By Jim Colombo (USA)
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
Mika woke up when he heard someone pounding on the front door downstairs.
He covered his head with his thick wool blanket and heard the wind race across the
wooden rooftop like a screaming ghost. The front door slammed shut and a loud deep
voice demanded hot coffee and Henka's two sons. Mike was curious - who was the loud
voice and what time was it? He sat up in bed and the cold bit at his noise. He squinted
from the ray of light coming from the bottom of the bedroom door and noticed that his
older brother Yanko's bed was empty. Mika got up and wrapped himself in the heavy
blanket from his bed. He felt the cold wooden floor through his wool socks and looked
for his slippers. The loud voice continued making demands. Who was the loud voice
Mika wondered and crawled to the stairway in the hall.He peeked though the banister
supports on the second floor and saw his mother Henka and his older brother Yanko
talking to the leader of the local resistance. The man wore thick, heavy clothes to
protect himself from the cold winter and he leaned his rifle against the doorway wall.
Bong, bong, the grandfather clock began to chime. It was five in the morning and
Started Mika. Yanko was dressed in heavy clothes and carried a bundle. Where was
Yanko going? Mika was fascinated by the power the leader had over the other men.
“Where’s Mika? Where’s the boy?” demanded the leader.
“He’s only eight. I’m giving you one son. Let me have the boy,” pleaded Henka.
“I need someone small to crawl under fences. Mika, come down, now!”
“No. He’s all I have. No. Mika go back to bed.”
Mika crept halfway down the stairs to see what the leader looked like. The
leader caught a glance from Henka’s eyes. Looking up, he turned, and spotted Mika.
“Come here, boy. Let me see you.”
“Please don’t take my boy.” Henka fell on her knees and began to cry.
The leader smiled, extended his hand, and persuaded Mika to come downstairs.
He approached Mika at the steps but Henka intercepted her son, covering him with a
loving hug. Mika looked up at his mother and said, “Don’t cry, Mama I’ll be okay with
Yanko. We’ll be back tomorrow.” Mika smiled and kissed his mother's hand.
The leader gave Mika a fatherly smile and rubbed his shaggy brown hair.
“Wait. Go upstairs and get your winter clothes.” Henka returned from the kitchen
with a bundle like Yanko’s and gave it to Mika. She buttoned up Mika’s heavy coat and
gave him her wool gloves. The boy was going with his older brother on an adventure
with men who looked much older than their years after seeing the horror of war. Their
faces were carved with deep character lines like the jagged mountains that surrounded
their farming valley. Their eyes looked tired and devoid of emotion. Henka watched her
two sons walk out of her life. She wiped her tears and prayed that if they died it
would be without suffering. Mika turned and waved good-bye, but his smile dissolved
when he saw his mother overwhelmed with sorrow. Henka held her mouth, trying to
silence her grief, and waved a tearful farewell.
“This is war. You’re no longer a boy. You do what I say. My name is Janos but
you will call me sir or lieutenant like the others.
“Stay close to me,” said Yanko. Mika was filled with curiosity. He had heard
about war and his father had died two years ago in the war. Men fight in war and Mika
thought that he was a man now. Men die in war and he wondered what it was like to
die, and what was it was like to kill someone. They walked all morning along a narrow
path up the snow-covered mountains that seemed to touch the sky. The cold wind ran
down the mountainside biting every exposed area on Mika’s body. The path veered left
and right as they climbed up to the first summit. This would be his first time seeing what
was on the other side of the mountains.
They reached the second summit, and twenty men and a boy rested. Mika ate
bread and cheese with Yanko for lunch. “We’ll be on the other side by dinner
time,” said Yanko.
“What does it look like?” asked Mika.
“I don’t know. Papa said that a big river runs through the valley on the other
Mika’s legs were sore from hiking and his shoulders were sore from carrying the
backpack of dynamite. He had never climbed a mountain before, and he was more
tired than hungry, so he lay on the ground and watched fluffy cotton ball clouds
slide behind the mountaintop. His eyes became heavy, and he sunk into a comfortable rest.
