In the year 1944, in a Polish village fifty-five miles west of Krakow, the door to the house of Frederick Sokolowski, the village blacksmith, opens, and out slips the blacksmith’s son. Jerzey is the boy’s name. He is tall and slight, with a tuft of black hair falling over his forehead, and his hands, when examined closely, seem to be those of a man and not of an eight-year-old boy. Jerzey quickly and quietly latches the door to the distant shouts of his mother, demanding to know exactly where he thinks he is going.
He is going to the one place his mother has always forbidden him to go: the railroad tracks. But so as not to lie, for lying is a mortal sin, he whispers, “Going to the tracks, Mama,” before scurrying off. This way, later, when someone tells his mother of having seen him near the tracks, and his mother is yelling that he knows full well the tracks are forbidden to him, he can honestly say to her, “But Mama, I told you where I was going, I swear.” She will make him swear again, but this time on the souls of his grandparents, and he will. She will watch his eyes, his nose, his lips, trying to see the lie cross his face, but it will never appear, because, at least in his own mind — and to his mother’s consternation — he will be telling the truth.
Jerzey’s mother’s name is Ezmerelda. She is small and stout and likes her occasional nip off the jug. She is known far beyond the village for her seamstress work and well within the village for her booming voice. She is also known for putting up with her husband, the blacksmith, who drinks late into the night and sleeps in the barn until late in the morning.
As for the railroad tracks and her errant son, Ezmerelda isn’t worried about Jerzey being stopped by the German soldiers. She knows that, because of their need for a blacksmith’s forge, the soldiers don’t harass Jerzey. She also isn’t worried about Jerzey being hit by a train. He is too smart for that. But trains always travel away, and watching a train go off into the distance does nothing for the boy but make him wonder what is around the next bend, or over the next hill, and then the one after that, and the one after that. Before you know it, the boy’s mind is out of the village, maybe even out of the country, and the idea of high adventure in foreign places starts a fire that can’t be put out.
Ezmerelda senses wanderlust in the boy, and she isn’t going to have it. Just because she can never bring herself to tell the lying little whirlwind of trouble how much she needs him to stay and how important he is to the family, doesn’t mean she can’t use all the powers at her command to keep him in the place where he belongs. Which is why when he asks about the German soldiers, and about the Jews of the town, and the Gypsies of the woods, and Laslo with the limp leg and slow speech, and Zephyr with the lilting tongue, and about anyone else the soldiers happen to pick, there is only one answer: They needed to be somewhere else, and that is none of his business, and he does not always need to be asking why, why, why and where, where, where. And so what if he sees the words painted on the shops of the missing? Don’t practical jokes happen all the time, and don’t boys his own age, and sometimes older, find cans of paint and work mischief late at night? And so what if he sometimes hears the screams in the night? Don’t husbands and wives have fights, and don’t people, even adults, have nightmares? And so what if he even sees the soldiers taking some of the people away? Don’t the soldiers have the right to do such things, and who are we to question what they are doing and why they are doing it? They would know more about what people have been up to than we do. And they would know what to do about it more than we ever will. So you stay out of it, she tells Jerzey. All we need to know, all we ever need to know, is that this is our village, and it is a good place to live and stay and grow old, and you must never forget that.
Then she asks him, “Would you jump in front of a moving train just because everyone else did?” Jerzey always shakes his head. And Ezmerelda always tousles his hair to the point of making Jerzey wince, and she tells him, “That is my boy. That is my boy.”
At the first sight of Jerzey, the German soldiers standing guard at the outpost on the edge of the village yank their rifles to their shoulders, shouting at each other and at him, but then, recognizing him as the blacksmith’s boy, they slouch back into their boredom, one raising his hand in a half wave. Another, Heinrich — who, when Jerzey asked him how many he had killed in combat, answered, Not enough — does not lower his rifle. He points it at Jerzey, sights, and pretends to pull the trigger, the gun jumping in his hand.
Jerzey clutches his heart and spins before falling to the road, sending a plume of dust skyward. He kicks his feet once, twice, three times before going completely still. The soldiers laugh, and Jerzey leaps up and bows, bringing an even louder uproar from the men. He keeps bowing while walking backward until he finally turns and, taking long, exaggerated marching steps, cuts onto the path that leads to the tracks.
At the same time Jerzey Sokolowski is heading to the railroad tracks, Mila Mantz wakes up to find herself already standing. She is in a railway car packed with other Jews, on her way to a death camp. She holds her dying baby in her arms. And the reason she is standing, the very logical reason, is that she is the twenty-first cigarette in the pack of twenty. There is no room to move, no air to breathe, and, if death comes, no room to fall.
