The following was the original Chapter One of The Girl in Gray. The events are now summarized by Leila a few chapters later. While I’ve always liked this chapter, I realized after writing the entire book that the story wasn’t equally Leila’s and Sini’s; the book’s primary arc and focus belongs to Sini, so the book needed to start with her, too.
Ergo, this chapter had to go, and the book as it stands now instead begins with Sini getting dinner ready (she hopes) for Marko.
—DELETED ORIGINAL OPENING —
Helsinki, Finland—December 1939
Leila stood on the train station platform, holding tight to three-year-old Taneli’s hand as she hugged Aunt Sisko. “We’ll be fine,” Leila insisted, whispering so her son wouldn’t hear. “The invasion won’t last—the Allies won’t allow it.”
Aunt Sisko sniffed, her eyes searching Leila’s as they pulled back. “But the air raids . . .” Even though her aunt spoke softly, Leila glanced down to be sure Taneli hadn’t heard. No sense in scaring him more than when the Soviet bombers had rained their cargo over Helsinki two days ago. Aunt Sisko shook her head, pleading. “He’d be safer in Sweden.”
Leila’s gaze strayed across the platform. Beside another train ready to depart many mothers said goodbye to their children bound for the safety of Sweden. They had cards pinned to their coats with their names, addresses, and parents’ names. Would that be enough to reunite families? Would the foster parents treat them well? Would they love the children so dearly they refused to part with them? These questions and more swirled in Leila’s mind for likely the thousandth time, like a dark mist. Heat burned behind her eyes.
“I will not send—” Leila’s voice cut off. Yet Taneli didn’t appear to be listening, intent instead on stomping patterns into a snowbank. He was the only part of her dear Jaakob she had left. A tear trickled down one cheek, followed by a second, but Leila didn’t wipe them away, unwilling to draw attention to her tears. Crying could worry her boy, and it would certainly provide Sisko more fuel for her argument: If you love him, protect him.
Yet Leila, a nurse, hadn’t been able to protect Jaakob; he’d died of pneumonia only weeks after Taneli had learned to walk. She should have been able to save her husband. Leila would not send their son away with no promise of finding him after the war. She stroked Taneli’s shoulder. “He stays with me.”
“We’ll be fine,” Leila insisted. She watched her words, careful not to say Stalin or Russians or soldiers. “They want Viipuri. They wouldn’t bomb what they want to capture, would they? We’ll be safer there than here.”
Would Taneli be safer yet in Sweden?
The thought was a mere whisper, a wisp. Leila ordered it away. God had taken her Jaakob. Surely He wouldn’t be so cruel as to take her only child, too.
Leila leaned down and adjusted Taneli’s hand-knitted scarf and fur hat. The icy temperature felt more like January than early December. Leila straightened, standing tall to show her determination. “The Lotta Svärd contacted me about training other nurses. I’m sure we’ll return to Helsinki for some of the training. We’ll visit; I promise.” She hesitated, choosing her words carefully. “That will be my contribution to the war. It’s all I can give.”
Aunt Sisko nodded. “I know.” She lowered her eyes and nodded as if in surrender. “I hope to see you soon then.”
“I hope so too. I hope this is all over soon, and that we’ll be visiting for a Christmas instead of—” Her voice cut off; she didn’t need to finish the sentence. Leila squeezed Taneli’s woolen mitten and gently tugged him toward the train. “Come, Taneli. It’s time to get on the train.” Over the speakers, a scratchy voice announced the final call to board. Leila gently tugged Taneli’s hand to get his attention. “It’s time to go home, my sweet.”
After a final quick hug with Aunt Sisko, Leila picked up her single suitcase and Taneli’s backpack and hurried onto the train as quickly as she could with a toddler in tow, helping him up the metal steps and into the car. They quickly found two empty seats, but Taneli didn’t sit. He pressed his nose and hands against the window. When he spotted Aunt Sisko, he pulled back and clapped. “Look, Mama, look!” He hopped twice then waved at his great aunt with both arms. Leila couldn’t help but smile. Judging by Aunt Sisko’s face, she couldn’t help it either, in spite of the circumstances. She, too, smiled—if wanly—and waved back. A moment later, the train lurched, and as it moved forward, Leila did her best to smile and wave until she could no longer see Aunt Sisko.
