She had eyes of smoke. I know it sounds like one of them literary similars, but it’s not. Look into her eyes long enough, and you’d realize they weren’t there at all. But of course, by then, it was too late.
It was Yaakov who introduced me to her. So I guess you could call me a… Trailor? Zdrajca, the Polish say. We say farreter, it’s closer to the German word. One who sells their friends to the enemies, like Juda Iskariot in your testament. But, Yaakov.
Yaakov was my bruder in everything but blood. We were like straw and seed, always together. He was shorter, had a finely cut face and a close-cropped beard, black as night and sweet as sin, as the ladies said. Me, I’ve always been big and clumsy. Often, people think I am dock worker. This is why I have hard time finding job. Who will hire accountant who looks like dock worker?
It was in the spring of 1920. The Great War was over for almost three years, and the miracle at the Vistula hadn’t happened yet. That was in the fall, and this was in the spring.
Spring in Warsaw was pleasant. All the trees blooming and green, the Łazienki Park full of families and lovers. Even Jews were accepted. You wouldn’t think of it, but in Poland, some times, Jews were treated decently. Not like in Russia, where we were always treated badly. Second-degree citizens, you’d say. But, Warsaw.
Warsaw was a big city. Yaakov and I, we came from a small shtetl outside of Lviv. Greybeards and yarmulkes everywhere. Not a bad place to live, if that was what you liked. Friendly people, and not more starving or beatings than other places, unless the Cossacks came. But, Warsaw. That was a city. To us, that was a grand metropolis.
Warsaw was a city of culture. Palaces, churches, synagogues, everything huge. Not a house lower than five floors. Our first day, Yaakov and I walked with our mouths open, two yokels collecting flies with their teeth. The Varsovians laughed at us, I think, but we were well dressed in dark grey cotton suits, so they were polite and laughed behind their hands.
We got a room on Grzybowska Street, near the synagogue, because I had promised Mother that I would pray and observe the Sabbath. In a month, we had jobs, money, and even a favorite place, the Cafe Stanislaw near the Bankowy Square.
That’s where we met the Lady.
It was a beautiful day in May, a Thursday, I think, and it had rained in the morning, washing the entire city and leaving it smelling fresh and brand new. We’d gone to the Stanislaw for a late breakfast, eggs and bread, but no ham because while Yaakov and I weren’t the most frummer Jews, we were still Jews. Also, with the war going on, and the Russians pushing into Poland, everything went to the military, so ham was expensive.
There were many soldiers on the streets, grey uniforms and caps with eagle badges all over the place. The Varsovians greeted the troops warmly, and the soldiers were generally well behaved. A lot of them were local boys, and some local girls, too. But, the Lady.
Yaakov has always had a nose for the ladies. Put a beautiful woman in the street, and Yaakov would run into her among a thousand others. He spotted the Lady immediately.
She was beautiful. Not classic beauty, like you’d see in the paintings, or on a certain type of postcards, but in a way that drew the soul itself. Men had different reactions to her. Some wanted to possess her. Others wanted to be her slaves. Yet others wanted to drink her like a drug. Me, I wanted to watch her, see her move, the dainty way she lifted her glass of coffee, the way her hair flowed around her, cascading down her shoulders. Or maybe that was later. I get confused.
I think she wore a suit, pale grey, the color of smoke, with one of those French hats that are always at an angle no matter how you put them on, but I might be wrong. Yaakov claims that she had a dark dress, with a white shirt and a black jacket over. We used to argue about this. Stupid of us, spending our last days arguing.
Of course Yaakov would be the one to go sit at her table. Of all the men in the cafe, he was the one brave enough to approach her. That’s what he wanted, to be close to her. I don’t even know if he wanted to bed her. He’d had plenty of girls, both Jewish and shiksas, but the Lady touched him in a special way. I think he was in love before he even rose from our table.
She had that effect on some men. A lot of them, in fact.
She called herself Maria, which was a hint, I think, but in Poland, half the country is named Maria, so it was nothing to me. Just another shiksa that caught Yaakov’s eye.
Mine, too, if I am to be honest. But when Yaakov was around, I was invisible to the ladies. You’d think I’d resent that, but Yaakov was my bruder. I guess this is what made everything that came later so hard.