Days have passed, and some have died. Some have shit and vomited and bled, and although those nearest the shitters and vomiters and bleeders have suffered the worst from the physical proximity, all those in the car, as if they were all connected with the same thread, know what all the others in the car think and feel. Never in her life has Mila felt closer to a group of people, and never in her life has she wished death upon so many at once.
The reason for her wishing them all dead is something she is also awakening to: they want her baby.
Mila remembers how her baby was crying and how people throughout the car had shouted at her to shut it up. Mila could not grasp the problem, as there were others in the car, grown men and women, making worse sounds of illness and death than her little son would ever be capable of making. But people’s patience was at an end. Maybe it was just the sound of a baby, a sound particular unto itself, that made people think too much about beginnings and much too much about endings.
Then her little Jozef stopped crying. In that moment’s respite, someone said, The baby is dead. Mila said, No, my baby is alive and breathing. Someone else, a milky-eyed old man squeezed in right next to her, said, She is lying, the child is dead. Someone in the back of the car said he had freed two loose boards from a vent. If they passed the dead baby over, he could put it out. Then, the man said, maybe he could get more boards free and throw out the rest of the dead. To the man with the milky eye Mila insisted, My baby is alive. Mila grasped her child with all her might, and the crowd that Mila knew herself to be so much a part of surged into her from all sides, and it all went blacker than it already was. This is when she dreamed of a field and a cow and a hammock and a day filled with sunshine.
So, Mila thinks, I was not asleep, and yet I had a dream. I have discovered something new.
Much to Mila’s surprise, a woman on her other side elbows her in the head. Mila reaches up to touch the bump forming on her forehead and realizes her hands are free. Her baby is gone. She twists and turns, looking for her baby, but there is no room to move. She catches a glimpse of hands raised high in the air and a wisp of the ragged blue blanket that dangles from her son’s body as he is carried toward the light in the back of the car. Then the light is blocked. Then the light streams in again.
The wail that comes from Mila Mantz reaches deep into everyone’s bowels; even the sick and dying go silent for a time. As Mila calls out her son’s name and weeps madly, some in the car wish her dead as well, while others wish they had let her keep her dead baby, regardless of the stench that would have come.
Jerzey watches a bird land on a branch and sing, seemingly just for him. He bends down and picks up a handful of dirt from the side of the tracks. It is cool and gritty against his palm. He has an urge to throw it into the sky, but he squeezes it instead. He digs some more, reaching ever darker and richer soil. As he digs, his palms grow brown, and the backs of his hands and fingers become more and more like the earth.
Jerzey looks up to see the shadow of a cloud racing up the tracks. He wishes he could bring his mama to the tracks and have her dig in the dirt and tell her to listen when the train approaches — as it does now — and he wishes she could close her eyes as the shadow runs across her face. Just as the train is going by, the sun would come out and warm her face, and she would feel so good — like he does now — that she would throw her arms out from her sides — just like him — and take in the air and the sun and the rushing of the train, and the dirt would blow free of her hands in an ever-expanding swirl, and that is when the baby hits Jerzey square in the chest. He is knocked backward so hard, and the air leaves him so violently, that Jerzey thinks he has been killed. He instinctively closes his arms around the flying infant, and, even though he doesn’t know he’s doing it, he folds his body, acting as a cushion as he rolls backward, landing in the bushes with a breaking of branches that sends birds flying and a mouse skittering.
Jerzey lies flat and looks up at the sky. He thinks maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to bring Mama down here after all.
The infant on his chest begins to cry. Jerzey jolts upright. Out of breath, he watches, fascinated, as the baby turns from a bluish hue to yellow and finally to a flesh tone that matches the skin of his own arms. He brings the baby to his face. The breath from the baby, so soft and tender he thinks he can see its passage, enters his mouth, and he breathes it in.
The cloud continues down the tracks, the birds sing again, and Jerzey breathes out. Thinking that he has been both killed and saved in the course of the last minute, he comes to the conclusion that the flying baby from heaven must be something very special indeed.
Mila cries until her body has run dry and her tear ducts ache from opening and closing with no moisture to ease them. The death of her boy leaves her with nothing but questions, which the train seems to answer with its lurches and rattles, somehow knowing enough to carry her forward, a simple act that she can no longer do on her own.
Later, when the sound of the train finally enters Mila’s ears once again, when she allows herself the sense of motion in a world that has stopped, she feels a despair so black and wide it’s as if she were a hole that swallowed up everyone around her, the train, the tracks, all the way to where she thinks her poor baby must be.
