I remember it like it was yesterday, although it was decades ago.
My sister and I had been fighting again, like we did so often, like I suspect most sisters do at that age.
This fight got more heated than usual. I screamed an obscenity at my sister before turning to storm out of the room, but then my neck suddenly whipped back painfully and I realised she was yanking my hair. In pain and shock, I spun around and slapped her hard across the face.
We didn't often get physical, but when we did we didn't mess around.
I don't know where it would have ended up, how far the violence would have escalated, but suddenly, there was Nonno. That was what we called my grandmother, on my dad's side. She had some kind of dementia, and between that and her thick accent from the old country, she rarely spoke. She was a small, pale, brittle ghost that lived on the periphery of my life, hardly making an impression.
This day was an exception. Showing sudden fierceness, she interposed herself between me and my sister and looked back and forth at each of us with an expression of fury on her face. She looked hard at my sister's hand, still entangled in my long hair, and then back at her face. My sister sheepishly let go and dropped her hand to her side.
"Sisters love!" she shouted at us, her voice shedding most of its usual fragility. "Do not do this! Love your sister! Love!"
Suddenly the furious mask cracked, slipped, and dissolved into grief. Where moments before had been an expression of pure anger, there was now nothing but sadness and loss. She clasped her small, wrinkled hands over her mouth, but I could see her pale greyish-brown eyes well with tears.
Without another word, she turned and hurried out of the room as quickly as her arthritic legs would take her, while her shoulders quivered with silent sobs.
My sister and I stared at each other, struck mute by Nonno's double-dip of uncharacteristic anger and uncharacteristic sadness. We stood there, stunned and silent, for maybe twenty seconds, and then I turned and ran after her.
Predictably, Nonno was in the kitchen, making tea. While she was generally quiet and stayed out of trouble, her tea-making habits were a source of conflict in our household. You see, she could never make one cup. Every time she wanted tea, she would make four cups, then drink only one of them while the other three went cold.
My mother was infuriated by the waste. The economy was not in good shape, and my father's job was on the brink of making him redundant. He was hardly paid enough as it was, but if he lost even that meagre income, then... well, it was a source of stress for all of us. Looking back, I wonder if that is why my sister and I fought so bitterly: a fear of scarcity.
Sure enough, Nonno was carefully lifting four china teacups down from the cabinet, and as I walked up beside her she placed them carefully in the centre of the four saucers that were already on the kitchen bench. I heard a soft clink as the fourth one was put in place.
"Nonno, stop," I said gently. "Why don't you sit down? I'll make you tea. Okay?"
She turned to look at me when I spoke, and I saw her eyes had gone vague and dreamy again, as they were most of the time, but then they sharpened and I could tell she was really seeing me.
"Why do you fight?" she asked softly, and gently placed one of her incredibly soft hands on my cheek. It was cool against my still anger-flushed skin.
I didn't have an answer for her, not back then, so I pressed on. "Sit down, Nonno. Get comfortable," I insisted. "I'll make the tea while you sit and rest."
She threw a worried look down at the four neatly lined up cups, and then looked back at me. Her mouth opened, as if to object, but then, with a nod, she shuffled over to the table, pulled out a chair, and sat down.
I didn't want to cause any kind of scene, so I quickly and carefully put two of the cups and saucers away while she was distracted, then I put the kettle on the stove. I rinsed the old leaves out of the pot, replaced them with fresh leaves from the jar, and then moved closer to Nonno while I waited for the water to boil.
"It'll just be a minute," I said, a little too brightly.
To me, my forced cheerfulness sounded too obvious to be believed, but she smiled up at me. "Thank you, Anna," she said.
I had no idea who Anna was, but I smiled back and humoured her. "Nothing like a hot cup of tea to make everything feel better, right Nonno?"
Her smile slipped, and she looked confused, then I saw recognition in her eyes, followed by sadness. "I am sorry, little one," she said, sounding more grounded. "You are not Anna. She is a long time gone. I forget sometimes."
A burbling whine announced that the water was boiled, so I crossed to the stove and twisted the bakelite knob to the off position. "Who is Anna?" I asked, desperate to make some kind of conversation. "Um, who was, Anna, I suppose. Uh. Sorry." Mentally, I was cursing my stupidity, but outwardly I just kept the smile fixed in place and made the tea.
