Wartime Chess (Part 2)

Bucharest, 1944

From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764

“I’m lieutenant Vincent Smolin, with the Second Air Brigade.” The answer came on a confident tone. “Is Dalia home?”

Elea stepped aside to allow Vincent to enter. Elea’s son, Roland hid behind her, shyly scrutinizing the visitor’s uniform.

“Young warrior,” Vincent addressed the boy. “How would you like to become a pilot when you grow up?”

Roland looked at Vincent with his languid eyes. Vincent smiled, and followed Elea into the living room.

Dalia’s wet hair fell to her shoulders in soft curls. “Vincent!” she said, and gave him a hug, grateful to see someone — anyone — from her past. For a moment, it seemed that the war had stopped.

Taking detours to avoid the bombed areas of the city, Vincent drove Dalia to Capșa. The famous coffee shop was untouched, like in a world of its own, its mirrors as gleaming as ever, the crunchy almond cookies, the rich chocolate cakes and the buttery napoleons perfectly aligned in their illuminated glass cases. German officers milled around. Dalia and Vincent found a table and ordered profiteroles. While they ate, he reached across and tried placing his hand over hers. She pulled her hand back.

He said he had her address from Nicola, who had it from Virgil. He was now stationed just outside Bucharest, but his days in Kishinev, when they were all in high school together, had been the best of his life. He recalled an afternoon at Nicola’s farm, when they played tennis, Dalia, Virgil, Nicola and him. After the game, they walked in the fields, where the horses grazed. The sun was getting ready to set. Dalia placed her head on Virgil’s shoulder as they were all resting in the grass and Vincent recalled how jealous he felt.

“You’re a Jew Boy,” he said to Virgil. It was one of the slurs they used to tease Virgil in school.

“I’m not Jewish, believe it or not.” Virgil laughed. “I’m Russian, Romanian, Turkish, and Polish. Take your pick.”

“How are you Turkish?” Dalia asked.

“When I was a baby, we lived in Istanbul.”

“Do you see the horses?” Nicola asked. “They are purebreds. When it comes to horses, their lineage matters. But people, I couldn’t care less where they’re from.”

“Our world has changed,” Vincent said as he scooped the last of the chocolate sauce from his plate.

His words sounded ominous, and Dalia could not disagree. She glanced out the large windows at the people rushing by, their faces concerned. The world was different, yet it was still the same. The war. What had happened then, and what was happening now was, somehow, a continuum — maybe because she was in it — she and Virgil, as well. She thought of Virgil and then of her mother, far away in the room where the two of them had slept when she was a child. The outline of the room was unclear, a dark, rectangular space.

“What I live for today is this country,” Vincent said. “Defending her has become my mission in life. My hero is Manfred von Richthofen. Do you know who he was?”

Dalia didn’t.

“A captain in the German Air Force during World War I, with over 80 air kills to his credit, an ace among aces. To this day, no one has equaled his feat.” Vincent paused to allow his words to sink in. “I’m humbled at the thought of his heroism. If I could be at least one tenth…”

“You are,” Dalia said, not knowing exactly why.

Vincent didn’t think she was being polite. “Half a year ago, defending the refinery, one of our pilots went into a half roll, moved upside down under an American B-24, and raked its belly with bullets. We defeated those monsters then. I want to do that again.”

Dalia dabbed her lips with the napkin. The profiterole had been very good.

“Come see my airshow on Sunday,” Vincent invited Dalia. “I’ll reserve you a seat in the official stand. This way you’ll see everything. The King will be there. He’s a pilot, too, and we have the same name. In the evening, we could go to the Royal Ball.”

Dalia liked parades and ceremonies, the idea of breaking the monotony of the last few months was appealing, and she accepted Vincent’s invitation.

When she mentioned her plans, Uncle Leo grimaced. “I thought you had a boyfriend,” he said.

“We all went to school with Vincent. He’s just a good friend.”

“A good friend. Yes, I know how this works.”