Leila leaned against her seat wearily. Taneli had discovered condensation in the corners of the windows and took to drawing in it with a finger. His blond hair fell into his eyes; he blew it away then stuck his tongue out as he concentrated on his masterpiece. He needed a haircut soon, she thought absently. She would do anything for him. Even give her own life for her son. But sending him to another country with strangers? Surely that wasn’t the right thing for either of them.
Another argument Aunt Sisko had made yesterday niggled somewhere in the back of Leila’s mind like a worm on the end of a fishing hook.
“Your training could help on the front lines,” Aunt Sisko had said the other night as they sat by the coal stove.
What had Leila said in return? Nothing. What could she say? Of course they needed nurses in the field, but those nurses needed training, and she could provide that while staying home with her son. Surely no one could argue that she wasn’t doing her patriotic duty. She would be donning the gray shirt and long skirt of the Lotta Svärd uniform, along with the brooch at her neck with association’s symbol—the blue swastika of hope with four flowers.
When Sisko had pressed Leila to send Taneli to Sweden and to work in a field hospital, Leila had taken a moment or two to organize her thoughts before replying. She’d sat on her aunt’s sofa, her knitting needles clicking as she worked the heel of a sock for Taneli in his favorite shade of red. She’d never been great at knitting, but her boy so loved wearing things his mother had made, so she gave it an attempt once or twice a year, for his sake. Good thing he was still young; socks didn’t take too long for such a small foot.
After at least a minute of knitting—a full round on the needles—Leila had managed, “Compared to most nurses, I have very little hands-on experience. I’d serve the effort better with teaching.” She pulled more yarn from the skein. “I always did better at the theory than in the practice of nursing. Besides, the conflict won’t last long enough for them to need help from the likes of me.”
“Hmm,” was all Aunt Sisko had said at first. They’d sat in silence for several minutes before Sisko said. “You don’t think the Russians will simply leave, do you, not when they can come in like a snowplow and take over their tiny little neighbor?”
The weight and seriousness of the war settled in Leila’s stomach. “I know we can’t hold off the Reds forever, but maybe we can long enough for the West to send aid. Stalin doesn’t know that he’s dealing with Finnish sisu.”
Sisko had smiled at that. Sisu was how the Finns endured winter after winter. It was how they made a decision and stuck with it no matter the cost or difficulty. It was the quality that made Finns who they were—the grit that made them stubborn and powerful. Stalin probably thought he’d invaded a weak little area with people who would roll over like a dog when he crossed the border.
He’ll be sorely disappointed with the surprise.
Now Taneli shoved his finger into Leila’s field of vision, making her pull back to look at it. “Look,” he demanded. “It’s cold and wet.” He stuck it in his mouth to solve one of the two problem, she supposed. His mitten hung from a string sticking out of the arm of his coat. She’d learned to attach both mittens to a long string and thread it through his coat arms. Otherwise, he lose every pair.
“Come sit on my lap, you silly boy.” Leila unbuttoned his coat and set it on the empty seat beside her, along with his fur cap. He jumped, and she hefted him onto her lap. “That’s my big boy,” she murmured, smoothing his hair to one side with her fingers. He settled with his legs hanging off one side of her lap and leaning his head against her shoulder.
“I want to go home,” he said and yawned.
“We’ll be there soon, love,” she promised.
Soon, judging by his deep, even breaths, he fell asleep. Leila gazed into the darkness through the window—the sun had set hours ago, even though it was not yet supper time. They had two or three weeks yet of days getting shorter and shorter, practically living in full darkness, before the winter solstice, right before Christmas. After that, they days would gradually grow lighter again, until the summer solstice, when the sun didn’t set for most of the night. She loved that time of year, especially the night of the summer solstice, with bonfires and all-night celebrations. They reminded her of Jaakob, but not in a knife-twisting way. No, the night of Juhannus brought only happy memories, of the two of them dancing with the midnight sun, laughing together, holding each other as they swayed to the music. Sneaking away through the thick trees nearby to steal kisses beneath the pines.
The click-clack of the train against the seams in the rails almost lulled Leila to sleep as she let her memory indulge in happier times. Her eyes slowly closed then opened and closed again. She breathed deeply, deciding to rest for the remaining hour of the journey to their home in Viipuri. Perhaps in sleep, she’d get some relief from the darkness that seemed to weigh on her heart.
