March 6 2021
Volume 1, Issue 7
Father Josef Wasilewski crossed himself and knelt before the altar, at the foot of the cross. Trembling all over, he rocked on his knees, and then to his heels, and back again. He trained his eyes on the Crucified Lord and once more tried to fix his thoughts on Christ’s sufferings and sacrifice, but it was impossible when his thoughts continued to stray to the flask in his room. He was parched, and not for the Living Water. Alcohol was his idol, which he bowed down to daily.
His prayers for deliverance had fallen on Deaf Ears, God had turned His Face from him, and now his addiction was interfering with his life’s purpose. The people of Krakow came to him for strength and needed him to be more than what he was. Unfortunately for them, he continually failed them. Showing up to church intoxicated, reeking of liquor, slurring his way through sermons, tuning out confessions, and becoming easy prey for the Germans. I’d sell out everyone to the Germans for a drink. He would fight it, but in the end his sins would win out. Vodka was his poison of choice. A traditionally Polish drink, it was easy to find, even in war ravaged Krakow.
There is only one thing to do. Josef quirked a finger beneath his clerical collar and ripped it off, freeing his neck from the constraints. He tossed it at base of the cross, silently renouncing the vow he once made, knowing there was no other alternative for him but death. Christ couldn’t free him from drinking and he was too weak to do it on his own. He would have to kill himself. Eternal damnation…I deserve nothing better. The Vistula River had thawed some and if he jumped, he would crash through the ice. His cassock would be saturated and it would weight him down. Drowning would be the easiest and quickest method. No one would miss him and the Church would find a suitable replacement.
Josef’s ears twitched at the screech of the hinges on the front door of the church opening and closing. Out of habit, he made the Sign of the Cross, and rose to his feet to greet the parishioner. He remembered his collar was hanging open when he gulped at the sight of a familiar face.
Mirjam Zimmermann tentatively approached, balancing a small girl on her hip. He hadn’t seen Mirjam in fifteen years, since he went off to seminary. But he could never forget her. A family friend and school mate, he had loved her since they were small.
“Mirjam?” His eyes watered and he hated she had to see him sleep deprived and disheveled. “Is it really you?”
Mirjam stood beneath the ghostly white lights of the church, raising her grey, sunken in face up to look at him. Her sad eyes said enough; she had been swept up in the Germans’ madness. At the start of the war, he tried to track her down and offer her and her family to hide in the church, but he wasn’t aware of her married name. She is still Mirjam Zimmermann to me. By the Star of David armband coiled around her arm and her gaunt appearance, he deduced she must have recently escaped from Krakow’s ghetto.
“Josef.” Mirjam mouthed his name and he understood. If things could have been different… But they went their separate ways. Him to the Church, and last he heard she followed her family’s wishes and married a nice Jewish boy. “Please, we need your help. The whole ghetto will eventually be liquidated and we need a place to hide. I wouldn’t ask for myself, but my daughter…”
“Of course,” Josef nodded and took a couple steps forward, but then he paused. He didn’t want her to smell the alcohol on his breath. “You are both safe in the House of the Lord.” He tilted his head and peered at the child. “Now, who is this young lady?”
“Alicia, my youngest.” Mirjam supplied. Her voice bore a raw quality, indicating to him she was ill.
Alicia buried her tired face into her mother’s shoulder, but from the quick glimpse he had, Josef noticed how much she resembled Mirjam. Same auburn hair, sparkling brown eyes, and sweet round face. His suicide could wait. Mirjam and her daughter needed him now. Though he failed everyone else including God, he would not fail them.
“She’s lovely.” Josef turned and was prepared to guide them to his quarters, where they could hide for now. “You and Alicia are welcome to stay-” He froze in place when the front door of the church opened once more and the methodical clicking of steel-toed boots resounded on the floor. The pattern fell in unison with his palpitating heart.
A young, German soldier swaggered into the sanctuary and though he wasn’t seasoned, Josef knew the young ones were as dangerous as the seasoned veterans. The young ones had something to prove to their superiors. More than once, Josef witnessed young soldiers scarcely over eighteen, mutilate a Jewish infant, for no reason other than wicked delight.
