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The Long Highway Home
By Elizabeth Musser
MacGregor LiteraryCopyright © 2017 Elizabeth Musser
All rights reserved.
Atlanta, Georgia, October 2005
I rapped twice on the door of the seventh-floor apartment in the posh retirement home on Peachtree Street. "Peggy? You in there?"
I unlocked the door and found her, as I knew I would, sitting on her balcony looking out at the hubbub below. At ninety-two, Peggy Milner rarely strayed outside in the late afternoon. She reserved her errands for the morning, before her body pitched its daily fit, as she put it.
I knelt down by her wheelchair, and she slowly maneuvered it so that she was facing me. Her thin wrinkled face was surrounded by abundant white hair, cut in a bob. Her green eyes, still bright in spite of cataracts, met mine. "So?"
"The doctor says I have a year to live. And that's optimistic."
Her eyes misted. "I'm so sorry to hear it, Bobbie," she said, reaching out a feeble hand to stroke my face. "I wish it could be me."
I knew she meant it. Peggy had been ready to go meet Jesus for years. "Well, I'm thankful you're still here for me. What would I have become without you, Peggy?"
"You and the Lord would have done just fine, no need of me. What did the doctor say about treatment?"
"A pill for two months. After that, aggressive chemo, if the cancer hasn't spread."
"Then you know what you need to do. As I've been saying for nearly twelve years, Bobbie, go back."
Tears sprang to my eyes. "But I'm afraid. What if I can't make it right? What if I fail again?"
She sat back in her chair and said, almost sharply, "Dear child, what have you to lose now? Go back."
"Tracie wants to go with me."
A smile spread across Peggy's face, lifting the sagging skin. "So you have made plans."
"I didn't say yes yet."
"Say yes, Bobbie. Close the wound. Let it heal. Go back."
Still on my knees, I laid my head in Peggy's lap, let her hands rest softly on my back, heard her voice, the sound of age, the sound of wisdom, whisper a prayer for me. "Dear Jesus, take Bobbie back, so she can forgive herself. So she can remember what she knows. You make all things new."
Timisoara, Romania, a few weeks later
Slowly, deliberately I walked into Timisoara's Victory Square where back in December, 1989 thousands of protestors fighting to bring down Communism had stood with their candles lit. Where I had stood on that fateful night. I placed my cane carefully between the cobbled stones. I couldn't afford to stumble or fall. There was the statue of Romulus and Remus surrounded by students and businessmen, the fountain spraying water, a multitude of pigeons waiting their turns to splash beneath it. The gardens were planted with bright purple petunias, and roses were everywhere. Timisoara was called the city of roses. I'd forgotten.
With Tracie at my side, I hobbled along, trying to make the limp less visible, determined to blend into the scenery, heading purposefully in the direction of the Orthodox church at the end of the square. The wonder on my niece's face reminded me of the way I'd felt all those years ago, discovering a whole new world.
"Oh, this is beautiful!" She drew out the syllables as we stepped into the cathedral. She'd said the same thing at every single church we'd visited.
We watched as a line of several elderly Romanian women approached a painting of the Virgin and Child that stood on an easel in the center of the church. One by one the women moved forward, bowed, and kissed the icon.
"How weird," Tracie whispered. "They actually kiss the painting. That's not very hygienic."
I shrugged and gave her a wink.
"And why aren't there any pews in this church?"
"It's Orthodox," I whispered. "Everyone stands."
I actually wished a bench would magically appear before me. Pain throbbed in my left leg, and I leaned heavily on the cane.
"Aunt Bobbie, are you okay?" Tracie took my arm. "You're trembling!"
"No worries, dear. Just a little tired."
"Look, over there. Against the wall."
She took my arm and I didn't protest, just planted the cane in front of me and walked slowly toward a mahogany bench where two older women were seated. I settled beside them, and a wave of anger surged within me, taking me by surprise.
I'm thirty-nine, Lord. Isn't that a little young to die? I mean, don't get me wrong. I look forward to spending eternity with You, but there are so many other things I wanted to do here first ...
I watched Aunt Bobbie sitting beside two elderly women on a well-worn bench inside the Metropolitan Orthodox Church. The older women, with sagging, wrinkled skin, talked animatedly to each other while Bobbie leaned back, head against the wall, eyes closed, her right hand clutching a cane. Something was definitely wrong with this picture.
Bobbie was the young, cool aunt all my friends admired as we were growing up, and practically a second mother to me. She loved history, loved travel, loved to be spontaneous, loved people. And she was dying. When my mom called to tell me of Bobbie's diagnosis, I dropped my cell phone on the floor in disbelief. And the next week I called Bobbie to say it was time for that month-long trip to Europe we'd always talked about.
