Brian sat on the train with his sons, friends, family and David Abrams. He still wasn’t sure how he’d introduce David, but it shouldn’t be too hard. Not as hard as Alexander bringing home a Croatian Romani wife. Brian watched the two of them as they tried to talk to one another. She was so feral. She reminded him of Wild Girl. Brian thought about the story Alexander had told them on board the ship.
Alexander had found her in the concentration camps. He’d been with the Red Cross when they helped the local partisans liberate Stara Gradiška concentration camp in Croatia. She’d been sitting amongst survivors as the Red Cross began to register people. Alexander walked past, and he heard something behind him howl. He thought at first that it was a dog. Turing around, he saw an emaciated woman being constrained by two aide workers. Her intense pale green eyes stood out against the stark starved face and shaved head. He turned back to help and when he reached them, the young woman literally leapt into his arms. She’d been the one howling and as he held her, his nose told him why. She was a shifter.
He’d spent the next hour trying to calm her down along with the aid workers and the other survivors. His knowledge of Croatian was almost nil. She spoke a little Russian and German. It took a third person to help them talk, which made some topics off the agenda. It was apparent that some of the survivors were afraid of her.
“What is her name?” he asked the aid worker translating for him. They had moved away from the registration tables and were sitting in a quiet tent.
The aid worker asked a question in Russian and she replied. “She says her name is Jelka Ruv. She’s a Romani, Cigan, a gypsy. Says she is afraid, but feels safe with you Aleksandr,” he said in his heavily accented English.
“Why me?” Alexander asked. He was certain of the answer, but he needed a reason to have her clinging to him that the aid worker would accept. He hoped the girl could provide one.
The aid worker talked to her again. The conversation took nearly five minutes. Finally, the man sighed and turned back to Alexander. “This makes no sense. She says you are a shepherd, a protector and that she will always be safe with you. That you are ‘her kind’. I may have misunderstood her there, but she thinks that you are somehow like her.”
Alexander thought about it for a moment. “Ah, Shepherd… priest. Maybe she thinks that being a ‘holy man’ makes me safer. As for being her kind? I’m not sure what that means. Will it be okay if we let her stay near to me? I don’t mind,” said Alexander.
“No, I don’t see problem. Others have their ducklings,” the man said. He pointed to other aid workers who had children or adults following them around. The people had been so deprived, that any kindness or affection was lapped up like water. Alexander nodded. They filled out Jelka’s paperwork and then he went back to working in the camp.
Jelka wouldn’t let Alexander leave her sight. He’d tried to show her that it was okay to shift and leave. He encouraged it. However, after a tearful morning when he’d tried to get her to go with some of the other refugees to a city, he gave up. He found his Russian friend and they sat and talked. Or rather, Alexander listened while the two of them talked. At one point, she stood up and pointed over to where the Red Cross knew there were a series of mass graves. They had added to them when they first arrived. After twenty minutes, Jelka crossed her arms and turned her back on the man.
“Sergei, what’s going on? I couldn’t catch even a quarter of that,” Alexander said.
“Aleksandr, she said if she wanted to die, she could have stayed here. She doesn’t want to go to the cities. Said she didn’t belong. Her kind didn’t belong in cities. I guess she means Romany. I don’t know. I explained she should go find her family. She said they were all dead. Shot by the camp guards. That is why she pointed to the graves. She kept repeating that you were her people and that she had to go with you. So, take her with you. No one will care. She is a lost person. No citizen. Take her. Better she go with you than die here,” Sergei said.
“Die here?” asked Alexander.
“Da! She says if you leave her, she will curl up ‘nose to tail’ and die. I don’t understand that, but it is how she said it,” said Sergei.
Alexander knew exactly what she meant by ‘nose to tail’. She’d starve herself to death rather than go into the city. He sighed, thanked Sergei for his help and held out his hand to Jelka.
Alexander had no trouble with Jelka until he reached France. It wasn’t the tons of paperwork or the disorganization of Europe in general. He’d even gotten the paperwork done so that he was her guardian and soon to be husband. That last bit bothered him a little, because he had no idea if she even thought of him in that manner. However, it was the easiest way to move the two of them from point A to point B. Leaving her behind was not an option, nor was he going to stay in Europe.
The issue was the boat. Jelka was certain that she was going to die. She was afraid of the water. Alexander had pleaded with her. Coaxed her. Done everything he could think of to get her on board except to knock her out. They were standing at the dock side of the gangplank when Alexander heard a familiar voice.
“Alex! Is that you?” hollered Petite Luc, one of Brian and Natalie’s nephews.
“Luc! Damn it’s good to see you!” Alexander said as the two men hugged.
“Why for you stand here?” Luc asked.
