“The Coldest Decembers”

Sterling Zuelch


December 18, 1918

           Viktor walked over to the radio, his frostbitten hand turning the dial to a new station, a loud, brisk voice blasting from the speakers. He went back to the fireplace, adjusting the wood and embers. He rustled the kindling around and looked to his wife, who rocked back and forth in her chair, holding their child in her arms. As he got up from the hearth and stood next to his wife, the general’s voice seeped from the radio into the living room.   

           “The depression of our economy should disgrace every individual in Hungary. Each and every one of us should feel ashamed of the state that our country is in and strive to bring us to our former glory.” The voice beyond the radio paused as the flick of a lighter went off, and the speaker drew on his cigar. “By any means possible,” he continued, “with whomever possible, this country will be turned around, and not only that, but Hungary will become the greatest country in the world! If it comes down to it, I will do it all myself, so help me God. ”

           The audience erupted in applause as Viktor turned off the radio.

“Viktor-

           “Klara, you know Admiral Horthy doesn’t keep half his promises. This is just the people’s’ anger of our rising debt and the aftermath of the Great War.”

           Klara shook her head. “Viktor, I don’t think things are going to get any better.”

           He heaved a sigh, the winter air making his breath visible. “I’ve never heard so many people so desperate for a change that they will support a leader that could bring us to ruin.” He looked at his son, moving his thin hair out from his eyes and kissing his innocent forehead. “But let’s hope for Nikki that Hungry doesn’t go down that path.”

December 4, 1928

           “Nikki could not take his eyes off the box when you brought it over.”

           “Oh good, I am so glad,” Aunt Csilla exclaimed. “You know the minute he started writing on your walls, I just knew he needed it!”

           “Yes indeed, Csilla. Thank you so much.” Klara kissed her sister on the cheek as she turned back to her son. “You know, Mirriam is getting really big.”

          “As soon as they hit nine, they just grow like weeds. And now Nikki’s twelve-”

           “Viktor and I can’t believe it.”

Csilla laughed a bit. “He’s so lanky still.”

           Silence fell over the two as they continued to bake Nikki’s birthday cake.

           Meanwhile, Viktor watched Mirriam and Nikki in the living room. Mirriam picked up her doll, making it dance around her on the fading hardwood floor. “Nikki look!” She walked her rag doll over to her cousin, placing it on the keys of his new typewriters. “She wants to write! Just like you!”

           Nikki swatted the doll away. “No, Mirriam.”

“Why not? She wants to write too!”

“I’m writing a poem for you.”

Mirriam stopped, her big brown eyes brilliant in the candlelight of the Bitto family household. “Really?” she asked with excitement. He nodded, his woven hat sliding around on his head. “Can you read it to me?”

“I’m not done.”

“Please ,” she begged.

Nikki shook his head and cracked a small smile. “Okay, but you have to swear you won’t tell anyone. It’s just for you and Ruth,” he said, nodding to Miriam’s doll.

“I promise,” Mirriam said with youthful confidence.

Nikki made a cross over his heart; Mirriam did the same and be began to read his poem.

I watch the days grow into night

The snow is falling, swiftly and light

And I wish I could see ahead of me

Into the beautiful eyes of my mystery

I know she is lovely, as radiant as a Queen

And just like the snow, ever so pristine

But the snow poured in, faster than I could run

And it wasn’t white but black, and it blotted out the sun

My Queen lies far ahead

But I vowed to see her one day, I said

I will make this right, not matter how long I must write

I will make everything be crystal clear, snow white

He looked down at his words, staring at the ink and spaces between each letter, each line, and each comma.  Nikki looked up to his cousin, saw her holding her doll tightly near her chest, her face blank. “Did you like it?’

“I loved it, Nikki!” Mirriam said, her smile beaming from ear to ear. “And so did Ruth! Didn’t you Ruth? Tell Nikki you loved his poem!”

Viktor left the children to play in the living room and walked into the kitchen as Klara and Csilla continued to decorate Nikki’s birthday cake. “So then I said-“ Klara stopped as her husband entered the room, a beaming grin on his face. “Viktor, are you okay?”

