand, holding it tightly.
"No one knows."
Nikolai shrugged. "Maybe to keep us from rebelling. Maybe because they need more to fight with them. I don't know. But I need you to listen to me. They may take me. They may take Vlad and Rami, too. If they take any of us, you all must go to America right away."
"And leave you in trouble?"
"You will be in worse trouble if you stay. I know where papa is, I can find you."
I pulled my hand out of his grasp, shaking my hand. "No. No. They will not take you. Any of you. We will all go to America, together, when papa sends for us."
"Elena, you must be ready for whatever might happen. If they take me, you must go to America."
He played more on his bass, and we laughed some again. But it was not quite as light as it had been before. Soon Vlad came out with his cello and they played and played. I danced and sang as the sun went down and the moon came up and stars came out. We pointed out our favorite stars between songs. Nikolai reminded me how to find my way with the stars. Later I grew tired of dancing and sat on the ground, leaning my head against the bass, and singing quietly. Darkness fell.
Loud, angry voices came with the darkness. A car rolled into our yard. Nikolai's bass fell silent, and Vlad's bow slipped off the strings abruptly. I stopped mid-verse.
"Vlad, Elena - get inside." Nikolai said.
"And you?" Vlad asked.
"I will follow."
Vlad pushed me gently toward the house. He and Nikolai were only a few steps behind me. Just as we got to the door, the men appeared in our view. They had flashlights, and I could see some had guns.
"Stop," one said.
None of us dared move. One of them readied his gun. I wanted to close my eyes and wake up to find this all a bad dream. But it went on.
Nikolai put his arm around me; I clung to him. Vlad was on my other side. I saw him glance toward the window and shake his head. Mama was there, looking out. She disappeared behind the curtain quickly. Nikolai’s arm was the only thing that restrained me from fleeing in terror. My brother Nikolai was here, everything would be alright.
I heard the men whispering to each other. In the darkness, they were just shadows, even with their lights. Then suddenly they were taking Nikolai from me. They tore him away, even though I held tightly. He held onto my hand for a moment, then let go as they dragged him off. But he looked into my eyes and his eyes told me ‘remember America.’ I began to cry. They put his hands behind his back and pushed him toward a car. One pushed Vlad to the ground and began to kick him. Mama ran out screaming. I went to her and put my arms around her. I was scared they would take Vlad, too, but they left him and retreated into the black of the night. My tears made mama’s dress wet. Her tears made my hair wet. Vlad lay unmoving on the ground, then slowly stood up. He cried out in pain. We slowly moved toward the house, mama helping Vlad. We were all crying.
Then I remembered nothing until morning.
I woke groggily the next day.
We had been up so late the night before. Normally I welcomed the sun but today I wanted it gone. I rolled over and thought of the night before. We were having so much fun we had lost track of time, me, and Vlad, and Nikolai - Nikolai. He was gone. I jumped out of bed, hoping it was only a bad dream. But it wasn't. Nikolai was not there. And there was Vlad, lying on mama's bed. She was wrapping bandages on him and putting on poultices. He was badly bruised from when the man had kicked him. And there in the yard - there were the cello and the bass, lying where my brothers had left them. I went out and brought in the cello. Vlad gave me a weak smile as I set it down on the floor.
“Thank you, Elena,” he whispered.
Then I carefully carried in the bass, carrying it as I had always seen Nikolai do it. My brother, Nikolai. I put the bass down inside, then ran out into the woods. I climbed Nikolai's favorite tree, not as agilely and monkey-like as he did, but I still climbed high.
Then I wept. There, hidden in the branches of the tree, I let my heart’s emotion run free. Music feels more deeply than words. But even music was not enough this time. No music could go as deep as what I felt then.
My brother Nikolai was gone.
I was in the tree for a long time. But then I suddenly remembered.
I clambered down and ran to the house.
"We must go, mama, we must go now." I pulled a blanket from my bed and began folding it.
"To America. Nikolai said that if he was taken we must go to papa right away."
Vlad nodded. "That's what he told me, too."
"You're in no state to go," Mama said.
"But we must. Elena, start packing."
Rami rolled over in bed, rubbing his eyes and yawning as he woke. I locked eyes with Vlad. "He doesn't know yet," I whispered.
"You tell him, Elena. You're more gentle than me."
I shook my head as tears welled up in my eyes once more. "No, I can't."
"One of us must. Go ahead, sister." His quiet voice prodded me onward as Rami sat up in bed. His big brown eyes took in the scene around him. Immediately, he sensed that something was different, was wrong.
"Where is Nikolai?" He asked.
"Big men came last night, with loud voices, and took him away," I said, sitting down on the bed.
"Is that when the music stopped, and the car came into the yard?" He wondered. "Yes."