Mirjam backed away, twisting her upper half in an attempt to shield Alicia from the German’s view.
“Ach, I was right. Two little rats scurried in here.” The soldier tisked his tongue and snapping his fingers as he would for a dog, he motioned for Mirjam. “Well, come on, you are the cat’s prey now.”
While never a brave man, Josef felt if he were going to kill himself anyway, he had nothing to lose now. Lord, give me strength! “They are not going anywhere.” He moved in front of the soldier, and placed a hand on the young man’s chest. “They have claimed the sanctuary of the Church and you have no jurisdiction here. This is God’s domain.”
“Fool.” The soldier spat out, followed by a string of curses. He knocked Josef’s hand aside. “You think I am afraid of you or your God? I’ll kill you and then kill them.”
Josef winced, hating that the threat came out of such a young one’s mouth. A nice looking, polished youth, he looked better suited for university than the killing fields.
Mirjam let out a hoarse yelp as the German charged towards her and Alicia.
Josef seized the nearest thing – a candle holder – and chasing after the soldier, he slammed the base of it against the young man’s skull.
The soldier went down, slumping to the floor in a listless heap. Josef raised the candle holder again, expecting the young man to stir at any moment. But he didn’t. The German remained quiet as the grave. Blood began to gurgle from his open wound.
Mirjam set Alicia down and crouching next to the soldier, she pressed her fingertips to the young man’s pulse point and recoiled. “I think he’s dead.” She gazed up at Josef, shaking her head.
I killed a man! Josef grasped his chest and tugged on his priest’s garb. The soldier was hardly innocent; his intent was clear, but that was not justification to take a life. Not for me. He was supposed to help save souls, not take them.
“Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” Josef was about to cross himself and stopped. Instead, he crouched down and encircled his arms around the soldier’s ribcage. He dragged him off a few feet and then rolled the body beneath one of the pews. He straightened and unable to remain under Mirjam’s scrutiny a moment longer, he broke away and headed for his quarters adjacent to the church. “We have to leave. I need something from my room, I won’t be long.”
Josef fled to the stark, threadbare room and the first then he snatched up was a flask hidden under his pillow. Unscrewing the top, he slurped down the vodka, cringing as it burned down his esophagus. He jammed the flask in his pocket and rejoined Mirjam and Alicia, fortified enough to go out into the night.
When Captain Holtz rolled off of her, Franceska was able to draw in a lungful of fresh air. Giving him a sideways glance, she watched him cross his arms beneath his head and sink down into the mattress, and rest from his physical exertions.
She drew the sheet up to cover her nakedness and tried to relax some, in case he wanted more. Or in case he didn’t pay. If he didn’t pay, she’d have to go out into the streets and find a paying client. Often enough, Captain Holtz strutted into her ratty apartment, demanding entertainment and when he was finished, he neglected to pay her for her services. Or he would toss her some chocolate, and strut out. But he was a German, the enemy and the occupier of her country. The German soldiers did what they pleased. When the war began, Francesca swore she’d never entertain the enemy. She might have been a whore, but she wasn’t a traitor to Poland. Like many of her countrymen – and more specifically her countrywomen – the Nazis did as they pleased, without anyone’s consent. Despite what her neighbors thought, she didn’t have a choice either.
Francesca flinched when Captain Holtz moved, bracing herself for more, but sighed with relief when he leaned over the side of the bed and extracted a cigarette case from his trouser pocket. He raised back up, took out a cigarette, lit it and sucked on it. I hate that man. She gritted her teeth but plastered on a flirtatious smile when he glanced back at her. Blond, blue-eyed, sharp Nordic features, he resembled a prince. But after losing count over the number of times she watched him from her window, brutally playing target practice with Jewish people and laugh about it, Franceska knew he was the devil.
He smashed out his cigarette on the nightstand and appeared to be about to roll back on top of her when another German soldier barged into the room.
“Captain!” The other German shouted. On seeing her, he went blood red, and then averted his eyes.
