History is full of lies. Washington chopped down the cherry tree. Columbus discovered America. The Amber Room disappeared, all fabrications woven into the tapestry of time.
A constant knocking startled him awake from his mid-morning nap, and he struggled out of his chair with an arthritic groan.
“I am comink, that’s enough already,” he choked out in a still-hoarse, sleepy voice, but the mystery visitor didn’t hear. The knocking thus continued until he opened the front door, squinting into the sunlight. It was Tim, the scrawny teenager that lived next door and mowed his grass every Saturday.
“I paiden you already.”
“Vat is not why I am here,” Tim said, mocking his accent.
“You sound like Dracula. I am not from Romania.”
“I vant to suck your blood,” Tim said with a smile. This kid is such zee smart ass.
“What is it you vant… I mean want?” He corrected himself and shot Tim a look that said Don’t even.
“I’m supposed to interview an old person for school. Remember?”
“Of course I remember,” he lied. “And we prefer zee term, senior citizen.” In spite of all the teasing, he liked the kid. He was a good boy. Kept his nose clean. Good with his studies. Never missed a Saturday as long as the yard was dry. “And What’s with the constant knockink? You’re not five anymore.”
“I was afraid you were sleeping again.”
“I am older than dirt. Of course, I was napping. I’m practicink for when I’m dead.”
“Geez. What’s with you today?”
“Nothing. Come in. Come in.” He moved out of the way, and Tim breezed in like he owned the place, just like he’d been doing since Tim was ten and moved in next door with his mother. Tim went into the kitchen and opened the fridge.
“You want a soda?” Tim called to him.
“No. I want to go back to my nap,” the old man grumbled, but secretly he was glad for the company. Tim ignored his standard grouchy old man response and walked in carrying two cans of Dr. Pepper.
“You’re going to need this to keep you awake.” The old man took the can and set it down on a coaster next to his favorite chair without argument.
“Let’s get zis over,” the old man said, taking a sip. It burned. Truth be told he had never acquired a taste for American soft drinks. He only bought them for the kid because his mother wouldn’t let him have them.
Tim plopped down on the couch next to old man’s chair.
“I hope you have an interesting story to tell. This paper is a big part of my grade. I need something good. Jackson Parks is interviewing a retired CEO from some big software company. His senior citizen used to date a supermodel.”
“Bah, supermodels. That’s not so interesting. My story is much better.” Tim raised an eyebrow at him like he always did when he suspected the old man of fibbing.
“I tell zee truth. My life has been more interesting than most.”
“How much of this interesting life can you remember?” Tim smirked. The old man mocked offense.
“I am going to be as you say, straight with you,” the old man said. Tim rolled his eyes and sat back. “A person’s memory is a funny thing. I forget a lot these days. I admit it to you. I can not remember names, and I lose things: keys, wallet, car.” At this, Tim shot him a look of shocked concern and the old man put up a hand to silence him. “You think I should be in a retirement home?”
“I think you should get a cell phone and give me your number,” Tim said, taking a big swig of Dr. Pepper.
“Perhaps,” the old man said with a shrug. “Anyway, I may not remember much these days, but zee early days of the war are still vivid in my mind.” He took a long, bony finger and tapped his temple.
“Wait,” Tim said. “You were in a war? Which one? Was it World War I or World War II?”
“I’m not old enough for zee Great War, and even I’m not old enough to have fought in World War II. Those people are all dead, but I lived it. I was a child in zee war.”
“Well,” said Tim looking a little crestfallen. “I suppose that’s something.”
“That’s somethink, says Mr. Smartypants.” Tim crossed his arms ready for a lecture. “Shouldn’t you be taking notes or somethink.”
“I’ve got it all right up here,” said Tim, tapping his temple with mock exaggeration.
The old man threw his hands in the air and took a deep breath.
“Ugh. You are hopeless. I will just begin. Zee day my father left is vibrant in my memory. Like your face in front of me now. He looked handsome in his crisp new Red Army uniform. It was tan with a red collar and black piping. I felt so much pride.” The old man balled his wrinkled hands and patted his chest with all the bravado he could muster. “My father seemed such a man to me, but he was only twenty-four. In my simple understanding, I thought he would return in few days after shooting at some hill or other in a kind of grown-up game. How could Hitler’s army win against a country so vast and full of brave young men?”
“Wait. Who was the Red Army? What country are we talking about?”
“Ugh, zis is going to take forever if you keep with the interrupting. I was born in Russia.”
“Then how is your last name Meyer. And isn’t that a German accent?”
“How does a Russian end up with a German name?”
“Shuten up and listen and I will tell you.”
“Sorry, geez. Why are old people so cranky?”
