Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Where The Doves Fly

Before I begin post today's story, I'd like to remind/alert everyone of THIS CONTEST!, brought to you by my fabulous and ever-inspiring colleague, Nathan Bransford. Submit your first paragraph, have it be judged by his genius, and possibly win fun and exciting prizes. The witching hour is tomorrow (Thursday) at 4:00 (PACIFIC TIME) - so hop to it! 

And now, back to the task-at-hand. Today's publication is from a first chapter of a YA novel, WHERE THE DOVES FLY. The author, Weronika Janczuk, has immediately placed herself among the gifted teenage authors who never fail to impress me (S.E. Hinton is the most prominent that comes to mind). Weronika is seventeen years old (!) and likes to spend her time "writing novels and short stories, editing her school newspaper, interning at a publishing company, reading, listening to great music, and daydreaming of imaginary worlds." She hopes to attend a NYC-based university and to find an agent for her novel. Go read more about her at http://www.weronikajanczuk.com and try to remember what you were doing at seventeen. 

Where The Doves Fly
By Weronika Janczuk 


June 1985
Warszawa, Poland 

      Mama comes home when it’s dark outside, the sun fallen beyond the forest outside our window. She sets her basket on the floor under the hanging jackets in the hallway and stumbles into the kitchen, exhausted after working all day as a laundress, now barely able to stand on her feet. 
      “Tata hasn’t been home yet,” I tell her. Most likely, he has headed straight for the bars.
      “Krzysztof’s in bed?”
      “Yes.” My toddler brother is asleep, full after drinking an entire bottle of powdered soy milk. It was so old that I worried it might make him sick, but our father doesn’t give us the zlote for groceries; he doesn’t care, too drunk during the nights and too overworked during the days.
      We spread Mama’s pension on food to keep the three of us, particularly the baby, nourished. There is never enough for more, rarely enough for me to pass the health exams in gym class or for Mama to feel strong.
      She runs water from the tap into a pot for her tea. “How was school?”
      “Like always.” I return my gaze to the essay in front of me. It’s difficult to concentrate on my slanted cursive.
      A bus passes under the window, its engine bursting with energy as it roars, distracting my thoughts. Mama’s spoon clatters on the counter when she sets it down, and I jump. I wonder if Tata listens to these sounds when he leaves work or walks home from the bars. He isn’t human enough for that, I think. But I don’t really know him—our only conversations are disagreements; not once has he spoken of his hopes and dreams, or his perspective, carved by time—so maybe I’m wrong.
      I tap my pen against the table twice before I speak. “I’d like to enter the art competition.”
      “You know you don’t need my permission for that.” Her voice is low, a mix of exhaustion and agitation.
      “I’m not asking for permission.”
      I watch as she takes her teacup and sits on the bench across the kitchen table and to my right, further from the window, closer to the door. I think she’s listening for Tata to turn his key in the lock. “Then what do you want, Anna?” she asks.
      “I need money—for the entry fee.”
      “What is the point of entering a contest if you have to pay?” Her head is tipped downward, her eyes fixed upon a piece of splintered wood in the table.
      “They need to hire qualified judges, they need money to rent out the gallery. And for the prizes.” Mama knows what art means to me; she must realize that this is important to helping me realize my dream. “Do you think . . .” I swallow. “Do you think that Tata would give me the money?” I can still see my teacher Mr. Czarnetski’s face when he told me I was genius and that I should enter this contest. I want this, need this. It could change my life; it could change our life.
      Mama sighs. “How much?”
      “One hundred zlote.”
      Mama draws in a sharp breath and any tiny hope I had dies. “One hundred...”
      “I know it’s a lot.” My voice is low.
      “Do you think you can win?”
      “Yes. Teachers tell me so.”
      She looks directly at me and her eyes are dark, cooling coals against her skin. “Well, then you have something to fight for. Ask him.”
      “But—”
      “He’ll only beat you harder if you get the money out of me first.” Mama’s voice is disconnected from her body, robotic, as if she is trying to forget these words are hers. With an almost unnoticeable shake of her head, she begins to bring her cup back to her lips. “Ask him, if you want to risk it.”
      I nearly hate her for what she says, but I know she’s right. I have to try.