Nonno stayed silent until I brought over the steaming pot, followed by the cups and the sugar and milk. With everything in place, I sat down opposite and began to pour out the tea.
"I loved my sisters," she said softly.
"Oh, you had sisters?" I asked, and a blush crept across my face. It was embarrassing to realise that I knew almost nothing about her. I didn't even know she had sisters. That's the kind of thing I should have known, right?
I slid her cup of tea across the green formica tabletop and she stared at it for a long while.
Then she began to tell me a story.
Anna was the eldest. She was short, but she had a tall heart. You know? Her hair was long and black and curly like yours. I loved her hair. Mine was ugly, I thought; not black, not blonde, not brown, not anything. I envied her glossy black hair.
Next was Slavka. She had a great brain. She would read and read. We were very poor, and books cost so much money, but she always found books to read somehow. She was very kind to me.
Then, Una. Sweet Una. She was prettiest, but not vain. She was funny, made me laugh and laugh. In another place, she would have been a movie star.
I said we were poor, but life was good enough. Mother was taken by influenza before I was old enough to remember her, but my sisters were my mother. Anna was strong, good at making decisions. Slavka was gentle and caring. Una was fun and playful. Father worked so hard that I barely saw him, and when he was home he was always tired. Together, my sisters raised me.
We might have gone on like that forever if the war had not come. I was too young to understand what it was about. I did not know who our enemies were, and I had no reason to think that not all of the folk in our village were our friends.
To some, you see, we were outsiders. They distrusted our kind, considered us intruders in their land. I was an innocent child and I never realised it, but as the building hatred of war crept across the land, the old mistrust grew into something worse.
It was the middle of winter when the soldiers came. Late one night, Anna woke me, telling me I must be quiet. I heard a murmuring outside, growing louder as I gathered with my sisters in our small kitchen, cold and dark that winter night. Father had not come home from work, so it was just the four of us.
My sisters hissed at me to stay out of sight, but I peeked out of the window. The soldiers were accompanied by a mob of the townsfolk. The baker who sold us our bread every day among them. So was the schoolteacher. They held burning torches and wooden clubs, and their faces were stony, expressionless. The soldiers held guns.
As I watched, they kicked in the door of our neighbours' house and ran inside. There were shouts and screams, then the sharp pop pop pop of gunshots. The shouts and screams stopped, and I heard Una sobbing quietly. Our neighbours were of the same people as us, and as innocent as I was, I understood that we would be next.
Anna took charge, as was her way, bustling us into boots and cloaks and scarves and shawls. We did not have warm overcoats or thick boots, but what choice did we have? As soon as we were ready, Anna led us to the back door. The noise of the mob had gotten louder, and as she lifted the latch as quietly as she could, we heard a banging on the front door.
"Open up traitors!" shouted a taunting voice. "If you co-operate we may just arrest you!"
Without a word, we slipped out into the freezing night. Slavka, clever as always, went back to close the door behind us, so as not to give a clue to our pursuers. Then we were away.
Our house backed onto the woods. In the moonlight, the bare trees were like black skeletons clawing at the sky. The moon was almost full, making the fallen snow glow a ghostly pale blue. Anna led, crunching a path for our little feet through the crunchy snow, then Una and me, and Slavka came behind.
I realised we were heading to Auntie's house. Auntie was once married to my father's older brother, a woodcutter, but he was crushed by a falling tree before they had any children, many years before I was born. As long as I had known her, she had lived alone in a small shack in the woods. Children in our town whispered that she was a witch, but to me she was just Auntie.
The snow crackled and squeaked as we ran, and within minutes my poor tiny feet were numb. My battered hand-me-down shoes were barely adequate to carry me to market and back. In the snow, I was little better than barefoot.
I whined to Anna to give me a piggyback, but she shushed me. I was going to complain again, but then I heard it: voices behind us, shouting. Anna tried to increase our speed, but I was slowing the rest of them down. The voices were getting louder, and when I looked back could see a faint orange glow from their torches.
It was clever Slavka who realised they were following our fresh footprints. There was no way we could hide our trail, so she suggested we split up. In a small clearing, she suggested that Anna should take me straight to Auntie, but she and Una should go in two different directions and confuse the mob that was chasing us.
