I still wander through the tall grasses stretching away from the back of our house down a shallow slope to a thicket of trees just in front of the train station. Yellow flowers scattered among the shimmering green waves smile at the sky, unknowing. It is their sturdiness of bliss I like most, and I can hear them singing her words, clear and soft and never forgotten.
When I was ten years old, Patrina walked with her father every day while he delivered the mail in our village. And every day, when he came to our house, he would leave her with us. My mother always looked at him in a certain way that reminded me of what she had taught me since I could speak my first word. Think rightly, but say what is expected. Or say nothing at all. She had told me this many times, her face creased with worry that I should understand, as if my life depended on it.
Patrina and I waited next to the mangle next to the kitchen door. Mother fished our clothes from the boiler with metal tongs and brought them to us in a wooden basket, dripping hot and steaming. This was always a quiet time. As we let the clothes cool, Patrina and I watched the rabbits sleeping in their wooden crates or scampering through the small patch of ground where I had built a low fence from chicken wire so they had a place to run. We didn’t talk about the scar that ran along the back of one of them, thick and puffing. That was the rabbit I had saved.
When the airplanes came, drifting above us as a black curtain of thunder, they always kept going to somewhere else far away. They had no interest in us because we did not build the tools of war in our village. But one day, the only bomb ever dropped near my home town fell in the field behind our house, close to the rabbits.
I felt a wall of air slam into my chest, like a big steel hand, knocking me flat on my back. I couldn’t breathe for a moment and through the throbbing hiss filling my ears, I heard the muffled sound of people screaming and running. They flowed through the streets like wild animals and then threw themselves into cellars, thinking there would be more. But it was the only one.
When I was able to stand up, I saw my rabbits scurrying through the little yard I had made for them, many of them on fire and squealing as flames lapped at their fur. So I ran to them and I threw dirt on them. When that didn’t help, I picked one up and held it close to my chest, wrapping my arms around it to smother the flames. It squealed and squirmed and I had to hold tight so it couldn’t get away. But it stopped burning. And then it stopped squealing. But it still breathed.
This was the rabbit with the scar. Standing next to me as we both watched it scamper around its little yard, Patrina stepped closer to me and put her hand in mine. She turned to me, her face a golden bronze with almond eyes that glinted with a promise to always remember. Even though she was just a girl, her mouth was full and succulent in a way that could draw men to their doom. Or to eternal bliss. Or both. And she said, “You are so brave.” She said this every day. And my heart melted every day when she said it. I never told her the truth. It was my job to take care of the rabbits. I didn’t feel brave for saving the few. I felt sad for having lost the rest.
I looked into her eyes, and I knew I had already surrendered to that doom. To that bliss. To both. The meddling glances from the street when her father brought her to our door told me there was supposed to be something wrong about that. I started to ask her, “Why -“
Her smile stopped me and she told me something she would have told her grandchildren one day. “You cannot choose who you love.”
When the clothes had cooled, I picked them from the basket and fed them into the mangle’s rollers while Patrina cranked the handle to squeeze the water from the cloth and let it splash on the ground and slither away towards the rabbit pen in glistening rivulets. She would crank it fast and my fingers would almost get caught in the rollers. Then she would slow down, smile at me and pluck at my soul with a gleam in her eyes that spoke of years to come. “Keep up Peppi,” she said. “You have to keep up with me.”
Her father picked her up after dark and would share whispers with my mother as they stood just inside the front door. She said, “She may stay here any time for as long as you need.” She said this every night while placing her hand on his arm and holding it there long enough to plead for him to understand that she meant it. And he always grimaced, his pride wounded that he should have to leave his daughter with us because she was safer with us than with her own family.
The trains stopped at the little station on the other side of the trees in the daytime. But at night, they rumbled through swiftly and then blew their whistle only when they were gone and over the hill. I listened to its shrill refrain screeching out from far away and it reminded me of the rabbits.
I learned later that they stopped at a station not far from our village – just far enough away for us to never see.
One day, a stranger came to our house to give my mother the mail. She looked at him as if she were angry with him, but didn’t say anything. He looked back at her with a stern face that even I understood to mean that there was nothing she could do about it. But what made my hands tremble and my face grow warm was that he also had the look of a man who wouldn’t do anything about it – even if he could.