“What?” Captain Holtz pushed away, cursing under his breath.
“Pvt. Peter Müller was murdered in the Church of St. Anna.” The soldier explained, shuffling his feet awkwardly. “The priest is missing; we think he did it.”
Captain Holtz scrambled out of bed, put on his trousers, slid his feet into his boots and grabbing his shirt, he and the other soldier dashed out of her apartment without another word.
Franceska sat up and smoothed back her unruly golden curls. She wanted nothing more than to go to sleep and never wake up, but this was her life. If she didn’t entertain, she didn’t eat and she couldn’t make rent. And there was no way out of this hell. Bribery only worked so far; money still made the world go round. Flinging back the sheet, she dressed, restyled her hair and reapplied her makeup. When she was presentable enough, she threw on her coat and headed out into the night in search for a paying client.
Poles had curfews and those out after a certain hour would be arrested. But girls like her knew their way around the law and she went down a route which would guarantee her payment for her services.
The moon shown through the wispy grey clouds and cast a yellowish tint on the street below, guiding her pathway. A flash of black caught Franceska’s eye and she spun around on her heel, in time to catch a glimpse of a priest, a woman, and a child creep into the alleyway across the street.
The priest! She shook her head in amazement. When the German soldier told Captain Holtz that a priest committed murder, it didn’t matter to her. Terrible as it was, death went hand in hand with war. But now that she thought about it, a priest who killed a Nazi was out of the ordinary. It had been years since she set foot in a church, but none of the priests she had known in her life would have raised a hand against the occupier. Once the Nazis got hold of the priest, they would torture him and publicly hang or shoot him, to make an example. While the soldier said nothing about a woman and child, she felt safe in assuming that the priest’s actions had something to do with them.
Franceska knew she hadn’t done much good in her twenty-two years. Six of those years were spent in prostitution, so it stood to reason she was destined for hell. But maybe one good act could atone for a sin or two. Now that she had seen the priest, the woman, and the child – particularly the child - she couldn’t look the other way.
Franceska rushed across the street and into the black alley, whispering loudly, “Come, come here!” Catching up to them, she grabbed the priest’s cassock and forced him to stop. The woman carrying the child stopped too. “Here, come with me.”
“What?” the priest whimpered, turning to face her.
“Please, don’t turn us in!” The woman pleaded.
Franceska squinted and though the child was pressed against to the woman’s chest, the Star of David armband stood out. They’re Jewish. She covered her mouth. In the past she always felt sorry for the people the Nazis chose to target, but never once did she do anything to help them. Her excuse was that she had her own troubles and no one had ever helped her.
“There is no time to talk.” Dragging the priest by his sleeve, Franceska motioned for the woman to follow as she led them to her apartment. Her home was nothing fancy, but no one would look for a murderous man of God in a prostitute’s residence. “Come.”
Franceska ushered them into her apartment building and up to her room. With it being such a late hour, all of the good law-abiding folks were in their own homes and she didn’t have to explain what she was up to. She shut the door securely behind the small group and locked it. Flicking on the light, her suspicions were confirmed. The woman and little girl were Jewish. The priest appeared guilt-stricken, so there was no doubt in her mind that he was one who committed the murder.
“You’re safe here.” She assured them, clasping her hands together. “You are the priest who killed that soldier, aren’t you?”
“I- I didn’t m-mean to.” The man of God sputtered.
Franceska gazed at him, studying him as she might a book if she could read. She had known enough people in her life to be a good judge of character and she believed the priest was telling the truth.
“Why are you so eager to help?” The woman asked. She observed Franceska and the truth dawned on her. “Oh God, you are a whore!” She swung around, making her child squawk as she jostled it. “We can’t stay here; we could get a disease.” She exclaimed to the clergyman.
The priest’s soft brown eyes bulged, but rather than condemn, he put his finger to his lips and hushed the woman. “Shh!” To Franceska, he sent an apologetic glance. “I’m sorry.”