"When will he be back?"
My heart felt as if it were going to be torn into many pieces. "He will have to find us in America." I stood and began making piles of things - to pack, to sell, to give away. As long as I am in this place, there will be such great pain in my heart that I cannot live with it. I thought. Nikolai, my brother Nikolai, is gone.
The airport was crowded, like the train. There were people everywhere, always bumping into each other.
“How big is the plane?” I wondered aloud. “Can it fit this many people?”
“No, silly,” Rami said. “There will be lots of planes for lots of people, going lots of places.” Sometimes I felt years older than Rami, other times I felt like I was a little baby in his mind. I don’t know why it seemed like that; he was a year and a half younger than I.
We walked and walked. Every now and then we stopped and let them look at our bags, or showed them our papers. Vlad says the papers prove we are who we say we are. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m learning that the way a lot of people think doesn’t make sense.
I remember the night papa and Nikolai tried to explain it all to me. I understood some of it then. People had just stolen some of our horses and machinery. Papa had gathered us all together to talk and pray.
“Papa, in the Bible it says it is wrong to steal and murder. Why do they do it?” I asked.
“They do not worship the true God, child.”
“What do they worship?”
I looked up at papa from where I sat on his lap. “The state?”
“They see that the world has problems, and they think the problems can be solved by having different rulers who will change how our country works. They want everyone to own things together, at least, that’s what they would have us believe.”
“Is that why they come and steal from us?”
“Much good their reforms have done,” Vlad said.
“They’re all wrong,” Nikolai interjected. “No form of government can fix our problems.”
I thought about the rumbling in my belly. The cold we suffered in winter. The fields unplowed for lack of horses and machinery. I thought of how broken down our farm was, because of what they had done in the name of the state. My brother Nikolai is right - the government cannot save us. “So what does fix our problems?”
Papa reached for the family Bible. I scooted off of his lap and slipped between Vlad and Nikolai on the bench.
Papa read from many verses, explaining them after he read. Sometimes mama or Nikolai or Vlad would help explain, or Rami and I would ask questions. But finally I understood. The only thing that could save us from any trouble was – is – the One who created the world, who rules over it, who sent His Son to save it. God.
I wanted to weep; they were so wrong, and their lives had been built on a lie.
“Someone needs to tell them.” I said.
“They would kill whoever tried.” Vlad muttered.
“So?” Nikolai said. “Jesus died for us. Why should I be above dying for Him? Why should so many perish without knowing Him, when we can do something about it?”
That was the end of the conversation then. But later when I was in bed, I overheard papa tell Nikolai, “Pray about going to them, my son. You will die. We will all die. We may as well die in the service of His kingdom.”
“You may not have to wait long before you’re with them, whether by force or your own choice,” Vlad said.
“Hush, Vlad,” said my mother. “Don’t speak of that right now.”
Vlad stared into the fire. He was upset about something, I could tell.
“Don’t speak of what?” Rami wondered from the bed the boys all shared.
“Why our cousin Marat is gone.” Vlad said.
“Why is he gone?” I asked, sitting up in bed.
“It’s not for little girls to know, Elena.” Nikolai said.
“I’m not that little anymore.”
Nikolai came and sat on the edge of my bed. “No, not that little. But there are some things we can spare you from for the time being. Trust us.”
I pressed my lips tightly together, but nodded.
My brother Nikolai always knew how to explain things to me, well enough to satisfy my questioning. And even if I still had questions, like that night, I trusted him – I trusted my whole family – enough to not keep asking.
But the “that” of which they wouldn’t speak bothered me for a long time. I prayed about it a lot. I saw faraway looks in my older brothers’ eyes sometimes, and knew that they were thinking about Marat and where he had gone. My cousin Marat. He was three years older than Nikolai, and Nikolai had always looked up to him. Until recently, when Marat became more revolutionary.
I knew we opposed the communists. But we were not radicals like others. We waited and reformed where we could. Quietly, peacefully. We changed our little bit of Romania as we had power to do, not like revolutionaries, who wanted to change it all at once. But maybe to the Communists we were one and the same. If we didn’t agree with them, they wanted us gone, especially now that the wall was down and we could leave the world and tell them what had happened in our country.
It didn’t all make sense until the night they came to take Nikolai. And then I was glad they hadn’t told me. But maybe at last Nikolai would get to tell them. I knew he would take every chance he got to tell the communists about our Savior. I prayed they wouldn’t kill him.
But now we were leaving the communists, we are leaving our country, our dear country, Romania. We pray life will be better in America – papa says it is. I do not know if it will be. Especially if my brother Nikolai is not with us.
I kept bumping into people in the airport. The violin banged against them. I was not used to so many people. On our farm, it was only us.
