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Thank you to my American friend
Dev whose help was invaluable. What a great list!
Jack and Daniel barely spoke as they
drove across the state. Every time their eyes met, Jack gave his young
friend a curious look, but held his silence, patiently waited for Daniel to
explain the trek. Pulling into the driveway of a house marked for
demolition, Jack remarked companionably, “So, Daniel, here we are.”
Chewing the side of his mouth, Daniel
barely smiled, and replied, “Yes, that we are.”
The day was overcast and the sky tried
its best to rain. In the garden of the derelict house, the two men stood
shoulder to shoulder and winced as the wreckers bickered and fussed with
their equipment. Clearing his throat, Jack fixed Daniel with a penetrating
glance and began to talk.
“You okay? I mean it’s not that I mind
driving half way across the state, but you’re gonna have to throw me a bone
here. This dump means something to you?”
Barely acknowledging his friend’s
question, Daniel ran his fingers along the sale sign and said softly, “This
dump was my home. The couple who owned this place saved my life.” Seeing
pain cross Jack’s face, he knew he owed the man an explanation as to why the
cross state trip had been so important to him.
“Sometimes, when a foster child was so
badly traumatized, the State sent them to special home. Barely surviving the
Cordell family, I fitted the criteria perfectly. With my burns, my bruises,
and my chipped teeth, I found myself here.”
Touching the rotten rope dangling from
the dying elm, Daniel closed his eyes and drifted back to the days when a
kind Hungarian couple mended his spirit. “Who I am, Jack, and what I am, is
because the ideologies and love of Professor and Mrs. Wendt. “
Tilting his head, Jack said, “So, tell
me, tell me about these good people.”
The house was marked for demolition.
Once a beautiful two-story clapboard
home, it was now old, decrepit, and unwanted. Ivy clung to the shingles and
tangled itself in the gutters so the winter rain flooded the sunken
ceilings. The ancient tree propping itself against the window was almost
bereft of leaves and covered in lichen and moss.
Like the house, the tree was marked
for death and waited to die.
The garden once full of flowerbeds and
brightly colored seedlings was overgrown and would need the bulldozer to
clear a path. Gnarled rose bushes with their woody thorns grouped
protectively together as though by strength of numbers, they could force the
wreckers to leave.
Once upon a time, magnificent brunches
were served in this garden and dressed in a crisp white shirt and
meticulously pressed blue pants; Daniel had sipped tea from fine china cups.
Speaking only in Hungarian, the Professor would give the small boy with the
chipped tooth his love of languages forever.
Once upon a time.
Under the dying elm, a rotten thick
rope swung uselessly in the wind. Once upon a time, this rope had a bright
red, wooden seat attached, and the small boy would pump his skinny little
legs in the air and fly. He would try to fly so high he would leave the
world behind him. Shutting his eyes and feeling the breeze in his face, the
boy dreamed he was in Narnia, and Aslan would be his protector.
In his world, he never felt safe. He
worried that if he let his guard down, he would live in the eternal winter
and the White Witch would turn him into stone. If he allowed himself to be
comfortable and love the Professor and his wife, then he’d never get back to
Egypt. He was a child of the desert, and he needed to go home.
The Professor and his wife listened to
the boy’s fears, and nodding their heads, tried very hard to understand. ”Of
course, you must always have your dreams and hopes, Daniel. One day you will
be a great man and those dreams of yours will be important.” The elderly
couple had escaped their own demons, and understanding the desire for
freedom, encouraged Daniel to read and learn. “Ignorance is a sin and
knowledge is freedom.”
The report that came with the silent
child was a liturgy of pain and abandonment, and reading it with sadness;
the Professor and his wife knew it was their calling to right the wrongs of
the world. Walking side by side around the pretty garden and teaching him
the names of the roses, the Professor patiently explained that with
intelligence came great responsibility. “Remember, Daniel, if society cannot
take care of its weakest, then it has no right to be considered civilized.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton once wrote, ‘Beneath the rule of men great, the pen is
mightier than the sword.’
The small boy listened to the softly
spoken man from Hungary with awe, and one day, dared to take his
fingers. Feeling the small supple hand slip into his old gnarled one, the
Professor squeezed it back and said, “And so it begins, today, Daniel, your
healing begins.” The burns and the bruises so livid when he arrived were
fading, and he no longer hid his supper in his backpack for later.
Nightmares and night terrors plagued
the small child until one day he slept without dreams. One day the sweetness
of the Professor and his wife erased the mindless brutality of others. “Of
course you are safe,” they would croon, “are you not in a house of civilized
Speaking in his heavily accented tone,
the Professor would call Daniel, and running in, he would climb onto his lap
and listen to wonderful stories. Thick, leather bound books were laid on the
table, and Daniel was given the great honor of picking the next adventure.
Caressing the books and feeling the leather beneath his fingertips, Daniel
knew books would forever be his wall against the world.
One day the professor donned his work
clothes and decided he’d rake the yard himself. “Come, Daniel,” he called
out,” come and watch me transform this garden of mine.” Carefully arranging
his beret on his head, the professor and the small child worked side by
side. Sweat beading on his lip and pushing his hand into the small of his
back, the old man smiled as his wife brought out glasses of home made apple
“Sit, Daniel,” he ordered, “and I will
tell you a little of my life.”
Daniel sipped his cider, nibbled at
his cookie, and learned that freedom can come at a high price. “My country
fought her Stalinist masters and many of us lost our lives or became
refugees.” His eyes clouding over with his memories, he explained that even
though they had lost everything, they kept their freedom. “That for us,
Daniel, was worth leaving our homeland forever. It is your right to live
without the stench of fear and oppression. No man has the right to be the
master over another.”
Looking into the sad, watery eyes of
his mentor, Daniel nodded and swore he would always remember the bravery of
Hungary and her freedom fighters.
Daniel stayed with the Hungarian
professor and his wife for eight years. One day as the fall leaves danced
around the yard, the man who taught Daniel that freedom meant everything
passed away. His gentle, honey-- haired wife grieved and couldn’t live
without her mate.
Standing at their gravesite, the young
man who had learned so much at the knee of the Hungarian Professor of
Literature threw rose petals in the air and whispered, “Freedom, you taught
me I can have freedom.”
“Professor Wendt died in his sleep one
winter and I thought I’d never stop grieving. But, I did, and every time I
open a book, read a journal, I think, what would the Professor think? What
would he say? He made me question everything and he made me understand there
is more good in this world than there is evil.”
Nodding his head, Jack dragged Daniel
into a rough embrace and whispered, “Thank God for men such as this.”
Tears welling in his eyes, Daniel
couldn’t answer, couldn’t find in his heart, a clever thing to say. Burying
his face into his friend’s shoulder, Daniel finally allowed himself to cry
for the gentle Hungarian couple whose humanity proved that nothing is