The Road of Destiny
An Original Work of Fiction
It was a sodden day, the skies thick and massy with clouds moving swiftly about, though the rain had stopped falling about an hour before. But the road was dark and slick and puddles stood on it, here and there, where the old road bed had long ago sunk under the level. I was peddling my old-fashioned two-wheeler, with its large rubber tires and balloon-sized horn, when Ilsa, that was her name, came running down a large hill on my right, throwing up her hand. I threw both feet on the ground and dug in my heels to stop. I had never seen the girl before. Or anyone like her, in those parts.
But I would never forget her, either. Hair, dark and flowing down over a collared blouse, a light woolen jacket on her small, straight shoulders, and eyes the deepest of dark wells. How in the small village where I lived with my grandmother and my uncle had she escaped my notice? Not exactly pretty, but richly appealing. There were depths in the girl, layers of all the ages of her people far, far into the past. I found out, much later, that she was Jewish. A native, once, of Lodz, Poland.
The story is an interesting one, as much as I could make out of it, though I never quite knew how she came to be in England, on the road before me, waving her hand for me to stop.
"My mama is very sick today," she called, as my heels dug in to stop the bicycle. "Could you do me the least of favors?"
"Sure," I said, wary of saying too much right off.
"Are you heading for town? I see that you're going that way."
"I am. Can I bring you something? What do you need?"
"Only some milk for my mama's tea, and maybe a little for my small brother. He is not well, either."
"Milk, is that all?" Me, a total stranger, doing favors for her. How'd she know I wouldn't run off with her store-money? And where would I meet her afterward, as I didn't have a clue as to where she lived. In the same spot here on the road? At her house?
"Bread, if you please." Then she seemed to have a thought. "But I can walk along with you to the store. I was going there anyway. I shouldn't be gone too long. When I called you, I was afraid to leave mama. But she is sleeping. sleeping with my brother Emil at her side."
I lent Ilsa my bicycle, while I strode along beside her. She rode slowly, not only for me, though walking, I could average four miles an hour when I wanted to, but also because the big tires and the rusty chain on the bike were hard to manage for such a slight person. She rode very awkwardly as well, twisting this way and that, first heading off in one direction, her foot going down to the road to catch her from tipping over, and then, on both pedals again, spinning the front wheel around the other way, as if she'd only been on a bike once or twice before in her life. I had to put out my hand once or twice to steady her. I found myself enjoying the effort, and we both laughed.
"But where do you live? Over that hill is nothing but a bog, a giant one."
"We live in a . . . sheltered spot," she said, hesitantly.
"I've never heard of any houses over that way, just the swamps."
"We do, but I could not describe it to you. It's not on any road but an old dirt one. Father himself walks. He's at work at the factory, and will be home shortly. That's why I want to get back soon as I can."
Factory? Most of the farmers in the area were sheep-herders, raising a little in the way of potatoes and wheat, but the nearest town was almost twenty kilometers away. Could it have been that he walked—trudged—nearly that far every day to work? Some men were known to do it, but it took an awful bite out of their day. My uncle, grandma and me raised sheep, too, like everybody else. I had to ask.
"What kind of work does he do? What factory?"
"It's small arms. Weapons and bullets."
Now I knew she was somewhere around the bend. Alright, he made bullets. In 1975, out here in the sticks, there was a bullet factory.
"Does he make cannons, too?"
"I really couldn't say."
"But he does make guns and ammo?"
"That's what he says."
"What's your name?"
"Ilsa what?" I noticed that she had a slight trace of an accent. I thought Dutch. But she surprised me.
"Are you from Poland, or Russia?"
"Why, yes, how could you tell?"
We walked on in silence for a while after that. All the while, Ilsa had a slight shiver on under her coat. It was threadbare. I thought how poor she must be. But her hair, dark and thick, it was beautiful. How could anyone with such a rich head of hair be poor? But God doesn't think of beauty sometimes when he doles out a living. She had a brother. Younger than she. Were there any more in the family, besides mama and papa?
"Yes, my sister, but she is gone now. They took her."
"Took her where?"
