“Eight months and twenty-four days since Apa left.” Judit sighed as she crossed off yet another day in the 1941 calendar. In the last letter that arrived three months back, her Apa promised he would be home for her tenth birthday, in a month. A repetitive knock interrupted her thoughts. She turned her wheelchair in her Anya’s direction and shouted, “There’s someone at the door.”

Her Anya put down the scarf she was knitting, sprang up, and sprinted to the door. She wiped the beads of sweat on her forehead before her trembling hand opened it. The boy from the nearby bakery greeted her with a pleasant smile. He handed her a few loaves of bread and left after collecting five pengős.

That was close! Her Anya grasped her rosary and thanked God it wasn’t the postman. The people in the small Hungarian town of Hatvan considered the postman to be a messenger of death. Whenever he knocked on the door of someone’s house, the residents expected to mourn the death of a loved one who had left home to fight in the war. The horrors of the war had left the country in turmoil. Though Judit heard about it from the radio, she couldn’t comprehend why the war was happening in the first place. She never understood why her Anya diverted the topic, giving one excuse or another, whenever she asked about it.

A hard-working woman, her Anya knitted winter wear to make ends meet. Every day, she lit one candle at their town cathedral, hoping her husband would soon return from the war. But the news of the death of one soldier after another started to diminish her confidence. She kept a strong façade, being well aware that Judit would notice the slightest drop in hope. The truth could tear her daughter’s world apart.

Just like their town, Judit’s world was small, too. Apart from her pet Mudi, Miksa, the only other friend she had was a collection of Transylvanian folktales by Elek Benedek. A rare congenital medical condition confined her to a wheelchair, earning her nicknames like “Freak,” “Witch,” and “Cursed One” from the girls in the neighbourhood. But she didn’t take any of those insults to heart, thanks to her Apa, who made her feel special despite her disability. He did his best to ensure that she had a normal childhood like her counterparts.

“Apa, why can’t I run around and play handball like the rest of the girls?” She remembered sniffling and holding back tears.

“God created you unique, bébé. You are one of a kind.” He used to comfort her, flinging his arms around her neck.

A sea of nostalgia swept up her mind as she caressed the red bows on her pigtails. “Miksa, I want to see Apa.” She snapped her fingers with a loud crack.

At once, Miksa darted towards Judit’s room with full excitement. He ruffled through her decorated chest, searching for his target. He picked a framed sepia photograph using his mouth and wagged his tail as he came running towards his loving playmate.

Judit took the photograph and wiped it clean. “Good boy!” she said, patting Miksa’s head.

She gazed with dreamy eyes at her Apa; he looked majestic, smiling in his uniform with the Royal Hungarian Army insignia shining in the sunlight. It was clear where she got her blue eyes, pale skin, and freckled face. Many felt that she did not only have her father’s features, but his amicable nature, too.

“Anya, tell me something. Is the smile still on Apa’s face even during the war?” she asked her Anya with a hint of curiosity. Her Anya’s stoic reaction followed by silence contained the bitter reality.

Some of the girls in the neighbourhood, whom the war had rendered fatherless, said that Judit’s Apa would never return. But deep inside, she felt that he would at least come home in a wheelchair like her, if not intact.

Judit held the photograph close to her chest. She yearned to cuddle in her Apa’s gentle embrace: the warmth, the care, the joy, and above all, the pure, unadulterated love. Her golden memories flashed—the time when he snuggled under the blanket with her to read bedtime stories about princesses and dragons or when he gifted her a tiny Miksa in a basket for her sixth birthday. Her Apa never failed to shower her with affection. Reminiscing about the moments they shared only made her miss him even more. The last time she saw him was still fresh in her mind. He was waiting by the door, all dressed up in his uniform. Sorrow was written all over his face. With a tight kiss on her forehead, he bade her a tearful goodbye. Little did Judit know that he wouldn’t be returning any time soon.

She heaved a sigh of desperation and navigated her wheelchair towards the balcony. The sky was darker than ever and the moon was partially covered by clouds, casting gloom on the small town. She looked at the farthest point on the skyline, the farthest away that she could see, and thought that somewhere far away, her Apa was still there. When will he be back? Is he still the same or has the war changed him? She tried to find an answer for the many questions that flooded her mind, but in vain.

Just then, she was captivated by something beautiful. Pointing upwards with her index finger, she exclaimed in delight, “Anya, look there! A shooting star!”

A bright orange star raced across the evening sky, leaving behind a trail of streaks. It not only lit up the night sky, but also lit up Judit’s face with a glowing smile. She had read fairy tales about the magic shooting stars carried. They were a sign of imminent good. As the shooting star blazed, she closed her eyes, crossed herself, and made a wish aloud. “Please keep Apa safe. Nothing must happen to him.”

Her Anya flashed a faint smile, upon seeing Judit do this. Though she didn’t believe in such myths, she was happy that her little girl could find a glimmer of hope even during the darkest of times. With a hug, she gave Judit a loving peck on the cheek. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Things are going to be all right soon.”


In the meantime, the April War raged on for hours in the Yugoslav-administered territory of Baranja. A Yugoslav cavalryman readied himself to strike as his horse galloped on the battlefield.

He sensed an enemy nearby. The horse stopped and stilled.

A dismounted Hungarian soldier rose from the ground, and he stumbled around.

The cavalryman climbed on top of his horse; a smile appeared. He aimed; his breathing calmed. Time slowed. He pulled the trigger without batting an eye.

As the bullet rocketed through the air, the soldier’s locket slipped from his neck.

He ducked down to pick it up and the bullet hit an oak tree.

The soldier bolted up, eyes wide, darting from the cavalryman and back to the bullet in the tree, a bronze locket dangling from his fingers. Had he been late by even a millisecond and not ducked, the bullet hole would have been on his head instead of the tree trunk. Tension filled the air. Fathoming what just happened, the soldier unholstered his pistol and fired a shot.

The bullet hit the horse instead and sent the cavalryman down to the ground. The horse whinnied and staggered back before dying in pain. The cavalryman was crawling, his horse pinning his body, his breathing erratic. He struggled to get free as the soldier drew closer.

The soldier sprang forward.

The cavalryman quickly grabbed his knife. It sliced the soldier’s calf and blood gushed from his leg.

A scream erupted, and birds soared from the trees.

The soldier put a bullet through the cavalryman’s head in the heat of the moment.

The latter’s eyes glazed over as his head jerked and fell to the ground with a thud.

The soldier panted and grabbed his bleeding leg. Heaving a sigh of relief, he ran his emaciated fingers over the heart-shaped locket he had been clutching in his left hand. With tears in his eyes, he opened it and looked at the faded photograph of his dear daughter, Judit. Thanking her for saving his life through a twist of fate, he kissed her photograph before returning to combat.


Several miles away, in Belgrade, a little boy was praying in front of a crucifix for his father’s safe return before Christmas. But his father wasn’t coming home.