The Box of Life

Submitted into Contest #80 in response to: Write about a child witnessing a major historical event.... view prompt

45 comments

Middle School Historical Fiction Adventure

                              The Box of Life

The city of LVIV (formerly Poland until the Nazi invasion). Now Ukraine, USSR.

June 1941.

‘Take this and hide it.’

Father presses a wooden box to my chest. The box I was forbidden to touch when I was a child. It has our family crest of three crowns, inlaid into the lid: the mark of the Polish aristocracy. Once it was a symbol of pride. Now it is a death sentence.

‘Take it to our crypt. I have planned for someone to meet you there. Come back for the box when the war’s over and you are certain it’s safe. Now get out of here… now!’ Father yells. ‘You must live…’

Boots pound up the marble stairs to Father’s office. ‘Run and don’t look back,’ he says.

I push the box back into my father’s hands, ‘Come with me,’ I plead. The men in our family never plead. I expect to see disdain, but his eyes glisten. I can’t bear to leave him. Soldiers crash through the reception door. Murderous, demanding German voices clash with the terrified screams of Father’s secretary.

I jump as a gun fires. A single bullet rips through flesh. I hear pattering; the sound of Mrs Nowak’s pearls as they scatter across the floor. Thud! She falls. Terror stops me from crying out, but the noise of the gun still rings in my ears. It reverberates through my bones; my body trembles.

Father remains composed. His fine cheekbones and his angular chin, proud and defiant above his starched white collar and brown silk necktie. My Father. Lawyer. Count. He is unshakeable. Unbreakable.

Menacing footsteps, closer. ‘Mikołaj, this is my last order as your Father. I insist you leave. You must live and carry on our family name. Revive our fortune. Do it out of respect for your Mother’s memory. Do it for me. Now RUN!’

‘But… I…. Father.’ Tears stream down my face.

Dragging my eyes from him; I take the box and edge towards the window and the fire escape, slipping out into smoke-filled muggy air. The office door flies open. I duck out of sight. But I watch.

Father walks towards the door. A giant. He’s immaculate in his dark brown pin-striped suit, leather shoes shining. His back is poker straight, his chest broad and strong. The walnut clad castle is his last stronghold within the crumbling city named ‘Life.’[1] But now, it reeks of death. Streets run red with rivers of Jewish blood, political prisoners and now that of the bright minds of the university. Massacred in thousands.

A gun fires.

And father crashes to the floor.

The sharp twang of cordite smoke hovers over him.

I ball my body around the box. My face screws around the cries desperate to escape. Fear freezes my heart. I must live. I must live. I must live. I try to fill my lungs, but I can’t. Then my heart erupts into life as leather boots stride towards my hiding place.

The soldier is so close I can hear him breathing, and the sulphuric odour of gunpowder clings like death itself to his pressed, grey uniform.

‘Durchsuche das Büro. Ich möchte eine kleine Holzschatulle mit einem Wappen,’ the officer commands. I understand little German. Latin and French were on the curriculum at my boarding school before the Soviets closed it and replaced it with their hell-hole, and we were forced to learn Russian. I could just about make out the words: search, office, and box.

They want the box.

Soldiers tear through Father’s ordered office.

The metal fire escape sways on a few remaining bolts as I slide down one step at a time. I reach the ground and glance up to the window. Glaring straight at me is the German Officer.

‘Hör auf, Junge, oder ich schieße!’

I run.

Bullets cut through the thick air-hunting me! They rip through trees; splinter fences. I keep running. I duck as metal sparks off the street sign above my head, but I keep running. The main street opens up ahead. A woman staggers in front of me with torn clothes. She is screaming. Her nose is bloody. Boys, the same age as me chase her with home-made clubs. Want to help, but have to run. Have to live. I jump over the body of an old man who’s clutching a paper to his chest. He lays in a pool of blood that seeps from his head. Leaping over a mountain of rubble I skid down the other side. Grit stings my eyes and cuts my knees. Scrambling to my feet, legs like rubber, adrenalin drives me on to the cemetery.

I hear the splutter of a motorbike, followed by another. The smell of petrol is so strong I can taste it.

‘Stoppen Sie diesen Jungen. Er ist ein Verräter der Riecht!’

I dart into an alleyway, slipping into the carcass of the old chocolate shop. Glass like diamonds are scattered across the floor. I slide through a back door, clamber over the wall and make it on to Steep Hill; the final climb towards the cemetery.

 Swirling ironwork mark the entrance to the cemetery. I recognise the sign of the Polish resistance scratched into the paint. Shining black statues cradle the graves of dead citizens of Lviv. I was once terrified of this place and imagined it to be the domain of vampires. Now I see beauty in the stone angels and skulls which guard the memories of Lviv; the beating heart of the city. They weep for the souls that the Nazis rip from the living, but I know their tears will restore it. She will be free and I must help.

I search for our crypt. The only family property that was not taken by the Reicht. I hear Hitler is superstitious. Perhaps disturbing the dead - even for the Devil - is a step too far. I find our tomb next to a tangle of roses. It has imposing columns and our family crest engraved on the arch. It looms over the other graves.

‘Mikołaj Zadlowski?’ A voice whispers from the shadows.

‘Yes.’

‘You have brought the box?’

‘Yes,’ I pull it close to me; my eyes alert for witnesses.

‘Show yourself,’ I say, mustering a voice to replicate Father’s authority. My thirteen-year-old version sounds ridiculous.

