April 18, 1906, Slonim, Poland
SHE ONLY stopped screaming when she died. It was then that he started to scream.
The young boy who was hunting rabbits in the forest was not sure whether it was the woman’s last cry or the child’s first that alerted his youthful ears. He turned, sensing possible danger, his eyes searching for an animal that was obviously in pain. But he had never known an animal to scream in quite that way before. He edged towards the noise cautiously; the scream had now turned to a whine, but it still did not sound like any animal he knew. He hoped it would be small enough to kill; at least that would make a change from rabbit for dinner.
He moved stealthily towards the river, where the strange noise came from, darting from tree to tree, feeling the protection of the bark against his shoulder blades, something to touch. Never stay in the open, his father had taught him. When he reached the edge of the forest he had a clear line of vision all the way down the valley to the river, and even then it took him some time to realize that the strange cry emanated from no ordinary animal. He crept towards the whining, even though he was now out in the open.
Then he saw the woman, her dress above her waist, her bare legs splayed. He had never seen a woman like that before. He ran quickly to her side and stared down at her belly, too frightened to touch. Lying between the woman’s legs was a small, pink animal, covered in blood and attached to her by something that looked like rope. The young hunter dropped his freshly caught rabbits and fell to his knees beside the little creature.
He gazed at it for a long, stunned moment, then turned his eyes to the woman. He immediately regretted the decision. She was already blue with cold; her tired young face looked middle-aged to the boy. He did not need to be told that she was dead. He picked up the slippery little body that lay on the grass between her legs. Had you asked him why, and no one ever did, he would have told you that the tiny fingernails clawing at the crumpled face had worried him.
The mother and child were bound together by the slimy rope. The boy had watched the birth of a lamb a few days earlier and he tried to remember. Yes, that’s what the shepherd had done. But dare he, with a child? The whining suddenly stopped, and he sensed that a decision was now urgent. He unsheathed his knife, the one he skinned rabbits with, wiped it on his sleeve and, hesitating only for a moment, cut the rope close to the child’s body. Blood flowed freely from the severed ends. Then what had the shepherd done when the lamb was born? He had tied a knot to stop the blood. Of course, of course. The boy pulled some long grass out of the earth beside him and hastily tied a crude knot in the cord. Then he took the child in his arms. It started to cry again. He rose slowly from his knees, leaving behind him three dead rabbits and a dead woman who had given birth to this child. Before finally turning his back on the mother, he put her legs together and pulled her dress down over her knees. It seemed the right thing to do.
‘Holy God,’ he said aloud, the thing he always said when he had done something very good or very bad. He wasn’t yet sure which this was.
The young hunter ran towards the cottage where his mother would be cooking supper, waiting only for his rabbits; everything else would be prepared. She would be wondering how many he’d caught today; with a family of eight to feed, she needed at least three. Sometimes he managed a duck, a goose or even a pheasant that had strayed from the Baron’s estate, on which his father worked. Tonight he had caught a different animal.
When he reached the cottage, he didn’t dare let go of his prize, even with one hand, so he kicked at the door with his bare foot until his mother opened it. Silently, he held up the child to her. She made no immediate move to take the creature from him but stood, one hand covering her mouth, gazing at the wretched sight.
‘Holy God,’ she said, and crossed herself. The boy looked up at her face for some sign of pleasure or anger, to find her eyes shining with a tenderness he had never seen before. He knew then that the thing he had done must be good.
‘It’s a little boy,’ said his mother, taking the child into her arms. ‘Where did you find him?’
‘Down by the river, Matka,’ he said.
‘And the mother?’
She crossed herself again.
‘Quickly, run and tell your father what has happened. He will find Urszula Wojnak on the estate, and you must take them both to the mother. Then be sure they come back here.’
The boy rubbed his hands on his trousers, happy enough not to have dropped the slippery creature, and ran off in search of his father.
The mother closed the door with her shoulder and called out for Florentyna, her eldest child, to put the pot on the fire. She sat down on a wooden stool, unbuttoned her bodice and pushed a tired nipple to the little puckered mouth. Sophia, her youngest daughter, only six months old, would have to go without her supper tonight. Come to think of it, so would the whole family.
‘And to what purpose?’ the woman said out loud, tucking her shawl around the child. ‘Poor little mite will be dead by morning.’
She did not repeat that sentiment to Urszula Wojnak when she arrived a couple of hours later. The elderly midwife washed the little body and tended to the twisted umbilical stump. The woman’s husband stood silently by the open fire, observing the scene.
‘A guest in the house brings God into the house,’ declared the woman, quoting the old Polish proverb.
Her husband spat. ‘To the cholera with him. We have enough children of our own.’
The woman pretended not to hear him as she stroked the sparse dark hairs on the baby’s head.
‘What shall we call him?’ she asked.
Her husband shrugged. ‘What does it matter? Let him go to his grave nameless.’