BIRDS OF POLAND
KRISTIE BETTS LETTER
The corn crake is a secret bird, of no particular color, blending into a corn crib, a group of trees or a building’s side. Looking for corn crakes left us blinking hard, wondering what we saw and what we didn’t.
Our parents told us the Nazis were coming, and so we had to hide.
Flying away from Zywkowo meant leaving our own nests: the lakes and the homes our various families had woven from wood and brick. Every one of us had lived in Zywkowo our whole lives, and our families had farmed or butchered or blacksmithed generations before the war forced us to follow the black-haired daughter of the man who owned the theaterhouse. They sent us away with Marya, who was full of color and singing even as a young girl on the stage, in the light. We were the corn crakes, a flock of children disappearing into the fall forest.
Some of our families sewed costumes for the theater. Jakob’s mother sang on occasion, and we all filled the seats, especially for the winter shows. We loved the puppets, but when Marya danced the puppets couldn’t compare.
Let’s tell the truth. Until migration and movement, war just meant the food didn’t come in to the store. But when people took wing, war had a dark shape. The Russians came to our town, on the Russian edge of Poland and stomped over all that was delicate, tearing up the costumes in the theater. We hoped our little town on a Russian edge wasn’t enough for anyone else to come. Until it was. The Nazis declared intentions too clearly heard, a two-note call that sent us to the shadows.
Even though some of our parents didn’t like the theater, didn’t like that Marya was Roma, when we needed to disappear into the forest they trusted her. We followed her because we’d heard just enough to know what happened to Polish children.
“The blond ones go to Germany,” one of our mothers said.
“To be German children. But only the blond ones.”
At this the dark children shivered, and there were many more of us dark than light. “The brown-haired children go to work in underground factories, unless they’re Jewish.”
No one had to ask exactly what happened to the Jewish children and no one had to answer. That silence was shaped by the whispers and our fears and by everyone we knew who never came back. Even Marya with her chattering mouth had a silence here. What they did was enough to send all of us to the shadows, trudging through the forest on not-paths, into the deepest part where Nazis didn’t dare to go. Before we left, our mothers loaded satchels with everything they could. Potatoes and photographs. Wool socks and pistols. We worried we would never return to Zywkowo.
We were barely into the trees when the jeeps arrived. The men in uniforms drove in and took over our houses like birds finding abandoned nests. These men had the pins on their uniforms, the skulls made of metal. We had all heard stories, so like the crake, we buried ourselves in shadows. Marya stared hard at the men, then told us when it was safe to move deeper into the forest.
Only love convinces corn crakes to make themselves known. They call out at night. That first night we almost did, but instead we kept walking. We walked for almost three weeks. We walked until our shoes and feet looked like they were not shoes and feet. When the weather sharpened, Marya said we needed to stop for the winter. “We’re far enough away,” she said. “Too far for Nazis.” She stared at the forest shadows when she said this, but we all decided to believe her.
We trudged so far through forests we worried we might be in Germany. When we were so tired that several of us cried even though we weren’t allowed, Marya found a girl with a barn, a small red-haired girl who let us stay with the cow and the geese. She fed us soup and made us bags of potatoes. After Jakob’s foot started turning colors, we carried him for a little while. Crossing streams was an all day effort.
We kept moving for the first month, putting distance between us and our former home. Then we found a house in the forest, and like so many Hansels and Gretels we stayed.
In the Polish legend, the Crow is really a prince. Only the kindness of the youngest daughter has the compassionate heart to stop and help the injured bird.
We knew this was a story about how to be brave, even when the world terrifies, even if that means not yelling when they drag you towards a cauldron, not screaming when fears dominate the night.
We found the little house tilting in the middle of the forest. In a fairy tale, we shouldn’t have entered, especially because the door was open, but we couldn’t walk any more.
“Does a witch live there?” one of us whispered.
We stared at the house. Plants grew on some of the floorboards and windows.
“Is anyone home?” Marya called. She was brave but she didn’t know it. She knocked and then walked in.
“Can we stay?” one of us asked. Marya nodded.
That night we built a fire in the stone fireplace, and once we stopped coughing from the first cloud of smoke, we could hear snow fall with a witchy whisper. And then, we settled into a crow-like darkness for the winter. Whoever lived in our cabin before us had left quickly, leaving behind a cellar full of potatoes and canned goods.
In the crow legend, evil spirits torment for years until the spell breaks. We waited in the woods for month upon month. That winter Marya recited a song about a woman half sick of shadows and we were more than half sick. We missed the light.
In our Polish forests where the trees wear extra bark, the woodpecker kept us in a rhythm, striking the time on the thick gray winter bark of the forest trees indicating that spring was coming.
The sound wasn’t song, and it wasn’t beautiful, but its taps kept our cold feet pressing forward onto the crackling ground.
