by Nancy Allen

In 1951, the “luck of the Lyzens” became a
common saying in Ontario’s Upper Bruce

Peninsula and is occasionally still heard.


Sophia Lyzen lingered—luxuriated—on the floaty edge of wakefulness. Her parents wouldn’t roust her from beneath the down comforter until they’d finished telling each other their dreams. Coffee and dreams: it was ritual. Today the voices from the kitchen were barely audible, were, in fact, whispers. Whispers? Her mother’s words fierce, urgent, then came a big emptiness, tagged by her father’s guttural murmur, and another crashing stream of Ukrainian from her mother.

Leaving her little brother asleep, Sophia climbed out of the warmth.

Her father, toothy and genial with reddish-blond hair, jumped up from his kitchen chair. “Donu!” he said. “Last night your mother had a dream about a yellow—”

Roman,” her mother said. She rose, all four feet eleven inches of her, tight-zipped and belted, a formidable barrier even with wide-open arms. “What Tato means is there’s no yellow bus today. For you, a stay-at-home day. Special.”

“But it’s Thursday.”

“For you and Michael,” her mother said, “a special breakfast. Apples fried. Blini with sour cream and honey. All you want.”

“I want to go to school.”

At nine, Sophia stood eye-to-eye with her mother.

“Maty says the spelling bee you have to miss,” her father said.

“Lev Guttman will win the bee today,” her mother said.

“Yes,” Tato said. “Let Lev—”

“Besides,” her mother said. She paused, then gave a sideways, measuring look. “I need you the apples to peel.”

Using a knife was a job for a big girl and not often allowed.

When Sophia took up the knife, her mother threw open cabinets, hauled down flour and sugar, issued orders to Tato—Tato, who worked at the copper mine, never in the kitchen. Michael, only five, stayed in bed. Sophia unwrapped the apples, freeing the skins with a single long curving cut, speaking the alphabet as she did so. She was unpracticed and clumsy, but eager to discover the initial of the man she would marry. With the first apple she spoke as fast as she could; with the second she peeled slowly; on the third she combined the two methods, but never did the dangling peel break when she said “L.”

L, for Lev Guttman. He was the smartest, tallest boy in their grade and she was the smartest, tallest girl. Twenty-three children in their tiny settlement on the Upper Bruce Peninsula, but only Lev Guttman had dark hair and dark eyes. Only Lev Guttman wore exotic round glasses. He’d told her that Tobermory was a passing-through place, temporary, until his parents got their papers to settle in Israel. Israel, he said, was a new country where everyone could make up his own life. Sophia had declared that she too would live in Israel someday. No more old rules from old countries!

Sophia’s mother ruled her kitchen from the old country. She baked methodically, never wasting. It was business. But today she spilled flour, scooped out ingredients without measuring. She sliced Sophia’s apples, dumped them to sizzle in butter, and began to sing Meeshaj Na Nebi. “Heaven is here on earth with you, my angel.” In a strange excitement, crossing and re-crossing the kitchen, often colliding with Tato, she sang. Her busyness created currents that sent the spilled flour drifting and the floor was soon covered in flour-footprints. In her mind Sophia saw her mother trudging from yacht to yacht, carrying baked goods to the rich Americans who’d cruised to anchor in Georgian Bay.

Gathering up the broken apple skins, Sophia told herself that she’d never be a poor immigrant, selling from a basket. She would live somewhere dangerous, somewhere—she wasn’t sure where. Anywhere but Tobermory, Ontario.

The knife leaped out and bit her.

She looked toward Our Lady in Her place of honor. “Forgive me, Holy Mother,” she murmured as she sucked her finger. The ten-inch statue, which had been carefully wrapped and carried from Belz, stood tall and serene above the other objects on the table. The scars on Her cheek appeared brighter than normal—like two newly cut slashes of red.

Sophia glanced at the veiled picture of the Infant Jesus, propped against His mother’s feet. All was well with Him. Sophia had veiled the Child herself with a white kerchief cross-stitched in traditional colors and a traditional Ukrainian pattern: bands of black Xs against yellow. Before the veil, a red rose and a votive’s trembling flame. It was Sophia’s responsibility to keep the flame alive until the beginning of Christmas on January 6th. That night, when the first star appeared, she would blow out the votive, lift the kerchief, and baby Jesus would be there—in the kitchen out of which her father was now leading her. “For you, lubechik, breakfast in bed.”