I can’t remember what she looked like. I should, but I can’t. Not the color of her hair, or the tone of her skin. Not anything except her eyes, the ones that weren’t there. I think of her, I see a cloud of pale, pale hair, very thin, wafting in the wind. It couldn’t have been, not with that French hat, but that’s all I can see. Everything else, I remember, Yaakov going up to her, the half-eaten egg he left on his plate, the smell of horses and gasoline from the street. But not the Lady.
Yaakov left with her, leaving me to pay our bill. I grumbled about that, but in truth, I grumbled because Yaakov had been the one to go with her. I was sure he’d end up staying the night, but when I came home from work, all dusty and black with coal, I found him sitting on his bed, staring at the wall. He had a smile on his lips that made him look like an angel in a Catholic Church, all joy and innocence.
“I have found the woman I will bring home to Mother,” he said.
“Mazal tov,” I said, wiping my face and leaving black stains on the towel. “Is she eydish?”
He startled, like the though hadn’t occurred to him.
“I don’t know,” he said with a laugh.
“You’d better not tell your mother that,” I said, and he laughed as if it was the funniest joke in the world.
Yaakov laughed a lot the following days. Always happy, and I was happy for him. As the days went by, this happiness stomped out the seeds of jealousy planted when I watched him walk out of the Cafe Stanislaw with the Lady. How could I not be happy for him? He was my bruder. He had saved my life when the Cossacks came, and lost a sister, and had the scar on his arm to show. I was happy for him. He’d have done the same for me.
Every day, I come home to Grzybowska Street and see his easel up, a new canvas on it. Two old men laughing over a bottle of shared beer. The view from the Praga Bridge at sunrise, the Vistula reflecting the Royal Castle, a big fish splashing in the water. A big, brown horse trotting down Palace Square, a short, pompous corporal astride it. Yaakov captured the moments better than a camera. His paintings were life itself, and he was producing them faster than I had ever seen him do it before. Our room smelled of paint and solvent, overlaying the smell of Frau Robel’s, our landlady’s, eternally boiling cabbage stew.
“Yaakov,” I said. “Don’t you ever sleep?”
“I’ve slept all my life,” he said. “Now I am awake and don’t have a moment to spare.”
“You’d better wake me up, too,” I said. “I’m tired of hauling coal.”
He wiped his brush on a piece of cloth, the old scar on his arm dancing, put aside his canvas to dry, and put a new one on the easel. Immediately he started sketching.
There was something about the cloth, though. Too clean. Yaakov washed his wiping cloths, reusing them until they were so stiff they wouldn’t fold over the brush any longer. This one was white, and supple.
“Yaakov,” I said. “Did you tear up your shirt?”
“Yes,” he smiled, still sketching.
“The shirt that cost seven zloty?” I said, worry filling me.
“Yes,” he said. He’d dipped his brush in midnight black, like coal, and was rapidly flogging the canvas with it. Big stroke, over and over, brush, brush, brush. A drip of black flew away, staining the window.
“That was your Sabbath shirt,” I said.
He nodded, drew a few more lines, and turned the easel around to face me.
He painted me, in the moment it had taken us to talk. It was an amazing painting, like in museum. It was like the Picasso on the television, where there is three brush strokes and it is a naked woman. Like that, but a big, dirty, Jewish man on the canvas. Me, dripping coal dust into our washing basin, coat flung over chair, bed unmade, open door behind me a big, black hole about to swallow me. It was a masterpiece. It was like nothing I’d seen Yaakov paint before. I whistled in appreciation, like the Varsovians did at the ladies.
“Yaakov, it is gorgeous,” I said. “Where you learn to do that?”
“I don’t know,” he said, smiling, but when I think back on it, there was an exhaustion behind his smile. A hole no less gaping than the door in the painting.
I wish I’d known to ask him about it, but all I could see was my friend, happy like he deserved to have the sun shine on him. So all I said was that I hoped to be successful as he, someday. Yaakov laughed at that, too.
“You have a yiddisher kof,” he said. Jewish head, that means you are smart, clever, and you will find a way.
At that moment, Frau Robel called that supper was ready, and we left the paintings drying in the room to fill up on cabbage and news of how terrible the war was going.
This must have been in June, or perhaps July. The Bolsheviks had put siege to Lviv, and a grand army under Marshal Tukhachevsky was approaching Warsaw. There were recruiters everywhere, and posters on each corner, calling for freedom, for killing the Bolsheviks, for joining the grey lines. Whole Warsaw was in war mood. Boys painting white eagles on the walls in broad daylight and adults cheering them on. Even the house owners didn’t hound them.
