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The Cross Among the Lakes

by Ron Van Sweringen

Robbie Mathews was small for his age, and delicate. His hands, stained with colored chalk, moved deftly over the large piece of paper before him. Elderly Countess Volinsky looked over his frail shoulder and smiled approval at the beautiful drawing.

He is a true artist, lost in his creation, she thought.

A bell sounded, meaning it was eight-thirty and the building was closing in fifteen minutes.

“Time to start cleaning up,” the Countess announced.

Robbie dreaded hearing the bell. He hated stopping his work, but more than that he hated going back to the world outside.

“Who would like hot chocolate?” the Countess asked, putting on her coat and scarf. She spoke with a strong accent that intrigued Robbie. He heard people in the movies talk like that.

A blue-black sky with a thousand stars shone through the icy tree branches. The snow-covered sidewalk was slick in spots and Countess Volinsky put her arm around Robbie’s shoulder and drew him close to her. “I’m afraid I may fall,” she explained.

Three other of the Countess’ students, two girls and a boy in their early teens, walked ahead of them. Robbie liked having her arm around his shoulder, it made him feel important.

Willard’s drugstore was brightly lit and warm inside. They all slid into a booth and Countess Volinsky ordered five hot chocolates with marshmallows on top. Conversation flowed between the students and the Countess, mostly about art and the projects they were working on.

Although he didn’t fully understand the reason, Robbie sensed the Countess felt differently about him than about the other students. He could tell by the way her eyes always came to rest on him when she was talking. The thought crossed his mind, how wonderful it would be to have her as his mother.

“Will I see you Friday?” the Countess asked, waving goodbye to the students as she left.

“Yes,” everyone replied. Robbie watched her smile as the others drifted away. Then she did something astounding, she blew him a kiss.

When Robbie got home, the small apartment was dark, which meant his mother would be out late and might bring a man home with her. Robbie went into the tiny hall room that served as his bedroom and closed the door. He was happy to be alone, it gave him time to relive the wonderful evening.

Robbie sat on the edge of his bed, looking at a group of clay dinosaurs he had made. Examining each one, turning them over carefully in his hands, he was amazed how wonderful they were. Something no one else in his life understood, except maybe Countess Volinsky.

The smell of cigarette smoke, the sound of his mother’s voice and a man’s laughter woke him up. He pulled the pillow over his ears and turned toward the wall. Something in him hated what was happening to him.

Free art classes were given every Tuesday and Friday at the Christ Child Settlement House, a block from Robbie’s apartment. One evening, he had wandered into the two-story brick building with some other neighborhood kids. Robbie could smell the odor of a gym in the building. Through an open door he saw boys playing basketball, their sneakers squeaking on the polished wood floor.

Robbie turned away. Being small, he couldn’t compete with bigger and stronger boys his age. He preferred art, drawing and making things out of clay. Passing an open door, his heart leapt when he saw kids drawing and painting. An elderly woman watched him for a moment and then motioned for him to come in.

“Would you like to draw?” she asked, her words sounding strange to him.

“Yes,” Robbie replied, “I like to draw.”

“Then sit down here,” she said smiling, “there is paper and chalk on the desk.”

That was how it had begun, how he met Countess Volinsky. Robbie arrived every Tuesday and Friday evening after that, at exactly six o’clock, staying until closing at eight-thirty.

One rainy evening, months later, Robbie was working on a watercolor painting when the Countess sat down beside his work table. No other students had shown up for class that evening, and the two of them were alone. The Countess put her hand on his.

“I have something to tell you,” she said in a tone that suddenly made him feel uneasy, as if he were going to hear something bad.

“My time with you is coming to an end,” the Countess said softly, watching his face. “Soon I must return to my own country.”

Robbie looked down at his painting, the words pounding in his brain. She was taking away his new-found world. A mixture of sickness and fear swirled in his stomach, tears rolled freely down his cheeks.

“Don’t cry, darling,” Countess Volinsky said, holding his hand tighter. “You have a great talent to share with the world.”