Sophia snuggled in next to the small lump of Michael. The room was permeated with delicious smells of cinnamon and butter. Michael looked at her, his blue eyes wide. “It’s a sin to be prideful,” she said. She shivered dramatically, and they grinned at each other.

The two of them had been taught to serve, not be served, but here were Maty and Tato bringing trays to them! They ate their special breakfast, sitting up, from trays that smashed down the puff at one end of the bed, while their parents smashed it down at the other. No more chatter or singing—only Maty and Tato sitting silently, watching every forkful of fried apple and blini.

When the town’s fire alarm wailed they were still licking up honey. The sound went on too long. Sophia sucked the sweetness on her finger and watched her mother’s mind flit, now here, now there. Had she ever noticed her mother’s mind moving? No. Rachel Lyzen’s thoughts rose up whole, fully formed. Sophia saw her mother make a decision. She picked up Tato’s hand and nodded toward the kitchen. “Stay here,” she ordered, closing the door. Sophia and Michael stared at each other. The siren continued to wail. “Stay here,” Sophia ordered.

In the kitchen, her parents knelt before Our Lady. Tato had lowered his head and closed his eyes, but her mother looked straight into Her face, murmuring fast strings of words. “Mary, you’re a woman and a mother, you know how it feels, you—”

“What is it?” Sophia said.

Her parents stood as though they’d been jerked up by strings, and Michael ran in. The siren shrieked, on and on, shrill and relentless, and time fractured, and inside and outside came unbound. Frost figures danced across the bottom of the plate-glass window where the four of them stood. Outside was bright and somewhere far below zero. Nothing moved. There was only blue sky, the sound of the siren, and the snow, deep and untracked. Then Mr. Butterfield, their next door neighbor, came struggling—without a hat, his coat unbuttoned!— toward their house, and somehow she and Michael were shut away in the bedroom. Sophia opened the door, just a crack.

Mr. Butterfield was crying, jigging a hand through his hair, and her mother was shouting “NO” when the siren stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. She lowered her voice, “No. Sophia and Michael stayed home. High fevers.”

“High fevers,” Tato said.

Her mother stood upright and calm, her usual self, but after she closed the front door behind Mr. Butterfield, she staggered and cried out. She would’ve fallen but Tato caught her up and held her. They held each other. She wiped Tato’s eyes with a kitchen cloth, helped him layer on coat and muffler, hat and gloves. When the door closed behind him, she again fell to her knees. “Holy Mother, all I saw was not to put mine on the bus. I didn’t know. I swear it. I didn’t know!” The escalating violence of her Ukrainian almost blew out the candle.

Sophia rushed into the kitchen—her responsibility, the flame—and her mother pulled her down. She held Sophia’s face, her own wet with tears, and gazed at her with such wonder, a look like none she’d ever given before. Then Michael ran in, all of them sitting on the tracked-up floor, Michael crying because his maty was.

Her mother looked up toward the statue, lips moving but making no sound. Michael buried his fair head in her neck, but Sophia, dry-eyed, stared at her. Her mother continued to pray. Finally she turned toward Sophia, a long level gaze beneath the tears. She placed her forefinger against Sophia’s lips and said, “Shhhhh.”

Sophia recoiled from her and sat back. Who was this woman? On the floor her mother and Michael huddled and above them, Mary, with Her slashed cheek, pale and remote, backdrop for the veiled Child. Was She holding them in the fold of Her cloak, as her mother said? Sophia crawled away on hands and knees from Mary, Maty, Michael, Tato. All of them. She could feel the bands of cross-stitched black Xs tightening around her—stretching—to pull her back, keep her close.

Later, in the afternoon, in a mishmash of two languages, her father will tell her that at a crossing, the yellow bus was hit by a train. The children on it killed, all of them. But that morning, unknowing—yet also, somehow, knowing—she had crawled away.

She’d hauled herself up onto her knees at the window and used her fist to make a clear space. On the other side of the glass, her father seemed to be talking to himself, performing a pantomime of heart-crosses, his mouth opening and closing. He fell down, got up, turned to look back toward the house, his face wild, fearful, distorted.

Nancy J. Allen is a teaching and research fellow of the School of Spiritual Psychology in Benson, North Carolina, and is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her fiction has been awarded the 2013 bosque Fiction Prize, shortlisted for the 2009 David Nathan Meyerson Fiction Prize, and has appeared in Southwest Review, WF Literature and Art Review, and Stealing Time: A Literary Magazine for Parents. She lives with her husband in Dallas, Texas.