Having heard worse over the years, Franceska remained unfazed by the woman’s cruel comment. “If you are hungry, I have some bread and cheese.” She went to her cupboard and took out the items she listed off and placed them on the table near the window. “Oh, and chocolate.”
Without a word of thanks, the woman and the little girl partook of the food.
A shout in the street drew the priest to the window. “Did you hear that?” he asked.
Franceska stood on tiptoe to get a better look and saw that the street was crawling with German soldiers. Closing off the roads, they surrounded the neighboring buildings in swarms. Since he stood out in his garb, someone must have noticed the priest out and about and watched him go into her apartment building.
She covered her mouth, understanding that if the Nazis found the priest and the Jewish woman and child in her apartment, she would be killed too for harboring the enemy. But she couldn’t turn her back on this group now.
“You must go to the attic.” Franceska gestured for them to follow her out into the hall.
Without a second thought, they trailed after her as she brought them up a narrow staircase to the attic. A storage area, the landlord put his cast-off furniture and other belongings in there. Several rolls of old carpeting lay on the floor. Though they were heavy and suffocating, with her urging, the priest, the woman, and the little girl managed to squeeze underneath the carpeting.
Franceska left the three there and returned to her apartment. She was only in there a few minutes before Captain Holtz’s heavy fist pounded for the second time that night on her door. Shedding her coat, she tossed it aside and opened the door. The captain and three others barged in without her permission.
“What?” Franceska giggled, arching her brow at him. “Back so soon?” She started to unbutton her blouse.
Captain Holtz smacked her hand aside, but cracked a smile. “Not for that, my whore. I swear, you are like a dog in heat.” He lifted his dimpled chin and nodded to her. “You walk the streets, have you seen a priest about?”
“Do I look like someone who goes to confession?” Franceska batted her lashes and knew she was fooling them when one of the chortled. “Why?”
They had no idea that a priest and two Jews were hiding right above their heads. They only came because they thought she might have information.
“The priest stabbed and slit the throat of a soldier.”
Franceska schooled her features, unable to believe the meek little priest could do something so vicious. But then again, it was the quiet ones that had to be watched out for. However, Captain Holtz didn’t mention of the Jewish woman and little girl and she thought it wise to keep him ignorant of their existence.
“I did see a priest while I was out.” She wasn’t one for prayers, mostly because God had never answered hers before she was a prostitute and she doubted He would now. But for now, she begged the Lord to help her lie convincingly enough to fool the soldiers. “He came begging for a place to hide but he couldn’t pay, so I made him leave. If you hurry, you might be able to catch him. He went south.”
Franceska waited, but none of them immediately said anything and she feared they could see through her.
Captain Holtz suddenly crushed his mouth to hers in a possessive kiss and then tearing away, he rummaged through his pocket and then tossed her a chocolate bar. He shook his finger playfully at her. “I won’t forget this.” “Let’s go.” He and the other Germans departed without another word.
Franceska rubbed her sleeve against her lips to rid herself of him, wondering what she should do now. Once Captain Holtz and his men realized she had fooled them, they would return.
For the duration of the Nazis’ visit, Josef had his ear pressed to the floor, straining to hear through the wooden slats. He was able to make out most of the exchange, enough to understand that the prostitute tricked them and they had departed. Not only had this unlikely angel protected him, she protected Mirjam and Alicia. Aside from a few zlotys and a flask of vodka, he had nothing on him worth any value to thank her for what she had done.
When the attic door opened once more and the light came on, the prostitute lifted up the carpet he was hidden under and Josef crawled out. Together they lifted up the one Mirjam and Alicia was beneath. Mother and child emerged and it occurred to him that the little girl had been quiet as a baby mouse. He feared the poor thing was accustomed to living in danger and having to be unseen.
“It is all right, they are gone.” The prostitute quickly added, “For now.”
“Thank you, miss.” Josef managed an awkward smile and politely extended his hand. “My name is Josef, and this is Mirjam and Alicia.”
Mirjam said nothing, but her hold on her daughter tightened.
“Franceska.” The prostitute – Franceska – replied, shaking his hand enthusiastically.
