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Author's note: This piece is not finished yet, but it's taken months and months of research and writing. This is a very emotional topic for me.
Europe's Young stir peacefully in sleep.
After praying to God for their souls to keep.
So tired after a sunny day of playing.
Now tucked to bed warm, after on knees, praying.
What a horrible thing - to awaken the next day.
To realize these things are now taken away.
Into ghettos they march - collective custody They lied.
And in the distance, Treblinka's mouth is opening wide.
Oh God in Heaven, show Us your great power!
Why must these little Ones plunge from Life's Tower?
To be rendered of their Souls by Treblinka's great might
In yellow sand they are buried - day and night.
Oh, Treblinka, Treblinka, Your jaws gape so wide -
The young lambs herd in, unaware of what's inside.
Run, little children...Run for your lives!
You've been brought to The Slaughterhouse - where no one survives.
It is easy to swallow these small ones whole -
Efficiently you render body from soul.
Straight from the trains - chased through your door...
As Warsaw is emptied, you strain for more.
Nothing stops you, Treblinka - hidden away in the woods.
As your yellow sand turns red with blood.
Is there anyone to stop this? Something must be done!
If You are not stopped, there will remain not one.
Treblinka you child-eater, your wheels spin and turn.
Your gears well-oiled, while the human soup is churned
A soup made of children who no longer run or play.
A bloody soup that is dumped into yellow sand and clay.
Dig pits in the sand - hidden beyond the trees -
Treblinka exists only if no one sees.
Covered over by Them, so that none would see The Place.
To hide what was done - there is scarcely a trace.
The Satanic Nazis smile, beckon & beguile.
Why - it is not so hard to fool a young child!
Could God really be giving these young ones up to die?
Innocent teary eyes look to their parents & say "G'Bye"
It would have been better had there never been a birth.
For these innocent eyes will never see life's worth.
Fate has chosen these little ones to die.
Many today still ask, "Why?"
We think it's all over - "...it is done, it is past"
We want to believe the children screamed their last.
But listen close, and you will hear the sound,
Of Treblinka's faint heartbeat, below the yellow ground.
In our weakness we call the madmen Them and They.
Are our souls so different & brave - that we'd have stood in the way?
So exalt not my friend, in a self-glorified stand....
For Treblinka sprang forth from the heart and mind of Man.
I remember once, Warsaw was sheeted with the thick blanket of a previous blizzard and the snowflakes cascaded down to Earth, like ash from a rampaging fire.
I had stepped wearily into the snow from under my make-shift shelter. My feet made a crunching sound with each step I took. The flurries piled up on my shoulders. I bent down and scooped up a handful.
As the snow sat in my palm, my hands started to burn; as if I were touching flaming ice. I rolled it around with my fingers shifting the ache through each hand. It was magnificent. I stood with my blazing hands; marveling.
How could this white rain cover the city; fill in the cracks in the roofs of the buildings, layer the sidewalks, wash the filth from my skin, and transform Warsaw into a Heaven? It was as if the clouds had dropped from the sky and as they hit the treetops, they burst; their scattered pieces tumbling downwards; painting.
I’d liked to have thought the angels who had been resting on the clouds plucking their golden harps had fallen too. That they landed in the city and roamed the ashen streets, the same streets I had stolen and begged for food on.
For that one day, I believed that the angels would not let me starve, they would not let me freeze, and they would not let me die; that they were there to protect me. And for that one day, I would not worry about the next.
Maybe the angels would let all the other skinny, begging children laugh instead of groan.
But the skeleton children still died. Their bodies littered the streets, the ashen streets of the hideous ghetto. When had there been happy children? When had there been supple, fleshy, pink children? Not in the ghetto.
I had seen them before.
Little girls holding the hands of their mothers, in their royal blue parkas, with their long curly hair, and shiny strapped boots, they would march past me as I wondered at them, into the sugary toy stores and ice cream shops. They were a spectacle. I would look at my own skinny arms and bony legs. I would wonder why the mothers whispered and pointed and the children looked away. I would wonder why I was so different.
Not in the ghetto. There, I was like a duplicate of all the other children, the hollow eyes, the empty voices. There, there was never a time when it was quiet, truly, utterly silent, when the skeleton children were not begging. . I loved their droopy eyes and vacant expressions that matched mine. They made me feel like I wasn’t any different, even there, even in Warsaw.
It was so beautiful there. Yet so ugly. I wonder how that’s possible.
When it was sunny, and I walked past a window, a rainbow would dance along the glass, casting colors over my awed face. That’s beautiful. In the ghetto, I ate squirrels pretending they were not rats. People hung from streetlamps. People lie dead in the road, covered in filthy newspapers. People were shot.
Bang, bang. Dead. Bang, bang. Dead. That’s ugly.
That is what I mean. That is the ghetto. I wondered if it could get worse, if my life could be any more discolored. More disturbing. It could. It certainly could.
More horrifying than anything I could ever have imagined.
“What are you doing here?” He was a large silhouette, opening his door, demanding.
“What’s your name?”
“I don’t have one,” The snow flurries landed on my cap. I fingered the cracked hen egg in my pocket.
“Are you a Jew?”
I told him I did not know what a stray was.
“You an orphan kid?”
I didn’t know that either. I was uncomfortable, squirming on his front step; I didn’t want to answer anything else.
“Yes,” I said nodding my head, hoping it would please him.
“Come inside, it’s cold out there,” The shadow stepped back, motioning me forward.
I walked in. It was warm. The door shut. The man was wearing a soft, cloth-woven, loose- fitted robe. He had royal blue slippers on. He looked me up and down. He squinted as he scrutinized me.
“What were you doing out there, it’s snowing,” he paused, “Are you stupid?”His voice was rough, like sand paper.
I said that he asked a lot of questions.
He threw his head back and laughed. “Well, yes, excuse me lad, but you break into my chicken coops and scram. Then, a week later, you come back and try to steal the rest of my eggs. You were sitting on my porch eating them, weren’t you?” He pointed to the old, red coop where hens squawked inside.
I was. But I wasn’t going to admit it. I had to look up to see his face. He was tall. His grey mustache leaked from his nose. It curled upwards liked handle bars.
“Strange boy,” he continued when I didn’t speak.
“Are you going to call the police?” I asked. I made a face. Four raw eggs weren’t worth getting caught.
He was quiet. A minute passed, maybe more.
“No,” he said.
I started to breathe again.
“I want to feed you. You’re too skinny. You need a bath. You smell. New clothes too. Comb to the hair.”
I put my hands on my head, “What’s wrong with my hair?” I asked.
“Bird’s nest, that’s what,” he said.
I was surprised. I didn’t know birds lived in my hair.
The man walked to his woodland table. His kitchen was big; swirling with the aroma of cinnamon and sausage. The walls were cherry colored. The countertops were cream white. There were roosters everywhere; statues of roosters crowing, sitting, standing, laying. A kettle on the stove screeched and misted. I traced my finger around the spots on the wood table.
Hanging above the stove, there was a portrait of a beady- eyed woman with grey hair and thin lips. I asked who she was.
The man looked at her, his eyes twinkled. “My wife,” he said absentmindedly.
He waved his hand back and snorted, “She was a crazy, nagging old hag. Died about nineteen years ago. I miss her though,”
“Sit down,” he said.
He reached into his cupboard and pulled out a container of honey and a spout of sugar. He set them on the table and took out two porcelain cups with delicate blue roses painted on them.
“She went wild with grief after our son….” The man trailed off.
He cleared his throat while setting a loaf of bread and a butter knife on the table. Colored glass jars lined his counter tops. The pot on the stove whistled and steamed.
An old coffee- colored spotted hound dog shifted under the table. It placed its heavy paw on my foot. The touch was affectionate and comforting; it felt good.
“He was a good boy, lad,” the man said. I thought he was talking about his dog.
“Real smart, handsome too. Women were all over him from age one, let me tell you,” he chuckled. He was telling me about his son.
“Got himself a nice, pretty, wife. But the damned boy became a soldier. He fought the Lithuanians. I don’t know, in the Polish- Soviet War. The Polish- Lithuanian War? It doesn’t matter to me. Got himself shot somewhere in Vilnius. Weeks passed before we heard.”
He started to butter a piece of raisin bread. He shuffled over to the stove-top and silenced the shrieking pot. I could hear the wind howling outside. I furtively thanked myself for coming back to this house instead of stealing eggs someplace else.
“Ah, but that was decades ago. I’m a lonely old man now.”
Raspberry jam- coated toast lay in front of me. The scent of Jasmine tea filled my nostrils. I drank.
“It’ll warm the cockles of your heart,” he said to this.
“It’s a pleasure to have company,” he persisted, when the only sound was the tick, tock, tick, tock, of the aged grandfather clock over our heads.
I told him it was nice to have somebody to talk to.
“Where do you live, boy? I think there’s an orphanage down the street, did you run away, or...”
“No,” I said. That was all. He didn’t pursue it.
“How old are you?” he asked me.
I swished the now lukewarm tea around my mouth before answering that I wasn’t sure.
He nodded thoughtfully. He told me to stand up.
I did. I came up a little farther than his waist. He sat back down.
“Well, I don’t know, hard to tell. I know I’m lofty, but you might be short for your age, or you might even be tall for your age. Depending on what your age is, see, that’s the dilemma,” He chortled.
I thought about what he said. “I guess maybe I’m eleven, maybe,” I estimated.
“Alright, eleven it is,” he said, but still seemed skeptical. The dog under the table suddenly jumped. “Ah, calm down, you silly mutt,” the man mumbled. He looked at me, “That’s just my dog Barley, old as the hills.”
I asked how old the hills were.
“Never mind,” he said, grimacing. He glanced at the clock, “Getting late, come on then, lad,”
After I ate and drank the rest of my tea, the man led me up a short flight of creaky old steps. He turned right, into a bathroom and drew a warm wash for me. Then, he gave me a rag and a bar of soap that smelt like lilacs.
“I want you to scrub yourself vigorously,” he said. “You’re not leaving this tub for a good twenty minutes.” He left.
I scrubbed and scoured my body and washed and sponged down my hair and stood and sat. I stared at the burgundy walls and the red- throated roosters hanging by nails over the mirror. I gaped at myself in the glass from the tub. The face looking back at me had large, widened brown eyes. They were mystified, grim. The hair was brunette; matted, and spiky. Un-kept. I turned my head angularly; no birds.
The skin was tanned, evidence of me living in the streets, under the baking sun in the summer. The limbs were small; skeletal. I frowned; the face in the glass copied me. I experimented with my expressions, watching my reflection mimic me.
Twenty minutes later, the man came back. He gave me a towel and told me to go to the room across the hallway. He also said I didn’t do a good job, “The birds are gone at least,” he noted.
In the room across the entry, the walls were navy blue with little sailboats wallpapered on. A four posted bed was nestled in the corner. There was a small russet desk and a nightstand next to three little drawers in a matching dresser. I opened one of the drawers. There were about a hundred olive- green toy soldiers in there.
The man set some clothes on the bed and left.
I got dressed in them and sat on the blue covers of the bed. Downy feathers in the mattress puffed from under me.
I laid my head down and closed my eyes.
Sometime later, I opened them again and the man was standing over me, staring around the room with poignant eyes.
“This was my son’s room when he was a boy,” he said.
I had guessed. I nodded and said it was a nice room.
“Yeah, it is,” the man agreed tracing his foot in a circle.
I stayed there that night. My back did not hurt in the morning. I slept soundly. I did not dream. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.
He fed me an oatmeal breakfast and filled a knapsack with food and clothes. He added a bar of soap. He warned me to use it or he would find me and scrub me down himself.
We both stood by the door, me with my knapsack on my back, and new cap on my head, him with his fuzzy, worn slippers and handlebar mustache. He placed his hand on my shoulder and smiled.
“You be careful out there boy,” he said.
“I will,” I said, “I’m sorry I stole eggs from you,” I added.
The man waved his hands dismissively, “Don’t worry about it. I know how it feels to be hungry.”
He opened to the door and I stepped on his porch. I reached into my new pockets for the splintered egg I had taken from my old clothes. “Here,” I said. I handed him the egg.
He rolled it around in his palms and grinned, “Thanks lad,” he said.
I walked down the steps, and then I turned around. I looked up at the silhouetted man standing in his doorway.
“What was your son’s name?” I asked.
The man paused, “Olek,” he said. His voice was soft and endearing.
“Thank you,” I said.
I waved my hand and paced away from his house, up his drive, past the chicken coops.
I walked along the dirt road with new clothes and food and lilac soap. I also walked away with a name. My name became Olek.
My knapsack was gone.
I walked out of the shop, carrying two jars of honey and saw that four boys were coming towards me.
I don’t know why I bought honey with the little money I had left, but I had a soft spot for it. It tasted like nothing else in the world. I loved it. I was stroking the jars; placing the sugary liquid up to my face and watching it ooze around.
The amber-colored honey made my mouth water and I started to unscrew the lid. Dipping my fingers into it, I pulled out a glob and shoved it in my mouth eagerly. That’s when the first boy stopped in front of me. He was skinny and he pointed a bony finger at me. “Give me that honey,” he demanded.
“I want to eat it,” I said and tucked it behind my back protectively.
Another boy stepped forward; he was taller and meatier, but still lanky. “We’re hungry. Can’t you share?”
A third boy, less provocative than the others, said simply, “We’re all hungry these days.”
The fourth boy tried to grab my honey. I stumbled backwards and the honey jars slipped from my sticky, wet fingers. They hit the ground and smashed. The fourth boy, maybe seven, stooped down and started to pick through the glass fragments, collecting the honey. He picked up half of a jar, still containing most of it, and started sucking it happily.
The tall one grabbed my shoulders while the first boy held me down. They grabbed my knapsack, that contained soap, (which I rather liked using), a couple zlotys and a green toy soldier that I had sneaked.
They ran away with it and left me on the ground. My elbow had landed in the shards and trickles of blood dripped down my forearm. I felt my eyes tearing up, but more from the loss of my precious honey and soap than anything else.
I thought about returning to the old man’s house to ask for more, but he was miles away and it’d been weeks. He probably wouldn’t have remembered me anyway. I stood up shakily and picked the glass out of my arms.
The shopkeeper stood on his porch blowing smoke circles at me. “This ain’t no place for a boy,” he said.
“I don’t know where this is,” I admitted. It was true, I wasn’t sure, but I had always had a terrible sense of direction. It was only by sheer luck and by sticking to roads that I had found civilizations like this weedy town.
“This is Grudziadz, Poland. Near the Vistula. You keep going yer goin’ to hit Prussia,” he said slowly, studying me.
I had heard of Germany. I even spoke some of their language. The first thing I remember was a woman in Germany who had taken care of me for a few short weeks. Then one day she did not return and I grew hungry. I left, and I never came back. I had wandered down through Poland and found I liked the people a bit better.
“Oh, thanks,” I said.
“You need help with those wounds?” he asked, running a hand over his thinning hair. His glasses magnified his eyes into big, round orbs.
I looked down at my elbow, and then I became aware of the pain in my leg, on my thigh and some burning in my knee.
“Alright,” I said.
I teetered up his steps and into the shop. It smelled musky, woodsy. It was more of a bait and tackle shop with fishing poles that were strung from the pinewood ceiling. I spotted the rack where the honey was sold. Looking at them made my stomach growl.
The man looked at me with his big eyes. Then he looked at the honey. “Those rascals took yer honey, did they?”
“Yes sir,” I said, keeping my head hung low.
“Mmhmm,” he murmured. “These are hard times; there are children like you everywhere. You guys just seem to simply materialize on the streets. It’s ‘cos the parents can’t afford a child. Y’know when they can barely afford to feed themselves. Or the parents are killed, and the kids have to learn to make it on their own. It’s a sad, tough world.” He was behind the counter, sifting through drawers, trying to find something. “Ah,” he said and pulled out a brown bottle. “C’mere.”
I limped over and he poured the liquid over wounds. It sizzled and bubbled on my skin as I gritted my teeth against the pain.
“I know,” he crooned, “but I’m just disinfecting your cuts.”
