by Peter Kuklinski
2004 SFWP Literary Awards Program
4th Place Winner
Witold Kozak grabbed a gnarled tree root as his foot slid down the shiny hard slick dirt. He managed to save his balance by grappling the steep side of the gorge with quick steps, but his pants – he could not save. Imbedded dirt with the intensity of dark chocolate covered both his knees. The earth between the marshes and wide fields was densely drenched from the heavy seasonal rains dominating north central Europe in the spring of 1938.
He tried to push away the thought of facing his mother. She had just made these pants and they were his good pair. She would not care about the rains and her inquisition would lead to questions better avoided. But how did he know that his older brother Tadek was going to sneak over the border into Lyck?
It was by chance that Witold spotted Tadek leaving the shop. Tadek must have quickly finished sanding the beams that their father had instructed him to do first thing that morning. Witold was coming home from helping his grandmother in her garden and noticed Tadek’s lively step, a notch faster than usual. He was heading west on the Passage Road, so the curious younger brother followed him from a distance to see where he was going so urgently, which was not easy because Tadek moved like a breeze in his characteristic long strident steps. He was six years older than Witold, and at eleven, Witold was in between a little boy and a little man. Tadek was already grown up in Witold’s eyes. He ran hard to catch up to Tadek who had begun to trot as he approached the Krupak stables.
Tadek’s good friend Jan Krupak was waiting for him and smoking a cigarette, a bit of luxury for a seventeen year old in northeastern Poland. The lean and strong young men, each with a round and full face ‘ Jan’s, a freckled and smooth strawberry blonde complexion constantly tested by the sun, and Tadek’s, whose stubble brown beard was a seamless extension of his short cropped hair that matched the tilled fields surrounding them. In a warm reunion, they stood amusingly talking as Tadek took a couple of puffs from Jan’s cigarette before Jan inhaled once more and extinguished it. This gave Witold time to close the gap with an all out dash, albeit silently.
As Witold was just within ear shot range, the two friends launched into a spirited pace toward the fields behind the Krupak house and disappeared. Witold was still panting, though trying to moderate his breathing. Nearer the chase, he was accosted by Krupak’s dog. The old sheep dog would not stop barking and followed Witold along a small grove of apple trees that formed the perimeter of the clearing surrounding the buildings. The stout full trees were in a straight line and stood as a threshold to the wide fields of wheat and rye.
Witold was annoyed with the yapping dog and pleaded with it to stop, trying desperately to remember its name. The dog grew more excited until Witold ran obliviously into his brother and Jan who jumped out from behind a tree trunk and encircled him like a released snare. ‘What are you doing here?’ thundered Tadek.
Witold shivered in fright from the surprise before gaining his senses.
‘I’mm’. stuttered Witold, then he became silent. He knew that Tadek could read him like a magazine so he looked to Jan, who was usually an easygoing fellow, for help.
‘You’re what?’ demanded Tadek
‘I wanted to see where you were going’ and tag along.’
Tadek exhaled loudly and turned to Jan saying resignedly, ‘We might as well call it off.’
Jan looked at the two brothers and paused deliberately. He smiled slightly and said, ‘I think it will be okay. You like girls don’t you Witold?’
Witold shrugged and replied, ‘They’re okay.’ Jan winked.
Tadek placed his hand on Witold’s shoulder and gave it a stern shove. ‘Listen you little shit, we’re heading into East Prussia. We know about some villas outside of Lyck on Spring Lake where there are some pretty girls. You can come, but you must keep this a secret. You know we’re not supposed to be over there. There’s danger too – a fat policeman patrols on a motorcycle. You know there’s been new tensions lately ‘ bickering between the Germans and the Poles.’
Jan looked intensely at Witold and said, ‘The fat man doesn’t speak Polish and if he catches you, he will take you to a German jail and feed you old pies filled with white wiggling worms.’
Witold turned white with fear until Jan laughed out loud. ‘I’m only kidding, but we do have to be careful. This is why we are going through the woods. I heard that there are some amazing automobiles around Lyck too, even better than Count Milewki’s ‘ probably Mercedes, maybe even Peugeots. Girls and cars will tempt most any man,’ said Jan nobly, as if the elder statesman, and this surprised Tadek because Jan was simple and seldom prone to proclamations. In this authoritative air, he commanded the dog with a little chase and shuffle of his feet to be on its way. The dog listened and they were off.
Witold had been to Lyck once before, when he was eight, though just passing through on the return from a pilgrimage before his grandfather died. His family had traveled to the Holy Shrine at Swienta Lipka (Holy Lime) in East Prussia, but historically part of the Polish Kingdom and continuously regarded as a revered place for Catholics. He recalled the excitement he felt then, feeling like he was in a different country. Despite not being able to read the signs, Witold had so admired the fascinating things on display. He had particularly wanted to visit a prominent shop that featured numerous working clocks within its broad window like a small marching army. His mother was unyielding. He cried hard and long, even after they passed the Polish border and arrived home.
