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Hartford, Connecticut, May 25, 1989
You can’t want something you don’t know. That’s what Uncle Vojtech said when he found out about my letter.
But what Uncle said was usually different from what he meant. He always had these crazy sayings I had to hear twice — first in his native language, Czech, and then again in his broken English and the meaning usually got lost in the translation.
For example, the time he said: You look like a Christmas Tree, to the lady in the grocery store, what he meant was: you are carrying too many things, here let me help you. But she didn’t get that and I was the one who had to apologize and try to stop the store manager from throwing us out.
And when he said, I have a small monkey on my back, to the officer who had pulled him over for driving too slowly (yes slowly), what he really meant was, I’m okay, I just drank too much plum brandy last night. That took a lot of explaining on my part, too. Especially with Uncle going pale and showing the officer his U.S. passport which the officer did not want to see.
But this time, I worried Vojtech’s words were exactly right. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent that letter to my father. Maybe I didn’t know what I wanted.
“Words, Petra,” he’d say when people gave him funny looks. “This English words make no sense.”
Now, as we sit in this dark courtroom, Uncle Vojtech is speechless.
He is hunched over his rosary beads, eyes closed, bushy white eyebrows rising and falling with each breath that rattles inside his chest. I watch his lips move. I don’t have to hear him to know what he’s saying: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be. We have said them, in the Czech language, every night since I was four. Every night since I came to America.
I did the math one day. That’s 3,168 Our Fathers and 31,680 Hail Mary’s and along with each prayer, I made a wish. To go home. To return to Prague, the place I was born but could not remember. To find my real family.
Every night Vojtech tucked me in after prayers. And every morning I woke without my wish coming true.
Bang. Bang. Bang. I jumped.
At the front of the courtroom, a man in a black uniform slammed a wooden hammer on a table. “All rise,” he bellowed.
Everyone stood so I did, too. I was surprised how many people had entered the courtroom while I had watched Uncle pray. I helped Vojtech to his feet.
“Oyez, oyez, oyez, the Federal Court for the District of Hartford, Connecticut, is open and in session. The Honorable Kathleen Fitzgerald presiding.” A woman in a long black robe appeared from behind a wood panel.
“Good morning, your honor.” The uniformed man said.
“Good morning. Our first matter today is the matter of Petra Czech a.k.a Petra Vyborny.”
“What is this a.k.a.?” Uncle whispered a little too loudly.
“I think it means, also known as.”
The uniformed man’s eyes were on me. I bit the inside of my cheek. Uncle began to pray, again.
The uniformed man motioned for me to come up front. He pointed to a chair next to the judge.
“I’m going to ask you some questions, Miss Vyborny. Don’t be nervous. Just make sure you answer into that microphone so the court reporter can record what you are saying.”
I nodded, bristling at the name, Vyborny. The name I had only learned about a couple months ago. Until now I have only been, and only known, Petra Czech.
“The microphone can’t pick up a nod so make sure you answer out loud.”
I leaned into the microphone. “Yes—yes, ma’am.”
“Hold old are you, Miss Vyborny?” the judge asked.
“I-I’m thirteen. I’ll be fourteen on November 3.”
“And according to your affidavit, you were brought to the United States against your will when you were four years old, is that right.”
The judge held a finger to her ear.
“Y-yes. Yes,” I said.
“And you have been living with an Uncle. Vojtech Czech?”
Uncle whimpered but I kept my eyes focused on the judge.
“But your father is still living in Prague, Czechoslovakia and you wish to return to your homeland to live with your father. And to do that, you, with the help of an attorney, filed this petition for voluntary removal. Is that correct?”
The judge turned to a woman sitting at a large desk. “Does the government wish to be heard?”
The woman wore a thin, black suit. Her sleek black hair was pulled in a tight ponytail. She stood, putting on glasses. “For the record, Attorney Ann Guillet for the government. Yes, your honor, you have summarized the proceeding here today. Miss Vyborny or Vybornova as she would be called in Czechoslovakia, was brought to the U.S. by her uncle, Vojtech Czech, with a counterfeit passport. Unbeknownst to her, she has been going under the fake name of Petra Czech for the almost nine years she has resided here. The Department of Children and Families conducted an investigation when they were alerted by our office, and it appears that Mr. Czech took excellent care of Miss Vyborny, well…besides lying to her about her identity and the fact that her biological father was not deceased as he had led her to believe. We are not exactly clear how Mr. Vyborny discovered his daughter was living here in Connecticut, but when he did, the Czech government contacted us and we in turn contacted Miss Vyborny.”
