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Children are crying. He hears mothers and fathers try to reassure the bawling toddlers, but that only makes them cry louder. His head is pounding and he feels nauseous. The stench of unwashed bodies bears down on him with a physical weight and there’s no fresh air to be found. His legs are sore from standing in the same place for hours, but they’re packed in so tightly that moving a single centimeter would cause a domino effect. A bead of sweat travels down his forehead. His head is pounding and he feels nauseous. He wishes they would just shut up.
He listens as adults his age whisper promises of hope and of a God that he knows will never come. God didn’t come when his father was shot or when his mother was brutalized by the soldiers. God wouldn’t come now to rescue them from the boarded up cattle trains creaking along old railway tracks. God wouldn’t come, because he didn’t exist. He learned that the hard way. He longs to correct the praying grandmothers and the desperate men, but he doesn’t have the heart to take away the only thing they had left. Their former lives had been taken away by the gunshots of soldiers and now their only possessions were the clothes on their backs. Some part of him wants to rail at the world, wants to scream out to the Americans and the English living safely in their homes. Some part of him wants to let loose and go insane, clawing his way out of the train and setting fire to the whole miserable mess. The other part of him grasps the fact that this is futile, that he will die before his next birthday and never see his wife again. Just another nameless man in this crowd of humans, and he realizes with a sinking heart that soon, he would have that stripped away from him too.
He had heard the stories. Everyone had. But it had always seemed like a terrible nightmare before, a never ending dream where everyone spoke in whispers about whose child had been taken and who had been killed. He had thought himself and his family untouchable, safe in the upper echelons of society. That dream had been quickly smashed. His parents gone, his daughter dead, and his wife lost somewhere in this crowd of people. He wonders where they’ll be taken, and whether it’ll be a quick death in the gas chambers or a long drawn out existence in the ditches. But it doesn’t matter, he realizes, because he’s dead either way. He was dead from the moment the first German soldier set foot on Polish land.
Dead from the moment the Polish authorities decided that the Germans weren’t a true threat.
Dead from the moment the Polish authorities realized, too late, that the Germans were a threat.
And now he regrets that Poland had never accepted the Allies’ help, because he knows they need it now. But it’s too late, because the Allies are too busy. Too busy to help the lost land of Poland. Too busy to help the phoenix rises from the ashes that threaten to choke it.
“We will be reborn,” his grandmother once told him. “Poland will be reborn. Do you know why, Aleksy?”
He had shaken his head and said no. She smiled at him, and leaned forward, gripping his chin.
“We are the phoenix,” she whispered, her soft voice suddenly harsh with intensity. “And like the phoenix, we will be reborn. Poland has died many times, Aleksy, but each time we rise up from the ashes and live again.”
“But I’m a boy, Grandmother,” he had protested. “Not a bird.”
She didn’t seem to hear him. “We are the phoenix,” she had repeated. “We are the phoenix.”
And now, choking on the sickness and desperation around him, he finally understands. He’ll never see his family again. He’ll never swing his wife around on the fresh green grass of their lawn or buy his daughter a piece of chocolate. His mother would never smack him on the head affectionately and call him crazy and his father would never read the newspaper again. The blue skies would be gone and he’d never point out the animals in the thick, fluffy clouds again. He would never eat kuchnia polska again or sit down in his worn leather armchair. And somehow, he doesn’t mind.
His head is pounding and he feels nauseous, like a newborn phoenix choking on its own rebirth. But somehow, he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. He’s just another nameless man, and there are many in this train. Others would be reborn from their deaths, and they would change what those in this train cannot. One day Polish land wouldn’t be tainted by the cruelty or control of the Soviets and the Germans. One day the phoenix would be reborn again. The growing pain in his heart tells him he won’t be alive to see it. His head is pounding and he feels nauseous. Only this time, he falls.
“Mama,” a child whispers. “Why is the big man sleeping?”
“Hush.” A trembling, manicured hand covers her eyes. “Don’t look at him.”