In the moonlight, I could see that Anna was unsure, but time was short and she quickly nodded. "Run around in circles!" she instructed the other two. Don't give them a clear trail. Get to Auntie's as quickly as you can after that."
Una dashed off to our left, her golden curls turned silvery by the moon. I head Anna whisper, "Please be careful!" Moments later, Slavka was gone as well, heading right.
The cold in my feet could not compare to the icy feeling in my heart as my sisters disappeared into that frosty night. Soon they were lost to my sight, and the sound of their feet swishing through the snow was swallowed up by the trees.
Anna turned to me and asked if I still wanted a piggyback. I nodded enthusiastically, and she knelt down to let me clamber aboard. Then we were away. As I was bounced along, I sank my face into Anna's black ringlets and tried to ignore the sounds of pursuit behind us.
I don't know how long she ran. Endless trees slowly crept behind us, each of them looking the same. None of our surroundings looked familiar, and I hoped Anna remembered the way. Her breathing had become harsh and laboured, and halfway up a steep embankment she came to a stop.
She lowered herself onto a fallen tree, old and rotten, and as she panted I could see thick white clouds of vapour puff out of her mouth. I let go of her and stood on the log. Looking back, I could still see a hint of torchlight, but it didn't seem to be any brighter. Slavka's plan seemed to have worked.
I asked if our sisters were going to be okay, and Anna said of course they would. She was a terrible liar, but I pretended to believe her. With nothing else to do, I brushed away a patch of snow and sat down beside her.
We were still sitting there when we heard a gunshot echo through the woods. Faintly, after it, I could hear the mob roar. It no longer sounded like a mass of people; it sounded like a monster, and I suppose that is exactly what it was.
Leaning against Anna for warmth, I felt her jump violently. She jumped to her feet and looked behind, and I heard her breath catch in her throat. "Slavka!" she whispered, and I could sense her despair.
"Slavka is clever!" I declared with a defiant pout. "Those bad men won't catch her."
Anna looked at me. The moon was behind her, so her face was in shadow, but I heard her say, "Of course. Clever Slavka. We'll see her at Auntie's." As I said, she was a terrible liar.
Moments later, there was another gunshot, and then two more in quick succession. These ones clearly came from our left, and closer than the previous one. Muffled by snow and softened by trees, there was still no mistaking the whoops and yells of the men. Even at that young age I understood: they had made a game of hunting us.
Shockingly close, right behind us, we heard a man laugh, then another man laughed in response. They had split into three groups to chase us. Slavka's plan had failed, and some part of the mob was right on our heels.
Anna's head darted from left to right desperately, trying to decide what to do next. Suddenly she seized my wrist. "Into the log!" she whispered. I hadn't noticed that our temporary seat had a small cavity in it.
"I won't fit!" I whispered.
"Yes you will," Anna hissed in reply. "Now, quickly."
Realisation dawned. "You won't fit!"
"Without my baby sister on my back, I can run much more quickly," she said. "Please, I'll help you in."
Anna picked me up and pushed me into the rotten hollow feet first. "Help me," she muttered, and I shuffled backwards on my elbows. Anna glanced back where we had come. The voices were getting terribly close.
My head was barely inside the log, but my hips had struck a narrow point and I couldn't slip in any further. Anna declared that it would have to do, then placed a delicate finger on my lips.
"No matter what happens," she whispered fiercely, "stay silent."
"But what about you?" I replied, and I could feel tears freezing on my cheeks.
"I'll run like the wind. They'll never catch me." She kissed the tip of one finger and then dabbed it onto my nose. "I will see you soon, baby sister." And then she was gone.
I wept silently. As I said, she was a terrible liar.
Her footsteps crunched in the virgin snow as she hurried away, and soon the sound was lost in the trees. I started to get very cold, and my little teeth began chattering.
I didn't hear the men approach. They must have been trained soldiers, because they moved quietly and without lights. The first I knew of them was when the log rocked gently, and I heard a soft crunch of snow. I stuffed two fingers into my mouth, terrified that the sound of my teeth chattering together would give me away.