The attorney removed her glasses and looked at me. “I have spoken at length with Miss Vyborny and it is my belief that she is voluntarily and willingly making the choice to return to Prague to be with her biological father. Since all sides are in agreement that Miss Vyborny is in fact a citizen of Czechoslovakia and not the U.S., by filing for voluntary removal, it is the government’s belief that things will be made right.”
“It no right! She is child! She no understand what she do!” Uncle Vojtech leaned over the bench in front of him. Wheezing.
The judge banged the gavel. “Be seated, sir, or I will have you removed!” A marshal moved closer to Uncle.
“I understand there has been direct communication with the father?” the judge said.
The attorney held up a piece of paper. “Yes, through the American Embassy in Prague we were able to get in touch with Mr. Zdenek Vyborny who indicates that his daughter was taken from him without his knowledge by his, now deceased, ex-wife. That his then, ex-wife had sent their daughter off with her uncle, Vojtech Czech without his knowledge or consent and that he wishes for her safe return.” The attorney fixed her gaze on me. “Apparently,” she said. “He’s been looking for her all these years.”
My heart fluttered.
“What does the father do for work?” the judge asked.
The attorney rifled through some papers. “He is an interpreter for the Czechoslovak government.” She looked the judge square in the eye. “He works for Prime Minister Adamac.”
Uncle wept loudly.
The judge covered her face with both hands and breathed loudly through her fingers. Then she turned to me. “Miss Vyborny,” she said.
I had to remind myself, again, that she was talking to me. My head was going all foggy as I watched Vojtech peek through his own fingers to witness the final granting of my every-night wish. Pain crept across his face.
I turned back to the judge, my heart beating in my ears.
“You understand that Czechoslovakia is behind the Iron Curtain? You understand that it is controlled by Soviet Union? You will not be able to come back once you return. You may not even be able to call or write to your uncle.”
Words bunched in my throat as my eyes flicked between the judge and Vojtech. He has his friends, the Professor and Amalka and everyone else at the barbershop, I thought. They will take care of him.
I turned toward the government attorney. She was staring at me with a funny look. I thought maybe she looked impressed…or concerned. Her words still lingered in my brain, Apparently, he’s been looking for her all these years.
I thought of the lies Vojtech had fed me all these years, along with his potato pancakes and halushki. Lies about how my father was dead. Lies about how we only had each other.
“Yes,” I said. “I understand everything.” I stared at my hands. “I want to go home.”
Vojtech’s weeping became louder.
The judge got a serious look on her face. Her gaze moved from the government attorney to Uncle. Then she turned toward me. “On the basis of the representations provided by the government and the testimony of the petitioner, I will grant your petition for voluntary removal, Miss Vyborny.”
I stood up. I needed to get out of there. Now.
“Miss Vyborny,” the judge said. “You must exit the United States within the next forty-eight hours.” Then she leaned forward and stared hard at me. “I hope you know what you’re doing, young lady.”
So did I.
Ruby in the Sky began with a memory of my brother and I handfeeding chickadees after school each day at the vacant house down the road. The story went that the man who had once lived there had such a special bond with wildlife that he slept in the woods surrounding his home. So began the mystery spinning in my head – why would someone who had a perfectly fine house to live in, insist on sleeping outside? It was from this memory that Abigail Jacobs was conjured.
Abigail Jacobs is a wholly fictional character and the Apollo 11 mission did not occur like the scene depicted in this story. Nevertheless, many women played critical roles in Apollo 11. Without these unsung heroes, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins may have never landed on the moon on July 16, 1969.
In my research for this story, I scoured those black and white photographs of ground control – rooms filled with crew-cut men in short-sleeved white shirts and neckties. Where were the women?
That’s when I discovered Margaret Hamilton, one of the first software computer engineers who worked for NASA. The more I learned about her, the more I wondered what it must have been like for a woman in the early 1960s to play such a pivotal role in history, and yet never be recognized as her male counterparts were.
Abigail Jacobs is not Margaret Hamilton. Nevertheless, I believe they shared the same enterprising spirit that allowed these pioneering women to take risks at a time when women were discouraged from pursuing work in fields historically labeled as for “men only.”
I hope my story is a reminder that being brave can mean different things to different people and that bravery comes in all shapes and sizes.
Books and Resources Relied on in Writing Ruby in the Sky
Collins, Michael, Carrying the Fire, An Astronaut’s Journey, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1974).
Collins, Michael, Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1994).
Rothman, Lily, Remembering the Apollo 11 Moon Landing with the Women Who Made it
Happen, Time Magazine (July 20, 2015).
Schyffert, Bea Uusma, The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon, Chronicle Books
Friend, Robyn C., The Women of Apollo, Cascade Press, (2007).
