Maybe it’s the possibility of free elections in Poland. Ariel arrives in Podlaskie Voivodeship midsummer, 1988; a few more kilometers to the east and you’re in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic; to the north is Kaliningrad Oblast. A kid your age you’ve never seen before with his arm around your shoulder, offering you a bent cigarette and asking your opinion on glasnost and perestroika. Everyone your friend and pretty girls in yellow and blue dresses. Abandoned State Farm Collectives, a perfect time for his Uncle Stephan to build up something new from the ruined past.
The men slap his back and the women pinch him as if he were still a child. In a few weeks he’s got muscles like his cousin Kuba. Girls begin to notice Ariel, favor him with glances that mean Maybe? Kuba has a girl and that girl has a friend, Vanda, quiet and shy but sitting with the rest of the teenagers by the river, everyone talking at the same time to stave off silence. After lunch couples wander into the forest, exploration of heartbeat and respiration, proximity and desire.
Maybe it’s the light of midsummer and the way the girls throw floral wreaths in the river. He slides closer to Vanda and the wildflower perfume radiates from her hair, hands, shoulders, from the curve of her breasts, from her breath. She lets him kiss her, joined thus they enter the uncharted territory: latitudes of passion, mountain ranges of possibility. Together they sketch the map of life. Summer passes, winter comes and still the fire rages.
In the spring his mother writes to his uncle, mentions Shabbat, conversion, the beautiful temple in Krakow. His uncle rages when he finds out.
“Eighteen years she’s been married to a Jew. My own sister. Why would a man hide something like this unless he’s ashamed? And what are we going to do with you?” He stares dispassionately at Ariel. “In a way it’s as if you lied to us. Deliberately lied about who and what you are. Yes, what are we going to do with you?” The anger is palpable.
Ariel saves his uncle the trouble of ‘doing’ anything: he leaves of his own volition, heads south to a city where jobs are varied and plentiful. He promises Kuba he will return. Vanda promises to write, to wait for him.
“Good news or bad news. What is your guess, Ariel?” says Rabbi Berkowitz. He waves the envelope like a fan before the open window, a warm afternoon, all of Białystok poised against the approaching storm.
“Good news?” Ariel shifts the parcel in his arms.
“Just set the books on my desk, anywhere is fine.”
The Rabbi holds the envelope to the light, tears a corner. One sheet of paper written both sides, edge to edge. Tight small words squeezed together. He reads. Ariel waits. A bus rattles past the synagogue. Sudden wind and a breath of distant rain on dusty roads and dry fields. Just a mild shower passing, but the smell electrifies the boy, invigorates his memories of the countryside. Threshed rye, crisp raw potatoes covered with mud, a lamb spinning in circles. Roadside weeds and lazy bees, long sleepy afternoons. Midsummer nights, Vanda’s wildflower perfume.
“Good news and bad news.”
“Yes sir?” Ariel is instantly alert.
“My brother in Berlin. He merely repeats what we hear on the radio. The dissolution of East and West and the reunification of the country. Goodbye Communists, farewell, you were only half as bad as the Nazis. No more restricted movement, no more neighbors spying on one another. All Germans again under one flag. You see, they’re going to tear down The Wall.”
“That’s good news?”
“Good news and bad news. These days good and bad travel together. If I were a younger man—” The Rabbi turns from the window. “You’ve still a sweetheart? Back in your village?”
“Yes and no.”
“You are in love and you wish to marry. What will it take to get her to say yes?”
“But, you see—it’s a hundred and fifty kilometers and I’ve only the motorbike. And where would I stay?”
“You stay with your family. You talk to them, explain everything, apologize from the bottom of your heart for running off like you did. That was wrong, yes; an apology. Your mother’s brother. He must take you in. A long ride will cool you off and give you time to think. And now you’re going back to the bookshop?”
“I always finish between three and five o’clock. Mr. Kucharski won’t pay me to run the place when there’s no customers.”
“A pious Catholic lets a Jewish boy manage his bookshop?”
“Rabbi, I’m nineteen.”
“Of course you are. And nothing to do until Monday morning. Maybe you spend your free time reading?”
“Yes sir.” Ariel pulls the paperback from his jacket.
“Stanislaw Lem? I’m not familiar with that name.”
“It’s science fiction, Rabbi. Just something fun to read.”
“Oh yes, spaceships and the man on the moon. Ray guns and invasions from Mars, although I’ve never read any of that. What’s the top speed on that motorbike?”
“Seventy, maybe seventy-five kilometers an hour.”
“Thank you for delivering the books. Where did you put them?” Rabbi Berkowitz turns from the window, finds the parcel on his cluttered desk.
“Yes sir.” The boy hesitates. “I’ll think about what you said.”
After Ariel leaves the Rabbi reads the letter two more times. Outside the rain has come and gone. He stares out the window at the world. “Yes,” he says, “if I were a younger man.”
