Seven-year-old Senta Bly lay in one of the grassy fields on the northern half of Hexagon Park and looked up at the brown haze in the air above her as she listened to the sound of the calliope and tried to catch her breath. She had spent the morning playing with her cousin Maro McCoort and a dozen other children from the vast sea of tenements who met each morning at the park and played a host of childhood games. Maro, who despite being five months younger than Senta, always looked out for her, nudged her and handed her half of the piece of cheese that he had that morning wrapped in a napkin and stuffed in his pocket. As she chewed it, she turned her head to the side and watched some of the other children running away.
“What’s up?” she asked Maro.
“There’s a wizard setting up over there,” he replied.
Climbing to their feet, they ran in the direction that the other children had gone. Sure enough, a man in a brown suit but wearing a black cape had placed his bowler hat on the grass upside down, so that people could throw money in, and he was already performing his first magic. He swirled his right hand around in a circle parallel to the ground and spoke a series of magic words.
“Uuthanum Izesic.” He grinned. “I give you the floating platform!”
Though it was invisible, there was a disc-shaped platform just below where he had formed the circle with his hands, and children rushed forward to sit on it. A few even tried to stand, though they were quickly pushed off by those wanting their turn. The round field of force lasted only a few minutes and then it was gone and the wizard was on to his next trick. He charmed a woman and made her act like a chicken and then he summoned a horse from out of thin air. He turned a boy’s hair blue and he made a passing steam carriage’s horn meow like a cat. His grand finale was to induce snow to fall from the hazy but relatively cloud-free sky. This earned him cheers from the children and more than a few coins in his hat from the adults despite the snow lasting only a few minutes and none of it sticking.
“It’s time to get home,” Maro told Senta, as the wizard gathered his earnings.
Senta thought she saw the wizard give her a strange look as she passed, but she paid little attention. Wizards were strange folk. She raced after her cousin who shot across Avenue Phoenix, dodging in and around traffic. They ran all the way to the Great Church of the Holy Savior, which marked the edge of the Old City. Then they skipped their way through block after block of tenement buildings. At last they arrived at their own building—a fifteen story stone structure that leaned ever so slightly to the right. Tramping up the narrow stairs, they reached their Granny’s apartment on the twelfth floor.
Together the two children pressed against the door, tumbling inside when Maro turned the knob. They expected to find Granny, and indeed they did, but they were surprised to find her leaning over a tiny bassinette, gooing at the contents. Near her, sitting on the floor was a toddler with very fine, very blond hair. There were already four children living with Granny—Senta and Maro, Maro’s brother Geert, and their cousin Bertice. Now it appeared that there were two more.
“This is Ernst,” said Granny, patting the toddler on the top of the head. “And this is her baby sister Didrika.”
Senta stepped quickly across the room and stared down into the bassinette, Maro at her side. The sleeping baby inside couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. The few whisps of hair on her head were strawberry blond and the tiny bow shaped mouth was pursed, as if she was dreaming of a bottle.
“Aw, cute,” said Senta.
“We’re not going to have enough food,” said Maro.
“We’ll make do,” said Granny. “But you two will have to go to work. Maro, Mr. Blackwell has secured a place for you at his printing shop. And Senta, you will work at the café in the Great Plaza.”
“Who are they, anyway?” asked Maro, indicating the new children.
“They are your cousins. My boy Colin was their father. He died in the war. Now they’ve lost their mother to a fever.”
Twenty minutes later Maro and Senta were making the long trip downstairs to the sub-basement to get a bucket of coal.
“I guess we have to grow up now,” Maro said. “I don’t see why those damn kids have to come here.”
“Their parents are dead,” Senta replied. “Just like yours and mine.”
“Your parents aren’t dead.”
“Uh-huh. Granny said so.”
“I heard your Mom just didn’t want you.”
“Who wouldn’t want me?” said Senta. “I’m just cute.”
Maro made a noncommittal noise and they continued down the stairs.