Stone, Tanya Lee, Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, Candlewick (2009).
Howard, Sarah, Mischief at Michoud, Tate Publishing (2013).
Holt, Nathalia, Rise of the Rocket Girls, The Women who Propelled us from Missiles to the
Moon to Mars, Little Brown & Company (2016).
Morgan, George D., Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist, Prometheus Books (2013).
People disappear all the time. Sometimes you see their faces on the Internet or plastered across the backs of tractor trailers. Sometimes they stare from posters as you stand in line at Walmart. Sometimes, when they’ve been gone a long time, an artist can draw their face the way they probably look now, so you can recognize them when you see them again.
Sometimes people are there, then poof, like a magic trick, they’re gone.
On that first Saturday after we moved to Fortin, when I watched my mom handcuffed and placed in the back of a police cruiser, that’s what I thought about. People disappearing.
I’d just handed Mom the tape to seal the drafty windows of our latest “forever home” when Bob Van Doodle barked. We peered outside as the cruiser fishtailed up our unplowed driveway. Mom dropped the tape.
“He must be here about my complaint,” she said. “He must have questions. Or paperwork. Remember how Dad hated paperwork?” She pressed her necklace’s moon charm against her lips.
The officer raised his hand to knock, but Mom had already opened the door. A blast of frosted air propelled him inside. The door shut. The window rattled. I hugged myself.
“Dahlia Hayes,” he said.
“Yes?” Mom said.
“Ma’am, you have the right to remain silent.” He handed her a paper.
She glanced at it. “But, this isn’t right,” she said in a small voice I’d only heard once before. “I was the one who made the complaint. I was the victim. I spoke with Detective Cain. Did you talk to her?”
“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you by the court.” He removed handcuffs from his belt. “I’m going to need you to come to the station for booking.” His hand hovered above his pistol. “Put your hands behind your back.”
“Booking? For what?” She crossed her arms. “You are not putting those on me.”
“Everything’s on the Arrest Warrant,” he said. “Filing a False Report with a Police Officer is a Class A Misdemeanor. You’re facing up to a year in jail.” He jangled the handcuffs. “I’d prefer we not do this in front of the girl?”
Mom’s laugh was high pitched and forced. “This is ridiculous. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Ma’am if you make this difficult, I’ll add a charge of Resisting Arrest. Your choice.” The officer turned toward me. I read the name plate under his badge. OFFICER PRATTLE. “How old are you?” he asked.
The prickly feeling started then, the way it always did when I had to talk to strangers. It crawled up my arms like an army of ants. It squeezed my throat dry and tight until my words crumbled like sand. I nodded my long, black bangs forward. Small spaces. I breathed. Invisible and safe.
“Ruby’s twelve,” Mom said. “And she’s staying right here.”
Officer Prattle took a deep breath. “Do you have something else to put on?” he asked her. She was wearing Dad’s old Tim McGraw t-shirt and the sweats she’d slept in last night.
“Ruby, hand me my coat.”
My body wouldn’t move.
“Ruby,” she whispered.
I grabbed her coat from the couch and handed it to her. Her arms were covered in goosebumps.
“You need to put your hands behind your back,” the officer said.
Mom made tight fists and, for a second, I worried she’d slug the guy. Instead her hands fell to her sides. The handcuffs clicked.
“Is that too tight?” he asked.
She lowered her head.
“What’s your dog’s name?” the officer asked me.
“Bob Van Doodle.” Mom whispered. “My husband named him.”
“Can someone come for your daughter?”
Mom shook her head violently, then turned toward me, her eyes wide and unfocused. “Call Cecy,” she said.
I lifted Mom’s bathrobe off the chair where she’d left it. I buried my face, breathing in her mango-scented shampoo. Do not cry. Do not cry. Do not cry. Bob retrieved the tape in his mouth and dropped it at my feet. Mom’s words from just before the officer showed up, echoed in my brain.
This is it, Ruby, she’d said. Our true forever home. I can feel it in my bones. She gave me a tight smile then, as if even she didn’t believe what she was saying. We hit a few bumps when we first moved to Myrtle Beach and Avalon, and, well, Orlando, too, but everything worked out in the end.
Only it hadn’t.
Aunt Cecy had lived in Fortin her whole life and felt it was time for my mother to “come home.” Although she was Mom’s sister, she acted more like her mother, not only because of her age, but because, “that’s Cecy for you.” No matter where we had moved over the last two years, Cecy visited. “Just checking to make sure it’s suitable, Dahlia.” Then, she’d turn toward me with a face that looked like she just drank sour milk. “Your mom would have you living in a barn, Ruby, if it weren’t for me.”