“Where is Patrina?” I asked. The man sneered. My mother whipped her head around, her eyes flaring, rage encased in panic. Think rightly, but say what is expected. Or say nothing at all.
I scampered up to my room and closed the door. I sat next to the window for the rest of the day, listening to the wind rustling through the curtains. I watched the grass bend as the wind flowed through the field in waves. I watched the flowers eternally looking into the sky. And I strained to see the tracks on the other side of the trees until the first train bellowed through the darkness with steam and clanking steel, rushing to places I couldn’t see.
When I heard the whistle, I knew it was calling out to me.
I tip-toed down the stairs and swung open the front door as quietly as I could. I cringed at the dull groan of its hinges and the soft thump as I closed it behind me. Then, I ran to the fields.
Under the moonlight, I saw a shadow on the far side of the field. It was a phantom at first, and I didn’t know if it was actually there. Then it grew and it floated along the grass and the flowers, drifting over them as the planes had drifted through the sky. Relentless, unwavering, determined beyond all hope, the shadow ran towards me.
I heard her shoes swishing through the grass and then I heard the gasps of her panting as she gulped for air. Just as I could start to see her arms pumping and her legs flailing and the weaves of her hair fluttering behind her, I heard a voice from the edge of the woods.
She kept running, her almond eyes glinting in the moonlight, her hands clawing towards me. The thought never came to my mind. My legs just started moving and I ran to her.
The voice bellowed from the woods again. “Ich will nicht schießen.”
She stopped running. She fell into the grass and the flowers could not catch her. She lay there for a moment and then I winced as a single crack shattered the sky. My lip trembled and I didn’t know what had happened because it was too much for a ten-year-old little boy to believe.
I knelt down next to her. Her arms were laid out in the grass. One leg was still bent at the knee, frozen in the last step she had taken. I smelled blood, but I could not see where it came from.
The moonlight trickled along her hair in glinting bands, still and silent. I wanted to turn her over and see her face, but I couldn’t move my hand.
Boots clomped across the field until I heard the ragged breath of a man standing over us. I looked up to see a wisp of smoke curling from the barrel of his rifle, now slung over his shoulder. He was young and he looked almost as scared as I, but the grim determination of duty washed over his face in cascades until all that was left was the resigned indifference of a soldier.
He grabbed her shoulder and roughly flipped her over so we could see her face. And because I was ten and didn’t know how to control such things, I started bawling like the little girl she had been.
Her mouth was parted with the last gasp of air she had taken. Her eyes were wide open, staring at me, a stranger who would never again see me.
Without knowing why, without caring whether or not it was expected, I glared at the soldier and I asked him, “Why did you shoot Patrina?”
He held out his hands, as if the question was somehow ridiculous or even stupid. “She is Juden,” he said, “and she ran.”
I gritted my teeth at him, and for the first time knew that it was possible for a ten-year-old little boy to be smarter than a man. “She is not Juden,” I said.
I looked up into the sky. Staring at an ocean of murky smears of white, I gathered into my mind every word she had ever said to me. I remembered them all. And I tucked them safely in a place deep inside me because I knew that they were not expected. I saved them for a time when saying the unexpected would once again be allowed.
But they were only a few of her words, and I felt sad at not being able to save them all.
Glaring at the soldier, I said, “She is -” The tears came again as the truth coalesced and my mind finally had the courage to form a crystal clear picture of what was real. “She was Romani.”
His mouth curled into a grim smile and he leaned down to look more closely at her face. “You are just a little boy. How can you tell the difference?”
Her face glowed in the moonlight, still and pristine, as my tears ebbed. Somehow, I determined that I would never again shed a tear for her in front of anyone. They were ours and ours alone and I would let them flow in the stillness of my room, where only the curtains ruffling in the wind would see.
I looked at him, unable to know what was the expected thing to say. I would never again say what was expected, only what I knew. I glanced at the insignia on his collar and the shoulder boards on his gray coat so I could address him properly.
Then, I told him this. “I confess, Oberschütze, I cannot tell the difference.”
© 2017 Michael J Lawrence