by Bill Kowaleski
Why does God visit such peace on some people, and such pain on others? This is, for me, the central mystery. When we escaped the terrible civil war in my home country and gained asylum in America, I thought we had bought a lifetime of peace. We worked hard to gain our citizenship, to find honorable work, and to begin a family. We did everything right, but then God gave us a gift that perhaps He did not understand would bring us a new kind of pain.
Our gift was Andrew, a beautiful boy, healthy and perfect in every way. My wife, Alyssa, had few difficulties, even a natural childbirth. I, John — an Americanization of my original given name — felt I must be the happiest building supervisor in Chicago. My tenants were happy for us, too, all giving us small gifts from their modest means. It was a good building, not in the richest part of the city, but everyone was kind to us, and we returned the favor by doing everything we could to keep their water running and their heat working.
We were sure that God was favoring us at last, and we were very grateful in our prayers. Andrew grew quickly, speaking and walking much earlier than most boys. Even as an infant he looked wise and, as he grew, he seemed to know things that we had thought needed to be taught. For three years he was nothing but a blessing but, in his fourth year, he became more self-confident, less dependent on us, and then our troubles began.
We were in the grocery store nearest our building when I heard Mrs. Begic’s voice rising angrily from the next aisle. At that time, she lived on the third floor with her new husband. They were most surely an attractive couple: she, with her perfect figure, unmarred by childbirth and he, with his handsome face. Now I was hearing Andrew’s high-pitched voice shouting back at her. We both hurried to the next aisle in time to see her grasping him by his coat collar, shaking vigorously.
“What are you doing to my son?” I shouted at her.
“He has no business snooping into my affairs. He makes lying accusations and mocks me. What kind of a child are you raising?”
She let Andrew go and he ran to us shouting breathlessly, “She takes her clothes off and lies down on the couch with that man who tells her what to do in her office. He gives her money!”
“Andrew!” Alyssa said, her eyes wide with shock. “What are you saying? Where did you learn such terrible things? You are watching too much television.”
“No, no momma! I can see it in her eyes. She can’t hide it from me. I know it’s true.”
Alyssa spoke in her deepest, most authoritative voice. “You will stop speaking this nonsense and apologize right now!”
Andrew looked down, sighed and said, “I apologize for telling everybody your secrets.”
This was hardly satisfactory, but given the public nature of the incident, Mrs. Begic seemed happy just to have it end. Later, as we sat at dinner, there was a knock on our door, and Mrs. Begic asked to speak to us.
“Andrew, go to your room,” said Alyssa. He walked slowly away without a word.
Marisa, as Mrs. Begic was called, sat at the table and said softly, “I am sorry that you must find out about this. We are very poor and now Drago is out of work. There is no other way we can pay the rent and feed ourselves. But how could your son find these things out? They happen at the office I work at, never at home. Who could have told him these things?” She looked at us with suspicion in her eyes.
“I swear to you, Marisa,” I said, “we knew nothing of this and will say not a word to anyone. We have all lived through a lot and know that at times people must do difficult things to survive. I do not judge you and am deeply ashamed by my son’s behavior. He claims he found this out from you, yet I know you would never tell him. How can this be?”
Alyssa said, “It is a mystery. We will watch him more closely now. Something about him is different, but what it is...” She turned out her palms and tilted her head in a gesture of not knowing.
Only two days later it happened again. As I was fixing a leak in a second-floor apartment, I heard Andrew’s voice in the stairway and then the voice of that young man on the third floor, Jason. He isn’t from our homeland, unlike many of the other residents, and we never see him with anybody but handsome young men. But we do not judge people in our adopted land. It is for us to adapt.
“You little prick, shut up and leave me alone!” I heard Jason shout at him.
I rushed out in the hall. Jason saw me from above and shouted, “Your son is spying on me, John. You need to teach him to mind his own business.”
Andrew was defiant. “Why does he put on those funny clothes?”
“What is this kid doing, snooping through some peephole in my apartment?”
I rushed upstairs putting my finger to my lips. “Please, Mr. Young, I don’t want any trouble here. He is finding out all kinds of things about the tenants, and I don’t know how he does it. It is very upsetting to me, too. I don’t judge you and I never speak badly about you in our home. Please understand.”
I dragged Andrew by his arm back into our apartment and asked him, “What do you mean by funny clothes? Where did you see this?”
“Dadda, he thinks about it and I can see it too. Can’t you do that?”
“What do you mean?”
“I was playing with my truck by his door, and then he was there just behind the door, and he was thinking about these funny black pants made of something he calls leather. So I knocked on the door and asked him to show them to me.”
It was too confusing. God works in ways we cannot understand, but what could our son be seeing? Later that evening, old Mrs. Mehmed knocked on our door. She had lived in the same apartment since we had first arrived, and had been very helpful when we were first learning how to live in America. We were very grateful, and always treated her with the highest respect. There was little if anything that happened in the building that she was unaware of. Her husband had been brutally murdered in the war, lined up in a ditch by a rogue Serbian militia, shot, and then buried by a bulldozer along with dozens of other men. Those are the kinds of things we are trying every day to forget.
Although she was in her sixties, she was a trim woman with very good posture, always well-dressed in modest clothes that covered her legs and arms, and wearing no make-up. She did not cover her head so as not to draw too much attention, and her straight, silver and black hair framed her wise face. She sat down at our kitchen table while Alyssa prepared tea. At first she said nothing and we sat smiling at each other. Then, in a whisper she began.
“I grew up in a village only eight kilometers from yours, and yet our families never knew each other.”
She reminded us of this almost every time we talked, and we were patient with it. After all, it was an astounding coincidence that we first met so many thousands of kilometers from where we both grew up.
