Set Me as a Seal upon Your Heart Part 8
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The excited group disembarks in Copenhagen from the fast ferry – Professor Grigore, Sassa, Mr. Ávila, Connor, and the pale 12-year-olds, Oskar and Eli.
Oskar checks his watch. The professor pats him on his shoulder and smiles at him. He hugs his beloved Sassa before he shepherds the group aboard one of the special buses that will take them to Tivoli Gardens.
After the kids stop waving to him from the bus window, Professor Grigore hails a cab to take care of a private matter. Since he doesn't say what the private matter is, Sassa assumes it's police business, which is partly true.
Oskar and Eli have spent much of December thrilled by Malmö's Christmas decorations and shop windows, but that hasn't prepared them for the magnitude of Copenhagen's celebration. Even before the crowded bus disgorges its excited passengers, the vast arrays of lights and the throngs of people they see from the bus window tell the kids they are in for something far in excess of their expectations.
"I'm glad Professor Grigore told us to hold off taking pictures until he can help us with them," Eli says.
"Yeah," Oskar replies. "They could turn out awesome or awesomely bad. So many lights, so much stuff in motion!"
As soon as the group pays to enter the amusement park, Oskar starts badgering the grownups to get in line for a fearsome-looking roller coaster. The fearsome part is confirmed by the shrieks of the riders ahead of them. When their turn comes, Mr. Ávila declines and instead holds Sassa's purse and lets the kids load him down with their bulging camera bags and tripods.
Wooden beams creak and the air is filled with the odor of steel and ozone from the braking mechanism as the roller coaster slows, glides, and bumps to a stop. Attendants walk quickly to the cars to release the safety restraints of the riders ahead of them, who walk with rubbery legs but with grins on their faces.
The four gamely allow the attendants to secure them in the cars. The roller coaster jerks forward, picks up speed, and tops the first rise. The nonstop shrieks begin.
When the harrowing ride ends, Sassa, Connor, and the children are somewhat shaken, but Eli far more than anyone else. It's as though she has become a little peasant child again. Her grin is so fixed that it is like the rictus of a death's head, and she shakes uncontrollably.
"That was...that was..." she tries to say. Oskar slips his arm around her waist and tenderly kisses her cheek. Eli turns to him, and Oskar holds her close until her violent shaking subsides and her grin relaxes enough to become just a big smile.
"Let's do it again!"
The grownups laugh, relieved that Eli has recovered. Sassa thinks – Oskar didn't have to say a word to Eli. He knew exactly what she needed.
After Mr. Ávila distributes their things, he says, "I think I could handle the Ferris wheel."
Connor says, "Well, you guys, I don't like heights. The roller coaster from hell was enough fun for me."
The four join the long line, and when their turn comes they pile into the gondolas, where Oskar and Eli snuggle like young lovers. Although they will never experience the hormone-driven tempests of adolescence – they will always be 12, quick to cry or to get angry, quick to get over it – their feelings for each other are more deeply rooted than the stormy passions of teenagers. The children's feelings are grounded in the fierce loyalty that two lonely children discovered in each other and then tested and nurtured through the ups and downs of the ensuing two years.
Intrigued by them and watchful as usual, Sassa muses – They are so close. It's as though they are two sides of a single personality.
After the sedate Ferris wheel ride, the group walks to the carousel and finds Professor Grigore waiting for them. He and Sassa greet each other with a kiss and a warm hug.
"Have you been waiting long?" she asks.
"No, my love," Constantin answers. He and Oskar glance at their watches and exchange a smile.
Constantin asks the children, "Are you ready to burn some images?"
Sassa and Connor head off together to shop, and Mr. Ávila goes in search of more gift books.
"Good that you brought plenty of film," Professor Grigore says. He patiently guides the children as they plan what they want in each frame and select the lens that will accomplish it. Timing is important so they can shoot the rides when they are stopped as well as in motion. They bracket each shot, and between bracketing and retakes caused by tourists walking in front of their cameras, they burn through roll after roll.
Professor Grigore is such an able mentor that the kids add another layer of skills with little conscious effort. In the past eight months, they have made such strides as photographers that hearing, seeing, and doing have eclipsed thinking to become a seemingly effortless way of learning.
When the group comes together again at the carousel, they check the time and decide to take a bus to Nyhavn. There they find the quay crowded with more shoppers, more brightly decorated gift stalls, and boats tied up fore and aft or side by side.
Soon the grownups seek a nook where they can experience hygge, which to Connor's ear sounds something like HOO-gah. For Danish folks it means a combination of comfort, coziness, familiar food, and a few friends. Throw in a roaring fireplace.
Oskar could probably still summon up feelings of nostalgia for cozy, but since he and Eli don't experience discomfort from the cold, hygge holds little appeal for them. Instead they promise to come back in a bit and go running off.
With the Christmas party only two days away, Connor is relieved that he was able to buy last-minute gifts for the kids. He and Mr. Ávila chat quietly while Sassa and Professor Grigore, not yet a full month into their relationship, snuggle and feel sufficiently hyggelig, or HOO-gah-ly, just being in each other's company.
But the happy grownups also keep an eye on the time, and they are ready to go when the children show up. In anticipation of an overflow crowd returning to Malmö, the group arrives at the rowdy ferry terminal well ahead of the last scheduled trip of the night.
Once the ferry is underway and well out into the Sund, no one pays attention to two pale children among the constantly moving shoal of kids who make up a large portion of the passenger manifest. Oskar and Eli gravitate to a drunken, belligerent tourist and convince him he needs to go out to the deck with them for fresh air. Because of the cold, made even less tolerable by the piercing wind, they have the fantail to themselves.
The two children come back inside after a few minutes and wash their faces in a restroom. Eli tries to make a dumb joke about hygge, but she never gets past the hiccough after the first syllable, so it comes out each time sounding like hoog-hic! Oskar laughs at her, and then Eli giggles when Oskar realizes he's seeing double and can't get his eyes to uncross.
When Mr. Ávila catches sight of them, he notices they are wobbly on their legs and attributes it to the motion of the ferry; but after thirty minutes the kids have recovered and disembark in Malmö with a steady gait, normal vision, and no hiccoughs.
Weeks later, the capricious currents of the Baltic deposit a man's sea-ravaged body on a desolate stretch of the Finnish coast.
The sun sets at 3:38 and at 3:39 the children are dressed and down the attic stairs. Before they shower, they run to the front room to see if anything has changed. But no – same number of gifts under the tree.
By 3:40 their sweats are in a pile in the hallway and they're showering.
They emerge from their bedrooms dressed for tonight's party – clean shirts and pants and their least disreputable sneakers.
When they find Mr. Ávila in the kitchen, Eli chirps, "How do we look?"
"You look fine, Miss Eli. Did you put your clothes in the laundry room?"
The kids disappear and return in seconds.
"Yep," she answers and runs to hug Mr. Ávila. "When will everybody be here?"
"No set time. The food I'm preparing will be ready in an hour or so, but I won't set it out until Sassa comes with the food she's bringing. Oh, and it's not a sit-down dinner, so you guys won't feel left out while people are eating."
"We don't feel left out," Oskar says, "and anyway, tonight is really about opening the presents, right?"
"Well, and being together and enjoying each other's company," Mr. Ávila answers.
"I know Ingrid will like what I got her," Eli says. "What did you get her, Oskar?"
"I got her a cool book. And a peace offering."
"A peace offering?"
"Sure. You guys got to be friends after that weird thing with Viktor, so I figured I'd try to make friends with her too."
"Well, what is it?"
"I'm not telling," Oskar says and gives Eli a smug smile.
Eli frowns and thinks – Hmpf! Be that way then.
Connor is the first to arrive. He knocks and lets himself in. The ground is still white from yesterday's brief snow shower, so Connor's boots got a little wet during his walk from the bus stop. While he takes them off at the front door, the children hover, waiting for a hug or a handshake, which they get as soon as Connor hangs up his coat.
As he walks into the kitchen to greet Mr. Ávila, Connor says, "Mmm, the food smells good!" To fuel his 15-stone, six-foot-plus body, he could start eating now and not stop the whole evening, but he'll have to wait until the other guests arrive and Mr. Ávila sets out the food. Connor fills a mug with glögg – sweetened and spiced red wine – from the big pot that's simmering on the stove.
"Fernando, sir," Connor asks, "Do you think it would be okay if I set this bottle on the counter so people can help themselves? I know Irish whiskey isn't really a gift of food, but it can be my contribution to the party."
"That's just fine, Connor," Mr. Ávila says and sets out glasses. "Thank you. I imagine it will add to the merriment."
While they wait for the others to show up, the children hustle Connor to the attic darkroom and put on a slideshow of Tivoli and Nyhavn from their Copenhagen trip. Many of the more creative slides are stunning, with blurred images and trails of light when the rides are in motion; other slides are like promotional images shot by professionals.
As they near the end of the show, the kids giggle at some of their candid shots of Professor Grigore and Sassa getting all cozy at Nyhavn. The kids were supposedly running up and down the quay, looking at the tied-up boats and checking out the colorful gift stalls, but they weren't. It's amazing what you can see through a restaurant window using a telephoto lens.
"Gah, Oskar, I wish we had pictures of how we all looked on the roller coaster."
"Ha ha! Maybe not," Oskar says, and Connor adds, "Yeah, Eli, you looked pretty freaked out."
"I did? Yeah but I still want to go back and ride it again."