“On that day,” the old man continued, “I didn’t hug my father at zee train station because I wanted to be more like a man. I saluted him instead, and he smiled at me and winked the way he always did when I had done something to make him proud. Then his smile faded, and he dropped down on his knees and kissed both my cheeks and squeezed me so tight I think my breath would leaven me and I was so surprised I forgot all about being a man and put my arms around him and buried my head on his chest like a tiny boy. I can still remember the smell his uniform and the sound of his voice saying, Take care of your mother, and I can see him waving from the train until it blurred into zee distance. It was the last time I saw him. I don’t know where he died. I just know he did.”
The old man heard Tim suck in his breath and he thought he saw Tim’s lower lip quiver for a split second.
“I thought your dad was an antique dealer from Albuquerque.”
“That was zee man who raised me, and he wasn’t originally from Albuquerque,” the old man said with a conspiratorial wink. “Now, you could say my mother died of a broken heart, a mere six months later, but starvation played its part. She gave me everything we had and lay dying as people evacuated zee city, too weak to move. She urged me, begged for me to go and follow zee crowd in the hope that someone would bestow kindness on an orphan and take me to safety, but I lingered all day by her side and found myself left behind.” A tear burned the old man’s cheek. He could still picture her lying on that thin mattress on the floor of their old brick krushchyovka so long ago. Tim didn’t say a word.
“I walked out into zee street. The Bakeries were empty, zee hat shops, and even zee butchers. As I walked on, I found so many places burnt. I felt hopeless, and I think to myself I am going to die. I wanted to go back to my mother, but I was afraid to upset her if she was still alive, and I feared to see her if she was not. So I tell myself, let her think I lived. Let her be happy in this, and I sat down in the snow and started to cry. As I sat there with my head on my knees, a dog walked up and licked me on the ear. I looked up into his soft brown eyes, and I swear they were almost human in their intelligence. He appeared healthy despite the starvation everywhere. The dog’s tail wagged with delight at finding a friend, and I say to myself, maybe this is a good sign. He nudged my face, and behind him, I could see the Catherine Palace standing like a beacon in zee distance. Sometimes, I think God himself sent the dog to me. I named him Dozor. In Russian, that means to watch over, and he lived up to zee name many times.” The old man gently patted his chest with his hand.
“You believe God sent you a dog?”
“God has done much bigger things than zis. Why not send me a dog? Why won’t you believe in God?”
Tim looked down at his shoes like he was still ten instead of seventeen. “I dunno. If he’s up there, why didn’t he save my dad?” The old man reached out and patted Tim’s arm.
“I do not pretend to know the will of God, but if you listen to my story, by zee end maybe it will be easier to believe.”
“Why does it matter to you so much for me to believe?”
“Because I can’t go to my grave in peace knowing that the obnoxious boy next door will not get to see me again one day to disrupt my death as much as he did mine life.”
Tim smiled a wry smile.
“Anyway, back to my story, my heart felt full at having such happy company, and I decided zee Palace was the safest place. I set my mind to going there. I do not know why looking back. It seems an odd thing to do. I just had this intuition I needed to go there. I’d spent my whole childhood living in zee shadow of this place and yet I had never seen the inside, so I stood up and marched through the snow with determination. It didn’t look like so far to go, but it took me at least an hour to get there. When I reached zee gate, it stood wide open almost as if to invite me inside, so Dozor and I walked right onto the grounds. It was beautiful. I could scarcely take it all in. It reminded me of stories my Granddad Zharkov used to tell about the summer he spent as a guard there.”
“I opened zee front door and then, Dozor and I slipped inside. A few embers still burned in zee grand fireplace. Beauty was everywhere. The furniture was like nothing I’d ever seen. We’d found an oasis, so Dozor and I made it our home. We found some old forgotten jars in an abandoned fruit cellar, and that sustained us until the Nazis invaded and pillaged the land like locusts: it was on this day that zee famed Amber Room was dismantled and taken away.”
“Amber Room? How do you steal a room,” Tim interjected.
“It was a series of wall panels made of Amber. They filled the room with mirrors and chandeliers, and zee result was breathtaking. I still remember its magnificience and the flood upon the senses the first time that I lay eyes on it. Men hailed it as zee eighth wonder of the world. It had a mystical element, the kind you attribute to unicorns and fairies if such things existed.”
“If it was the eighth wonder of the world, how come I’ve never heard of it?” Tim asked leaning in with interest.
“Because the schools these days don’t teach you about zee really significant things,” the old man said. Tim nodded in agreement.
“The world is still a scary place my friend. The Nazis have been replaced with Isis and terrorism. The world needs all zee beauty one can find, so I will tell you a story I have never told another living soul. It is a story I intended to take to my grave, but I will share it with you because you need to hear it, and it will be a much better story than any CEO dating zee supermodels.” Tim cracked a smile.
“For it all to make sense, I need to go back to zee beginning. It all started in the winter of 1938, what would later be termed “That Fateful Year.” It’s the story of a great treasure, yes, but it’s also the story of love and sacrifice in the face of incredible odds.”