In the morning Migal cracked an egg against an iron skillet. The egg fell into the skillet and sizzled. He picked a piece of shell out with his calloused, crooked finger, and his thoughts turned to his daughter. She would have made fun of him. “Why can’t you crack an egg?” she might have said, and pushed him aside. “It’s not a complicated thing.” She would crack another, and her lithe fingers would insert themselves, separate the shell like a wooden nesting doll. “See? Egg in skillet. No shell. Why can’t you do it?” He smiled quietly to himself, in spite of everything. He raised his shoulder to the corner of his eye and wiped. He found a dirty rag to wipe his dirty hands on.
“Gran-papa? What’s wrong?”
He turned to the table where his three grandchildren, a boy and two girls, were eating oats with warm milk. The early morning sun shone through the window, highlighting their beauty with a golden radiance. Dust floated in the glow like wizard’s powder, like it had the whole day to fall.
“Nothing,” he smiled. And this was false. It would not fool them. “I’m thinking about your mother.”
Their mother would have gotten them out in time. Her gut would have told her to fly. She would have seen what was coming, would have a strategy. By now she would have already packed what they would need for the season, the winter. The season would not have stopped her. The task of uprooting her family, setting them in motion, would not have stopped her. False hope that bad things would not happen would not have stopped her. She would have known what to do, and in time.
He saw it too. Too late.
“Gran-papa,” began Magda, the eldest. “I wish — “
Migal held up a hand for silence.
“What is it?” she said.
He shook his head, raised a finger. He went to the window and looked down the snow-dusted path leading away from the house.
Magda reinforced the silence with a hand held up to her brother and sister. She didn’t understand the need but did it nonetheless. Her younger sister Ahna craned her neck to see around him, tugged at his shirt, peered out the window.
“What is it, Gran-papa?” whispered Ahna, whose finger went into her nose. Magda shushed her again, frowned, gently slapped the hand attached to the offensive finger.
“Are the eggs ready, Gran-papa?” asked Yanek.
Migal left the window. He returned to the skillet. Took the handle, scooped eggs onto his grandson’s plate. “I thought I heard a wagon, Ahna.”
“A wagon?” cried Yanek. He jumped out of his chair and ran to the window. Ahna followed. Magda rolled her eyes.
Once a month, wagons operated by the merchants in Armhurn would travel fifty winding miles through the farmlands of Gahanna to pick up food needing brought to town. Or, on rare occasions, to make a delivery. Any child would jump with excitement when the wagon came. There was always hope it might be carrying something for them.
Migal sat with his grandchildren at the table. He folded his hands together, rubbed his palms with his thumbs. He did this when they ached, which was often. He stopped when he noticed the children staring, spoons in hand, not eating. He moved his hands below the table and forced a smile.
“Gran-papa?” said Magda.
“Girls,” said Migal. “Yanek. Do you know, “ he said. “Do you know how much your mother loved you?”
Magda furrowed her brows, and Migal knew this meant she was thinking. Yanek and Ahna would look to her for their cue to read him. Since their mother died, Magda had become their mother. Magda sat with her back to the window, her fist on the table, fork held tightly, prongs up. The sun sparkled on the snow in the panes and painted her shoulders. The dust like wizard’s powder swirled behind her, wings unfolding. She furrowed her brow. She seemed to be made of steel.
Migal looked at each of his grandchildren and wrung his hands below the table where they could not be seen. He wanted to cry but stifled it.
He was facing the window when he saw them coming. The men marching, punching holes left in the snow behind them. The wagons drawing trails behind them.
His daughter would have decided quickly what was necessary, what would be left behind. She would have gone through cupboards, creating piles that looked like messes but were organized by need, chronologically, by person, by time of day, by weather, in a way known only to her. She would have told him what crate to place this in, that in. She would have made him take care of the outside. The horse, the cow, the feed. Pans to cook in and tools to build a fire. She would have taken care of him, and the children.
It was too late.
They were here.
Ahna lept down from the table and ran to the window, watching the wagons. She spun round and looked at him with joy, eyes bright, mouth wide.
Migal did not wish for them to see him this way. He could not stop wringing his hands.
He was not counting, but he guessed 48. They were six across on foot, maybe eight rows deep. He could not be sure. He wasn’t counting. A third horsemen, two-thirds on foot. The footmen comprised archers and swordsmen. Two wagons in the rear.
