The Crystal Beads
By Patricia Black-Gould
Mama bought me a beautiful necklace on my sixth birthday.
“This is a special present.” She held up crystal beads that sparkled when touched by the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window of our apartment.
“It’s pretty, Mama, but I already have the special necklace Babciagave me.” My fingers reached for the gold Star of David I wore every day, the present from Grandma on my fifth birthday.
“I understand, Córeczka, but this is not a necklace.” I liked when Mama called me her little girl, “Córeczka,” but I wasn’t small anymore, I was six years old. She placed the beads in my hand and I examined them from every angle. Holding them up to the light, I smiled. The summer sunlight kissed the beads, causing rainbow dots to dance on the yellow kitchen walls. But the beads still looked like a necklace and I was determined to try them on.
“No.” She lowered my hands. “May I hold the beads?”
I gave them to her, and she held them in her hand. “These pretty beads are called a rosary. Can you say that word?”
“Rose-a-ree.” I tried to pronounce the new word just as she did.
“Very good. Now that you are a big girl, I am going to teach you a special game. This rosary is part of it. Do you want to learn how to play?”
“Oh yes!” I loved playing games with Mama.
“See the cross on the bottom?” I nodded. “That part is called a crucifix.”
The image frightened me. I didn’t want to touch it.
“Can you say crucifix?”
“You are my smart little girl.” She ruffled my hair. “I am so proud …” Mama sniffled, took out a handkerchief, and wiped her eyes.
“Please don’t cry, Mama. I’m sorry I made you sad. I love the necklace, I mean the
“You must listen,” she said in a firm voice as she placed her hands on my shoulders. I could smell the sweet scent of lavender perfume she always wore. “You need to take this rosary with you everywhere you go. Do you hear me?”
I tried to understand. “I should take these with me, just like I wear Babcia’s necklace every day?”
“No, Córeczka. An important part of this game is that you give me Babcia’snecklace in exchange for this rosary.”
I shook my head, wrapping my fingers around the star at my neck. She placed her open hand on the white lace tablecloth used on special occasions like birthdays and holidays and waited. “You need to give me your necklace. I will put it in a safe place.” Her hand shook.
Crying, I removed the necklace and handed it to her.
“Good,” she said in a shaky voice. “Now you are ready to learn more of the game.”
Every day, we played a new game from books that Mama bought and read. In my bedroom at night, I practiced so my mother would be proud of me. Then one day, a woman from the neighborhood came to our apartment and taught us songs. My mother and I sang so much that our throats ached.
Early one cold winter morning, Mama told me we were taking a trip. She had packed a bag, the same one we used when we went on vacation the previous year.
“We’re going to the lake!” I said.
“Oh Córeczka, if only we could. Today, you are going to learn the most important part of the game.”
“I know a lot already, don’t I, Mama?” I knew she was proud of me. Ever since my birthday four months ago, I had learned many songs and prayers. I could say the rosary. Maybe not all of it, but some.
“Yes, you are now ready for the next part.” Taking a deep breath, she helped me put on my heavy coat and wrapped a blue wool scarf around my neck, the one she had just finished knitting. It smelled of lavender, just like her.
Mama carried the suitcase and held my hand. We walked for a long time, stopping in front of a tall, dark building at the edge of town. She pointed to the top of the tower.
“Do you know what that is?”
“It’s a cross!” I was proud because I knew the answer.
“Yes. The cross is on top of the church.”
We walked up the stone steps. When my mother opened the heavy wooden door, I had to adjust my eyes to the dim light. We held hands as we walked down a long aisle between wooden benches. Small candles flickered in red glass vases.
“Look, Mama, it’s a cru… crucifix!” I pointed to the large wooden cross hanging on the wall.
“Yes, that’s correct,” a voice said from behind me. I turned around.
“Córeczka, this is Sister Teresa.”
Sister Teresa wore a long black robe that covered her feet. I could see nothing other than her face, surrounded by something stiff and white. I wondered if the material was itchy. Once I had a stiff dress that itched when I sat down.
