Ioan had found this place by accident. He’d discovered the birch grove behind the house where he now lived and would come back here to sit in the quiet shade and let his mind catch up to his body.
Until six months ago his world ended at the gates of the crowded hospital where he lived with the other orphans of the war. It was a small, predictable place of cold and boredom, but it was a haven after that awful night when Ioan came to out in the road, bloodied and stunned and alone. There wasn’t much food and no laughter here, but the unsmiling adults had bandaged his wounds and given him a bed, a blanket and an old Bible. The other kids were like him, watchful and silent.
Occasionally strangers would arrive in the company of stern officials who carried clip boards and files. Sometimes one of the kids would leave with them. Other times the people would walk around looking shaken before hurrying away. Some took notes and asked questions of the officials in stilted Croatian. Some relied foolishly on the interpreter who tagged along. It was always an anxious time and Stapina Judit did her best to maintain order.
Ioan’s strangers were especially unsettling, bursting into this dulled down world like a summer storm. Their skin was pink, their clothes were clean and heavy. Everyone, adults and children alike, looked away in confusion when the man led the woman into the main hall. He was loud, mangling the language and laughing too much. The interpreter stood off to the side and let Stapina Judit deal with this one. She drew herself up and led them into the wards.
After several days, Ioan was brought into her office where she explained to him that he was going to be “adopted” by the strangers and taken to America. They would now be his parents. Ioan stared at his feet. He had parents and they would be coming for him as soon as they could. He couldn’t go to America; they’d never find him there. As he struggled to explain this, the man pulled him into a sudden hug. Ioan stood very still, uncertain and wary.
“Your new mother and father are very excited that you will be part of their family now. They are going to call you Jon. Go get your things.” Stapina Judit was firm. There was no arguing.
And that was it. In a daze, with hands shaking, he gathered his few possessions. Someone gently pulled the scratchy blanket from his bundle. Still he tried to speak up as he was helped into the soft leather seat of the car.
The man stopped and Stapina Judit scowled.
“How will my papa find me?”
A soft cough; the man looked stricken. The woman looked away.
“Your papa is dead, Ioan. You know that.” Stapina Judit came and bent over him, her dented St. Michael medal bumped his cheek. He ached for her to pull him back into the safety of the hospital.
She straightened up.
“You are a lucky boy.” She closed the car door and walked away.
Now, sitting in the grove, Ioan hugged his knees and thought about those first confusing months. The food here made him sick. He was used to thin broths, hard breads, puddings made of leavings from the butcher in town. For weeks even the smell coming from the kitchen in his new home made him sick. Seeing how worried the man was, he tried to eat but often as not, later in his bathroom, he threw up. Saying nothing, the woman began bringing a bowl of thin oatmeal up to him before bedtime.
Then there was the language. Back at the orphanage everyone had several languages and they picked up new ones from each other with ease. But English wasn’t a language, it was some crazy puzzle of words that could sound the same and mean something completely different. There were no rules to this mess. The tutor his new parents hired would sit with him at the kitchen table, repeating words and pointing at things. Helpless, Ioan would parrot back sounds that meant nothing to him.
An early comfort had been to go off to his bedroom and gaze into the mirror there. The only mirror at the orphanage had been a cracked piece of glass in the hallway. Ioan stood for long minutes, relearning his face. Funny, he didn’t look anything like he remembered from back when he lived in a vast apartment block with his parents and little brother. His face was thinner, more pale than he expected. His nose was longer and he didn’t remember that small crooked place right below where his eyebrows met. He’d lean forward and stare hard into his own eyes as if there was an answer in there. He kept the bedroom door closed, not wanting the man to come up and find him like this.
When that tutor’s attempts to teach him English failed, his new parents brought in a stern and exacting Czech who never let up. In less than two months Ioan was ready to start school. He could manage the language, but these loud, fast kids bewildered him. Being the butt of their stupid cafeteria cruelties didn’t hurt as much as being the outsider at the end of the school day when the rest of the kids went off in groups. He stood alone and watched them go, laughing together.