"Nah, the amusement park is only open for the holidays," Oskar says. "It's usually closed in winter."
Just then Connor and the kids hear the front door open as the last three guests let themselves in and call out "God Jul!" and "Merry Christmas!" The children turn off the slide projector and storm down the stairs to meet them, Connor sauntering along behind them.
The children watch as Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore help Ingrid and Sassa take off their coats. Eli runs to Sassa for a hug, but she keeps one eye on Oskar and Ingrid. No worries – Ingrid just grabs Oskar's hands. She doesn't open her arms as an invitation for Oskar to step closer.
Ingrid turns to Eli, gives her a warm hug, and then offers her hand to Connor. "And who is this tall drink of water?" she asks, and Connor shakes hands with her and introduces himself.
Eli takes in everything and thinks – Ingrid still seems a little flirty, but she's changed. It's like she's Ingrid instead of just playing Ingrid.
But no, she's just playing a different Ingrid, one making the transition from her flirty middle-school way of relating to boys to a more reserved, high school way – just one more transition that little Eli will never get to experience.
Constantin helps Sassa carry her shopping bags of food to the kitchen, leaving a bag of presents by the door, including Connor's gifts for Oskar and Eli that Sassa wrapped for him. Mr. Ávila takes the gifts and sets them by the Christmas tree. The lower half of the tree still looks deranged from the way the kids raced around decorating it, but there are so, so many Christmas presents.
While Sassa and Mr. Ávila load the dining room table with serving dishes of Christmas food, Connor and Ingrid help themselves to mugs of glögg. Sassa gives her niece a look, but Ingrid just shrugs and sips anyway. Oh well, Sassa thinks, she's almost 15, and it's just sweetened wine.
The dining room table barely has room for all that Mr. Ávila and Sassa prepared – a Christmas ham, or julskinka, sausages, meatballs, spare ribs, herrings, brawn and bread to dip in the stock from the ham, pickled pigs feet, lutfisk, or dried codfish, and many different kinds of sweets.
Sassa made sure she brought risgryngröt, a rice porridge that has an almond hidden in it. The tradition is that whoever gets the almond will marry in the coming year.
And somebody will get it. Sassa takes up her post at the dining room table, pushing rice porridge on anyone who'll take a bowl. Ingrid is standing next to her, and in a few minutes Sassa whispers, "Oh my…I got the almond," and Ingrid sings out, "Aunt Sassa got the almond!" Sassa tries to shush her, but Ingrid chants, "LAH lah, LAH lah!"
When Constantin comes in from the big room to see what the merriment is about, Ingrid says, "Sassa got the almond! You know what that means!"
"It means she's going to get married this year!"
The shy man's face turns red with embarrassment, and, as Mr. Ávila enters the dining room, Constantin gives him a stricken look.
Mr. Ávila tries to be helpful. "Pay Ingrid no mind, my dear friend. It's just one of those superstitions, like walking under ladders or women proposing to men on February 29th."
But the shy, dear man just blushes even more.
Ingrid has one more arrow in her quiver. "Aunt Sassa, you are going to propose on leap day, aren't you?"
"Oh Ingrid," Sassa says. Ingrid can hear from Sassa's tone that the teasing has gone on long enough. Sassa gives Constantin a hug, takes the plate from his hand, and asks, "What dishes haven't you tried yet?"
Connor refills his plate, too, and goes into the kitchen to charge a glass with whiskey and a splash of water. Ingrid, still grinning because of Constantin and her aunt's discomfort, refills her mug with glögg.
Everyone drifts back to the big front room, chatting and admiring the big tree and the large number of gifts.
Some of them – not just the kids – wonder what presents they will get – looking at labels, hefting and shaking packages, trying to guess what's in them.
A little while later, Eli looks around and doesn't see Connor. Probably out back smoking, she thinks. But as soon as she enters the hallway that leads to the backyard, she finds him sitting on the attic stairs.
"Conoor, what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, Eli. I'm just feeling…I don't know…"
"You want to be home?"
"Yes, I guess I'm feeling a little homesick. And that's all mixed up with wanting this trip to go on and on. But Eli, this is my last night with you and everybody."
"But you'll come by tomorrow before you leave, right?"
"I have to be on the ferry early so I won't miss my flight."
"Gah, then this is it?" She hugs Connor and then pulls his hand to lead him back to the party, but Connor says, "Wait, little one. I have something I want to give you. Stay here, okay?"
Connor gets up, goes to the big room, and takes something out of his coat pocket. He returns to the stairs and, sitting down again, he holds out a necklace with a jade tiger pendant. Eli accepts the gift and studies it closely.
"It's beautiful, Conoor. Thank you." She gives Connor a lingering hug, and her throat tightens at the thought that she and Oskar won't see their new buddy after tonight.
"See Eli, my dad gave me the necklace for hope and luck. If you're lucky enough to find the hope that makes your life worth living, you hold onto it for as long as you can. It may fade, but you will always remember what it brought you."
"Oh Conoor, you can't know how long I lived without hope. Almost not really living. Then I found Oskar, and then Mr. Ávila made it so we can all live together as a family." She kisses Connor' cheek. "I'll wear it so I can think of you, for sure. And it will remind me of all I have now – stuff I thought I wouldn't ever have."
Connor feels his face burning from the unexpected kiss. He avoids looking directly into her eyes, a step toward saying goodbye, of letting go of Eli and of his confusing feelings for her. He thinks about the night the family brought him to Järavallsgatan after he got mugged.
She was so pale, so quiet and still, and her big eyes seemed to draw me to her as she stared at me.
Connor knows that no one could find fault with the quality of his feelings, but they were confusing because of the sudden strength of his attraction to the child.
But then, he thinks, this has been the most exciting and confusing week of my life!
Eli stands up and tugs his hand. "Okay, Conoor, let's get these old people moving."
She stalks into the dining room where she and Connor find Sassa and Mr. Ávila chatting. Putting her fists on her little hips, Eli stares at them with a fixed, unwavering look, like a cat.
"Well, Sassa," Mr. Ávila says, "It looks as though somebody is ready to start opening presents."
"Then let's get started," Sassa says. She caresses Eli's cheek, walks into the big room, and takes charge. "Okay everybody, find a place to sit or stand. Eli and I are going to hand out the presents. And hey! Don't start opening them until they're all handed out. Oskar, you stand over there. Ingrid, stand with Oskar. You can make a separate pile for Eli's presents."
Sassa reads the labels out loud and Eli runs to deliver each gift. More hefting and shaking of boxes. Eli notices that a gift from Sassa is shaped suspiciously like Eli's gift to Ingrid.
When there are no more presents under the tree, Sassa says, "Okay, let's see what everybody got!" and they all begin tearing gift-wrapping or carefully teasing it off, depending on their style.
Oskar and Eli watch intently as Ingrid rips the paper from a cube-shaped gift.
Ingrid looks puzzled. "It's…um…a Rubik's cube." She manages a smile when she sees Oskar's innocent smile. She glances at Eli in time to see her surprised look change to a smile.
"I get it, Oskar!" Eli says. "It's to let Ingrid know you want to be friends, like when you let me borrow your Rubik's cube, right?"
Oskar nods and continues to smile sweetly at Ingrid, who relaxes and hugs him. "It's a wonderful gift, Oskar, and I accept the offer of friendship." She extends her hand to him, and he takes it and bows stiffly.
"What are these?" Eli asks, picking up the two same-shaped gifts. She and Ingrid tear the wrapping from them and find identical music boxes. Eli's hand trembles with anticipation as she lifts the lid.
"Für Elise!" she says. "Thank you, Sassa!" Ingrid lifts the lid of hers, and when the same tune plays, she laughs, delighted that they have these gifts in common. "It's beautiful, Eli. Thanks."
When Oskar picks up a gift from Eli, she tells him, "You have to open it kind of carefully."
He does and exclaims, "Eli, it's the latest Batman!" And it is – December 1983, no. 368, a rooftop scene featuring Robin in a red shirt and yellow cape with Batman swinging on a rope right behind him.
"I didn't think you even knew who Batman was."
"I didn't when you said it, but Mr. Ávila looked up a comic book store and showed me how to order it. It came in the mail and Mr. Ávila wrapped it for me," she says and smiles proudly.
"Okay, what next?" he asks, and Eli says, "Now you, Ingrid."
Ingrid hefts what is obviously a book, opens it, and squeals, "Faeries! Oskar, this is great! Ooo, I love the illuminated text, and the illustrations are gorgeous. When I look at it, I'll always think about how we were fairies in the play."
She picks up a gift and hands it to Eli, who unwraps it and falls silent. It's a framed 8-by-10 that Eli took of Ingrid in her fairy costume, inscribed, "To Eli, my favorite Fairy and fellow actor!" followed by a heart. Eli's eyes feel misty. She hugs Ingrid around her neck with one arm, pulls her down to her height, and kisses her cheek.
"Now you," Ingrid says and hands Oskar a gift. He opens it to find a framed promotional head shot of Ingrid inscribed, "To Moth, from your one-time Flame xoxox" followed by a smiley face. Eli could find it presumptuous of Ingrid to call herself Oskar's flame, but she takes it to be a peace offering, like the Rubik's cube. It both tickles and embarrasses Oskar, who just looks at the picture and says, "Thanks, Ingrid."