“Hello, my child.” Sister Teresa extended a thin, wrinkled hand out of the wide black sleeve of her robe. It reminded me of Babcia’s hand.
“Sister Teresa will teach you the rest of the game,” Mama said.
We followed as Sister walked us around the church and pointed to statues of saints surrounding the walls. She said she would teach me their names.
“Ah. I know. Let me teach you how to how to genuflect,” Sister said.
Genuflect, what a strange word. I watched as she bent her right knee almost to the ground and rose again.
“Now you try.”
“We will do it together,” Mama said. She took my hand and together we tried to bend one knee. We both tipped over. I skinned my knee. Mama took me in her arms as we both cried and laughed at the same time, then we practiced again and again until we could do it without falling.
Mama took a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her eyes. “I believe you are now ready to learn the most important part of the game.”
“I’m ready, Mama.”
She leaned down and placed her hands on my shoulders. “For this part, Córeczka, you are to stay…” She looked up at Sister Teresa. “I can’t leave her, Sister. I can’t.”
Sister spoke to Mama in a soft voice. “She will be safe and well taken care of here.”
“Leave me? Where?” I grabbed her coat. “What do you mean?”
“You will stay here with Sister Teresa for a while…”
“Mama, no....” My fingers dug into the wool, not letting go.
“Many children go to school here and they all live together in the convent,” Mama said.
“No, I don’t want to!” I didn’t know what a convent was, but I did not want to be away from my mother. “Please don’t make me stay here. I’m sorry I made you sad on my birthday. The necklace is beautiful.” I stood up and took it out of the pocket of my dress and held it up. “I mean, the rosary.”
“Good, Córeczka.” Mama removed a large envelope from her purse and handed it to Sister Teresa. “These are all the papers. Everything is there.”
Sister Teresa nodded as she took the envelope from my mother’s hand. They shared a look I did not understand.
My mother removed my hands from her coat, leaned down and hugged me.
“I will come back for you as soon as possible.” She held me tight as I breathed in the familiar scent of her perfume. “Keep playing the game, always,” she said, her voice shaking. We both had tears in our eyes. Sister Teresa put her arm around my shoulder as I watched Mama leave the church.
The children at the convent all knew how to play the game. They sang songs, some of which I had learned at home. When Mama came to visit, I taught her new songs and told her stories about the saints. She would say she was proud of me.
We always met in Sister Teresa’s office. Before each visit, Sister would come to my classroom, open the door, and nod. I knew what that meant. I would leap from my seat, race out of the room, and run down the hall to Sister’s office where my mother waited with open arms.
Suddenly, after several weeks, Mama’s visits stopped. “Where is she, Sister? I’ve been good. I’ve done everything she told me to do.”
“Of course, my child,” Sister Teresa said.
Sometimes, when I became sad, Sister took me to her office. She told stories about her family and the countryside where she played when she was young. I loved her office. On bright days, the sun would shine through the large picture window. I’d hold up my rosary and watch the rainbow dots dance on the walls, just like they had done at home on my birthday.
More time passed without Mama’s visits. In a few weeks, it would be summer and my seventh birthday. She had to come back for my birthday. She had to. I would cry myself to sleep at night and became restless in class, unable to concentrate on my studies. Then one day, Sister Teresa opened the door to our classroom. She looked at me.
Mama's here! I raced out of the room as Sister tried to catch me.
“Wait,” she called from down the hall. But I was moving too fast, ready to run into Mama's arms and smell the sweet lavender perfume.
“Please, wait!” Sister was panting as she ran after me. I had already opened her office door and stood in the middle of the room.
I looked around, but my mother wasn’t there. Instead, two men wearing long black leather coats and dark hats stood in front of the large picture window. Behind them, heavy rain fell outside. The wind howled as it blew through the trees, causing the window panes to rattle. Small cracks in the frame allowed the cold air into what was usually a warm, cozy room. I pulled my sweater around my body and tried to stop myself from shivering.