It was strange sensation, like the entire capital would catch fire any second. The weather was sweltering, the sun beating down on the houses and cobblestones. Hauling coal was like breathing dust. I could taste it when I woke up, and my toothbrush was grey from it. My boss, an old goy who’d lived in Austria as a child, but nice for all of that, asked me why I didn’t get a proper job, clever Jew like myself, but I showed him my nails and ask if he’d hire an accountant with dirt beneath his fingers. He didn’t ask again.
At least Yaakov was happy, and I started relying on his good humor to keep my spirits up.
It couldn’t last.
I came home one evening to see him staring at the wall. He had his easel up, and a canvas on in. There were the outlines of the tables in the Cafe Stanislaw, and the Great Synagogue in the background. He’d sketched in a few persons at the tables, but the table in the middle was empty.
“Yaakov,” I said. He didn’t reply. His shirt was clean, so I didn’t want to grab him. Instead I kept saying his name, first gently, then more and more loud. Finally, after maybe ten minutes, he looked at me.
“I can’t,” he said.
“Can’t what?” I replied.
“Can’t paint her.”
Instantly, I knew what he meant. The Lady, who’d he’d been seeing for the past weeks. He’d leave in the evening, coming back when the sun rose. Or he’d be gone when I woke up, his bed rumpled. Sometimes he’d leave with a painting and come back with his pockets full of money. Sometimes he’d leave with a pocket of money and come back empty-handed. But it was his money, so I didn’t ask. Not until things got bad, and by then… But no, regret is as helpful as cupping a corpse, all it does is heat the flesh and stink up the room.
I tried consoling him, but I kept looking at the painting. He’d sketched the lady, the outlines of her head, her clothes, a dark jacket that went beneath the level of the table. She held one of the Cafe Stanislaw’s thin glasses in their silver glass holders. The glass was half full of rich, dark coffee. The Lady’s hair was done up in a braid that curved down over her left shoulder.
Her face was entirely blank, a white spot among the color of the rest of the painting. And try as I might, I couldn’t imagine what should fill it.
I understood Yaakov’s pain. He had the Lady in his head, and couldn’t get her out. For me, it can happen with numbers. I know that there is a problem in the columns, but I can’t find it. So I count, and recount, and check, and check, and I can’t let it go until the books are balanced. Yaakov was that way with his paintings. He paint and paint until they was what was in his head. But with the Lady, there was no way to get at what was in his head, and it was driving him crazy.
Worse, he couldn’t remember where he’d gone. A thin house, with beige columns outside. Windows with flower boxes on the bottom floor. A door lacquered shining black. Five steps up to it, with a stone banister. But no idea where the house was, even though he’d gone there a number of times.
“How do you find it?” I asked, but Yaakov just shook his head, as if it was impossible to explain. I washed my hands, and by the time I’d gotten the coal off of them, Yaakov was lying in his bed, his back to me. I considered putting a hand on him, but I left him alone instead, going to Frau Robel and bringing him back a plate of potatoes and boiled peas. When I woke up, he was gone and cold potatoes sat in hard gravy.
This must have been in late July. The papers were full of Tukhachevsky, and of Yegorov and Budyonny marching on Lviv, or Lwów as the Poles called it. I worried about my family, but Siemianowice was a day’s walk outside the city, in among the swamps. A poor place, where nobody really went. For once, it was good thing.
Warsaw was boiling, hot and sweating. Columns of soldiers marched through the streets to climb on trains at the station. Some of the soldiers didn’t have uniforms. Others didn’t have guns. Everyone went to the front, and the front coming closer and closer.
I did not go work that day, to look for Yaakov. He wasn’t at either of the synagogues we go to, nor at the Cafe Stanislaw. The waiters, they had not seen him. I asked about the Lady, but the waiter laughed at me, saying that if he saw beautiful, rich, lonely woman, he would claim her himself. So I went back to the streets, walking past horses with their heads drooping in the heat, past clatter of children playing rocks and sticks on pavement, past traders and coal-scuttles, and nowhere I see Yaakov.
By evening, my feet were swollen as melons, and my throat dry as bottom of poor man’s liquor barrel. I plodded up the stairs to Frau Robel’s and collapsed in bed without even taking off shoes. In the morning, Yaakov’s bed was still made. Frau Robel hadn’t seen him, either.