The grownups are opening their gifts, too, but slowly, distracted by the drama going on among the children. And there are no more gifts for Ingrid, although she has plenty under the tree at her house where Sassa and Constantin will be tomorrow night when they repeat the celebration.
Constantin and Connor take an opportunity to leave the room in order to fill their plates again. Connor motions Constantin into the kitchen. He pours whiskey into two glasses and adds a splash of water "to bring out the flavor." Constantin's experience runs more to wine than spirits, although he has occasionally enjoyed brandy at faculty functions when he was still teaching in Bucharest. But he mans-up and finishes the fiery drink. They walk back into the big room, and it isn't long before he feels the effect of it, especially on top of the several mugs of glögg he's already had.
"Oskar, the label says this is for both of us. From Professor Grigore." It's a large book, and when Oskar carefully unwraps it, they see it's about astronomy – navigation, constellations, photography, and lots more. Seeing the professor and Connor coming back in from the dining room, Oskar sings out, "Thanks," and holds it up for Constantin to see, which he acknowledges with a smile.
Oskar starts refolding the wrapping paper, and Eli says, "You don't have to be such a neat freak, you know!"
Oskar laughs and thinks, Busted!
He nudges another present toward Eli. She opens it to find Drottningens juvelsmycke, or The Queen's Tiara.
"What's it about?"
"I haven't read it, but I've heard it's really good, about a kid who lived 200 years ago." Ingrid jumps in with, "It's my favorite book! It's about Tintomara, a kid who has lots of lovers, men and women, and you never find out whether she's a boy or a girl."
Eli thinks – a kid 200 years ago, and nobody knows if she's a boy or girl? I wonder if Oskar knew about the gender thing when he bought it.
But all she says is, "Thank you, Oskar. Looks like you got a book, too."
Oskar looks at the label and sees it's from Mr. Ávila. He opens it to find Barnens ö, or Children's Island. Mr. Ávila calls out from across the room, "It's really funny, Oskar, but it's serious, too. I liked it a lot."
The grownups have just about finished opening their gifts – mostly gloves, scarves, and sweaters – but the kids still have lots more. They open Connor's gift to Eli – an elaborate, handmade candle. "Thanks, Conoor!" she sings out. "It's beautiful!" Oskar sniffs it and says, "Nice. It smells like hippie incense." Ingrid sniffs it, too, and says, "Mmm, sandalwood."
Oskar opens a big box from Connor and finds a regulation soccer ball. "Wow! Thanks!" That gets Mr. Ávila's attention, who says, "We can play half-court in the backyard. We'll take turns playing goalie."
Oskar looks at Eli and says, "You're dead."
"Don't start," she responds.
Oskar glances at the long box that Mr. Ávila brought from the attic storeroom the night they decorated the tree, but Eli first opens a box from Sassa to both of them. It holds a generous selection of classical music cassettes – beautiful and exciting works by Beethoven and Mozart, such as Für Elise, "Moonlight Sonata," Piano Sonata No. 8, a flute sonata, and Ode to Joy. Other cassettes hold collections of ravishing and beloved works such as Debussy's Clair de Lune, Ravel's Pavane pour une Infante Défunte, Chopin nocturnes, and Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, among many others.
There are two gifts left for them from Mr. Ávila, and now Oskar goes for the large one that had been hidden in the store room. It's a telescope with a mechanism to accommodate celestial photography. Mr. Ávila walks over to them and says, "It came with a good instruction book, so we can use that and Professor Grigore's book when we play with it tomorrow evening."
Eli opens the one gift that's left, a boom box from Mr. Ávila. "Cool!" Oskar says and looks around for a wall plug. Eli picks out a cassette with Für Elise, but stops – a puzzled look on her face. Something is missing.
As Eli opens her mouth to ask, Sassa says, "I have your gift to Oskar and one from him to you, but first, how about pile up all the boxes and wrapping paper in that corner. And Ingrid, give them a hand picking up, please."
Once the floor is free of clutter, Sassa picks up two unopened presents from behind the tree – It's the music that Oskar and Eli bought for each other, and Sassa saved it until now because she has a plan for it.
Sassa lets Oskar and Eli open the boxes and go through the cassettes, big smiles on their faces. Sassa reaches and picks out ABBA's Super Trouper. "Let's start with this."
Eli puts the cassette of disco music in the boom box, and Sassa calls out, "Okay! Let's party!" Eli pushes play, and Sassa startles Connor by taking his hand and pulling him into the middle of the room. But with more than a little help from the whiskey, he feels loose and gets into it.
Ingrid steps out and starts dancing with them. The three of them dance together until Sassa hands Connor off to Ingrid and pulls Oskar and Eli onto the floor. They're clueless about what to do, but they mimic Connor and Ingrid's moves pretty well, at least until the moves become too fast to keep up with – no doubt as a result of the glögg and Ingrid's inexperience with alcohol – and her laughter is so joyous and free that it seems to float on top of the music.
Now little Eli goes to Mr. Ávila and takes his hand. He smiles and shows some good moves for someone who hasn't danced since college. Oskar runs to the utility closet, takes out a broom, and plays air guitar with it while he continues the moves he picked up from Connor and Ingrid.
At last Sassa goes to Constantin and, smiling, takes his hand and gently leads him onto the floor. Constantin is uncharacteristically jolly, and he surprises her by immediately getting into the rhythm. But then, Sassa doesn't know how tipsy the dear man is.
The party goes on and on, and everybody manages to dance with just about everybody else. But near the end of the tape, the dancers start to drop out one by one. Huffing like an overheated furnace, Constantin goes to the dining room and sits down on one of the chairs that had been pushed against the wall.
Soon Connor announces he's going out for a smoke and wanders unsteadily toward the hallway.
After a while, Ingrid is the only one still dancing, but slower now. Presently she stops, goes over to Eli, and whispers that she doesn't feel well. Eli takes her hand and leads her toward their bathroom. She sees that Connor never made it to the backyard for a smoke. He lies sprawled on the attic stairs, snoring softly, his legs sticking out into the hallway.
Eli carefully steers Ingrid around Connor. She gets her to the bathroom in time to lift the lid and watch Ingrid empty the contents of her stomach.
Gyah, Eli thinks, from the color, she must have had more of that glögg stuff than food.
She gently cleans Ingrid's face with a warm, damp wash cloth and takes her to her bedroom so she can lie down.
The party is down to just the four who are still on their feet. With Oskar and Eli's help, Mr. Ávila and Sassa stuff wrapping paper and flattened boxes into large trash bags, which the kids take out to the garage. The two grownups next tidy up the kitchen and dining room, rinsing and putting Sassa's containers and serving utensils into her shopping bags.
"So much food," she says, and she and Mr. Ávila divvy up the leftovers and set the shopping bags by the front door.
"Fernando, it was such a pleasure working with you, coordinating the cooking chores and all."
"The pleasure was all mine, Sassa. We must do it again sometime."
"I suppose it would have to be before you and the kids leave for Spain."
Mr. Ávila lowers his voice and says, "Or in Barcelona. The Ávila clan could celebrate your marriage with a feast, perhaps when you visit us on your honeymoon."
Sassa smiles and her eyes twinkle. "God I love that dear man! Everybody knows we're getting married but him."
Now Constantin is up and moving. As it happens, he was half-way through his third helping of food before he tried the whiskey, so he wasn't drinking on an empty stomach. A good thing because by the time Mr. Ávila, Sassa, and the kids finish straightening the house, he has metabolized enough of the alcohol to be able to drive.
Ingrid is curled up on Eli's bed and Connor is still snoring on the stairs.
"Don't worry about Connor," Mr. Ávila says. "I'll get him up and to the ferry in plenty of time for him to make his flight from Copenhagen Airport."
Constantin and Sassa load up the Volvo with the shopping bags of food and gifts. Constantin goes back in for Ingrid. After he bundles her in her coat, he carries her to the car where Sassa holds her in her lap while they drive the child home. Sassa thinks – I should have kept an eye on Ingrid. Elise is going to give me hell about letting her get plastered.
Mr. Ávila directs the kids to lift Connor and carry him down the hallway to Oskar's bedroom – light work for two little vampires.
As he sets his alarm clock, Mr. Ávila considers how pleasant and well-mannered Connor has been during his week in Malmö. He brought a lot of spirit to our first Christmas, he thinks. And the kids enjoyed palling around with him.
Still, once we get the stuff from his room at Limhamns torg and I see him off at the ferry terminal, there will be one less set of eyes and ears to be concerned about.
With Connor asleep in Oskar's bedroom, everyone else gone home, and Mr. Ávila in his room for the night, the kids go to their pallet in the attic. The party isn't completely over, though. Oskar opens his backpack where he hid one last present for Eli. He waited until he could give it to her in private because he was afraid she might think the gift is too babyish.
"Would you close your eyes for a second?" He takes her gift out and hides it behind his back.
"Okay, you can look," he says as he presents her with the thoroughly but ineptly wrapped gift. Eli takes it and tears off the layers of wrapping paper as quickly as she can, slowed down by the generous amount of tape Oskar used.
"Oskar! It's Winnie-the-Poo!" she says and jumps up from their pallet to cover his face with kisses. "This is the best gift ever! I'm so glad you saved it till now!"
They strip off their party clothes, throw them on the floor in a heap, and lie down together.
Eli says, "You really got to Ingrid with the Rubik's cube. The look on her face. She didn't know what to think when she saw what it was."
