The calendar said it was spring, but not the cold or the snow on the ground, and still the boy would sleep only in the hayloft when he found they kept a horse, a gelding Vinich called Pushkin. Each morning he was awake and sitting on the back steps of the house before even Helen had come down to fire the stove. When Vinich left for the mill in the Ford, and when he came home in the evening, he spoke to the boy in a hushed and direct voice, sometimes in Hungarian, sometimes in Slovak, so that even if Hannah could follow the initial questions about how he had conducted his day, the answers turned into clipped pronouncements or phrases so cryptic and oblique, she was lost again inside whatever language it was he spoke. She asked her father one morning before school what they talked about and Vinich shook his head.
There’s no talk, Hannah. He asks me when the villagers are going to come for him, and I tell him we are the villagers and that he came to us. Then he asks if he can ride Pushkin out of here when they do come, and I tell him we don’t ride the horse. Not anymore. Then he goes back into the barn.
She watched him like this each day. As though from a distance, separated still by the presence of window glass. And she wondered herself when he would leave, so beautiful and odd he looked to her as he moved about the house, the yard, the barn, and stuck out against what she had come to see as the ordinary portrait of the farm. The profile of porch, paddock, fruit trees terraced into the land, and forest and mountain rising up in the distance like an old painting she looked at differently now and saw other details that had always been there. Like the stained glass in the corners of the front window. The joinery of the wood as she moved from the foyer past the drawing room and into the kitchen. And the way the orchard received sunlight all day, because it was in each of these places he had stood and looked back at her with a wonder all his own.
Helen shortened the name he had given to them on the first day to Becks, but he would still only speak to Vinich.
Does he have a family name, Jozef? Helen asked at dinner one evening, the boy sitting out of earshot on a chair in the pantry because he refused to sit with them at meals.
Well, Vinich said. The surname on his passport is Konar, though that’s likely counterfeit.
Supper was over and Hannah had begun to clear the table while her father stared down at his plate as though the pattern at the edge were runes he might study for the answer to an altogether different question puzzling him.
I can see why the old man would have taken the name and forged the documents, he said. But I can’t figure out how after all these years he’d have faith enough to send him away, get him on a train that could take him to a port and tell him there would be someone waiting for him on the other side when he got off the ship. Someone who would take him in because he had saved his life once before and would do it again.
Vinich turned and looked into the pantry and watched the boy eat, searching there for the traces of the mother in the eyes and face, the woman Vinich had traveled with in the short span of a spring and a summer when she was with child and the land in which the two had found each other was no longer at war, though nor was it at peace, for all on the road seemed to be traveling back to or away from a home they once knew, and there was no telling in country, village, or bend of that road what manner of good or ill, peace or war, life or death one would find. And so Vinich made the promise to the girl, who never told him her name, only that it was a secret, the girl whose ashes he committed to the earth, believing he and the infant to whom she had given birth, the infant he took from her arms and swaddled and ran with after he had set fire to the woodsman’s cottage in which they had sojourned, would be of that earth as well by end of day.
He turned back to his wife.
I can talk to Father Blok about getting him into one of those schools for orphans down in Hazelton, he said. If you think it’s too much having him here.
Helen dried her hands on a towel.
Name or no name, Jozef, you made a promise, and he found us. A father to the fatherless is God in his dwelling is what Father Blok ought to say, if he’s any kind of priest. Give him some chores to do. He looks capable enough. Tell him we’re going clothes shopping for a decent pair of boots and trousers on the weekend. And if he wants to eat, tell him he’d better acknowledge the one doing the cooking.
A Saturday afternoon in May, rain having given way to a stretch of sun, so that a vast burgeoning of every flower and tree on the farm seemed to overtake the land (Hannah remembering to the end of her days the smell of honeysuckle and peony that came in through the kitchen window with the birdsong that morning and so always grew and loved the bloom of these flowers in the beds along the house), and Helen pulled the Ford into the cobblestone drive. Hannah and Becks climbed out of the cab with their parcels and went inside the house. Helen walked into the barn and told her husband they had returned, then went into the house herself to prepare their supper.
And when the soup and bread that made up their fare on weekends in the summer was on the table, the boy came into the kitchen and thanked Helen in Slovak for the new clothes and placed his Red Wing boots in the tray by the back door, washed his hands in the half bath, and sat at the table in the chair in which Helen had directed him to sit. Hannah came in, too, and washed, and sat, and watched Becks try to smooth the stiff denim trousers he wore, touching every now and then the arm of his new flannel shirt, bewildered, it seemed, by the contrasting feel of the two articles of clothing. Vinich came in from the barn finally, and they all waited as he washed and changed his shirt and poured a glass of beer. Then he sat and said grace over the meal, and for a long while there was only the sound of the clack of spoons on the soup bowls and the ticking of the clock. Then Helen began telling her husband about the fine day out she and the children had had in Dardan, and he told her he had spent the day bucking into rounds the apple tree that had split in the heavy snow that winter. Hannah asked if after Mass on Sunday they could drive out to Kravits’s farm and buy four new pullets so that there would be laying hens around for eggs next fall. And Becks listened to the spare and easy conversation on the evening before the Sabbath, as it returned to the pooling of the ordinary events that would make up the next week on their own farm. And every now and then Hannah looked over and watched Becks watching her, and she knew not just by the new clothes her mother had bought him and he now wore but also by the way he mirrored her posture and how she held her utensils that he wanted nothing more than to sit at that table, wanted to eat what they ate, and in time would speak the same language that shaped the easiness of their conversation, so that words like buck and pullet came just as readily from his mouth as from her father’s and hers, because these were the words he asked Vinich to translate for him. Words that sounded no less miraculous to Hannah than the prayer she had uttered on that cold day in early spring. The prayer that had been answered.