It was then that he fled into the woods. First he had to stop by the house and let himself be seen. The man wouldn’t be home from work yet and that was a relief. He focused so much attention on Ioan, it made him uncomfortable. The woman seemed to accept his presence without saying much of anything. She’d nod, maybe push a box of cookies over to him and pour some milk. He was happy enough to eat without talking and then be free to leave.
That day, a mild day in March, he was wandering around among the birches when he found himself sinking a bit into some leafy dirt. He stepped up out of the small depression and squatted down to see what he’d sunk into. The dirt was soft and black, it smelled wonderful. In the quiet, with the sun warm on his shoulders, he began to dig. The dirt and leaves were loose and easy to move. Before he knew it, he was standing nearly waist deep in his hole. He worked until he realized that the sun was slanting in at an angle and he was starving.
Letting himself in the back door, he could hear voices in the dining room.
“He’s not happy here, Robert, and you know it!”
“Gloria, honey, it’s just going to take some time.” The man sounded like he was talking to a child.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“Baby, we’re good parents. Let’s focus on that.”
“He’s not my son.”
“He is. He’s our son.”
“He’s your project. He’s how you prove all over again that you’re Saint fucking Robert!”
Ioan held his breath and slowly pulled the back door closed behind him, hoping they wouldn’t hear. He was just too hungry now to turn around and leave.
“We’re making a difference here, even you — “
“Bullshit! Don’t start with that sanctimonious crap. Why the hell did I let you talk me into this? This isn’t going to fix us.”
“Face it, Robert, I didn’t want this and Christ himself only knows how many times I tried to get that through to you.” The woman sounded tired now.
“It’s just going to take a little time is all, sweetheart.”
“C’mon, let’s go out to eat, catch a movie. We can do this. I know we can.”
Flattened against the wall beside the dining room doorway, Ioan judged the distance to the stairs and began to circle around to the kitchen and back to the stairs. He was going to make it.
“Fuck you, Robert, you still don’t hear a goddamned thing I say!”
A chair scraped across the floor and there she was. They both stood still. Ioan stared down at his feet and waited. The moment stretched out and she just stood there. He finally had to see her face and raised his eyes. She looked so sad. No words were there for either of them and she walked on through the kitchen and pulled her windbreaker off the hook in the breezeway. She closed the back door quietly behind her.
The next morning Ioan was awake before first light, laying there and planning. He thought about the things he’d need and imagined the places in that crammed-full garage where he would find them. Later, after dozing off, when he woke up and heard the man down in the kitchen, running water and singing along with the radio, he knew what he had to do.
“Good morning.” He paused. “Dad.”
He went over to the cupboard and got the box of cereal out. There was no sign of the woman, but that wasn’t unusual. She wasn’t around much in the mornings.
“You look like a man with a plan, there, Jon.” The man said this idly, leafing through the newspaper and sipping his coffee. Startled, Ioan looked up from where he was peering into the refrigerator. Thinking, thinking. What to say?
“It is sunny today.” He thought of something the kids at school said. Lame. That was lame.
“I’ve got some running around to do, wanna come along?”
Now what? He would just have to say it.
“I want to go out and play in the woods.” He bit off the word ‘alone’ and got the milk out of the fridge.
“Sure, Jon, it’s too nice a day to be stuck in the car with the old man. You go on out and enjoy those woods while they last. Won’t be long before some developer snaps that land up.”
He sat there and ate his cereal, almost shaking with the need to fly out to the garage and begin work. Oblivious, the man hummed to himself and scanned the paper.
When he did get out to the garage he was faced with a wall of junk. None of the things he needed were right on top so he spent most of the morning digging into the more promising spots. Sweaty and out of breath, he finally emerged with what he figured he’d need: buckets, rope, a small garden shovel, a hand pickax and a stiff, old pulley. When he found a dented can of WD40 he was ready to get to work.