"Yeah, that worked just like I hoped it would. I guess I thought of it as a sort of joke. I wanted her to know I'm okay about how things worked out at the theater."
"I hope she feels better tomorrow," Eli says. "She got sick in our bathroom and threw up."
"She did? I wonder if she'll get in trouble. I don't think kids are supposed to get drunk like that."
Eli and Oskar talk about the cool presents and how goofy everyone looked when they were all dancing.
After they cuddle and kiss each other's cheeks for a while, Eli turns on her side and hugs her Winnie-the-Pooh bear. She thinks of her old cloth doll – probably still in the basement in Blackeberg – and she thinks of what Connor said about hope and luck when he gave her the necklace.
Oskar lies on his side and snuggles against Eli's back, one arm draped over her. When he begins to think that she has fallen asleep, he hears her snuffle and knows she's crying. Deeply touched, Oskar wonders where Eli's thoughts have taken her.
Eli hugs the bear, immersed in her deep past where decade after decade she had only a doll to comfort her. It isn't long before she and Oskar surrender to the innocent sleep "that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care."
The next evening, Oskar and Eli play with the telescope in the backyard. Eli is delighted at how it brings houses and cars nearer and says, "We could set it up at the old dock and watch ships!"
They use their astrophotography book from Professor Grigore to identify major stars and for Eli to begin adding more names of constellations to what Oskar already taught her about finding the pole star. With Mr. Ávila's help interpreting the instruction book, they learn to attach a camera and set the parameters of the motor drive to track along with the earth's rotation.
But Malmö's light pollution soon drives them to seek the farms and meadows east of the city where they practice the drill on narrow roads running between the fields, transferring the lessons from their book and their backyard practice sessions.
The drill also includes smoothly explaining to any nosy landowner or cruising constable how light pollution makes celestial photography difficult in town; that is, part of the drill is using their telescope and camera as cover in case anyone stops to ask why they are parked in the middle of nowhere and why an older man is driving around after dark with two 12-year-olds.
What a difference the dark fields make! The impression you get on a clear night in the country is that tens of thousands of stars are visible, but that isn't so. There are less than 10,000 objects visible to the naked eye from the whole earth. Halve that for daylight and halve it again for the northern or southern hemisphere.
With the telescope set up and the motor's parameters set using precise local time, longitude, and latitude, they open the shutter of the camera and let the motor drive track along with the earth's rotation. Okay, now there are many thousands of stars on their film from just one small patch of sky, depending on how long they keep the shutter open and the limits imposed by the diameter of the telescope's objective lens. It isn't Mount Palomar, but it captures a whole new world of wonder for the kids.
All the while, Eli picks up and stores memories of the location of old hideouts, which she says are abundant from Malmö all the way to Norrköping and beyond. Many of the nearby indications Eli gets are on the west coast in the direction of Göteborg; or northeast in the direction of Karlskrona; or straight up the middle of Scania to the still-forested areas toward Norrköping. However, much of the area is beyond the roundtrip range that the long Scandinavian darkness affords them.
But Sweden's winter blesses their enterprise in another way. Not only are the nights long, but most fields under cultivation are fallow. Once the treasure hunt begins, they will not leave a trail of disturbed crops.
When they are confident they can set up their telescope and camera quickly and smoothly, they spread topographic maps on the dining room table to develop a plan. Eli orients herself based on her previous map work with Oskar and their practice aligning the telescope. She indicates a location and Mr. Ávila marks it. Based on the topo map's contour lines, the first location seems to be of uniform elevation – a featureless field.
"Miss Eli, I don't think your hideout still exists. Was it in a flat field?"
"No, but I remember it being right here."
Oskar says, "It's not really far. Shouldn't we check it out?"
They mark additional locations that seem more promising, and after three hours of marking and carefully coordinating the locations with the network of roads, they have their plan.
Clear skies in Scania are chancy during the winter months, and they need clear skies to use the telescope as a cover for their treasure hunting expeditions. They use overcast evenings to continue their other tasks in Malmö, which grow in number and complexity as they prepare for their new life in Barcelona. For now, they plan to treasure hunt into March to visit as many old hideouts as they can.
Oskar and Eli stand looking at the overcast sky from the windows of the big front room. After all the work they did last night planning their treasure-hunt sorties, they're socked in, grounded.
A moment later Mr. Ávila looks up from his reading and smiles at the kids as they stand fidgeting in his doorway.
"It's overcast," Oskar says. "We can't use our telescope for why we're running around outside of the city."
And Eli adds, "So we can't start looking for my old hideouts."
"Don't you have plenty of other things to do?" Mr. Ávila asks.
Eli answers, "We read our astronomy book and Christmas books until dawn, and we've done all our homework..."
"…and we don't have any pictures to print," Oskar says.
"So what can we do?" Eli asks.
Mr. Ávila sets his newspaper aside and suggests, "What if we go shopping?"
"For…?" Oskar asks.
"Rings, of course."
The kids look at each other, and Eli says, "Oh, yeah…our friendship rings." She rubs up against Oskar like a cat.
"Purr-fect!" Oskar says.
"Okay then, put on some nice clothes after you shower."
When they present themselves to Mr. Ávila, he smiles and says, "You look very nice in the shirts Sassa made." He brushes their hair and suggests that Oskar tuck his shirt in.
Eli turns her attention to Oskar and adjusts his collar to lie flat. Oskar pushes a strand of hair from Eli's face, and they run to the front room to put on their winter coats. They pile into the back seat of the old Fiat, Mr. Ávila starts the engine to let it warm up, and he drives to Södra Förstadsgatan near the Triangeln shopping area where he knows there are jewelry stores. On the way, Eli snuggles against Oskar and asks, "Are you still bored?"
"No," Oskar says and laughs. "I'm glad we waited until after Christmas to do this."
Mr. Ávila parks and the three of them walk along the street looking in the store windows.
They stop at the first jeweler they come to and Eli points to some plain wedding bands. "Are those friendship rings?"
"No Miss Eli, but let's go in and see what they have."
The children's sensitive eyes are dazzled by the bright lighting that jewelry stores typically use to show off their wares. Eli says, "Gyah Oskar, it's sparkly like the camera shop, remember?"
"Yeah, Eli, and the fitness center."
A clerk looks up from straightening a display case and asks Mr. Ávila, "How may I help you?"
But Oskar speaks up in his usual bold way. "We're looking for friendship rings. Do you have any?"
"Why yes, young man, we have a particularly lovely selection. Step this way please."
Both kids look serious – even solemn – as they peer into the case.
"Are those friendship rings?" Eli asks.
"Yes, they are called Claddagh rings," the clerk answers. "They're Irish friendship rings, but they are sometimes used as engagement rings."
Eli looks puzzled.
"When people get engaged to be married," Mr. Ávila explains.
Oskar asks, "Eli, what do you think of these?"
He points to a selection of silver bands with a simple, open filigree pattern.
"Their nice, but so are the Clad…the Clad…"
"Claddagh," the clerk prompts.
"They are, Eli, but the Claddagh rings are so colorful that people will always be looking at them."
"Oh yeah. I get that." She knows Oskar means there would be a forensic consideration for something so easily remembered. The clerk wonders – Do they want to avoid attention because of their pallor? Poor things.
"Could we look at the silver ones?" Eli asks.
"Sure," clerk says. He takes out a section of rings and sets them on the glass case.
"Let's get your ring sizes. Which finger will you wear them on?"
Eli looks at Mr. Ávila, who says, "Good question," and he looks at the clerk.
"Usually on the ring finger of the right hand, but it's up to you," the clerk says.
"I'm good with that," Oskar says. Eli nods, and they let the clerk measure their fingers. Although Oskar is taller and heavier than Eli, her hands are large for her frame. It turns out they have the same ring size.
They silently admire how the rings look on their slender fingers.
It touches the clerk at how serious young people can be when they buy special rings, and he smiles at the look of concentration on Oskar and Eli's faces.
Oskar looks at Eli and asks, "Yes?"
"Yes," she answers.
"I think they've found their rings," Mr. Ávila says and takes out the wallet from the inside pocket of his corduroy jacket.
The clerk opens a drawer and sets blue plush-covered ring boxes on the counter. "Are you going to wear them now?"
"No," the children answer together.
"At home," Eli adds. "I wrote down a poem."
A poem! the clerk thinks. Bless her heart. This must really mean a lot to her.
"You wrote a poem?" he asks her.
"No. It's a few lines from the Song of Solomon. I was friends with somebody a long long time ago. He made me learn it."
"Eli," Oskar says. "I never heard of anyone making you do anything!"
Mr. Ávila laughs. "Me neither!"
The clerk thinks – That poem's too grown up for children, and he remembers the opening – "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth." But then – he thinks – kids grow up fast these days.
He gives them a warm smile as he takes the rings from them and puts them in the boxes. "May this happiness bless you forever."
As Mr. Ávila drives back to Järavallsgatan, Eli says, "Oskar, I was so lonely when I met you. It's like I'd been alone for so long I didn't even know I was lonely, like I forgot how to be happy."
"Yeah, Eli, sort of true for me too. Until we got to be friends, I was starting to think I would never have fun again."
After a few minutes of riding in silence, Eli says, "His name was Jan."
"Who?" Oskar asks.
"The man I learned the poem from. He had bad dreams, so he didn't like to sleep. He wanted to pay me to read to him, and when he fell asleep I had to wake him up when he started dreaming. Anyway, he explained the poem to me. After a while, I could just say it by heart."
