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THE GOLD-LEAF ELECTROSCOPE
In the summer of 1872 in the city of Warsaw, Poland, four of the Sklodovski children were playing "Geography" with their father. They lived on Novolipki Street, on the ground floor of the boys' high school where Mr. Sklodovski was assistant director of the school.
The four beds in the children's room were pushed into the corners, leaving space on the floor for the continent of Europe. Jozef, Bronislava, Helena, and Maria were busy outlining the countries with colored wooden blocks. Their father, Vladislav, moved back and forth among them to oversee the work and give suggestions. He was a short man of about forty, plump but quick-moving. He had a brown beard and he was dressed neatly in a dark suit. Mr. Sklodovski and his children had already marked out the country in the middle, Poland, with bright red blocks. Red was the color of blood, of life, of courage and, of course, the red-and-white Polish flag.
"Bring me more black, Manya," commanded Jozef. Jozio, as Jozef was called, was the only boy in the family and the second oldest. Manya was the nickname of Maria, the youngest. She hurried "east" with all the black blocks that would fit in her apron.
"Black for Russia, to match their hearts," chanted Bronislava. She was the third oldest, nicknamed Bronia.
Their father was just as caught up in the game as the children were. But at Bronia's remark, he said, "Stop, all of you." His serious tone of voice made them turn immediately toward his broad, kind face.
"Bronia," Mr. Sklodovski went on, "you must be careful what you say." He looked around the room, holding each child's eyes for a moment. "We must all be careful what we say."
"Yes, Papa," said Bronia. The children glanced toward the wall that separated their apartment from Director Ivanov's. The school's Russian director lived just next door.
"Yes, Papa but it's Saturday, a safe day," protested Jozio. "Director Ivanov is away from the school, and all the students are home for the weekend. There's no one here but us."
"Still," Vladislav Sklodovski told his children, "we can't afford to get into the habit of making such remarks. The next thing you know, when you're walking along the street with a friend, a careless joke will slip out and a Russian policeman will be listening. He'll grab you" he seized Jozio's arm "and question you: 'Who is your father?' The Russians will think you learn such disrespect from me. I'll be fired from my job. We'll have no place to live. Perhaps they'll send me to prison."
"I'm sorry, Papa," said Bronia with tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Papa," echoed Helena, nicknamed Hela.
"Yes, I see, Papa," said Jozio. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry too," said four-year-old Manya loyally.
The other children laughed. Their father smiled and patted her curly head. But he said, "Even Manya is not too young to learn to be careful."
The serious mood passed, and they went back to the game. "Green blocks, Manya," called Bronia. She was working on the outline of Austria, to the southwest of Poland. Green as the grass in the country, where the Sklodovskis stayed with their relatives in the summer.
"And yellow here, Manya," ordered Hela. Hela, the second youngest, couldn't outline Prussia, northwest of Poland, without Bronia's help. But she still had the right to tell Manya, the youngest, what to do.
"Blue blocks, Manya," said Jozio. He'd quickly finished Russia. Now their father was showing him where to lay out the Vistula River, which ran through the city of Warsaw. Blue blocks also outlined the Baltic Sea, on the northern edge of Poland.
As the sisters and brother worked on their map, music sounded from another room. Their mother, Bronislava Sklodovska, was playing Chopin on the piano. They heard forceful chords, followed by a prancing bit and a sweeping run. Then the rapid line of notes broke off. The children were used to this, and they didn't stop their play to listen to their mother's fit of dry coughing. But Manya, watching her father's face, saw it tighten.
"Manya," announced Zofia's voice from the doorway, "it's time to get ready for bed." Zofia, or "Zosia," at age ten was the oldest of the Sklodovski children. She looked at the arrangement of colored blocks. "That's quite a good map!" she exclaimed. "Only, Jozio, the Vistula River winds toward the west a bit more, right there." She tapped a blue block with the toe of one high-buttoned shoe. "But never mind you have to put the blocks away in a few minutes so that Manya can go to sleep."
Manya hated to stop playing, but she let Zosia take her to the wardrobe to undress her. Manya thought of Zosia as the most beautiful young lady she's ever seen. Golden hair streamed down her back, and she had a quick, graceful walk.
When Manya had her nightgown on, Zosia led her to say good night to their mother. Bronislava Sklodovska was also beautiful, but she moved slowly. She never hugged and kissed Manya the way Zosia did. Mama, thought Manya, was like a delicate china figurine. She could be looked at, but not played with. Mama even ate off special plates, which had to be washed separately from the rest of the family's dishes.
Zosia set Manya down on a footstool beside the piano bench. Smiling at her youngest child, Bronislava smoothed her curly, ash-blond hair. "Sing with me, Manya." She began a lullaby. "Oi lu lu lu lu lu..."
Manya joined in, adding her piping little voice to her mother's violinlike tones. She knew all the verses to this lullaby. The last verse ended, "I have you, my darling you're what I've prayed for."
