It was nearing noon and Maria Skolnick was almost finished with her morning chores. She had fed the chickens and collected the hens’ eggs, drawn water from the well for their kitchen, slopped the hogs, picked a bushel of peas, led the cows to pasture, and carried split wood from the pile by the barn to the wood rack by the fireplace. School was out and she was expected to do more around the farm. She didn’t mind because her parents had worked so hard to pay the expenses of putting her through parochial school. She would be entering her last year at St. Boyka of the Holy Spirit Academy in the fall. She glanced at the north field and saw her father trying to break up the hardscrabble soil to plant seeds. She looked toward the wash house and saw her mother pouring water heated by a fire into a cauldron filled with dirty clothes.
Maria is an eighteen-year-old girl from Slovotsky, an Eastern European country. She and her parents, small farmers following the agrarian calling of their families for the past two centuries, lived in the small village of Donetsky in the southern territory. They were financially poor, sustained by barter and the output from their crops and animals but wealthy in more important ways―they enjoyed a warm and close-knit family life. Maria appreciated her upbringing which instilled in her courage, persistence and self-reliance. However, from the family’s small, black-and-white TV set they viewed foreign programming―advertisements, movies, and television shows. From the class curriculum at her school, she was exposed to a much broader world beyond the borders of her country. She was intrigued and envious of the rich and varied cultures, the wealth and lifestyles, and the abundant freedoms and privileges of the US and Western European countries.
While she loved her hometown people and the way they generously looked out for each other, she was restless for opportunities not available to her parents. She was easily the most beautiful girl in the village and the target of amorous pursuit by the young men in the region. Her long, blonde tresses, azure blue eyes, flawless complexion, and hourglass figure attracted appreciative stares whenever she sauntered down the town’s main street looking into shop windows. While she was flattered by the number of date requests, Maria rarely responded to their invitations. She was frequently teased by her girlfriends for her outmoded attitudes and beliefs. They were more modest in their expectations from life and didn’t share her perceived unrealistic ambitions.
“Maria, if you do not loosen up you will die an old maid. Live a little and have some fun while you are young,” advised Katya, one of her closest confidants.
“I am afraid that having fun may be an obstacle to achieving my dreams. I know that saving my virginity for my future husband and conducting myself accordingly sounds silly to you and everyone else. I do not want to spend the rest of my life trapped in the common pattern of our village―marrying a local boy, immediately spawning a succession of children with runny noses and dirty diapers, and being forever harnessed to small-town life.”
“I appreciate what you are saying, Maria, but the boys at school and in the village think that you are either frigid or gay. Your friends know better, but we are upset at the things some people are saying behind your back.”
“I realize boys are more cynical and cruel, especially after having their advances politely declined. But I worry about their opinions much less than I worry about being confined here for the rest of my life.”
Maria was enamored with foreign movies she saw on TV and occasionally at the local fifty-seat theater with its noisy projector and stale popcorn. The great variety of stories, locations, and historical periods she watched caused her imagination to soar and fueled her desire to live in another country. She adored foreign actors and actresses and studied the biographies of each of her favorite stars.
“Why do you yearn so to become a movie star, Maria? There is no film industry in Slovotsky except for an occasional documentary or cartoon.”
“That is why I want to head westward to a country that excels in making movies. I want to appear on a big screen and make people happy―give them memories to enrich their lives. I want people to like me and not criticize me because I do not meet their expectations or conform to prevailing norms. I want to soar like an eagle, not be caged like a parakeet. I want to do something exciting with my life.”
Katya grinned. “I know why you want to become famous. You want to return to Slovotsky for a world premier so when village boys ask you for an autograph you can poke them in their eyes with your finger.”
Maria laughed. “I would never do such a mean thing although I may charge them for my signature.”
“Have you always wanted to be a movie star?”
“I have thought about it for some time. My interest was inflamed when I won a raffle at school a few months ago. The prize was a movie poster of an American film shot in France―Lover’s Lament starring Prince Charmaine. He is so handsome and such a good actor.”
“You cannot fool me. You would not care whether he could act or not as long as he slipped under the covers with you at night.”
Maria blushed and said “I think he is gorgeous and I confess he appears in my dreams from time to time. However, it is his career that is of most interest to me, not his extraordinary physique, which I find breathtaking.”