“Here,” Vlad said. “Our plane will come here. We can wait here.”
“The plane will come here?” I asked. “Inside?”
“No,” said Vlad. “We will go outside and then get on the plane.”
“How big is the plane?” Rami asked. “As big as a house?”
“Bigger. Much bigger.”
“How long will it be to get to America?”
“A long time.”
“Can we play our music on the plane?”
“No,” said mama.
“What will we do?” I wondered. At home, we worked, ate, slept, and played music. It was all we had time for. We would wake, make breakfast, work in the fields and garden, eat, work more, eat again, then papa would read from the Bible and we would play music until it was time to sleep. In the winter we would work inside, making things. If we could not work on the plane and could not make music, what would we do?
“Sleep. Maybe eat.”
I wasn’t sure that I was looking forward to the plane anymore. I sighed. If Nikolai were with us, he would make things interesting. He would find something to talk about or do on the long flight. Maybe he would tell stories, though he wouldn’t have his bass to make noises with. Or we would write words to a song, a song about Romania, or about going to America. Then we would sing it to papa when we got to America. And we would stay up all night, playing music, and mama would make our favorite foods, and we would dance, and Papa would read from the Bible, and we would all be happy again, with my brother Nikolai. I missed him.
We started packing the day after they took Nikolai. But even still we could not leave right away. We still had crops in the fields that needed to be brought in so we would have food for the journey. We had animals to sell, though not very many. There were people to say goodbye to, and places, too. Our cousins were all very happy that we could go. They were thinking about joining us later. We wrote to papa to tell him we were coming. Vlad sometimes went out to look for Nikolai. I was convinced we would find him. Our country is not that big, at least compared to America or Russia. He could not have gone far. Mama shook her head whenever I said that.
“Maybe someday we will see him again,” she said. “But it will have to be in America. They will not let him go free yet.”
I wished he would come home.
Vlad reminded me that God knew they took Nikolai. God knew that Nikolai wanted to tell them about our Savior. Maybe, he said, this was God’s way of doing that.
Sometimes I wished God would have done it a way that hurt less. But sometimes pain is the way we grow.
We walked up to the airplane. They made Vlad leave his cello somewhere else. He wouldn’t let them, but then mama told him to, and the people said it would still come to America with us. He was reluctant, but finally agreed. Then he carried the violin for me. On the airplane we found our seats and then I looked around. It was very strange. Like Vlad said, it was bigger than a house, but it didn’t feel bigger than a house. There were seats everywhere, with small passages for people to walk in between some of the seats. We put the violin and viola up above the seats. Our other bags we put below the seat. Our big suitcase was in the bottom of the plane, mama told me.
I wanted to look around the plane, but other people were coming on and mama told me to sit down. She said we could explore later, when we were in the air. Vlad and Rami were on either side of me. Mama was across the passageway – Vlad called it an aisle.
We sat for a long time. Rami asked questions about buttons and strange things, and Vlad answered them as well as he could. A woman, she was called a flight attendant, showed everyone what to do, and what would happen if we crashed. I didn’t want to think about that. We buckled our seat belts and the woman sat down. We started moving. It was gentle at first, but then the plane began to shake.
“Vlad, what is happening?” I asked. I held tightly to the arms of my seat. It felt like the plane was going to fall apart and we would all die. I thought of everything the flight attendant said, and tried to remember it all.
“We’re taking off,” he said. It was hard to hear him; the engines of the plane were so loud. “We’ll be in the air soon.”
In the air? Flying! “Will it be like this the whole way?”
“I don’t know.”
Soon I felt my stomach dropping inside of me. It felt strange, but I liked it.
“Are we in the air now?” Rami asked.
I knew the answer to that one. “Yes!” I said.
Soon everything was smooth. I would not have known we were flying; it felt like we were on the ground. But I liked it.
I wanted Nikolai to be with us, to feel this with us, to know it with us.
He had always wanted to fly in a plane, “fly like the birds,” he would say. I told him I would fly with him when he went. Now I was flying before him. I remembered once when he brought home a kite. He said it would bring us closer to flying.
“Look what I brought home, Elena!” Nikolai had said as he entered our house, a large bundle under his arm.
I leapt up from my chair where I had been sewing, glad to cast aside my work. Whatever Nikolai brought home was always exciting.
“What is it?” I asked, peering over his arms as he set the package down on the table.
“Open it and see!”
I tore away at the brown paper wrapping. A mess of cloth, string, and sticks awaited me. I held them up curiously.
“What is it?”
“It’s a kite, Elena!”
“A kite! They come from China. People fly them in the sky.”
“Does it make us fly?”
“No, but it would be fun if it did.”