He screwed the cap back on and pulled out some bandage. He wrapped one around my arm, making a tourniquet and did two more for my thigh and knee.
“Okay, so here’s some bandage, change them every day until their healed alright?”
I nodded. The man strode over to the counter and picked up two honey jars.
“Put these in your pack,” he said.
I took them and hugged them against my chest. “I don’t have a pack.”
“Those boys took it then?”
“I’m sorry I don’t have one for you.”
“That’s alright.” I started to walk away; my hand was on the door knob.
He walked back around the counter, “Wait.”
“I think, maybe, I might have one somewhere in here,” he reached under and pulled out a dusty tan knapsack, “This was my father’s,” he said as he stroked it.
“Sir-“ I started.
“No-I want you to have it. It’s tough out there, kid. You’d have more use for it than me.”
I smiled halfheartedly. “Thank you, sir.”
“No problem,” he smiled, crinkles in the corners of his eyes.
I stood awkwardly for a moment and then tipped my cap. The porch door shut behind me and I walked up the dirt road, in the opposite direction the boys had run.
I could feel the huge, orb-like eyes of the man on my back as I left.
The flowers had started to sprout before my eyes.
Winter snow began to melt away as grass poked its way through. Naked trees grew green leaves, and the weather started to warm up. When I went to bed at night, in the corner of a street or the inside of a dumpster, the wind was not as cold and my body did not shiver through morning.
I kicked along the pebbles on the road, whistling a tune I had picked up. My mouth was dry and cottony, but I continued through the parchedness. Before I knew it, I was whistling a melody that was hovering in the air. As I walked farther, the sound became louder.
And then I could hear the singing radio inside of the café from standing in the dirt parking lot. I wanted to go in. I wanted to feel any kind of liquid in my mouth, slithering down my throat. My thirst was unmanageable.
I had wandered from the chicken coops and little villages in the country to the more estranged roads that had barely any business, let alone farms. I had managed a fairly innocent profile, claiming I was looking for my father and needed housing. But mostly, if I were even accepted into any of these isolated homes located off the highway, I would steal some food and be off before they woke up on the morning. I considered myself somewhat notorious and had no issue in admitting this. I always thought that maybe I could be caught, and recognized as being a little thief, but no one ever looked at me twice. I guessed they thought I was just another boy abandoned on the streets.
Just then I heard some laughing, and I glanced at the door, as it swung open; a drunken man escorted by two giggling women led him to his automobile. In the same sweeping motion the door opened, I slid inside as it closed.
A strong scent of alcohol hit me as I entered. I felt almost drunk with it before I had even tasted it. It was then that I realized what a short tolerance I had for alcohol.
It was dank and dark inside the café, which I had gathered, was more like a bar. The stools placed in front the bar counter were all occupied with men who glared at me with a kind of squint. There was a man who was polishing glasses. He spit onto the glass and rubbed it with the cloth.
The place was mostly made of wood, it was oak I thought. There was a low mumble of conversation all around the small place. The walls were bare except for an occasional window, with a ragged curtain streaming down. I saw a man and a woman leading each other down a hallway laughing raucously. The woman tried to shush the man and glanced behind her, almost stumbling over the man’s foot. They were as drunk as any I guessed.
I walked shakily up to the counter and asked for some water.
“Not if you ain’t got nothing to pay for it,” the spit polisher said.
“I ain’t,” I said, “But I do have something I’ll trade for it.” I didn’t think I had anything; my hands worked their way down to my pockets.
“Well let’s see it lad, you wouldn’t want me to escort you out would you?”
“No, sir,” I struggled to say without gritting my teeth. I came upon the lilac soap that the old man had given me. “What about this,” I said, “Everyone needs soap,” I looked him squarely in the face, and then averted my eyes, embarrassed as I realized how he could have misconstrued my words.
The man glared at me, “Get out,” he ordered.
“Please!” I cried desperately at once.
The spit polisher opened his mouth but nothing came out, he paused.
“Just one glass of water and I’ll be on my way,” I pleaded quickly.
“Fine,” the man said, “Go sit over there,” he grumbled and pointed to a table over by the window. “God damn kid giving me a guilt trip,” I heard him say as I hopped down from the stool.
I strode over to the table keeping my head down. I was about to sit when I saw a long hallway leading down to one closed door.
Light streamed out from under the bottom, and I thought I heard a faint noise. I couldn’t tell what it was. That must’ve been where that man and the woman had gone in.
I felt my cheeks grow hot, but I had no way of knowing what they were doing. They could’ve only been talking.
I took a quick look back toward the counter where the man was, but he was gone, so I supposed I had some time. I tip-toed back down the hallway, slowly.
The old boards creaked beneath my feet. The noise in the room stopped, I heard frantic whispers. Sound seemed to reverberate inside my head as it entered my ear drums. I felt as if I were doing a terrible misdeed, and something deep inside me told me to go back. I didn’t though, even as the stale walls seemed to collapse around me.
The hallway seemed to go on forever and the farther I went the more the sounds of the customers in the bar seemed to be distant, like an echo, even though I wasn’t very far away at all.
Finally, I smiled feverishly to myself and put my hand on the door knob. I turned it; I heard the weak lock on the other side click and pushed the door open.
At first I saw red. There were red walls, faded, almost rusty. There was a creaky bed in the middle of the room with a burgundy canopy. I paused and blinked and stumbled over the scattered papers all over the floor. A few oriental rugs sat beneath the mounds of paperwork, stained by some past encounter with a spill.
The ancient telephone in the corner rung suddenly, shrilly, and a hand emerged from the canopy to pick it up. “Hello?” The accent was gruff.
“Barnabas, there’s someone here,” I heard someone else say. It was a woman’s voice, soft and strained. I thought I saw the beginning of a head protruding from the canopy.
“What?” the hand holding the telephone slammed it down. “That was Kurt, god damn it. He asked for you or your father, but I think he recognized my voice.”
“Barnabas, there’s a boy standing at the door,” the woman said.
“What?” the hand withdrew and disappeared within the bed. “Get dressed; Kurt could be here any moment, if he recognized me. He hung up before I could say anything else.”
I stepped back and started to leave when a man’s face unsheathed itself from the thick canopy.
He wasn’t a very impressing man, his chin jutted out from his upper mouth and his eyes were very close together and they seemed to crisscross whenever he looked straight and his oily hair hid the beginnings of a skin disease casing his forehead. I was disgusted at this point and began to look away when he laughed.
“Aniela, this boy is gawking; do you think he might’ve known just what we were doing?” The man tossed back his head and reached for something down at the end of the bed.
The woman’s head peeked out from the canopy and she seemed in a rather nervous mood; her mouth was taut and her large doe, brown eyes stretched even wider as she stared at me.
“Oh dear, I do hope you haven’t been standing there the whole time,“ she sighed and then let out a laugh, that seemed more like a snort and she and the man disappeared back together behind the curtain.
“I ain’t been here but a minute,” I said, and thanked myself for not being there any longer.
“Well I do hope so,” I heard the man say, “But really, Aniela, we must get dressed, if Kurt is to be coming as not to-“
He stopped short when a strange thumping noise was coming from outside the door, and I looked and tried to move, but was too slow and found I was facing an angry man barreling down the hallway. He shoved me out of the way and the air knocked out of me in one gust as I slammed into the wall.
He stomped into the room and ripped back the canopy in a frightening grab “Aniela! What are you doing! Aniela!”The man grabbed the woman by the arm and threw her onto the floor, coincidently; the canopy came down with her, wrapping her and her nakedness up in a worm -like shape.
The man on the bed was at least halfway dressed already. I saw his leg covered in pants as it flailed; the other man raising his fist. “Kurt, stop! I did not know!!”
Gaping, I immediately started to slither out the door.
The woman on the floor let out a blood curdling scream, “Lies!” Then she reached up and slammed the door and snarled at me, “You’re not going anywhere until this is over.”
“Kurt please, you don’t understand, I don’t know her, and I just met her today. If I had known you two were together, I never would have agreed to-“
“You’re a liar! You know me! We’ve been using this room for months!”The woman on the floor screamed. She looked up at me, makeup smeared down her cheeks. “Little boy,” she cooed and stroked my pant leg. I kicked at her and she sneered and grabbed at my leg trying to pull me down.
I struggled and let out a little gasp for help, but I shook free of her. I was now terribly scared and wanted nothing but to leave, but the woman and maneuvered her body so that she was a blockade for my exit.
“An affair!” scoffed the man named Kurt quietly.
The man named Kurt seemed oddly clam until now. He reached down to Aniela where she screamed in fright, but he only ripped a piece of canopy off. He glanced vehemently at me, but only smirked and straightened back up. He tied the piece around the face of the man on the bed, so that his mouth was bound. Only grunts came out now. Barnabas was a much feebler man in compared to gigantic Kurt, whose veins bulged from his arm muscle and whose white shirt stretched tight over his swelling chest.
The woman looked up at me. “Fetch help,” she cried quietly, and tried to move her body.
Kurt stared at her and growled, “If you move, or make a sound, I will do to you what is in store for your cheat.”
The woman only made little whimpering sounds now. I slid down in the corner, and calculated my chances of escaping through the rusty old window.
The door was closed, so there was no way I could leave without him hearing. The woman was balled up on the floor. Her mouse brown hair was plastered to her face with tears. I slinked towards the window. My hand reached the sill and I began to open it up. It scraped and I panicked, slamming the window up all the way. Kurt looked at me, and began to reach for my leg when I jumped through the window in one swift movement, sprawling my body on the ground.
I ran. And even as I ran, the sour taste of fear lingered in my mouth.
I remember the day I thought I was going to die. You’d have thought I was closer to death when I was stuck in-between a ferocious man and his prey, but I wasn’t, because this was much worse.
It was a hot day. I remember the heat; it was uncommon for Poland to get so blistering, especially in spring. I had not eaten in six days. People were not sparing, people could care less about a starving child. These were hard times and one more dead body was nothing more than a smelly inconvenience. Every door I knocked on slammed into my face, and as the rural highways turned into small towns, the people got less and less friendly.
I had no idea where I was, but I knew I had covered a lot of ground. I had hopped automobiles and a train or two. But the problem was, I didn’t know where I was going.
I sat in front of a small café to die. Tired of walking, tired of sucking on air as I sprinted from house to house, I sort of collapsed onto the side of the little diner nestled next to a cobble-brick road.
I was humped against the wall, and I ran my fingers over jagged bone protruding from my skin. I welcomed death; I even began to feel the gnawing inside my stomach fade away. It was nice.
The sun created dancing shadows on the sidewalk, the blurry blue sky shifting and distorting as my mind began to transfer into an in-between, the final stages of life. Even then, I couldn’t help thinking what a waste my life had been. Slithering through the streets, living only to eat and drink.
Impatiently I began to hold my breath, trying to run out of air. I always let go, with a whoosh of sound escaping my lips, and I gave up again. My eyelids started to slide shut.
I think, maybe then, that I saw my mother for the first time. It was only for a second, but she flickered in front of my eyes like the last breath of a dying candle. I saw her soft round face, her warm smile.
I was drifting.
“Honey?” said a voice.
I knew it was my mother, she was so beautiful; I was momentarily distracted from my dying. As my eyelashes fluttered, I got little flashes of her. Her hair fell in thick, dark ringlets. Her eyes were a brilliant blue; clear cobalt and her thick, black eyelashes framed them to pop from her heart-shaped face. She seemed a bit young to be a mother, but what did I know?
I whimpered a name, a name I didn’t know, to a person that I had never met. I felt I knew her though. My mother, though I had no recollection of her at all.
“Honey, are you alright?” She asked.
I unconsciously leaned into her and smelt her delicious scent. She smelled like apple and cinnamon. I decided cinnamon would be my favorite scent.
I whispered something, but I don’t remember what I said.
She bowed back and her eyes were wide. Her head bobbed for a moment and she gestured for me to stay put.
Where would I have gone? My legs jittered restlessly, my stomach snarling. My head slumped down the wall.
‘Goodbye, Mother,’ I thought, smiling faintly.
Her name was Franciszka. And she was not my mother.
Her house was a shabby one-room shack. She had a kitchen and a bed. She had gotten a latrine built in with a door for privacy. She lived alone, so I didn’t know privacy from whom. Perhaps for days when she brought home a kid that had been lying, starving outside the diner where she worked.
I had fallen comatose while she and a friend had picked me up and carried me to Franciszka’s home. I vaguely remember waking up at her table and eating soup, her telling me who she was, then falling back asleep. Before that, she had to constantly remind me she was not my mother.
Twelve hours later, I woke up in her bed. I patted the covers next to me, surprised not to find her there. I heard something in the corner of the room and looked up.
She had gone into the latrine’s seclusion and came out wearing an old dress. She let down her hair and it fell in cascades to the middle of her back. She picked up a brush from a nightstand next to her cot. Her knee touched mine.
I was sitting on her cot watching her move about her room like she was unsure of what to do. She disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a roll of bread for me. She put it in my hands and told me to eat it.
I did; ravenously. I almost felt embarrassed for myself. After, I felt as if I might throw up.
“Not so fast,” she said, a little too late.
She walked over and sat next to me. She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me in close to her. My head was against her chest and I could feel her heartbeat; slow and thudding against her ribcage like hammer against cloth. She brushed the bread combs off my lips and mussed my messy hair
“You’re cute,” she said, and laughed.
I didn’t know what to say. I blushed and when her fingertips grazed against my cheeks, I was surprised she didn’t feel the heat. I had never thought of myself as cute. I would notice other girls staring at me on the streets but I always thought it was because they were noticing my griminess.
I was twelve years old. I still had no clue what it was like to have a crush on someone, but I had something with Franciszka.
“Big, chocolate eyes,” she noted when she tipped my chin up. Her body was petite. She was two or three inches taller than me. The shortest I’d ever seen anyone, except for children. “How old are you? What’s your name?” her voice was pressing and her face was eager.
“Eleven, “I said. I’m almost twelve,” I said.
“So your birthday’s near?”
“Sure,” I replied; whatever that was.
I supposed I was twelve back at the old man’s house. I wasn’t much of a time keeper, but I knew that it had grown warmer and the snow had melted away. It took me a while to understand that you get one year older every year, not every season. How was I supposed to know this though? The only kind of smart I knew was street smarts.
“I’m fifteen,” she paused, “I’ll be sixteen soon,” she sighed.
I asked her why she sighed.
“I don’t know,” another sigh, “I guess I don’t have anything to look forward to, getting older and all. The only thing I have is that crummy job at the diner. I hate it there. Sometimes I wish I could just run away, but where will I go? Since my mother died, I feel like I can’t leave this place. I feel like if I leave here, I’ll be leaving her. Do you understand?”
She looked at me and I nodded, but I didn’t understand, not really.
“I’m Olek,” I said, rolling around the name I had barely spoken aloud.
“Olek,” I repeated, “Just Olek.”
She laughed again, “Alright, ‘just Olek’, are you still hungry?”
“Yes,” I said, thinking that I probably wasn’t.
She stared some more, as if she was reading me, calculating my expression.
Her scrutiny made me uncomfortable and my stomach made a little noise of unease. “Not really, actually,” I admitted, yawning.
“You should sleep Olek,” she whispered. She unrolled the covers from the bottom of her cot and pulled them over me.
“Where are you going to sleep?” I asked drowsily, and strangely I was very tired, even after sleeping so long. It felt weird and wonderful.
“I don’t know,” she murmured.
“You can sleep with me,” I said absentmindedly.
She didn’t seem to mind and climbed in with me. She blew out the lonely flickering candle on the nightstand and we fell asleep almost immediately.
I woke up and her arm was slung over me. Her head was buried into the pillow and her chest heaved up and down in slow, rhythmic breathing. I slid out from under her and stumbled onto the floor, still weak from my almost dying. She must’ve been a very light sleeper because she sat straight up. Her hair was a bird’s nest. I sniggered to myself in how I had picked up this saying.
“Oh, it’s only you Olek,”
“Well you never know,”
“Nope,” I paused, “What’s for breakfast?” I asked and patted my stomach. I knew I was acting a little more casual than I should, but I felt like we were friends that had lived with each other for many years.
“I don’t know,” she looked around, “What do you want?”
