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And He Walked
They came in a white Mercedes-Benz on mud roads. There weren’t many roads that were anything but mud. Not there, not so far east. His wife sat in the front of the car, her mother behind her. Her name was Rachel and her mother’s was Jane. She had a different name once, but not anymore. John sat there, too, in the row behind his wife. The man driving was Polish, from the country. He lived there, with a wife and two children. One of them had asthma. No one else in the car knew that. His name was Stanis?aw. No one else in the car knew that either. Behind them, in a different car, was a film crew. They were going to film Jane whose name wasn’t Jane when she returned home. That’s where they were driving. They were driving home.
The mud road they were on led to the center of town. There was a small square there, with a hall and a library. One man sold ice cream from a cart with a broken wheel. It rattled over the stones of the square, then squelched in the mud as it landed on the road. He pushed it back and forth, rattling and squelching.
It was a grey day, and blue shadows sat gently on the square. They parked the Mercedes-Benz by the library. The car with the film crew stopped, too, and they all got out. There were three in that car. Two men, one cameraman and one soundman, and a lady who smoked too many cigarettes. The soundman had a smile like piano keys, and every third tooth or so was foul and rotten. The rest shined like soap suds.
Jane got out the car, her daughter holding her arm softly as though it might break if she pressed on it too strongly. John took a deep breath before leaving the Mercedes-Benz. He wasn't sure why he was there. Sometimes he knew it was because of Rachel and because of Jane, but, at that moment, he couldn’t be sure. He got out of the white Mercedes-Benz to watch Jane march across the square toward nowhere in particular. The film crew, meanwhile, readjusted their lenses that shone without sunlight and feathered the microphone, which looked like a giant, black Q-tip. Well, the men did. The woman smoked another cigarette. John tried to read the box that she was taking her cigarettes from, but there were too many “Z”’s and letters with slashes through them for him to make sense of it.
They were all there to take Jane home. Rachel had the idea to take her mother back to her hometown before she died. She was eighty-nine and paler than before, back before she was so old. Her veins ran brightly along her arms and her knees swelled until they pressed against her pants. They were going to take her home, to her house where she used to live, before she was Jane. They were going to take her to see places that other people had forgotten, that had changed, that only she remembered as they were. The film crew was going to record everything that happened so that they could watch it later. John and Rachel would remember what they had seen and heard that day, and their children would know that their grandmother came from that small town with mud roads.
John’s parents had died when he was young from a disease that didn’t have many charities for it. He went to live with his uncle, who was a thin and severe man. He met Rachel at college, made some corny joke about angels and her, how they were one and the same, and they got married two years later. His uncle, who was a thin and severe man, attended the wedding in Hoboken, New Jersey. John’s parents were from Hoboken. They were born there and they died there, but John was in Poland with his wife’s mother. John knew her fine, liked her even. He never thought he’d go to Poland with her. The man with the ice cream cart rattled over to John and tried to sell him something that smelled distantly of strawberries. John didn’t notice. He went to join his mother-in-law, who was looking at stones.
Jane had her fat knees in the mud, her hands searching in the garden of stones. She found one, cradled it between her forefinger and thumb, then stood. She had a hard time standing, and the stone seemed very heavy to her. John went over to help her. He put an arm around her waist and coaxed her up, the stone too. He thought Rachel would, but she was busy. She was telling the woman who smoked too many cigarettes to put them away. That the smell would ruin the day. That’s what Rachel said. John thought that it really couldn’t. The camera and microphone couldn’t pick up smell. The day wouldn’t be ruined and they wouldn’t know when they watched it. But Rachel thought so, and the woman put them in a breast pocket that smelled from its past and similar inhabitants.
John looked down and was met by big eyes.
“Thank you, thank you,” said the owner of the big eyes. Jane was able to stand on her own now.
“You’re welcome,” said John.
But she had looked down again by then. She looked at the little stone her hand. John did, too. It was very round, but not otherwise extraordinary. It reminded John of the stones he used to skip across ponds when he was younger. They’d never go very far, two or three hops at most, but they were stones like this one. Jane held it tightly. She put it up to her lips and whispered something to it, something John couldn’t hear. It wouldn’t have mattered if he could hear it.