Early one morning a few days later, a droshky, a horse and buggy for hire, pulled up in front of the boys' high school on Novolipki Street. Bronislava Sklodovska was going to leave her family in Warsaw for a while, to live in a sanatorium. A sanatorium, Zosia told Manya, was a special place where tuberculosis patients could rest and get well.
"This sanatorium is in the mountains, in Austria," Zosia explained. The children had been playing "Geography" again, and she pointed to a spot on the floor just across the line of green blocks. "When Mama comes back, she'll be all well."
Manya put her arms around her oldest sister's legs. "I wish you weren't going, Zosia."
Zosia stooped to hug Manya hard. But then she set her mouth in a firm line, as if she wouldn't allow herself to be sad about leaving. "Mama needs me to keep her company and look after her. You and Jozio, Bronia, Hela, and Papa will have each other."
When it was time for Mrs. Sklodovska and Zosia to leave for the train, Aunt Lucia, Bronislava's sister, came to join them in saying good-bye. Mr. Sklodovski climbed into the droshky to see them off at the railway station. Mama and Zosia waved their handkerchiefs as the horses pulled the carriage into traffic. Manya and the other children waved back, watching as the droshky rattled off, disappearing among the swarm of carts, carriages, and buggies on Novolipki Street.
"Come," said Aunt Lucia, "we must pray for your dear mama to get well." She took the children to the nearby Church of the Virgin. Manya knelt obediently in the pew beside her aunt and repeated the words of the prayer.
When they returned home, Manya wandered into the study. She gazed at the malachite clock, made from a block of green stone, on the desk, and at the oak-framed barometer on the wall. She came to a halt in front of a glass cabinet. The cabinet shelves held polished brass scales like a tiny seesaw and a glass jar with a brass top and bottom. Inside the jar, two gold-foil leaves hung down from the top. Jozio had told Manya what this thing was called: an electroscope. Manya longed to handle it.
Vladislav Sklodovski, who had just returned from the train station, stepped into the study. He sat down in the red velvet armchair next to the cabinet. "So, Manya," he said, leaning forward, "do you like my physics apparatus?"
Manya nodded. "Phys-ics ap-par-a-tus," she repeated. Judging by the look on her father's face, these were important things. "Do they need to stay in the cabinet?"
"Yes, they do," her father answered.
These bright, fascinating objects were not for play. At least, not for child's play.
"These days, teachers are not allowed to give practical demonstrations of physics in the classroom," Mr. Sklodovski added. "Someday it may be allowed again, and then I'll need my apparatus."
"Will you teach me, Papa?" asked Manya.
Her father seemed to like this idea, because the worried lines around his eyes and mouth softened. He answered her seriously, "When you're ready."
Mrs. Sklodovska and Zosia returned from the sanatorium to Warsaw at the end of the summer. Manya was overjoyed to have them home. But no one said to her, "You see? Mama is all well!" In fact, Bronislava Sklodovska was still thin and pale. She still coughed, and her dishes still had to be washed separately. She smiled at Manya like an angel, but she still didn't kiss her, or any of the children.
Manya thought of her mama as the lovely, perfect queen of the family, but Zosia was the one who led the children and thought up ways to have fun. She made up the best stories and acted out all the parts. If the children quarreled, Zosia would settle the quarrel and start them playing a game instead.
In the long autumn evenings the older Sklodovski children gathered around their father's big mahogany desk in the study to do their homework. Their mother sat nearby with her own work: She made shoes and boots for all the children. Her elegant, long-fingered hands cut the leather, stitched the pieces with waxed thread, and hammered the heels onto the soles. "Even though I have to stay inside," she said, "there's no reason for me to sit idle."
The days got shorter and shorter and colder and colder. Then it was Christmas Eve. Through the lace curtains Manya watched the daylight fading and the gas streetlamps beginning to glow on Novolipki Street. "Come on," called Zosia, "it's time to look for the first star!" Jozio, Bronya, Hela, and Manya bundled up against the biting cold and followed Zosia out into the garden.
"There!" Jozio pointed to a shining dot above the rooftops of Warsaw.
First star meant it was time for Wigilia, the feast of Christmas Eve dinner. "First star, Mama! First star, Papa!" they shouted as they trooped back inside.
The family gathered around the table spread with the best white tablecloth. Platters of potatoes, fish, and filled dumplings called pierogi crowded the tabletop. Before they sat down to the feast, the Sklodovskis broke the bread of love. This was a special wafer, blessed by the Catholic priest and stamped with pictures of the baby Jesus, Mary, and the angels.
From her end of the table Bronislava Sklodovska beamed at the children. Her gaze lingered on Manya, her youngest. "Vladislav," she said to her husband at the head of the table, "we have so much to be thankful for."
"Yes," he answered. "We are all together."
Text copyright © 2007 by Beatrice Gormley