Then the Countess lifted Robbie’s chin with her palm and looked into his eyes.

“I have a story to tell you. Once there was a young boy who was given a precious gift by the gods. He was told that the gift was for him alone. Many were jealous of this gift and told him it was worthless and, like him, would amount to nothing. In his heart the boy knew better, so he hid the gift among a thousand shining lakes, and even though he could not find it again, he knew it would always be his alone.”

When the Countess finished, she stood up, putting her hands on Robbie’s shoulders. “The gift is your talent, darling,” she said, “something so precious can never really be taken from you.”

Robbie looked up to see tears in her eyes.

“Now I have a favor to ask of you,” she said smiling. “May I have one of your paintings to remember you by?”

Robbie cherished the weeks that remained with the Countess. He had blossomed in many ways and it was most evident in his art. One evening, when class was over, she again invited him for hot chocolate. They walked arm in arm under the spring moon. Very little was said, they were content being together and conversation seemed unnecessary.

The Countess ordered hot chocolate as usual and then placed something on the table in front of Robbie. It was a small golden cross, and the beautiful metal glowed like nothing he had seen before.

“I want you to have this, darling,” she said with a smile, “to remember me by. Just as I have one of your paintings to remind me of you.”

That was the last time Robbie saw Countess Volinsky. When he returned for his class the following week, a young woman was behind her desk. When Robbie finished the class that evening, he knew he would not be back.

Robbie could not bring himself to share the cross with anyone. It was kept hidden in a match box, in the drawer of a small table by his bed.

One Friday afternoon, Robbie returned home from school to find his mother sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette. “Where did you get this?” she said sharply.

Robbie lost his breath when he saw the cross on the kitchen table.

“Answer me,” she insisted. “Where did this come from?”

“Countess Volinsky gave it to me,” Robbie blurted out, not taking his eyes off of the cross.

“Countess who?” his mother shot back. “What are you talking about?”

Robbie had not told his mother about his art classes with the Countess, for fear she might stop him from going. She was always telling him that this art thing was stupid, that he would need to get a job and go to work like everybody else.

“The Countess teaches me art at the Christ Child House,” Robbie continued on the verge of tears. “I gave her one of my paintings and she gave me the cross.”

“A woman gave you a gold cross for one of your paintings,” his mother laughed sarcastically. “ Well, we need the money, I’m going to sell it.”

“No!” Robbie shouted, grabbing the cross, “it belongs to me.”

“Give me that, you little bastard,” his mother screamed, grabbing his arm. Her strong fingernails dug into his flesh like the claws of an angry bird. Robbie turned and with more strength than he thought possible, pushed her backwards. Surprised, she lost her balance, falling over a chair behind her.

Robbie knew this was his only chance. He raced down the three flights of stairs running until he was out of the building and on the sidewalk. Robbie looked up at the top floor windows as he ran and saw his mother standing there.

Robbie walked aimlessly for hours, keeping his hand in his pocket, closed tightly around the cross. He passed unnoticed, until he found himself at the old Navy Yard bridge, over the Anacostia river. He looked out at the sun shining on the water. It was then that he came to a decision, remembering Countess Volinsky’s story.

Robbie walked to the center of the bridge. A metal railing rose up to his shoulders, but he could see through the heavy wire mesh below it. The water was darker and, he guessed, deeper here. Without hesitation, he drew the the cross from his pocket and threw it as far as his arm would allow. The gold glinted in the sunlight as it entered the water and disappeared.

Robbie heaved a sigh. The cross was safe now, as in the story of the thousand shining lakes. Maybe the Countess knew this would happen; maybe that was why she had told him the story. He would never know. One thing Robbie was sure of: Countess Volinsky would always be a part of him..

As Robbie walked home through the decaying neighborhood, a strange thing began happening to him. He felt himself growing stronger with each step he took. Robbie kept remembering the words the Countess said to him, when they were alone in class that rainy evening: “You have a great talent to share with the world.”

For the first time in his young life, Robbie Mathews thought it would be fun to play basketball.

Copyright © 2010 by Ron Van Sweringen

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