The Box of Life

by Emily Grice. Shortlistee of the Best Novel Opening for Children or Young Adults competition 2023

Sparrows might be small, but they’re strong. I recall Mama explaining that they carry the brave souls of child soldiers who had once saved Lwow from invaders. Papa tells me the little creatures survive the worst of nature, because they look out for one another. I wonder which is true as I observe the birds from a ledge through the open window of Papa’s office, while I await his return from afternoon lectures. Papa insists, so I run to his office in the law department of Lwow university every day, straight after school, since the Germans invaded.

My short pencil strokes dance across the surface of my notebook as I attempt to capture the bird’s unpredictable, jerky movements as he hops from branch to branch. With a final smudge of shading on the bird’s proudly puffed belly, I finish, and sign Mikolaj Sadowski, aged thirteen.

The grandfather clock chimes six o’clock. I unfold my long legs and jump down from the window ledge, landing with a thud on the Persian rug just as the doors flings open and I expect to see Papa filling the space.

‘Ah Mikolaj, you’re here.’ Mrs Zielinska, Papa’s secretary, paces past me. She doesn’t look at me, but I notice her eyes are shiny, like she’s been crying, but she’s acting cheerful. Too cheerful. My fingers fidget with my notepad.

‘Where’s Papa?’ I ask, my voice sounds suspicious. I hope she doesn’t think me rude, but there’s something about her expression, the absence of her usual smile and rub of my cheek. She always has a treat for me too. Sometimes a square of Konkol’s chocolate or homemade cherry pierogi. Not today. I slip my notebook into my shorts’ pocket.

Mrs Zielinska chews her thumbnail and glances at the window, then takes down Papa’s favourite painting of The Battle of Grunwald to reveal the safe. A few clicks of the dial and it’s open. ‘Your papa had business to take care of. A meeting… He …’ Her voice cracks before she can finish.