My Mother's Secret(6)
Author:J. L. Witterick


    My mother points to the attic.

    I whisper, “Is he there now?”

    My mother nods.

    I know the attic is impossibly small, and I remember that Vilheim is quite tall, so he must have to lie perfectly flat to fit.

    My mother continues in a low voice. “He’s going to come down for a quick stretch at night, so I thought you should know and not be surprised.”

    Over the next few days, my mother tells me more about Vilheim. “He is an only child and was raised by his grandmother in Germany. He grew up on a farm and loves animals. He’s about the same age as Damian. He’s really sweet, Helena, not like the other soldiers.”

    I think only my mother could use the word sweet to describe a German soldier in the middle of a war.

    The first time I see Vilheim come down, it is late at night. He’s a bit awkward with me, but he smiles shyly and says, “Thank you,” with a kind of humble appreciation. Then quickly he goes back to the attic, where I know it must feel like a prison.

    I see why my mother agreed to help him. This boy couldn’t hurt anyone.

    We develop a code to let Vilheim know when it is safe to come down. My mother takes our broom and taps the ceiling three times.

    We are hiding both Jews and Germans.

    I wish that I could tell Casmir, but this is the one thing that I absolutely cannot reveal.

    My mother says, “It’s better that Casmir doesn’t know because then he can be truthful if we are caught.”

    The thought makes me shudder.

    • • •

    ONE OF OUR NEIGHBORS notices that my mother visits the well frequently and asks why she needs so much water.

    She says, “I have a skin disease and need to bathe frequently.”

    “Can you imagine?” my mother says to me later. “We’re in the middle of a war and someone has the time to wonder about why I am using so much water!”

    If a neighbor notices such a small thing like this, I can’t help but wonder if Casmir suspects anything.





    Chapter 18




    I long to be with Casmir and feel frustrated at being caught between what is right and what I want.

    My mother senses this and doesn’t scold me for my short temper and moodiness.

    Instead, she tells me a story about myself.

    She says, “When you were about eight years old, you found a cat that was injured and lying on the side of the road. Its leg was badly damaged and covered in blood. It looked like it was going to die, if it wasn’t dead already. You picked it up and brought it home. I helped you clean the leg, and we kept the cat warm and fed it leftovers. When it recovered, we let it go. Sometimes it would come back for a visit, and we both knew that it remembered us.

    “Helena, there are three kinds of people in the world. One that would have seen the suffering cat and not have given it a second thought. Another that would have seen the same cat and said to themselves, ‘Oh, isn’t that a pity,’ before continuing about their business. Finally, there is the kind who sees the suffering, feels the empathy, and then goes one step further by taking action to help. That is you. You didn’t leave the cat there to perish. I am proud that you are my daughter. Think what a wonderful place the world would be if everyone was like that.”

    I know what she is really saying.

    I had agreed to hide the Jewish families. It’s just that I miss Casmir so much.





    Chapter 19




    Damian has done quite well and is promoted to manager at the oil refinery.

    It makes me so happy to see him wearing the leather jacket that I bought with my first paycheck.

    Every four weeks he comes with kerosene, machine oil, olive oil, and cottonseed oil for my mother to trade for food with the other peasants. One time, he even has his workers bring a wagon full of firewood to make sure we can stay warm through the winter.

    We don’t see much of my brother because on his days off work, he is secretly transporting supplies to the partisan Jews hiding in the forest.

    On a cold, bleak evening, a man we have never seen before appears at our house. He says that he is in the underground with Damian. He looks weary and worn when he says to my mother, “I am very sorry to tell you that your son, Damian, was killed today. His wagon was ambushed. It’s risky for me to come here, but I thought it was important for you to know that he was a hero.”

    Shortly after telling us this, he leaves.

    My mother is a strong woman in every way, but she is broken inside with this. Do we really heal stronger where we are broken? I don’t think so because it feels like neither one of us will recover, ever.

    I so desperately want to see my brother again.

    I go outside and sit under the apple tree.

    Wrapping my arms around my knees, I bury my head in my lap.

    I see my ten-year-old brother. We have just finished dinner, my father, brother, and I. My mother eats later when she comes home. My brother is clearing the table, while my father is dozing in his chair in the living room. I am washing my father’s favorite ceramic beer stein, when it slips from my hand. I watch in horror as it drops to the floor. I am frozen with fear. My father rushes over with the crashing sound and my brother is fast to respond with “I dropped it, Papa. I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.”

    “You stupid, useless idiot. Do you know how much that cost?” My father takes off his leather belt and starts to whip my brother, who is hunched over trying his best to protect his face.

    I scream hysterically, “No, Papa! No! Stop hurting him. It was me! It was me! I dropped it.”

    My father stops whipping my brother and looks at me like a madman.

    “So you’re a liar too, are you?” He is fuming and pulls me over by my long hair.

    His other hand is up with the belt ready to descend.

    Without hesitation, my brother wraps his body around mine and shields me from what is coming.

    I am crying and struggling to break free, but my brother is holding me too tightly.

    I feel his pain worse than if it were my own.

    I am screaming so loudly that we don’t hear the door open until we see my mother pushing my father away. “Are you crazy, Borys? That’s enough!”

    He backs down, but not before saying, “Look at the mess your children made,” pointing to the pieces on the floor.

    She looks at us and signals with a tilt of her head for us to leave the room.

    “Yes, I see,” she says wearily. “I’ll pick up another one for you tomorrow, all right?”

    Either he’s tired out by the whipping or is happy that he’s getting a new stein. Regardless, my father walks away grumbling about how useless we are.

    Was Damian protecting someone else when he was killed? I can picture how he would defend his supplies, the lifeline of the Jews hiding in the forest.

    I can’t believe that I will never see him again or hear the special way he says, “Lena.”

    It feels like the sorrow is in my bones.

    • • •

    EVEN WITH OUR GRIEF, we have to be careful about how we tell people about Damian’s death.

    Our story to the neighbors is that he was killed in a robbery.

    Casmir makes the trip from Germany and comes to the house when he hears.

    He holds me and doesn’t say much. Some things are beyond words.





    Part II


    BRONEK





    Chapter 20




    My brother and I have been inseparable from as early as I can remember.

    Although just a year younger, Dawid only comes up to my shoulder.

    I have protected him all my life.

    My mother says, “If you didn’t both come out of my own body, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

    One day, Dawid comes home from school with a bloody nose.

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