Josef observed her and couldn’t imagine how someone so young could have gotten caught up in a life of prostitution. By her youthful demeanor and child-like face, he estimated she was university age. She had slathered on make-up in an attempt to look older, but she was a girl. He couldn’t judge her, not after the choices he made and how only a couple of hours ago he was on the brink of suicide.
Franceska put her hands on her hips. “So, you stabbed a German, Josef?” Her bright blue orbs bore in him relentlessly.
“No.” Josef shook his head, feeling as though he had been slapped. Somehow, he had missed that part of the Nazis’ exchange. “I hit a soldier and killed him by accident.”
“Captain Holtz said you stabbed and slit a soldier’s throat.” Franceska insisted.
“I didn’t do that.” Josef gulped and craved another nip of vodka. He was willing to own up to hitting that soldier hard enough to kill him, but he never would have committed such a violent act. To himself, maybe, but not to another.
“Then someone else did.” Mirjam put in shortly and edging forward, she got in between him and Franceska. “Now there is a murderer running loose. We have to get out of here.”
“I’m too conspicuous like this.” Josef gestured to his black priest garb and then pointed at Mirjam’s Star of David armband. “And your star!”
“I have clothing if you need to change.” Franceska offered. “You would be surprised how many of my clients leave things behind.”
Josef nodded, but was at a loss of words to respond.
“We can go to my brother.” Mirjam informed him, disregarding Franceska altogether. “He is with the resistance in the woods.” She swept out of the attic and marched back down to the apartment.
Josef motioned for Franceska to go next and hoped whatever clothing she had would be inconspicuous enough. The first step was for them to get out of the neighborhood, and then out of Krakow unnoticed.
He changed into the simple white dress shirt, trousers, boots Franceska laid out for him, trying not to think of who they originally belonged to. Stepping in front of the mirror at the vanity table, he looked like an average Polish man, rather than a man of the cloth. And the trousers’ pockets were large enough to store his flask.
Once Mirjam and Alicia were ready, Josef approached Franceska nervously. “I wish I could repay you.” He winced, and his fingers seeking out the flask of vodka.
“You can.” Franceska snatched a rucksack off the table and slid her arms through the straps. “Take me with you.”
He blinked, shocked by her suggestion. Then he noticed that she too had changed, had a coat on, packed a rucksack, and now resembled a simple Polish girl rather than a member of the oldest profession.
“Absolutely not!” Mirjam cried out, shooting a warning glare in his direction. “I won’t have a collaborating whore near my daughter.”
Josef understood Mirjam’s hesitancy. Franceska had collaborated with the enemy and by society’s standards, she lived a life of sin. Yet there was more to her than that. She opened her home, saved their lives, and protected them. These days, Jews went for five hundred zlotys a head. If she had wanted, she could have betrayed Mirjam and Alicia when she had the chance and had a thousand zlotys in her pocket. God only knows what she could have got for him, a priest framed for murdering a German soldier!
No, Franceska more than proved herself worthy.
“This collaborating whore saved you and your daughter’s life.” Franceska thumbed towards her chest and then said evenly, “Besides, you shouldn’t have said where you were going if you didn’t want me to follow.”
Josef chuckled, and disregarded Mirjam’s anger. “You are welcome to join us, Miss Franceska.” He assured her.
Three hours later found the four on the edge of the northern woods bordering Krakow. Franceska led them through several streets free of Nazis and then Mirjam took them through the sewers which brought them on the outskirts of the city. There were several times Josef suspected someone, a silhouetted man, was following them. If it were the Nazis, they would have shown themselves.
What if it is the one who stabbed that soldier? He shook off the thought, praying that the murderer would not come after or betray the four of them.