“What do you have?”
“I said I didn’t know,”
“Fine,” I scooted towards the untidy little kitchen.
It didn’t take me long to understand that there was almost nothing to choose from. We ended up making eggs. I wasn’t thrilled.
Franciszka said that I could stay as long as I wanted with her. I wanted to stay forever. I felt bad that she would leave for work and I would sit and laze on her bed.
After weeks of this, I was more bored than anything else. I told her I would get a job. She wasn’t convinced I could, but I assured her I would try.
A couple of days later I was walking the streets, scouting for work. A boy with a flat cap and a ripped, rugged jacket ran up to me with a paper.
“EXTRA, EXTRA!” He screamed into my face, “Read all about it!” he started to walk away.
“Read all about what?” I asked inquiringly.
He stopped. He looked at me, then the paper, then back at me. “Hitler steps up his demands on Polish government!”
“Oh,” I said.
“Hey, you goin’ to buy one? Only two zlotys!”
“I don’t have no money,” I replied.
The boy grunted and sauntered away. “Got to make money for the butter and egg man,” he grumbled.
“Who’s that?” I called after him.
He walked back, flashed a finger in front of my face, “You’re not too smart are you?”
“I think so,”
“We buy our newspapers and sell ‘em. Then they pay us.”
“Oh. Are you allowed to do that?”
“I ain’t no grifter! ‘Course your allowed!”
“Tell me more!” I practically begged.
I walked around with the boy for hours. I taught him how to steal bread, and he taught me the rules of being a newsboy.
I stayed with him a couple of days, doing things like fishing in the river and chasing stray dogs around. It was fun.
We were walking on some old wood pieces when I asked him if I could get a job.
The boy paused, seeming to deliberate it. Then he said, “Ya know, Ace is the one with the low down, I’ll take you to him.”
He took me by the arm and led me through the bustling streets, “I work for the Pienieznys-“
“Are we in Poland?” I interrupted, suddenly unsure.
“You’re strange,” the boy skipped a beat, “it’s like you’ve never been in a city. This is Prussia. East Prussia.”
I didn’t say anything because, in fact, I really hadn’t ever been in a city. I had no recollection of ever leaving Poland. I found out later that I was located between Poland and Germany, in the province East Prussia. I was in a place called Allenstein, later renamed Olsztyn.
“Where are you from?”
I didn’t know. As far back as I could remember I saw farms and villages. “Out in the country,” I said.
“Like in the boondocks?”He asked.
“I guess so,”
The boy stopped, “I’m Nicks by the way.” He seemed flustered that he had forgotten to give and receive names in that past couple of days.
“Nicks,” I said, rolling it around on my tongue.
“Yeah it’s my nickname,” he started walking again.
“Oh,” I said, catching up to him.
“I don’t have a nickname,”
“What about a name?”
“Olek…are you Russian?”
“No,” I said.
“Well I knew this kid named Olek once. He was Russian. But you’re from the boondocks.”
“Oh yeah,” I said as we stopped in front of a group of boys. They were sitting together between two buildings, half concealing their bodies behind dumpsters.
“Hey Ace,” called Nicks.
A boy with shaggy brown hair and black eyes stood up. “Nicks, your back! You still working for the Pienieznys? You should find a new job; they aren’t goin’ to last much longer, you know, with all the German bands goin’ on. They’ve been getting pretty rough lately on us Poles and Jews.”
“Oh, shut up. At least I’m working,” Nicks threw his papers on the ground and took off his cap, wiping his forehead.
Another boy, very young, maybe six, poked his head out from the dumpster. “That’s Penny Stinker,” Nicks said.
I wrinkled my nose in disgust, the smell that drifted from the boy made me want to gag. I guessed that’s where he got his nickname.
They all had nicknames. There was Nicks, (who was fast on his feet) Red, (who blushed at just about everything said to him), Jets, (who had a soft spot for jukeboxes, and was one of the smartest boys), and Kid Loon, (who was absolutely crazy), Penny Stinker, (who would do just about anything for money), and Ace, (a bossy, tall, good looking boy.)
Ace stood up and walked over to me, circling around. “Where’d you find him?”
Nicks shuffled on his feet, “He was straggling around the city. Didn’t know where he was.”
“This is Prussia,” said Ace haughtily.
“I know,” I said, I had to look up to see his face.
Ace pursed his lips. “You know, a good-looking boy like you could sell just about any newspaper he wanted to on the street.”
He waited for me to say something, but I didn’t.
Jets pushed his feet out and Red spoke, “He ain’t smart enough to sell anything.”
Kid Loon stood up. He was just about my height and he had one twitchy eye. “You ain’t from around here, are you?”
“No,” I said, “but I live with Francsizka.”
Ace thrust a cigar from his mouth, “The Francsizka? The one that works at the diner?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“She’s a babe,” Ace said.
“Yeah,” agreed the rest of the boys.
“Hey, shut up!” Ace cautioned, “Say, how old are you?” he asked, shoving his cigar at me.
“’Bout thirteen,” I said, shaking my head.
Ace nodded. “Well, see I’m the oldest. I’m almost sixteen. So I think you outta stay out of my way, ‘cos I can squish you like a bug!” He pushed his fingers together to show me.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
“He’s talking about Francsizka. He likes her,” clarified Kid Loon.
“Shut yer trap!” growled Ace, irritated.
“I like her too,” I said.
Ace shoved me, “No you don’t. You hear me? You don’t like her.”
“Okay,” I said and turned to Nicks, “Can I get a job?”
Nicks opened his mouth to speak but Ace interrupted, “I think first it’s time for dinner. Why don’t we go to yer house with Franciszka?”
“I’m not hungry,” I said through my teeth.
“I am,” said Ace.
I turned on my heels and stalked away, heading for Franciszka, knowing they would follow.
Franciszka opened the door and gaped. We came in and I introduced everyone. She waited for me to finish before she crossed her arms and told me she knew who they were.
Nicks could probably feel the tension in the room and said he was going out back to smoke. Penny Stinker, Red, Kid Loon, and Jets followed. Ace stayed and stared at her.
I pretended to leave too. I shut the door behind me and walked to the window.
Opening it a crack, I listened to Ace and Franciszka.
“They’re in love,” said Jets, standing next to me. I looked over to see two of the boys wrestling in the road while Nicks smoked a cigarette and Kid Loon stared off into space.
It didn’t seem like they were.
“That’s okay,” I replied.
“They’ve known each other since they were little. Been through every hardship together. He’s tried to convince her for years to run away with him.”
“I don’t care.”
“You like her?”
I was quiet.
“You do,” he said; it wasn’t a question.
“Sure,” I said.
“What’re you afraid of?” he asked.
I turned to him, spat in the dirt, “Nothin’. I ain’t scared of nothin’.”
We listened to Ace from inside. “We could run away together, just you and me.”
“We can’t do that,” came Franciszka’s soft reply.
“Why not? You know the Germans will come soon. They’ll come for all of us. They’re already patrolling the streets. It’s only a matter of time before we get bombed!”
“What about all those boys outside? They’re your only family and you would just leave them?”
“You’re all I need.”
“Don’t tell me that, Andrzej.” I was surprised to hear Ace’s real name. “I have someone to take care of now.”
“What that little twit with the tan skin?”
“His name is Olek and-“
“I don’t care! Franciszka please! I love you.”
There was silence. I looked at Jets confused. He just smiled impishly and walked away.
“We’re done here for the night,” he announced to the rest of the boys.
“Why?” they complained loudly.
“’Cos. Just ‘cos.”
Nicks grinned at Jets. “I know.”
“Shut up,” Jets replied, grinning back.
Nicks picked up a pebble and tossed it at the window. Then he started strolling down the street. I followed, still mystified.
We walked back to town and split up. We stole four loaves of bread from three different women. That night was a feast, sitting in our usual building corner.
I settled down next to Jets and Nicks, their bodies heating mine.
“What did Ace do to Franciszka?”
“Oh Andrezej…!” mocked Nicks in a high voice.
Jets nudged me, “What do you think?”
“I don’t know…they were talking and then…”
“Kissing!” shouted Penny Stinker from somewhere in the darkness.
“What, you never kissed a girl?” asked Jets smoothly.
I mulled it over. “I never thought about it.”
“It’s nice,” said Nicks.
Jets sat up a little, “That’s what you do when you love someone.”
“Love…” Kid Loon murmured from over in the corner.
“Have you ever loved someone?” I asked Jets.
“Once,” he said simply.
“I went to school with her. I liked her a lot. Even loved her. And one day she was shot on the side of the road. That was all.”
We were quiet for a moment.
“I never loved no girl,” said Nicks, “They’re only good for one thing!”
All the boys giggled except Jets and Red.
“That’s not true,” said Red, “What about your mother, she’s a girl.”
Nicks tossed something at Red and rolled over. “I ain’t got a mother. No one does.”
“Everyone has a mother,” said Jets, his hands folded over his chest, “Right Boondocks?”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking about the day I met Franciszka.
“I’m going to get out of here. I’m going to New York, America! My mother lives there!” said Kid Loon.
“You’ll get there one day,” Jets said sarcastically.
“I want to love somebody,” I blurted.
Everyone laughed. Nicks rolled back over and sloppily kissed me on the cheek, “I’ll love you! Oh, Olek!”
“I don’t think I ever could,” said Jets, slicing through the mood.
“She was a good girl,” said Nicks seriously, “It wasn’t your fault. Maybe it would never have been anyway.”
Jets shook his head. “You’re wrong.”
“I’m just sayin’”
“Well don’t just say! There was never going to be anyone but her!”
“This is war, “said Kid Loon, “And we all die one day.”
“Yeah, duh,” Nicks muttered under his breath.
“Say, do you think God watches us? Are the stars his eyes?” asked Kid Loon.
“What God, Kid?” replied Jets, almost angrily, “God didn’t stop someone from blowing a hole through Ewa’s head. “
“Hey, shut up Jets,” he motioned to Penny Stinker.
“Mmm…” Jets grumbled.
“Well there’s got to be something out there,” I said.
Red said, “The Devil.”
Nicks shook his head, “You all are too hopeless. Things will get better. They always do.”
“Yeah,” said Penny Stinker, “Franciszka thinks so.”
“And look at her, living alone in a shack as Ace pressures her into leaving every night,” explained Jets.
“She stays ‘cos she knows thing are goin’ get good,” said Nicks.
Jets shook his head, “She won’t stay for a long, and when they leave, they’ll forget all about us. And we’ll be at the mercy of the Germans.
“So Jets… you really think that Ace and Franciszka will leave?” I asked.
Jets looked at me, his green eyes twinkling in the night, “I would.”
In the morning, I walked back to Franciszka’s house. Ace was sitting on the porch, without a shirt, smoking a cigarette.
His skin gleamed in the sunlight. He saw me, blew a smoke circle out into the spotless blue sky.
“You can take her. I’ll be alright on my own,” I said.
Ace laughed, “You always have been, haven’t you?” He stood up and ambled inside, the screen door slamming behind him.
I didn’t want to go in, feeling as if I might intrude something, but I knew I had to say goodbye to Franciszka. I reached into my pack and pulled out one of my honey jars, recently filled at one of the shops in town. I scrawled my thanks to her a piece of paper and stuck it to the lid. I left it on the porch.
I looked back to see them through the window, Ace’s lips against her forehead, her hands grasping his shoulders, tears running from her eyes. I wiped my nose and whispered goodbye, turning around.
I was pretty far up the road when they caught up to me; Jets, Nicks, Penny stinker, Red, and Kid Loon.
“Where you goin’?” asked Nicks, keeping pace with me.
“I’m not sure,”
“You never are, are you?” stated Jets harshly.
“And that’s okay,” said Red neutrally, squeezing his big body between us.
Jets grabbed my shoulders and stopped me, “It’s hard out there,” he said, “be careful. Don’t fall for a girl that’s already taken.”
He could read emotions so well.
“That’s not it,” I half-lied, “I don’t stay in one place for too long.”
“So you’re a gypsy?” asked Penny Stinker.
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m goin’ to miss you,” said Nicks, “I thought you were goin’ to be part of the gang…”
“I’m sorry,” I said, looking up the road.
After a certain point, the boys stopped following me.
Nicks gave me a piece of bread wedged in his pocket and patted me on the back. Kid Loon spat on his hand and shook mine. Penny Stinker hugged my legs. Red slapped me in the back of the head and smiled.
Jets looked me straight in the eye,
“There’s going to be a war. And you’re going to be one of the few who survive it,” he turned around and walked back down the road.
The path was dirt. Yellow daisies stretched across the borders, where the grass and weeds grew. The flowers were the color of butter. They budded, but mostly they were wide open, welcoming sun. My feet scuffed along the road, dust flying up behind me. I bent down, scooped up a handful of wet dirt from the side of the road. With it came a bright yellow daisy, sagging in my palm, vines and roots threading through my fingers. I wiped the wet mud on my face, my arms. It helped me cool off. All spring it had been muddy, humid, wet. Now, it was like the opposite, clean, dry, and arid.
I could hear the cicadas buzzing around me, the hot air ballooning out, swallowing me. Sweat ran from my forehead like a waterfall. I took off my shirt and felt the sun upon my bare chest and back. There was no place on my body where I could not feel the heat.
The sun beat down through the tree tops. I pulled my cap lower. The wooden fence next to me seemed like a good place to rest. I sat down, leaned my back against the timber. I felt the hard, splintery wood on my skin. I shut my eyes, but I didn’t fall asleep. I thought about the past weeks. Moving all day and sleeping all night, heading slowly south, hopping trains and hitching rides. Sometimes I thought about Nicks, Jets. Even Franciszka.
I tried to forget them, but it was hard, and the walking was lonely. I thought about how I could’ve convinced one of the boys to go with me. All of them probably would have.
But it’d had been weeks and if there was really a war going on, they could all be dead. I didn’t know what Jets meant when he war; but if Jets said it, it was probably right.
I knew that I had left Prussia by now. I was back in Poland, near the town Nidzica. It was around the summer of 1938.
I listened to the breeze. It was hard to explain how you can hear wind, but I could. I heard a lot of things, because I listened.
I heard footsteps approaching. My cap lifted slightly. A tanned girl with sky-blue eyes peeked at me, holding my cap with the tips of her fingers. She was leaning over me so that her face was upside down. Her nose wrinkled. She had some freckles. Blond hair fell over her face in wispy bangs, knotted at the back of her neck in a messy bun. She was scowling slightly, but her expression remained curious.
After a few moments, I felt self-conscious, “Go away,” I said. I pulled my cap over my face.
It lifted. This time, it came all the way off and flew to the other side of the dirt road, which was as long as me laying down, resting on its bottom. I glared at her. Her eyes were so bright compared to her dark skin.
“Don’t touch my hat,” I warned. But she had. And she did again. She stomped over and grabbed it and threw it up in the air and ground her feet into it when it came back down.
She stood with her hands on her hips. Her dress was white, maybe, it was dirty though. Light blue paisleys, the color of her eyes, dotted her dress. Mud smeared on her arms.
“Why don’t you go away?” I suggested. I scooped up my shirt and waggled it in her face.
“This is my property,” she said, speaking for the first time. Her voice was firm. She swung out her hips to make her look like she had more authority. Her stockings were grimy, one sagged down her leg. “I was out here to get some wood from the fence. I saw you lying here,” she paused, “you shouldn’t be here.”
“I don’t care,” I shrugged, “I’m resting.” I closed my eyes to show her I was resting.
“But you’re on my wood!”
“So?” I said smiling a little. I was having fun. I hadn’t much interaction with other people, especially people near my own age.
You’re rude,” she stated.
“You’re annoying,” I said back. I was standing now.
“You’re fat!” she was shouting now.
I looked down at my flat stomach. I glowered at her. I wasn’t fat. I opened my mouth to retort, but I said nothing. I just stood glaring.
Thinking she had won, she smirked at me, than she turned around and bent down to the fence.
“Ug-lee,” I said, stretching the word out. I whistled at her and started to walk away.
She threw her head back and snarled, “I’m not UG-LEE!” She lurched at my back.