*

Sunday was another beautiful day. After the arrival of Marshal Antonescu in his black convertible, everyone stood at attention for the King. The ceremony started with the national anthem.

Dalia was seated next to Vincent’s parents, three rows behind the King, and Vincent came up to greet them. He seemed in an excellent mood. “We’ll showcase our new IAR 81 today,” he said proudly, looking straight at Dalia, while other people turned to listen to him. “It’s a low wing monoplane, an all metal monocoque fighter. We carry six Mauser MG 151/20 cannons, the most recent release out of Germany to the front. They’re heavier than the old guns and the engines were boosted to 1,025 hp.” He stopped. “Too much technical detail, huh? Never mind. Today I’ll have a treat just for you.”

“You’re so skinny,” Vincent’s mom said.

Vincent smiled. “See? She is pestering me.” He shook his father’s hand, hugged his mother, and took a step closer to Dalia. “Be it as it may, I’m happy the Jew Boy is gone,” he whispered in her ear and quickly kissed her cheek.

Vincent’s parents pretended to look away.

Dalia blushed. She had never liked Vincent’s advances and didn’t want anything to be misinterpreted, while it seemed that everything was.

The military parade lasted only twenty minutes. No time to be wasted — there was a war going on. As the procession was ending with the brass band marching behind the last group of large mechanized guns, three fighter planes flew in low, one over the stand, the second over the road with the marchers, and the third over the open field. The noise of the engines drowned the music, and the turbulence ruffled the ladies’ hair and lifted their hats. A second formation of planes flew over, then a third. It felt like an eternity, but it lasted only several eye bats. Far in the distance, the first three planes gained elevation and turned around, flying upside down over the stands. People applauded. The second and third group broke formation, and returned, two at a time, doing quick rolls and flapping their wings. Then all planes disappeared except for one that returned at mid height, performed a double loop, and engaged in a crazy dive away from the tribune.

“That’s him,” Vincent’s father said.

“Are you sure?” his mother asked.

The plane leveled off at the last moment, gained some elevation, and veered parallel to the road over the open field. It looked like it tried to continue on its upward trajectory but stalled. A trail of smoke marked its downward spiral, followed by sparks. They saw a large fireball where the plane hit the ground. The boom came a second later, then a mother’s loud wail.

The King and Marshal Antonescu left first. The Royal Ball was cancelled. A newspaper speculated that Vincent Smolin had stretched the limits of his aircraft and lost control. It stated that even though the young pilot had never seen combat, he had been a rising star.

Dalia locked herself in her room for the next two days. The sorrow in her heart was intensified by the fear of a future she could not control and a nagging sense of guilt that Vincent had crashed because he had tried to impress her. She had never encountered death up close. Vincent had been a friend and an equal, somebody who was present in the memories she cherished. And then he was not.

When her father died, she was too little to understand. His absence meant that there were no boundaries, no limits in how to shape his image, and her feelings for her father had grown to occupy a large place in her heart.Through death, Vincent, like her father, also acquired a dimension he had never possessed. He became unforgettable. She had never loved him, and she wasn’t devastated the way she knew she’d be if Virgil died. In a time of war, when thousands of innocent people perished all around her, Vincent’s death stood out. His death happened to her.

On the other side of the door, Uncle Leo walked on tiptoes. He never knocked. She would have liked him to come in, speak to her like a father, and ask her about Virgil or Vincent. Talk to her about death. She could have used somebody’s hugs, body heat.

When she finally stepped out of her room, Uncle Leo poured two shots of vodka and set up his game of chess. They drank, and he started explaining the moves to her: the bishop, the rook and the queen.

“Do you think Virgil will be back soon?” Dalia asked him.

“I don’t know. Life is a game of chess. You do your best in anticipating your next move.”

Roland came over and, with a swipe of his little hand like a diving warplane, he sent all the chess pieces flying.

Leo looked at Roland and frowned. “Then somebody comes and throws everything out of whack.”