For a little while, Josef could breathe easier as they trekked through the white, powdery embankments of snow. He couldn’t recall the last time he had been in the woods. Or had been able to enjoy a little bit of nature. The storks had migrated back to Poland, on St. Joseph’s Day, and the trill of their kle, kle, kle calls reminded him that there were bits of light in the darkness of this war. According to the old Polish lesson, they were the kindred spirits of man, possessing human-like qualities. Craning back his neck, he gazed up at the stars above and knew Mirjam, Alicia, and Franceska’s sudden entrances in his life couldn’t have been a mistake. For whatever reason, God sent them to stop him from committing a mortal sin and this was his second chance to do the right thing. He didn’t know if he could break free from alcohol, but at the very least he could help Mirjam and Alicia to safety, and do whatever he could for Franceska.
As if on cue, his hands began to tremble and his tongue seemed to swell. The longing for a drink became too intense. He paused, cursing himself for his weakness. He had gone several hours without imbibing, but now that he was thinking of it, he needed it again. Rather than deny himself and end up sick, he withdrew the flask and drunk a fraction of its contents.
Josef stuck the flask back into his pocket and turned to find Mirjam lagging behind. He had easily fallen in step with Franceska and having gotten distracted by his own selfishness, he neglected his sick friend.
“Josef,” Mirjam panted, shaking from head to toe as she tried to hold up her daughter. “I– I need to rest.”
“We haven’t gone far enough. They will find us if we stop now.” Franceska reminded him. And she was right, they couldn’t stop now if they wanted to escape the Germans.
Josef rubbed his chin and idea occurred to him. “Franceska, you carry Alicia. Mirjam, I will carry you.” He made the mistake of attempting to disengage Alicia from her mother and the child wailed loud enough to echo throughout the quiet countryside.
“I don’t want her filthy hands on Alicia!” Mirjam wheezed and he feared she might collapse at any moment.
“Mirjam, stop being so stubborn!” Josef pleaded and was about to admonish her for being so harsh, when he saw her for what she really was.
Mirjam was a woman who had had everything taken from her and while living in the ghetto, she faced death on a daily basis. She was ill and if she didn’t receive medical attention, she would die. All she had was her daughter and he was trying to place the little girl in the hands of someone they barely knew.
Josef locked eyes with her and whispered, “Mirjam, please.”
Mirjam choked back a sob and soothing her daughter, she handed Alicia off to Franceska. The younger woman did her best cradling the child to her, but he could tell it was her first time holding a little one.
Alicia grunted her displeasure but cuddled to the stranger, sensing the girl’s good nature.
Once certain nothing terrible would happen, Mirjam’s body slackened and she slumped against Josef. He scooped her up, amazed he that after years of making sermons and listening to confessions, that possessed such strength. Then he understood.
Mirjam was so emaciated she weighed as much as a child. She is ill. Diseases run rampant in the ghetto. His friend was dying. She knew it and that was why she came to him.
Franceska nodded to him and despite having to carry a little girl, she led the way, stomping down the snow to make it easier for him to wade through.
Franceska’s lashes fluttered and she roused at the sound of fire crackling in the fireplace. Drowsily, she opened her eyes and when her vision adjusted, she remembered where she was. In the early hours of the morning, the four of them had stumbled onto an old, abandoned fishing cabin and took refuge there. She and Josef built a fire while Mirjam and Alicia cuddled beneath a musty quilt and rested. Then she and Josef made pallets near the blaze and tried to sleep.
Franceska sat up, realizing a coat – Josef’s coat – had been tucked around her at some point. She scanned the room and found him sitting close to the hearth, poking at the embers to keep the cabin warm. He produced a flask from his trouser pocket, unscrewed the top, and took a swig. Instantly, she understood.
Josef was addicted to alcohol. She had been around enough men like that to pick up the signs. The disheveled hair and clothes, the puffy cheeks, the blood shot eyes, the tremors.
“You shouldn’t do that.” Franceska blurted out before she could stop herself. It wasn’t her place to judge, but she hated to see a good man destroyed by such a horrible habit. “Drink will kill you.”
“I know, but I can’t stop.” Josef put the flask away and shrugged helplessly. His eyes glistened and he sniffed. “I am a horrible priest; it was a mistake for me to become one.”