Mom would duck behind Cecy, roll her eyes, and pretend to shoot herself in the head with her finger. But, no matter where we were, Mom called her sister every, single day. Now, as I shivered against the chill of our newest “forever home,” I couldn’t help but think that maybe we finally did land in that barn Cecy always talked about.
I dug mom’s TracFone from her robe. Cecy answered on the first ring.
“I found more warm clothes at the Salvation Army,” she said.
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, willing my throat to open.
“Dahlia?” Cecy said.
“Ruby? You sound like you just woke up. Tell your mom I’ll drop off the clothes later or I can meet her at the Chat N’Chew—”
“Cecy, the police were— Mom got arrested.”
“Mom said to call you.” I could almost see her sour milk face.
“You’ve been in Fortin for three days. How—,” Cecy started. I thought I heard her swear under her breath. “You stay put,” she said. “I’ll go to the police station. I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
I started to hang up.
“Ruby!” Cecy’s shrill voice screeched from the phone.
I placed it against my ear.
“If Bob has to go out, keep him on a leash and don’t go in the woods.”
I hugged myself against the cold stillness of the house. Garbage bags, stuffed with whatever we could fit from our last forever home leaned against the wobbly kitchen table and spilled off the lumpy couch. Cecy had stacked kindling and logs next to a wood stove, but Mom couldn’t figure out how to start it. Now, it glared at me like a caged animal, its four iron legs ready to pounce.
Bob leapt up, placing his front paws on the counter. He snagged his leash in his teeth and dragged it clanging across the uneven floorboards toward the front door. He scratched to go out. But I didn’t want to go outside. I wanted to hide under the comforter of my air mattress.
Don’t let me down, Ruby. I’m trusting you to take care of Bob.
I sighed. It couldn’t be much colder outside than it was in this freezer-box. Plus, I knew I’d go crazy sitting here waiting for Cecy to call back.
I dug through my own garbage bag suitcase until I found a pair of jeans and Dad’s old Air & Space Museum sweatshirt. I grabbed my jacket from the couch. But as soon as I stepped outside, it was clear that my Florida clothes weren’t a match for Vermont’s frozen air. It hit me like it was something solid and alive. It pinched my face and made my eyes water. Each breath cut my lungs.
Bob pulled me down Specter Hill Road. The dirt and ice crunched beneath my feet. The smell of wood smoke scratched my throat. It had taken us two days to drive here, but we might as well have traveled to the moon. I could describe Fortin in one word. Gray. Gray sky, gray road, gray smells. Even Aunt Cecy in her short gray hair and glasses. Even Officer Prattle in his tight gray uniform and handcuffs.
Images of Mom getting arrested flashed through my brain. The officer pushing her into the back of the cruiser. The cruiser kicking up snow and dirt as it disappeared onto the road. Of course, with my dad being a cop, it wasn’t like I’d never seen a police car before. Sometimes, Dad would pick me up from school in one. Sitting in its backseat, I felt safe and scared at the same time. I’ve always liked holing up in small spaces, like Bob Van Doodle’s puppy crate. But, the back of a police car is separated by wire and glass and has no inside door handles. You’re not getting out until someone lets you. It must be a mistake, I thought. Mom’s done some pretty crazy stuff, but she would never commit a crime. For once I was glad for Cecy. I knew she’d clear everything up.
I studied the dark forest on either side of me. Cecy didn’t need to tell me to keep out. With each frozen gust, skeleton trees shivered out their own warning: Stay out, stay out, stay out.
At the bottom of the hill, a rusted gate gaped open in the snow. A wooden sign hung on it. NO TRESPASSING, it must have once said, but now its words were faded and caked in dirt. The branches of a giant pine tree reached over it like an umbrella. That’s when I noticed the bunny hiding beneath it. She was as silent as the snow itself. And still. So still, I worried she had frozen there. Only the quiver of her whiskers gave her away. Fortunately, Bob was too busy sniffing every inch of snow to notice her.
The bunny’s fur ruffled in the breeze. Her eyes wide, seeing nothing. Afraid to move, like the slightest twitch might give her away. I wanted that bunny to know she was okay with me. I longed to scoop her in my arms and bring her back to the house where she wouldn’t have to stand so still and scared by the side of the road.
Then, in a flash, the rabbit tore off. Bob ripped the leash from my frostbitten fingers and shot past the NO TRESPASSING sign, after her. I started to follow, but my sneaker stuck in the snow. When I hopped back to put it on. Bob was gone.
I slipped through the gate, chasing Bob’s paw prints down a wide trail. Icy shivers crawled up my spine.
That’s when I noticed the other set of footprints.