Then the feeling shifts to a not-so-unpleasant unconsciousness that borders on that rare, blissful moment between dream and day that one can capture only with the waking from sleep and the coming of the dawn. Mila can’t decide which is the better place to be: the place she figures she should be, with the guilt and the pain; or the place she longs to be, with memories twisting away as quickly as they form. So she stops trying to decide. In an airless train car rolling forward and rocking from side to side, packed with people who have no say in the matter, it somehow seems to make sense never to have to decide anything, ever again.
Jerzey slowly turns in a circle, looking at the baby in his arms. Then, with a quick stop, he tells the baby, “You are my new brother,” and christens him Carl. Three years ago a traveling circus stopped in their village, and the main acrobat, the trapeze-and-tightrope man, was named Carl. What better name for a flying baby?
“And now I take you, my new brother Carl, to meet our mother,” Jerzey says, but he doesn’t move an inch up the path. “Maybe it is the worst thing I could do. Maybe she is the last person I should tell about you. But these are the times to make great decisions, and I have just made one.” Jerzey smiles at Carl, and Carl smiles back. “Besides, Mama will know what you want to eat.”
With that, Jerzey begins his walk home. But he stops after three steps, pivots, and takes his first step off the path directly into the woods. He knows he has to avoid Heinrich and the others, even though it is the long way home.
Mila and the other prisoners are unloaded from the train car and led into a courtyard. As they wait in a seemingly endless line of people, one guard calls out to another, “The lines for the showers are moving too slowly. Have them undress before they enter the building.” The prisoners are ordered to strip off their clothes right where they stand, in front of the guards and each other. Mila hesitates. She looks out across the compound and sees several brick buildings with tall chimneys. The chimneys push out smoke, and Mila can smell the awful stench. Then a guard pricks her with the tip of his bayonet.
As blood trails from her breast and Mila is throwing the last of her clothes into a pile at her feet, a flock of birds saves her life. This flock of maybe a thousand starlings loses that ability that God gave them, that mingling that allows them to swoop and dive and bank all as one, a strange living unison that creates the illusion of a massive being made up of a thousand moving parts, changing its shape at will and cutting its way across the sky. The flock zigs when it should zag, and the center of this churning cloud flies into the mouth of a smoking chimney. The other starlings skirt the sides of the chimney, and the massive being is split in two. Mila watches as the remaining birds, coming dangerously close to the ground, veer off in opposite directions just in time to save themselves.
Clogged almost to the brim with small dead and dying bodies, the chimney leaks smoke from its base and all its cracks and then from the doors and windows of the building. Soldiers and men in white coats and people from other trains spill out of the building as well. The soldiers and the men in white coats bustle around the building, trying to stem the flood of smoke, but it is no use. This chimney won’t be operational for the rest of the day.
Five hours later Mila finds herself alive and in a barracks with many other women from her train.
Mila considers the birds a gift from God. After mulling over the idea that, because of the loss of her son, she deserves such a gift, she realizes it also comes with a penalty: she will not leave this life soon enough. Because of this, she isn’t sure it is a gift at all. But she finally decides that if God made a flock of birds clog up a chimney and sacrificed all those living things just to let her live, there must be something big in her future that she cannot yet see or understand.
God’s plans not being her own, she thinks long and hard about how to accept this gift. Finally she comes to the conclusion that the time on the train when she had decided not to decide — although it was good while it lasted and served its purpose — is now done. Now she will make a decision. Now she will choose a path that honors the death of so many small things.
Mila sits up in the crowded barracks, making the woman on her left moan and the woman on her right cry out, and she proclaims that she, Mila Mantz, will do everything she has to do to survive. She will honor the gift of the starlings, she says, and she will live to find the bones of her son and bring him to the resting place of her village.
A woman across the barracks tells her she admires her very much and that is wonderful, but would she mind shutting the fuck up; there are people dying here.
Not me, says Mila, and she goes back to her spot between the moaner and the crier and doesn’t even try to go to sleep, doesn’t even close her eyes.
Here it is, Ezmerelda thinks. The trouble I always knew this boy would bring. Her son stands in the middle of her kitchen, bare-chested and smiling and cradling a baby wrapped in his shirt. The infant, he claims, is his little brother, sent from heaven.
“Heaven?” Ezmerelda snarls as she pulls the baby from his arms.
Jerzey hunches his shoulders in anticipation of a slap. “The tracks,” he says.