It rains again, once, and Ariel pulls to the side of the road; shelters under ancient trees. Later he stops in Suwałki, a small café, fresh bread and soup. Shares cigarettes and tea with two young men his own age. He leaves the café as the sun sets. It is dusk when he reaches Gmina Przerośl. Vanda’s parents’ farm is blocky silhouettes against the light. He slows, watches orange and pink clouds turn white, gray, blend with the coming night. Rides straight through to his uncle’s farm. Kuba hears the motor, stands in the doorway. Backlit with a halo of weak buttery electric light. Smoldering cigarette, angular arms and legs. He turns and shouts into the house.
“No, I don’t know who it is!”
Ariel leans the motorbike against the wall. A dog rushes past him into primeval night.
“Alright, now I know who it is! Come see for yourself!” And to Ariel:
“So you can’t keep away.”
“I came to apologize—to everyone.”
Kuba’s father Stephan comes into the light, stands by his son.
“Do you think I would have let you live here if I’d known you were a Jew? To sit at my table and eat my bread? To work on my farm? To ruin my good name?” Stephan shouts, steps into the dark yard, puffs up, swaggers. “Running around in the night with Polish girls! Devil take you!”
He throws himself on Ariel. They fall to the ground and Stephan swings his fist twice and Ariel’s lip is bleeding. Two quiet men appear from inside, neighbors glaring and angry. They pull Stephan from the boy and walk him into his house. The man is shaking from the violence.
“You better go,” says Kuba. “He’s up to no good and once he gets a couple of glasses in him—you understand? I know that much. After you left I stood up to him and he backed down. He’s a coward. I know I shouldn’t say such things about my own father but—” Kuba pushes the motorbike back down the dirt road. “My advice to you is to go straight back to Białystok and your apartment in the city. Don’t ever come here again.”
“Kuba—how is she? Do you think I could see her?”
“Forget about her! This is nothing but trouble! Can’t you understand?”
“I never had a chance to say goodbye. You and I—we’re like brothers. Can you fix it?”
“That block building at the end of the compound where they used to repair the tractors and machinery? You know it? Tomorrow, sometime, maybe not until night. I don’t know and can’t be sure. They watch her like hawks. Meantime, better hide in the woods. Why? Because I’m the only friend you have any more in this village.”
The local State Agricultural Farm, Państwowe Gospodarstwo Rolne: abandoned in the 1960s but the machine shop was still in use a few years before Ariel worked and lived with his uncle’s family. Now grass grows in front of the doors and everything useful has been taken away. It smells of greasy metal, oil-stained dirt, brittle rubber, rodent feces. Ariel huddles in a corner of the repair shop, sleeps a little, his motorbike parked inside. The sound of water dripping, the swift breeze in the trees on the other side of the fallen-down fence. Rain sweeps in from the northwest and he imagines the salt tang of the Baltic.
Overcast morning, no food, no water, enough cigarettes until tomorrow. Staring at another day filtered through dust, imagining what he might say to her. A barn owl flies in through the open doorway, alights in the center of the room, swiveled head turning. The facial disk is enormous, imposing; the eyes face forward and Ariel instinctively averts his own gaze. The owl flaps awkwardly, rises to the rafters, vanishes in the darkness.
At noon he hears people: a half dozen teenagers taking a shortcut somewhere, knapsacks, fish poles; the boys bluster with loud voices and the girls link arms and toss their hair. Ariel peeks from a broken window. Two or three familiar faces but he keeps silent and hidden.
“I’ll catch a fish this big!”
“Bigger than what you’ve already got?”
“I’ll show you what’s what!”
A shout, a flash of life running past.
A girl’s voice: “Idiots!” But the girls are laughing, and then the boys are laughing, too.
Time slips away. Without a sound Kuba stands in the doorway.
“Haven’t you given up daydreaming? I could have been anyone.”
“Ten minutes, you understand? I’ll keep watch. I don’t even trust my own father. After this—” and he vanishes.
Vanda in the doorway, hands pushing her hips forward to emphasize the swollen belly.
A roaring in his ears.
“Look what you’ve done to me.” Her face passive, guarded. “You didn’t even know, did you? When my father found out he beat me, my mother called me a whore. They’re trying to arrange a marriage with a widower twice my age in Stara Pawłówka; close enough to visit my family but far enough away to be forgotten. His name is Gronowski. He’s a clerk or accountant or something. Are you going to say anything? Or maybe all you want to do is stare at me? Take a good look!”
“No, Vanda. I’ll come back. We’ll get married and I’ll take care of you. I’ll get a job, any job, many jobs. Or—” the thought comes unbidden, “—you’ll come back with me to Białystok! I already have a job there—I’m the manager of a bookshop—I have an apartment in the city—”
“You’re a Jew.”