As I turned a bend in the trail, I almost ran into a burning campfire. I found myself standing in front of an old farmhouse. I scanned the house for the person who had started this fire, but boards covered its windows like bandages and snow barricaded its front door. A thick center chimney and peeling white paint made me think it was once someone’s home, but now it looked as tired and abandoned as the woods surrounding it.
Flames shot from the fire, licking a shiny red teapot that dangled from a metal bar. A thick black pot steamed over a large flat rock. Nearby, a rickety gray shed rattled in the wind. Someone had crammed an old quilt in its broken window and a shabby piece of fabric flapped in the breeze.
“Stay out!” a sandpaper voice rasped.
I spun in dizzy confusion, as the door to the gray shed banged open. A person dressed in a heavy wool coat dotted with holes and patches, stepped out. A blizzard of scarves wrapped around the face so tight and thick, all I could see were two dark eyes squinting against the dim afternoon light. Every cell in my brain screamed, Run! Leave! Go! But my legs had frozen in place.
“Looking for something?” the voice croaked.
I scanned the woods for a sign of Bob.
“A dog shot through here. He belong to you?” It was an old lady’s voice, as cracked and shaky as the shed behind her. “There are leash laws, you know. You can’t let your dog run loose bothering my pets.”
I blinked. I didn’t see any pets. I thought about the rabbit and wondered if it was okay.
The lady’s eyes narrowed on me. The prickly feeling crawled up my arms. My skin itched. My throat squeezed tight. I nodded my bangs forward.
“Where’d you learn to dress?” she said. “Don’t you know its twenty degrees out?”
A tiny black and white bird suddenly flew between us. Its flight wasn’t smooth, but all crazy up and down like it was on an invisible roller coaster. I recognized the bird as a chickadee. Winter birds, my mom called them. I wished she was here. She’d know what to say to get me away from the lady.
The chickadee landed on a wire that ran from just above the door of the boarded-up house, across the driveway and attached to the roof of the rickety shed. Items dangled from the wire — a bright yellow coffee can, smaller tin cans, and a shoe. The tiny bird took a seed, and flew away.
“Who are you?” The lady asked.
I stared at my feet wishing they would move. The lady stepped closer. She smelled like black licorice. “Look at me, girl. I asked you a question.”
I peeked through my bangs, feeling like that rabbit. Eyes wide, seeing nothing. “Ruby,” I whispered.
“Where’d you come from?”
I pointed in the direction of our newest “forever home.”
“Old man Specter’s farm?” She squinted at me, her forehead wrinkling. “No one’s lived there since he died.”
I hugged myself.
The lady looked away and sniffed. “You need to keep a better handle on your dog. He can’t come down here and bother my pets.”
I heard a bark from behind the boarded-up house. Bob! I took a step toward it when I felt my scarf tighten. I turned, realizing the lady had snatched it like a claw.
“You’re trying to get inside!” she hissed.
I wanted to scream, but the prickly feeling had turned my words to sand. She let go. I loosened the scarf and coughed. I was about to run when Bob appeared, steaming and panting and grinning as if this had all been part of some fantastic game.
I grabbed his leash, wanting to strangle and hug him at the same time.
“You got your dog, now stay away!” the lady said as she retreated into the gray shed. The door banged shut behind her. I heard a latch click.
I sure wasn’t going to wait around for her to come back out. I tore down the driveway, Bob at my heels. As we reached Specter Hill Road, snow began to fall. By the time we got to the house, flakes gusted around my head and slipped down the back of my neck.
I ran up the driveway. All I wanted was to crawl under my sheets. But as I reached the top of the driveway, I froze. A person sat on the front porch swing, wrapped in a blanket and shivering. I breathed a sigh of relief. Mom was back.
On the day before Izzy Mancini started sixth grade, she waded through the shallow water of Oceanside Pond carrying a clipboard, a weighted string, and a summer full of worry.
From the bow of her anchored skiff, Flotsam watched patiently. His salty wet fur sparkled in the afternoon sun.
“One more measurement,” she told him as she lowered the weight, attached to its long knotted string, into the salt pond. It settled to the silty floor with a soft poof, causing a hermit crab to scurry away. Izzy pinched the string where it met the water’s surface, then pulled it out, counting the knots.
“Almost three feet deep,” she told Flotsam as she recorded the number next to its GPS coordinate on her map. When she finished, she waded back to the skiff, holding the clipboard safely above her head. Water lapped at the frayed cuffs of her shorts.
At mean low tide, each day since she and her dad and Nonni had moved to the marina, Izzy measured a new section of Oceanside Pond. With everything in her world changing, Izzy’s maps had become a way for her to make something stand still.