“In our village, and in yours also, there were what we called devil children. They used to say that it was in the blood of the people who lived just in that small part of our homeland, in a few villages. It is not common, but every few years one of these children is born, even today. They can speak with the devil, and the devil tells them the secrets of others. Some were killed, others were clever and learned to use their relationship with the devil to become wealthy. Mr. Kulenovic, you remember him? He owned much of the land between our villages. He had been a devil child.
“I’ve heard what’s been going on, that Andrew knows things about others that he could not possibly know, secrets that people tell no one. There is only one possible explanation: he is a devil child!” This last part she spoke in a rising voice, hissing the words “devil child” loudly.
“We heard about such children in the village, but we thought it was just some folk tale,” I said. “But if it is true, what then can be done? He is our son, and we love him. We will not allow him to be hurt.”
“He must be trained to use his power wisely. You must accept that it is real and teach him to use it for good, not to hurt others. I can help you with this. Call him into the room and I will explain this to him.”
We looked at each other, not sure what to do. But we trusted Mrs. Mehmed, and so Alyssa nodded, and after a moment, I agreed.
“Andrew,” I called, “please come into the kitchen and say hello to Mrs. Mehmed.”
He walked slowly in, his eyes darting from mine, to Alyssa’s, to Mrs. Mehmed’s. “I know what you want to do, and I know Mrs. Mehmed wants to help me. I don’t like hearing all these things about people, so it’s OK.”
And so Andrew began spending time every day with Mrs. Mehmed. He was definitely happier, and there were no more incidents like the ones with Mr. Young or Mrs. Begic. But maybe a month after he started visiting with Mrs. Mehmed, she came to our apartment with disturbing news.
“I promised I would not share the secrets of others, but he has found out something that threatens us all. I must tell you.”
“Yes, please do,” said Alyssa.
“Drago Begic has started selling drugs from his apartment. They are small packets of white powder. Andrew knows how much money he gets for them, who sells the drugs to him, who his customers are. What should we do?”
This was a very frightening situation. I imagined late-night shoot-outs in our hallways, dangerous people coming into our building at all hours threatening our children. If we went to the police and they did not act forcefully, Drago could take revenge on us. Perhaps even if Drago was arrested, his criminal partners might attack us. I was not sure what to do, but thought perhaps, as a fellow countryman, Drago would listen to me, would take his operation somewhere else if I had a man to man talk with him, and so I proposed this course of action to Alyssa and Mrs. Mehmed.
“But why not go to the police? How would Drago know you had talked to them? Would they be so foolish as to tell him?” Alyssa suggested.
“Yes, they are that foolish! Believe me, they are not to be trusted,” Mrs. Mehmed said in her harsh whisper.
Our experience with police in our mother country had never been very good. We rarely saw them in the villages but, when we went to the larger cities, they would recognize that we were country people and harass us until we gave them a little money. No, the police did not seem like a good alternative to me. So we decided that I should try talking to Drago and hopefully convince him to stop using our building as his place of business.
I have to admit, the prospect of confronting Drago was an unpleasant one, and I delayed for many days. This turned out to be an unfortunate mistake. Late one evening, there was the sudden sound of many people shouting, and then came a loud crash from the hallway. I rushed out in time to see many policemen in helmets, holding shields, crashing down the door to Drago and Marisa’s apartment.
I stood there in terror listening to loud voices, and in less than five minutes they were leading Drago down the stairs, right past me. He looked in my eyes and shouted, “It was your devil child that told the police about me! That monster must be destroyed!”
I was too shocked to respond. Could it be true? As they pushed Drago into the police car, I rushed back inside and found Andrew in his bedroom.
“Did you tell anyone beside Mrs. Mehmed about Drago and those packets of white powder, Andrew?”
“Oh, no! Mrs. Mehmed made me promise never to do that. But now they got Drago. All those police! They smashed his door! Cool!”
“Do you know who told on Drago?”
“I promised Mrs. Mehmed I wouldn’t ever tell anything that the devil told me, except to her.”
“But do you know? Can you at least tell me that?”
“No, I can only tell Mrs. Mehmed.”
We walked upstairs to her apartment. She let us in, locked the door behind her and said, “Now there is a problem. Drago’s partners in the drug business think that Andrew turned him in. But I know that it was one of his own partners that did it, so that he could get a bigger territory. Andrew told me, and it makes perfect sense; it happens all the time. Andrew makes a very convenient scapegoat. They can blame him and avoid considering the unpleasant possibility of a traitor in their midst. Now Andrew is in real danger. We may need to take him somewhere.”
“Will they kill him?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. They will kidnap him and use him to find out the truth about the people they do business with, whether they are being honest, whether they are police informants. Imagine how useful he could be to them!”
And it was all too easy to imagine. But where could we go? Both Alyssa and I worked full time for the other tenants. We had never even taken a vacation. I felt helpless, but then Mrs. Mehmed made a suggestion.
“I have nothing important to do here. I could take him to my daughter’s home in Wisconsin. They live in a small town, and he should be safe there. I could stay with him and keep up his instructions.”
“Let us discuss this, Mrs. Mehmed, it might be a good idea, but we must be in full agreement.” I looked at Alyssa and she nodded.
“Of course, but please do act quickly.”
After she left, we gave the idea a lot of thought. While we trusted Mrs. Mehmed, Andrew was our only son, and we did not like at all the idea of leaving him with others, especially Mrs. Mehmed’s daughter, whom we had never met. And Wisconsin seemed so far away for us; we had no car, and no real knowledge of American geography. We looked at a map and felt somewhat reassured that it was just the next state to the north, but we went to bed still undecided.
Copyright © 2018 by Bill Kowaleski