Small fingers curl around the black column and a girl follows, stepping out from the shadows of the crypt. She has black hair, violet eyes and a small mouth. A smile teases the corners. Her delicate fingers follow a line carved into the masonry and something extraordinary happens. The budding roses snake up the granite and bloom. They release a scent which sweetens the acrid bitterness of the smouldering city below. The perfume reminds me of the home we lost. My throat tightens. Honeysuckle and jasmine coil around each other and their yellow flowers burst open. I gawp. Then reach to touch them to check if they are real and snap my hand away as a straggly haired creature darts between my legs. The girl smiles, ‘Excuse my goat; he’s nervy.’ The goat has matted grey hair, a broken horn and devilish rectangular pupils.

She extends her hand, ‘My name is Janina. But you can call me Nina.’ I don’t take it, and scrutinise her through narrowed eyes.

 ‘I’ve been sent to help you escape,’ she says. The thin, pale girl looks younger than me. How the hell did Father expect a girl and her pet goat help his son survive the Nazis?’

[1] The city of Lviv was named after its founder’s son, Lev. His name means heart or life.

February 06, 2021 17:41

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45 comments

Helen East
17:08 Feb 13, 2021

What a fantastic, enveloping story. It definitely leaves the reader wanting to know more about the significance of the box, and importantly, what happens next...

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Emily Grice
17:14 Feb 13, 2021

Thanks for your lovely comment and for reading!

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Helen Pengelly
17:12 Feb 13, 2021

Brilliant Emily. Really great piece of writing, I felt like I was there, beautifully descriptive.

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Emily Grice
17:14 Feb 13, 2021

Thank you for reading. Glad you liked it!

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Helen East
17:06 Feb 13, 2021

What a fantastic, enveloping story. It definitely leaves the reader wanting to know more about the significance of the box, and importantly, what happens next...

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16:35 Feb 13, 2021

Very exciting. Want to read more.

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Emily Grice
17:00 Feb 13, 2021

Thank you!

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Nainika Gupta
15:50 Feb 13, 2021

Hello Emily! Amazing first submission, I really loved the creativeness that you encompassed into this story! I feel like, with this prompt, a lot of people choose to go the WW way, and I must admit, so did I (a shot in the dark) but I think you really outshone many other generic stories with the idea that she needs to protect the 'box of life' Amazing job, once again! -N

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Emily Grice
16:09 Feb 13, 2021

Hi Nainika, thanks for your lovely comments. They mean a lot! I really enjoyed your story. It has such a lovely voice to it.

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Nainika Gupta
16:10 Feb 13, 2021

:) No problem Emily - thank YOU!

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HOLLY SPARKS
14:59 Feb 13, 2021

This is amazing! Super creative.

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Emily Grice
15:04 Feb 13, 2021

Thanks so much for your lovely comment.

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09:26 Jun 03, 2021

Emily, I just posted my comment on your fantastic story and it disappeared! So, again, I had no idea about your Polish roots. I am stunned by the story origin and your good writing.

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FIONA DUNNE
11:08 Mar 09, 2021

I really enjoyed this. My heart was racing and would love to know more about the box! Well done to you.

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Karin Oldfield
18:28 Feb 24, 2021

Well done, Emily! Fast paced, gripping, with a great twist at the end -- the girl and the goat. Brilliant.

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Sheila Payne
22:36 Feb 19, 2021

Wow! That was so scary.. very cool story..

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Deborah Lynn
12:42 Feb 18, 2021

Wow. Gripping and enjoyable read

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Eddie Thawne
09:39 Feb 18, 2021

I love the suspense in the end. Amazing story and truly adventurous!

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Emily Grice
14:37 Feb 18, 2021

Thanks, Eddie. Glad you enjoyed it!

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Dan L
09:44 Feb 16, 2021

Excellent story intro!

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Jo Illustration
20:05 Feb 15, 2021

Beautifully descriptive and atmospheric writing Em! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and need to find out what happens next!!

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Veronica Birch
20:03 Feb 15, 2021

Really loved this writing, Emily - beautifully tense. I want to read on!

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Emily Grice
14:38 Feb 18, 2021

Thanks for your lovely comment.

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Bobo Stevens
18:08 Feb 14, 2021

Great, atmospheric writing with excellent pace. Hazel

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Emily Grice
09:17 Feb 15, 2021

Thanks for your lovely comment. Glad you enjoyed the atmosphere.

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Debbie Parrott
15:33 Feb 14, 2021

I couldn't stop reading this. The pace was excellent. I also picked up all the background necessary without actually being "told" too much. Well done great work.

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Emily Grice
09:18 Feb 15, 2021

So chuffed, not too much telling. That's always the challenge. Thanks so much for reading and you lovely comment.

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Hemmie Martin
10:35 Feb 14, 2021

A wonderful piece of writing, Emily, your descriptions are evocative. Good luck!

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Emily Grice
11:11 Feb 14, 2021

Thank you for reading Hemmie and for your lovely comment.

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Rachael Bewes
08:55 Feb 14, 2021

I loved the instant pace and how quickly I invested into each character. I am left with so many questions and desperate to know what will happen next?

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Emily Grice
11:11 Feb 14, 2021

Thanks, Rachael, so glad you liked it.

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Angela Billows
08:39 Feb 14, 2021

Vivid storytelling. Love the girl and the goat. Definitely need to find out what happens next.

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Emily Grice
09:18 Feb 15, 2021

Thanks so much Angela.

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