Ezmerelda glares at Jerzey, then looks at the baby with a scowl, and the baby smiles and coos at her. She draws him near, then holds him at arm’s length, and the baby smiles at her still.
“He has a name,” Jerzey offers.
“A name?” Ezmerelda asks.
“Carl,” Jerzey says.
Ezmerelda had a cousin named Carl once. He died from a fever when they were both very young. “Carl,” Ezmerelda says. The baby reaches out with his little hand. Ezmerelda remembers playing with a bouncing ball and laughing and singing songs with her little cousin for hours, and how they would throw clumps of dirt and grass at each other. She thinks maybe this is Carl come back to her. Look, he has Carl’s chin.
This is when Ezmerelda Sokolowski considers keeping the baby and raising him as her own. He couldn’t possibly belong to anyone in her village; there have been no births here in more than a year. And didn’t she want another child after Jerzey was born? Didn’t she and Frederick try but long ago give up?
Then Ezmerelda wonders who in this village is going to question her when she says that this little one is her own. Not taken in from a stranger or brought to her by a dying sister or distant cousin, but her own flesh and blood, sired by Frederick and raised in her womb. Who would have the courage to challenge her? Not the butcher. Not her friend Etta. Not even the town priest. No, she answers her own question, no one at all.
When Jerzey asks about his father, Ezmerelda tells him that is none of his worry. She will tell Frederick all he needs to know. Then she turns to Jerzey. “I have things to do,” she says. “I have to find a better wrapping for this child, and get some goat’s milk, and get his crib ready.” She thrusts the baby back into his arms. “Look after your brother,” Ezmerelda says.
“I will, Mama,” Jerzey says.
Ezmerelda stomps out the door to the barnyard. Jerzey looks at his little brother and tells him that he should be glad he is not the goat.
Mila makes friends with the trustee who doles out the water-thin soup. After the soup has been had and the line is gone, Mila secretly meets the soup man in an alley between the barracks, puts her hand into the pocket of his pants with the hole in it, and gives him a good rubbing. Nothing much seems to happen from all this attention, but the soup man seems to enjoy it, and it gets Mila a larger portion of soup and an occasional heel of bread, so it is all for the good.
One day Mila tells the soup man a joke she overheard the day before. She takes her soup and bread, then leans in and whispers that she will see him after the war — as a bar of soap in a shop window. For the first time since she has known him, the soup man laughs.
After that, Mila starts telling of the things her son will have in the future. She speaks of how much money he will make as a doctor of medicine, and how beautiful his teeth will be, and how full his pantry will be, and what a big house he will own, where, of course, there will always be a room for her. Then she begins speaking of her own life to come, then those of her father and mother and uncles and aunts, and then she adds the future stories of other prisoners as well. The stories become bigger and more colorful and are filled with things from books she has read, but that is also all for the good. The stories tell themselves mostly, anyway, and she is just the teller.
Soon all the stories blend and become her own. No matter how they come out, no matter who ends up in her life or whose life she ends up in, it all becomes her destiny.
Now it is the year 1949. It is Jerzey’s thirteenth birthday and Carl’s sixth. Ezmerelda long before reasoned that it was easier to remember one birthday instead of two, so she decreed their birthdays to be the same date. As this practically made him and Carl twins, Jerzey could not have been given a better present.
This year the two boys celebrate by going to the tracks and waiting for the trains. One goes by, and they wave at the faces in the windows. When the train passes and they turn to watch the caboose get smaller and smaller, dust swirls around them as if they are the center of a whirlwind.
Jerzey has always thought of the way their mother speaks to them as a code that only he is capable of breaking. You have to listen to the way she says something, not necessarily what she says, he has told Carl. She might beg God for peace, but really she loves the excitement of chaos. In this fashion Carl has come to know that the greatest joy in his mother’s life is to yell at the two of them and promise devastating punishments that she might otherwise never get to deliver. Carl has decided always to do everything he can to provide his mother with a reason to yell and fuss and, sometimes, when he and Jerzey get it just right, to break down and ask God where she has gone wrong.
So it is just a small surprise to Carl when Jerzey tells him that today they will go up to the bend where the next train will slow down, and then they will grab on and go for a ride.
“It is time to travel,” Jerzey says.
Standing at the tracks, Carl can see that look come over his brother, as if Jerzey were seeing what he could not possibly see: mountains and rivers and towns miles away. It is the look that, whenever he gets it and Mama sees, she will smack him hard and tell him to sweep the floor or go help his father with the forge.
“Where will we be going?” Carl asks.
“Where I have always wanted to go,” Jerzey says, still looking into the distance.