I tasted dirt. I felt her punches against my stomach, my chest. They weren’t hard, but they were meant to hurt. She was beating into my ribs, when I took her arms and held them away, so they fisted the raw air.
She bleated and screamed and hawked up her saliva and spit on me. I did not hit her. She slammed her head into my jaw. She kneed me in the thigh. I twisted so that she was no longer on top of me, punching me. Now, her head was ground into the dirt. She was yelling, but I could not understand her. Her sky eyes had darkened, as if storms cloud had rolled in.
I placed my knees on her wrists, but supported most of my own weight with my arms.
Finally, she stopped screeching and lay there motionless, staring at me with puzzlement. Her anger had evaporated, but she made no effort to push me away. She lay there staring at me.
Slowly, her fists unclenched, fists that were gradually turning purple under my knees. I picked myself up and stood, looking down at her.
Her body was in the dirt, her legs hiked up, so that they bent at the knees, her feet resting. Her arms were spread out at her sides, her fingers moving. She moved her head so that her eyes never left me. She was absolutely quiet except for the gentle heave of her chest as she steadily recaptured her breath.
“That was fun!” she said suddenly. She propped herself up on her elbows.
“For you,” I pointed out. My ribs were sore.
“I want to do it again!” she exclaimed.
“No,” I said. I thought, do what? Punch me?
“Plee-see!” she whined.
“No,” I said again, firmly. I felt like her parent.
She stood up. “But I want to!” She stomped her foot. Her other stocking fell.
“I don’t care,” I said.
“Well I don’t care either,” she blurted.
“Good,” I said.
“Good,” she repeated.
She twitched her eye at me; spitting at my feet. “Bet I could hawk one up better then you can.”
I blinked, “What?”
“You’re so du-“ she stopped short; cocking her head to the side.
I heard nothing at first, but then I hear a voice; calling from the distance.
For the first time I glanced behind the fence. It was farm. A windmill up the hill a little ways, one of the blades was rusted, it hung limply. The small farmhouse was like a shack. It was brown, like the dirt. I heard chickens squawking, cows mooing. Still so far out, their noise was like an echo. It was the only farm house I could see.
“Is that you?” I asked.
“What?” she said startled.
“Elzbieta,” I repeated.
“Yeah,” she said, kicking at the dust.
“Why are you so far away from your house?” I accused.
“I don’t like my house,” she snapped.
“Oh,” was all I said.
Minutes passed. I grabbed my shirt. “Goodbye,” I said.
“Wait!” Elzbieta choked, her arm extended to me.
“Do you want some milk?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Okay.” I was confused, but I wanted milk.
Elzbieta had hiked up her knee length dress, and stooped over the fence. I stepped through a part where the wood had fallen. We walked up the hill in silence.
The windmill made a sound, a creaking sound, as it moved slightly. It looked like it was going to fall at any moment. Elzbieta sagged out a food sack and dumped some on the ground for the squabbling chickens.
An axe was stuck in a chopped tree. The sidings of her house were rusted. Plows, hatchets, hammers, shovels, rakes, lay scattered around. Her yard was so cluttered; we slipped and stumbled over everything. Elzbieta dragged out a bucket. She disappeared into a shabby looking barn, which leaned sideways faintly, and came out with a goat tied to a rope.
“Goat milk okay?” she asked. The goat was white with black spots. It had horns.
“Sure,” I said. I didn’t know goats made milk. The goat whinnied at me. It tried to bite my arm. I stepped back.
“Elzbieta!” This time it was someone different calling her. A man, yelling; angry, his eyes narrowed when he saw me. The screen door slammed behind him. He held a beer bottle, the top of his overalls unbuckled, and a tight white stained shirt underneath. His exposed arms were flexing, his muscles twitching. “Who’s this?” he demanded, he slurred.
“A friend,” she answered. She said it confidently but when she looked at him, her eyes were focused off to the side, next to his head.
“You don’t have friends,” he snapped.
“Krzysztof, please,” A tired looking women with her hair, blond, in a loose ponytail, begged as she came out after him.
“The hell!” he said, which made no sense to me. He was fuming, “I’m not going have my daughter out here with some boy,” he spat at me.
“She’s only ten,” the women argued quietly.
He spotted the milk bucket. I swore I saw smoke balloon out of his ears. “You’re feeding him?” he demanded, as if I were a stray dog that he did not want to keep.
Elzbieta was quiet.
The man looked at me. He pointed his finger at me. “If you’re not off my god damn property before I come back with my god damn shot gun, I’m going to god damn shoot you.”He spit at my feet.
“Let’s hope you don’t god damn miss,” I said blithely.
Elzbieta’s eyes widened. The woman gasped behind the man, “Krzysztof……” she whispered. His eyes were bulging out of his head.
“A joker man, eh?” he said completely calm.
The woman relaxed a little. Elzbieta was still rigid as a board.
“Get the hell off my property!” he yelled.
Quick, I turned and sprinted. I ran into the tattered barn and smacked into the other door. Haystacks fell and knocked over a table. The man was barreling aftr me, mumbling profanities and screaming for his gun. He was lost in the hay. The goats nickered at me. The cows mooed. Hay flew.
The doorknob jiggled. I tried to push it open. The man’s arm emerged from the hay. His upper body. His eyes were on fire.
He was going to shoot me.
The doorknob yanked and Elzbieta was there, she had opened the back door, she beckoned to me. I ran into her. Then, I began to choke.
He was holding my collar, dragging me backwards. His gun was in his hand. He threw me to the floor and cocked his pistol. Elzbieta threw herself over me. Straws in her hair. Poop off to the side.
“Get out of the way,” he grunted.
“Papa,” Elzbieta pleaded. I peeked threw her arm. I saw a shovel. I grabbed it.
“Fine,” he growled. The gun went off.
There was a clang as the bullet hit the edge of my shovel and then there was a gasp, and a thud.
I half sat up. Cuckoo feathers stuck up on my head. The man was lying on the ground. Elzbieta took the handle part of the shovel and poked him. A piece of the bullet was lodged in a dent in the shovel.
“Yep,” she thought aloud. Then she looked at me. “He’s breathing,” she clarified.
I asked if that was a problem.
“No,” she said and waved her hand, “It didn’t hit him. I think he had a heart attack or something and fainted.”
“Huh,” I said.
The woman rushed in. “Elzbieta, I thought he was going to kill you!” she gushed. She looked at me, and said hesitantly, “You too.”
“I thought he was going to kill me too,” I repeated.
She looked at the man, “Ah, well, we should take him to the doctor.”
Elzbieta and the woman’s movements were slow as they dragged his body out from the barn. The woman walked around and came back in a faded red wagon. I helped lift the man into the back.
I stood uncomfortably watching them climb in. “Sorry,” I said, finally.
“No,” said the woman, “Don’t be sorry. I’ve been meaning to get away from Krzysztof for years. He’s her step dad. He’s abusive,” She looked down at me, “I just can’t believe it took this much for me to finally leave. Elzbieta and I will leave for good.”
“Oh,” I squeaked.
“You’re a good boy,” the woman said and bent down to muss my hair.
“You can take a pail of milk,” Elzbieta said and jerked her thumb towards the barn.
The woman whipped at the sad donkey leading the wagon and they clanged and creaked their way down the hill and onto the dirt road.
I wandered into the barn and carted a pail of milk down the way they had left. I picked up my cap from where Elzbieta had thrown it. I placed it on my head and I walked down the road. I plucked up a golden daisy and wrapped it around my finger, shoved it into my pocket.
Ciechanow. It was hot there.
From Nidzica, I had passed through Malawa. Sort of, I more passed next to it, across the flat fields. It had taken about two weeks to get to Ciechanow, but I knew this was not my destination. I had mostly eaten berries and nuts, so I was eager for real food. I stopped outside of a town shop and walked inside.
“Hello,” said the woman, looking up from her newspaper behind the counter. She was about thirty, with curly black hair and a kind face.
“Good morning,” I said, taking my cap off. I reached into my pack and found a twenty grozsy and one zloty.
I walked up to her and showed her the money. “What can I get for this?”
She looked into my hands, “Not much…”
“Can I get a honey jar? And some jerky?”
“You can get some jerky and a honey jar and a BMW,” said the woman and looked back at her paper.
She sighed, “Ugh, you kids. She got some jerky and two honey jars. “You’re lucky I’m so nice,” she said and took my money.
“Thanks!” I said, completely enthralled with my oozing honey.
I jumped out of the door and stomped down the steps.
A wagon was parked outside. About a dozen pigs were inside the back, behind the fences. They squealed at me. I walked over to them and stuck my face up to the barrier. The pigs immediately came over and started sniffing my face.
“Hey boy, what’re you doin’?”
He came out of the store holding two brown bags. We stared at each other.
“I was just looking,” I said.
“Well scat,” he said, throwing his groceries into the bench of the wagon. He was tall and lean, with short brown hair and freckles. He was barely nineteen.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Where you headin’?” he asked as he hopped in and grabbed the reins.
“I don’t know…”
“Well I’m going to Plock…You wanna ride?”
“Sure,” I stepped in.
“Jerzy,” he said and stuck his hand out.
“Olek,” I said, shaking it.
He clucked his mouth and the gray-speckled mare started to trot.
Jerzy started whistling as I watched the road beside me. If I had ever been in a wagon, it was sitting in the back with the animals. It was great to be able to sit on the bench.
But looking down, I figured I could walk faster than the wagon was going. I knew I needed to rest my legs, though.
“Where you from kid?” Jerzy peered down at me from the corner of his eye.
Jerzy laughed, “You gotta family?”’
“Me neither, kid. I lived with my older brother after my parents died, but we fought too much and he was always cheekin’ with girls. I just took some pigs, the wagon, some money, and clothes and left.”
“I don’t know where to go,” I said.
“Nobody does, kid.”
“Then why’re you going to Plock?”
“I’m just going to stop in Plock, get my act together, rake in some money, and then I’m heading to Lodz.”
“Yeah, it’s just a city. A big one. A couple of my relatives live there I think. But that’s just a stopping point too. Ultimately, I want to get to Washington, America. That’s the place to go.”
I never imagined leaving Poland. Working my way across a different country, with a different language was just to much to bear. I thought Jerzy was brave to want to go there.
“Maybe I’d go to Germany,” I thought aloud, remembering my little familiarity with it.
“Why?” asked Jerzy, his voice smoldering.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know much, do you kid?” Jerzy looked at me, and then back at the road, “Those Germans are evil.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well what do you know? You’re just a kid.”
“I’m not much younger than you.”
“Sure,” Jerzy muttered.
We were quiet much of the way. Stopping a couple times for supplies, and to sleep, we took turns watching over the pigs.
When we finally arrived in Plock, Jerzy told me goodbye and I got out of his wagon. That was all. I never saw him again. I guess I had expected more, like us teaming up together, but we were better individually I guess.
Plock was near the river Wisla.
It had some grand churches, and cobbled roads, fountains in the middle of courtyards with pigeons that stormed you for food. Sometimes would sit on one of the benches and the pigeons would fly and land on me. It was fun.
I got a job fishing. I went into the river on a boat and helped bring up the fish when they were caught in the nets. I hated fish. I hated seeing them flip and flop, gasping on the deck. I only worked there for about a month. I quickly decided it was time to move on. I didn’t like Plock anyway.
I set out for Plonsk, a place I would meet going east. I thought that if I kept going, I would hit something good.
Leaves sailed over the half naked treetops to the ground, where my feet crunched them. Gray leaves and brown and yellow; a rainbow of dead foliage covering the paths like a blanket.
I tried to remember the last time I had seen people, after Plock, up close at least. As I meandered through the Polish country side, not really knowing where I was going beside Plonsk, I saw the farmers. Farmers with their barking sheep dogs and freshly sheered lambs, with their stallion horses, cattle, pig. I once saw a young girl milking a cow. She had waved.
I always followed some kind of path, where wild flowers and weeded grass grew up on the sides. Sporadically, old wagons would come up the road, but the driver would never question me. I had stolen a cart of apples from the back of one; I snatched the fence guard and heaved the box out. It made a thumping sound when it hit the ground. I looked up suddenly to see if the driver had noticed, but he hadn’t so I carted it around with me, eating it when I pleased. I always did this when a wagon passed by. If I thought it was too dangerous, or the driver looked too aware, I wouldn’t. This was how I ate all autumn. This was how I survived.
I was munching on one of my stolen treasures when sometime around twilight; I was walking through a particularly twisted forest. The tree boughs were bent and broken and the leaves had already fallen and scattered to the winds. Collapsed tree trunks lay spread below undergrowth and shrubbery. A black crow had perched itself upon the nearest entwined branch staring at me with round, unblinking eyes. The sun was low, a ray of light peeking through the crooked trees.
The crow watched my progress into the bare forest resentfully. It squawked occasionally when I bent down and threw small stones at it, hoping to scare it away. I scooped up a pine cone and pegged the crow in the breast. It screeched and flapped its wings and flew up through the branches.
I sighed heavily and continued walking. I picked up a stick and thwacked the other kindling as I made my way, following the nearly invisible path.
I saw no animals. But I did hear the clackety-clack of a wagon on the public road just beyond the forest. I froze, waited for it to pass, and then wondered why I should be scared. I laughed indignantly to myself, tripping over a hollowed log.
It was only a little while before I reached the opening in the trees and by that time the sun was only a sliver of shine.
I remember as the sun inched down the sky, the crow suddenly, and out of nowhere, appeared in front of me. Flapping its wings and cawing in my face, I screamed; grabbing it with my hands. It bit and me with its beak as I tried to control its restless black-feathered wings. I can hear the caw of the bird as it attempted to struggle out of my grip. I was so afraid it would attack me if I let it go that I only held it between my hands harder.
The reflection in its round, coal eyes was me, looking down at it with disgust and fear. I dropped the bird in surprise. When it landed on the ground, its wing bent down, feathers rumpled, it let out a call of pain. It tossed around on the dirt like a fish out of water. I stood staring at it dumbly.
I recognized it would no longer fly. I realized the other crows would not help it. I knew that if I left it out here, it would die of hunger, or a predator.
I picked up a fairly large sized rock. I stepped gingerly on the bird’s broken wing, to hold it down. I looked up at the inkling of sun, dribbling down the tree line like paint down a wall. I dropped the rock.
I left the coiled yellow daisy next to its soft, jet black body. It was the first life I had ever taken.
He was young; maybe six or seven. The oak tree he stood under was enormous. It stretched and winded a hundred feet in the air, maple leaves and boughs blacking out the sun. His cap was off, resting in hands that were intertwined at his waist. His head was bent down, eyes closed, lips moving. The wind rustled his hair, hair black as the night sky.
I saw him as soon as I got out of the woods, (it took me four days.) You could see his head, standing out against the scenery.
I walked closer, slowly, watching him. His eyes never opened. The breeze seemed to carry his whispers, until the air filled with his breath, his voice. Suddenly, all I wanted was to understand his words.
I noticed a lonely, muddy white cross sticking out of the ground where he stood. Silky lavender violets wound around it, but were wilting, the petals drooping.
I felt the atmosphere, as if I were disturbing something that I should not. As if I should leave this boy and his cross alone, and walk on. But I did not.
I came closer, snapping a twig as my foot came down. The boy’s head shot up instantly; a reflex. Fear flickered across his expression before it was replaced with wild interest.
He did not move toward me, or away from me. I came to him, my hands up, palms facing outwards.
When I appeared to be welcome to stand next to him, I pointed at the cross. “What’s that for?” I demanded.
The boy opened his mouth to speak, and then shut it. He opened it again, “My mama,” he placed his cap back on his head.
I said, “She’s under the ground?”
He stared at me strangely, “Yes.”
He opened his mouth, and then shut it. He said, “I don’t know. One day, she didn’t wake up. Tata took her to the tree and buried her in the ground and then we made a white cross and I picked some flowers to weave around it because Mama liked flowers. She loved purple,” he added.
“I like purple,” I said, replying.
“Yeah, me too,” He poked me suddenly. He walked toward me and circled around me, looking. He shuffled through my light shirt, the sack on my back, apples inside. He looked at my shoes. He backed up. He nodded. He winked one eye at me.