I knew things were bad. Yaakov and I, we always together, always. Like children, we play together, we eat together, even fight together. When Yaakov’s mother took a rag to him for doing bad things, she took a rag to me too. Both of us, with our ears burning from beating.
In war, you see soldier lose arm, lose leg. They walk with crutch and they move the leg that is not there. Losing Yaakov was like that, part of me missing, and I trying to find the leg to stand on.
I could not. Not until later, and then it was not good. But, the searching.
I walked everywhere. The river, the train station, the Metropol Hotel. Any place Yaakov had ever been. I went to police, but what was one less Jew to them when soon there would be killing Bolsheviks in the streets? I even went and tracked down a shiksa Yaakov had gone dancing with once. Nobody seen him.
Days, I spent walking, living off the money Yaakov had left in our room. It was a lot of money, maybe three hundred zloty. I sleep, eat cold leftovers Frau Robel left for me, fill up my purse with Yaakov’s zloty, and go looking for him.
Only rumors I find. Tall, well-dressed man with a black beard seen standing on the railing of the Praga Bridge, looking down into the Vistula river. Or he jumped, and drowned. Or it had been a soldier, or a woman. A well-dressed Jew was run over by a motorcar on Jerozolimskie Avenue. Or it had been a boy, or a drunkard, or a soldier. Nothing knew anything. Nobody had seen Yaakov.
At the end of the day, I walked by the Stanislaw. Maybe I think of finding Yaakov there, eating beet soup and drinking tey, I don’t know. But, no Yaakov. But I found the Lady, or maybe she find me.
She sat at the same table by the end of the serving area, almost touch the thick, iron fence, back to the Great Synagogue. Her hair a thick braid hanging down over her left shoulder. Her jacket was suede, black as night. She held a half-full glass of coffee, set in one of the Stanislaw’s silver glass holders.
Then, I knew, I seen her, exactly like this, in Yaakov’s painting. Except for her face. At the Stanislaw, she had a face. I look, and I could not look anywhere else.
She had the most beautiful eyes I ever seen. Like pale smoke, the grey of summer clouds, open, clean, innocent but hinting at a depth behind them. I could not stop staring. Step by step, I approach her, and with every step I noticed something new. Tiny silver eagle brooch in her button hole. The thin veil hanging from the edge of her slanted, French hat. The healthy rose of her cheeks. It was like approaching a statue under water, with each motion, something new.
And as if I’d been under water, I could not breathe. I was afraid that if I drew breath, I’d startle her like a sparrow into flight. She was perfection, and I was a big, clumsy, dusty Yid standing too close.
Her lips did not move. No, that’ is wrong. Her face did not move. I noticed that she was smiling, smiling at me, but there was no moment when she had not been smiling, and no moment when she changed. She simply smiled, and had always been smiling.
“Itzak,” she said. “Sit with me.”
And I did, not even wondering how she knew my name.
Maybe we left the Stanislaw. Maybe we walked through the streets of Warsaw, enjoying the sun, or running from the heat. Maybe I offered her my arm, or maybe I didn’t. I don’t know. Some time later, the big, black-lacquered door closed behind me, and I walked down the five steps to the street. I don’t know what street it was, but I had the feeling it was near Bankowy Square, for it was a mere moment when I opened the door to our house, and smelled the boiling peas of Frau Robel’s cooking.
I was the happiest man alive.
Never, before nor later, have I felt such joy. If I had been five years old, and been given a chest of Rosh Hashanah honey cakes, I could not have been more happy. If I would have been given a chest of gold zloty coins, I could not have been more happy. If I had found Yaakov, hale and healthy, laughing with me, I could not have been more happy.
I do not know how many times I went to the house with the black door. I do not know what happened there. Everything is pieces in my mind. A candle burning, a door closing, laughter or screaming or both. A doll, sitting at a table, a tiny table, a table like for giant, no table but a chair.
Yaakov, looking at me, his face pale, his eyes black caves about to swallow me. Men, young, old, laughing, dying. Everywhere, the Lady.
I think I kissed her. Maybe I hit her. Maybe that was later, or she hit me. All I remember, is everything was beautiful, and I was so happy.
It was like being drunk on life. Sometime, when I leave the Lady, I think it was bad for me. I think some of the men at the Lady’s house, they were dead, or dying. The Lady, she was bad to them, laughing with them, burning their candles on both ends at once. Bright, then gone.