At the back of the skiff, she tucked her maps carefully into their patchwork bag, then checked her phone for the millionth time, hoping to discover a new clue inside Zelda’s text. But no matter how many times she swiped open the screen, the message stayed the same:
Meet at sea star HQ @3:00 I know what to do
She tossed the phone inside her patchwork bag, which she slung across her shoulder.
“It’s time, Flotsam,” she said. “Let’s go.”
On the word go, he leapt from the boat in a black-and-white streak, splashing Izzy before scampering onto the pond’s rocky shore. She shook her head as he disappeared inside thick green sea-rose bushes.
Oceanside Pond was a coastal lagoon. Three miles long, it was created by a barrier beach that protected it from the Atlantic Ocean. Izzy made her way onto the sandy path that led to the Oceanside of that barrier, careful to avoid the rocks and shells hidden there by angry waves on stormier days.
She squinted at the hazy sun, shining in its new end-of-summer slant. She scowled. Izzy didn’t like any ending, but the last day of summer was the worst ending of all.
It’s Labor Day, she reminded herself. Technically not the last day of summer, but an ending just the same.
The bushes rustled and Flotsam popped out, grinning a goofy dog smile as if to say, Surprise, I was here all along. Izzy couldn’t help but grin back.
As they emerged onto Brogee’s Beach, the Atlantic roared its welcome. Its giant gray waves slapped the beach before sucking back sand and stone with a gravelly growl. Izzy wanted to cover her ears. Instead she felt for the key tucked deep inside her pocket and held it tight in her fist. Somehow this small act comforted her. She took a deep breath, then continued down the beach, wishing they could have met on the pond side instead.
Her bare feet sank into the hot sand as Flotsam trotted about—one moment falling behind to nose a clump of seaweed, the next racing ahead to chase a gull. Wagons, piled high with toys and chairs and kids, tipped from side to side as parents dragged from off the beach.
“Always first,” she said to Flotsam as they reached their destination—a short, hollow concrete box that she and her best friends, Zelda and Piper, had dubbed the Sea Star Headquarters in a sacred ceremony when they were six.
According to her dad, the box was a relic from World War II. It had a square window that the girls used to decorate with seaweed curtains, and a circular opening on top that they could shimmy into. Back then, it was the perfect size for three best friends.
She adjusted her patchwork bag, then climbed onto its “roof.” The sun-warmed concrete felt rough and solid beneath her feet. Even though the girls couldn’t fit inside anymore, it was still where they met to discuss important business. Right then, nothing was more important than their move to Shoreline Regional Middle School.
The new school brought in kids from four town. Izzy’s town, Seabury, was the smallest. Although she wouldn’t see her schedule until the first day of school, it didn’t stop her from imagining the worst. She worried that Zelda and Piper would be in the same classes while shw ea stuck with kids she didn’t know. She agonized over being lost in long hall ways, late to class, and surrounded by strangers. She envisioned herself scanning the cafeteria for a familiar face – only to eat alone. She had nightmares about missed homework, missed buses, and missed friends.
A loud whoop from a cluster of surfers brought her thoughts back to the beach. They looked like busy seals in their black wet suits as they took turns paddling and catching waves. She shuddered remembering her own one-time attempt at surfing when she almost drowned. The roar of the ocean had filled her head then too. This memory was enough to make her want to cover her ears all over again.
“Hey!” Piper interrupted her thoughts. She walked toward Izzy wearing her soccer socks and carrying cleats.
“Hey.” Izzy crossed her arms. “The ocean seems extra angry today, doesn’t it?”
Piper shrugged. “I don’t know. Offshore storm maybe?”
Izzy suddenly felt exposed. She jumped down into the hot sand, her patchwork bag slapping her leg.
“I can’t believe summer’s over and we barely got to hang out,” Piper said.
“The move…you know…,” Izzy said. “Everyone’s been real busy working at the marina and I had to help and—”
“Sure.” Piper half smiled. “Well, we’ll see each other every day now.”
Izzy couldn’t make herself smile back.
Piper stared into the ocean’s gray waves. “We’re still doing our annual back-to-school sleepover Saturday night at your house, right?”
“Oh…yeah. I forgot about that.” Izzy swallowed hard. “Or we could do your house.”
Piper fell back against the headquarters. “How could you forget?” she exclaimed in mock distress. “You were the one who made it a Sea Star annual tradition, we have to do your house.” She grinned. “Plus, we’ve barely gotten to spend time at the marina. It will be so cool. Is your mom back yet?”
“We’re picking her up from the eight o’clock ferry tonight.” Izzy squinted across the sound to Block Island, where her mother had spent the summer working at her family’s restaurant, Loretta’s Kitchen. She could barely make out the North Lighthouse at the tip of Sandy Point.