Jerzey looks at his brother and smiles. “On an adventure, of course,” he says.
“But for how long?” Carl asks.
“As long as it takes for an adventure to last,” Jerzey says.
“To the end of the tracks?”
“Oh no,” Jerzey says, “probably much farther than that. How can you have an adventure so close to a train? A train is a wonderful thing, but it is, after all, civilization.”
Carl isn’t quite sure what that means. “But what about Mama?” he asks.
“Mama will have us skinned,” Jerzey says, and he smiles even wider. “She will curse us over and over, and she will swear at God, right to his face, and she will be the happiest woman in the world!”
“And imagine the yelling when we finally do come back!” Carl says.
“Imagine,” Jerzey says.
The two brothers make their way down the tracks, looking back only once, when they think they hear someone yelling from far away. But then they move happily on toward the bend where the next train will slow, and they will grab on and ride away to the place beyond the end of the tracks.
Mila sits on a train, in a window seat. The train is quite full, but the seats next to her and opposite her are empty, and she feels luxurious. She alternates between looking out the window and looking at her hands. She laughs at her hands. They are not — she is not — a bar of soap.
In her lap is a small burlap bag. The people on the train would be surprised if she offered them a peek inside. Mila looks out the window and sometimes hugs the bag to her chest. The bag holds the bones of her baby boy.
After the day of her release, when the Soviets came into the camp and freed all the prisoners, Mila was returned to her village and waited for the trains to be up and running again for passengers. Then she began her search. It took a few years, but then, just the day before, in a village on the train line, Mila spoke to an old man who remembered some of the villagers finding a baby by the side of the tracks, dead for maybe a day. Mila asked if it had been in May of 1944, and the old man wasn’t sure. But it very well could have been May of 1944, he said, late spring or early summer, at the very least. “Was it a boy?” Mila asked. The old man remembered it being a girl, but nodded anyway. With so many dead and so many grieving, he thought, what harm could it be?
The old man took Mila to a graveyard. It was in a grove close enough to the tracks that you could feel the rumble beneath your feet when the trains passed. Mila wondered if the dead felt the rumble. The grave the old man led her to was unmarked, save for a small pyramid of stones, but Mila knew right away it was her son. She asked the old man for permission to bring her boy home. The old man knew there was no one to get permission from, so he said yes. The old man got a shovel, and he and Mila spent the rest of the afternoon digging up the grave.
There was no coffin, of course, only a blanket mostly rotted and falling apart. Mila looked closely and could not tell if it was the blue one her baby had last been wrapped in before going out the vent, but she didn’t think so. She thought it was nice of the people who had found him to put her boy in a new blanket.
Back in her village, before the trains were running and before she was able to begin the search, Mila would fill her tiny closet with her mattress and blankets and pillows and force herself against the back wall. Then she would reach her hand through the clutter and close the door. The darkness would overtake her, and she would imagine the mattress and blankets and pillows to be the crowding bodies of all those long dead from her first train ride. She would once again hear the moans of the ill and dying and hear the menacing cries for her baby, and she would call her baby’s name over and over. Though sleep never really came, sometimes, when she had packed the closet just right and the feeling slowly became that of the twenty-first cigarette and the smell of blood and shit and vomit came back, she seemed to sleep. And when this thing that seemed like sleep came, the dream from so long ago appeared to her: a field and a cow and a baby boy in a hammock. Upon opening the closet door and regaining the light, Mila allowed herself the idea that she had truly slept. But this happened only sometimes, and rarely at that.
But now, out the window, the sun is shining. Mila sees two boys, brothers from the looks of them, waving at the train. The younger boy, with the bigger smile and bigger wave, enthusiastic in his imitation of his older brother, looks to be about the same age her dead son would be if he wasn’t sitting in her lap as a small and broken skeleton. She has looked at other children over the years in just this way, but today this does not make her sad.
The train slows at the bend, and Mila sees the boys begin to run, their hands held out, reaching and straining for the train. Then they are gone from view, the landscape opens up, and she pays no more attention to the outside.
Mila sits back and lets the movement of the train rock and sway her. She thinks about how, after she has buried her son, after the prayers have been said and her baby has been laid to rest, she might try staying in a regular bed for a full night. This is something she could actually do, she thinks. Yes, a night’s sleep in a soft bed is possible now; she is sure of it. Once Jozef is laid to rest, she will get a full night’s sleep in a soft bed and not wake until the sun is high in the sky. Next to the bones of her baby lying in her lap, wouldn’t that be the nicest thing God could give to her? Wouldn’t that be just the nicest thing.