When I lay alone in my bed at Frau Robel’s apartment, I thought I should not have gone. That the Lady was bad for me. But without her, I was dead inside. Everything was grey, pale, fading. Being with the Lady made me alive. She pulled me, like a hook, like rotten flesh pulls a fly, and I came back, again and again.
Every time, I feel great, alive. Every time I leave the house with the black door, my mind was full of fabulous thoughts, knocking to be let out. Everything was possible. I could start a store selling fine Beluga caviar to the rich. I could go to the bank and apply for a job on my papers only. I could join military, and become quartermaster, then start accounting agency for the Warsaw Arsenal. I could go anywhere, do anything. I joined the military.
It saved my life, twice.
With Tukhachevsky’s forces so close, the Poles were recruiting anyone willing to hold a gun. I joined, and by the time I realized what I had done, I was marching to the front lines between Warsaw and Modlin, a rifle over my shoulder, a bayonet mounted atop it, and still wearing my own grey summer suit. And all I wanted to do was drop the damned thing and run back to the door with the five steps.
But of course I couldn’t. In the army, they shoot you if you run. Even worse now, with the Bolsheviks so close and rumors of Bolshevik supporters attacking the Polish forces in the rear. This I knew, and still I wanted to run.
No, that is wrong. I did not want to run. I wanted the Lady. Nothing could be more important than being with the Lady. Nothing. All life was worthless if I could not have the Lady.
At night, I would sweat, like sick man, like pig in mud. I roll and not sleep, and in morning, I march and think of how I could run.
But the Poles, they kept watch on the new soldiers, pushing anyone who walked slower forward, watching them during the night. Me, they watched twice, the guards near, always the bayonet at the end of the rifle, and this kept me from the Lady. Twice, I went up in the middle of the night, telling the guards that I needed to drop my pants. Both times, they came with me, one guard with a rifle, one guard looking. Maybe they knew I would run. Maybe they didn’t like Jews. It didn’t matter. It kept me from running.
Almost, I wanted to die. To stick myself on the guard’s bayonet and not have this pull, this hook in my gut pulling me back to Warsaw, to the door with the five steps. This hook, this pull, it made me afraid. I dreamt of the Lady, of her being angry with me for leaving, of her face, perfect, scowling, and even though it scared me, I wanted to crawl to her, to beg her forgiveness.
I did not. Maybe I had not been with the Lady long enough, like Yaakov. Maybe I was stronger, or luckier. But it was a close battle, and my eyes were constantly full of tears, so much that the men in my platoon named me the Crying Jew.
War was bad. I would have died, had it not been for our commander, a young American veteran who spoke four languages and had come over with the Kościuszko brigade. He took a liking to me, and kept me close, maybe because we both spoke Yiddish. He made sure that I knew which way to point my gun, knew when to charge, and when to press my head to the ground. If I owe my life twice to the army, I owe it ten times over to Lieutenant Bronfman.
In our first battle, there came a rush of horses. We were marching, all sweat in the sun, when the Bolsheviks charged from a small forest to the right.
They came, a little force, maybe fifty Cossacks on horses, their sabers lifted, glinting. That was all I can think about, how their sabers were glinting, and then they were upon us.
I walk in the back. The men in the middle, they get cut with the sabers, and suddenly I am not near Warsaw but in Siemianowice, with my parents, and the Cossacks are coming. I was little, then, and Yaakov, he pulled me back. Got cut with a knife, a big cut, on his arm. Lots of blood. Saved my life.
He saved my life, and I left him to the Lady. To Yaakov, I was a traitor. But, the battle.
I was no longer little. And I had gun. So I lifted the gun, and I shoot, poff-poff-poff, until the clip was empty. And I screamed, all the fear I had, all the loss of the Lady, I screamed. Then the machine gun in the rear of the column started shooting, taka-taka-tak, and the Cossacks ran, their horses getting shot and falling. The horses, they screamed like men.
I felt sorry for the horses. The Cossacks, not so much, but their horses, they had done nothing, only been born in the wrong barn. So I went up to them, and shot them in the head, like butcher, so they stop screaming.
After that, the men in my platoon no longer called me the Crying Jew.
