This very intriguing picture was sent my way by Lillie, and I love it! The presence of the instrument in the woods. The way the soldier is playing it. The gun strapped to his back. So much imagery and also a kind of beauty.
For someone who doesn’t like to write historical fiction, I sure seem to be coming back to them a lot… And that is what this story is. For some reason, I found this story particularly enjoyable to write. I can’t say there is anything unusual about it or earth shattering but, I don’t know, there was just something about it that resonated. I hope you enjoy it!
Here is, ‘Middle C’:
Some families pass down heirlooms of jewelry. Others a Bible with all the births and dates of the family for generations. For the Nowak family, it was a piano. One of a beautiful, red-tinted wood.
Rumor had it that the piano first came into the hands of Kasper Nowak in the late 1700s. Not because he was a lover of music, but because he was a gambling man who had won the instrument in a game of cards. One of the last of his successful games before a streak of losses that eventually put him on the run from debt collectors. He had fled in the middle of the night from Danzik to Krakow with his wife, but she had only agreed to leave with him on the condition that he found a way to bring the piano along for the flight. And somehow, he did.
Unfortunately for Kasper, he didn’t get to live long enough to see his newly born twins, a son and a daughter, grow into musical prodigies. He died in the Battle of Praga in 1794. Despite his gambling ways, the Nowak family still held him up as a hero for the way he had died. There was even a portrait of him hanging along the wall with the few other family pictures.
It was that picture that Amelia Nowak studied as her fingers absently moved over the ebony and ivory, working out a song she had memorized as a little girl. Despite having played it probably a thousand times over the years, the melody still calmed her in a way that nothing else could. For that reason, in recent days, she had played it almost incessantly.
Only five months had passed since large areas of western Poland had been annexed to Germany. Five months, and yet it felt as if the world had ended during that time. Already, thousands dead, and most of them for no other reason than because they were Jews. Among the dead was Amelia’s best friend, Zofia.
Tatús walked into the parlor, his eyes urgent as he scanned the things in the room.
“Have you packed your bag?” he asked, his eyes turning to his youngest child.
Amelia nodded and pointed to the satchel next to her on the piano bench.
“You had best get some sleep,” Tatús continued. “It will be late when we leave.”
“I will,” Amelia said. “After the song is done.”
Tatús nodded and left, and Amelia’s fingers continued their journey over the keys.
Thousands of Polish soldiers, as well as a number of civilians, were looking to Romania for refuge from the German forces. Tatús was set on getting his family into the ally of his country as well. He predicted that things would only get worse in the homeland, and that fleeing was their only chance of survival. To that end, he had sold most of the family valuables to pay for passes for himself, his wife, and their three children.
“Not the vase!” Mamusia had said last month when Tatús had begun looking for things to sell.
Tatús had held the valuable piece of glass in his hands and given his wife a look full of regret.
“We must,” Tatús had said. “Our lives are much more precious than this vase. When you are safely in Romania, you will not miss it.”
“But it was my Mamusia’s!”
“Your Mamusia would have wanted you to sell it. Think of Amelia and Jakob. Do you really want to risk their future because of a few earthly goods?”
With tears in her eyes, Mamusia had bit her trembling bottom lip and shaken her head.
“Very well,” she had said. “Sell it.”
Amelia had always hated that vase. When she had been younger, its beautiful etchings had always tempted her young hands to reach out and touch it. Every time she did, she was punished with a firm strap to the backside. She had always wondered bitterly why something so tempting to touch had been so off limits. Despite her feelings for the piece, though, her heart had broken at the sad sound in Mamusia’s voice as she had agreed to part with one of her favorite things in the house.
“Have you seen my book?” Jakob asked as he walked into the room. “I could have sworn I left it in the kitchen, but it is not there.”
Without pausing in her playing, Amelia shook her head.
“No,” she said. “Did you check your room?”
“Yes. It’s not like there is much left in the house for it to hide among. Where on earth did it go?”
Rubbing a hand along the back of his neck, Jakob walked back out of the parlor.
An ache of guilt stabbed through Amelia’s heart. She knew exactly where the book was, because Tatús had asked her to sell it.
“Jakob is a good son, but he is too selfish to let go of that book,” Tatús had said only two days before.
“Must we sell it?” Amelia had asked.
“It is a first edition. Though it won’t bring in as much now as it would have before, the bookseller will be happy to take it. He is German, after all. His outlook for the war is better than ours.”