“Your mother married a Jew. I can’t believe I fell in love with you.”
“Do you still love me?” He feels her slipping away with the afternoon light.
“You lied to me.”
“I never thought it mattered.”
“That’s stupid. Life is not like in your books. Life is people. Life is—” Sadness pours from the girl. She tightens her fists, fights tears and wins. A bitter smile. “Life is—” and she caresses the swelling.
Still, they have not embraced or kissed. He moves toward her, stumbles on discarded and useless bits of machinery. She steps back, gestures at her belly.
“Not yours, Ariel. Not yours—”
“Everyone happy?” Kuba is tugging Vanda’s arm. “You got to see her. Now I think we all understand that you must forget her. Wait until it’s dark then get on the road. Go and never come back. It’s the sensible thing.”
“You sound like your father,” says Ariel.
“I try to be my own man but there’s no escaping who we are.”
“Goodbye.” Vanda stares through Ariel. Her eyes are dull.
“I’ll say goodbye, too.” Kuba hugs his cousin, pushes him away.
Evening light lingers: tentative, erotic, false. He pushes the motorbike through tall grass between the long and empty buildings. The smell of cows, manure, wood smoke; the distant chuffing of a diesel engine, fragments of accordion music and shouting.
Uncle Stephan steps in front of Ariel. Two other men beside him, golem silhouettes: Polish wolves and a Jewish lamb. He stands his ground. Fists and boots descend and he hears Rabbi Berkowitz’ voice explaining sacrifice and atonement. Above him stars flicker. Life is—
The men proceed in silence. When they leave he is still conscious. He sleeps, wakes to darkness and pain. The motorbike is untouched. Pushes it, limping, sobbing, toward the road south. Białystok. The Synagogue. God’s will.
“You’re a good worker,” says the Rabbi. “Your Mister Kucharski made it to my door—wouldn’t dare step inside!—asking after you. I only said I didn’t know where you were, and that was true. I think you still have a job; that’s something.”
“You told me to apologize,” says Ariel. “I tried but nobody would listen. Instead, this.”
“And the girl?”
“She’s expecting a child. Her family’s trying to marry her off to an older man—she said it was not mine but of course it was mine we were lovers do you know what that girl’s perfume did to me in the darkness? How did this happen? She said she loved me and we snuck away to secret places, even in the winter we took sleds and wandered away from the others like there was a fire between us—”
“Not good, not good,” says the Rabbi. “But what is important is to go from where you are. What’s done is done.”
“I should be there with her.”
“I’ll ignore those words because maybe you’re still dizzy from your beating? Those people have moved on. You are left behind, as if none of this ever happened. Again, not good, but here I will say: God’s will. Now you. You never told me about your family—your father and mother. Where are they? Not here or I would know. Or even why you are here in Białystok. You’ve never talked about your people.”
“My parents are in Krakow. I was always fighting with my father. He called me a dreamer and said I spent too much time with my nose in a book. It was my mother’s idea for me to go live with her brother. It was good for awhile.”
“Your mother is Catholic but you were raised Jewish? Also not good, and I know where I speak. And now?”
“I don’t know,” says Ariel. “Repentance, punishment. Tribulations—I don’t know—”
Twenty-one years pass.
The tribulations are slight, almost unnoticed, but they build stone by stone until life is a house with many rooms and no windows. Unable to scrub away the guilt he stills his movement, breath, thoughts, and emotions until he is a shell of a man. Inside his stuttering heart is a kernel of truth, a tiny motor animating his actions and giving meaning to his shame. Observing Shabbat comes easily and life revolves around the synagogue: many acquaintances, few to call friends.
He travels to his parents in Krakow but the visits taper off with the passing of years. Writing letters is easier. His mother loves writing letters.
Rabbi Berkowitz dies. The man who replaces him is very young.
Mr. Kucharski dies. His son Jerzy inherits the bookstore. The son lets Ariel continue to manage the shop, gives him slight pay increases but only after pleading that demeans. The rent on his tiny apartment increases and he moves to a boarding house: a room and meals, a parade of breakfast table strangers. In the beginning there are other women, and frequent enough; eventually less and less until there are none.
Białystok is a fantastic mixture of democracy, socialism, the remnants of communism. Ariel reads the science fiction books that reflect the changing politics, refrains from entering into the flow. Hair goes gray, thins; he grows a beard to cover the sagging skin beneath his jaw. The motorbike is a pleasant memory, now he takes buses or walks.
The internet overwhelms society but Jerzy balks at the expense of a computer in the bookstore. Ariel records sales in a cloth-covered accounts ledger, pencils prices inside the book covers. The modern world rushes past and some days there are no customers.