Nikolai untangled the lines and handed me the cloth part of the kite.
“Come, let’s take it outside.”
We ran outside. Somehow Nikolai managed to get it up into the air. I clapped my hands as a grin spread across his face. After a few minutes of flying it, he called me over.
“You want to try, Elena?”
I looked at him nervously. “Will it pull me away?”
He shook his head. “Come.” I slipped in under his arms and took hold of the bar. Then he let go. Almost immediately, the kite sank to the ground.
“I’m sorry, Nikolai!” I wailed. “What did I do?”
“You have to keep it in the wind. Control it – like so.” He pulled it this way and that to get it back in the air. Then he handed it to me again. He kept a hand on the bar, steadying the kite.
I began to laugh. “What happens if I jump?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Try it!” He let go of the bar.
I jumped, and the kite pulled me a few feet.
We played until we had to go inside for dinner. But on many windy nights after that Nikolai and I would fly the kite, and talk about America, and airplanes.
I poked Vlad, who was half asleep next to me. “Don’t fall asleep yet,” I said. “You’ll get bored too quickly. I want to remember with you.”
He opened his eyes.
“Remember when Nikolai brought home a kite?” I asked.
Rami leaned over and joined the memories. “You and Nikolai played with it all evening. You wouldn’t let me touch it. You said it would pull me away.”
I gave him an impish grin.
“Nikolai always was your favorite,” he said.
“And you were his favorite sister,” Vlad added.
“I was his only sister.” I paused for a minute. “No, I am his only sister. And Nikolai is my favorite.” I said strongly.
Vlad put a hand on top of mine. “We’re doing as he asked us.”
“I know. But it hurts.”
“Papa would have said the same. It’s to keep us safe.”
“I feel like I deserted my brother,” I said.
“You’re not deserting, you’re obeying.”
I frowned. “You can go to sleep. I don’t want to talk anymore.”
Vlad closed his eyes and leaned back, but his hand stayed on top of mine. That was his way of making me feel better. I missed Nikolai. Nikolai would talk to me. He knew how to comfort me with words, make me understand, make me look back at God. But I needed some of both. Nikolai never touched people often. It made him feel awkward. But he would talk – that was how he would calm. He was gentle in his words, in a way that sometimes cut deeper than touch.
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. But for a long time I could not sleep. So I thought. I thought more about Nikolai. We had had sleepless nights before. After papa left, he was worried. I heard him talking to mama, and then I was worried. He went to the window and stood looking out, thinking – praying. I went up behind him and put my arms around his waist.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked, moving closer to the window.
“Papa. And what we will do while we wait.”
I looked at him. “What do you mean?”
Nikolai sighed. “Go to bed, Elena.”
I could tell he didn’t wish to talk, but he said a few words more.
“Things are not good here. We need to get to America soon.”
I looked out the window at the stars over our beautiful country.
“Go to bed and pray.”
I slipped back into my bed, but lay awake a long time praying.
I did the same now, on the airplane. I prayed for Nikolai. I prayed that God would use him wherever he was, to tell people about Jesus Christ, our Savior. I prayed that God would protect him, and give him strength and encouragement. I prayed for papa, and mama, and Vlad, and Rami. I prayed for our family back in Romania, and my cousin, Marat. I thanked God for our journey so far, and prayed for strength.
I was already tired and we still had a very long way to go.
Sometime on the plane I fell asleep, because Rami woke me up when we were landing. He was sitting by the window on the flight and wanted me to watch the houses and trees get closer. I watched for a minute but then felt sick. So I watched people in the airplane. Most of them didn’t look like us.
There was a man who was so dark he was almost black. I stared at him for a time, but then Vlad reminded me that it was rude to stare. I noticed another man, this one white like us, but his hair was yellow, not black like ours. His eyes were very blue. He was watching me. I looked down at my feet, where he was looking. I curled my toes in my boots. One of my toes stuck in a hole in the sole. He must have been looking, too, at my patched skirt. I felt ashamed of my clothes. He wore a spotless new suit. Then I felt indignant – we may be poor, but we are clean, too. And anyone who had been through what we’d been through would look just as ragged.
I wondered what Nikolai looked like. I prayed he was healthy; I hoped he was still strong. Even if his body was frail now, he was holding fast to God as his hope – I knew that much of my brother and what was happening.
We began moving off the plane. Vlad got the violin and viola down. We walked slowly; the plane was crowded with so many people. Mama held tightly to my hand, and I held tightly back. I did not want to lose her; I was scared of what would happen if we were separated. Vlad told me where to go, and I went. Soon we were out in a big room, like the airport in Germany. Vlad got his cello.
Rami ran to the window and looked out.