That first day he made a lot of progress, digging until he was in over his head. The walls of his hole were stable and, almost right away, the hole began to angle slightly. He dragged each bucket full of dirt over to the edge of the nearby ravine and dumped it. Lost in his work, he almost forgot about supper. But he didn’t want to give the man any reason to come back here looking for him, so he stored his tools down in the hole and covered it up with a small tarp and dirt.
The school year ended and that was a huge relief. He’d felt alone for so long that he didn’t even feel lonely until a knot of boys burst into laughter as he passed them one day on his way out to the woods. He recognized them from recess.
“Hey, look, it’s that Russian kid!”
“You! Russian kid! You speak any English?”
“Whatsa matter? You stupid?”
“Yo-ANNNN! That’s his name. Yo-annnn, like a girl!”
“He’s probably retarded.”
“C’mere, stupid, talk Russian to us!”
He kept walking. What good would it do to tell them that he wasn’t Russian? Had they even heard of Yugoslavia? He doubted it and now it was too late anyway. The laughter exploded again.
He got used to the tension in the house. He knew he was part of the problem, but had no way to understand the depth of the woman’s unhappiness or the reasons for it. Since there was nothing he could do about it, he did his best to ignore it. The woman was around less and less. Sometimes she wasn’t even there for supper and the man would make pancakes or call out for pizza. Nothing was asked, nothing explained. She’d come in late at night.
He got back, worn out and aching one night, and found the man sitting alone in the dark living room. With only a small pause, Ioan reached over and snapped on the table lamp. The man blinked.
He felt bad for the man and shyly reached over, touching the man’s slumped shoulder, but retreated before he could be pulled into one of those suffocating hugs. Exhausted, he felt asleep in his clothes and dreamed of being so deep down in his hole that no light could find him.
Ioan was getting lean and tough as he worked. He made a hundred trips to the ravine with buckets of dirt. A day came, later in the summer, when the dirt didn’t give quite so easily. Ioan brought out the little hand pickax and went to work. It was much slower going now, the angle became less steep and the hole became more of a tunnel. He worked until he was too worn out to lift his arms, ignoring hunger and thirst for as long as he could.
He came in later and later but the man didn’t seem to notice. Once in awhile Ioan would find him asleep on the couch with a half drunk bottle of wine on the coffee table. The boy would pull an afghan over the sleeping man, put the wine in the fridge and have a sandwich before falling into his bed. The dreams of total darkness became more frequent and he hated waking up until he remembered that the hole wasn’t a dream.
It was time-consuming, filling two buckets at a time, then pausing at the opening to make sure the coast was clear. Sometimes he’d hear kids up on the surface, it sounded like they were playing somewhere down at the other end of the ravine. He’d listen, secure and hidden. He was safe here.
The work progressed and then he hit a point where suddenly the dirt began to crumble away, coarse and graveled. Excited, he tore into the collapsing wall with his bare hands, shoving it aside and not even trying to scoop it into the buckets. His skinny arms were strong and weeks of working underground had sharpened his vision, both external and internal. Like a cat, he could see the rough lumps of dirt falling away and just as clearly he sensed that this was the last barrier.
Determined, he shoved himself forward into the cascading dirt. Then Ioan tumbled into a dark, open mouth. He slid on a fall of gravel and came to rest with his legs in the air, his arms pinned under him. Surprised and cautious, he lay there and waited for the dirt to stop falling, wondering if the whole thing would cave in on him. He wasn’t scared and slowly he righted himself in the new quiet.
There was no light. It was just like his dreams. He held his hand in front of his face and saw nothing, blinking several times to make sure that his eyes were really open. There was just a whiff of fresh air, he was in some open space. Reaching around in the dark, he found his flashlight but didn’t turn it on. Not yet. Instead he carefully rose to his knees and felt the wall, closing his eyes so that the dark made more sense. He found that could almost stand upright. With his head bowed, he worked his way around the wall, kicking free of the talus of dirt. It was a small cave with walls, ceiling and floor of rough stone.