There was conversation, but I cannot repeat it. They talked about what they would like to do if they caught a girl. I did not understand the words they used - I was very young and innocent, you must remember - but I could hear the gleeful cruelty in their hushed voices.
They sat only for a moment, catching their breath, and then they were gone. I could barely hear them go, walking as they were in the trail Anna had made through the snow.
Time passed. I did not hear any gunshots. At one point I thought I may have heard a scream, but it was very faint so I could not be sure.
Strange as it may seem, I think I slept.
Much later I heard somebody say my name. I tried to listen, but thinking was very hard. I think now that I must have been on the brink of freezing to death, because it was very difficult to focus on whoever was speaking to me.
"Come on," they were saying. "We have to get to Auntie's."
"I can't," I said miserably. "I'm stuck."
"You're not stuck, you're just cold." I was dimly aware of a figure standing in front of me, but the moon had sunk low and it was difficult to make out.
"Anna?" I mumbled.
"Of course," she replied. "I told you I'd come back."
A small spark of hope bloomed in my little mind, and I actually tried to move. The rotten wood was tight around me, but I could feel it loosening.
"Come on, we have to go." Anna turned and started to walk away, and I thought she was going to leave me again.
I found my strength then. Wriggling like a worm, I got my arms free, and then it was easy to push the rest of me out. My joints were aching as I stood and looked around; nobody was there.
"This way, silly!" Anna's soft voice came from up the embankment, and I saw her silhouette. I stumbled through the snow towards her and asked for another piggyback. "Not now, little one. You have to use your own feet."
The second part of my flight to Auntie's house was much harder. The snow seemed deeper and harder, and of course I had to walk the whole way myself. Soon my little legs were spent, and I sank to my knees in the snow.
"I know you're tired," said a gentle voice, "but you have to keep going."
Somehow, I jumped to my feet. "Slavka?" The moon had almost vanished and it was becoming very dark, but I could see her standing in the snow a short distance away. "I thought... the bad men..." I trailed off. I did not have the words.
"You are so close to Auntie's now," she said, her voice full of love and kindness. "Just a little further and you'll be there, and Auntie will make you a hot bowl of oats with dried apples."
With her encouragement, I somehow got to my feet and stumbled onward. I called out to Anna, but she did not reply, and neither did Slavka. Dimly, I wondered where they were, but most of my attention was focussed on the task of putting one foot in front of the other.
I had no idea where I was going, but I tried to walk in the direction I had last heard Anna's voice. I trudged for what seemed like hours, and then I heard a voice to my right.
"Wrong way," it said. I looked, and even though it was very dark, I could see someone walking away into the trees. They had long, curly hair, the colour of steel in this dim light, but which would probably have been golden in daylight.
"Una?" I called.
She didn't turn, but simply said, "Follow me to Auntie's."
So I did. Like a ship following the beam of a lighthouse, I trudged miserably through that bitterly cold forest, following the beacon of Una's golden hair.
And then, just like that, I arrived. Amber lantern light spilled from a small window, and silhouetted against the greying pre-dawn sky I recognised the humped shape of Auntie's little cottage.
"We're here!" I cried happily, and turned to look for my sisters. In the golden light from the window, I could see them standing at the edge of the woods, all three of them holding hands. "Come on!" I shouted. "Let's eat porridge!"
I realised that a fourth, taller figure was standing behind my sisters. I took a few steps closer, and saw that it was a woman. I did not know her, but she seemed familiar. Her kind eyes looked like Slavka's, and the corners of her mouth were crinkled with laughter lines, reminding me of Una. The protective way she put her arms around my sisters was uncannily like Anna.
She said nothing, but gave me one long, sad look before leading my sisters back into the forest.
From behind, I could see her hair. It was no colour, not black, not blonde, not brown, not anything. It was beautiful.
Nonno went silent, and I realised her story was over. Numbly, I reached for the pot to pour more tea, but found it empty. Without a word I rose and rinsed out the leaves, then refilled the kettle and put it back on the stove. I stood in silence while it came to the boil, and then made a fresh pot of tea.
I placed the tea on the table, then returned to the cabinet. Delicately, I set out three additional clean saucers, then set a cup in each one. Lifting the pot, I filled each cup in turn, and then Nonno's, and finally mine.
We drank our tea in silence. There was nothing more to say.