Night Watch-Sintra, Portugal-Quinta da Regaleira

Wayne Cook

Joined August 2008

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Chapter 6: The snuff box

The forest sang a tune of children
As they romped in the sunny ferns,
Of this and that, of knights and battles,
Still the stolid trees rang…
You could hear their tender voices
From one side of the valley to the next
Such dash about games,
Of castles and gold and kings
Torn pages from an old story book,
Ah, but…
These pages…
They tell a different tale….
A boy…running like the deer
The hind being pursued
A child without a land,
A boy with no neighborhood
He sees the pale
So quietly he darts away
No pretender this one
He swiftly walks,
From scene to gloomy scene
Taking stock of the night watch
Escapes into the darkened green

“Heeeeyyyy, Mr. Nyquist! How are you?” the nattily dressed deskman greeted him cheerily. Here was someone who made the most of an important, but lower position, to make the people who entered and left the tall edifice in which he worked and hundreds more, feel this was a special and more enjoyable place to be. He loved the job, and the apartment dwellers loved him.

An uncle in absentia to many of them, his affection for the young and old renters of this building was evident in the big and small things he did, and his ever present smile. Often, his tiny wife would sit with him in the evenings, and more than once had been known to bring a hot dish to an under the weather resident of this high rise. As a result, although not as crisp as one of the newer or more lavish of multi-floor buildings, this one had a waiting list of applicants. The doorman and his spouse considered all who lived here, their family.

“Hello, Phil, you old goat! I’m doing fine! How’s your day been?” Jack always enjoyed a few minutes with the older gentleman, whose immigration from eastern Europe as a young man, had been fraught with difficulty and dangerous travel. They had many a lengthy conversation, as Mr. Pawlak related stories of his life to him and Jack got a first person narration of history.

We search because we are dissatisfied with the stagnant, festering status quo, in quest of that next puzzle piece, maybe no more than a token, a ticket, to the next step, the next doorway on our journey. We only make such a lifelong search because of faith, for without the inner voice that urges us forward, learning would be merely a series of disjointed and often unbearable facts, not the connected chain that builds our minds, and prepares us for the future.

Filip Pawlak had been in school in the large city where his mother, father and two siblings, both younger than he, lived, when events robbed him one day of his family, his life and his education. He was left with little more than a tiny apartment, that now echoed sadly with the ghostly voices of his beloved parents and one sister and a brother. After two days of sobbing his loss into his narrow bed, he had packed a change of clothes, all the money he could find, some cheese and a loaf of hard bread, a bottle of water, and a picture of the family into a bag, and waited for nightfall. He had heard of this happening to other people, in other parts of the city, but never had it arrived at his door. He both wished he’d been with his family, and that he could be very far away.

Around midnight, he heard the clumping of male feet on the stairs to his fifth floor home and fearing the worst, shut out the lights, and ducked into the cleaning closet adjacent to their apartment door, bag in hand. He was right. Only moments later, he heard hard pounding on his own apartment, and the splintering of wood, as the arrogant agents of the city’s police force, burst into the dwelling, the thin paneling of the entrance spewing in showers across the width of the hallway. The closet felt like it would similarly collapse. The uniformed thugs ransacked the poor apartment, spilling bags of flower and coffee like vandalizing children, throwing dresser drawers and bedding alike on the floors.

When, after they left, and waiting an additional hour, Filip timidly peered into the rooms, he was joined by only one resident, the old man who lived down the hall. With tears in his eyes, old Mr. Jarogniew had told the college student of the hurried and brutal eviction of his old friends, young Filip’s family. No one had uttered a word that Filip was missing, even the children seeming to sadly understand what was transpiring to them and their parents.

Tests of our hearts, are no more than preparation for challenges. Challenges are those devices that test our souls, minds and hearts, and sometimes yield the answers for which we seek, sometimes answers we must remember for another search. Each could be a gem in the dust of a long forgotten and disused home, or the trodden and hardened path through a place that sees the soles of thousands of people. But that gem, whether overlooked and tiny stone of a man or woman of long ago, or the bit of esoterica from a time past, or the answer to a question we’ve long held, the things we discover are most often the tips and edges of a larger and vastly more interesting puzzle, than the last bit we discovered.

Albert Jarogniew knew the tenor of the times, the thinly veneered society of order in the communist state, and the political insecurity of the authorities. He counseled Filip, “My young friend, I have known you since you were born, and your mother delivered you in this very room. Listen to me closely. This country has turned upside down. There is nothing left here for you.

“Go west. Your mother has a younger sister, whom I believe moved to Portugal. She found a good man there, got married and had a daughter and son. Your mother used to read her letters to your father and I. Her married name, if I remember, is Anastácia Letícia Delgado de Belém. You will need some sort of identification. She’s never seen pictures of you grown up. Oh! My boy! I almost forgot!” Dear old Albert. In his eagerness to help Filip with possibly meeting his aunt, he’d nearly forgotten an old trinket Filip’s father had bought for the boy’s mother, on a trip to Moscow.

Old Mr. Pawlak had purchased a Faberge snuff box and proudly displayed it to his wife, her younger sister, and the old Pawlaks at Sunday dinner following his return. Bemused by Mrs. Pawlak’s dislike of the function, poor Mr. Pawlak had sadly shoved the expensive gift away in a desk drawer, where it remained, discretely out of sight for the next twenty years. Now, Albert pulled the drawer open in the dim light of the streetlamp, and proudly retrieved the tiny gold, mother of pearl and emerald box, still partially bagged in its lovely green silk envelope, a golden tassle drawn snug. He handed it to the startled young man. The quality was evident, even in the dim sodium light. Filip swallowed hard, and slid it cautiously back inside the bag.

“Filip, take that box, hide it carefully, and keep it with you. Your aunt will know you by that little container. She detested it even more than your mother, but she will remember it. Wait!” He turned once more and pulled out a string-tied packet of old papers, thirty or so letters, the neat penmanship unreadable in the low gloom. “These letters are from your aunt, to your mother. They will identify you, along with that snuff-box, better than anything in the world can. No one with those items would be any other than a member of this family!”

His voice, in fierce whispers, now belied the intensity of his feelings. The anger against the government, his passion about the disappearance of his close friends, helping the son of his neighbor, and the naivete of this young boy, about to be thrust into an unknown world.

Each question that results in an answer rewards us with joy, each tantalizes us with what is to come, and a new question. It is perhaps suffering that provides us the clues that what we learn, may be the most joyous moment on a journey. The most rewarding future is paved with the suffering of the present day. We must be ready for both.

“Get as far as you can from this mess, and find a new life. As much as I would like to go with you, my body cannot sustain what my mind dreams. My prayers, dear boy, will be with you, each step of your way. Go! God will be with you.” Old man Jarogniew and Filip stood there in the darkness a moment, while the old man muttered a blessing over the boy, He wiped Filip’s cheeks of streaming tears, they embraced and the now sterner Pawlak, pausing only to grab his coat, stumbled out of the apartment, never to lay eyes on his old friend, again.

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