“Okay,” he repeated, settling something. “What?”
“Do you want to do something with me?” his eyes lit up as he said this, he beamed.
I said sure. He walked behind the tree up a little ways where there was a dainty white fence the same color of as the cross. The bars were broken and the fence tilted sideways as grass grew through it, staining it a faint green.
“Come on!” he said.
I hurried. He walked fast. He grabbed a tire that was laying there. A roped wrapped around it. I followed the rope with my eyes until I saw that it connected to thick branch of the oak tree. We were standing on a slight hill.
Beneath us was a pond, sea green colored, lily pads floating over the undisturbed waters. Bur reed and yellow flag cultivated around the border of its oval shape.
Golden tanned cattails wisped in the wind and twirled the water lilies around. The boy wagged an eyebrow at me and smiled. “Like it?”
“Yes,” I said, staring.
“Watch,” he ordered. He backed up on the hill carting the tire wheel. “It’s not as deep as a lake, so Tata can’t land in it, but I’m small enough. And I looked at you already, you’re small enough too.”
“Oh,” I said.
The boy took off his cap and his shirt. He left on his cut off shorts on and kicked off his shoes. He placed one leg in the hole of the tire swing and then the other. He lifted his feet and swung forward, swinging and dangling just above the murky water of the pond. The bog plants scuffed along the bottom of his pants. His feet left rippling water as it touched the surface. “Now!” he shouted and let go of the rope.
His torso swung backwards and his hands and forearms submerged into the water. He whooped energetically and thrust his hips back and forth until his bottom fell from the tire and he did a half back flip ungracefully sort of cannon-balling into the pond.
I waited for him to re-emerge. I watched him swim under the lily pads, like the silhouette of a fish lurking just below the cloudy water.
Then, his head broke the surface and he wadded, dripping wet, grinning widely at me.
He pointed. “You try.”
I waited for the tire to swing back and then I grabbed it. My feet dug into the ground. I undressed and started to put my leg into the tire. Then, I stopped and stood back down.
“Ah, come on!” whined the boy.
I quickly untied the rope of the tire and rolled it to the side.
“What are you doing!” demanded the boy.
I tied a large knot at the bottom of the rope, and then I stood on it, my toes clinging. The rope swung forward, me wobbling with it. I heaved my body back and forth. Pond, ground, pond, ground, pond! I jumped.
I felt as if I were suspended in mid-air; my arms outstretched, wind whipping against my bare chest, and the water as it smacked my stomach.
I swam eagerly pushing myself upwards. Up? I did not know where that was. I kept swimming. No air. I opened my mouth; salty, dirty water ran down my throat. I choked. My face mashed into sand and kelp weeds.
I changed my direction upright and used my feet to push up. My head broke the surface, and I coughed out water. The boy was starting at me like I were a child that had just done something reckless. Then a smile cracked across his face.
“Funny!” he managed to choke out between giggles.
“Yeah,” I agreed. I lay on my back and floated across the water. I moved with the waves, a buoy in the calm sea. I closed my eyes. The sun bathed my skin. The boy’s laughter filled my ears.
He asked me if I would come back and visit him. I said that I would. But I knew that was a lie. I’d never come back to the same place once.
He decided he liked it better without the tire, so he insisted that I take it. I said that I did not need tire. I never knew his name, or how his mother died, or where his father was, but I knew I had helped him. Some way.
Managing to scrape together a loaf of bread, he plopped it into my knapsack when he thought I wasn’t looking. I should have taken it out and given it back, but I didn’t. Maybe this was why I felt a hole in my stomach while I was eating it later; a gaping hole of guilt.
I waved goodbye and started to leave, when I spotted a fish in the water. I threw a small piece of crust and watched it swim and dance along the edges, around the cattails and frogs hopping upon the lily pads. It gulped the piece and swivel -dived back down, disappearing beneath the murk.
After getting rides from three or four strangers, I finally arrived in Plonsk, I didn’t stay long. As usual.
Plonsk was much like any other city, with cobbled streets and creamy-yellow buildings. I worked in a bakery. The woman’s name was Jana Meyer. She kept daisies in her flower boxes.
Ms. Meyer lived above her bakery with her children, Pawl and Celestyn. She recited this song to them before bed each night…
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take.
If I should live to future days,
I pray Thee, Lord, to guide my ways. Amen.”
Celestyn had a droopy eye and a mouth that permanently turned down in a grimace. She stared at me often. Pawl, on the other hand, liked to tease me by putting worms in the bread and blaming it on me. Ms. Meyer would ask for forgiveness for my sins and tell me if I did it again she would fire me. Pawl kept doing it and Ms. Meyer kept saying it, but I was never fired.
On the day I said goodbye to her, she kissed me on both cheeks and gave me some bread.
“May God be with you,” she said.
“Yes, child…have you never heard of God?”
I hadn’t until Kid Loon mentioned him, but I never asked about it. “No.”
Ms. Meyer’s hand flew up to her throat and she took me by the shoulders and locked me in her study. She sorted through a couple of drawers before she pulled out a brown book. A cross was indented in the cover.
“The Bible, “she said and started at the beginning.
It took us about two days to finish. Truly, I had been utterly bored the whole time but I pretended it was interesting. Religion was not of importance to me.
“What did you think, child?”
“It was good,” I lied.
“God is the light. When the world is dark, he will light your path with hope,”
“Uh huh,” I said.
She put the bible in my hands. “Take this with you. Read it whenever you think he has turned away from you, because in truth he is always there. He is inside you,” she pointed at my chest.
I placed my hands on my chest, feeling around for God. I couldn’t feel anything. I shoved the book into my knapsack with my bread and thanked her.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
I left Plonsk that day.
I stopped in the city of Zaluski for supplies. After that, I made my way to Kroczewo. I did some farm work for money, slept in barns.
In the back of my mind I knew I had a goal. I was aiming for something. I wasn’t sure if it was in Poland or not, but I was trying to get to it. Deep in my heart, I knew I would feel it when I was in the right place.
It wasn’t Kroczewo, or Zakroczym, or Kazun Nowy, or even Lomna.
The farther south I moved, the more I worried that I would never end. I would always keep going, and going and stop when I die on my feet.
By the time I reached Lomianki, I had hopped a couple trains and hitched rides more than I ever had before. I had tired of walking; my body was frail and weak. It took longer than I had thought to find myself in a big city like Lomianki. But Poland’s countryside is much larger than its bustling cities. I ambled from place to place along the dirt road, stealing loads of goat milk, apples, other fruits, or being given it. One place in particular I had stayed for about a week. A farmer with a black mustache caught me on the road one day and asked me if I would work for food and a place to sleep, I said yes. I was eager not to be alone anymore.
But the farmer was cruel and liked to hammer my fingers when he ordered me to hold a nail down for him. Also, he fed me raw potatoes. I didn’t like potatoes. Instead, I like food with flavor. But food with flavor was hard to find when you had no money to buy it. So I left, catching rides that were going south.
One day, I stepped out of a wagon filled with sheep. I was miles and miles away from Lomianki, yet I could feel my pulse race, my head thud.
This was it.
When I saw the lights, when I heard the distant sound of clanging trolley bells I thought I was dreaming.
The word rolled off my tongue; “Warsaw.” Of course it was beautiful; I couldn’t deny that: the tall, looming, 16th century designs of the building, the honey-stoned cobbled streets and bustling streets.
I did not know where I was at once. I bumped into a boy on the street.
“Where is this?” I had asked.
He looked at me strange, “What do you mean? Are you cuckoo? This is Warsaw, you hear?” He rapped the side of my head with his knuckles and sped off.
“Warsaw,” I had repeated, and then I was gawking and running into people and staring. I was aware the crowd was becoming bigger and louder. I smelt food. The warm scent of bread. My mouth watered. People pushed past me. Faces. Arms. Legs. Noise. Pushing. Children, parents, old people, dogs. I followed a dog trotting along the sidewalk. It was chocolate colored.
People surrounded me. I was so squished within the crowd that we merged into one. My face was mashed into someone’s overcoat. I broke free, barely. I thought, parade or free food? For this much people, it must be free food. It was a market square. The line of people diverged for an instant, the way a crowded room falls silent in one moment.
I saw her then.
She was weaving through the crowd. She wasn’t running, but she wasn’t walking either. She was sort of being pulled along. I saw the lady gripping her wrist; tall, mean, gray.
The first thing I noticed was her expression. Fury. She looked so angry I thought I saw her eyes smoldering. She wasn’t glaring at the woman towing her along, but back into the crowd. Then, suddenly, right before she disappeared with the woman behind a corner, her face collapsed in pain and anxiety. She was gone.
The second thing I noted, after she was gone, was how entirely beautiful she was. Angelic described her. But I saw something behind her beauty, even from far away, having nothing to do (or everything) with the expression on her face. Bitterness. I tasted its tangy aftertaste from where I stood.
I asked myself if I was crazy, how I could think that an angelic girl could be bitter, but I could have sworn I saw something, hidden and tedious, brewing inside of her that she tried to keep secret. Maybe I had judged her wrong.
I thought about her for another half second before I heard my stomach growling. I drummed my fingers on my chin; eyes raking over the food carts. “What to choose, what to choose?” I murmured to myself.
I was lying in the streets. It was cold. I found an old crate and covered it with a sheet I had found in the dump. I crawled into an alley way and found my good old crate. It leaked water when it rained. It was getting time to be a bread run, but I felt lazy. The food I had stolen almost entirely gone. My eyelids drifted open and closed.
Usually, I was not lethargic, I was always running. When I ran, it was like Heaven and Earth collided, like I had a flaming whip of a tail behind me, circling space as the stars exploded around me.
That was how it felt when I ran. The wind streaming through my hair, the feel of a chill seeping through my clothing, and as my body began to succumb to the cold, I would push my legs faster.
Besides, if I did not run, I did not live. I had to steal.
I loved my new life in Warsaw. I had even developed a routine.
On weekends, when the market square buzzed with liveliness, when women paraded around in fox scarves, when men laughed heartily, glancing at their pocket watches, and children chased each other through the streets, I shopped.
If something hung out of a man’s back pocket, I took it. If a piece of food fell from someone’s hands, I snatched it from the ground. When I strolled through the crowds, I listened to the vendors.
“Bread, fresh bread sold here!”
“Ladies, come and buy your man a new pocket watch!”
“Men, come and buy your lady a new scarf!”
The calls never changed, yet people were still buying. Eating up the hucksters’ words like food.
I always waggled my finger at the vendor and shook my head at the price. Then I laughed. The vendor would wave me away.
There were other shoppers, the pickpockets, the waiters- and- watchers, the ones who took whatever they could find.
When I reached a stand, I had to be quick. The vendor’s eyes were fast. I liked a challenge though. I would stop in front of his booth.
“You want something kid?” he would always ask. His face would be unshaven. His cheeks would be sunken.
I wouldn’t say anything. He would swat me with his hand. I would start walking forward, then I would reach around and snatch something, an apple maybe; a juicy, bright red one.
“Thief!” he might shout after me.
But I would already be weaving through the crowd; backs, arms, legs; biting into my prize.
If I were lucky I would see a woman holding a baguette. It could long, thin; French. The smell would warm, fresh-out- of- the- oven. I always noticed the perfect contours snaked along the top of the bread.
I would hide behind a corner. I would proceed to follow it with my eyes. The woman maybe would move closer, flirting with the market owner. I would be focused though; I might inch forward slightly toward the woman.
Then I would seize it.
Her face might scrunch up, it would turn red. “Thief!” she might screech when she saw me.
“Dirty Jew!” she could yell when she noticed I was sprinting away. I would not realize that she had called me a Jew, but later when I was settled in my crate for the evening, I would realize, and I would state angrily to the ceiling of my broken coop, “I am a nobody.” I didn’t even know what a Jew was, and why people had started calling me that when I arrived in Warsaw.
Sometimes, I would not win dinner though. There were other hands that snatched faster than mine. Other orphaned children in Warsaw, logically. I spotted glimpses of them as they wove through the streets, and administered bread to each other during the night.
I had no bread to share with anyone.
It started to rain. I stood up from my crate and thought I would get better shelter under the docks.
Water dripped on me from wet clothing that hung from the lines attached to buildings. Dogs barked at me. The street car came chugging up the hill. I hopped on and wobbled slightly and someone glared at me; pushing me off.
I walked on. A child ran through the streets with a bright red balloon. Balloons had always fascinated me, the way they hovered in mid air under the command of a single string, under your power.
The ruby colored balloon disappeared behind a building.
As I came to the docks, overlooking the Wisla, there was a box, it was water damaged and it seemed to weep like a sagging willow tree. It rested underneath the dock pillar, abandoned and unnoticed. I was bored. I climbed from the pier and went to the box. I peeked inside to find two blond boys nestled on each other. They appeared to be sleeping but I said hello anyway.
One yawned, his mouth stretching like a sleepy puppy; he was younger, maybe two years younger than I.
“Hi,” he said, kneading his eyes.
“Are you hungry?” I asked him.
“Yes,” said the blond boy eagerly.
“I don’t have food,” I said.
“Why is he sleeping,” I poked the other fair-haired boy.
“That’s my brother, “the blond boy shook his head, “he’s not sleeping, he’s dead,”
I stared at the dead boy. I imagined that he was not dead and that he was just resting. I liked that better.
“He was hungry, and we don’t have food,” the boy paused, “I’m hungry.”
I told him I would help him find food. He said that his name was Aurek.
“My name is Olek,” I said.
“Are you a Jew?”
I wasn’t. I wondered why everyone asked me that. I told him that I was. I didn’t know why.
“Me too,” said Aurek. He kicked at a pebble.
“I think I am,” Aurek continued, “because when I steal food, people yell, ‘Stop, filthy Jew!’”
I said that I understood. We got out from his box and wandered around. I told him of nice man. Pan Moshe.
Pan Moshe was a big guy with fiery red hair and a crazy pointed goatee. He was a German, so his store was still running and intact. Other stores had their windows smashed and JEW written on the brick.
He liked to pat his stomach and run his fingers through his thick locks. He owned a small candy shop. Pan Moshe knew me fairly well; I was a regular shoplifter. Astonishingly, he never once chased me out of his store. Once, I spotted him watching me. I swiftly grabbed two candied apples and ran. He stared through his window as I sped away.
“Ah, if it isn’t the thief,” Moshe paused as we walked in, “and his blond friend,”
I stopped. I wondered if he was going to shout at me or raise his fist in anger. But he didn’t. Pan Moshe just laughed, heartily and loud. He reached down into a glass container and pulled out two pink candies with white swirls on them.
“Here you are boys,” Pan Moshe bowed to us, “On the house,”
Aurek’s eyes gleamed and he greedily snatched it, downing it whole. He looked behind Moshe into the shelves of candy; white peppermint breath mints, fruit tarts, red licorice, rainbow- swirled lolli-pops, silver foil wrapped Belgium chocolate, multi-colored gumballs, salt water taffy, peanut brittle, jelly beans, gumdrops, coffee toffee, hot fudge, jaw breakers, gummy bears, suckers, and rock candy.
We were admiring his candy flavors when Moshe made a loud sighing sound.
He debated, and hesitated, but finally disappeared into a back room and came back with one full, long loaf of bread. He handed it over, smiling slightly.
Just then, a little girl with strawberry-blond curls came from the back room and tugged on Moshe’s apron. “Papi!” she whined.
“Holly, be calm,” Pan Moshe said patting her head.
“This is my daughter,” Moshe said.
I looked at his daughter. She was eight at the time. I was nine. I remember she was beautiful. Her face was round, the result of slight baby fat.
Her cheeks were pink, matching her pretty pink dress, laced with pasty ruffles. Her eyes were somber, light bottle green, and when she looked at me, they seemed to lure me from under her thick lashes; glowing. She was like a sad-faced cherub, missing her soft- feathered angel wings.
Holly glanced at me suddenly. “What’s your name?” she demanded of me.
I said Olek.
“I shall remember you, Olek,” she said.
I did not know what she meant, but I nodded anyway. I said that I had to leave.
“Goodbye young Olek!” said Pan Moshe.