Franceska scooted closer to him. She was dying to know how a good man and a priest took to the bottle. In the little time she had known him, she learned Josef was truly unlike any other man she had ever encountered. He wasn’t loud or crude towards her, he didn’t leer, and he didn’t treat her badly for her work. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word.
“If it was a mistake, why did you become a priest?” she asked gently.
“Well, when I was a boy, my little sister became ill and I promised God that if He spared her, I would become a priest. She got better and when I was old enough, I went to seminary.” As he spoke of his sister and his early years, he briefly sounded carefree. “For years, I did all right, but when the war began, I started drinking and now I can’t stop.” He shook his head mournfully and lowered his tone for only her to hear. “I was going to kill myself, to be free. Suicide is a mortal sin; no one can pass Divine Judgment on another or oneself. But then Mirjam and Alicia…and you came into my life.”
Franceska gasped. “I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself, Josef.” Early on in her work, she thought of doing the same thing, but something always stopped her.
“How did you become a…?” Josef’s gaze timidly met hers and she found it endearing he couldn’t even utter the word.
“A whore?” Franceska smirked, but then felt a twinge of guilt for making him squirm. “My mother was a whore. But when she had me, she wanted better for me.” Her mother was a shadowy figure in her memories; sweet and loving, and for as long as she was alive, she provided for Franceska financially, but she wanted her daughter to have more. Unfortunately, her mother died young. “She put me in an orphanage to be adopted by a good family, but no one wanted a whore’s child. Everyone knew what my mother was and the nuns told me I would become a whore just like her. And after I left the orphanage, I did.”
“How old were you?”
“Sixteen.” Franceska fidgeted under his sympathetic gaze.
She wasn’t used to anyone caring about where she came from or what her story was. No one ever asked before, she simply existed for everyone else’s amusement. Somehow, Josef’s pity made her feel worse than all of the things that had been said and done to her over the years.
Stealing a glimpse at Mirjam, she was relieved to see that the woman was still asleep, clutching her child close. Franceska didn’t want the woman overhearing anything she told Josef. Mirjam hated her, and that wasn’t surprising – most women hated her. Alicia had taken to her surprisingly well, burrowing into her as she carried the small girl through the woods. Her knowledge of children was limited; every child in Krakow knew better than to go near her or they would risk turning out like her. But holding Alicia those few hours confirmed to Franceska that she was doing the right thing.
“And now you want to leave that life?” Josef asked.
Franceska wasn’t sure what exactly possessed her to go off with Josef, Mirjam, and Alicia. Obviously to avoid Captain Holtz and whatever punishment awaited her for lying to him. Krakow could no longer be her home, since she slept with half the male population. Everyone knew what she was, and they’d turn her in in a heartbeat. But to leave prostitution and do something else, it would take a miracle only God could pull off. And God never acknowledged her.
“Maybe. I don’t know.” She lifted and dropped her shoulders, feeling stupid for opening up to him. Sweet as Josef was, he didn’t understand. He couldn’t; no one could. “Whoring is all I know. It is the whole point of me.”
“No, Franceska, none of that is true.” Josef countered adamantly, working himself into a passion she didn’t know he was capable of. “You can be and do whatever you want. You have proven yourself to be a brave, smart, and caring individual. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Men paid her complements before, praising her looks, her body, or how good she was in bed. But Josef’s words meant something entirely different. He didn’t expect her to do anything for him in return. His response also flew in the face of what she had been told in her childhood.
“The sisters…they said my mother’s sins cursed me.” Franceska’s voice became hoarse and pressure built behind her eyeballs, threatening tears. Which was strange, because she hadn’t cried in years. Then unable to stop it, a single droplet rolled down her cheek. “They said her sins would follow me and her sins would be carried to the third and fourth generations.”
“No, none of that is true!” Josef’s face reddened and his mouth twisted into a grimace. “Listen to me, you were lied to. God loves you. Did they ever tell you that?” He claimed one of her hands and softly pressed her fingers. “He collects all of our tears in a bottle.”
“None of that matters now. It’s too late.” His pure, innocent touch set her skin on fire, yet she couldn’t let go of him, no matter how painful it was. He was her only beacon of hope. “If it’s too late for a good man like you, then it’s too late for me.”