“Our boy’s a genius, Klara! A true genius! His writing is superb, better than any poetry I’ve read in the gazette in a long time. And he’s only twelve!”

“What?” Klara turned to her sister, receiving a blank stare. She turned back to her husband.  “What did he write?”

Viktor strolled back into the living room, coaxed Nikki into lending him his poem, came back to the kitchen, and handed it to Klara and Csilla.

Klara began to smile as she looked to her husband, who’s smiled still radiated as he hugged his wife.

“Oh Klara, all the days he came home from school-

“and told us that he was in trouble again for not paying attention-

        “I feel so terrible for getting mad at him-

        “and him writing on the walls-”

        “Klara.”

They turned to Csilla as she handed the paper back to them and returned to frosting the cake. “You don’t understand it, do you?”

        Klara laughed. “What is there to understand, Csilla? Our son is a writer! I thought you would be happy.”

        “I am happy,” she said, her voice filled with concern.“But do you know what he wrote?”

        “Why,” Viktor picked up the piece of paper again, “a poem about winter and finding a mysterious girl.”

        “No, Viktor,” she said as she finished icing the cake, “that poem was a metaphor, for peace.” Csilla turned to her sister, her eyes narrowing. “How much of the radio do you let him listen to?”

        Viktor looked to Klara, “Practically none at all,” Klara said. “He’s always in his room.    

        “But his room is right next to the living room.” Csilla sighed, “and apparently it hasn’t occurred to you that your walls are paper thin.” She pulled out her chair and sat down, rubbing her shoulders to keep them warm. “Don’t you know what’s happened recently? Hungary is relying more and more on our trade with the Aryan’s. We’re practically reliant on them for everything! One snap and Hungary will be full blown partners with Germany, NAZI Germany, and we can’t do anything about it because without them, we’re sunk! Children aren’t supposed to worry about potential wars! And yet, your child does.”

        “Csilla,” her sister cooed, “No one is saying anything about another war, and you don’t know that Nikki meant his poem as a metaphor.”

        “Oh really!” Csilla picked up the paper again and read aloud. “’And it wasn’t white but black, and it blotted out the sun. My Queen lies far ahead,” she sighed, “But I vowed to see her one day, I said, I will make this right, not matter how long I must write, I will make everything be crystal clear, snow white’.”

She put down the paper on the table and looked at her family. “Nikki may be a genius, may have talent beyond what you’ve seen in the Gazette, but he knows that Hungary is in trouble. He, like others, see war on the horizon, and with Adolf Hitler,” she grew silent, “Klara, if you allow your son to keep writing like this,” she handed the poem back to Viktor, “he could run into trouble later on.”

“I’m not going to stop him from doing what he loves.”

“Klara-”

“He’s just a child, Csilla,” Klara said with protective anger. “Nothing is going to come of it.”

Csilla glared at her. “His talent is going to grow, and something will come of it. But whether you want to protect your son from what happens is up to you. And right now, it doesn’t seem like you’re going to do anything.”

“Mommy,” Mirriam screamed, “when’s cake?”

She shook her head. “Right now, sweetie!”

Nikki and Mirriam ran into the kitchen and sat around the table, the delicious cake planted in front of Nikki. “Happy Birthday, Nikki,” his mom said as she kissed him on the forehead.

Klara looked to her husband, sharing the same concern for their son before Victor turned his head away.

December 8, 1934

Klara planted her cracked, cold lips on her son’s cheek. “I am so proud of you Nikki,” she said as she kissed him again. “Your first day at the gazette!”

“Mama-”

“I’m sorry,” she said as she straightened up his scarf. “I just won’t see you-

“-Until dinner,” Viktor interjected. He turned to his son, placing his hand on Nikki’s shoulder. “My boy already has a job when all his friends…”

Nikki darted his eyes away and straightened his hat.“I guess they find more pride in the war than in anything else.”

        His parents did not say anything, but looked longingly at their son

“I’ll be home for dinner, I promise.” He kissed his mother on the cheek. “I love you guys.”