Then he clicked on the light and jumped at the shock of light. He swung the beam around, found his things and pulled them down into the room. Settling himself crosslegged against the wall, he dug around in his book bag to find water and the last sandwich. He cut the light off. Something lurching and anxious eased in his chest. The dark was immediate and fluid. It filled him, squeezing out light and sight. Everything confusing and loud and scary went away. He sank into a night that wouldn’t end and was finally safe.
When he woke, he didn’t know where he was but his body felt loose and comfortable, everything moved easily. He sat up and was brushing bits of dirt off the side of his face when he became aware of something. What? He swung his head around. There was a faint thread of gray light in the darkness, filtered and sifting in from that other world. He didn’t shrink from it, but didn’t rush to it either. Finally he rose to his knees and went over, sticking his nose up to the crack in the rock. The air had substance, it tasted good and he wanted more. The dirt at the edges of the crack crumbled and fell away, but it was packed in too tightly for him to make much headway with just his fingers. Ioan reached around blindly and found the pickax.
The old pond down at one end of the ravine was strictly off limits. Worried parents had put a chain link fence up around it years before when somebody’s boy had gone and drowned there, but water won’t be denied and soon enough someone produced his dad’s bolt cutters. Now everyone was splashing around in the murky water.
Up the hill were outcrops of rock that made perfect diving platforms and one boy, Davy, had caved in to the teasing of the other boys. It wasn’t that he couldn’t swim, Davy was as much fish as boy, he just didn’t like being up this high. Down in the water, the other boys were jeering and yelling.
“C’mon, ya pussy!”
“Davy’s a pussy! Davy’s a pussy!”
“You scared, ya little chicken!”
“Yea, you a girl or what?”
“Pussy, jump already!”
Gritting his teeth, Davy was trying to decide whether to shut his eyes or not when there was a crash behind him. Before he could get turned around to see what it was, something hit him hard and he went sailing into the air, screeching and pinwheeling his arms. Every face turned up in amazement as two boys hit the water. Spluttering and gasping, Davy surfaced to find himself face to face with some strange kid whose face and hair were streaked with mud. For several minutes no one said a word, then everyone exploded at once.
“Hey, check it out, it’s that Russian kid!”
“Fucken A, where did he come from?”
Now everyone was crowding around, then turning to peer up the hill. Some of the bigger boys were climbing out of the water and scrambling up to where Ioan had broken through. Davy and Ioan were the last two out of the water.
The biggest boy, Terrell, looked down from the mouth of the cave.
“Yeah? You find it?” Another boy, Bobby, chimed in, eager to take charge.
In the commotion, Ioan hung back for a beat, looking up into the crowd of curious faces, faces that had been closed and threatening before. In turn, the boys were staring down at the foreigner, the weird kid who talked funny and was all stuck up, too good to hang out with them. In the standoff, the dappled sunlight played off the surface of the water and birds took up where they’d left off, filling the woods with music.
Ioan thought hard before he opened his mouth.
“I’m Jo….” Frowning, he stopped. “I’m Ioan and I’m not Russian.”
“What the fuck are you then?” Bobby was quick to jump on this; Terrell just scowled and said nothing.
“I came from Yugoslavia, but it’s gone.” Ioan, having just faced down a cave-in, wasn’t afraid of these kids anymore.
“Where the fuck’s that?”
“Yeah! I never heard of Yugoslavia.”
“He fucken made it up.”
“No, man, it’s where that war’s going on.” Terrell was solid on this.
“What war?” Bobby wanted to push it.
“He’s right. Yugoslavia’s gone. It’s a bunch of other countries now, Croatia and shit.”
“How do you know?”
Ioan stood and waited them out. It didn’t matter what they said now. Terrell looked down at him and repeated his question.
“This cave, is it yours?”
“Yes.” He looked around again and then grinned.
“Want to see it?” Without waiting to see if anyone followed, Ioan ducked his head and led the way into his cave.
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