Katarzyna’s Secret


Her hands shook as she drew back the curtains. Sunlight streamed through the clouds, the firs, the windows to spatter her bed, writing desk, chair. She squinted through the glass window held by metal frames and hinges and latches that were locked. Always locked. Manicured shrubs and flowering plants framed a fountain with a bronze boy, from which a curve of water streamed. Grey haired folks on wheelchairs chatted around the sculpture. A few wondered, chuckling even, if the child object has what they had—incontinence. To their left across the ample garden were black iron gates that were hung wide open. Parking lots beyond those gates. People coming. People going.


That little red car wasn’t there.


Not today. Not yesterday.


Maybe tomorrow.


Sighing she turned around. Sun cast a spotlight on the painting above her bed frame illuminating the feisty characters and fiery scenes of the Spanish civil war. Her house—her dom—her world was all in that room now walled in by stones painted in yellow.


Within a few paces she reached the desk with a fountain pen next to an ink pot, box of tissues, a vase with plastic carnations. She bent to retrieve a little book from the bottom drawer, beneath a faded checkered scarf. Shifting the chair closer to the desk, she sat on it and flipped through the pages with inked scrawls until she came to one with none. She began to read the last paragraph to herself and she sounded hoarse.


Not for a moment do I regret the day, the hour, the minute, the second when I decided to stay. My life split into shards and splinters when I chose not to leave. My daughter, moja córka, became my life. Nothing else mattered. No, nothing else did, at that moment.


She looked out toward the window and picked up the pen.




Jarosław, mój mąż, had been squirreling away bread, potatoes, onions, sugar and flour in a bag hidden in a chest. He’d bring back things from the farm, somehow managed to slip a potato in his coat pocket, tucked his scarf in the next pocket, making sure it was screwed up into a ball so that nobody was suspicious. Our daughter Alicja cried in the nights. I did not need to tell Jarosław that the child wasn’t ill, just that her belly was empty. He found a way of mashing up stolen potatoes with flour and milk and feeding her little spoonfuls to make the gruel last all day and night.


As for Tymon, mój syn, he would look away each time his tummy growled as if the noise came from the dog. He was seven and already behaved as an adult would, working with Jarosław, making sure he did everything right as he was told. His big brown eyes and eyelashes take after mine but as for his stubbornness, surely that must be from his father! My little boy knew he had less to eat than the sons of the farm lord whose ancestors were from Germany. Tymon’s clothes were too tight but he never complained, not even once. He watched over Alicja whenever I had to leave the house to collect the clothes of the village ladies or to return them laundered and pressed dry. Life was tough back then for us Polish folks, living off the land as peasants, but we knew only music, dance and laughter. And love.




People on the road became impatient, angry, aggressive. We were hungry, thirsty, homeless. We had walked past swathes of fields where wheat stalks were high and bursting and abandoned. We went past houses with padlocked gates. We went past armoured cars with hay stuck around as camouflage, heading in the opposite direction. Young men driving them had bright eyes, soft brown caps and thick coats with brown leather belts. We cheered them on.


The Germans, we later heard, had taken over Warsaw. They killed soldiers and men who stood up against them. We wondered about those Polish soldiers we had passed. Our political leaders fled and sought exile in France. The British and French help had come to nothing.


We were on our own.



What happened next? Read the rest of this short story when She Never Looks Quite Back by Mallika Naguran is out.