Wlaz? kotek na p?otek i mruga, i mruga,
?adna to piosenka nied?uga, nied?uga. i mruga, i mruga,
?adna to piosenka nied?uga, nied?uga.
Jane whose name wasn’t Jane put the little stone in her pocket. John wondered where there was a bathroom, Rachel began to organize the film crew, and the roads were made of mud.
* * *
They decided to start filming inside the new library. It was built from imported stone, painted in foreign colors, and filled with books in different languages. Next to the books in German and Czech and English there were photographs of the old people, people who had been there and now weren’t. These photographs were put there by a woman who looked like she had gone through a trash compacter. Her name was Gabriella, but she asked Jane, Rachel, John, and the others to call her “Barbara.” She preferred “Barbara” because she felt it sounded Western.
“Here is what we have prepared for you,” said Barbara as she led them into the main room, the room with the photographs. She swept her hand through the air. She was wearing a bright yellow blouse that smelled of onions and the elderly. Rachel had called ahead, to find someone in town that would help, and Barbara had volunteered. She liked to dress up and didn’t have many opportunities to wear her bright yellow blouse.
With Rachel holding her arm, Jane peered at the photographs. She stood her small self over each one like she were a microscope. She was looking for people she knew. In one of them, there was someone she knew. His name was Herschel. He was a butcher with very fine blades. He would separate meat from bone and then lay out all the bones on the counter. When children came in, he would tell them where each bone came from. He did this so that they could know the whole chicken. They knew what a chicken looked like with its skin on, with its skin off, too, but they didn’t know where the bones were until Herschel told them. Jane before she was Jane would go to Herschel’s shop sometimes, before the Sabbath. She would buy a chicken or brisket or some garlic that Herschel kept in baskets tied to the ceiling. Because of Herschel, she knew where the pygostyle of a chicken was. It was in the tail.
Jane, even with her big eyes, didn’t recognize him. She moved past him. John checked his watch. It was from a company in Zurich whose watches could reach fantastic depths. The one John had could go over one hundred meters beneath the ocean without breaking. John had never been that deep in the ocean, but the thought of it made him remember that he never found a bathroom. He moved past the film crew, who were looking through their lenses at Jane. She moved from photograph to photograph. The woman who smoked too many cigarettes had opened another pack.
* * *
John headed down the widest mud road in the direction away from the square. On his sides, the buildings shrank into trees or boulders, and, soon, there was nothing at all. He didn’t care. John didn’t care because he wished he hadn’t come to Poland. He had out of some spousal obligation, the sort of fine print you have in marriage certificates, but he wished he hadn’t.
I certify that the undersigned, by authority of license issued by the County noted above, did on this day join in lawful wedlock with their mutual consent in the presence of witnesses.*
?*Oh yeah, and you’ll have to go to Poland too, if that ever comes up. Don’t worry, it probably won’t.
A loudness struck the air. A heron unfolded, gliding against the sky. John had never seen a heron before. He’d never seen a bird so big. There was something powerful about its size. Birds were small until now. Now birds were big, too. Bigger than many animals, cats and raccoons and most lizards. The heron proved that. It flapped a few times and was gone; it melted into the greyness of the day.
John kept walking. Soon, he came to a farmhouse. Rows of barley, tan and lean, bent in the wind behind it. He knocked on the door. A man answered, a Polish man. He had a wide nose and a wider hat. Sweat on his brow. Behind him, his nose, and his hat were a daughter and a wife, both blond, both dressed in brown. The daughter was radiant and you could tell the wife had been too - she had the flat stare of the beaten. John mimed unzipping his pants, a gesture which earned a grunt from the man, a hand-hidden laugh from his daughter, and silence from his wife. The man nodded to his daughter, who offered a porcelain hand to John. He took it and was led to the barley.
Nothing was taller than the stalks, nothing you could see. The porcelain girl kept looking back, only to turn away with a smile. They went all the way back to where the barley ended and the wood began. There was a wooden outhouse propped up at the border. John didn’t know what to do, what the etiquette was for this sort of situation. He looked at the girl, who looked back at him, laughed again, and went back towards the farmhouse.