"Wow, Eli, how long ago was that?"
"I don't know, Oskar. A long long time ago. Anyway, I didn't really need any money, so he made the egg puzzle for me. He was a goldsmith. He worked on the puzzle secretly while I was asleep and then surprised me with it one night."
Mr. Ávila pulls into their garage. After they go inside the house and hang up their coats, Eli looks at Oskar and asks, "Can we do this at the dining room table?"
"Sure," Oskar answers.
"Mr. Ávila, would you like to help us?"
"Of course, Miss Eli. I would be honored to serve as your witness for something this important."
Yep, pretty important, she thinks.
Eli runs to her classroom and returns with a piece of paper.
"Oskar, this poem says everything that the rings mean to me. I want to be clear about it. It means you are that one special person, and nobody else."
"Yeah, like no more googly eyes with guys like Connor."
"And no more acting silly with girls like Ingrid."
That makes Mr. Ávila feel a little uneasy. Ingrid? Connor? What did I miss? He pulls out a chair and sits as the kids stand facing each other.
"Mr. Ávila, Oskar and I are going to take turns reading. It's just four lines. When we're done, you give Oskar his ring to put on my finger, and then you give me the other ring, okay?"
"Got it," he responds. He opens the ring boxes and sets them on the table.
"Ready Oskar?" Eli asks.
Eli recites, "Set me as a seal upon your heart."
Oskar reads, "As a seal upon your arm."
Eli says, "For love is strong as death."
Oskar finishes, "And jealousy is cruel as the grave."
Mr. Ávila shudders as he hands Oskar the ring, and he thinks – Old King Solomon didn't mince words.
Eli starts to offer her left hand to Oskar, but, with a little smile, she pulls it back and offers her right hand. Oskar slips the ring on Eli's finger.
After Eli takes the other ring and slips it on Oskar's finger, she takes his face between her hands and peers deeply into his eyes.
"I love you, Oskar."
"I love you too, Eli. With all my heart."
Eli pulls Oskar's face down to hers and they kiss – Not just by mashing their closed lips together like the few times in the past, but a real kiss, like teenagers.
As the children hug each other, it occurs to Mr. Ávila – They're not really 12 anymore. In spite of how they look, they're growing up. The tough old gym teacher swallows the lump in his throat.
The next afternoon the skies over Scania are clear. The little family takes the opportunity to visit the site of the closest of Eli's abandoned hideouts, and, sure enough, it's sort of a bust. The spot Eli remembers was a wooded hill, but its location is now in the middle of a flat field – no hill, no trees, just as the topo map indicated.
Nevertheless, while Oskar and Mr. Ávila set up the telescope as a cover for their activity, Eli dashes to the remembered location, grows her claws, and digs like a badger. After a few minutes she comes up with a small silver coin. A few more minutes of digging yields a second, larger coin, but it's clear that decades of tillage have scattered the hoard.
Eli runs back to the car with the two coins. She holds them out to Mr. Ávila as she looks down and kicks at the dirt.
"Miss Eli, this is wonderful!"
She raises her head and says, "It is?"
"Yes, little one, it confirms the accuracy of your homing instinct."
Mr. Ávila hugs Eli, and Oskar chimes in, "That's right, Eli. This is going to work."
They put the telescope and camera in the car and drive on. Eli leads them as near as the country roads will take them to the next hideout. Mr. Ávila's topo map shows an elevated area, but no road leads conveniently near the spot.
"Now that we're here," he says, "it seems like a long way from the road."
"Mr. Ávila," Oskar says, "we knew this would probably happen."
"True, Mr. Ávila. Oskar and I talked about it."
"You know from the Rakel thing that vampires have some weird abilities..."
"... and one is we can fly," Oskar says, completing her thought.
"Oh my fur and feathers!" Mr. Ávila exclaims, which is a rare outburst for this usually imperturbable man.
"Yep. Just watch," Oskar says.
The children strip off their sweat tops and hang collecting bags around their necks. Mr. Ávila watches amazed as they raise their arms over their heads and a membrane begins to grow from their wrists to their hips. He's enchanted by the network of beautiful filaments spreading throughout the membrane, and when their wings are strong enough, the children catch the breeze and rise. As he looks up at them circling gracefully above his head, they appear powerful, larger than life, and he knows he will never look at them again without feeling their – what? – their ancient, majestic power, he thinks. When their spiral takes them high enough, they fly toward the old hideout.
Eli's memory is capricious – whole decades are missing – but as they fly toward the abandoned den, a harrowing scene flashes before her, including every detail, from start to finish.
The deep vibrations made by the hooves of horses ridden hard arouse her from sleep on the dirt floor of the den. Now she hears the distant sound of barking dogs and knows at once that she's the object of a hunt. Her internal clock tells her it's still a couple of minutes before sunset. Those minutes will mean the difference between fleeing ahead of the hunters or being forced to stand and fight. The hoof beats pause briefly and then resume.
No time. With the barking growing louder, she grabs the burlap sack with her clothes and a few possessions – a puzzle, a pretty ring, some seashells that caught her eye once. She thrusts her beloved cloth doll into the sack. The riders are coming hard, and first one dog and then another begins to bay, signaling that their quarry is at hand.
Eli feels the seconds ticking down. At the last possible moment, out of sight behind the foliage, she crawls from the den and puts the stone back in place. She starts her run directly away from the sound of the riders, who have not yet emerged from the trees, but the lead dogs are already on her, tearing at her legs and trying to pull her down. She picks up a dog, tosses it into the middle or the pack, leaps over a couple of more dogs, and lands running, hitting her top speed in a few strides. She knows that neither the dogs nor the horsemen can keep up with her.
Now time is on her side. Even though the twilight filtering through the foliage of the tall trees makes the forest as bright as day for her, the fading light will make pursuit difficult.
In a little while, she hears the riders slow their horses to a walk. Soon they can go no farther, and she hears a hunting horn calling the dogs back. Although no one is following her, she smiles and continues to run at a mile-eating pace. When the hunt begins tomorrow, she wants her trail to lead the hunters on a merry chase.
At last she stops – It's time to put an end to her scent trail. She ties her burlap sack around her waist, grows her wings, and takes flight.
As the memory ends, Eli realizes she's standing in the field, facing the rocky ridge.
"Eli?" she hears Oskar say and turns to him.
He's looking at her strangely.
"I'm good. I remembered some stuff. I'll tell you about it later." Eli points to foliage halfway up the low ridge.
"We'll find an entrance to the den there."
They furl their wings and climb quickly. After pushing through the foliage, Eli grows her claws and digs.
"Right about here we should see...Ah!" Her digging exposes a small flat stone that hides the entrance. Eli clears the dirt from around the stone, moves it, and crawls a little way into the partially collapsed den, where she brushes away dirt with her hand to expose the hoard. It's intact, although the leather bags disintegrate as soon as she touches them. It takes a few minutes, but they put every coin into their cloth bags. Eli replaces the stone, and she and Oskar unfurl their wings and fly to the car.
Mr. Ávila congratulates them on their substantial find, and they share smiles and hugs all around. As he stows the heavy collecting bags in the trunk, Eli asks, "Mr. Ávila, can we go home now?"
"Sure, little one."
He turns the car around and heads for Malmö. The idea that Eli could lead them to abandoned treasure – confirmed. But about the children's ability to fly – he'll have to process that, and he thinks – Professor Grigore and I should ask more questions!
On the way home, Eli regales them with the details of her flashback.
"Eli, what if the hunters got there before the sun was down?"
"Well, Oskar, it depends on how many there were. No matter – at the exact moment the sun set, I would leave the den and attack them like a crazed maniac."
"Whoa, that would be a fight for the ages," Mr. Ávila says.
"Yep, I'd have to move so fast it would seem like they were in slow motion. So fast their guns would be useless. Depending on how many hunters there were, I'd have a fighting chance."
"I'm glad you got away. But like where did you fly to?" Oskar asks as he and Mr. Ávila continue with a stream of questions.
"Um, I'm a little hazy about what happened next. I had a whole night ahead of me, so I probably continued on to an old hideout near Kristianstad or Karlshamn."
"Miss Eli, it sounds like you were lucky you got away."
"A little more than luck! All the years I lived in the forest, I was usually the hunter. Plenty of times I'd wait out of sight for a group of riders to pass and then take the last one down and drag him into the woods. I'd be gone before the others noticed the riderless horse!"
Oskar thinks – That sounds like a lot more fun than when we were on the run, and Mr. Ávila remembers what Eli said about leaving the forest to live in town – trails becoming roads, people cutting down trees, noisy mining camps...less and less room for trolls, giants, fairies, and the occasional vampire.
After a while, Eli snuggles against Oskar and grows quiet. I'm glad I got away, too, she thinks.
"Constantin, I've fallen completely in love with Eli," Sassa says as she clears away dinner from her small table in the breakfast nook where she and Professor Grigore take their meals. Sassa's apartment presents an opportunistic blend of the utilitarian and the domestic. Sassa has long since given the dining room over to designing and sewing, including costumes for the Limhamn Players.
"She's a lovely child, Sassa, and I can see that she is rather taken with you, too. However, you know that as dear as Eli is, I incline toward Oskar's company."
Sassa serves their after-dinner coffee and sits down.
"Of course you would. You and Oskar's minds work the same way."
"Whereas you and Eli have a disconcerting way of knowing things without having to think about them. Señor Ávila too."