My aunt had lived in Europe for ten years as a young woman. She had a mysterious career there, and I'm sure I hadn't heard the half of it — she actually smuggled Bibles into Communist countries in the 1980s, and worked at an orphanage for deaf children in Romania. But then my father dropped dead of a heart attack at forty-two, leaving Mom to care for six children. Bobbie got the word and hopped the next plane to Atlanta, where she swooped into our lives in her flowing bright orange pantsuit, the "eternal rescuer." That's what Mom called her. To me, and to my five younger brothers, she was an exotic creature, all fun and adventure and generosity, taking our minds off the fact that our father had just died and placing them on the gifts she had brought to us from Europe. I'll never forget the look in Mom's eyes — extreme gratitude in the midst of her grief. There was nothing subtle about Aunt Bobbie, and yet she had an almost imperceptible quality of grace about her, something strong and yet comforting and cozy, something that made me want to be with her and hope and pray it would rub off on me. She never made me feel that whatever drama was going on in my life at the moment was ridiculous or unimportant.
Bobbie knew how to rough it. Once in a village in Bulgaria, when her contact didn't show up, she dug a hole in the ground to keep the wind from slicing through her and slept outside in the freezing cold. She said it was "an awesome experience." But another time, while I was in high school, a girlfriend invited her to take a cruise on the Mediterranean, and they stayed in the best suite on the ship. She loved that too.
"You just have to appreciate whatever comes," she used to say to us kids. "Each day is a twenty-four-hour adventure."
So Mom and I had decided that Bobbie needed a quaint luxury hotel in Venice, and she agreed — on the condition that she could plan our next stop, in Timisoara. The place we were staying here was definitely not luxurious. In fact, Bobbie called it a "Communist hotel."
"You know, it's all dark, heavy wood, oppressive, unimaginative."
I watched her remove her slip-on Keds — always before she'd worn high- heeled boots or sandals — pull herself into the low and sagging double bed we were sharing, set her cane down, and smile at me.
"Ah, that's better." She made light of her earlier moment of exhaustion at the church and said, "It's completely to be expected as a side effect of the meds."
It did not exactly placate my fears, but she dared me with those bright blue eyes to disagree. My throat constricted, and I blinked back tears. I hopped on the bed and flicked on the little side light.
"Do you ever think about what you used to do? All those years living in Vienna and smuggling Bibles? Do you miss it?"
Bobbie loved to tell me stories of that life, but when I'd asked her this question in the past, she'd always said something like, "How could I miss that life when I have you and your brothers to fill my days and nights?"
But now she stared at me, and somehow her eyes dimmed. "I think of it every single day of my life." She quickly reached for my hand and squeezed it. "That doesn't mean I haven't been happy. Aching for one thing and enjoying something else aren't mutually exclusive."
"I suppose you're right." I made a face and focused my attention on a piece of peeling beige paint on the wall in front of me. I knew what she was referring to. My aunt was infamous for making a point from something in her life so that I could apply it to mine. "Yes, I'm loving every minute of this trip. But it still hurts so bad that Neil broke up with me. I don't know if there will ever be a single hour in any day when I don't think about him."
She sighed. "Love is painful sometimes, isn't it?"
"It sucks." Then, glancing at her, I dared to ask another question that I'd asked her loads of times before, a question to which she usually gave a silly reply. "Come on, Aunt Bobbie. Tell me for real — did you ever want to be married?"
She smiled. "Well, of course I've thought about it — still do at times. You know, people do marry even after forty!" She laughed. "Thought about it, but then I inherited a family, a large family with a lot of kids, and I didn't even have to bother with a husband."
"But you would have preferred to stay in Austria, do your work there?"
She cocked her head, rested it against the red-cushioned headboard, and closed her eyes. "Tracie, life has seasons. I entered a season of nurturing your family. It wasn't forced upon me. I chose it with gladness, and I have never regretted that choice. Another season might be coming now."
Another season? That's what she thought of dying? I didn't want her to enter that season. Ever.CHAPTER 2
Somewhere in Iran
Hamid was so tired of running. For two months now he'd been constantly looking over his shoulder, afraid of who might show up with a gun and pull the trigger. He shuddered as he pulled the filthy blanket around his shoulders, thinking of the news he had heard the day before, coming through the radio in little patches of static. Four killed in a bombing in his Iranian village, massacred. Was Alaleh one of them? And seven-year-old Rasa? He could not allow himself to think of it.
And the baby ... surely the little one would be born soon. Where would Alaleh go for the birth? Could the midwife be trusted? His stomach cramped with the questions. Did Alaleh show Rasa photos of her father, remind her how much she was loved? How Hamid longed for news. How he wished he could turn back the clock, had said "No thank you" to the neighbors when they invited Rasa to their daughter's birthday party.
Little Noyemi was Rasa's friend, and Hamid and Alaleh liked the neighbors, even though they were Armenian Christians. They were good people, kind people with strange convictions, brave people who held firm to their religion in spite of the pressure from others.