“Plane!” he cried. That was one of the few words we knew in English. I could say “airplane,” “New York,” and “I don’t speak English.” Vlad could speak a little more.
I ran to the window. Mama was close behind me.
“It doesn’t look like I thought.” I said.
“We’re not in New York yet – we’re in London.”
“Where’s that?” Rami wanted to know.
“North of our country,” Vlad explained.
“Where Churchill is from?” Rami asked.
Rami always asked Grampa for stories from the war, and Grampa liked to tell him about Winston Churchill.
“Will we be in America soon?” He wondered.
“Sooner than later,” Vlad said.
I could not wait to see Papa. But thinking of him made me remember. “We only wrote him we were coming. He doesn’t know about Nikolai. He will not find out until he sees us.”
“No, he will not,” Mama said. Her voice sounded tight. Vlad reached out a hand, then Rami, and then me. We hugged for a long time, there in the airport. None of us worried that anyone would see us or think we were odd. It was us. There was Mama, strong and supportive, Vlad, deep feeling and musical, me, small and lively, Rami, boyish but growing too quickly. The cello, violin, and viola lay scattered on the floor with our bags.
“Soon we will all be together,” Mama said. “Together in America.”
Together. I thought. Except for Nikolai.
We ate food in the airport, then Vlad let Rami and me find our gate. It took us longer than if Vlad had found it, but he wanted to teach us, as papa had instructed him in a letter we received right before we left. We sat there and talked until our plane was ready to leave. I didn’t want to get back on a plane. Flying was something new, but I didn’t really like it. It was boring. I thought perhaps even Nikolai could not keep me interested the whole time. I occupied myself by remembering.
I remember the night before papa left, but not as clearly as I remember the night they took Nikolai. We stayed up late, later than usual. For a long time we played our music around the fire, papa told a few stories, and then we grew quiet. Vlad fingered and lightly played a few songs on his cello. I hummed under my breath. I could tell Nikolai wanted to play, too, but he restrained himself. We all knew that when we finished playing, the talk would turn to papa leaving us. None of us wanted to think about it, so we tried to push it aside to later and later, but we knew there was no stopping it from coming. Soon papa would read scripture to us for the last time in Romania, and then we would go to bed. In the morning, we would wake up and take papa to the train station. Then he would leave, and we would keep the farm running until he sent for us. I looked at Nikolai, thinking of the great burden and weight that would be on his shoulders as the man of the house, and head of the farm when papa was gone. I looked at Vlad, who would share some of those responsibilities with Nikolai. I looked at Papa, and thought of how handsome and wise he was – is, and how I would miss him.
But then I thought of how we would soon be all together in America, and we would have plenty of food and more time for music, and a bigger farm. But the most important thing would be being together, all of us, again.
Now that Nikolai is gone, only God knows if we will ever be all together again.
I remembered another night, when I was very sick. I was eight, maybe nine. Nikolai was sixteen. Mama stayed up all day and all night tending to me. I don’t remember much from that time, just one night. I was in and out of sleep and delirium all day long. Sometimes I felt a hand on my face or chest, or someone taking my pulse. They tried to feed me, but I tossed and turned, refusing any food or water. Papa always said I was so small now because of this sickness. That and the time we almost starved to death. But that one night, I woke to darkness. I thought perhaps I’d gone blind.
“Mama?” I cried out.
A gentle hand was on my forehead in an instant, then at my wrist. A cool feeling swept across my face, then rested on my forehead. Droplets of water, mingling with sweat, rolled down my temples.
It was a man’s voice. I started.
“Mama’s gone to bed.”
It was Nikolai. I relaxed.
“Lie still.” He said. Then, “Can I get you anything?”
I didn’t reply.
“I’m not hungry. Nor thirsty.”
“Oh, Elena, you must eat and drink!”
“I couldn’t hold it down if I wanted to.”
“How will you ever get your strength back?”
“A story,” I said. “I need a story.”
“You can’t live on stories,” he said, but wound a yarn for me just the same. It was a beautiful tale, about a family in America. They had a farm, like us, and played music, like us. I can’t remember how it ended; I fell asleep before Nikolai got there. When I woke again, it was day, and Nikolai was asleep with his head on the edge of my bed. Mama had come early that morning and covered him in a blanket and taken the cloth off of my forehead. I lay still for a while. When Nikolai woke, he rubbed his eyes, then smiled at me.
“I’m hungry,” I said.
“Good.” He stood and brought me food, then brought his bass by me and played while I ate. Soon he left to the fields with papa and Vlad, but not before they moved me to our porch, where I sat in mama’s rocking chair, knitting and waiting for them to come home.
I haven’t ever been sick like that again. Not outside sick, anyway.