“We love you too, son,” his father replied. “Now get in there before they fire you!”

“Yes, sir.” Nikki leapt onto the front steps beneath the Gazette’s front door. He turned to look back at his parents, and through the billowing snow saw his stout mother and towering father wave goodbye in the cold, not leaving until he took his first step over the threshold to his dream.

Nikki entered, hearing the hustle of papers and people, shouting in the air, the air smelling of cigarette smoke and coffee. Men walked around in proper suits, desks and typewriters strewn about, men arguing about the formatting of the Gazette.

“You new here?”

Nikki turned his head, finding a man, much taller than his father, but most definitely wider, overlooking him, stirring his coffee.  “So, are you the new hire or no?”

Nikki swallowed. “Yes sir.”

The brutish man scanned Nikki up and down. “Well, not what I had pictured, but looks have nothing to do with talent. Come with me.” He sped past Nikki as he followed suit. “This is where the “magic” of the Gazette happens. Reporters,” he gestured to his left, “recorders,” he pointed to the right, “and of course, our freelance writers.” A small group of men sat in their own room, the only thing between them a glass window and door.

Through the panels Nikki could already feel his fingers itching to slide onto the tiny keys, pressing to hear the beat of the typewriter, the letters weaving together, lacing themselves to make a story.

The man stuck out his hand for Nikki. “My name’s Andris.”

“Nikki Bitto,” he said back, shaking Andris’ hand with excitement and vigor. “Thank you for the opportunity. It truly means a lot.”

“Kid, we’ve got so much news flooding in here we’d take anyone who applied to, but your writing sampled didn’t hurt.” Andris sighed and straightened his tie. “I’m your boss first and foremost,” he stated. “And I don’t give many compliments, but there is a war, and it’s my belief that people should have something to take their minds off it.” He finished his coffee. “I believe you can do that.”

“A very personal belief, Andris.”

Nikki turned, seeing a man, short and round with a brown coat, sparse metals on his top pocket. “Very personal.”

“Horthy,” Andris grunted.

        “That is Admirable to you, Andris. Show respect where it’s due.”

Andris got up from the desk, pouring himself a new cup of hot water. “What’s your business here?”

“Your Gazette is to fall under my domain by tonight.”

Andris narrowed his eyes. “You are to say,” he began slowly, “that you are to take over an independently owned business? That my grandfather started before you even stepped foot on this earth!”

        “Precisely. And my first order of business for, what you may call “cleaning office”, is getting rid of your  freelance writers.”

“This is my business-”

The Admiral handed Andris a roll of papers. “You can show yourself to the door. Any more complaints will be taken to Führer Hitler.”

Andris ripped the papers from Horthy’s hands, went to his desk , cleared it out, then walked out the door.

“Well now,” Admiral Horthy looked to Nikki, “You one of those freelancers?”

Nikki shrugged. “I haven’t done any official paperwork yet.”

        “Good,” the Admiral said as he walked away. “Come back tomorrow. You will start as my personal scribe.”

Guilt built in Nikki’s chest, his half-true lie eating at his conscience as he watched Horthy step through the threshold of Andris’ office, rummaging around for papers.

“You can’t do that,” he said.

The Admiral turned towards Nikki, staring him down. “I think you are mistaken. I can fire them, and I will do so boy. Now go get your papers. I won’t have another word from you.”
“But they need jobs, jobs for money, for food!”

“They will find work supporting a more noble cause.”

“Like the war?” Nikki yelled at him. “The war is not a noble effort! It’s people like you-”

“-It is people like you, you dirt rag, that write false ideas that go against what I need the people to believe!”

“What you want them to believe!” Nikki yelled. “That’s not what writing is-”

Horthy’s eyes began to shake. “Writing is the most dangerous weapon anyone can use. It convinces, it manipulates, it tears people apart when it’s not in the right hands!”

Nikki narrowed his glare. “And who’s to say you’re the right person to hold that power?”

The Admiral grinded his teeth, clenching onto his anger. “Me and my army-

“-You mean Hitler’s army. You have nothing for yourself and you know it.”