      He stumbles through our front doorway in the morning. I have not slept well, as usual—my stomach cramps and the itching in my fingers have kept me up for the hundredth night in a row. I am at work on the canvas that stands upright in the living room. I hide it if I am not working on it, because when Tata flies into a rage he doesn’t only hurt Mama and me, he breaks any possessions in our apartment that get in the way. He has never hurt Krzysztof, and I pray that day never comes, that we can protect him if it does.
      I am at work on a self-portrait, and in this one I do not abstract myself—the shadows of the girl glancing out the window are the same gray as mine, as is the tilt of her head so that her gaze is directed away from the light. I tap my paintbrush tip rhythmically at the center of my lips to help myself concentrate, and almost jab myself in the cheek when the silence is broken by the metallic click of the first lock. My shoulders tighten in anticipation.
      The door opens and Tata walks through, tripping as he crosses the threshold. It’s easy to tell he’s been drinking. He can’t hold himself upright, but I know that, due to some uncanny ability, his thoughts are alert and sharp, perhaps even sharper than when he is sober. Alcohol is his adrenaline.
      I let him settle near the television before I set down my paintbrush. I keep my eyes on the canvas, unwilling to look at him. If I see his tiredness and the wrinkles of his face I might let my barriers down and even feel pity. I would feel pity if the anger and pain didn’t come first.
      “Are you hungry?” I ask, my voice so soft that it is not even a whisper, but it carries through the soundless night to his ears. I hope not to wake Mama or Krzysztof, who are both tucked into Krzystof’s room, one in the crib, the other on the floor, the door locked from the inside. Mama and I made a silent agreement a long time ago that if I end up getting hurt it is a result of my own decision; I am an adult, after all.
      Sometimes Tata will command me to bring him tea or pierogi, dumplings with meats or fruits, easiest—and cheapest—to make. I intend to beat him to it, but his only response is a guttural groan.
      I can’t specify how many minutes pass before I spread my damp hands—glistening with sweat—down my skirt. “I was wondering if you could give me some money, Tata.” I clear my throat, then bring my voice lower: “One hundred zlote.”
      The last time I made such a direct request, I was fifteen, and I asked for money to buy a ticket to Mińsk to attend a free art show—any art show being a true rarity, the work of the damn Communists. I can still remember the burning leather of his belt against my back, and the bruises Mama got in her attempts to stop him. Neither of us left the house that weekend, and the week after Tata forced me into doing more in the apartment, despite my homework and side work as a typist.
      He groans again. I turn around as he stretches his legs, bringing his hand up to his head as he leans it back. I see that the muscle in his right cheek is throbbing, a pop from his skin every time I glance at him.
      He says nothing, and I hurry to add, “It’s for the city art competition—I would get more money in return if I won.” I hate myself for pleading. He doesn’t even blink before he says, “No.”  
      “Tata . . .” I am powerless, seeing my chance at something that might change my life disappear at the hand of my father. “Please.” My voice escapes as a whine, grinding even on my own nerves.
      As he stands, I realize how serious is my mistake in pushing it this far. When drunk, he is intelligent, and also vulnerable to mood swings. “Ask me one more time.” His voice is slow and threatening, a tone I have never heard, and I suddenly feel a level of fear I’ve never experienced.
      I swallow and take a step backward without realizing it.
      “You dare ask me for so much?” He growls and swings one hand toward me. I take another step back. “You want to take one hundred zlote out of my pocket? You selfish pig.”
      His slap cruises along the bone in my cheek, jolting me where I stand. Tata brings his hand back up to swing again, his face filled with rage. As if he wants to kill me.
      In one instance, something flips inside me. From the bookshelf I grab the vase Mama received from her mother. I swing it, in its glassy glory, toward Tata’s face. It hits him full force, shattering. Some pieces cut my hand; some fall to the ground and scatter, reflecting the light. Where others pierce his face drops of blood appear and stain his hands when he reaches them up to touch his skin.
      For the first time in my life I experience a stunned silence. He sits down heavily.
      And then I step back, away from the glass and blood, only to see Mama’s pale face as she turns away from the doorway. I watch as she heads for the front door, probably to find the nearest neighbor with a telephone.

      I do not go to school. I sit on the chair in the living room and wrap myself in the hand-knitted blanket that Mama made for her and Tata’s first apartment. The threads are loose and have lost their color, just like her life with him. The irony depresses me. Though my fingers tingle with the urge to paint, I can’t bring myself to finish the portrait. I stay sitting, wrapped in the blanket. It doesn’t keep away the cold.
      Janina, the neighbor below us, knocks on the door in the afternoon to tell me that Mama called from the hospital to say that Tata’s injuries are minor.
      “Anything else?”
      Her gray hair doesn’t move when she shakes her head.
      When I move to close the door, she looks me in the eyes and I see something there, something beyond the emptiness of the old. Pity, perhaps. 
      Krzysztof wakes then and I set him on the floor and, as he stands, hold him by his fingers. Ten minutes into our exercise he releases my fingers and takes his own first step, wobbly, deficient still in this new skill of his.

      I’m not sure how, but the police becomes involved, and the officer that visits the hospital room decides I acted in self-defense. He doesn’t have enough evidence to put Tata in jail, not even for a night, so five hours later he returns home from the hospital and we are left to tend to him. I am sure that Mama does not love him anymore; I am not sure if she ever did. When I tell Mr. Czarnetski that I’ve decided the art competition will be too much work, and when I stare at the ceiling in the evenings after finishing my homework, I can’t help but think of how many good things we could have bought with the money won—I can taste carp on my tongue, and the waft of chocolate tantalizes me.
      The endless amount of free time now that I’m not painting additions to my portfolio is brutal, but I cannot bring myself to lift a brush. For the first time in weeks I sleep for more than four hours, but my sleep results from an overload of worry about how Tata will retaliate once he is able.
      He soon heals fully and goes back to work, and the art competition deadline draws nearer.