We walked away from his store sucking on our candies contentedly. Aurek started heading back to his gloomy box, but I told him he could sleep in my crate. We ate our bread and we laughed and we told each other stories and I did not feel so lonely anymore.
It was twisted and ravaged and I couldn’t believe it was a tree. Hanging pine straws dangled from the dead-looking boughs.
“What happened to it?” asked Aurek.
We had wandered along the sidewalks, and into backyard. It was a green square with a picketed fence surrounding it and a giant ugly tree in the middle.
“I don’t know,” I said as I reached over and laid a hand on it. It was rough, yet soft from the rain.
Aurek put it hand on it too, “Soggy, “he said matter-of-factly.
The screen door opened and an old woman tottered out. She walked right past us and sat under the tree, without acknowledging out presence or the wet, muddy ground beneath her.
She was wearing a bright blue raincoat that matched the ribbon in her curly gray hair. Her boots stretched out in front of her as she blinked her gray eyes.
“Hi,” said Aurek putting his hand up.
“Why are you in my yard little boys?” she asked without looking at us.
“We were looking at your tree. Is it dead?” Aurek asked.
“I’m not sure. I don’t think so,” replied the woman.
She felt around in her pockets and pulled out a book, “I like coming out here to read. What’re your names?”
“I’m Aurek and this is Olek.”
“Olek and Aurek. Are you brothers?’
“My brother is dead,” said Aurek glumly.
“That’s a shame. I had eight brothers. They’re all dead.”
“What happened?” Aurek said enthusiastically.
“Different things: shootings, heart attacks, old age, malnutrition, etc. The Karol family does not have good luck,” the woman’s head tilted up, and she stared into the sky, “Why don’t you talk boy?”
“I am talking,” said Aurek.
“The boy next to you. I can hear him breathing, his heart beating.”
“Are you blind?” I blurted.
The woman smiled, her swirling gray eyes unfocused, “Yes. How did you guess?”
“You have amazing hearing. It wouldn’t be that good if you could see.”
“Or maybe it’s because my pupils are covered?” she chuckled.
I hadn’t thought about that, but I noticed it, “Maybe.”
“If I am so smart, why I am starving?”
The woman laughed, “Because, you’ve no money. And don’t look at me like that; I’m not going to feed you. You’re not putting me on a guilt trip. I’ve got myself to feed.”
I thought, ‘look at you like what?’ I turned to go, “Come on, Aurek.”
“This tree,” said Aurek, rubbing his palm against it, “It’s dead.”
“Everything dies,” said the woman.
“Aurek, come on.”
Aurek turned to follow me, glaring up at the dead tree, the old blind woman cackling at our misfortune.
It was on a lovely, breezy, early day that I decided to follow someone. I had been scouting for un- eaten treasures when I noticed them walking along the sidewalk.
I was no sort of stalker. I was only interested. I was curious about their clothes. I was curious about the way they moved, how their swayed to the beat of the laughter, and talking. I was defiantly curious about the way they spoke.
It was not Polish. It was not American, either. I had heard American. Once, a fretful, wide-eyed woman with a necklace with a cross had once wandered around the streets. She was calling out the night darkness, to no one really. But we were listening. Us, in our crates, and rusty bins, listened to the frantic woman, speaking to no one, in a strange kind of language none of us had ever heard before. Finally, a man came out of his store, fuming about the commotion he was hearing. He glanced around briefly, angrily, his wiry mustache blowing with frustrated huffs of breath. He spied her and took her by the arm, speaking to her first in Polish, ‘Are you lost?’, then in her language.
That had seemed to break her from her trance. She stopped blabbering and stared at him deeply, nodded. He took a fleeting look down the alley, where we lurked, and said flippantly, “Americans,” as if it were an excuse for her abnormal behavior. He waved an impatient hand after no one dared move, (for fear of being caught and having to scatter like cockroaches), and spoke soothingly to the woman. He guided her toward his building, with the flashing lights and elegant music that streamed out when he opened the door. After darkness and silence hovered over us again, we broke out into rowdy laughter, wheeling around stupidly in the street belting out sounds that we tried to make sound like the strange woman.
But this, this language, was far more beautiful than my own, (and I was very fond of Polish), and English sounded stick-in-the-mouth compared to how their words flowed, like dandelion seeds floating around in puffs of air.
The first woman, young, tall, and graceful, with brunette hair artfully woven into a complicated bun that rested upon her head, smiled often. Her laugh sounded like a wind chime, silver and boundless.
She had a feathered bonnet that was tweaked slightly, so that it crowned the top of her bun at an angle. Two silky, emerald satin ribbons came down from both corners of her hat to tie at the base of her chin resulting in a soft bow. Her skin was cream and roses, a delicate comparison to her ballooned, buttermilk- colored dress that skid the sidewalk with every poised step she took.
The second woman was older, stout, and spiteful. She had one lazy eye that twitched whenever she started to raise her voice. She had on a colorless bonnet that tied around her chin with no delicate bow. Her leg moved as if it couldn’t bend, resulting in a limp.
The beautiful woman glanced behind her towards me, but she looked through me, to something else.
I hadn’t heard, lost in her golden- brown café colored eyes, the sound of an automobile horn blaring. It pulled right up to the curb, it was luxurious; the kind of automobile I saw the rich women stepping into.
A tall man got out, stepped above the curb and bowed respectively to the lady. She giggled and waved her hand, “Stop it, Henryk,” but did not sound at all like she wanted him to stop. She was speaking in Polish now.
“Irina, Church,” muttered the old woman, eyeing the man distastefully, speaking in Polish too.
The pretty woman nodded indistinctly, but her eyes were locked onto the man, seeping with affection. She blinked and then shook her head, “Actually, Babcia, I forgot that Henryk had decided to take me to the picture show this afternoon, with, ah, lunch after ward at the sandwich café across the road, and, ah….” the woman trailed off and even I could tell she was making it all up as she went along. The man on the other hand, the tall, handsome, honey-blonde man, played the game.
“Yes, I will be taking her to a movie, and then to lunch,” he kissed her hand, ‘Stop it, Henryk ,’ and forced a smile for the old woman.
The woman did not buy it; she stared at him disdainfully and narrowed her eyes and finally decided to spit at the ground where his feet were.
“I suppose I’ll tell the pastor your giddy little afternoon stimulations were far more important than worshipping our savior,” she paused and glanced spitefully at the young woman, “I can’t control you, Irina,” she said, lowering her eyes and the volume of her voice. “Goodbye,” she said heartily and stocked off.
The young woman seemed hardly to notice. She bounded into the seat of the man’s automobile and they sped off.
The old woman was still steaming as she limped and grunted forward. She was still stomping off so fast I had to do a walk-run to keep pace with her.
“Hello,” I said.
She didn’t seem to hear me; she wheezed and grunted as she limped.
“Was that your daughter?” I guessed.
Her eyes slid down to me.
“No,” she grumbled, “Grand -daughter, mom died when she was a little girl.”
“Oh,” I said, “I never knew my parents,” I added, and looked up at her with mock disappointment. In my world, if I had been abandoned, my parents probably weren’t that amazing anyway.
She grunted, “Boo-hoo, same old sob story.”
I continued to walk with her.
“Go away,” she said, and flapped her hands at me.
“What language were you speaking?” I demanded.
“Polish,” she snapped back, “The same I’m speaking to you now,”
“Before that,” I hedged.
“Nothing,” she retorted angrily.
“What’s a pastor?” I threw at her.
I took a few more steps before I wheeled around to grin up at her; I was amusing myself.
“A pastor recites verses from the bible,” she paused, “what religion are you?”
I pretended to think. I drummed my fingers on my chin, “I had a pastor,” I said.
“What was his name? “she asked, completely enthralled, “was he Methodist, Christian, Catholic, Hebrew…?”
I shook my head dramatically. I made a sound with my mouth as I popped my lips together, “None of those!” I said.
She stared at me with cold eyes.
“His name was a good name,” I said. I giggled.
She looked at me. She did not understand.
“A good name? Hmmm, never heard of him, sounds Muslim, where are you from, dark little boy?” She muttered sarcastically and licked her thumb, wiping it down the side of my cheek where dirt rubbed off.
I scowled, “Never mind.”
She reached down to wipe more dirt from my face. I backed up and slapped her hands away.
“I’m not a Jew! My name is Olek!” I blurted.
“Well, Olek,” she paused to stare at me funny, “My name is Angelika,” she muttered, “but call me Babcia.”
“Okay,” I repeated.
“Good,” she started walking again. I kept pace with her. She sighed and glared at me. I tried to wiggle my hand through hers; just to annoy her, but she snatched her hand away, “what, child?” she demanded, irritated.
“What are stimulations?” I asked.
She laughed, throatily. Then, she got serious, “So how long has it been since you’ve been to church?”
“Since never!” I crowed, and spun my arms out around me.
Her mouth curved down into a frown. “You’ve never been to church? Never been to worship, Jesus; our lord?”
I shook my head, fighting a smile.
“Then you’re going,” she grumbled, and grabbed my collar, carting me with her.
I regretted my little game and tugged and pulled at her hand. “Let go!” I demanded.
I bit her wrinkly old fingers, and snarled and barked like a dog at her. People stared as we made our way up the hill. Woman with dainty sun umbrellas stopped as their hands flew up to their mouths and they gasped, “Oh my! What a disrespectful grandson!”
I wanted to yell at the woman, tell them I was not related to this old lady, but something inside me was having way to much fun.
The woman finally stopped dragging me when we arrived at a set of pallid steps that led to a white-washed building with gigantic oak doors. A massive brass bell tolled from the top of the cobbled tower on the roof. One wooden cross was plated at the top, it said words beneath it, but I could not read.
“Where is this?” I ordered.
“Church of Christ,” she barked.
She toted me up the stairs and opened the doors of the church.
“I don’t want to,” I whined.
I cried. I bit. I growled.
She cuffed my chin. “Stop it; you’re in the house of God.”
“I hate God!” I blubbered. People stopped to glower at me. I smiled through my tears. “I hate God!” I repeated, louder, speaking directly at the people watching; I did not know what I was saying, I was just trying to draw attention to myself.
“Good Lord!” cried Angelika. She smirked at me. “This child has been possessed by a demon!”
I shut up. “What?” I asked.
“Yes, child, you’re going to die if you do not diminish the demon that has taken hold of you!”
“What demon?” I demanded.
Her eyes widened as she explained, “Oh, woe is me; I can already see the devil himself dancing behind your irises. I can only hope he’ll make it quick for you!” she thrust her hand to her forehead and leaned back dramatically.
“Make what quick?”
She only shook her head.
“Make what quick!” I repeated panicky. “I’m alright, I’m okay!” I said. I waved my hands in her face. “I’m peachy!” I cried. (Where did I get that word?)
“He’s peachy fine.” She stared at me, and shook her head. “You hear that devil?” she rapped my head with her knuckles lightly, “He’s peachy fine, you can leave now!” She smiled puckishly at me.
My eyes narrowed as I realized I had been tricked. I had learned my lesson; she beat me at my own game. She scared me into shutting up.
I was quiet from then on.
I was silent when Angelika guided me to an open pew. The Preacher stationed himself at the podium, cleared his throat, and cracked open a large book with a russet- leather cover. “Alright, today we’ll start again with Matthew 20: 17-19.
“‘[Jesus Again Predicts His Death] Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!’”- The Preacher began.
I wondered indolently to myself what a Gentile was. I also questioned how someone could be raised to life after they died. My thoughts drowned out the Preacher and I quickly lost interest in him. I absentmindedly toyed with a piece of string that fluttered from Angelika’s leather book. She slapped my hand away.
It seemed like a big joke to me then. How I, a boy, would be chained to such a boring place. I calculated my chances of fleeing without burly Angelika thwarting my escape; they did not seem good. I sat ignorantly: with my leg hiked up on the back of the pew in front of me, my chin resting in my palm; uninterested, and I exhaled noisily, my lips flapping together.
I exacerbated the fact that I wasn’t listening; I wasn’t going to give Angelika that satisfaction. I waggled my mud-crusted shoe in the face of the man obverse to me. His eyes slid back to me; infuriated, then to Angelika; threatening. Angelika thumped my leg. I did one of my loud sighs again.
“Eh, hem, is there something you would like to say, boy?” asked the Preacher sarcastically, looking down his nose at me.
Suddenly every head was turned, staring, waiting.
I crossed my arms over. “Yes, sir,” I said, but I had nothing to say.
The Preacher’s expression was astonished until he masked it with slight annoyance. “Well, come on up, I want to make sure we all can hear you.”
I did not even glance at Angelika. I swaggered up the aisle, up the steps, and planted myself at the podium. My head barely cleared it.
I sifted through my head for something to say. I waited for my face to turn red and me to start to stammer, apologize, and run, but it never came. My brimming confidence never shattered. It seemed to grow more and more in the presence of people, the center of their attention; I was enjoying myself.
“Good morning God’s children,” I said, imitating the Preacher’s husky drawl.
There was a murmur of uncertainty. The air was so tangible I could almost taste the ambiguity. I took an arrogant sideways glance at the Preacher. Smoke steamed out of his ears; this was only fuel for my fire.
“Sometime on the third day, the preacher” I gestured to him, “Will be flogged in his gentiles, and then,” I was quiet, exaggerating the suspense, “be brought back to life!” I raised my arms in the air and flapped my hands.
It was then that I caught a glance of the purple-faced preacher coming at me with his fists clenched. His fingers dug into my shoulders as he dragged me off the podium. He waved at the people, “Don’t worry people, this disrespectful son of God will be taught manners and just how to value our Lord. He will be punished for his act of disobedience!” the Preacher said.
Everyone was utterly silent. Not a cough. Not a sneeze; silence. The Preacher towed me off stage. We exited through double doors and he led me down a long lobby with a velvet rug. I felt the hostility rolling off him. I had no regrets though. I had only used his early words from the book he was reading and rearranged them into an order that I had no idea what meant anyway. It was only to antagonize him. I grinned naughtily.
He opened a door and I was standing in an office. There was an oak desk and shutters on the windows. There were a lot of papers rumbled on his desk and tables.
Angelika came bursting through the door.
“Is this your grandson?” demanded the Preacher.
“Preacher Konrad-“ began Angelika.
“Is he?” he interrupted.
“Yes,” said Angelika. She didn’t look at me.
“He needs to be taught a lesson,” said the Preacher.
“Yes, but-“ sighed Angelika.
“I’ll teach him one,” the Preacher said, it came like a question.
Angelika nodded and looked at me. She had no hint of pity in her eyes. She went through the door.
The Preacher took out a wooden stick.
“What is that?” I asked eagerly. The Preacher shoved me onto the desk and whipped the stick around and hit me just below my back
It stung. Very bad. Pain. I grimaced.
“Cane,” said the Preacher through smacks.
I cried out. I twisted and tried to squirm out from under his grasp. He held tight. He did this eight times.
When he had finished he said, “You’re too cocky. That’s a sin.”
I thought he was kidding. I scurried out of his office holding my behind. It hurt to run. I did not look for Angelika. I looked for the exit.
When I pushed the giant double doors open, someone caught my arm. I looked up, Angelika.
“What?” I snarled.
She dropped a scarlet pouch in my hand. “Take care,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said, looking at her strangely. I hopped down the steps and started to run, when I turned and called over my shoulder, “I am not your grandson!”
I went back to a church.
Not the same church, I was too angry. I went to a different church because I thought, maybe, I just might want to learn more. I told myself because it was too hot outside, but really it was because I wanted to learn more about the man who had been brought back to life on the third day.
I had thought about it for a while, months. I wandered past the front doors of churches to get a glimpse inside. And, finally, I did it.
I followed a parade of people wearing black into a church. I did feel left out because they were dressed so nice and I was wearing tatters of clothes. Still, no one paid any attention to me.
I slipped through the people and waltzed along with them. I looked up into the eyes of one woman, who was crying black tears.
“What type of flowers?” asked someone.
“White chrysanthemums,” replied someone else, “You know, for death…?”
‘For death?’ I thought. The parade did not enter the church, but walked to the back where there was a white picket fence with a wrought iron gate. Ivory and roses climbed and twisted through the hinges.