"Yes, we're like that! Fernando's remarkable intuition has amazed me a few times."
"And amazes me as well. He seemed to know that you and I would be together even before I rang you."
So did I, she thinks, and smiles sweetly.
"But, Constantin, I mean it when I say I'm in love with Eli. I miss her so much. I mean every day."
"You seemed to grow quite close over Christmas," he replies, carefully keeping his responses neutral.
"That started when Eli and I shopped together at Gustav Adolfs torg."
"Ah. And I noticed that she was your shadow at the Christmas party. You and the young people had a lot of fun after we opened the presents."
"Everyone enjoyed the party so much. Ingrid seemed so happy being with Oskar and Eli again. But look, do you think Fernando will ever open up to me?"
"Why would he need to?"
"You know, the family boundaries."
"No, I mean how does Señor Ávila's desire to be discreet keep you from seeing Eli more often? His tight rein on information about the children is just his way of protecting them. Anyway, I am sure that his information blackout will end in the right place and at the right time. Especially the right place."
"But why is that so important?"
"Señor Ávila thinks as long as they are in Sweden the worst could happen at any time."
"That sounds ominous."
"It is ominous! Can you imagine how the children would feel if an SVT news team were to show up at Järavallsgatan? Video cameras in their faces and a reporter talking about the spooky Limhamn shutterbugs?"
Sassa thinks – What's ominous about that? But she just asks, "How would my knowing more about the children lead to something as awkward as that?"
"It wouldn't, unless, say, you talked to someone else about them."
"Oh, Elise, Freja, Denise..."
"Okay, you dear man, I know this is about Fernando, not you."
"Right. And while we're on the subject, you do know, do you not, that the children's education keeps Señor Ávila on edge?"
"You mean because they aren't in a regular school?"
"Yes. As a matter of course they will leave for Spain in a few months. But if Child Protection Services were to get involved before then, Señor Ávila would probably find it easier to leave Malmö early. The paperwork and all would be a distraction."
"Okay. I could see that happening, but by the 'right time and place' you mean..."
"I mean Barcelona."
"Why is Barcelona the right place and Malmö not?"
"Señor Ávila has relatives and old friends in the field of education. He will not have a problem educating the children privately."
"And Malmö is a small town when it comes to minding other people's business, whereas Barcelona is one of Europe's largest cities. People are less likely to wonder about a couple of pale photographers."
"But how does that help! We'll be in Malmö and they'll be in Barcelona!"
"Are you sure? Señor Ávila tells me that Mediterranean beaches are quite lovely."
"Really? Why didn't I think of that! I spend way too much time thinking about Creations, don't I?"
"My darling, someone has to, and that leaves me to think of ways to repay you for letting me into your life."
Sassa, throws her arms around Professor Grigore's neck and covers his whole face with kisses.
He hugs her and says, "Sassa, that is so like something Eli would do. I believe you two really are soul mates."
"I know. I knew it watching Ingrid and Eli play with the little fairies at the theater. In so many ways, Eli's like a fairy-child herself. She has a sense of wonder, like she's seeing everything for the first time."
Sassa smiles. "And yet I sometimes think I see an old and very wise person looking out of those deep eyes of hers."
"Believe me, she's nobody's fool, which is another way that you and she are alike. You get the answer while I'm still scratching my head."
"You're really trying to get on my good side, aren't you?"
"You do not have a bad side, my love."
That makes Sassa smile again, even though she can see that Constantin is gently keeping the conversation playful.
"Do you think you'll say something to Fernando tomorrow when you have coffee?"
"If you like, but I do not see any need for me to be in the middle. Just ring him. You and Señor Ávila can work out which nights the children have classes or other activities."
As she lies in Constantin's arms later that night, it occurs to Sassa that he is a master at diverting their conversations away from the little family. I didn't get to bring up my questions about Oskar and Eli's relationship, she thinks. Is it odd that cousins would give each other friendship rings? But I suppose it's just as well. I know how reluctant Constantin is to betray confidences. After all, his steadfast character is one of the things I admire so much about him.
As she drifts off, she resolves to pursue the possibility of Eli hanging out with her at Creations, especially with a promise to respect Eli's privacy.
She opens her eyes again.
It's so obvious! Why didn't I see it before? This isn't about school or how the children look! What about their special diet? And their aversion to sunlight? I'm sure there's a mystery behind this.
Still, I'm not willing to risk what Eli and I have by prying into it, although there's nothing to stop me from seeing what I see, is there?
Content to leave it at that for now, Sassa closes her eyes and smiles as she falls asleep.
After greeting each other with their accustomed formality, Professor Grigore takes his place at the dining room table, which is partially covered by an open coin catalogue, separate piles of silver coins, a soft brush, and a notebook where Mr. Ávila is recording each coin along with its condition and suggested value. He wears white cotton gloves, the better to not disturb the patina.
He clears a space for Professor Grigore's coffee, and the professor observes, "The treasure hunt is proceeding nicely, is it not?"
"Yes, and I've graded and priced some of these. There are more bags I haven't started yet, but the catalogue tells me what you see on the table amounts to a fortune."
"Splendid! And you still have a month or so of hunting left."
"Yep. Miss Eli has a great homing instinct for her former hideouts. Weather permitting, I expect we'll find several more hoards. As you know, we limit our excursions to clear nights so we can use the telescope as a cover for our activities. But there aren't many clear nights."
The men fall silent. Mr. Ávila senses that something is on his friend's mind, so he waits.
At last Professor Grigore says, "Señor Ávila, you will recall a conversation we had before Christmas about...um...wedding rings."
"Although neither Sassa nor I have brought up the subject of marriage, my discussion with you led me to think about attendant issues, such as our age difference."
"Yes. I do not doubt that Sassa is fond of me, but..."
"My friend, it's normal to have second thoughts leading up a wedding...Oh! Not that I'm..."
"Ha ha! I know when you are teasing me. The girls at the studio are doing some of that, too."
Mr. Ávila acknowledges it with a mischievous smile. He, Sassa, her sister Elise, and the staff at Creations all know that Professor Grigore and Sassa are heading rapidly to the altar. Only Mr. Ávila's dear friend, the shy, brilliant professor, hasn't figured that out yet.
"But you see," Professor Grigore continues, "our age difference has me thinking about my girth. Sassa is a wonderful cook, but she feeds me as though I were a growing teenager."
Mr. Ávila waits.
"Well, what I mean to say is, I saw the effect racquetball had on your physique after you started playing last summer. By the end of November, you looked very trim in your three-piece suit."
Mr. Ávila smiles and says, "I was happy that I could button my vest again in time for the cast party."
He lets Professor Grigore take his time getting to the point.
"Um, since you play racquetball regularly, I just wonder whether I might learn to play."
"My dear friend, if I could teach our wild Indians to play, I think you could put yourself in my hands with confidence. When do you want to start?"
"Well, that raises another issue, one that could help us start right away. You see, Sassa asked me last night to broach the idea of the children hanging out with her at Creations. Especially Eli."
"I see how that could free up some of your evenings."
"Yes, that is what I think. Anyway, I reminded her that there are family boundaries that you do not cross, such as discussing their unusual schedule and their appearance, and she said she is comfortable with that."
Mr. Ávila remembers watching Sassa watching the children over Christmas and thinks – She is emphatically not comfortable with the restrictions. Still, I know how much she and the kids like each other, and it's obvious that she and Miss Eli share a special bond.
Professor Grigore adds, "I also suggested that she ring you and work out the details, since you have a better handle on their schedule now."
The two men chat about getting Professor Grigore set up at the fitness center. They enjoy another cup of coffee before the professor takes his leave and drives to the parking garage near Creations.
He walks to the studio where he finds Sassa in her office.
"You seem to be in a buoyant mood," she says. "How did your morning coffee go with Fernando?"
"It went very well, my love. I've been thinking about some kind of exercise program, and Señor Ávila said he would teach me racquetball."
"That sounds like a fun thing for two friends to do," she says. But she has to bow her head and act as though she were reading something on her desk so Constantin won't see her eyes tearing up.
He mustn't know that his insecurity about our age difference breaks my heart. My God! There's nothing that could possibly make me love the dear man any more than I already do!
After a minute, she looks up from the note she was pretending to read. "Did my idea about the kids come up?"
"Yes, and he observed that the children hanging out with you could free up time for racquetball."
"Did you mention that I..."
"I said that you would not pry into areas he would prefer that you not discuss with him or the children."
"I also told him that what you work out is between the two of you. Or, I should say, between you and the kids. Señor Ávila does not need to be in the middle either so long as there are no schedule conflicts, such as their classes."
"So you mean I should ring him? Like now?"
She does, and Mr. Ávila says, "Oskar and Eli don't have classes today, and it's too overcast to do photography with their telescope. If you like, they can come this afternoon as soon as they shower."
"Could they bring their cassette player and some classical music?" she asks.
"What a good idea. They now have a lot more classical music than the cassettes you got them for Christmas. It sounds like an opportunity to continue their exploration of wider European culture."
Before Sassa rings off, she hands the phone to Constantin so he and Fernando can make plans to start racquetball that very night.
In the car on the way to Sassa's studio, Eli is beside herself with excitement, humming snatches of a newly learned tune, Clair de Lune, and alternately laying her head on Oskar's shoulder or hugging him or kissing his cheek.
Oskar has quickly developed a love of classical music, too, but he has doubts about how much fun it will be listening to it in a dress shop.