Suddenly the ground shook and he woke up to see the ground rise like a wave traveling
across the mountain, then tossing trees, rocks, and people off the mountain. Mika was
rolling, then falling, then grasping for anything at the edge of the cliff. He saw his brother
and others falling into the valley. Their screams echoed in his mind, then silence. He
lay on a ledge, holding a bush, numb, confused, and cold. He closed his eyes and his
mind drifted away them he saw Yanko again with his eyes wide open filled with fear and
heard his high pitch scream for help faded as he fell like a shot bird to the valley. Mika
watched, and then the silence as Yanko bounced and tumbled to the bottom. Mika's
heart was beating fast, and he was cold. He looked down at his brother’s limp tangled
body. Mika was hanging on a bush at the edge of the cliff and pulled himself across to a
secure position on the ledge. He felt weak, and his left leg felt hot with pain. He lay on
his back and saw heavy gray clouds hang in the overcast sky. The nightmare had
ended. The screaming had stopped and it was quiet and calm. Mika fell asleep and
escaped the reality. Maybe he died and lay in a dark world without time or feeling. It
was peaceful like floating in water, but there was no water. There was nothing, just
The sun's image was wrapped in a veil of gray clouds that hid halfway
behind the mountain when the old man came to help. Mika was cold, in pain, and
hungry. How much time had passed? The old man stood at the edge of the cliff and
lowered a rope. Mika tied the rope around his waist and the old man tied the other end
of the rope to the cart and prompted the horse to go forward. Mika was pulled up and
lay by the edge of the cliff. He rolled away from the cliff towards the old man and the
horse. The old man untied Mika and offered help to stand up, but Mika tried, fell down,
and yelled in pain. It echoed across the valley. Mika had broken his left leg and the old
man helped Mika hobble to the cart. The horse turned and looked at the boy, then faced
forward. Mika lay in the back of the cart with farming tools. They began the slow
descent down the narrow path to the valley and each jolt shot an electric shock of pain
through Mika’s leg. He was still a boy crying from the pain.
Two days passed and Mika was resting in a convent with nuns who wore white
robes with beaded belts that had a crucifix hanging to the right side. They spoke Italian.
The young attractive nun was from a small town in Yugoslavia by the Italian border and
spoke a dialect of Yugoslavian similar to Mika His brother, the leader, and seventeen
others had died in the earthquake. Mika was the only survivor. A week later the
young nun with the kind smile read a letter to Mika that changed his life. His mother
had died in the earthquake, and he would remain at the convent until he was eighteen.
He was an orphan, a victim of a cruel time.
The war ended in June 1945 when Mika was ten. The nuns had raised him,
educated him, and Mika spoke fluent Italian. It was August 1953 and the Reverend
Mother, the leader of the convent, had died. The young attractive nun was thirty-two and
she explained to Mika in their dialect that he would leave the convent to attend the
University of Milan. She gave Mika an Italian passport, he opened it, and saw his
picture with another name. “You are no longer Mika Tarvic. You are Milan Tarvo. A
friend of your father will pay for your first year of college. You have to get good grades
to continue going to college. He will send money each month to the president of the
university for tuition and your allowance.”
“Why change my name?” asked Mika
“Mika Tarvic died ten years ago in the earthquake. Your name was changed to
protect you from the Germans during the war. Here is a letter of introduction, a train
ticket to Milan, and six hundred lire. God bless you.”
“Why did I need to be protected?
“When you graduate from college I’ll tell you why. I’ll write to the president of the
university and he will let me know how you are doing and we’ll keep in touch. Your
mother’s cousin was my mother. We’re second cousins.”
“Why the secrets? Why couldn’t you tell me ten years ago that we are related?”
“There are many secrets during the war. You were too young to understand.
When you finish college, come back to the convent and I will tell you all of the secrets.
You have to trust me. We’ll correspond. It’s time to go. Leave quickly, please.”
Mika saw her tears before she turned and walked away.
The gardener who worked at the convent took Milan to the Trieste train station in
an old truck that smelled like fertilizer. On the way Milan wondered how the nun got
the passport. Who was the stranger paying for is first year at the university? He had
never planned to go to college. When he finished college he would go back to the
convent and ask the young nun for answers to his questions. He would visit his town in
Yugoslavia. He was still Mika Tarvic in his soul.
Milan studied business and learned to speak English. During the summers he
earned money as a tour guide and practiced his English. America and American
women escalated his desire for the good life. Milan was a good soccer player, but not
fast enough for the pros. In his senior year his letter sent to the nun was returned. The
president of the university told him the convent was closed, because the nuns had
helped Hungarian Freedom Fighters escape the Communists. Yugoslavia was closed
to western Europeans because of the cold war. Thus, saldy, the answer to his past was held