Home > Lilac Girls(7)

Lilac Girls(7)
Martha Hall Kelly

The planes carouseled around the city and then flew toward us. We dove to the grass as they passed over us again, Pietrik on top of Nadia and me, so close I felt his heart beating through his shirt against my back.

Two planes circled back as if they’d forgotten something.

“We need to—” Pietrik began, but before we could move, both planes dove and flew closer to the ground, across the field below. In an instant, we heard their guns firing. They shot at the milk women. Some of the bullets hit the field and sent puffs of dust up, but others hit the women, sending them to the ground, their milk spilling onto the grass. A cow cried out as she fell, and the pup-pup-pup of bullets punched through the metal milk cans.

The refugees in the fields dropped their potatoes and scattered, but bullets found some as they ran. I ducked as the last two planes flew back over us, leaving the field below strewn with bodies of men and women and cows. The cows that could still run bucked about as if half-mad.

I tore down the hill, Nadia and Pietrik behind me, through the forest along pine-needled paths, toward home. Were my parents hurt? Zuzanna? With only two ambulances, she’d be at work all night.

We slowed at the potato field, for it was impossible not to stare. I walked a milk can’s length away from a woman Zuzanna’s age, potatoes scattered around her. She lay on her back across hoed rows of dirt, left hand across her chest, shoulder steeped in blood, face splattered with it too. A girl knelt next to her.

“Sister,” the girl said, taking her hand, “you need to get up.”

“Compress the wound with two hands,” I told her, but she just looked at me.

A woman wearing a chenille robe came and knelt near them. She pulled a length of amber rubber from her black doctor’s bag.

Nadia pulled me away. “Come. The planes might come back.”

In the city, people were running everywhere, crying and yelling to one another, evacuating by bicycle, horse, truck, cart, and on foot.

As we neared my street, Pietrik took Nadia’s hand. “You’re almost home, Kasia. I’ll take Nadia.”

“What about me?” I called after them, but they were already off, down the cobblestones toward Nadia’s mother’s apartment.

Pietrik had made his choice.

I headed for the tunnel, which ran under the ancient Cracow Gate, a soaring brick tower with a bell-shaped spire, my favorite Lublin landmark, once the only entrance to the whole city. The bombs had cracked the tower down the side, but it was still standing.

My math teacher, Mrs. Mikelsky, and her husband, who lived close to me, cycled past, headed in the opposite direction. A very pregnant Mrs. Mikelsky turned as she rode.

“Your mother is frantic looking for you, Kasia,” she said.

“Where are you going?” I called after them.

“To my sister’s,” Mr. Mikelsky shouted back.

“Get home to your mother!” Mrs. Mikelsky shouted over her shoulder.

They cycled on, disappeared into the crowd, and I continued toward home.

Please, God, let Matka be unhurt.

Once I arrived at our block, every cell in my body tingled with relief to see that our pink sliver of a building still stood. The house across the street had not been so lucky. It was razed to rubble, now just a mess of concrete, plaster walls, and twisted iron beds strewn across our road. I scrambled over the wreckage and, as I drew closer, saw one of Matka’s curtains blow gently out the window in the breeze. That’s when I realized every one of our windows had been blown out by the bombs, blackout paper and all.

There was no need to fetch the apartment key from behind the loose brick, for the door was wide open. I found Matka and Zuzanna in the kitchen near Matka’s drawing table, gathering fallen paintbrushes scattered about the floor, the smell of spilled turpentine in the air. Psina, our pet chicken, followed behind them. Thank heavens Psina was not hurt, for she was more like our family dog than a hen.

“Where have you been?” Matka said, her face white as the drawing paper in her hand.

“Up at Deer Meadow,” I said. “It was Pietrik’s id—”

Zuzanna stood, holding a pile of glass shards in a cup, her white doctor’s coat gray with ash. It had taken her six long years to earn that coat. Her suitcase stood next to the door. No doubt she’d been packing to go live at the hospital for her pediatric residency when the bombs had dropped.

“How could you be so stupid?” Zuzanna said.

“Where’s Papa?” I said as the two came and brushed bits of concrete from my hair.

“He went out—” Matka began.

Zuzanna grabbed Matka’s shoulders. “Tell her, Matka.”

“He went looking for you,” Matka said, about to dissolve into tears.

“He’s probably at the postal center,” Zuzanna said. “I’ll go find him.”

“Don’t go,” I said. “What if the planes come again?” An electric eel of fear punctured my chest. Those poor women lying in the field…

“I’m going,” Zuzanna said. “I’ll be back.”

“Let me come too,” I said. “They’ll need me at the clinic.”

“Why do you do such stupid things? Papa’s gone because of you.” Zuzanna slipped her sweater on and stepped toward the door. “They don’t need you at the clinic. All you do is roll bandages anyway. Stay here.”

“Don’t go,” Matka said, but Zuzanna rushed out, always strong, like Papa.

Matka went to the window and bent to pick up shards of glass but gave up because her hands were shaking so badly and came back to me. She smoothed my hair, kissed my forehead, and then held me tight, saying, Ja cię kocham, over and over like a skipping record.

I love you.

MATKA AND I SLEPT in her bed that night, both with one eye open, waiting for Papa and Zuzanna to walk in. Psina, more dog than fowl, slept at the foot of our bed, her head tucked beneath one downy wing. She woke with a squawk when Papa did come home, well before dawn. He stood in the bedroom doorway, his tweed jacket powdered with ash. Papa always had a sad face, like that of a bloodhound. Even in his baby pictures, those creases and folds of skin hung down. But that night the light from the kitchen cast a shadow on his face, making him look sadder still.

Matka sat up in bed. “Ade?” She threw back the blanket and ran to him, their silhouettes dark against the light from the kitchen. “Where’s Zuzanna?”

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