Someone pushed open the gate and there were stepping stones leading to a small valley filled with tombstones. It was then that I scooted out of the way to let a maple colored coffin through.
Oh. For death. I was at a funeral.
Immediately, I wanted to leave. I pushed past the black mass and tried to climb over the gate. The people were father away now, standing in a circle around the coffin.
My leg caught in the iron gaps I couldn’t climb over any further. Neither could I hop down. I kicked my leg back and forth, but I was standing on the fence, my face halfway into a bushel of a rose thicket. I could see to the other side, where there was a small tree with white blooms. Under the tree was a bush full of the same cream white blossoms.
My eyes raked over the bush, the evergreen leaves with prickles on the end. In the middle of the leaves, there was a pair of eyes staring at me.
They were the color of the ocean; blue, the deepest blue, like a sapphire. Splatters of gold flecks shined around the pupil opening around the black circle like sunflower petals. The eyes blinked.
“Who’s there?” I called out, straining my neck.
“Who! Who! Who!” answered the bush. The eyes closed and the leaves bobbled, the bush shook, the bush laughed.
“What’s funny?” I asked; I scowled behind the roses.
“Nu-huh-huh-thing!” shook the bush. The voice was deepened to an almost comical deep.
“Why are you hiding in there?”
“Why are you stuck in that fence?” the bush came back with.
I answered honestly, “I was trying to leave and my foot got stuck.”
The eyes blinked again and the leaves parted. A little girl came out.
“I’ll help you,”
Her cheeks were scarlet and flushed as she reached up to sweep her chestnut curls out of her eyes; curls that ran down her back like a river. They bounced up and down as she spoke. She stared up at me flashing a smile, her mouth full of pearly teeth.
She was so small, even compared to me; the runt. Leaves were in her hair.
“How are you going to help?” I demanded. It came out sharper than I wanted it too, because I was already aggravated. Sharp pains ran through my twisted foot.
She shrugged, “I don’t know, do you not want my help?”
“No,” I said.
“Fine,” she sulked, and crossed her arms, her lower lip jutting out.
I craned my neck, “Wait! I mean, I want you to help me. This hurts you know,” I added.
“Ooooh,” she crooned. She uncrossed her arms and thought. “Alright,” she decided. She skipped over and disappeared inside the thicket. She wrenched open the gate and it swung wide; her crawling towards me.
“Look at me!” she cried and flung her arms out. She beamed, “I’m sneaky like a fox!”
I had no idea what she was saying. “Are you crazy?” I blurted.
“Do you want me to help you?” She shot back.
“Sorry,” I said.
I felt a sudden tug on my leg and then sharp pain as my limb; having fallen asleep, got a rude awakening. She pulled, and yanked and squealed as she tried to free my foot. Then, suddenly, I was free and my foot jerked backwards bopping her in the mouth. She staggered a little and her eyes watered and I thought she was going to cry. But she did not; she looked up at me and cracked a grin.
I jumped down and stood next to her. Her head bobbed next to my waist as she chattered about something.
“Who’s what?” I asked and looked down at her, but the girl was staring behind us and it was not her who had spoken.
I turned around in time to see another girl, an older girl, walk forward sheepishly. Her golden blond hair reminded me of Aurek’s except hers fell in thick ringlets to her shoulders. Her eyes were chestnut brown, the same color of the little girl’s hair. Straight away, I knew I knew her from somewhere.
“Who’s me?” I asked the blond girl and pointed to myself.
She nodded, her cheeks flushed chagrin.
“I’m Olek,” I clarified.
“I’m Kassia,” she batted her eyelashes at me as she stared up from the ground.
“And I’m Danuta!” exclaimed the little girl as she sprang for attention.
Kassia moved with lithe steps, something feline about her the way she stood daintily on her feet and circled around me. She tossed her hair and another, brighter color of red washed over her cheeks as she realized I was gawking at her. I was trying to remember her.
“Doesn’t he look like one of my dolls? One of my boy dolls I have that has brown hair the color of chocolate?” asked Danuta, the little one.
“How should I know?” demanded the golden haired girl. She kept her eyes on me, but they kept flitting back and forth from the ground to my face.
“Doesn’t he?” persisted Danuta, “You know, the one with the brown-brown eyes and the chocolate hair?”
“A little,” admitted Kassia. She circled towards me, her black dress billowing in the wind. “She means you look like her doll.”
I was confused. “Oh.” I paused. I shouted, “Market square!”
They looked at me funny.
I pointed my finger in Kassia’s face. “I know you!” I cried.
She tried to slap my finger away but I was already speeding away.
“Yeah! Market square! You were the angry girl!” I called over my shoulder, at their gaping faces and ran away.
I was sitting on someone’s front steps, my head in my hands. I kicked the dust pebbles at my feet. I wondered why I had just run away from those girls. I thought they must’ve thought I was insane or something. I fidgeted.
I stood. I walked. I walked back. I sat. Confusion swept through me. I breathed out a heavy sigh.
The sun was setting, casting a shadow over the buildings. I knew that I should get back to my crate. But really, I was not tired, or scared. I was a little angry and possibly a little excited. I wanted to see Kassia again. I wanted to ask her why she was so mad that day in market square when I first arrived in Warsaw.
I began to walk back to the funeral. It had been about thirty minutes, so I wasn’t sure they would still be there.
The gate was wide open and the black-dressed crowds of people were standing around the coffin as the pastor recited bible verses.
“Hey,” said a voice.
She was sitting outside the fence hidden in the roses. Her yellow hair fell in ringlets through the flowers.
“Why’re you back?”
I pushed my head through the bush, “’Cos. ‘Cos I wanted to tell you something.”
She sat up, leaves and petals entwined in her hair, “What?”
“I saw you once. When I first came to Warsaw, I saw you in the market. You were mad. Angry at something. Someone was pulling you along. Gray. A gray woman with a mean face. You…you…”I trailed off stupidly.
“You mean in December?”
“I don’t know. Yeah. I guess.”
She looked away, her brown eyes poignant. “I lost my dog, Butters. He was chocolate-colored. Ms. Yawinsky wouldn’t let me go get him. She said, ‘he’ll come back when he’s ready, you’re matka’s waiting.’ But he was just a puppy, and he never came back.”
“I’m sorry,” I remembered seeing her dog.
Danuta poked out of the brush, “It’s a wonderland in here!”
“It’s a bush,” said Kassia.
Danuta flipped her curls, “I know!”
I pointed to the people, “Whose funeral?”
“Our Great Uncle. At least that’s what Tata says. I don’t like dead people, so I took Danuta out here to wait.”
A man with thick hair and dark eyes glanced over at us.
“That’s Tata. And…that’s Matka,” she gestured to a woman beside her father with blond hair the same as Kassia’s.
“Where’s your Tata?” asked Danuta.
“I don’t have one. Or a Matka.”
“That’s sad,” said Danuta, “you could share ours!”
“No, Danuta. You can’t share parents.”
“It’s just a rule. That’s it.”
“We share parents.”
“Yes, but that’s different. We’re related. We don’t have a brother,” she looked at me.
“Yeah, I’m not your brother,” I said looking down at the little girl, into her swirling blue eyes.
“I know that,” she giggled.
“Kassia, Danuta! Come,” said their father staring at me sternly.
A few men were shoveling dirt over the coffin and everyone was talking and walking away. The mother waited silently behind the father, staring at me, but with a less hostile expression, more detached.
“Goodbye,” said Kassia batting her eyelashes at me again.
“Bye,” I said staring after her.
“You like my sister?” asked Danuta, smiling at me.
“A little,” I said.
“She likes you too,”
“Do you like me?” I asked her.
She thought about it, placing her little finger on her chin, “Yes, I think so.” She patted my stomach with her hand and skipped away.
“Bye bye…” I repeated inaudibly, watching the family walk away from me.
I played in the dead leaves that skittered across the streets. Pastries were in high supply. Pie mostly. Aurek and I grew closer as the months passed. Any scraps of wood we could find we added it to now “our” crate. Any bits and pieces of food we left in a pile for each other.
Soon, sirens began to wail. They keened loud and high and alerted everyone. There were fast strikes of light in the sky, loud booms.
But people still walked. People still shopped. We still took.
That was when the sand bags started to come and the walls and the barb- wire. It was harder to find bread, but still, we ate.
The atmosphere was different around Warsaw. It was anxious, and uncomfortable. A word buzzed around in the air, hovering, lingering on everyone’s tongues like bad breath. Hitler, Hitler, Hitler. Hitler this and Hitler that.
Even I had heard of this Hitler.
“Is he really…”
“Are they really…”
There was confusion. Fear. I stopped to listen every time I heard that name, every time I saw someone shuffling on their feet, whispering to someone.
Streets were not empty, but it became harder to find any food at all. When people were out, they were in a hurry. Stores had the radio on, always; the soft, muffled voice of the dispatcher was talking. I would wake up and hear him I would go to bed and hear him. In my dreams the low voice on the radio would talk to me telling me what was coming; horrible things.
Aurek was grumpy. He whined often, complaining of his hunger. (He was better fed while around me then he was before I met him, so he grew used to more food than he had gotten by himself.)
Habitually, I would tell him to shut up. I grew used to his constant whining, his unvarying mouth chattering. When he was not talking, I heard him in my mind and said shut up. He would roll over, yell at me that he wasn’t talking and that would start a new round of complaining.
Frequently I thought about leaving. About telling him I would find food and then never come back. But after Aurek lost his brother, I lost the nerve to cause him heartache. He seemed to look up to me for some reason, like an older brother.
I told myself if only we would have more food, he wouldn’t be so bad. The delectable crème puffs and the imported loafs of palatable French bread were not easy to find, not that they were in short supply by the grocers, but there weren’t as many people willing to leave their house. Instead, people stacked up on imperishable items, leaving the hungry orphans to wonder along the streets asking themselves why there were no food- carriers.
I thought of Danuta and Kassia. I wanted to be part of their family. I was sick of Aurek. I wanted someone new. I wondered if I would ever see them again, but then I watched the hundreds of people flocking around the market square and my hopes shriveled away.
I was so tired. It was early in the morning. I was stuffed to the brim with a pumpkin pie I had taken. I thought that day would have been good.
I sat lazily on an empty staircase. Orange and red and yellow leaves skittered across my feet. The air was hot and sticky. Aurek had found a different crowd he liked better than me. A couple of rowdy boys who were so confident they went into houses as night to steal food. I never went that far. But so what? I was glad. I did not have to deal with him whining at me anymore.
As I licked the crumbs from my hands and fingers, I heard a sound. I peered into the mottled, morning sky. It was thrumming pounding above me; I had heard it before, but not as close. Still, I saw nothing.
The sound got louder and louder. And then, great planes emerged from behind the building line. Dozens of them were flying above my head, the sound banging inside my skull; winding through my eardrums.
“Hitler!” I blurted. I knew it was him, I knew it.
I wanted to feel brave. I wanted to waltz up to this Hitler and demand why he was scaring everyone and flying his planes above our heads.
I was excited. I left the alley way and walked through the streets. People were screaming; panicking. It all happened so fast.
I looked up at the planes as small black objects dropped from their metal bellies descending down. They grew bigger and bigger and then exploded. The shock wave rocked me back on my heels.
Sirens wailed and huge streams of unsuspecting people filed out of their homes and work places. Their eyes were directed towards the planes. A building blew up. Shards of glass and stone flew en route for me. I ducked and ran forward into the destroyed cobbled streets and buildings which were missing chunks of their sides. I did not think to run back to my shelter. I was energized. All I could think was, ‘This is different. This is fun.’
A rail car leaned off the tracks, and the wire groaned under the weight. Hands moved under the car, shouts for help. I stood dumbfounded. Usually, when there was something wrong, officers in blue clothes came. Sometimes, these officers were chasing after me.
I placed my arm in any way through the opening, reaching in for people, because no one else was doing anything besides screaming. Also, because I did not know how to alert the police or where they even lived.
A warm, wet hand grabbed mine and I pulled hard. The person emerged from under the car, moaning.
“Thank you,” she said, breathing heavily.
“What happened?” I asked her. Her hand was wet because it was bloody. When I thought she wasn’t looking, I wiped her blood off my hands and made a face.
“I don’t know, suddenly there was a loud boom and the rail car tipped over,” her eyes popped open wide. I leaned back under curiously.
“Help, me,” a little girl cried. Her face was smashed into the street. I couldn’t be sure, but the woman crouched over her, her eyes stretched in fear, looked dead.
“Is she dead?” I asked. I pointed to the woman.
The girl started crying again.
She came out easily, but tried crawling back in for the woman, “Mommy! No,” she cried.
I gestured to the woman again. “Is she dead?” I demanded.
Suddenly, a great wave of people came running up the road, screaming. They trampled over me, and the woman and the girl, than stampeded past.
I looked back over to the girl, who was lying immobile in the street.
“Oh, God, oh God,” the woman said, staring at the girl.
“Is she dead?” I asked, pointing at the girl now.
The woman didn’t answer me. I didn’t stay long enough to hear a reply either; I jumped up and started shoving past people, who were going the opposite direction as me.
A plane flew over, and seconds later, a building blew up, debris flying toward us.
“Why are there planes,” I said to someone running.
They went passed me.
A person was sitting on a bench. He was reading a newspaper, like nothing was happening.
“Why aren’t you running?” I asked. Everyone else was.
He looked at me.
“Why aren’t you?”
I blinked. I said I didn’t know.
I was about to say something else when a giant street light came crashing down; pinning people under it who flailed their arms.
I started running through the crowded streets again.
I narrowly missed a piece of flying wood. An old man grabbed me and started shaking my shoulders,
“We’re all going to die!” he shrieked, his face distorted in wild terror.
“What-“ I started to say, when a large piece of glass hit the man in the face and he let go. I kept running, pushing past different people.
A horse ran by me, the back of its harness in flames. A procession of fire trucks careened past us, spraying collapsing buildings with water. Red was my favorite color. I tried looking over heads, but I was not tall enough.
Then, someone tripped me. He had come out of the candy store. The windows were smashed.
He was on fire.
I was in such shock I only stood there. He wheeled around in circles, like a man on stilts, losing his balance. For a fraction of a second, I wandered if this was Pan Moshe. But this man was leaner, and taller, it could not have been.
He stumbled into the streets waving his arms around. People ran past him. His screams were gurgled. I felt the heat from where I was standing. I heard his skin popping and bubbling. He wobbled back towards me and stared into my eyes; which were like a mirror, and he witnessed himself smoldering in the image of my pupils.
Then, he was swallowed entirely. He dropped to the ground, with wasted bones and oozing skin. He was dead.
I was horrified. I was not excited anymore. I was scared and angry and sad and hungry. I raced back to my crate and hid inside it, cowering. I thought to myself, “If God existed, how could he let someone burn to death?” This God that the woman with their brightly colored dresses and artfully woven hair spoke of, this God that the preacher spoke so highly of, this God in which I had mocked.
In fact, if God was watching, he would not have let the planes drop bombs on our heads. He would not have let that little girl get flattened. He would not have killed that woman under the streetcar. But those things were not stopped from happening. I had been right all along. There was no God.
I couldn’t find Aurek. I thought I would look for him, just to make sure he was safe at least. I had crawled through the rickety wood littering the alley way and stared at the city, which had been ruined. Buildings were nothing but rubble. The once beautiful streets were piled in carcasses of stone, encrusted in dirt and dust.
Skeletons of old street cars were lying on the road, their wires snapped. Silverware littered the sidewalks, while other children sneaked through the crushed buildings jumping over wood beams taking things left behind and forgotten.
Pan Moshe’s candy store was almost unrecognizable. His wonderful assorted candies were all gone. The cherry ones, the lime, cerulean, yellow, ruby, were stolen.
Even Pan Moshe was nowhere to be seen. I remembered how when Aurek and I would enter, he would give us both a pink and white swirly candy. Then he would lean down and whisper, ‘On the house.’ And maybe, I would be lucky enough to catch a glimpse at Holly, who seemed more like a dream to me then.
I had never seen the streets so empty.
I hadn’t really paid attention to the hundreds of sandbags piled up by stone walls before.