Mr. Ávila spots Professor Grigore's Volvo in the parking garage and finds a space near it. He and the children walk to the studio, where he greets his friend again while Sassa welcomes the kids with a big hug. She introduces them to Freja, her operations manager, and Freja and the professor take them on a tour of the showroom and the upstairs production area, where the kids meet the rest of Sassa's staff.
While the kids are going around with Freja and Professor Grigore, Sassa says, "It means a lot to me that you're willing to let the children hang out here."
Mr. Ávila smiles.
"But there's something else. One day soon I'll need to drop by the theater to work with John on his vision of how the costumes for the spring production will look. Do you think the children would like to go with me?"
"I'm sure they would love to see John and Denise again. But Sassa, when they don't have classes or other scheduled activities, they're free to go anywhere they want to. You don't need my permission for them to hang out with you. We just need to be mindful of their studies. However," he adds, "it makes me more comfortable that you appreciate the need to avoid situations and topics of discussion that could...embarrass them."
Sassa is catching on to Constantin and Fernando's way of being vague about the children, and she's beginning to suspect that embarrass is a euphemism for something mysterious that the men won't discuss.
Freja and Professor Grigore return to the showroom floor with the children. Seeing first-hand what Sassa does gives the kids a higher opinion of her. That is, she doesn't just make costumes for an amateur theatrical company. Even Oskar is impressed. "I thought this was just going to be a dress shop. This is really cool!"
Eli just thinks, sublime.
Professor Grigore and Mr. Ávila walk back to the parking garage, and Mr. Ávila drives them to the fitness center. The professor signs up for a locker, and the two men shop for athletic apparel and equipment – Fernando with an air of confidence, Constantin with a feeling of apprehension.
I am about as athletic as a bowl of borscht, he thinks. I wonder whether I can do this. But it is either this or something like it, and a gym teacher like Señor Ávila undoubtedly knows how to get me into shape. I'm not going to bring up the subject of matrimony to Sassa looking like Nero Wolfe!
When Ingrid learns that Oskar and Eli are spending some of their evenings at the studio, she rings her Aunt Sassa. "I'd love to hang out and listen to music with you guys. Do you think that would be okay? It sounds like you're having way too much fun."
"Of course, Ingrid! I just thought you might have gotten enough of Creations for a while. You worked so hard helping us during your school break that it must have seemed like a sweatshop to you."
"Wait...you mean Creations is not a sweatshop?"
"Very funny. But I know they'll be delighted to see you. Oh, and Oskar is getting restless just listening to music and talking about it. Or mostly listening to Eli and me talk about it. Since you have a knack for holding boys' attention, let's see how that works out."
"Maybe," Ingrid says and thinks – But I'm pretty sure they're an item, so I'd better be careful about what kind of attention I pay to him.
"The three of you had a ball together at the Christmas party."
"Yeah, from what I can remember of it."
"They're coming Friday, but I can confirm it. I suppose you'll take the bus, or will Elise be able to bring you?"
"Well, er, Mom said I could come, but I wouldn't push it. She's still not okay with me getting blitzed."
"I know. She railed at me for an hour when Constantin and I came for the family Christmas party. Fortunately, you were able to get out of bed and function almost normally by the time Elise and I put the food out for the smögåsbord."
"Yeah, I tried. But I don't want to get Mom started again, so I'll just take the bus."
When Friday rolls around, Mr. Ávila offers to pick Ingrid up. As it happens, Oskar has started bugging Mr. Ávila to let him play racquetball instead of hanging out at Creations, but Mr. Ávila avoids making a decision. The professor is so new to the game that Mister-smart-mouth-Oskar's presence would probably not be encouraging.
When he tells the kids they're going to swing by and pick up Ingrid, Eli starts in on Oskar. "Gee, too bad. Once you start playing racquetball with the guys, you won't be able to hang out with Ingrid and me."
Oskar returns her snarky smile with a mean look.
When they are ready to go, the kids get into a shoving match as to who will sit in the backseat with Ingrid. "I'm sitting with Ingrid, Romeo!"
Mr. Ávila grabs them by the collar and pulls them apart. Easily done in spite of the kids' outsized strength. Such is their respect for Mr. Ávila that they relax as completely as a kitten picked up by the back of the neck by its mother.
"The backseat is big enough for the three of you. Play nice."
Ingrid is waiting for them and runs smiling to the car. Mr. Ávila holds the door open for her, but instead of getting out so Ingrid can sit between them, Eli gives Oskar a wicked hip check that slams him against the far door.
That doesn't stop Ingrid from reaching over and gathering them both in for a big hug, and on the way to Sassa's studio, the three chatter and bring each other up to date.
"We're doing Som ni vill ha det in Swedish. Think you guys will be hanging out at the theater again?"
"I doubt it," Oskar replies. "It doesn't have any kid parts. I read it but it was confusing. Rosalind dresses up like a boy, but then she has to pretend to be herself so she can teach...what's his name?"
"Orlando," Ingrid says.
"Right. So she can teach Orlando how to make out with her. I mean a her dressed as a him pretending to be a her."
Eli smiles to herself and says, "But Oskar, that's what I like about it! And I like how smart Rosalind is. Ingrid, are you going to be in it?"
"Of course. I'm playing Celia."
"She's clever like Rosalind, isn't she?" Eli says. "But I don't know if we'll be able to hang around much. Mr. Ávila is loading us down with new stuff."
"What kind of new stuff?"
"More photography," Oskar says. "And we're still learning how to get color saturation in low light."
"Yeah," Eli says, "And we're going to need a tutor for portrait photography, like for what kind of lights we need. And remember the telescope we got for Christmas? We're learning to take pictures of the moon and stars and stuff."
"Plus," Oskar says, "We have to start learning Spanish for our move this spring."
"You're move? You're moving?"
The children stare at Ingrid, and Oskar says, "Oh. You didn't know. We're moving to Spain in April."
"You mean like moving moving!"
"Yep," Eli says, "moving for real. But you'll come and visit us and we'll have a great time, right Mr. Ávila?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," Mr. Ávila answers from the front seat. "Of course Sassa and Professor Grigore will visit us. It should be possible to include Ingrid."
Mr. Ávila drops them at the studio. "Have fun, kids, and say hello to Sassa for me." He drives to meet Professor Grigore at the fitness center.
When they enter the studio, the kids are buzzing with so much energy that Sassa has to patiently herd them into her office and close the door.
"What shall we listen to tonight?" she asks, and Eli and Ingrid both start humming Für Elise. Oskar rolls his eyes.
"Let's let Oskar choose something," Sassa suggests.
"Okay. 1812 Overture!"
"My Tchaikovsky collection doesn't include that."
"Okay, then" Oskar says, "something else bombastic."
Bombastic. Sassa smiles at how quickly the kids are picking up music jargon.
"Then how about Ride of the Valkyries?" Sassa suggests.
"Oh yeah. That's what I'm talking about."
As soon as Sassa starts the piece, Eli puts her hands over her ears. Oskar pushes the stop button on the boom box, crosses his arms, and pokes out his bottom lip.
Sassa thinks – We're going to have to come up with some other way of getting these two on the same page. I have an idea, but I want to run it by Fernando.
Ingrid takes charge of the impasse. "Aunt Sassa, I think Oskar needs some fresh air. Eli, may I take Oskar for a walk?"
Three beats pass before Eli responds, "Sure, Ingrid, as long as you two behave."
Ingrid takes Oskar's hand. She opens Sassa's office door and they walk briskly out of the studio.
Sassa looks at Eli and says, "I have no idea what just happened."
"It's okay. Oskar and I almost got in a fight on the way to Ingrid's. We both want all of her attention, I guess."
"Oh. Yes, I guess this is what jealousy looks like." And loneliness, she thinks. I hope they're given the opportunity to make friends with kids their age in Barcelona.
"I think the fight is sort of still going on," Eli continues. "I'll bet that's why Oskar didn't want to listen to Für Elise. It's like mine and Ingrid's song because of our music boxes."
Sassa looks sideways at Eli. This is a 12-year-old I'm talking to?
She turns to look directly at Eli's face and meets the child's steady gaze. An alarm registers deep in her subconscious, and for a moment she feels as though Eli's large eyes are somehow drawing her in. She blinks and gives her head a quick shake to break the spell. She thinks – Who are you, child? – and she pulls Eli close for a hug.
"Let's rewind to the start of Valkyries," Eli says. "Mr. Ávila bought us a tape of Wagner. I'm actually coming to like his music."
Oskar and Ingrid continue to hold hands as they walk. Oskar's hands are getting sweaty and he doesn't know what to say. When their walk takes them as far as the coffee shop, Ingrid turns to him. "Oskar, I like you and Eli just as much as you guys like me. And Oskar, it didn't take me long at the Christmas party to figure out you two have got something going."
Oskar looks down at the sidewalk.
"And now I see you're wearing friendship rings. I don't want to be a reason for you and Eli to be mad at each other. Let's do this one thing and then get back to all being friends."
She steps right into Oskar and wraps him in a full body hug. Oskar is a little embarrassed at how the hug feels and how good Ingrid smells. When they're done he looks down at the sidewalk again and says, "Thanks, Ingrid. We're good."
"I figured. Let's walk back to the studio, and let's all behave."
"Ingrid, I really do like Für Elise. Sorry I acted silly about it."