The outhouse smelled like you would expect. He lowered his pants and looked into the wood in front of him. He thought someone had carved a name into it, but it was just the grain of the wood. He looked closer. It looked like his name, like “JOHN.” It almost looked like an “J” and then an “O,” but it was just the grain of the wood.
Overhead, another heron came and went, leaving only a cry.
* * *
John walked back to the farmhouse. The man was peeling a potato with a knife pressed between his thumb and ring finger. John had never seen someone peel a potato like that before, with those fingers. His wife was still staring off from her perch and his daughter was gone.
“Do you know how I can get back to town?” John asked. The man kept peeling the potato. It was almost bare.
“Town?” John rowed his fingers back and forth on the air to make a walking sign. That seemed to do it as the man put his potato and his knife down and went outside. John followed. He was surprised by how little there was. It seemed in just the few minutes he’d taken through the farmhouse, a few hours had gone by. The man pointed down the road. John thought he had come from another direction, but he couldn’t remember. He didn’t want to overstay his welcome any longer. He said “thank you” and set off down the mud road in the direction given to him. Further down, when he had gotten far enough that he was set in his way, John looked back at the farmhouse. The man still stood outside his home, shaking his head left to right, left to right. He stayed there shaking his head in the dying light. John stared a little longer then turned to the road to begin the walk back.
The light was thin and John’s knees hurt. He was sure the farmer had given him the wrong directions. He thought: “f***er,” and kept walking. After a while, he reached a tall mound in the earth. It was kept in check by a tall wire fence. John figured it’d be a good chance to scout a path so he walked to the fence; at closer glance, the fence hardly did anything. It was full of holes, big ones. John walked through one and up. The ground was harder here. He looked down and saw names, this time for sure.
Kasia Bernsztejn. Jakub Szwartz. Zofia Lewinsztejn. Stanis?aw Rotenberg.… Do you remember that name? Do you remember Stanis?aw? He was smoking cigarettes just outside the white Mercedes Benz, a half mile southwest. He was smoking the cigarettes his asthmatic daughter never could. His name was buried in a tombstone that belonged to someone else. John realized quickly that that’s what he was walking on, a mausoleum made of smaller ones: a graveyard. There were plenty of names, but many just had bits and pieces left. He thought he saw a Dawid, a Józef, an Agniezka, but some letters bled into names that they didn’t belong in. It was a pile of letters and accents and slashes and some of the “Z”s from the too-many roadsigns they had to pass to get here. The tombstone John had his foot on right now belonged to someone whose name had been split by age; you could only read the inscription.
That meant “and he walked…” but John didn’t know that. Hebrew didn't mean anything to him and the names he walked on meant only a little more. But from up there he could see a better path to town. The farmer had been right, the farmer had given him the right directions. Just another turn or two. Just a little longer on the mud roads, just a half mile southwest.
* * *
John got back to the square just as the sun was setting. The film crew had packed up a long time ago, lenses and microphones and wires all stowed away. They were in the cars, ready to leave. Rachel sat with her mother on a lone bench.
“John! Where have you been?”
“I was looking for a bathroom,” he said.
“What took so long?!”
Rachel, the color of her face imitating the dying horizon, stood up and got in the car. Her mother sat on the bench. She stared off, like her daughter was still there, like she was there or wasn’t. Like it didn’t matter. She stared off at the library where her house had been, at the square where her home had been. John let a hand out for her. Without turning her big eyes, she met it and rose. They were walking to the car when she suddenly stopped, surprised. The light was almost gone now. John turned to her.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” she said. She said it with real concern.
They went back into the white Mercedes Benz. John held open the door for his mother-in-law. Stanis?aw pulled out of the town, and it was dark. There were no streetlights here, on the edge, but the moon lit the way. Jane sang her quiet song in the night.
Wlaz? kotek na p?otek i mruga,
?adna to piosenka nied?uga.
Nie d?uga, nie krótka, lecz w sam raz.
Za?piewaj koteczku jeszcze raz.
And, if you listened really closely to that night, you could hear the sound of a broken wheel, rattling on the stones.