“Let us examine that statement for a moment. If Prince was a local farm boy who stayed in Donetsk, worked in the fields, and asked you to marry him, would you agree?”
Maria blushed again. “That is an unfair question. No woman could resist him, but the situation you describe is never going to happen so your question is irrelevant. Stop trying to trick me, Katya.”
“Okay, I will be good from now on. Do your parents know you do not wish to remain on the farm and continue its operation? Do they know of your dreams to do something different with your life in another place?”
She shook her head. “I have not discussed my dream with them. Since it is unlikely to happen, I see no reason to needlessly upset them. I know that separation would be very difficult.”
Maria yearned for the opportunity to discover her untapped talents and be all that she could be but was unsure how to take the first step on her journey to achieve them. Little did she know that step would shortly be made for her.
The Skolnicks were busy completing their respective tasks when a Preslav automobile pulled up in front of their farmhouse and parked under an oak tree by the porch. A tall man in a gray suit got out and walked toward the edge of the field. Maria’s father saw him, put down his hoe, and shuffled to greet their visitor. They met by the fence and shook hands followed by an animated conversation punctuated by the shaking of heads and waving of arms. The man put his arm around the shoulders of Maria’s father and they slowly approached the farmhouse. Maria and her mother stopped what they were doing and joined them.
Maria’s mother wiped her hands on her apron and asked “Who is this man, Pieter?
Her father looked at the suited visitor and said “Gretna, this is an old friend, Dr. Ludansk Stanoff. He is a professor at the university. I am afraid he has brought some bad news. We have not had any electricity for four days and are unable to watch the news on our television.”
“What bad news? What did he tell you, Pieter?” Gretna asked, her voice reflecting anxiety if not panic.
Dr. Stanoff answered. “Our country’s militia has been routed by the militants in the Northern Province and they are on their way south trampling everything in their path. You have not had electricity because they have seized the rural electric cooperative. They are in the process of replacing our programming with propagandist claptrap of their own. I suspected you were unaware of recent events, which is why I am here.”
“Why are these militants fighting our forces?” Maria asked.
Her father sighed and motioned for the professor to respond. Dr. Stanoff scanned the family’s faces with a sad look and said “An internal civil war caused by religious differences has created a militant and vicious insurgency that has brought our decaying government under direct attack.”
“Who are these militants and what do they want?” Maria asked.
“They are the Militant Martyrs of the Mujadoom and they regard all Christians as infidels to be enslaved or killed. People in Donetsky and the neighboring villages are fleeing for their lives. Because the militants are only a few days away, I strongly advise you to do the same.”
“I do not understand why any group would want to do us harm,” Gretna said. We are neither soldiers nor politicians. We bear no malice towards anyone. We are poor farmers trying to make a living from the soil and the beasts of our fields. We are no threat to anyone.”
“I will run from no danger,” Pieter declared. “This farm has been in my family for six generations and I will not abandon it and let these terrorists kill my animals for food and devour my crops.”
“It is, of course, your decision to make. I am here only to warn you of the possible consequences of not leaving and seeking safer ground.”
“I have spoken,” Pieter says.
“There is another factor you should consider.” The professor looked pained and hesitant to proceed before continuing. “They regard all young women as slaves whom they subjugate and force into sexual submission. They have rape squads that scour the countryside looking for girls to stock their harems and satisfy their carnal desires. Their women have no marital rights and can be executed for actions we would consider trivial. They cannot be seen in public except with their husbands or male relatives. They can be stoned if they reveal any parts of their bodies other than their upper faces. They must wear a burqa at all times. They cannot vote or drive. Their marriages are pre-arranged by their families. And the worst part is . . . they subject their daughters to genital mutilation to stem their sexual cravings.”
The look of panic on her parents’ faces alarmed Maria. Gretna dropped her hand over her mouth and grabbed her daughter by the wrist. “We cannot expose our daughter . . . our only child . . . to the sick actions of such degenerates. We will make plans to evacuate Maria immediately.”
Maria looked at her parents with a pale face. “Does this mean I will be leaving Slovotsky by myself and fleeing to another country?”