The three girls stop talking when the door closes. They hesitate as if a mistake has been made. Fan out through the store touching books but not actually reading anything. One of them looks familiar, wearing the latest fashions, bright colors, silver and glass jewelry. Same voice, wildflower perfume, walk, sway of her hips. Ariel’s heart pounds, he forgets to exhale.
A roaring in his ears.
“Looking for something special?”
“To tell the truth we’re only window shopping. Only here for a couple of days and we want to see everything. You have no idea how boring it gets in the countryside.”
“Białystok the big city? Perspective is a tricky thing.”
“We don’t even have a bookstore in Stara Pawłówka. Imagine that.”
“Isn’t that to the north? I had an uncle who lived near there. Ah that was decades ago. When I was your age there were still collective farms. Everything changes.” He clasps his hands to hide the trembling.
“Vanda!” One of the other girls calls her. They gather over the cover of a romance title.
“Look at his arms.”
“It’s a drawing, not a photograph.”
“I’ll get it.”
“Maja, no! What about the dress shop?”
“Bogna, it’s my money—”
Maja makes her purchase. Ariel wraps the book in brown paper, knots the thin twine.
“Now the dress shop?” he says.
“Of course,” says Vanda. The other girls are already outside, waiting on the sidewalk. “Men can be so dumb. We work and work to catch their attention, and for what? A ‘maybe.’ Maybe they will take you to a dance, buy you dinner; maybe even, who knows? Fall in love? Propose marriage? Not that I’m anxious to be married, let me tell you, but, well, you never know what will happen next.”
“You want to be married?”
“I want to be a chemist. I’m studying for my entrance exams. I’ll be a famous scientist one day, like Madame Curie. I can’t imagine having a husband and a career in the same lifetime. Maja and Bogna think I’m crazy.”
“A girl as bright as you can be anything she wants.”
“You really think so?” She looks at him clearly for the first time, recognizes something in his voice, his gaze. Echoes from a mirror.
“Your friends are leaving.”
“I have to go. OK, goodbye!”
The bell above the door shakes like a viper. He inhales the dust of crumbling books, pulls on a jacket with seams sewn and resewn. Takes a step forward, stumbles over the detritus of a life of repentance. Falls and bruises his shoulder, cuts his cheek, knocks over the new arrivals: he’s covered with robots, spaceships, galaxies, ray guns, aliens. Above him stars flicker to life. Life is—
Jerzy tells him to go away for awhile, even gives him money. Too much money.
“Have you ever had a vacation? I’ll run the place until you come back. How difficult could that be? It’ll give me a chance to do an inventory. Some of this stuff is years old. Who wants to read old books? Go. Wander, check into one of those country inns. Go fishing. Maybe find a woman?” He laughs. “Stranger things have happened.”
Ariel packs what he can carry in one valise, gives away the rest to this month’s rooming house comrades. Books, scratched record albums, clothes they thank him for, later they will go in the trash.
He uses Jerzy’s money on a long bus ride, a local taxi. Hands over an absurdly large tip.
“Here?” says the driver. “You’re sure? Want me to wait? No?”
The collective farm looks like ancient ruins. Roofs caved in, every pane of glass smashed, bullet holes in half-hinged doors. Random grain grows in old dirt roads. At the end of the rows of buildings: the machine repair shop. Everything inside is gray, forgotten, broken tools, ghosts, a season of despair. He finds the stump of a broom, clears a space and deposits the valise. Lights a cigarette, watches the smoke curl into water-stained rafters. An owl gazes down, blinks and blinks, momentarily startles Ariel.
“Haven’t you anything better to do than watch me? As if everything I do needs a witness? I’m beyond your all-seeing eyes. You were waiting, yes, waiting for me to crack, to break, but I didn’t. I survived, barely. Maybe I’ve fooled you. You, or myself.”
Arranges a simple pallet. Speaks to the owl:
“I’ll just wait here for a while. Wait for her—and when she arrives—I’ll tell her I still love her. Always and forever. You’ll be my witness.”
Shattered windows fill with starless skies. Inside the abandoned building a man gives up his dreams. Warmth trickles from his pores: empty stomach, still lungs, heart bleached to sterile arctic white. Hair weaves itself into spider webs, fingers and toes take root in the earth, gray jacket and trousers blend with remainders of the past. Traveling bag pillow becomes a slab of stone, downy owl feathers a shroud.
Outside children pass, shrieking and laughing; knapsacks, lunch pails, fishing poles. The deep buzz of a motorbike, circles of yellow and blue flowers drift downstream. Her skin is flushed with embarrassment and desire. Ariel takes her by the hand, leads her into the forest: wool blanket, infinite sky; a gentle breeze peels away clothing and inhibitions. Scent of threshed rye, crisp raw potatoes, and look over there: a newborn lamb spinning in circles. Roadside weeds and lazy bees, long sleepy afternoons. Midsummer nights, wildflower perfume.