Then I remembered once when Nikolai was sick. Maybe sick isn’t the right word. He was hurt. He fell, and broke his leg, and hit his head. For days he couldn’t remember. Mama took his place in the fields, and so I was home with him all day. I would talk to him, but he wouldn’t laugh and sometimes wouldn’t say anything. Mama told me I needed to keep him awake until she got home from the fields. I would cook and check on Nikolai every few minutes. Mama would come home and we would eat, then she would watch Nikolai. Vlad would watch him while mama and I slept, then he slept late into the morning before working.
I was so scared. I knew from mama’s tone that my brother’s life my depend on my keeping him awake. I wanted him to get well, and to remember, for him to play his music, and spin me around and around and around… I remember crying and holding his hand near the beginning, when he didn’t even remember my name.
But he got better, and was himself, and rejoined us making music and laughing and making memories. We remembered together sometimes, too, remembered the days when we were sick, or when we flew the kite, and things like that.
I wonder if we will ever remember together again. If we will ever make music together, and laugh together like we used to. Life went back to normal after Nikolai was better. I wonder, will it ever be normal again?
I remembered times when I would go outside to say goodnight to Nikolai, when he was sitting on the porch playing his bass or mending a bridle, and a quick goodnight would turn into us talking for hours. We talked about everything, Nikolai and I. We shared hopes and dreams, struggles and trials. The only people either of us shared more with would have been our parents. It became a habit – I would go outside, say goodnight, then talk to him. Sometimes we said goodnight as many as five times before I went back inside. The sun would just be going down when I went out, and most of the stars would be shining brightly when I went inside. But talking with Nikolai left me looking at Christ when I went to bed. The lost sleep was worth that.
I would rather less sleep and have my brother Nikolai back, than three hours more sleep and no Nikolai. My brother is worth much more than a few hours of rest.
Soon I remembered again. But it was a memory I had not seen before. We were dancing – I with Nikolai, papa with mama. Vlad played his cello. We were in a field by a house, a house different than ours in the old country. We were all older. Papa looked more careworn. Vlad played with more emotion, Rami stood quietly by his side. Nikolai had scars. I had not changed much, but I knew my heart had. We were changed, older, wiser – but still happy, still joyful with the love of Christ abounding in us.
Then something shook me.
I opened my eyes. It hadn’t been a memory, but a dream. I had fallen asleep, and was dreaming of what I hoped would be, mixed with how I knew we would be changed if it happened.
Vlad had waken me for food, snapping me out of the reverie.
As I ate, I thought about the dream.
Yes, I wanted more than anything else on earth to be back together again. But did I want to face the healing we would experience when all was becoming well and good? We would all be changed, and in different ways. We would have to grow back together. I knew it would hurt sometimes. The scars would be cut deeper before they would heal.
Would it be worth the pain?
Yes, I thought emphatically. Yes.
Later Vlad handed me a piece of paper and a pencil. “Draw for me, Elena,” he said. When I was younger, I used to draw all the time. As I got older, I ran out of time because of my chores. I took the pencil and paper, glad to have the chance to sketch again. First I drew our house. I could still see it in my mind, and wanted to put it on paper before I forgot what it looked like. I drew our farm, and our horses, and Marat and my other cousins.
“Let me draw you, Vlad,” I said next.
For the next while, I drew and erased, looking at Vlad, then back to the paper. “There,” I said at last, showing him the picture.
He looked at it, but didn’t say anything at first, just sat there quietly.
“What? Do you like it?”
A pained look spread across his face. “Elena, it’s not me that you’ve drawn.”
I looked at it again.
There were tears in his eyes and his voice broke as he spoke. “It’s Nikolai.”
I began to cry, and could barely speak. “Oh Vlad! I miss him so much!”
He held me close. “I know, Elena, I know.” After a long silence, he said “When you miss him, you must pray for him.”
“I know,” I whispered. “I do.”
It seemed days before we landed in America.
“Now we’re in New York, right, mama?” Rami asked as we gathered our bags.
“And soon we will see Papa!” I said cheerily. Excitement pulsed through me. I almost broke out in song, but remembered the closeness of people around me. “How long will it take us to get to the farm?”
“I don’t know.”
Mama shook her head. “Not long.”
I sighed. I was learning that ‘not long’ could sometimes mean seven hours. How long was a long airplane ride if seven hours was ‘not long’ to mama? I hoped it meant much less than seven hours.
The people ahead of us moved off of the plane, and we followed behind them. We went down the steps, and put our feet down on land. And it wasn’t just any land – it was America! My feet were finally firmly on American soil. I felt a pang of sadness as I thought of the last time I was outside, home in Romania. Romania, where Nikolai was. I looked toward the rising sun – looked Eastward, to the old country.