That was my first battle, and the first time I knew the power of the gun. I had a gun, and when I was afraid, when I wanted to bite myself so I would not run to the Lady, I held my gun and pressed my teeth to the wood. I started to see the Lady’s face, and Yaakov, out of the corner of my eye, but when I look, they were gone.
Three times I fought, twice in big battles. Once, we dug trenches, knowing that the Russians, they were coming. We dug all night, and in the morning, the Russian artillery, it started shooting. Not big artillery, like in the Great War, but small. A man by my side, he lost his head, and stood up, and then the artillery, it cut him in two. I still have nightmares about that.
But then, there was this cry, like a thousand bears all roaring at once. A lot of the men, they lay face down, afraid, but me… I was strange in the head.
All I could think of was the Lady, and how she had taken Yaakov, and all those men, and me. Then, I was not afraid of the artillery, or the Russians, only of the Lady. But I had a gun, and I raised my head.
The field was full of the Lady. She came running, in brown uniforms, with rifles in her thousand hands. I trembled. But I was tired of fear. I started shooting.
Soon, everyone was shooting. The Bolsheviks, they died. And every time they died, I see the Lady fall. I laughed the entire time. After the shooting had stopped, Lieutenant Bronfman came to me, and said I was a crazy Jew, but he say it with a smile.
In the end, the army of Varsovian workers and students defeated the army of the Worker State, and the Miracle at the Vistula was a fact. We were released back to our lives in September, having marched more than two hundred kilometers east. As a parting gift, I gave Lieutenant Bronfman the silver David’s star my mother gave me, and he gave me the only thing he had that was genuinely American: his model 1911 Colt pistol. I hug him, put the pistol in my pocket, and board the train for Warsaw.
I could have turned south and reached Siemianowice in four of five days. My family would have been glad to see me. But I went to Warsaw.
I made it up to myself in my head, that I was looking for Yaakov. But in my heart, I knew where I was going. To the house with the black-lacquered door at the top of the five steps.
To the place where I was alive.
The train rolled into Warsaw Central Station in the morning, rain pelting the windows and the steam whistle howling. I stepped down together with the other workers and volunteers, a mass of men, and a few women, flowing over the station from the dark wagons.
We were dirty, hungry, thirsty, and we stank. The people of Warsaw greeted us with hugs, steins of free beer, and food pressed into our hands. The entire city seemed to be one endless festival for the heroes coming home. I drank my beer, took a bite of the smoking hot pierogi wrapped in newspaper that an old babushka had handed me, and walked away from the celebration.
I had no idea where to go, no idea where the Lady’s house was.
That’s when I spotted Yaakov.
He stood across the road, a tall, lonely, immobile spectator in the sea of faces. His beard was long and disheveled, and his black suit was streaked grey. He had lost his hat. But it was unmistakably Yaakov.
I screamed his name, fighting the tide of people, getting nearly run over by a horse cart, then by a truck, Polish curses following me across the street. When I reached the spot where he’d stood, he was gone.
I ran to our room at Grzybowska Street, pushing my way through the crowds and getting cuffed and called filthy names in the process. When I reached Frau Robel’s apartment, it was locked, and there was a wooden crate with all of Yaakov’s paintings and our clothes standing on the landing.
Only one other place in Warsaw where Yaakov could be. There, staring at the pieces of Yaakov’s Sabbath shirt, stained with paint, I realized I did not want to go.
I no longer felt the pull of the Lady. Long, I do not understand freedom. But now, standing on that small, grey landing, wet from rain, I knew. The army, the distance, the time, it had freed me.
But there was still Yaakov. I had already been traitor to him when I left him in Warsaw. I knew this. Now I was going to be traitor to the Lady and get him back.
So I put my knapsack with our things on the landing, put the pistol in my pocket, turned, and walked down to the street. On the steps, I tried to put the rain out of my mind, and walked, like I had walked before, no thought in my head.
I was cold, my coat like wet socks over my arms. The rain kept falling, drowning the city and flooding the streets. Rivers of dirty water flowed in the gutters, dragging with them garbage, broken boards, horse manure, old newspapers. My boots squelched with every step.
I do not know where I walked, or how long. The rain stopped, and the sun shone through the clouds. My stomach growled, and I remembered the taste of dough and meat from the pierogi I’d gotten that morning. I looked up, and found myself staring at a narrow house with a black-lacquered door.