The two men stared at me without speaking. Mama had a pair of soft leather gloves and I loved holding her hand when she wore them, but the men’s coats looked hard. Drops of water slinked like snakes down the leather. Small puddles formed on the wooden floor around their shoes.
My heart beat faster as I backed away from them, only to bump into Sister Teresa’s desk and knock over the tall gold cross I admired. Sister Teresa said her parents gave her the cross on the day she became the Bride of Christ.
Sister Teresa panted as she entered the room. “These men want to speak to you for just a minute.”
I don’t understand. Did I do something wrong?
The tall man walked up to Sister Teresa, towering over her. “You may leave now, Sister,” he said in a strict voice, holding the door open. Sister didn’t move.
“We wish to speak to her alone. It won’t take long,” the short man said through a smile that quickly disappeared. He was big and moved more slowly than the other man, as though he was struggling to breathe with each step.
The tall man closed the door after Sister had left the room. As he turned to face me, he squinted as though light was shining in his eyes. But there was no sunshine anywhere. Both men took turns asking me questions: my name, where I came from, how long I'd been at the convent.
Oh, they want me to play the game!
I answered their questions as best as I could. Mama would be proud of me. Then the short man asked in a labored breath, “Do you know what a sin is?”
Oh no! I took the piece of candy off Piotr’s desk last week, and I didn’t mention it in confession. I did not ask for forgiveness. This must be why the men were here.
“Yes.” I said, “But I only took one piece of candy. I promise I will tell Father Emil in confession on Friday.”
“So, you do know,” said the short man. “Then you must know what happens when you do not tell the truth when you commit a sin?”
I tried to stand up straight, but my knees wobbled. “If you commit a mortal sin, you are condemned to the everlasting fires of hell.” This is what Sister Maria told us in religion class. “May I please go now?” I pulled my sweater even tighter around my body. Why is it so cold in here?
“Not yet,” the tall one said, pacing back and forth. “Do you know what a Jew is?” he asked.
Wait. This was not part of the game. I don’t know the answer to these questions. What do I say? Mama, what do I say?
“You don’t want Sister Teresa to find out you tell lies, do you?”
I shook my head but could not look into his black eyes.
“Maybe you are lying to us,” the small man said as he took something out of his pocket.
I watched his thick fingers as he rubbed a shiny object between them. His fingernails were dirty.
“Do you know what this is?” He held up a chain with a gold star dangling at the bottom.
With a grunt, the small man threw the necklace on the floor, like he was getting rid of a piece of garbage. It landed in a puddle of rainwater, close to my feet.
Tears formed in my eyes. I stepped away from the necklace. The tall man paced back and forth in front of the picture window. His boots clicked on the wooden floor. My legs trembled. I could no longer stand. I lowered myself to the ground. My head was heavy as though my neck could no longer support it.
“Maybe you are a Jew,” the tall man said.
With a shaky hand, I reached into my sweater pocket fumbling for the crystal beads, clutched them while making the sign of the cross, then spoke in a whisper, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit...”
The short man hovered over me. His breath was stale and his breathing fast. “Maybe you should wear a yellow Star of David, just like the rest of them.”
My hands gripped the crucifix, the image that had once frightened me. “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come...” Through my prayers, I could hear loud voices, the shuffling of feet, the heavy clicking of heels on the wooden floor. I raised my voice, trying to drown out the sounds. I kept my eyes closed as tears streamed down my face. “Lead us not into temptation...” My voice grew louder. “But deliver us from evil...”
A hand grabbed my arm. I pulled away and crouched into a fetal position on the floor, crystal beads in my hand, still praying.
“They are gone.” I heard Sister Teresa’s voice and felt the warmth of her body next to mine, her arms around me, trying to stop my shaking.
My eyes darted around the room. No one else was there. My fingers continued to move over the beads.
Sister Teresa held out her thin, wrinkled hand. It looked so much like Babcia’s. In her palm was the gold necklace with the Star of David.
“Sister,” I said, looking through my tears at the crystal beads in my hand and the gold necklace in hers, “which one of these is the sin?”