“This is our home now,” Vlad said, putting an arm around my shoulder and pulling me to walk with everyone else. I have always wondered how he and Nikolai were always so good at reading my heart.
We walked and walked and walked. Soon we went inside, and stood in lines. We put our suitcases through the machines again. They looked at our passports, stamped them, asked questions, then moved us on. We waited in more lines, then went into a room where mama and Vlad went up to a counter. Rami and I sat in chairs by all of our luggage.
They came back after a while and said we could go. We went to a room filled with suitcases. We looked for a long time, then I grew tired and rested. When I woke, Mama had our bag. It was an old suitcase, falling apart and patched with all manner of things. We had only one suitcase between the four of us. Most of our possessions fit inside – a few clothes, and a Bible. We carried our few other belongings in bags with us. Our house and table had been sold to help pay for our plane tickets. We had to get rid of Nikolai’s bass. Mama wanted to make Vlad leave his cello behind, but Vlad would not. Rami had his viola strapped to his back, and I held the violin. Perhaps soon we might be able to music again.
We came out of the airport, and there was papa waiting for us. He ran to us.
First he hugged mama, and kissed her. Then he turned to us, his children.
"Ah, my Rami!" Papa said giving Rami a great bear hug. "And little Elena," he said moving up the line. He hugged me, sweeping me off of my feet. He kissed me, then set me down. "Vlad, my son," he said as he and Vlad hugged. "And Nikolai. Where is my son Nikolai?" Mama looked away, her face a mask of pain. Rami looked at the ground.
"Well? Where are you hiding him?" He asked, smiling.
I looked at Vlad. Vlad looked at Papa.
"They took him." He said quietly.
“I thought that was over…” Papa turned away. His shoulders began to shake. "Oh, my son... my son Nikolai, will I ever see you again?”
We went home. We took two taxis, Papa and mama and Rami in one, Vlad and I in the other. Rami said Papa was quiet the whole ride to the house. I knew he must have been praying and thinking about Nikolai, his firstborn son. But he smiled again when we got home. He paid the taxi drivers as we unloaded our baggage, then showed us into the house. It wasn’t big, but it was a little bigger than our old house. It had an upstairs, and a cellar. We ran and explored for the rest of the morning. We ate a small lunch, then papa took us out to see our land.
“I need to get seeds,” he said, “but by then it will be planting season, and we can start our life anew.”
Our new life. Our life in America.
I cannot tell you how my story ends. I do not know yet if it is happy or sad. Nikolai has not yet come. We listen to the radio and read the newspaper to hear how things are in our country. But there is no news of my brother Nikolai. Not yet.
We have been in America four months now. There isn’t gold, and it isn’t full of apples – or full of any food. We have to work just as hard here as in Romania. But at least there is no one taking our food from us here.
We were too busy starting our farm in the last months to play our music. Sometimes one of us would hum, or whistle, or sing the songs of the old country, or whatever melody is in our hearts, whether sad or happy. We prayed and read the Bible as a family again, and sang songs from the Scriptures. We had joy in being together and serving God. But there was still an ache in my heart.
Vlad tried his best to cheer me up, every day. He knew how badly I hurt, missing Nikolai. One day he brought me a kite. At first I did not want to fly it, because it made me think of Nikolai. But then I remembered how much I enjoyed it, and that it was a happy memory of Nikolai. Vlad helped me get it in the air, then helped me control it.
Soon I got the feel of it, and he let go. I began to laugh. “Get Nikolai, and Rami, too! Let them fly!” I said. Then I dropped the kite, realizing what I had said. I had been taken back in my mind to the day Nikolai brought home a kite. I looked at Vlad, my eyes full of tears.
“Will he ever come home?”
“I don’t know, Elena, I don’t know.”
“I pray for him every day.”
“God sometimes answers our prayers ‘no,’ sister.”
I was silent.
“We must want what glorifies Him more than our own happiness. Even so, His glory will bring us joy.”
I turned away. I almost didn’t want to ask God to do what glorified Him most. I was scared of what might happen if I did. I was scared I might never see Nikolai again; that this hole of pain in my heart might never heal.
I went inside, upstairs to my small attic room. There I fell on my knees at the foot of my bed.
“God,” I cried out. “I’m scared to pray this, but I know I must. I pray that your glory will be the thing I desire most, even more than having Nikolai back. Maybe you’re using him to tell many people about You. I know that You can fill the hole in my heart. Fill it with Yourself. Heal me.”
It was a simple prayer, but I knew that didn’t matter. My prayers are never enough without the Holy Spirit interceding. I don’t know how to pray as I should, but He carries it on to God. I opened my small Bible to that passage I knew so well and read and prayed through Romans chapter 8 until mama called me down to dinner.
