Sonja, Late May
Brakes squealed in protest as the old truck shuddered to a halt. Sealed in the cramped smugglerís hole surrounded by packing crates in the back of the vehicle, Sonja Sepsik crouched on a folded blanket. Fear squeezed the air from her lungs and fed her growing claustrophobia. Fists clenched tight, she fought the tremors of rising panic that flowed through her body. Iíll be okay, Iíll be okay, she repeated to herself as she fought the urge to beat on the sides of the compartment.
Above the wheeze and cough of the truck engine, Sonja heard the muffled voices of the driver and border guards as they haggled over the bribe required to allow the vehicle into Hungary without inspection. Bowing her dark head, she made the sign of the cross and whispered a quick plea for protection. Hospody pomozhy menee. God help me. While she didnít consider herself religious, she instinctively turned to her orthodox upbringing as a source of comfort in an effort to fight back her panic.
Although the words were unclear, the tone of the conversation outside sounded friendly. Smoke from a harsh European cigarette crept through the rotting canvas sides of the truck, worming its way into her hiding spot where it mingled with the dust and backwash of diesel fumes. She longed for fresh air. How long would it take? As the minutes ticked by, she forced herself to take deeper breaths and her body tremors eased.
A burst of coarse laughter punctuated a statement. The negotiations must be going well. Fjodor was right, she thought. In his last letter from Hungary her brother had assured Sonja that the arrangements to smuggle her out of Ukraine were secure. He also boasted that he had friends in the right places. People who would take care of everything. She closed her thoughts to the part of her conscience that whispered he would enmesh her in his world, a world she suspected flirted with illegality.
Shortly after his twentieth birthday, in 1988, Fjodor had slipped away from their home in Ushgorod to seek a new life in Hungary. Heíd left only a terse note of farewell. Although devastated by the loss of the last male in the household, her mother hadnít seemed surprised by his departure. The middle child of three, Fjodor was the one who never really wanted to grow up.
One evening just before he left, Sonjaís mother had pleaded with him as they sat around the table over their evening meal. "Fjodor, you must realize that to get ahead in life you need to settle down, get a good job and make something of yourself. Perhaps if you started to attend church again""
Sonja sensed her brotherís rising anger at the veiled criticism in her motherís comment. Heíd interrupted her; his tone harsh. "My dear mother. You assume that if we put enough effort into life it will reward us. But in truth, life is a game we play with fate. Where did hard work and decent principles get our father? And your perfect son, Misha, the one who made something of himself?" he asked with ill-disguised contempt. In the stricken silence he provided his own answer. "He joined the army to serve his country. But where is he now, Mother? No. Life isnít about hard work, itís about connections."
Shoving his chair back from the table, and leaving his food uneaten, heíd made his way to the door. "Itís about who you know," had been his parting shot before he walked out and slammed the door.
Fjodorís farewell note had disappeared into the deep pocket of one of her motherís identical black dresses, never to be seen again. Sheíd sought comfort in her great faith. She believed in miracles. Sheíd prayed earnestly that her husband would suddenly walk through the door, alive and well; that Misha would return from the void into which those "missing in actioní in Afghanistan had disappeared; and that Fjodor would find his place in life and return from Hungary a wealthy man.
While Sonja was still a young girl her mother had dragged her to prayers at the Ushgorod Cathedral. The prayers themselves held no meaning for her but the sonorous chants, the richly carved dim interior glowing with mellow candlelight, the thick smell of incense rising from the censers, together with the drone of the prayers, had given the church a mysterious quality, a feeling of safety. The sense of peace her mother felt while she prayed in the cathedral had also flowed into young Sonja. Did God really hear those prayers her mother sent upwards with such fervour? Sonja had seen little evidence of His answers in her life. The Almighty Creator of all things would be far too busy to hear the pleas of a worn out old woman sitting in a shabby church pew.