A bright flash lit up the train car, followed straightaway by a boom so loud her hands instinctively covered her ears as she cringed. Taneli woke with a shudder and cried in dismay as Leila tried to assure herself that they were both all right, but the train screeched from the brakes squealing against the tracks. The train seemed to careen and then shudder to a halt, throwing her and Taneli off the seat. Leila caught them on the edge of the bench across from them, earning what would surely be a bruise on her forearm.
But before she could calm Taneli or figure out for herself what had happened, a worker came into the car.
“Out—now!” he yelled. “Into the trees. It’s an air raid!” He said nothing else, just raced to the next car. As he left, the electric lights went out, throwing the car into total darkness save for the dim light of a half-moon shining off the snow.
Had the train been hit? But no, they were all fine, and the train seemed to still be on its tracks. Then why had the lights gone out?
To hide us from the bomber planes.
Of course. Just as she blacked out the windows at home to hide from the enemy.
But this is a passenger train. Surely they know that. Why would they attack it?
No time to think through anything. Taneli’s cries grew louder. Leila cared nothing at first for the pushing and shoving as passengers tried to escape the train car as she tried to comfort her boy and decide what to do next. The door to the outside opened, and the roar of engines flying overhead washed over the car. Dread settled in the pit of Leila’s stomach. More flashes of light lit up the area—bombs. One nearby. It may have hit a train car. Screams cut through the darkness, making Leila hold her breath and clutch her son’s hand tighter.
Leila hurriedly lifted Taneli to her hip then grabbed his coat before hurried with the throng toward the exit. The push from the crowd made it hard to breathe. Leila held tight to Taneli, grateful he wasn’t on the floor, where he could be easily trampled by frightened adults. She finally reached the steps outside. Snow reached the stop step, however. How deep was it? She didn’t have the luxury of pondering how to jump or where she’d land; the press from behind forced her out. Clinging to Taneli, whose arms were wrapped tightly around her neck, she jumped and plunged into the snow, landing on top of Taneli. He cried out in a surprise, but then quieted, breathing rapidly.
“Are you all right?” she asked as she scrambled to her feet. The snow was knee deep and already soaking through her long johns beneath her flannel skirt. Taneli nodded, but in the light of the moon, his eyes looked wide and scared. People everywhere yelled and cried and ran toward the thick woods not ten meters away.
“Jump into my arms,” Leila said. “We’ll play hide and seek in the forest.”
They’d hide there and hope no bombers or Russkies, as the Russians were nicknamed, would seek or find them. Hands shaking, she helped Taneli into his coat, wishing she’d had the presence of mind to grab his hat and scarf. At least his mittens were on a string that went through the arms of his coat, so they were still attached.
“Better?” she asked.
He blinked once, twice. “I want to go home. I don’t want to play hide and seek.”
“I want to go home too,” Leila assured him. She lifted her boy to her hip and walked quickly and purposefully, trying not to run and scare him. “But we must hide right now.”
He wrapped his arms around her neck. “And then we ride the train home?”
Leila held him tight and kissed his cheek. She was about to assure him that yes, they’d ride home soon, when several bombs whistled through the air. She ran, stumbling with Taneli’s weight, into the forest, heading for a big granite boulder to hide behind. Three meters away, the blast—the heat, the sound—from the bombs stunned her into paralysis for a moment. She whipped around to see three train cars in flames, along with the track ahead of the engine burning, dark smoke swirling into the clear night sky.
Now what? Her stomach twisted. How would they get home with the track and train both in ruins? Would they freeze to death?
“Mama?” Taneli’s voice broke through her shock.
“It’s all right,” Leila said, the rote sentence coming out without thought. She pointed at the boulder. “Let’s hide there.”
“It’s loud,” he said, and burrowed his face into her neck.
“I know.” Hitching her skirts up with one hand and holding tight to her boy with the other, Leila picked her way through the snow and settled behind the boulder, sitting on stump of a tree. She settled Taneli on her lap as he had been on the train and found her hands shaking. Another explosion and another ripped through the night. Leila gazed up at the clear sky angrily. She used to love staring at the stars with Jaakob, trying to find constellations, making wishes together. Now, she cursed the clouds that had fled, making the Finnish land an easy target for the Russian planes. Overcast skies and storms meant no bombings.
She should have known to expect this with such a clear sky tonight—but she hadn’t thought Stalin would attack a civilian train line. Evil, evil man.