“But the passes are already bought.”
“You think passes are the only thing we need money for? We will need supplies along the way. A book will not fill our bellies.”
“Very well, Tatús.”
Feeling as if she was betraying her older brother, Amelia had grabbed the book from the kitchen and walked it two blocks over to the bookseller’s place, dodging the fierce looks of the German soldiers along the way.
Mr. Heinz had been only too happy to purchase the first edition, a smile on his face as he had lovingly run a hand along the book’s old cover.
Amelia had been jealous of Mr. Heinz right then. He had moved to Poland only four years before. The Nowaks had been there for centuries. Yet Tatús was right. He would probably get to live on mostly unhindered in the homeland while her own family was forced to flee.
Even as the seller had bidden her a good day, Amelia had glared at him and hoped some form of misery on him.
The very next morning, she had learned that Mr. Heinz had been killed in his bed the night before by a group of angry Poles. It seemed they were not content with letting the bookseller live on while they suffered so. As soon as Amelia had heard the news, she had been overcome with nausea, regretting terribly that she had wished harm on the man.
Tatús had noticed her discomfort and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“Do not dwell on his death too much,” Tatús had said. “All men’s days are numbered. Each of us has a day we must go. Last night happened to be Mr. Heinz’s. If he hadn’t been killed by an angry mob, he would have been by something else.”
Though Amelia was aware there was truth to his words, they hadn’t made her feel much better. She didn’t think they had brought Tatús much relief, either.
Every day, his once kind and carefree eyes had taken on more and more of the worry that he was feeling. As the head of his family, the responsibility of their lives weighed heavy on him. And he hadn’t been without his losses, either.
Thinking about it as she continued playing, Amelia glanced over to the corner of the room where her father’s great oak desk had once been. The desk had been her father’s favorite thing in the house. Every night, he used to sit down on the rickety chair in front of it and catch up on correspondences or write out lines of poetry. Though he was no Cyprian Norwid, Tatús was a decent poet in his own right, and Amelia had wonderful memories of lounging on the floor while he read pieces of his works.
Before ever selling Mamusia’s vase or Jakob’s book, Tatús had loaded the desk up on the back of the neighbor’s old truck and carted it over to a German Captain, who had paid a fair price for the piece of furniture. Amelia knew it hurt Tatús inside to know his loved desk was in the hands of one of the occupiers, but he had never breathed a word about it.
“When we are settled in Romania,” Amelia had told him, “I will do whatever it takes to make sure you get a new desk. One that’s even better than the piece you sold.”
Tatús had patted her cheek and smiled, then given a small shake of his head.
“The only thing I need in Romania is my family safely beside me.”
The moment was coming when Amelia would have to apologize to her father. After everything the family had sacrificed, after all of his words about wanting his family safely with him, she would be the one to truly break his heart.
Her fingers finished out the song, and she sat quietly in front of the piano, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes searching the keys. Every single one of them was familiar to her. She knew every nick. Every scratch. The exact way D flat stuck about halfway down.
Taking in a deep, steadying breath, she stood from the bench and walked into the kitchen were Tatús and Mamusia were discussing how much of the polished silver could be taken along to Romania.
“There is something I need to tell you,” Amelia said, gathering their attention.
Both pairs of eyes turned to her.
“What is it, córka?” asked Mamusia.
“Are you worried about tonight?” asked Tatús.
Amelia shook her head.
“No,” she said. “I’m not worried, because I’m not going with you.”
A heavy silence filled the room. Tatús and Mamusia exchanged a look, and then they turned back to their daughter.
“What do you mean?” Tatús’ voice was quiet.
“I’ve decided to stay here. There’s been talk of a resistance army forming up, and I’m going to work with them.”
“No, Amelia!” Mamusia said, rushing forward and grabbing hold of her daughter’s arm. “I will not allow it! You are going to Romania with us! It is far too dangerous here!”
“It will be dangerous no matter where I go. You, Tatús, and Jakob will be in danger traveling to Romania. You will probably even be in danger once you arrive. Do you think the Germans will settle for what they have gained so far? They will not! They will only keep spreading! Soon, even Romania will be fully under their control. I want to do something about it. I want to help stop them. For Zofia. For all the others being rounded up like cattle and executed. I cannot just keep running away.”
Mamusia turned to Tatús with panic in her face and said, “Do something! Tell her she cannot stay!”
