It takes a while for Yulia to get her bearings in the Warsaw refugee center, but eventually she finds two of her neighbors from Kyiv—an elderly couple—and over surprisingly good coffee they play asylum geography: who is where, who has taken them in, who has returned. The wife, Magdalena, says Renata is there, too, as is Renata’s family, but the girl rarely left her bed. They all worry for her, but there were so many to worry over. Magdalena leans closer. “Something bad happened to her, I think.” Yulia nods, the words tightening her throat.
Renata lived in Yulia’s apartment building, on the third floor, with her grandparents and younger brothers and sisters. She was a beauty, a rosebud of a teenage girl. Amber-brown hair curled fashionably around her delicate jaw. Several times when the sirens went off, she and Yulia sat together in the shelter whispering in the dark after the children had fallen asleep. Telling stories, keeping each other strong. Becoming friends.
One night when the sirens sounded, Renata didn’t come to the shelter with her family. Her grandparents were despondent. She hadn’t come home for dinner.
The next day there was a knock on her door. It was Renata, but a version she could never have expected. Her shoulders curled in and her eyes were lowered and there was an ugly, florid bruise blooming on her left cheekbone. Yulia pulled her inside the door and held her in her arms. She didn’t have to ask what had happened. She knew. All women would know. Yulia held her until she softened. She asked one thing: if the girl needed a doctor. Renata shook her head as if she could shake the memory out of it. Yulia made tea. They pretended to drink it. The water cooled. The afternoon faded. She promised not to tell Renata’s grandparents. Yulia gave her a phone number of a clinic that had helped many in such trouble without asking too many questions.
It was the last she’d seen of Renata.
“Take me to her?” she asks Magdalena, and the older woman thinks it might be a fool’s errand, but she indulges Yulia. Her grandmother sits stiffly at her bedside, in a giant room filled with army cots. When the older woman sees Yulia, her eyes narrow. She rises like a cobra preparing to strike.
“Please,” Yulia says. “I’d just like a moment.”
Her wariness softens and she moves a discreet distance away.
But Renata doesn’t turn to greet her. Even when Yulia sits, even when she sets a hand on her thin shoulder. Yulia whispers soft words. Renata shifts on the cot, and her eyes are hollow, red-rimmed. Her T-shirt drapes over a flat belly, and at least for this Yulia is relieved. She wants to ask things. She wants to ask everything.
“She found out,” Renata says, her voice a tiny creak. “About the doctor. About what I did. She says I’m going to hell.”
Yulia sucks in a breath, leans over and pulls the girl into her arms. “Oh, honey,” Yulia murmurs, as Renata grips back fiercely and wets Yulia’s clothing with her tears. “We’re already there.”
For a long while after Yulia leaves Renata and her grandmother’s evil stare, she sits in that same courtyard with Magdalena and her husband. The couple continues the asylum geography, but Yulia’s mind drifts away. She thinks of Renata and her future. She thinks of the blue-eyed baby she left in Poland, in the care of the farmer’s wife. And when her gaze lands on a nearby table, where two thick-shouldered Ukrainian soldiers drink coffee—no doubt heading back into battle soon after they are no longer needed here to escort refugees—her heart aches for the army fighting for all of them. Dying for all of them. She hasn’t stopped checking her phone, in case Maksym has been trying to reach her, but hope is fading. Then a thought punches its way to the surface: You are not hopeless. You have skills. You have already fought for your country, and you can continue to fight.
Her jaw tightens. She knows what she needs to do. She rises from the table, walks over to the soldiers and asks where she can enlist.
A truly moving story, beautifully told. I love the depth of humanity you infuse in this story and how you showcase people helping one another in a terrible situation.
Thank you! And thank you for reading.
This story insists on being told. It’s coming together day by day, and you are its midwife. Bravo my friend, bravo. -hugs-
Oh, thank you so much. It won’t leave me alone. So many places to go.
-grin- Good! I want to know where it goes. 🙂