This story is by Marta Aleksandra Balinska and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Everything about it was narrow. If it hadn’t been for the high ceiling, I don’t know if I could have dealt with my claustrophobia. The cot was long and thin, the closet was shallow, the carpeting moth-eaten. The window was tall and double-paned, as always in Central Europe.
I stood paralyzed at a safe distance from it, peering into the unknown neighbors’ apartment across the street. The fear I felt was not the usual pang in the sternum, but an inflammation of my entire rib cage, a terror so great that I thought it might kill me before They did.
A wave of nausea submerged me as I pondered over what might turn out to be an existentialist question. If I draw the curtains, the neighbors will know there is someone in the room – or at least that someone has recently been in the room. But if I leave them open, they may see me. What should I do? I was trapped. Either way I could be discovered.
Maybe the neighbors wouldn’t denounce me. How could I know? But more likely, They would come get me and send me to a camp. I wouldn’t be able to escape a second time.
How long would I be able to stay here? Would someone bring me food regularly? Maybe in the end it would be a relief to be arrested? There would be no more decisions to take, no more friends to put at risk … Maybe even the camps were better than this illuminated coffin? At least, I wouldn’t wait alone. At least, I wouldn’t die alone.
Far off, I could make out a street organ grinding away all my nostalgia for another life…
Should I close those curtains? Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before? My God, I am so afraid.
I sat down behind the bed and rested my head on it, waiting for night to fall, transfixed by the window. As dusk crept over the town, the curtains began to shiver. Was one of the panes not properly closed? This was even worse. Someone might hear me. I didn’t move, I just watched the rippling drapes.
Gradually I noticed that they were white with exquisite black geometric patterns both so intricate and so delicate, that I wondered how anyone could have designed them – especially since they changed as you looked at them. The symmetry was comforting in its predictability, but then – suddenly – I recoiled in horror realizing that these were no designs. No: the white curtains were covered with cockroaches inching their way up and down, like an army.
I closed my eyes and gripped the edge of the sunken mattress. I don’t care what happens, I’ve got to get out of here! I want to go home! I don’t care… I’m suffocating!
Could it be my imagination? Surely, I would have noticed the roaches in the room from the start? I felt clammy all over. Opening my eyes again, I slowly lifted my head to take a furtive glance at the curtains. The bugs were gone, but the pattern was not pretty at all. How could I have thought so?
The window was swimming with swastikas!
I awoke with a start and a stifled scream. The early morning eastern light was pouring in through the window, but I dared not look towards it for fear of the curtains. In the seconds that followed I noticed that the room had changed. It was still just as narrow, but I was lying on a comfortable bed, in white sheets, and the carpet was golden-colored and plush. In the corner, on a Persian praying mat, lay my little black dog, deep in slumber. I tried to reach out to her, but for some reason I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak either. My senses were alive, but I felt totally leaden. Now, if I could not even get up, how would I draw those curtains?
What if the dog moved or barked? How was it possible I had brought her here?
What was happening to me?
If I wished to begin to comprehend, I knew intuitively that I would have to turn around and look at the curtains. First, I held the pillow over my face and then slowly lowered it. Across the street the neighbors had opened their window and rose-colored curtains were rippling in the breeze. It struck me that the fabric was the same as a dress my mother used to wear… More astonishing however, my own curtains had disappeared – or perhaps, had never been there? I was instantly freed of my dilemma – to close or not to close the curtains – but not of my anguish.
I pulled the sheet over my head and the tension in my chest spiraled up into my skull with a vicious jab. How old am I? Where am I? What is happening to me? My intense mental confusion seemed almost worse than my fear of Them.
Was I losing my mind? Maybe I was already dead? But how could I have died? I am only twelve years old! – no, not twelve – twenty-three! I’ve got my life ahead of me! Twenty-three? But I’ve lived for such a long time, how could I be only twenty-three? It slowly dawned on me that I was forty, maybe fifty, maybe more… So much of my life gone, already? I could feel my temples throbbing, relentlessly. I struggled to find some comfort and looked for my dog. She wasn’t there any more, nor was the oriental rug.
With ineffable guilt and grief, it gradually dawned on me – like an object slowly sinking to the bottom of a pond – that I was old; that my life was over; that I was alone; and that – yes, that was it – that was the horror if all, that was the nightmare:
I had killed my own parents.
“Mamm-mm-mma…” my lips whimpered, “mama-mama come back!”
But how could she come back? It was I who had leapt from the cattle cart – that long, narrow, windowless mortuary filled with terrified humans and deadly bugs. There had been that opening through which I could see summer and poppies. “Go, go!” the adults had cried. Some gave me a coin. My father took off his watch: “get out” he whispered with such silent and urgent authority that I did not look back. I squeezed through the shaft and jumped. Then I lay motionless in the grass until the faintest rumbling of the train had long faded. The beauty of the flowers and butterflies around me seemed utterly blasphemous.
“No,” I mumbled with relief, suddenly remembering. “No! I did not kill my parents!”
“Yes, you did!” hissed a high-pitched voice in my tired brain. I was trying not to listen but could not help hearing it. “Yes, you did! You killed them! You abandoned your own parents to a certain death!”
It felt as if the inner yet foreign voice was constricting my throat. I felt the oppression on my chest. I started to gasp and wheeze. “No, no!” I was tossing and turning in sweaty sheets. “No, mama—” I began to sob.
At that moment, I felt a hand on my shoulder. For a second, I thought it was Them come to get me – after all these years, they had found me…
Then, I realized the touch was soft and gentle… “Mama…?” My body was lethargic; I could not lift myself from that ditch I had fallen into, somewhere in Poland, but I felt her presence.
“No, Tomek, it’s me.” There was a slim shadow leaning over me. “Take this, quickly, you’re having an asthma attack. Come on, sit up. Tomek, sit up, sit up!”
With untold effort I sought to pull my eyelids apart. In a single blink, I understood…
I am old, I have cancer, I am in my narrow bedroom with double-paned windows looking out on a grey building across the street…
I am not in Warsaw – I am in Paris.
I am a survivor who is dying after a life full of interest and passion, but stained with blood.
I can hear an accordion playing a tune I know well … is it Bella ciao? Bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao!
“… You couldn’t have saved them,” the girl was saying. “You can’t feel guilty, Tomek, it’s not your fault!”
I have played hide-and-seek with death all my life and now all I want is to hide just a little longer. To hide without fear. I want… just a little less pain, just a few more sunrises, just a few hot summer evenings with pretty girls in flowery dresses and accordions playing musette…
I am frail and aged now, and all I long for is a sense of safety in my own room where They cannot find me, where They will no longer haunt me, not even in my sleep… And yes, I want so very much a cup of strong black tea with raspberry syrup.