“Amelia, you know all I want is to have my family with me in Romania,” he said, his hand wrapped around the back of one of the chairs so tightly that the wood creaked against the pressure.
“I know, Tatús. But I cannot go. I will not go.”
A loud knock sounded on the back door, and then their neighbor Emil came bursting into the house.
“Bad news!’ he said, and they all tensed up. It was not a good time to hear those words.
“Tell us,” said Tatús.
“The Germans are combing the houses tonight. Taking valuables and looking for more Jews. They’re taking non-Jew Poles as well.”
“I don’t know. No one does. When is there ever a logical explanation for all of this madness? You need to get out now. Take your family and leave before the passes are obsolete.”
“What will you do?” Tatús asked him.
“My daughter lives in the country where things are not so bad yet. I am leaving now for her home. I wanted to warn you before I left.”
Tatús wrapped Emil up in a tight hug, then gave the man a hearty pat on the back.
“Safe travels, Emil,” he said.
“And to you and yours as well.”
“You heard that,” Tatús said when Emil had left. “You cannot stay here, Amelia.”
“I can, and I will. I already have connections with others in the movement. I need to stay and help get out as many as possible. You need to leave, though. Now.”
“No!” Mamusia cried.
“Tatús!” Amelia appealed to her father. “You know me! I will not be swayed from this!”
Tatús studied her, his teeth clamped so tightly together that his jaw twitched. His eyes began to turn red, and Amelia could see the moisture gathering in them. He ran a hand across his stubbled jaw then looked to the ceiling, as if appealing to Heaven for guidance. With a shaky breath, he finally nodded.
“You will not be swayed?” he asked, voice trembling.
“I will not.”
“Very well, then.”
“No!” Mamusia cried again, wrapping her arms around Amelia’s neck and sobbing. “No, I will not allow it!”
Tatús grabbed his wife by the shoulders and pulled her away from her daughter.
“You heard Emil,” he said. “We have to go. Tell Jakob to finish gathering his things. I will bring the truck around.”
Gut-wrenching sobs still racking her body, Mamusia placed a hand to her mouth and ran from the room.
Amelia stood on the front step of the house she had been born and raised in and lifted a hand in last farewell to the truck carrying her family. Hot tears burned the backs of her eyes. She didn’t know if she would ever see them again. Her heart felt as if it was being torn in two pieces. Letting herself fully imagine it was, Amelia mentally sent one half of it to that truck and toward Romania.
When the truck was out of sight, she went back inside and sat in front of the piano. Her prized possession. The thing that had not been sold. It was too old and too out of tune to fetch much of a price. More than that, it had been in the family for so long, even longer than the vase, that Tatús hadn’t been able to bring himself to part with it. To sell the piano would be to sell a part of who the Nowak’s were at their heart.
There were three loud knocks on the door, followed by two quiet ones. Amelia stood and walked to the door, opening it for the young man on the step.
“Well?” he asked.
“They’re gone. Go ahead and set up.”
Watching him work, Amelia let her eyes take one last all-encompassing gaze of the instrument, swallowing hard against the lump in her throat.
When the man was done, he stood and gave her a solemn look.
“No,” Amelia said, shaking her head. She patted her chest. “I know in here that this is the path I must take.”
“Come on, then. Time to get out before the Germans come around to search the house. We have a camp set up outside of town. Tomorrow we leave to meet with another group in Warsaw.”
Nodding, Amelia stood and followed him out of the house, only a small bundle of belongings over her shoulder.
They were on the outskirts of town when they heard the commotion behind them that told of the Germans descent on the homes. Screams filled the air as well as gunshots. Amelia tried not to picture the images that went along with those sounds. There was nothing she could do right then, but soon. Soon she would be a part of a group that would do anything necessary to fight for the homeland.
“Are you sure you set it up right?” she asked the man she was traveling with.
“Trust me. That’s my specialty. It’ll work.”
Thirty seconds later, there was a roaring crack that filled the air and smoke began to drift over the top of the town. There was a slight vibration under their feet from the explosion.
“That’s one powerful middle C,” the man said with a smile. “Told you it would work. No one can resist running their hands along a piano.”
Amelia took a last look back at the town, a bitter-sweet feeling in her chest. Her prize possession, gone forever, but taking some of Poland’s enemies with it. Turning away, Amelia chose to believe that Kasper Nowak would have been immensely pleased that he had won that piano at the card tables all those years before.