Flotsam galloped toward them, crashing into Piper. She knelt down to pet him. “Hey, puppy, I’ve missed you!”
He reciprocated by shaking what seemed like a gallon of ocean from his shaggy black-and-white fur.
“I don’t know why he always waits until he’s right next to people to do that.”
Piper wiped her face with her sleeve. “I needed a shower anyway,” she said laughing.
He grinned his silly dog grin.
“I almost forgot,” Piper said. “My mother told me to ask you when is a good time to give your mom all the PTO stuff.”
“I’ll ask her tonight.”
“Text me what she says,” Piper said as she picked seaweed from Flotsam’s fur.
“So what do you think Zelda’s message means? Do you thinks she figured out how we can stay together in middle school?” Izzy asked.
“I hope so.” Piper looked at her watch. “She better get here soon. I have to be home by four to meet my new tutor.”
“Already? School hasn’t even started.”
“You know my mom.” Piper tucked her black curls behind her hears.
Another loud whoop! came from the direction of the ocean. The girls turned to watch Zelda riding a wave while sending air high fives to them. She’d been surfing all along.
Zelda hit the beach and unstrapped her leash from her ankle. Without drying off, she ran clumsily through the deep sand toward them, shouting. But the ocean air seemed to snatch her words before they could reach the girls.
Piper cupped her hands to her mouth. “What?!”
“I found out”—deep breath, deep breath—“how to make sure we get in the same homeroom.” Zelda plopped into the sand, shaking her seaweed-streaked blonde hair. “The waves are awesome today!”
“But what about the rest of our classes?” Izzy said.
Zelda arched her eyebrow. Izzy knew this as her seriously? look. She’d watched her perfect it in the mirror a million times.
Izzy bit her lip.
“It’s better than nothing,” Zelda said. “And if we’re in the same homeroom, it means we’ll get the same lunch and X-block and stuff like that.” She flicked a piece of seaweed from her arm. “Why don’t you just say thank you, Izzy?”
“It’s great, Zelda.” Piper’s smile showed more teeth than usual. “We knew you’d think of something. How’d you make it happen?”
“When I told my dad how upset I was about the Sea Stars being split up, he called the school. He talked to Mr. Cantor—he’s the tech ed teacher there. He and my dad used to work together at the university. Anyway, Mr. Cantor runs a class where the students do a news program called the Shoreline Regional Middle School News. You get a grade and everything. He’s never let sixth graders do it before, but my dad says a bunch of kids quit at the last minute, so he needs students.”
Izzy looked from Zelda to Piper and back. “What do you mean do the news?”
“We use real equipment like cameras and there’s a green screen and computers and sound equipment, and we put the school news together and then report on it.”
“So, we’ll be on TV?” Piper asked.
“Yeah—not TV you can see at home, but school TV,” Zelda said. “Also, we won’t be able to do music or art so your parents have to call the school to say it’s okay.”
“What do you mean we can’t do art?” Izzy asked.
“I guess tech ed meets at the same time as the specials so we can only take one or the other, but this is so much better, right?” Zelda leapt into a cartwheel, kicking up sand.
“Couldn’t your dad get us into a regular homeroom?” Izzy asked. When Zelda didn’t answer right away, she let her gaze fall to her feet, adding, “I’m sorry, Zelda, but you now art’s my favorite and—”
“What have you done to keep us together, Izzy?” Zelda glared.
The thought of having to speak on television to a whole school full of strangers made the angry-ocean sound grow louder. “You know I can’t talk in front of people, Zelda.” Izzy dug her hand in her pocket, gripping her key.
Zelda rolled her eyes. “Can’t or won’t?”
Izzy wondered if there was a difference.
After an awkward pause, Piper asked, “But you’re going to do it, right, Izzy?”
Izzy felt as if she was being backed into a corner. A mental image of her facing a giant news camera flashed across her brain. Her mouth went dry.
“If you don’t’ do it, you’ll end up stuck and alone in some random homeroom where you don’t know anyone,” Zelda said.
Piper nudged Izzy with her shoulder. “It’s the only way to keep the Sea Stars together.”
“You have to do it,” Zelda said.
Izzy bit her lower lip.
As if sensing that Izzy was about to lose it, Piper thrust her arm out in front of her. “Sea Star triangle” she shouted.
Izzy looked at her friend. While Zelda’s crazy schemes often dragged her in over her head, Piper was the calm voice keeping her afloat. As she grabbed Piper’s forearm below the elbow, she felt as if they were five years old all over again.