      I consider stealing—I really do, sitting down at the table in the kitchen with the light bulb above me flickering, casting shadows on the table and the window, wondering if I could slip the money from Tata’s wallet as he slept. But I know that once the money were in my hand I would feel obligated to spend it on tangible goods, extra food and clothing, things that the arbitrariness of an art competition can’t guarantee. The sense of desperation in my chest grows; it is an unrest that lets me think that something must change. Soon.
      I officially withdraw my application from the city. I don’t want to lie to Mr. Czarnetski, but I cannot tell him the truth. 
      Mama comes home on a late Sunday night and heads straight to the cabinet above the sink for an aspirin. Her skin, already oddly colorless under the kitchen light, seems paler than before.
      “Are you all right, Mama?”
      “Fine.” She steadies herself by placing both hands on the counter in front of her.
      I blink, the rest of my body still.
      Seconds later she groans and runs both hands down her back to the indent above her bottom, then digs her fingers in to massage the skin there. “I fainted at work today.”
      “You . . . fainted?”
      She gives me a smile, but the edges of her lips seem to pull down. “It’s hard work. Happens sometimes.”
      The conclusion is simple: “You’re not eating enough.”
      “I’m eating fine.”
      We both know that her words are a lie. Tata’s day in the hospital and his need for help the few days afterward meant she didn’t work, so her pension was reduced. She eats less than both Krzysztof and me.
      “This must stop.”
 “It’s okay, Anna.” When she sees my brows, pulled inward, she places a hand on my shoulder. “It really is.”

      Instead of taking her usual cup of tea in the living room, she tells me that she feels a migraine coming on. She’s never had one before, so I doubt she knows what it feels like, but I don’t have the energy in me to ask.
      Though I am tired, I remain in the kitchen long after she goes to bed and wait again for the metallic click of the locks along the front door. The minutes on the clock move faster than I expect because I get lost in thought. Krzysztof begins to cry in the early morning, so I leave my untouched textbooks on the table and go for him. When I lift him out of the crib, his small hands cling to my neck, and he tucks the smooth curves of his face under my chin. I pace in my bedroom, lulling my brother to sleep, but even after half an hour his eyes are still wide open, staring at a point beyond my shoulder.
      It is almost like he is contemplating—what, I cannot imagine.
      I am hesitant to put him back in the crib, worried that the screams most likely to follow would wake Mama. I bring him with me to the kitchen and set him down on the floor, and he walks from one end to the other, pausing at the cabinet doors, opening them with his fingers, still sloppy, but more nimble with every try.
      Tata is early by his standards, stepping past the front doors as the clock hits one in the morning. His footsteps, rapid along the hallway, grow louder as he approaches the kitchen. I’m sure he wants to know why the light is still on. His mood swings are incredible—on some days, he’ll appreciate the light and come have a cup of tea, wordless; on days like this, he’ll have a reason to attack me.
      Experience has taught me it’s not worth it to hide, and there is nowhere for me to run. It is as if he can smell me, the smell so powerful that, although it seems to disgust him, he follows it still. I run my fingers over the smooth hair atop Krzysztof’s head as he sits at my feet, mumbling the few words he can say—baby, mama—and pray that Tata will not hurt him.
      “Why the hell is the light still on?” Tata steps into the kitchen and watches me, his hands fiddling with the newspaper he carries.
      “It’s a beacon for you,” I say.
      He swallows—not the nervous kind of swallow, but the let-me-think-about-how-to-kill- you swallow. A tic. “Money. Again?” Tata doesn’t move from his position by the door but his hands clench and unclench. The saliva in my throat dries and I must force my mouth to open.
      “We need more money for food, Tata.”
      “You think I don’t give you enough, is that it?” He moves to the table and sets his palms face down in front of me, moving his face so that I can smell a waft of vodka as he exhales. He looks older than his forty-five years, droopy skin below his eyes. “How dare you?” he whispers.
      “You forget that you don’t give us anything.” I tell myself that it’s now or never, and say the words I thought I never could. “You’re not a very good father.”
      Tata’s face takes on an inhuman red tinge. His cheeks, usually the color of his skin, a blend of Eastern European white with the tan of a laborer, become a shade I’ve never seen on him. He takes a step to move around the edge of the table so he can approach me at a closer distance, but the moment he reaches the corner of the table his body freezes. I watch in disbelief as he falls forward until his hands are wrapped around the wooden edge of the bench. I can see the veins through the paleness that floods through his face, washing away the red, and the throbbing of his blood as it runs through his body.
      He falls to the ground with a groan.
      Krzysztof begins to crawl toward his body, now shaking, sweat gathered along his hairline, but I sweep my brother into my arms and watch with wide eyes, straining against the skin of my face, as he grows still.

5 comments:

  1. well I figured I use you for publicity enough... it was the least I could do :)

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  2. What a fabulous story, Weronika! No I don't want to think about what I was doing with my time at 17!

    Maggie

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  3. Wow. The wait was worth it. This is just amazing Weronika. Now I want to read the rest!

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  4. Nice work, Weronika. I'm anxious to read more.

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