“And without writing,” the Admiral laughed, “you have nothing to yourself either.”

Nikki’s hand balled into a fist as he swung at the Admiral, hitting him squarely in the jaw.

Nikki began to back away as he watched the Admiral feel his face, the touch his lip, blood on his fingers. The Admiral glared at Nikki. “You, boy,” he breathed heavily, “are fired.”
Nikki ran out the door into the cold, furious storm, his boots instantly covered with the thick and heavy snow falling down, and began walking home, where he would tell his parents that he did not have a job, that he could not provide food for them, and that his dreams were shattered by a war…the war that tore the world apart.

December 12, 1943

“No, Nikki. I won’t let you do it!”

“You don’t have a say, Mirriam-”

“-Nikki! You can’t! You could die!”

“Mirriam, please, try to understand-“

Mirriam smacked her spoon on her countertop, parts of stew flying through her kitchen. “How could you, Nikki? After everything Jozef and I have done for you?”
“And I’m very grateful for it-

“-Well it doesn’t sound like you are!” She turned on him, holding her spoon up high. “Karlof and I took you off the streets when your parents died. We helped you find work,  made Jozef and Ema share a room. What more could we have done to change your mind?”

Nikki stood, moving closer to his cousin. “Mirriam, joining the uprising is my choice.”
“No, Nikki, it’s not.” She shook her head in defeat, tears beginning to form in her eyes. “Why do you have to do it? Ema and Jozef, your own niece and nephew,” her eyes began to water, “they love your stories. They look forward to them every night.”
“And I want the world to see them too. Not just them.”

Mirriam pushed herself away, her anger growing. “So my children aren’t good enough for you? Your own niece and nephew aren’t a good enough audience?”
Nikki’s ran his hands over his face. “Mirriam, I love Ema and Jozef very much, and I look forward to telling my stories to them just as much as they want to listen. But you weren’t there the day Admiral Horthy took the Gazette.” He looked down at his hands, the calluses on his fingers from when he used to type, day in and day out. “He thought that the typewriter would be the best weapon in this war, and it’s the war’s fault that I can’t do what I aspire to do, what many other men long to do.”

Mirriam kissed her cousin on the cheek and wrapped her arms around him, holding him tightly. “Nikki, I know you support this, but I just…I just can’t.”

“I’m not asking you to. I just wanted to let you know that I have my own battles to fight, my own loves to protect, just like you and Karlof protect your children.”

She looked up to Nikki, tears streaming silently down her face. “You an impulsive genius, Nikki. You’re impulsive to join this rebellion…but a genius with writing. And geniuses,” Mirriam took a shaky breath, “they do what they must.”

December 12, 1970

Mirriam held her cat in her lap, his sweet purr echoing in her blank apartment as she scratched his nose.

She sighed as she saw the snow fall passed her window, onto the roads below. Right across the street she could see the Gazette’s sign hanging above the door, Emma strolling down the steps after her day at work.

Mirriam threw on her coat and met her daughter at the door, her daughter wrapping her arms around her mother. “How was work, dear?”

“Good, mama. Our freelance writers are wonderful.”

“That’s good.”
Ema opened up her bag, placing ham and potatoes on the counter in the kitchen. “Grabbed them on my lunch break. Dad will be home soon, I trust.”

Mirriam nodded as she went into the foyer, buttoning her coat.

“Where you going, Mama?”

“Nowhere, Ema.”

Ema put on her own coat, and opened the door for her mother. “Well then I’m going nowhere with you.”

They went down the steps of their apartment, made a left turn, and after a while a right, then one more left and Mirriam stopped.

Ema hung her head. “Mama,” she said, “We can’t do this again.”

Mirriam turned her eyes to the house, hearing in her head the sound of a twelve year olds’ cheerful laughter. With determination, she headed up the stairs, opened the door and went inside, Ema close behind.

“Mama, we cleaned this house out years ago. There’s nothing left of him.”

Mirriam headed for Nikki’s room, but stopped before her fingers touched the door handle. She turned to her daughter. “Ema, how important is writing to you?”