His family traveled on occasion further, to Suwalki, to the east, in order to trade and conduct business matters. Witold loved to travel beyond the closest and charming village of Augustow, and marveled at the regal government buildings and hotel in Suwalki. Sometimes his father purchased machines and parts for their lumber mill there, but went further too – even Danzig and Wilno. Both cities Witold had yet to visit, though Tadek went to Wilno with father last year and acted like a big shot when he came home with a radio, even though it was for the family.
His father had only been to Warszawa during the Polish Soviet War in 1920 but not since. Witold figured that there was probably some disturbing memories from that bloody campaign that kept his father quiet on the subject and content to remain in the peace within the Great Mazurian Lakes District. Sister Marysia Beata, the nun who taught his school, had the class write, ‘Independent Poland is a gift of divine providence. Only through the intercession of Our Lady, the Queen of Poland, whose holy apparition before the nearly defeated Polish soldiers, turned the tide of the advancing Soviet armies from the gates of Warszawa, and drove the unbelievers back to Russia.’ Witold had it memorized. Sister also had said more than once, ‘When I was a girl in this very class room, our classes were taught only in Russian. No Polish was permitted, and the picture of Czar Nicolos, the Czar of all the Russias, hung where the crucifix now rests, and today he is dead and his dynasty rejected. Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross almost two thousand years ago and lives in our midst. God works in mysterious ways and beyond the minds of men. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.’ Then the classroom of about twenty, composed of ages ranging from six to thirteen, would stand and pray one of the mysteries of the rosary. The tales of Poland’s struggles for freedom and her passionate brushes with democratic ideals always sent shivers through Witold.
Tadek kept a large tattered flag he discovered by chance among his father’s stored things and displayed it prominently in his bedroom. Witold admired immeasurably this quality of sentiment belonging to Tadek and wished ardently to be just like him. Pani Kozak repeatedly asked Tadek to ‘take down that tattered piece of cloth. At least hang up a new one!’ ‘ her entreaties became vowels and consonants falling from recognition.
The soiled flag which displayed the majestic Polish eagle insignia, had survived from their father’s military service, and Witold secretly felt that it must be holy since it was only with the intercession of the holy virgin that the war was won. Pan Kozak never commented about the vision of the blessed mother despite repeated questions from Witold. Instead, he avoided the subject of the war and usually said in response to topics outside of his peaceful domain, ‘I prefer to not talk about it.’
Suwalki was a stop along the St. Petersburg ‘ Warsaw ‘ Vienna route, a more significant passage during the reign of the czars. Old stories were still told about queens and princes staying there and their opulent life styles of waiting servants, and officers in uniforms with medals and gleaming gold buttons too numerous to count. Witold dreamed of seeing royal or famous people and places, and this was why he wished to become a Polish cavalry lancer, for they were renown to be the best horsemen in Europe, and entrusted to important places and the execution of vital and noble deeds. Most of the Poles didn’t venture into East Prussia unless they had specific business mostly due to the border tensions surrounding whether the disputed area was part of the Mazury region of Poland or the Masurenland region of Ostpreussen (East Prussia)’ always divided by which language you spoke. This unexpected visit to Lyck was bound to be interesting. Stefan Nowak’s father worked for a small foundry there which made farm tools for mostly Polish farms and horses. Once Witold had overheard his father talking to Rzepninski, the butcher, that Nowak had something sneaky going with a German woman who also worked at the foundry. This was the extent of Witold’s knowledge of Lyck until later that day.
After crossing the Krupak fields and cutting through the tip of the vast Elk Forest as it was called, the troupe reached the crest of a small hill and looked beyond a field before them dotted with tiny lakes, some almost ponds, across the vista. Next to the largest lake, Spring Lake as it was called, stood a settlement of cottages. Lyck was yet further west and if Witold squinted, he thought he could make out the town’s clearing and a few of its tall buildings. The lakeside villas were probably two kilometers from where they stood. Jan told Tadek that there were some wealthy Germans from Danzig and Leipzig spending the summer there. The lake was pristine and its bounty of exceptional fishing was well known. Witold guessed that Jan got his information from Pan Nowak who made most of the parts used on the large Krupak farm and liked to talk in colorful detail, especially if he had been drinking.
Tadek addressed Witold with orders, ‘You must follow me and not make a sound. Even if you are bored, I don’t care. You were not invited to begin with. We must travel fast and undetected because if we are not home in a couple of hours, mother and father will demand to know where we were, and then I will beat you to a pulp.’
Witold was not scared of any beating because Tadek talked tough but was always gentle, though Tadek was a good fighter when Witold saw him in action once. He remembered two years ago when Tadek had a fist fight with the Milosz boy during a soccer game. Milosz was older and bigger than Tadek, but Tadek whipped him with his speed and brave determination. Witold had never witnessed such harsh abuse that people could do to each other. He was afraid because the two boys kept punching one another, falling down and getting up, all sweaty with torn shirts. The other bigger boys even cheered, especially when Milosz’s nose started to bleed. Witold was just glad that Tadek won the fight. Their father was furious and took Tadek right away to Father Jarusz, for discipline and absolution. Father Jarusz could be a serious counsel. He was a schoolmate of father’s and despite his heavy religious exterior, he and father remained friendly and could be seen joking together in private. Fr. Jarusz even came to supper sometimes and blessed the house and the few farm animals they kept while he was in their home.