With a cold dripping hand, Zelda grabbed hold of Izzy’s arm and Piper grabbed Zelda’s.
Their arms formed a triangle.
Zelda arched her eyebrow as her seaweed-green eyes took on a mischievous glint. “The Sea Stars are magic,” she said. “We will be best friends forever.”
Piper giggled as the girls raised their arms high, letting them slip apart—same as they had done a million times before.
Zelda cartwheeled off. “Make sure your parents call Mr. Cantor!” She ran toward her surfboard, reattached the leash, and carried it into the ocean.
Izzy watched her paddle like mad against the breaking waves. Up and over…up and over, again.
Piper elbowed her. “It’ll be great, Izzy. You know Zelda. It always works out.”
A swell of water curled in a wave. Zelda popped up on her board, raising her hands in the air. The look on her face was pure joy.
As much as Izzy admired her friend, she was also jealous. Everything was easy for Zelda.
“She’s not going to be able to keep us together forever,” Izzy said.
“Can we the through sixth grade for now?” Piper smiled.
Izzy nodded, but she couldn’t smile back.
My grandparents’ stories of escaping Czechoslovakia just before the war colored my childhood. They often spoke about relatives left behind to endure first a fascist dictatorship and then an oppressive Communist government. It was the source of endless intrigue. Who were these cousins and what was this “Iron Curtain,” behind which they were relegated to a life of oppression and fear?
L-R Alexander Dubcek, Interpreter, U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson, Me.
Then, in 1989, along with the rest of the world, I watched in fascination as the Berlin Wall came down. One by one, the Warsaw Pact countries, declared their independence — including Czechoslovakia with its famous Velvet Revolution. Working for U.S. Congressman Sam Gejdenson (D-CT) at the time, I had the privilege and honor of watching Vaclav Havel address a joint session of Congress, and the even greater privilege of meeting Alexander Dubček, architect of the Prague Spring. Inspired by these giants, I felt compelled to return to my roots and find the relatives my grandparents sadly left behind.
This is where being a packrat came in handy. When I was a child, my grandmother sent items to her Slovak cousins sewed inside a cotton sackcloth. The Slovak relatives, unable to obtain paper envelopes, would turn the cloth inside out and send letters and items back to her. Intrigued by the clever process and the foreign address, I asked my grandmother if I could have one of the sackcloth envelopes. I kept it, address and all, for many years.
Class IVB at the Gymnazium Parovska
In 1990, when I learned that an organization, Education for Democracy, was sending English teachers to then-Czechoslovakia, I signed up and set off — sackcloth and all. I was assigned to teach English at the Gymnazium Parovska in Nitra, Czechoslovakia. I also ended up teaching other adults who craved knowledge about America and wanted to learn English. My students helped me pen a letter to the address on that sackcloth, and I got to meet my Slovak cousins. Finally.
Some of the Slovak cousins I met in Bratislava.
This was an incredible time and I learned so much from these amazing people, mostly generosity and kindness. They are a testament to the strength of determination and a reminder that love and freedom will always prevail.
Visiting house where my Grandfather lived in Parihovce.
Now, twenty-five years later, the memories of my extraordinary time among the Czech and Slovak people still beat within me and led me to write this story about the desire to find one’s family, no matter the distance, and to find one’s place in the world, no matter the obstacles.
Most importantly, I wanted The Prisoner’s Daughter to pay homage to the fearless, hardworking and kind people of the Czech and Slovak republics and to be a reminder that we are all immigrants.
Books Relied on While Writing The Metamorphosis of Petra Czech
Hancock, Ian, We are the Romani people/ Ame sam e Rromane dzene, University of Hertfordshire Press (2002).
Lacková, Ilona, A False Dawn, My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia, University of
Hertfordshire Press (1999).
Wheaton, Bernard & Kavan, Zdeněk, The Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia 1988-1991,
Westview Press (1992).
McCAnn, Colum, Zoli, Random House, 2008.
Stokes, Gale, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, The Collapse of Communism in Eastern
Europe, Oxford University Press (1993).
Vanek, Miroslav & Mucke, Pavel, Velvet Revolutions, An Oral History of Czech Society.
Oxford University Press (2016).
Fonseca, Isabel, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, Vintage (1996).
Blythe, D. Randall, Dark Days: A Memoir, Da Capo Press (2016).
Prochazkova, Iva, The Season of Secret Wishes, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard
Branagh, Kenneth, Cold War: The Complete Series, Warner Home Video (2012).
Mrazek, David, My Prague Spring. A Film by David Mrazek (1993).
Taylor, Cory, Nellis, Darin, The Power of the Powerless, The Inspiring Story of the Velvet
Revolution, Agora Productions (2009).