Pieter embraced Gretna and wiped a tear from her eyes. “Yes, light of my life. We must find a safe place for you until this threat has passed. For thousands of years, Slovotsky has been overrun by hordes of conquerors. This is nothing new. Without exception, all of these groups vanished with the passage of time. Sometimes they left for greener pastures and other times they were driven out by an oppressed people or allied nations. However it was accomplished, they did not remain nor leave their mark upon our culture and civilization. Your departure will hopefully be temporary. As soon as the threat has been removed, we will send for you.”
“Why are we facing this danger alone? Why are we not getting military assistance from our allies in Europe and the United States?”
The Professor shook his head. “They may respond to our situation eventually, but this insurgency was so sudden they have not had time to plan an appropriate response. There are other reasons for their inaction as well. Their forces are already spread thin by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. They have redeployed their military resources to Asia because of the growing threats and hostility in North Korea and territorial aggression from China. The growth and spread of radical Islam has become their prime concern. Their people have grown tired of constant wars, the loss of lives, and the financial depletion of their treasuries. Consequently, their leaders and politicians have become increasingly reluctant to engage in new military undertakings.”
“How will you know where I have gone? How will you be able to get a message to me? We have no phone and the terrorists will no doubt control all the media. I am frightened. All this is so sudden and the future is filled with so many unknowns.”
Professor Stanoff spoke. “The militants have seized the airport, train depots, and bus stations so these forms of transportation are no longer available. If Maria can get across the border to Vladistan, I hear they have refugee resettlement camps run by the United Nations that will take her in. She can remain there in safety until our political situation has changed. Maria, here is my cell phone number. When you get across the border and in a secure area, call me and tell me where you are and how I can get in touch with you. I will try to be a link between you and your parents.”
“Thank you, Ludansk,” Pieter said. You have been a good friend. I thank you for driving such a distance to bring us this news however sorrowful. Godspeed and return safely to your family.”
“We have been friends for a long time, Pieter. I know what a recluse you are and that you receive little in the way of outside information except for your television. Perhaps that is for the better. You may be such small potatoes these men ignore you.” The two men shook hands and the professor climbed in his Preslav and left. The dust created by his speedy departure on the dirt road hung in the air like a pall.
“We have no time to lose, Maria. The border is fifty-eight kilometers away. You can get there on foot in three days. I realize this is a hardship, but we have neither car nor public transportation from our small remote village. We will fill your school backpack with food and bottles of water. We have a small light suitcase you can take with a few of your clothes. I have a map and will mark the route you must take. Travel only at night to avoid marauding militants and sleep during the day in the woods. Avoid contact with all people. You can trust no one these days. When the UN people at the refugee camp assure you the situation has been resolved and the country is once again in the hands of our people you may return.”
The family ate their final meal as a unit that evening before Maria’s journey. Normally, dinner was the highlight of the day when they discussed what had been accomplished since sunrise and what needed to be done the next day. This night was not a bonding and pleasant experience. A sadness permeated the room and replaced family joy and conviviality. No one had an appetite and the trio pecked at their food as they struggled to come to grips with their current situation.
Pieter’s voice broke the silence. “We should be talking and saying things that matter. We should not retreat into silence. To do so means they have won. Maria, you know how much we love you. That goes without saying. But this I do say unto you―do not despair. We will meet again in this life. This is as certain to me as darkness follows sunset. As you make your journey, my child, you will be guided by God’s grace and mercy and the love and memories each of us has shared.”
“Your father has read my heart and my thoughts passed through his lips. I can say it no better. I will add only this. My heart will ache every morning when I set the breakfast table with only two plates. My heart will ache whenever I put logs on the fire and do not see you asleep in your favorite chair with an open textbook on your lap. My heart will ache whenever your father and I sit in a church pew and you are not there between us lifting your voice in praise of our Lord. But most of all I will miss the sparkle in your eyes and your laughter when you are happy. I thank God every day that you are our child. Regardless of what happens, He has blessed us beyond belief.”
Maria cried uncontrollably. The three of them stood and had a final family hug. The emotions in the room were as thick and swirling as piled autumn leaves in a wind gust. That night after darkness replaced the last faint shards of sunlight Maria dressed warmly and slipped on her backpack. Twenty paces down the dirt road she looked back and waved to her parents who were clinched on the front porch wiping away tears. When she could bear it no more, she turned and set one foot in front of another. Her journey and flight to safety had begun.