“Spring is coming. The birds only come back when winter’s ending,” Marya explained. Then she made a noise, one that we hadn’t heard in so long we had to remember what it was.
Song. She sang without words, but with notes that woke up things frozen inside of us.
We packed up our scraps and stepped into the forest. Marya kept singing. We walked a bit faster, despite the holes in our shoes.
Marya’s song shifted into a word. “Look!”
“Where?” We saw nothing but a gray-green tree where she pointed.
“A woodpecker.” We all stood still, willing our eyes to adjust. This one wasn’t as colorful as some, mostly gray with a stripe of belly white. Three black stripes on the head, three toes on the foot. Then it made a squeak, not just a desperate peck to find food but a gasp into the still-chilled air. The bird called out for a companion.
“They like the dying trees best,” Marya said.
“They have more bugs. The really old scraggly ones.”
They use what’s left behind, as we did with the tilting cabin.
We heard the woodpecker all along our trek, giving our out of practice steps rhythm. In the distance, we saw smoke rising from the sky and the slant of a rooftop. We agreed to sneak in to forage what could be eaten once darkness settled. A distance from the barn, a clear stream burbled.
“Oh, look. I have to wash,” Marya said. She hated the dust and the dirt, the way we all got coated with the earth until we were hardly distinguishable.
She was not that kind of bird.
We all wanted to step into the stream beside her but didn’t dare. She would have welcomed at least the girls, but this water was barely free of winter, knife cold, so we hung back.
She was a Pied Piper, compelling with her song and her step. She led us with her dark hair and her lilting voice, even in the cold, even when we lost. We went stomach down on the grasses and stared at the barn, dreaming of what we would find inside. How quickly we adjusted to this kind of scavenging.
A sound filtered through the forest, birdlike but not a bird. The sound wasn’t singing and it wasn’t tapping. We dropped our heads to the ground, and showed each other our wide eyes.
Jakob snaked forward to see what it was, and told us later of the sight. The water swirled around Marya’s bare legs. She stood laughing with a soldier in an unfamiliar uniform.
The world stopped. Soldiers had found Marya. Now we were all doomed.
The sound of her laughter confused us.
Once the danger was over, and we realized the soldier was American, we wished to be that soldier. We were too young to go to war, but not too young to want to watch the winter-sullen girl sing a spring-song while washing her legs. With her skirt hiked up, Marya let the creek make new paths around her strong pale legs.
There were three American soldiers, although Marya’s eyes stayed focused on the one with dark skin.
Marya and the man spoke in halting sentences, bits of German and English we could differentiate only by the way they chewed the words.
Their faces we could understand.
Marya pointed towards where we crouched and the dark man smiled. He pulled two paper-wrapped bricks from his backpack.
It looked like a chocolate brick. We’d had chocolate before, at holidays. The man made several motions with his hand.
With his hands, he seemed to be giving us the brick of what looked to be chocolate, but telling us not to eat. We couldn’t understand his words. On the paper on the outside of the brick, the letters said “U.S. Army Field Ration D.” We recognized what the letter U and S did together and one of us knew the word “army.”
“He’s giving us American soldier food,” Andrejew whispered.
Another paler American soldier spoke a few words of broken German. The man with the dark skin spoke in broken German. We heard the words “careful” and “tooth.” Perhaps then, it was bad for our teeth to eat chocolate. We no longer cared. In our winter cabin, Jakob had cried about his tooth, so much that Marya pulled it out.
None of our food had been wrapped in foil for so long. Our memories of these delicacies glittered.
Marya and the soldier went to walk in the woods. We unwrapped the bars, which as we hoped, looked to be chocolate. When we tried to bite into the bar, we knew this was not the same chocolate that we ate in our other childhood, the one with parents and puppets and pierogi. Our teeth could barely dent this rock of food. Andrejew discovered that if we sawed with molars, we could shave off pieces better.
Eating those three bars took hours, and the brown sour not-chocolate wasn’t delicious, but our bellies were full.
The Red-Breasted Flycatcher
This tiny bird has a beautiful song but we could only hear it for a moment in the spring. It doesn’t catch insects on trees or on the ground, but grabs them in the air. This bird doesn’t want to get caught.
The short verse of the Red-Breasted Flycatcher in the spring contradicts all of its instincts to keep aloft, aloof, alone.
We always forget what we’ve been taught to do, if given enough time.
They went into the underbrush that night before he left, away from our eyes but not our ears. Only a distant owl competed with the fascination of their trembling whispers. Our teeth hurt from sawing at the brown brick, but whatever not-chocolate it was filled our bellies.
The next morning her eyes glittered but so did the rest of her, as if she had just emerged from the cold stream again.
“We’re getting married,” she said. “That beautiful soldier asked me to marry him.”