The five steps were the longest I have ever climbed, each step a battle within me. I wanted to leave, but kept climbing. I wanted to scream, but kept silent. My mind filled with the image of the Lady, her pale, grey eyes, her thick braid and perfect smile. I felt the gun in my pocket. I would take Yaakov, and if I was not allowed, I had my gun. My hand gripped the door’s brass handle. It was cold to the touch. I pushed.
Yaakov waited for me in the hall. He stood still, like a statue, face pale and bruised, like a two-day-old corpse.
“Yaakov,” I said, overflowing with relief. I grabbed his hand.
It was cold, like the brass door handle.
“Come,” Yaakov said, turning. His voice was deep and dusty, like a door to a grave. It was so wrong, that it woke me up, the way you can wake from a nightmare while still sleeping.
“Yaakov,” I said. “Meyn bruder.”
In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to leave, to take Yaakov back to Frau Robel’s apartment in Grzybowska Street, to pack our things and head back to Siemianowice. But he did not respond to me, only kept walking. I grabbed his arm, tried holding him back, but it was like trying to hold back the tide. I could not. He was strong, and I was weak. He led, and I followed, hand in hand, like little boy.
We walked through a long hall with closed doors on both sides. The walls were green, like emeralds. The doors were white. Between each pair of doors, a single candle burned in a brass holder on the wall, always on the left.
My boots left wet prints on the floor. Yaakov’s steps didn’t even leave a sound. We walked for longer than should have been possible, five minutes, ten minutes. Sometimes the doors would be open, and a man sitting inside, looking happy, or pale, or dying. The longer we went, the more dying I saw, until we came to a pair of large, French doors, their glass panes black and gloomy. Yaakov pushed on them, and they opened, soundlessly.
The room inside was small, like closet, candles burning in brass holders along walls covered in deep green tapestry. An electric samovar hissed on a corner table. There was no window. It was cloyingly hot.
The Lady sat on a high-backed chair of green leather. She held a half-full glass of tea in her hand, a saucer on the small, round table before her.
“Itzak,” she said, “sit.”
And I sat, my heart bubbling over with joy. Seeing the Lady filled me with happiness, and anticipation, like ants crawling through my skin.
But the time, it had changed me. The Lady’s joy, it was bad joy, like craziness you feel in battle, the kind that makes you charge into enemy bayonets. My mouth went dry, and I tasted copper. The hand I placed on the table shook.
“Itzak,” the Lady said, and I looked up, into her beautiful, grey eyes. The candle flames made them swirl like smoke. I stared deeper, the joy coursing through me fighting with my fear of rushing out of the trenches. A mad grin twisted my face, making my cheeks hurt.
“Itzak,” the Lady repeated a third time, leaning forward, drawing me in.
Her eyes were full of smoke. It danced in empty sockets, reflecting the candlelight. I realized her face was perfect and dead. A face made out of porcelain. I suddenly feared that it would crack like one of my mother’s cups that I’d broken as a child.
The Lady’s perfect, porcelain face stretched, her voice chiming like a bell.
“Itzak,” she said for the fourth time. I knew, if she said it a fifth time, I would be lost.
I straightened in my chair, baring my teeth, like dog, grabbing at the pistol.
I pulled it up, my thumb on the hammer, and I clawed it back in mad battle lust, grabbing the handle and pressing the safety through my coat’s cloth.
The coat weighed the gun down, and I tipped. The gun boomed, jerking me aside. I fell, pain spreading in my calf, blood splattering over the floor. All the joy and crazed lust fled from me.
Neither the Lady nor Yaakov moved as I dragged myself backward, away from the woman without eyes in her porcelain face. With shaking hands, I withdrew the pistol and pointed it at her.
Still, there was no reaction. I was afraid, more afraid that I had been on the battlefield, and felt more exposed here, in a room in the middle of Warsaw than when facing the Russians.
“Itz—” the Lady began.
The gun, it drowned her voice. Four times I pulled the trigger, a mere two yards away from the Lady. Her jacket jerked with each shot, the leather tearing and flapping like washing sheets in the wind. Three shots went into the Lady with no effect, the recoil sending my arm up and up. The fourth shot hit her in the jaw.
The sound was like the toiling of a great, broken bell, deep but screeching at the same time. The Lady howled, smoke pouring from her eye holes, and she fell backward. Every candle in the room blossomed into a pillar of fire, heat washing over me.