I still missed Nikolai.
But I knew I would have joy again, even if it was slow in coming.
Two years went by. Our farm grew. I worked in our family garden every day. Mama did not want me going far from the house, and the garden was in the front yard. I also took care of the animals in the barn. The boys and papa went farther out, to the fields. Often sang as I worked. But today was a very hot day. The air was heavy, and it was hard to be happy while I worked. I was too tired to sing. Frequently I stopped to drink water and stretch my back. Mama brought me water out sometimes and let me use her big hat for shade. Near dinner time I went inside. After dinner I sat on the front porch, looking at the garden and singing. I smiled as I sang. It was one of the songs of the Romania I loved so much. It was a lullaby that mama sang to me, and that Nikolai and Vlad would sometimes play while I was falling asleep.
My gaze wandered around the garden, but stopped to rest on the dirt path that ran past our dwelling. As I stared off down the road, something caught my eye.
In the distance, I saw a figure coming toward our farm. The dust made it hard to see who it was. He looked tired and worn, and was carrying a heavy bag. His shoulders drooped with weariness, and his feet seemed to shuffle.
I stopped my loud singing.
“Mama, there’s someone coming!” I said, leaving my shovel in the garden and running to the house.
“Who?” she asked.
“I don’t know. But he’s tired.”
“Invite them in if they need something. I’ll make sure Vlad is nearby.” She went to the back of the house and shouted for Vlad, who was coming in from the fields with the horses.
I ran outside and stood at the fence, peering down the road. The figure came closer. I felt Vlad join me at my side.
“What’s going on?”
“There’s someone coming.”
He looked, then nodded when he saw.
I kept on singing for a while. Soon we could see the person more clearly. “Vlad…” I said.
I looked at the person. The way he kept his feet close to the ground, the bend of his knee… everything about him was familiar. Then the man looked up. Most of his face was hidden by a scruffy beard. He was dirty. But his eyes were clear.
Suddenly my heart felt as if it would burst. I ran out of the yard, leaving Vlad staring open-mouthed behind me. I didn’t stop to explain, just began shouting.
“Nikolai! Nikolai! Nikolai!”
Soon I found myself in my brother’s arms. For once, he was more than willing to hug.
Vlad came running after me. “Mama! Rami! Papa! Come quick!” He joined the embrace. Soon we were all outside, standing in the middle of the country road, hugging and kissing and rejoicing. Everyone was chattering happily. I was quiet, and just looked at Nikolai.
We began walking toward the house, but nobody let go of each other. I felt Nikolai’s strong arm around my waist. He drew me closer. I looked at him and smiled.
My brother Nikolai was home.
We played music that night. Vlad on his cello, Rami on viola, and papa had the violin. Mama and I sang. Our music wasn’t loud like it had been in Romania, but it was happy. It was a quiet, thankful sort of happy. Nikolai sat by the window, looking at us all. He seemed very caught up in his thoughts. I slipped away from the music and sat on the floor by his feet, my head resting on his knee. Soon his hand found its way to my head. He gently fingered my hair. His hands were rougher, and scarred in places. His arms, too. His skin was darker and his hair lighter from the sun. I could tell he had suffered much, but had grown stronger – bodily and spiritually.
“You’ve grown up, Elena.”
“I’ve missed you, Nikolai.”
I couldn’t see him, but knew that he closed his eyes because of painful memories.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“It hurts to much to say now. I was in a hard place. I tried to write, but they wouldn’t let me. Then when I was free, I knew I would come faster than a letter. ”
“Will you ever be able to tell us what happened after that night?” I whispered.
“Did you get to tell them?”
“Yes. I told some of them. They wanted to kill me. But they were not allowed. They did other things, though. They hurt my body, but not my soul. They could not hurt my soul.”
“Did any of them see?”
“One. The others I told, I don’t really know. Sometimes we can’t see until later. Maybe I will never know. Maybe one day I can go back, when things are better, and find the men I told.”
“I don’t want you to leave again.”
“I came as soon as I could, Elena.”
“I know. I watched for you every day, and prayed for you even more. Everything we did made me think of you. Vlad and I talked a lot about how we missed you. We shared many tears. He tried to cheer me up and make me happy. But I knew the only thing that could really cheer me was you. You and God.”
“That’s all done now,” he said. “I’m with you now, and don’t plan to leave for a long time.”
“I love you, Nikolai.” I said quietly.
“I love you, too, Elena.”
We sat in silence, listening to mama sing. The strains of the stringed instruments filled our house with beautiful music. It was the first time I had heard such beautiful sounds since the night they took Nikolai. Everything was right. We would laugh again, and sing again, and play again.
My brother Nikolai was home.