And Alaleh was so ill with the pregnancy. Twice she had miscarried, and the labor and delivery with Rasa had not gone well. But this time, the doctor said, with plenty of rest, Alaleh would carry this child to term. Agar Khoda hast. If God willed. Hamid himself was busy at the university and worried about rumors of the government's new plan to bring in the military against the intellectuals. Preoccupied with this and Alaleh's health, he had welcomed a place where Rasa could be with other children, even for an afternoon. How could he have foreseen ...
But one afternoon turned into a week, as the neighbors explained that they had a guest from America who wanted to tell stories to the children each day. A special club for the children. How Rasa's eyes sparkled every time she returned from the children's club! She brought little crafts she had made and told stories of the nice woman. It was only on the last day, when Hamid came to pick her up, that Rasa had presented her father with the book.
"Baba, the nice lady gave this to me. It's a good book with wonderful stories. It is for me."
Hamid took the small colorful book with the Farsi title from his daughter.
"The nice lady said it was a good book, but" — and Rasa's eyes had grown wide as she leaned into him — "but it is a dangerous book. I must not show it to anyone. Only you and Maamaan."
He knew the book, and even holding it in his hand, he felt dirty. The Ingil, the New Testament. In their own language, Farsi. Blasphemy! He should never have let Rasa attend the club. It was brainwashing! He sat with the other parents, most of them Armenian, on the last day of the club, and heard the young American woman speaking in English and the translator beside her telling of the Christ, the prophet. Calling him God. Blasphemy!
He took Rasa's hand and led her away amidst her tears and protests. Why had he not left the book there? Instead, he had hurried out of the neighbors' house with Rasa clutching the book to her chest. It was a short walk to their home, a minute, less. But that day the religious police were on the corner of the street. Did they know of the American woman, of the children's club? Were they watching to see if any Muslims attended? Hamid saw them too late. They approached, as they always did, with authority, brandishing guns. His arm tightened around his daughter. He quietly took the book from her hands, then, feigning a cough, he bent over and slid the book onto the sidewalk behind him, near the Armenians' house where it belonged. The police searched them both, found nothing, and Hamid and Rasa fled inside their home.
Of course the police found the book eventually, and of course they came the next day to question him. He'd known they would be back. He knew the stories. Men who had disagreed politically were thrown into prison for months, years. But what would they do to a Muslim carrying a Christian book? The punishment for blasphemy was death.
There was no time to do anything but flee. Alaleh, heavy with child, her face streaked with tears, begged him, "Go now, Hamid. I will find you, no matter what happens. I'll come with our children."
Little Rasa hugged his legs, crying, "Don't leave, Baba! Don't leave! Take me with you, Baba!"
His mother cried and said, "You must leave now. Leave, Hamid, or they will kill us all."
The last kiss, passionate, terrible, the wrenching away, then hugging Alaleh to him, feeling the tightness of her belly against his ...
He had fled on a night like this one, with the moon cupping its hand as if to catch a falling star and the sky a cobalt blue fading to black. He closed his eyes to shut out the piercing memories of their good-bye, the frenzied packing of documents, the money hidden in every piece of his clothing.
Only twice since he left had he heard Alaleh's voice, whispering, fearful, full of love. "Rasa is growing strong, beautiful, she loves her father. The baby is kicking so often at night I don't sleep!" She had said it with humor in her voice, so he wouldn't worry. But Hamid did worry. "I love you, Hamid ..."
After two months of running, he was still far from safe. The mountain village where he now hid was barely sheltered from the perpetual gunfire down in the valley. His traveling companions, two brothers named Ashar and Merif, were intellectuals chased from their home by the government. They thought he was the same. They had all walked from Tehran to the northwestern most part of Iran. It was there they met the smuggler, Zemar, who had led them into a Kurdish village where they stayed with a family. There had been food and blankets — for a price, of course. Then they were put onto a flatbed truck, zigzagging through the mountains. When they reached a police checkpoint in the mountainous area, the truck stopped and the smuggler took them into a house, told them to dress in warm clothes, and put them on horseback. They rode through the night to the next Iranian village, always with the hope of getting a little closer to Turkey.
They left the horses then, and together they had scaled mountains and hidden in caves, scavenged for food and huddled around campfires. Sometimes they traveled with Zemar, sometimes, as was now the case, they were left to follow a crude map on their own, trusting that Zemar would indeed meet up with them at the next agreed-upon location. Together with Ashar and Merif, Hamid had killed wild rabbits and drunk from streams in the middle of the night. And always they listened, they waited, ears trained for the sound of the enemy.
Excerpted from The Long Highway Home by Elizabeth Musser. Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Musser. Excerpted by permission of MacGregor Literary.
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