Jan knew another short cut to the lake. Though he was a farmer, his family sold most of their crops in East Prussia and he now accompanied his father to market by driving one of several filled wagons to either Lyck or further to Allenstein. Jan spoke some German too, which was handy in case anyone wanted to know what they were doing along the banks of a lake away from Lyck, peeping at girls. As they approached the settlements, the Polish wanderers walked the small road circling the lake, replacing fear of the fat official on the motorcycle with excitement.
There were about a dozen cottages forming a circle with a common area in the center sprinkled with tall pine trees, which held a small stage under a roof and several benches. Past the edge of the settlement was a large stone building, not quite a castle, but very imposing compared to the simple wooden cottages set in its shadow, or for that matter, any house around Augustow, except Count Milewski’s, which was as large but much older. There were two small docks with canoes and rowboats bordering the camp, and beyond, below the chateau, a larger dock with an impressive sailboat. A bright flag with a coat of arms flapped in the wind.
The trio walked softly, and strained their ears to tune in sounds of talking and laughing. As they made a bend along the dirt road and peered down toward the lake, they could make out a beach area with about twenty girls all wearing swimsuits, a few of them brightly colored. Jan flicked his hand on Tadek’s arm and said ‘Heaven on earth!’ Tadek surveyed the vicinity and pointed without speaking to a grassy knoll adjacent to the road where the view was good and undisclosed in the cover of trees. Tadek and Jan whispered to each other and giggled. As they watched intently, Jan said, ‘Next time I will bring my uncle’s binoculars for some close up inspections!’
Witold answered in a bored nasal sounding voice, ‘Who wants to look at a bunch of girls swimming? Can we go?’
Tadek tensely whisper screamed, ‘No! Shut up!’ and continued confidential words into Jan’s ear.
At one point, two girls walked up the hill back to the cottages without noticing the eyes of their admirers. As soon as the passing girls disappeared Jan and Tadek were even more of a trance from their close up view, which seemed to magnetize their concentration. Witold pleaded, ‘Can we leave now?’
Neither Tadek or Jan replied. Instead, Jan said, ‘Get lost junior.’
A frustrated Witold said ‘OK. I’m going to explore closer to the big house. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes, then we better leave!’ Tadek turned and said, ‘Just be careful you are not seen.’ He waved Witold away. Witold looked at this mud clad knees and felt un-presentable approaching the noble house. The mud had dried some, so he brushed off some loose dirt and moved toward its stoic grandeur. The stones were in a gray black block form, rather than the natural irregular shapes he knew. A large porch extended for two sides of the house above which many windows revealed lace curtains. There was a long black automobile parked in front. The white walls of the tires were luxuriously accented by shiny silver spoke covers which looked so modern and powerful. Witold didn’t know much about cars for he only saw them occasionally drive across Passage Road, never stopping, except for Count Milewski who also had a big car, but his pale blue model was older and not nearly as impressive as this sleek shiny one. The old Count was famous for cursing the poor Polish dirt roads. He thought about this as he stepped upon an unusual road leading up to the mansion ‘ it was an intricate symmetry of stones composing the private lane.
Witold heard some laughing, so he walked past the house and saw a grass clearing with two boys kicking a soccer ball. He came as close as he could and sat to watch the two players – one shooting toward the goal that the other tended. Their guttural sounding words were unfamiliar to Witold ‘ German he supposed. He watched them and wondered if their crisp clothes were factory made, for they looked different than his own ‘ the colors were brighter and the cut crisper, as if tailored and pressed. The one boy had high knee socks like Witold had only seen in pictures of Olympic athletes. Though he was technically on German soil, quite nearby to his home in Augustow, in Treuburg, is where the 1936 German Olympic team trained, and Witold recalled vividly how the mighty German team’s dominance of the games raised much discussion at home between his father, Tadek and Uncle Antos’.
The older boy who was goaltending kicked the ball very hard from his hands and the ball rolled up toward where Witold was perched. He froze and watched as the tall boy with the high stockings ran toward him. As the boy bent over to pick up the ball, so close that Witold could see the tassels swaying along the top of the stockings, the boy looked up and directly at Witold. Witold made a cautious wave to the stunned boy. The boy held his ball and asked him a question. Witold could not understand. The boy then held out the ball with one hand and motioned to Witold with the other, to play with them. Witold got up and walked toward the boys. The older boy was a little taller than Witold and probably twelve. His next question used the word ‘Polen’ and Witold nodded and pointed to himself saying ‘Witold’. The taller boy did the same and said ‘Werner.’ He pointed to his smaller companion who resembled Werner and said ‘Hermann, mein Bruder,’ which Witold understood.