Chapter 4 of the Gray Wolf of Carpathia
Note to readers: Č is pronounced as a “ch,” as in “church.”
Petra burst through the door of their train car.
“Quickly, you must get off now!” Petra said, his voice straining to keep from yelling too loud. “We have been betrayed by the conductor in Car 1. If they find you here, they will arrest all of us!”
Vasili grabbed their only bag, and took Maria’s hand. He could only say “Thank you Petra” before Petra shoved them out of the opposite door from where the policemen entered the train.
“May God bless you,” was the last thing Petra could get out before closing the door.
As Vasili and Maria crept along towards the back of the train, they could hear the police yelling something at Petra. Petra’s calm voice said, “I do not understand you. I do not speak Hungarian.”
That seemed to enrage one of the policemen even more. Suddenly the door to the car from which Vasili and Maria had come was thrown open and Petra was tossed like a cheap toy to the ground. Vasili and Maria had made it to the back of the train by then and hid in the shadows.
Two gunshots broke the temporary silence, followed by a short scream by Petra. Maria let out a small squeak before Vasili placed his hand over her mouth. The policeman, with gun in hand, peered towards the back of the train.
Vasili and Maria ran as silently as they could into the surrounding forest, praying that they would not be followed. They did not emerge until they heard the train pulling away. Petra lay dead along the tracks.
Maria looked at Vasili and was nearly hysterical as she said, “What have we caused?”
Vasili, knowing that there was nothing to be done, simply said, “We can do nothing for poor Petra now. I think he knew the chance he was taking.”
Vasili looked at Petra in the dim light of the stars. “We only have our suitcase. We must try to find some food and water.”
Maria was scared and shivering. She said “Where will we find those things? We have no money.”
“We will steal what we need from the Hungarians,” replied Vasili.
“No, I cannot.”
“Do you wish to live long enough to get to the ship?”
“Then we must do whatever we must do.”
They walked along the edge of the forest for several hours, and just before dawn they spotted a farmhouse set within a cleared field. Smoke was billowing from the chimney, indicating the fire had just been lit, and lamp light glowed within.
As the approached the house, the door swung inward and a man in his nightshirt ran onto the porch. He held up his hand and yelled in a language that Vasili did not understand. He realized it was German. He dropped his bag and showed his hands to the farmer, then had Maria show her hands.
“I do not understand you,” said Vasili, “but we are hungry and thirsty,” whereupon he pointed to his mouth and his stomach.
The farmer seemed to understand what he meant. He looked from Vasili to the single bag to Maria and back. He hesitated a moment, then waved them in.
The farmer’s wife was just finishing cooking breakfast and the farmer indicated to Vasili and Maria to sit at the rough-hewn table. The fire felt good after they spent the night in the damp, cool forest. The wife put down plates and cups and served them some eggs and some sort of spicy meat. She filled their cups with water.
“I speak Hungarian,” said the farmer. He pointed to Vasili and said, “you speak Hungarian?”
Because the Hungarians had forced them to learn their language, Vasili did understand. “Yes,” he nodded.
The farmer smiled and said “Good. Now, my name is Karl and this is my wife Gertrude.”
Vasili introduced himself and Maria, and thanked them for being so kind.
Gertrude said, “What has brought you wandering through the forest like that?”
Maria began to cry, bringing the attention of Gertrude, who sat next to her and hugged her.
Vasili told their tale. When he was done, he was afraid Karl would turn them over to the authorities. Instead, Karl sat back in his chair and smiled warmly. “We understand. We have had others come through here that were trying to escape Hungary, though not many with so dramatic a tale!”
After breakfast, Karl insisted on giving them some food and water, and then on driving them in his wagon to town to catch the next Northbound train to go to Bremen. When they got to the train station, Karl went to the ticket window and bought two tickets to Bremen. He came back to the wagon and handed them to Vasili.
“This is too much,” insisted Vasili. “How can I ever repay such a debt.”
The farmer guffawed loudly and said, “There is no need to worry my new friend! I am happy to help such good people as you.”
The train had stopped, so Vasili and Maria had to say their goodbyes to Karl and Gertrude, then quickly boarded the train.
As the train got back underway. Maria and Vasili slept most of the way, exhausted from the tension of the last two days. Finally, in Bremen, they were able to use most of the rest of their money to buy their tickets to America on board the H.H. Meier.
Their money could only afford them a passage in steerage, and as they stepped down the final staircase to the lower deck, Maria could barely stand the smell and the darkness. “Please stay close to me,” she pleaded to Vasili, her eyes filling with tears. “I never knew it would be so horrid.”
“Do not worry, I am here and I will watch over you.”
The next twelve days were mostly miserable for both of them. The meals were poor, even by peasant standards. The boiled beef and salt pork often smelled rotten and were barely cooked. The black bread was soggy, the vegetables were unrecognizable. The breakfast, some kind of mushy grain, tasted like old wood. Like most of the passengers, Vasili and Maria threw a good many of their meals overboard. They were constantly hungry and thirsty, so when trays of leftover fruits were brought down from the cabin passengers, they cherished them like candy.
Five days into the voyage, Maria was seasick and homesick, and tired of chasing the rats that were constantly running over her as she tried to sleep. A large man, who had been drinking, was speaking a language she did not understand. He stumbled into her space then tried to steal her bag; the bag contained the only remaining money she had. When she resisted, the man pulled her close and ran his hands over her, whispering, in his language, “Well, then, I suppose we will have to settle this another way.” Although she did not understand his words, she knew what he intended.
As the last syllable left his wretched lips, a fist hurtled past Maria’s head and slammed into the man’s nose, which burst with blood as the man fell to the deck. Vasili grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her behind him. The man tried to stand, but Vasili placed a kick to his head, knocking him unconscious. Vasili looked at Maria and said, “Sorry that took so long.” Maria could not speak, but clutched her mother’s rosary to her chest and prayed.
The compartment fell silent for the first time since Maria and Vasili had entered. The ship’s purser then burst out of the crowd with two sailors. He seemed about to grab Vasili when he saw Maria behind him. He looked into Vasili’s eyes, then down at the man on the deck, and he understood. At his direction, the sailors wordlessly dragged the worthless man away, and he was not seen again on the voyage.
Finally, seven days into the voyage, Vasili overheard someone speaking in Slovak. He and Maria went over and found a family that was from the same district, Stara Lubovna, as Vasili and Maria. They had relatives waiting for them in America, and because they knew that Vasili and Maria could use the help, they offered to help them get to Passaic, New Jersey where Vasili and Maria could both find jobs.
The father, Gregor Petrovich, a tall and broad man with a smile to match and a mustache that covered his mouth, grabbed Vasili by the shoulders and said, “We Rusyns are of the same stock, and we must help each other as we can.” His tiny wife Anya, who barely reached to Gregor’s chest, even offered some food from home that they had been saving.
After that meeting, they all stayed together and helped each other get through the dismal voyage by telling tales from home. Vasili knew all of the great folk tales, and kept the children entertained. Maria finally felt like this voyage might work out after all.