As she grew older, Sonja refused to attend church regularly, although she attended faithfully at Christmas and Easter, hoping to recapture that sense of peace. Now in her fear she prayed"Hospody pomozhy menee.
Finally the slam of the truck door and a cheerful call of farewell signalled the end of the negotiations with the guards. With a sigh of relief, Sonja allowed her tense body to relax. It was foolish to give in to fear. Fjodor surely knew what he was doing. The bribe would have been sufficient, and if the guards were too diligent it would just cause them more work. Uncovering an illegal entry meant a lot of paper work, a lot of investigation and a drop in revenue. The guards had learned long ago that the best policy was ignorance.
The stress and the heat in the truck box had taken their toll on Sonja. As the vehicle set out once again on its journey to freedom, the hum of tires and swaying motion combined to lull her to the brink of sleep. Drowsily, she gave herself over to dreams of her new life with her brother in the paradise of Hungary. She felt no ties to her old life . . . a life that had held little joy .
She remembered nothing of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, where she was born. Soon after her birth her fatherís employer had transferred them to the smaller town of Ushgorod. As Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union at that time, she and her two older brothers were Soviet citizens, and grew up in the regimentation of communist life.
At a young age, Sonja learned there were many subjects that were taboo in her home. One was the disappearance of their father just after heíd spoken out in favour of the Czech Republicís attempt to "give socialism a human face.í When Fjodor turned his back on his spartan life in Ukraine and slipped over the border to Hungary, Sonja and her mother never discussed his reasons for leaving. Years of sorrow and heartache were walled up behind the old womanís silence. Perhaps she feared that if ever she allowed even a trickle of sorrow to escape she would be washed away in the flood that was sure to follow.
After completing high school, Sonja became a finisher at the local furniture plant. When not focussed on lamenting the scarcity of shoes, or long working hours, the conversation in the cramped company lunchroom often centred on black-market goods smuggled across the border from the golden land of Hungary. The deprived citizens of Ushgorod were quite familiar with the superior standard of living on the other side of the border; even barbed wire couldnít contain that kind of news. Money made in the smuggling business more than made up for the danger involved.
"Peterís brother, Karl, smuggled in twenty pairs of pantyhose and got ten times what he paid for them!" Tatania, the young woman who worked next to Sonja on the finishing line, often bragged about her boyfriendís adventurous brother. A sweet person, Tatania expected very little from life other than the hope that one day Peter would make their living arrangements legal and assumed Sonjaís ambitions were similar to hers.
"Has he any left for sale?" Sonja asked half-heartedly, as she bit into her black bread and salami sandwich. It seemed unlikely that an item as scarce as pantyhose would remain unsold for long, but one could always hope.
"Sorry. They were gone in an hour. But if you want some you could let him know. He keeps a list of items people want. And as beautiful as you are Sonja, all you would have to do is smile and he would go out of his way to get it."
Swallowing the dry wad of heavy bread along with her disappointment, Sonja replied, "Well why didnít he bring in more if he has customers already lined up?"
"Because he doesnít have a license for more, silly goose."
"License? What do you mean"license?"
"Ah, Sonja. Youíre such a naive girl! The customs officers issue licenses for smuggling only a certain amount of contraband goods. Then they take their cut of the profit. If smuggling gets out of hand theyíll be replaced with new customs officers who are less greedy. Itís to their advantage to keep the amount that comes in to a minimum, so they issue licenses."
"What a mess," Sonja said with a shake of her head. She finished the sandwich but it hadnít satisfied her hunger, a hunger food would never be able to satisfy. The barren lunch room, the grimy factory, the shabby apartment she shared with several roommates since the death of her mother, all added up to a soul numbing existence that fuelled her growing dissatisfaction. She understood how Fjodor must have felt before he left. She too felt trapped in an environment devoid of anything but the bare necessities of life. She wanted so much more.