Ema put her hands on her mother’s shoulders. “Uncle Nikki was special, and what you’ve told me of his talent is nothing near what I have seen.”  

Mirriam gripped the door and pushed it open. The room was empty, floor  scratched up and tattered from the long years after his death, smelling of the fresh winter gusto the front brought and gunpowder from the fights in the streets many, many years prior.

She walked around the room, taking in the old scent. Then a board snapped beneath her, Miriam’s foot falling between the floorboards.

“Mom!”

Ema pried her mother’s foot from the floorboard, but before Mirriam stood, she noticed something beneath the wood.

Then Mirriam remembered one day that Nikki and she came home from school, Nikki proud of the last part of a poem he’d been working on. He handed it to Mirriam, saying that it was for her, for her thirteenth birthday.

“He hid it in the floorboard,” Mirriam whispered.

“What?”

“He hid it in the floorboards. Them. All of them.”

Mirriam pried it open, finding a box with a mountain of papers pouring out of them.

“Mama, I-” Ema stopped. She saw her mother, kneeling in the corner of the room, a stack of papers in her hands. Quietly, she kneeled next to her mother, reaching in, pulling out another stack, almost bigger than the other.

“Mama,” she said as she flipped through them. “Uncle Nikki… he was a genius.”

Her mother did not say anything as she flipped through paper after paper, tears rolling silently down her cheeks, filled with the memory of her lost family.  

“Mama,” Mirriam turned her head to her daughter, holding what she thought to be a dusted rag, “what’s this?”

Mirriam took the rag in her hands, peeling off layers of dust. Underneath was a token she thought she had lost forever.

“Ruth.”

Mirriam began to dig through the papers, until she reached the very last one, but the very first of many for her. She held the doll tightly in her hands, her eyes going back and forth, then down the paper.

“Mama?”

She wiped the tears back from her face. “Ema dear, help me up, please. We need to go somewhere.”

“And you’re sure you’ll be okay.”

“I will.”

“Okay,” Ema started down the hill, then turned back to her mother. “If you aren’t home by the time were done with dinner, Dad and I will come look for you.”

“I won’t be long,” she said as she waved to her daughter. “I promise.”

She watched her daughter’s hair get swept up by the wind, falling about her back and shoulders as she left her mother alone.

Mirriam turned around. “Well, Nikki, it’s just you and me.”

She knelt down, facing her cousin’s tombstone. “I-I never thought I would ever come back.” Her words stuttered out, but became smooth as she talked on. “I swore I wouldn’t. That day…Karlof practically had to drag me away from your grave. I couldn’t move.” Anger began to rise in her voice. “But of course you had to. You had to move right into the street, right into something you knew you would die in! And how could you! I know you love writing, but how could you.” She began to sob. “I was alone, Nikki. I had my family, but that was only my family. I wanted our family. I needed our family. My mother was gone, and so were my aunt and uncle. They were all we had growing up, and then all we had was each other.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “And then you were gone too.”

Mirriam took the fragile paper from her pocket, unfolding it. “I found this. I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to keep the others, read them. Oh, the Gazette is back up and running. Andris’ son took over after the Admiral died. He’s running it well, lots of good stories.” She sighed. “But none as good as yours.

“Ema and I are going to ask the Gazette to put a couple in their next issue,” she continued. “I think it will be a nice touch.”

She sat there, watching the snow pile up on Nikki’s grave. She placed the poem near the headstone, Ruth on top of it while she read the inscription. “Nikki Alexander Bitto. Loving son, brilliant writer.” Mirriam smiled. “And my best friend.”

Mirriam stood, dusting off her knees, and looked down at the stone again, seeing her doll and his poem resting against it. “You were right, Nikki. Your poems belong to the world. But not that one. That’s just for you and me.”

She began her walk down the hill, the snow coming in faster, billowing up, covering the dead grass. Mirriam started to push open the gate, hearing the soft creak, when she turned back “The snow is white, Nikki. It is crystal clear and snow white.”

In loving memory of Helen Hovantzi

Thank you for your one hundred and one years of wisdom, love and support.

Fiction piece by Sterling Zuelch