"To . . . the place, you know, where they all go. At least that's what we think happened. None of us are really sure. She was selected - one day. I cried and cried."
"How old are you?" I was twenty-two, myself.
"Eighteen, well, almost. Next month is my birthday. I will be happy to be eighteen. My sister was just that when she went away, though, and it'll make me sad."
"I bet it will," I said, with my condolences, but not understanding much about Ilsa Gryczenski (I hope I have the spelling right; I only heard it that once).
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We met several more times on the same road. Several times when I was going to the store in town, she met me and rode along beside me, growing more confident on the bike every day. On the days she missed joining me, I thought myself sad. On those times, too, I almost went up over the hill to see if I could spot the house in the sheltered hollow she had talked about. In fact, I did go up. But I knew the whole neighborhood well, and didn't expect to see a house. There were no trees to shelter one. Just a vast, green wasteland, rolling up and up into the glassy sky. Only a horizon at the far side. No house, though the hollows were deep enough. After I had traipsed over the land for a square mile or more, leaving my bike by the side of the road, I shook my head. If Ilsa joined me on that road, then she had almost as long a walk as her father had to his gun factory in Oakham, the closest, big town.
Need I say there was no factory producing arms, small or of any other size, in Oakham? My uncle thought that she might have been a bit 'tetched,' to use his own fond word. I had more patience. She had to be telling the truth. Perhaps there had been a factory thrown up far to the east, of which neither my uncle or me had the slightest notion. It didn't take much time now to put up a building, just a few laborers and some nails and a few pieces of cardboard, with corrugated iron for a roof. But I asked in Nemsby, the town where our store was, and nobody there had heard tell of a factory for small arms going up.
Maybe Ilsa was dreaming. Or mistaken. But, no, she seemed convinced of it when I put all the facts out before her. There was a factory, and it produced what she said it did, though where it was was anybody's guess.
She told me some things, too, which didn't square with where we were right then, or even 'when' we were. She mentioned how the Ukrainian soldiers beat the people in the square. How they shot into them, scattering them, killing some. Even the polizei took a turn or two at terrorizing the people of Lodz. I racked my brain to try to remember a more or less recent occurrence of such terrorism, but nothing came. Ukrainians killing and beating Poles? How come? Once, her father had given his papers to another man, a man who had run away—though from where, she didn't remember. But she did say that her father was in trouble, thinking he could slip 'in' by his face alone, and let the other man have his papers. I learned later that she meant the ghetto.
"They worked my papa over good for that one. He came home and his face was bleeding about the eyes. He said he'd never do it again. He could have been shot."
"But who would shoot your father, Ilsa? Who's fighting over there?" I think she had several things mixed up about time. She was mixing me up. The here and now was becoming more and more like the 'there and then.'
"Don't you know?" she asked, suddenly bewildered and thrown off guard.
I threw up my hands. Understanding nothing, even a glimmer. Maybe, in time.
"No, they're not there right now. But some Germans are. Hungry-eyed men, in dark suits. They took my sister away, not the polizei or the Ukrainians. And the babies."
"You don't want to hear what happened to them."
"Where do you live, really?" I suddenly asked. "There's no house in these parts."
"Well, now, we've moved out of my old home. We're living in the cellar of Pietr Goblenz' house. He feeds us, but I still get out to get milk and bread and a few eggs for my mama."
On another day . . .
"They've taken papa!" she screamed to me as she ran down the hill. "He won't be coming home anymore. They're looking for us. Pietr Goblenz said so. We're hiding in an old attic at the top of his house, reached by a ladder in the wall. Pietr hid the opening with an old tapestry."
"Then how come, my dear girl, you find yourself walking on an English road with me? There are no storm troopers or Gestapo men or even Ukrainians within hundreds of miles."
"I can come, because, well, because . . ."
They had got her, too, and even at that time—strange as it may seem—she was no more. I am an older man now, just a boy then. One of my forays into Europe, I took a trip to the last place on earth where Ilsa had ever hoped, had ever longed for life. Treblinka. I found her name—and her father's and sister's, but not her mother's or her brother's—on a wall plaque at the Polish concentration camp.