“My… my wife, she is afraid to get on the ship. Afraid of the water,” said Alexander quietly. He knew the purser was looking for an excuse to pull up the gangplank and was frantic.
“Well, maybe the two of us can get her to go on board,” said Luc. “Introduce me.”
Alexander introduced Petite Luc to Jelka. Luc kissed her hand and then turned back to Alexander.
“Where did you find?” he started. He’d smelled wolf in women’s clothing and was puzzled.
“Shush! I’ll tell you later. Too many people. How do I get her on the ship?” Alexander asked almost in a hiss.
“Growl at her. Shift your eyes. Be a dominant bastard,” Luc said quietly. He’d had to use the same tricks on his wife Tilly, to get her to go to Canada years ago and she wasn’t even a shifter.
Alexander blinked. Turned to Jelka, and let the sub-vocals creep into his voice. She flinched, her eyes went a little yellow, and then taking his hand, they went up the gangplank.
Everyone had met up in Halifax. Pier 21 was the gateway for every troop ship, immigrant ship and supply ship on the Atlantic side of Canada. Brian, David Abrams, and others were shunted from ships to docks to warehouses to hotels and then on to trains as each group sorted themselves out in order to reach home. Jacques and Petite Luc had found each other in a food line which brought Alexander and Jelka into the group as well. Once again, paperwork, red tape and the sheer mass of people trying to leave Halifax made waiting an art form.
Finally, a truck had taken men to a train heading west to Alberta and British Columbia. Brian, had grabbed tickets for everyone and they scrambled for seats. Jelka perched on Alexander’s lap for the first two hours and Jacques, Petite Luc and others had sat on the floor. No one wanted to be the last one home.
“Aleksandr, we home soon?” Jelka whispered in Alexander’s ear.
“Aye. Home soon,” he said. He’d started teaching her English a few days before they left the camp in Croatia. There were still huge gaps in their ability to communicate, but it was improving.
“Aleksandr, Brian is Ruv?” she asked pointing at Brian Davy.
“Aye, Wolf. As is Jacques, Henry, Petite Luc and others,” Alexander said quietly pointing at various men.
“Doktor David is?” she asked pointing at Dr. Abrams.
“Old. We don’t know,” he said.
She nodded. “Old. Vilenjak.”
“Vilenjak?” he asked not understanding what she was saying.
“Spiriduş, elf?” she said trying first in Romanian and then German.
“Not sure,” he said and left it at that. No one knew what the doctor was, and he wasn’t telling.
They rode through cities and towns. Quebec, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina. At each station, men got off. Brian and David Abrams kept their group together. Jacques and Petite Luc would grab food and water and sometimes tea at the various stops. At Calgary, they switched trains for Lethbridge. No one knew they were coming home. Letters wouldn’t have reached home soon enough and as for telephones, not one of the men knew if there were phones in the village or what the numbers might be.
In Lethbridge, they got a farmer to carry them as far as Sparwood and then they started walking. Some of the men moved off to one side, and shifted. Their friends wrapped their clothing up and made packs or bundles for the wolves to carry. Jacques and Henry looked at Brian.
“Oh hurry up and go. Jus don’ you dare let Natalie know I come home. You do, I take you back to Italy,” he laughed. He and a few others continued to walk. It wouldn’t be fair to leave David Abrams behind.
A little while after the men shifted and ran off into the dark, a truck came down the road. As the men stepped off, it stopped. Jacques stuck his head out of the cab and smiled. Everyone climbed into the back and the truck turned around. Jacques stopped the truck next to the lumber mill he had taken it from and let everyone out to quietly head home.
Brian stood on the road in front of his cabin. It had been ages since he’d left home. 1939. Now it was half way through the summer of 1945. He remembered the night he came home from the Great War. The cold, the smell of woodsmoke in the air and the sight of Natalie in wolf form on their front porch.
It was nearly midnight, but there was a light burning in the kitchen window. He watched to see who was up. All he could see were a few shadows. As he moved closer, he was overwhelmed by the scents of home. Family, herbs, and Natalie. He dropped his gear on the front porch and quietly knocked. After so long, he had no idea who else was living in the house. He waited as someone came to the door.
Natalie was up with one of the babies. Always they fell asleep for her, but not their mothers. She was tired. Summer fevers. Broken limbs, scrapes and scratches. There was a quiet knock on the door, and she handed Bertie to Marie who’d kept her company ever since the war had ended. No one knew if or when their men would come home. The silence since the end of the war had been worse than ever.
Natalie opened the door and couldn’t see who stood in the shadows. So many strangers had ended up at her door that she no longer worried what time it was.
“Hello? Can I help you?” she asked.
“Aye,” said Brian as he walked into the cabin.
“Brian!” Natalie cried as she leapt into his arms.