Occasionally, Tatania brought a hard-to-come-by fashion magazine to work. As they flipped through the well-thumbed pages together, Tatania would tell Sonja that her features rivalled those of the women on the glossy pages. Her dark, arching eyebrows framed large eyes whose colour changed with the light, sometimes hazel but more often a pure green. When she was younger she had often yearned for a creamier Russian complexion, but as she matured sheíd come to realize that many considered her dusky skin tone and high cheekbones exotic.
While others envied her beauty, Sonja found her looks a liability. In the factory she wore her long auburn hair tied up in a knot under a kerchief but she could do little to disguise her softly curving figure or attractive features. Without family or a husband to protect her, she was vulnerable. Within months of her motherís death, the factory scheduler had approached her just after lunch.
"Sonja, Iíve made changes to the line assignments. Youíll be added to the finishing line tomorrow."
Her first reaction was shock, then defiance. "You canít do this to me, Erik. Iím not strong enough to handle the finished products. Women have been crippled trying to move those heavy pieces to the crating line." She drew herself up and squared her shoulders. Perhaps a bluff would work. "Iíll lodge a protest if you force me on that line."
He circled her slowly, openly admiring her hair, the line of her throat, visually measuring the length of her legs enclosed in baggy coveralls. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth; the fox had cornered his prey. "And who would you bring your protest to, my lovely Sonja? Superintendent Rostov?" His eyes mocked her now. "His only interest is his bottle of vodka. Of course, we could perhaps reach an agreement, you and I. Would you care to join me for supper tonight? We can discuss it. Iíve been known to change my mind." He traced her jawbone with his index finger.
Her skin crawled at his touch and his words caused a sick feeling to wash over her. He was right. No one would listen to her complaint and she didnít have the option of quitting. She lasted four days on the finishing line, then lost her virginity and much of her self-respect to the scheduler.
She no longer had control over her own life. The only way out of Erikís grip was to ally herself with someone who had more power than he. But that was Superintendent Rostov, and the thought of sharing his bed held even less appeal. In an unforgiving world, Sonja soon learned that her female assets were her only assets. I will hold my head up, no matter what Iím forced to do, she thought fiercely. Her tears of shame fell less often, and then not at all.
The close proximity of Hungary and the good life she was sure her brother had established for himself were powerful lures. She spoke basic Hungarian, but not enough to bluff her way out of a one-on-one encounter with a border guard if she tried to cross and got stopped. To be caught at the door of Paradise and then turned back . . . no, she refused to imagine it.
Her mother had been dead for over a year before Fjodor received the news and finally contacted her. This time her tears had been tears of relief.
The rear door gave a metallic shriek as it opened and the noise drew Sonja from her dreams. Fresh air and narrow beams of light found their way into the murky darkness of the truck box as invisible hands began to unload the cargo that sealed off her hiding spot. Was her brother on the other side, or would she be taken to another meeting place? Nervously, she ran her fingers through her tangled hair and made an attempt to smooth the wrinkles from her dusty clothes. With the backpack that held her only possessions clutched in her hand, she squared her shoulders to meet her future.
As the cargo wall was breached full sun flooded in, momentarily blinding her. The figure of a man appeared, silhouetted against the harsh light. As her eyes adjusted to the glare, she took in his features"tall, thin, too thin really. His clothes, while not labourerís clothes, hung shapelessly from knobby shoulders and narrow hips. Brown hair with a hint of curl crowned a face with a familiar dark complexion and hazel eyes. She caught her breath at the sight of an ugly scar that began just below his ear and ran along the ridge of his jaw, ending at a point beneath narrow lips that were now stretched in a grin of welcome.
"Fjodor?" she whispered nervously. Was this the prosperous brother sheíd hoped to meet?
With a slight shake of his head her brother replied: "My name is Ferenc Sebes now, Sonja. Itís a good Hungarian name and weíre in Hungary."
Another explanation edged its way into Sonjaís mind" Fjodor Sepsik was on the run from someone. She had an unhappy feeling that her motherís prayers had not been answered.