Ahna and Yanek were at the window, hands and face against the glass.
“Gran-papa?” said Magda, her back to the window and her siblings. She was concerned. But not afraid. She was strong, like her mother. “What is happening?”
Migal pushed his chair back from the table, wondering if it was not too late. Could Magda ride twenty miles to Armhurn with Yanek in front on the horse? What about the cellar? Could they hide in it? He grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulled. They would be found in the cellar. They would be caught before Armhurn. They would not make it to Armhurn.
“Grandfather,” said Magda, quietly, almost a whisper. “Why are they coming?”
Migal fell to his knees, pulled Ahna to his side, pulled Yanek close, one in each arm. “Magda, my precious. Come.”
Magda got down from her chair, slowly. She turned to look out the window, for the first and only time, and when she whipped her head back towards Migal, her face was unchanged, but the furrow of her brow was deeper, and the muscles of her jaw clenched. She joined her grandfather. Her sister and brother. One arm wrapped around Migal’s shoulders, one hand stroked Ahna’s hair.
The voices of the men came through the walls, muffled. Sounds without meaning. A language never heard.
A dirty forehead crashed against the window. A gloved hand cupped against it to see inside.
Ahna shouted, “Gran-papa!”
Migal said shhhhh.
“Grand-papa, what is happening?” said Magda.
“I am sorry,” Migal said, squeezing them tight. “Magda, girls, Yanek….”
A heavy fist rattled the door. Voices. Harsh, foreign. Sounds, not words.
Then: “You will open the door, please.”
Migal made no move. His grandchildren gripped him tightly.
A heavy rattle. The door shook again. “Open the door.”
Outside, the men drew into formation. Swordsmen formed a line, right knee down, elbows on knees, shield to shield,. Archers behind them. Horsemen last. A third cavalry, two-thirds footmen. Two wagons behind.
A crash and the door exploded inward. Two men inside. Ahna screamed and began to cry. Migal on his knees pulled her tighter, cradled her head in his hand. Yanek stood behind his father, comforting Ahna. Magda stood tall to the side, one hand on her father’s shoulder, one on Anha’s.
The men were taller than the door frame and stooped to enter. They joked, laughed, made themselves at home as they rummaged about. Items picked up and examined. Drawers opened, emptied. Cupboards swept clean by forearms, dishes shattered on the floor. Papers flipped off the writing table. The soldiers hacked and coughed to each other and laughed. One gripped Magda’s arm, another Yanek’s, and dragged them to the door.
“No!” said Migal, with a fistful of Magda’s dress. He pulled. It snapped away.
The translator was thinner, shorter. In Migal’s tongue: “They require registry and measurements. Many homes to visit. Don’t complicate it.”
“Gran-papa!” cried Magda.
The polite one from the day before entered as Maga was dragged out. He barked something that commanded attention. The other men looked from each other to the polite one, seemed to shrink. Their laughter ceased. Their boots thumped across the wooden floor towards the door. They stooped and left.
The polite one met Migal’s eyes and said something in as soft a manner as his language of spitting and hacking allowed. Then he left.
“He apologizes for the behavior of the men. He wishes it be known that it was not his intent to enter your home.”
Outside, the soldiers measured Yanek. They placed a stick on the ground and pushed him against it. The stick rose to a point halfway between his chin and collar-bone.
“The boy is the right height. The girl must be registered.”
Migal gripped Ahna tightly, her arms wrapped around him.
The translator spun on his heel and exited the house, down the wooden steps to the white-swept ground below, and was gone.
It had happened so quickly. In and out, bringing wreckage. Taking nothing but his grand-children.
He put one hand down on the floor. He crawled towards the door on his knees, Ahna in his other arm. When he reached the door, he leaned his forehead against the frame and watched Yanek shoved into one wagon, Magda the other.
He wept because he’d failed. He wept because he was old and weak. Because he’d lost his daughter.
He wept because his daughter’s husband had died fighting them. He wept because there was no end to this. He wept because he was alone with Ahna, who was so young. He wept because he was alone. He wept like a man who’d never wept.
His last sight of Magda was her face, grim. Her brow, furrowed.
He wept because he would never see her again.
He wept because she was made of steel, and he was not.