With the dim light of the moon, Leila could make out other forms in the dark or fellow passengers—business men, women, mothers with children like herself. She had to stop worrying and start making a plan. Would help come for them? Or would they need to find a way to save themselves? One thing she was sure of: they had to keep moving. Help or no help, if they stayed in one place all night, they would be nothing but frozen statues when help arrived come morning. Either way, aid couldn’t come any time soon—that would require using headlights on cars or men carrying lamps, which would only serve as additional Russian targets.
She slipped her hands into her pockets to find her gloves for Taneli to use. They would be far too big, but they would be better than nothing.
“I’m cold,” he said with a whimper. “And hungry.”
“I know. Me too,” Leila said. She found her gloves, but she also noticed something in her left pocket that hadn’t been there before—something small and cylindrical.
A flashlight. A flutter of hope entered her chest. Aunt Sisko must have slipped it into her pocket at the train station. Could a road be nearby? They could walk along it, provided it wasn’t too covered in snow.
The rest of the passengers gathered into various groups, mostly, it seemed, by train car. Some seemed to leave behind suitcases, ostensibly because they couldn’t walk far while carrying them. Leila hoped they would all get their belongings back.
They walked in their own small group, Leila carrying their single suitcase and switching it from one arm to the other when her arm grew weary. A middle-ages gentleman, who had settled into the group not far from Leila and her boy, kept looking her way. Uncomfortable with his attention, Leila avoided his gaze, but then he spoke.
“Could I carry your suitcase?”
“No, I’m fine,” Leila said automatically. She was used to doing things alone. But then little Taneli leaned against her, his feet dragging against the snow. He looked too tired to take another step. Leila hesitated, unsure what to do.
“Here,” the man said. “I’ll carry him on my back like a horse.” He walked past Leila, hands free—he was one who’d left his suitcase behind. Maybe she should have too. “Name’s Matti Ahonen,” he said, touching his hat and nodding. He bent down in front of Taneli. “Climb up, little man.”
Leila helped him up. He clung to the man’s neck and rested his head on his coat then promptly closed his eyes. No doubt he’d be asleep any moment. As they moved on, Leila looked over at Matti. “Thank you,” she said.
“My pleasure.” He spoke in a whisper, as if they needed to keep their voices down to stay hidden from the enemy, even though the attack was long over.
Neither said anything more for some time. They walked for what felt like an entire night, Leila’s arms aching, but as she stole glances at her sleeping son, her heart ached even more. Maybe Aunt Sisko was right; maybe, if Leila truly loved her son, she would send him to Sweden for safety. Keeping him close was more for her sake than for his. In the aftermath of what could have been their deaths, she had to admit that she’d been selfish in wanting to keep her son at her side, for her to not serve the war effort.
Maybe God would reward her if she finally sacrificed enough to send her boy away and help at a field hospital. She closed her eyes, willing away tears, and stumbled on a rock in road. She caught her balance and yelped softly, jolting Taneli awake. He reached for her in the darkness.
She took his hand and soothed him. “It’s all right. I’ll stay beside you. Mr. Ahonen is stronger than I am, and he’s helping to carry you, that’s all.”
Taneli looked up from his spot on Mr. Ahonen’s back, to his mother, and back again. He nodded and slowly wrapped his arms around the man’s thick neck. “Stay close, Mama,” he pleaded. “You won’t leave?”
I won’t leave, but you may leave me soon. Leila felt as if an arrow had pierced her heart. She couldn’t say the words, of course. No use troubling him now, and he was really too young to understand the whys and wherefores of what Leila now felt certain she must do. “I’ll walk beside you,” she promised. “I won’t leave you all night long.”
As they made their way through the snow and pines, her thoughts refused to leave the reality of what lay ahead of them both in Helsinki—for that was the direction they were walking, along what looked like an overgrown wagon path parallel to the railroad. They were headed back in the direction they’d come from.
She’d nearly cost her son his life by insisting on trying to go back to Viipuri. What if a bomb had landed a few meters farther along on the train? It could have been their car that exploded. She looked over her shoulder as if she could still see the burning hulk of iron that had been the train. How many had died in the train? Another thought crashed into her mind at that.
I’m a horrible excuse for a nurse. I should have gone to help, to find victims. Instead, she’d cowered with Taneli behind a rock. She could justify it all she wanted to, and she tried, telling her heart that her son had needed her, that there couldn’t have been survivors in the train car, not with the way it had been hit straight on. That she needed to focus on saving those who could be saved.
But something told her that the screams right after the bomb hit would haunt her dreams for a very long time.
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