I crawled to his side, grabbing him by the scruff of his suit, and started dragging. His hat had come loose and rolled away, and his head bounced against the floorboards as I dragged him.
We made it through the double doors, and I managed to get to my feet in the hallway, hobbling and dragging Yaakov behind me. He moaned, like a man caught in a bad nightmare. The candles went out, but the tapestry was burning, casting orange light into the smoke-filled hall. I took Yaakov’s arm over my shoulders, and raised him, getting his legs beneath him. He walked, like in sleep. Together we went through the hall, falling into the walls as the pain in my calf made me slip.
We made it to the black-lacquered door, and as I pushed it open, I looked back.
The hall was short, only a single, white door on the left, and the French doors, the glass panes black with smoke, cracked with fire, and the Lady, standing in the flames on the other end, her eyes bleeding smoke that crept down her porcelain face like black tears.
She stood there calmly, like a mother looking over her bad children. I think, maybe she call to us, and maybe we will go to her, into the smoke and flame. I lifted the gun, but the magazine, it was empty. Yet when I press the trigger, the Lady fell.
Like a morning coat with nobody in it, her grey dress falling to the ground, smoke coming out of it. Her face hit the floor.
There was a great, brass chime. In Lviv, there was this church, and when the bell struck midnight the windows would shake. This I felt when the Lady fell, everything shaking.
Her face rolled down the hall, a mask of porcelain, rolling, rolling toward me. I wanted to run, but my leg was weak, and Yaakov weighed down my arm. I fell to my knees. The smoke flowed from the fire, flowed along the floor toward us.
Then Yaakov straightened, walking toward the fire, his head in the smoke. As he reached the white door, he bent forward, fumbling along the floor. Suddenly, he pulled the Lady’s mask from the smoke.
“Yaakov!” I shouted, but he ignored me, his back to me, lifting the mask to his face.
I think, if he turned and the Lady was there, I would have shot him. But when he turned, he was Yaakov, tall, strong, smiling. He reached for me, and I gave him my hand to pull. Together, we walked down the stairs, walked out of the house of the Lady.
On the street, I stumbled, and Yaakov caught me, steadying me, like he had when the Cossacks came.
“Meyn bruder!” I said to him, clasping his shoulder. He clasped my hand back, and his grip was strong.
Together, we walked, two brothers supporting each other, their coats stinking of smoke. I think the whole neighborhood will burn, but when we came to the corner I looked back, and there was no fire, and no house with the black door.
I stood, looking, but Yaakov pulled me away.
He supported me all the way to the Praga Bridge. Here, we stopped, and I bound my bleeding leg. Across the river, the sun was setting. The entire world was painted with fire. We were free. It was a good place to be.
I leaned on the black iron of the bridge support, and Yaakov stared down the river. Long, we stood there, until I pulled at him.
He turned, and when he looked at me, his face perfect, a secret smile on it, and eyes grey, and cold, and sad.
“Yaakov, what have you done?” I asked, but when he opened his mouth, only the distant tolling of a brass bell came forth.
I stumbled backward, releasing him, and he stumbled back as well, hitting the railing. For a moment, he tethered like a pair of scales on the iron. Then he looked into the river, and I recognized the scene. I threw myself forward, grabbing at him again. I got hold of his coat, and he smiled, a perfect smile, the Lady’s smile, and as I looked at him, I realized his eyes were full of smoke. He opened his mouth, and I think he will call my name, and I will be lost.
So I let him go.
He slumped, silently falling over the side. His body made a splash among the golden waves.
Maybe he went all the way to the sea. The police, they did not drag him from the river. Later, I went back to Praga, to look for the house. I had my pistol with me, and a bottle of gasoline, but I could not find the black-lacquered door. Later still, in France, when Poland had become bad for us Jews, I heard a story of a man finding a door lacquered black, but I did not go looking, afraid what I would find. I thought if I find the door, I will not leave. So I did not go looking, and the Lady, maybe she still sits at the café, with empty eyes full of smoke.
|By day, Filip Wiltgren is a mild-mannered communication officer and lecturer. By night, he turns into a frenzied ten-fingered typist, clawing out jagged stories of fantasy and science fiction, which have found lairs in places such as Analog, IGMS, Grimdark, Daily SF, and Nature Futures. Filip roams the Swedish highlands, kept in check by his wife and kids. His thoughts, email, and free stories can be found at www.wiltgren.com.|