“What’s that for?” I asked, pointing to the sandbags, nudging a boy picking at the ground.
He looked up half heartedly, “People are trying to stop the tanks,” he said.
“Tanks,” I repeated rolling the word around in my mouth.
A little girl walked over. Her eyes were wide. “Adam, Blazej is nowhere. Just nowhere,” she said to the boy.
He didn’t look at her. “We’ll find him.” He looked more interested in the broken treasures he was finding in the debris.
A boy my size was strutting through the streets peeking under pieces of wood. “Oh, Blazej, I wonder where you are,” he joked.
A herd of people came up the hill carting sandbags. The siren kept going on and off on and off. A plane flew overhead. It didn’t drop anything on us.
A streetcar was trooping through the remnants of the street. People boarded it. I boarded it. The girl and boys in the street yelled at me, but I got on anyway. I held the pole and I stretched my arm out and leaned out of the car. I scouted for Aurek. The little girl ran with the streetcar for a while.
“Wait!” she cried, and flapped her arms around wildly. People standing close glared at me. I didn’t wave at her. I stood glaring at the world copying everyone else.
There were bodies, I noticed. Not many, but here and there. I spotted some curled up behind benches, or sticking out from underneath lumber pieces. Another plane flew over our heads. I kept looking at the streets.
The coffee shop with the frothy, whipped drinks was destroyed. I was sad. I liked to walk by and inhale deeply. I could guess the types of coffee people had when I walked by sometimes.
The streetcar halted to a stop. People bumped into each other. “Off!” The driver yelled. I was already off. I was weaving through the crowd back to where I had come. Aurek was nowhere.
As I was walking back past Pan Moshe’s candy store, the streets were deserted entirely; the boys and girl were gone. I was sure Aurek should have been found by now. I peered into Pan Moshe’s broken windows. Something caught my eye. It was pink and white and swirly: candy lying on the busted shelves. I stepped in over the rubble. The back of his store was gone, collapsed. The roof didn’t look stable either.
I grabbed the candy. A shelf fell. I expected it to clang on the floor. I listened. It fell with an oofh on the ground. It slid to one side. I looked down. I put my foot where the shelf had fallen. It was squishy and soft.
I bent down and dusted the dirt off the rubble and wood. Something lay under it though. Even as my heart skipped like rabbit, and my handful of candy slid from my sweaty palms, I still looked under.
He was dirty and cold and dead and the blood was caked dryly to the side of his head. His messy brown hair was white with dust. His eyes were closed. It was a young boy.
I continued to look at him for a long time. Then, I couldn’t stare anymore.
I stood up and looked back to the empty store. A dirt- coated bathtub was dripping water. I walked back carefully.
“Hello?” I said. My voice was quiet. I looked into the bathtub. Pan Moshe was lying there. His clothes were still on. I heard his breathing.
“Pan Moshe?” I said. He looked up weakly. His leg was mangled and bloody and the bathtub water was rust colored.
“Holly,” Pan Moshe whispered.
I looked to each side of me, “Where?” I said.
Pan Moshe’s head fell to one side. His eyes closed slowly. Breathing stopped. And like the tick of an old clock, the drip, drip, dripping of the water stopped.
The next day I came back to the candy store. The girl and the two boys were there. The older boy’s bottle cap went round and round. He flicked it again and it spun. The girl was crying. The older boy asked the younger one if he was sure. “Yes,” he said.
The older boy stood; he was tall and lean. His black hair stuck straight up, “We should bring his body,”
“How do you know he’s not lying?” The girl accused; pointing at the younger boy. He looked shocked.
The tall one looked at her, “Why would he lie about something like that?”
“Yeah,” the younger one agreed.
“Besides, you saw his body in there; proof,” said the tall one.
“I’m not lying,” chirped the younger one.
“Well it could be someone that looks like Blazej,” the girl said. She was still crying. Her hair was plastered to her face with tears.
“August, you stay here and we’ll go get Blazej,” the tall one said.
“Why do I have to come?” the younger boy whimpered.
“So you can show me where he is again,”
“I told you, he’s in the candy store,”
He groaned, “You’re coming!”
The boys carted his body out. It slumped up against their arms. They brought him to a green patch of grass on the ground. They set him down.
The older one placed his head in his hands, “Damn fool, Blazej,” he said quietly; pained.
“Why was he in there?” I asked from behind a park bench. I had been watching, feeling as if I were intruding.
“Who knows?” said the tall one looking at me suddenly, but unsurprised, “He could have been trying to steal the candy when the wood crushed him.”
“That’d be Blazej,” the younger one sneered.
Someone ran by us waving their arms in the air screeching; pointing, “Hooligan Jews!” We paused to watch him run by.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” I said.
“How’d you know he was our brother?” the girl asked. I didn’t know how I knew, I had guessed.
“August, it’s obvious,” the younger one said softly.
I was astonished, “Your name’s August?” I had hear that somewhere, but never describing a girl.
“Yes,” she said, “Augustyna.” Augustyna had faintly blond hair with small chestnut brown eyes. She shook slightly, her small frame wobbling with her movements. She was the skinniest girl I had ever seen.
I stood next to the dead body. I was tempted to kick at it, to feel it with the sole of my shoe, but I didn’t.
“You a Jew?” asked the tall one, he squinted at me. He stood up and spit on his thumb and rubbed it on my cheek. “Nah, you’re just dirty, not too dark,” he said, still squinting.
“Adam,” he said and stuck his long hand out.
I shook it gingerly, but he bounced me up and down with the force of his arm, laughing, and punched me on the shoulder playfully.
The younger one was not so friendly. He absentmindedly plucked strands of grass from the ground and twirled it around his fingers.
“This is my brother Tosiek and my sister Augustyna,” the tall one named Adam said.
He looked at me, his eyebrows went up.
“So…….what’s your name?” he asked.
“Olek,” I said.
The boy playing with the grass had eyes that kept darting up at me, almost angrily.
“Hey Tosiek, come on, let’s get something to eat,” Adam said.
Augustyna stood up. She walked over to me and held my hand.
“Okay,” I said.
“He wasn’t talking to you,” snarled the boy on the ground.
“He can come,” Adam said quickly.
“Fine,” the boy crossed his arms, “but I won’t like it!” he warned, waggling his finger in front of his face.
“What about him?” I asked. I was staring at the body.
There was silence.
I changed the subject, “Okay, food.”
We stole some bread, but not much and sat inside of a bombed out building.
“Are you all alone?” asked Adam.
“Well we are too, ‘cept for each other.”
“You can join us,” said Augustyna, “The more the easier it is to get food.”
“That’s not right, Augustyna. The more, the less for everyone,” Tosiek said.
“I don’t eat much,” I remarked.
“Humph,” growled Tosiek.
“Tosiek, what’s your deal?” demanded Adam.
“It’s like you’re replacing Blazej with him!”
“I’m not replacing anyone. This kid’s fast. Did you see him take that bread? He’s like the wind!”
“So was Blazej! And now that he’s dead you want someone else just as fast so you can eat!”
“I didn’t scout him out, did I? He came to us. He’s got nobody. And you’ve always had us to help you out. So just shut yer trap!” Adam’s face was bright red as he stalked off.
“Tosiek looked at the ground, “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
I shrugged, nibbling on a piece of bread.
Augustyna was crying delicately into her hands, “Blazej,” she whimpered.
“I’m sorry too,” I said.
I stayed with Tosiek, Adam, and Augustyna for a while. I liked them all. We didn’t talk much, only ate.
I was with them when the Nazis stared to arrive.
They started to construct a perimeter around a certain portion of the town, and when it was finished they sealed if off and topped it with barbed wire. From that day forward, people marched in, but never came out. They would be stolen off the street, thrown into trucks and dumped inside the Ghetto. The Nazis would arrive at houses and pound on the doors and take people.
So, one day, Tosiek was gone.
He had been taken by the Nazis, we were all sure.
“Are you guys Jewish?” I asked Adam, who was staring at the moon as we sat on the steps of our condemned building.
“Nah,” said Adam, the cigar in his mouth glowing orange.
“Where’d you get that?’
“Stole it off some old man.”
“Oh. Adam, if you’re not Jewish, then why was Tosiek taken?”
“Don’t know. Probably because he looked ragged, lived on the streets., something the Nazis would consider trash. It doesn’t matter if he is or isn’t. If he looks it, he’s going in the Ghetto.”
I looked back at Augustyna, sleeping under a dirty wool blanket, and asked for a drag.
“Have at it,” Adam said handing me the cigar. I took a breath and instantly choked and coughed.
Adam laughed, “Not for you, eh? Well you get used to it.”
“I’m sorry about Tosiek,” I rasped.
“He’ll be okay,” Adam said in a clipped tone, “I just wish I hadn’t let him off by himself. He’s only nine, Olek. He’s…damn, I can’t lose another brother!” His head fell in hands. “I can’t, I can’t,” he mumbled over and over and over again.
There was a man dressed in a black uniform with brass buttons; his boots were shined, so that they were reflective. And upon his arm was a red armband with a twisted black cross. I could only think of one explanation with such a fine uniform; a Nazi. He patrolled the top of the street, walking around idly, chatting to a soldier close to him.
I walked up the street. I tried to walk past him, but he grabbed the back of my collar. Adam had warned me that they liked to joke. I should’ve walked the other way…
He raised me high in the air and showed me to his friend, like I was a lost dog he had found in the road. He said something I could not understand. I hung limp, rotating a little. He put me down. I tried to run away but her put his hand on top of my head. My legs kept running but I did not move. They both laughed at me. I stopped. I turned.
I knew I should’ve run, but there was nothing I liked more than attention. I reached for the soldier’s gun. He stepped back and wagged his finger at me. He said something to the other soldier and they both laughed. I grinned widely.
The soldier leaned his face down slowly, slowly, slowly down to mine. I stood there watching him until his face was right in front of mine staring at me. His face was freshly shaven, he smelled like vanilla.
“Hallo,” he said.
I said, “Hello.”
“Wie alt bist du?” he said. I stared at him. He shook his head and chuckled, “How old are you?” He asked in my language, but his accent was bizarre. I snickered. The soldier looked at me flatly.
“Thirteen,” I said, uncomfortably.
He nodded his head and then his face turned very serious, “Are you a Jew?”
“No,” I told him.
The Nazi threw back his head and chortled, “You don’t have to lie, you should be happy I’m here, eh?”He nudged the other soldier. They snorted.
“Yes. Can I touch your gun?” I asked.
“No,” he said and stood back up.
I pointed to the other soldier. “Can I touch his gun?”
The soldiers exchanged looks. They were no longer smiling.
I said again, “I’m not a Jew,”
“Goodbye,” he said. He turned his head suddenly. I looked where he was.
A man came staggering up the street. His nose was bloodied, his eye was swollen, and some teeth were missing. His trousers had been cut up, so that he trudged around in the chilly air, half- dressed. He had a brand mark on his arm. ‘Jude’.
On his back was sign saying, ‘I am a filthy son of Abraham’.
The soldiers laughed. I laughed too. I did not know why I was laughing. The man groaned as he came closer, limping. The soldier patted my head, messing up my hair. He walked back up the street towards the man. I turned and scurried up the street.
I walked for a while, letting off steam. I could not understand why the soldier had thought I was a Jew. I thrust my hands in my pockets, pulling out three coins. I smiled to myself. Food.
I bought a candied apple with the money an old woman who fed pigeons had given me. I licked. The taste was sweet, tangy. It reminded me of Pan Moshe’s candy. I closed my eyes.
Suddenly, I heard a squeal; the squeal of breaks. I turned. It all happened so fast, yet it felt like slow motion. The crowd moved. For a moment, all my senses were enlightened, enhanced. I could see the planes of every face, the delicate arch of every eyebrow. I tasted the caramel; sticky, coated to my tongue. My fingers traced the corduroy of my trousers, before they clenched into tight fists. I smelt everything from the sweat of the apple vendor to the burning rubber of the Ford’s tires.
The automobile raced towards me, squealing against the street, wheeling wildly out of control. I did not move. People’s heads whipped around, anxious, searching for the sound. My apple fell to the ground and rolled onto the cobbled brick of the street. The automobile veered out of my path, smashing the apple stand. Fruits went flying everywhere, nailing people in their heads. The Ford swerved back going parallel across the road. People scrambled around the apples, slipping and sliding onto each other. I might have even laughed.
Two girls rounded the corner of a nearby building. One popped a ribbon stick of pink bubblegum into her mouth. Her brunette hair fell in two shoulder- length pigtails. She kneed a patched ball, concentrating on keeping it up in the air. Her dress billowed with every movement of her knee. The other girl walked barefoot in the street, her buckled shoes in her hand. Her hair was half up, tied back with a baby blue silk string. She had a bag draped over her shoulder, like the other girl had, and a textbook wrapped under her arm.
The one with the pigtails jerked her knee suddenly and the ball went flying. She elbowed her friend and they both started after the ball. Two steps later, the side of the automobile, barely, connected with them. Barely. But it was enough.
Pigtail’s legs bent behind her; she flew across the windshield, knocking her head into the glass. The sealed beam headlight cracked as her thigh smashed into it. The expression on her face was mingled of laughter, from a moment ago, contorted confusion swept across her eyes resting on her mouth, which curled up into a grimace; bewildered pain. Her body rolled as if it were the ball, which had bounced upon the automobile. In a split second, she lay on the cobbled road, her face ground into the stone slabs. She did not move.
The other girl twirled around her, like they were a circus act, or street performers. Her leg nicked the automobile’s front side, efficiently bending the weak metal. She smashed onto the cobblestones, face up, staring up into the sky. Her mouth relaxed; teeth biting into her lips. Her leg was behind her, mangled; broken.
A dark pool of blood formed a puddle beneath her head. Her eyes darted to her left, resting on her friend’s motionless figure, bowed into fetal position; unresponsive. Her back arched violently as she let out a scream. She kept glancing at the other girl, tears streaming down her face, her back curving every time she let out a shriek.
As the police swarmed in, the ambulances, the fire trucks, the people started to circle, curious, vulchers leering toward their prey. The screaming girl; the shoeless one, was put onto the stretcher first.
The other girl was still on the street, unmoving. Sobs erupted; people began to notice her, there; still. She was loaded onto a stretcher, and carted away. Her eyes had been closed.
Later that day, a man came to the street, with a brush and a pale of water. He dumped the water over the cobblestones, and then he scoured the street. Scrub, scrub, scrub. He grunted as he scrubbed, he reached his hand and wiped the sweat from his brow. When he had finished, he left. It was as if nothing had ever happened there. It was as if blood had never stained the stone. I was starving, I had no money left, but I could not make myself steal an apple from the ground.
I told Adam about the accident.
“God, there’s death everywhere,” he shook his head and rubbed Augustyna’s back, biting his lips.
Augustyna had been sick for a while with a fever. She was so small, and skinny, Adam secretly, brokenly, told me she probably wouldn’t make it. Every doctor in town refused to see her because they suspected she was Jewish.
“It’s alright honey, it’s okay,” Adam cooed as Augustyna let out a moan.
I looked away. Adam never really recovered from Tosiek’s disappearance months ago.
“Are you sure there’s no one else?” I asked.
“I’m sure Olek. I’ve been to every doctor there is!” he lowered his voice, “no one wants to help her!”
Augustyna looked at me, “Olek, please mind Adam. He’s got to find Tosiek, you know. They’ve got to take care of each other.”
“I know, alright Augustyna,” I said, averting her bruised eyes.
Later that night, Augustyna died. It was peaceful, in her sleep. After weeks and weeks of being sick, she let go.
Adam dug a hole in the ground as I wrapped her in a blanket.
“No, Olek. She doesn’t need it anymore,” he said quietly. I took the blanket and draped it around Adam and I. We sat on the ground and we said nice things about her, because neither of us knew any verses.
“I’ve got only you now Olek. And Tosiek, if he’s still alive. I think the only place for me to go now is the Ghetto. To find him. If you want to leave you can, but I’ve got to know what happened to my brother.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay.” I said, and I thought I saw Augustyna’s spirit rise from the ground, the color of the moon, and ascend into the night sky.