As they walk, Ingrid thinks – Oskar's hug was so gentle. Eli's lucky to have him.
Fernando is reading quietly in his favorite chair when the phone rings. Without taking his eyes off the page, he lifts the receiver. “Hello?”
"Hi, Fernando. It's Sassa. I have an idea I want try."
"I'm listening." He closes his book and puts it on the table, making sure to insert his bookmark first.
"Okay, it's this: The children are really getting into classical music, but I'd like to do something more to hold their attention. They need to visualize themes and how themes are developed. Chords and harmony. For that, they need to read sheet music and play simple melodies."
"They need to start piano lessons."
"If we decide to do that," he says, "how would it work? Would it mean renting a piano?"
"Fernando, they don't need a piano to learn to play one."
"How is that?"
"We buy a lightweight electronic keyboard. They can bring it to the studio when they visit. And it would be informal, just learning to play easy pieces."
"Okay then, you would line up a teacher for them?"
"You mean you?"
"Fernando, Ingrid and I both play."
"Good to know! My folks made me take piano lessons as a child, but it didn't take. I was wild about soccer even before I started first grade."
"Speaking of sports, Fernando – I know Oskar wants to start playing racquetball with you and Constantin, but a keyboard could keep him out of your hair for a while longer."
Fernando laughs so hard that he has to hold the phone away from his face. "You really know your man, Sassa. The last thing Constantin wants at this stage of his game is an audience."
But Mr. Ávila says he would still like to talk it over with Professor Grigore before he decides. He knows it's an opportunity for the kids to immerse themselves further into world culture, a necessity if they are going to fit into Mr. Ávila's social stratum in Barcelona.
That night, when Sassa raises the question with Constantin about keyboard lessons for the kids, she repeats Fernando's doubts about how much time they would have for it.
"Well, they are going to have a fairly full schedule between now and the time they leave, but it sounds like something they would enjoy. Let me look at the timeline with Señor Ávila tomorrow over coffee."
"Okay, you dear man. What are some of the things they need to do?"
"Did Señor Ávila mention that Oskar and Eli are also going to learn portrait photography?"
"Not soon. I have to connect with a Malmö portrait photographer who will teach them from the ground up. That has to happen before they leave for Barcelona, but I imagine it will be sometime in February or March before I can get that going. Probably March."
"It has to be before they get to Barcelona because…"
"Because, my love, Señor Ávila wants to throw them into the deep end of the pool. They are very good photographers, but given their issues, he wants them to start shooting professionally."
"Sounds like a lot to lay on a couple of 12-year-olds. I can see his point, though. I guess I think they'll always be kids, but I suppose their opportunities for making a living will be limited."
"Right, and because they are young, just shooting photos as a hobby is unlikely to engage their interest in the long run. While they are still eager to learn, getting paid for their work could keep them at it."
Over coffee the next morning, Mr. Ávila and Professor Grigore look at the timeline for what they want to get done before the family leaves Malmö in mid-April.
"Señor Ávila, the Spanish lessons will take up a lot of time because they will occur on a regular schedule."
"Yes, and the reason Spanish will take up a large chunk of their time is because it will no doubt be weekly classes. But I'll designate times through the week when we only speak Spanish."
"Immersion technique," Professor Grigore says. "I've heard it even works for adults, so it could accelerate Oskar and Eli's progress. How much time will that leave for the other activities?"
"They can't do all that needs done at the same time. But the treasure hunts will end by mid-March. By then the days will have grown too long to leave enough darkness for our forays."
"Do you see them starting portrait photography after that?" Professor Grigore asks.
"Before that. That can overlap a little with the treasure hunting because you need to tell me what equipment a portrait studio needs. I need to know that so I can coordinate outfitting Scando Portraits in Barcelona. If you line up a teacher by the first of March, I can run ads for a photographer/day manager in Barcelona.
"Then, Señor Ávila, it looks as though the schedule has room for keyboard lessons, especially since they can fit them in at any time."
"Then, Señor Ávila, it looks as though the schedule has room for keyboard lessons, especially since they can fit in at any time. And it occurs to me," Professor Grigore continues, "that you are actually going to be busier than the kids – grading the coins, lining up what you'll need to do for the move, and putting in place what you need to have at the other end."
"Yep, pretty busy. Look, we never discussed the long-term education plans with the children."
"Right, Señor Ávila. We were starting to talk about that during the family meeting that Eli asked for."
"I remember. As soon as we started to discuss how a cosmopolitan education would make it possible for them to go on without us…"
"I know," Professor Grigore says. "The thought of us getting old and dying upset Eli so much that we put off the discussion. Well, the plan is progressing. It's a lot to put on them, but so far, they have risen to every challenge."
Mr. Ávila goes to the phone in the kitchen to ring Sassa at her studio.
"Professor Grigore and I are on the same page with the timeline. May I pick you up at Creations so we can go to a music store together?"
"Sure. Do you want the kids to go with us?" Sassa asks.
"No, let's go now so we can surprise them when they come to your studio this evening."
Professor Grigore takes the phone and says, "Is is okay if I bow out? I need to go by my apartment this afternoon."
Sassa is waiting for Mr. Ávila when he pulls up in front of Creations. She suggests the music store that she has used from the time she first learned to play. When they get there, Sassa asks for a clerk by name, and he talks her and Fernando through the process.
"I'm certainly going to recommend a full 88-key instrument, such as this Yamaha. It's not too expensive and comes with a good warranty. I also recommend a keyboard amp to go with it, such as this small Peavey. It's a good model for in-home practice, especially because it has a headphone outlet."
Sassa notices that Mr. Ávila has grown quiet and has a pensive look on his face. She tilts her head to one side.
"Oh," he says, "I was just thinking about the time the kids got their cameras. We had to practically buy two of everything so Eli wouldn't get jealous."
"She's so sensitive. But I have the idea of keeping it lighthearted. I want them to do stuff together to keep Oskar's mind off racquetball."
Two weeks into their fitness routine, Fernando guides Constantin as he works out with light weights, working tonight on his triceps and shoulders, thighs and calves. Constantin learned the first week to stop short of overextending his joints and to return the weight to a resting position with the same control as when he lifted it.
"Señor Ávila, I am indeed fortunate to be under your tutelage. My body appreciates the patient approach you are taking."
"I've trained plenty of kids who started well below your level. Please don't ever mention it to Oskar, but he was a challenge when I was his gym teacher."
"Nice of you to say so, but I can just picture what a sight I must be on the court."
"Not important. Taking it slow and mixing in weight training and easy treadmill work are is about not hurting yourself. The stronger you are the more support you have for your joints."
On the court, Fernando minimizes Constantin's lack of mobility by focusing on serves rather than volleys. That and making sure when Constantin tries to return a serve he does not have to take more than a step or two. Easy peasy, but it builds.
Sassa soon finds that Oskar has to take the "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour" approach of mentally mapping the written notes to corresponding keys; whereas, Eli just watches what Sassa does and copies it.
The sheet music Sassa digs out from her childhood could not be simpler. The melody of some well-know pieces can be represented by a few notes, and the harmony by even fewer. Eli delights in her new-found skill and plays Für Elise with gusto. Oskar can keep up with the tempo, but when Sassa pulls out more advanced versions, it will be hard for Oskar to play smoothly without the notes going from his eyes through his brain and to his hands.
But for now the children are so excited to play recognizable versions of Mozart's variations on "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1, and Debussy's Clair de Lune. They even make some progress on playing the first movement of "Moonlight Sonata," especially when Edi takes the left-hand part.
Sassa tells the children that the difference between a well-educated listener and the performer is that the performer it doing the music from the inside.
"When you play a piece of music, you are the music."
It's a lovely idea, and the kids sort of get it.
When she can, Ingrid joins them and introduces them to melodies that she likes.
Oskar hasn't mentioned wanting to play racquetball for a while.
As the month of January winds down, Mr. Ávila asks his racquetball partner, Bengt, to join them, and they start playing full games. Professor Grigore loves his growing strength and agility, but he wonders when he will begin to see an effect on his waistline.
Mr. Ávila says, "Exercise alone won't bring your weight down much. For that, my dear friend, you will need to add an important new exercise to your schedule – pushaways."
"Um, like pushups?"
"No. It's pushing your plate away when you've had enough."
The professor chuckles. "I see. Now, how do I explain that to Sassa?"
"Delicately, I imagine."
As the end of the month approaches, Mr. Ávila thinks about how smoothly the various activities are going. He and the children have made a good start on checking out Eli's old hideouts and are sometimes finding hoards of silver coins. That's an all-or-nothing endeavor because she only abandoned her silver coins when the hoard got too heavy to conveniently take with her.
Keyboard lessons with Sassa and Ingrid have started well, keeping Oskar's mind off racquetball as Professor Grigore slowly gets into shape. And Mr. Ávila is checking out intensive Spanish language night classes that can start in February. Other plans – such as arranging for a portrait photographer to teach the kids the ropes – seem doable in the next ten weeks before they leave Malmö in mid-April.
That leaves plenty on Mr. Ávila's plate – replacing the wheezing, beat-up old Fiat and buying a small caravan; renting space for a portrait studio in Barcelona and hiring a portrait photographer to run the business during the day; flying to Barcelona to finalize that important part of the move.
Since all of the plans and activities are flowing smoothly, who could blame Mr. Ávila for feeling confident that all will continue to go well?
After all, he thinks, what could possibly go wrong?