“Mazel tov,” we said. And we meant it. We loved her and wanted her to be happy. But we loved her and we also wanted her.
All of us made our faces smile and all of us knew the same thing. We didn’t want her to leave. Even if the war was over, would anyone else return from the woods? Would there be anyone left at home in Zywkowo?
The American soldiers stayed for several days, as they were securing something nearby. The dark man’s eyes barely left Marya.
She reported what she could from their attempts at conversation. “Poland is full of Americans,” she told us.
“I thought Poland was full of Nazis,” we said.
“Poland is full.” We didn’t know who lingered in the darkness, when the taps might be distant guns or close woodpeckers. “The war is ending.”
Marya asked the American soldiers for help, using her words, bits of song and painting as much meaning with her hands as she could. “We have children with us. Could you ask the farmer for some milk? We need to stay in the barn.”
They asked for milk and we drank it warm.
The soldier had two toothbrushes in his pocket. “We just resupplied,” he said.
We hadn’t brushed teeth since home. She covered her mouth with her hand.
We listened to them talk all through the night. We learned what we had missed in a winter spent in the woods, about the world and the war.
We were almost safe, listening to birdsong and soldier stories. From the things the soldiers didn’t say when Marya asked about the people sent to work and the bombed parts of Poland, we did not think everyone else was safe. We did not think our families were safe.
The Great Bustard
One spring in Zywkowo, a great Bustard appeared in ruffled majesty on the marshy fields on the west side of the lakes. It walked like a camel, if the camel had feathers and wings, pushing its small head at a specifically camel angle. We’d only seen a camel once, when the travelling Russian circus came through, before the Russians were there to steal all the potatoes. Although the Great Bustard can fly fast, it walked slowly, lifting each leg as a separate act from dropping it down in a new square of the field. The dark American soldier did something similar.
“He looks like a Great Bustard,” one of us said.
We all laughed, but only for a second. “It’s the beard.”
“I wish I had one,” Jakob said, stroking his bald chin.
For the Great Bustard, the beard is a point of pride, key in attracting females. The American soldier had a beard, broad shoulders and deep voice. He was quick to laugh when he and Marya misunderstood each other’s words.
Our lack of beard might be key. We were old enough to be sent into factories, to be hidden underground and ground beneath the boots of the Germans. We were young enough to be empty-faced and girlish, at least to a singing girl like Marya.
We wanted to protect Marya from the soldiers. We wanted to protect our mothers, who we hoped were waiting for us in Zywkowo. We wanted to protect our fathers sent away first, and we wanted to protect our brothers conscripted and our neighbors gone in the night leaving pots on their stoves and the barber who always pretended he was blind and the schoolteacher with the bad habit of rubbing his elbows until he had holes in his jacket and the children sent away from the parents to illusory places of safety we’d never heard of and the strong who took their chances on surviving the factory work and two men living in love who played violin in their kitchen and the girl who led the geese to the pond each day and our classmates and people we had never met and our very own selves in the middle of a forest in the middle of the war.
But we were children, not Great Bustards. We came from Zywkowo, a favorite of the storks and like storks, we all hoped to return. We all wanted to fly back to the warm rooftops when the weather welcomes us home.
We could see Marya’s plumage, gone gray with the winter, now bright. She spent those three days with him, walking and laughing, gesturing in large swoops. We wanted to walk with her, wanted to go into the hayloft. We wanted to carve her trinkets that would transform into players or fly across the stage. But the man made her shine.
The other U.S. soldiers camped near us for three days. We couldn’t tell what they said to each other. They spoke in the words like sharp bird caws.
But the dark man could talk to Marya in German. They talked so much we worried that he would take her with him. He strutted by standing taller every time he saw Marya, a Great Bustard with feathers all a fluff.
When they had to go, the man’s face went sad. He gave Marya everything he had in his sack, and wrote note after note on yellowed paper, even on the foil from the horrible Ration D bar.
We pretended not to look when he clutched her at the end.
We would have felt Marya’s tears more intensely but the not-chocolate had made our insides clench and protest. Our misery hampered our sympathies.
The storks are the most magical of all birds, especially the white ones who nest in rooftops, chimneys and poles.
A family with storks above them might live in harmony.
The night the soldiers continued their march, a pair of storks flew above us. We all marveled at the wings against the sky. Each white stork flew so low we could see the red of their feet tucked up for flight. We didn’t see where the birds went, but as we made our beds in hayloft straw with cows breathing wetly beneath us, we all wanted the storks on our roof, even if just for one night.
Now the winter was done with white and grey. We could, like the storks, return to Zywkowo.
Marya danced into the barn. “He’s going north. After I take you back to your families, I will be married. We’re going to be married.” Her joy filled the barn. The sounds below us were the two cows settling in for sleep, and we hoped the slight rustling above us was the storks on the roof.