“Perhaps it’s not too late for either of us.” Josef replied.
Franceska nodded, hoping he would give no more thought to harming himself. If he didn’t give up, neither could she.
Josef woke to the fire dying out, to Franceska resting her cheek against his shoulder, to Alicia wailing, and to Mirjam on her hands and knees scarcely able to draw breath. Each rattling cough was evidence that his old friend was fading away fast. He nudged Franceska awake and while she tended to Alicia and fed her a stale crust of bread from her rucksack, he went to Mirjam and patted her back.
“Mirjam?” Josef grasped one of her shoulders and assisted her back into a sitting position, thinking she might be able to breathe easier that way.
“I am being punished.” Mirjam’s face crumpled, a stream of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Whether tuberculosis ailed her, or something else, he couldn’t be certain. “God is punishing me.”
“Why do you think that?” Josef asked.
“It was me. I killed that, German.” Mirjam pressed her palm to her chest. “I waited until you went to collect your belongings and I took the knife I had and stabbed him. Then I slit his throat.”
Franceska sucked in a gasp, then she quickly covered Alicia’s ears.
“Oh Mirjam…” Josef’s heart sank.
He never would have suspected Mirjam capable of committing murder. Then again, he never would have thought man capable of committing inhumanities to man. But the ghetto, the shootings, the rumored death camps – they were proof of what everyone was capable of.
“I don’t regret it, even if God is punishing me.” Mirjam declared, with a defiant shake of her head. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. The Nazis killed my whole family, my other children – all except for Alicia – and I wanted to take one of them out. He was a beast; they are all beasts.”
Only a little while ago, he considered killing himself and he briefly believed he killed another. Then he told Franceska that no one could pass Divine Judgment on another. But now he could see how easy it could be to take justice in one’s hands, especially when the world looked the other way.
“Forgiveness is yours for the asking.” Josef assured her. He might not be a priest any more, but as a believer, he could still offer comfort where he could.
“I don’t want forgiveness, Josef!” Mirjam stated, without batting an eye lash. “I said I regret nothing and I meant it.”
Josef nodded and decided not to push any farther. He stood and went to the window. The sun was up and reflected off the crystalized snow and ice. They had probably stayed at the cabin too long and risked being caught by the Germans, but it was too late now. If they remained in the cabin, they would be discovered at some point.
“We should get moving.” Josef announced and cast a glance over his shoulder at the other three. “Maybe we can make it to the resistance camp before long.”
It took only a few minutes for them to gather up their belongings and the few items of value the cabin had to offer, and he and the ladies started out once more. Josef and the group had not been traveling ten minutes when he heard shots ring out. The noise reverberated off the wall of trees surrounding them.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
The Germans had found them and would kill them all!
Mirjam crushed Alicia to her and they hid down behind the nearest birch tree.
There wasn’t enough room for either him or Franceska to join them, so they dashed to the next. Josef heard and almost felt the shrill whistling shots darting past him. He grabbed Franceska and threw her down and attempted to shield her.
A burning pain seared through his shoulder and he collapsed on top of the girl.
The next thing he knew was Franceska was dragging him to a tree and laid him on top of the gnarled tree roots.
Josef grasped his arm and hissing, he let his head drop back against the trunk.
“Josef!” Franceska knelt down beside him, sobbing. “Oh, God!”
“Go on, get out of here!” He pushed at her for her to leave. “Go!” he ordered.
Franceska shook her head and refused to budge, even when Mirjam screamed for her.
To his astonishment, Mirjam returned for Franceska. She brought her hand back and smacked Franceska’s face, snapping the younger woman out of her hysterics. Only then did the girl trail after Mirjam and Alicia, and escape. His eyes watered as they retreated. Difficult as it was to be separated, as long as they survived, that was all that mattered to him.
Josef repeatedly inhaled and then exhaled. The Germans would find him, there was no doubt about that. But if he could convince them that he was alone and he confessed to the murder of that soldier, his friends might make it to the resistance group in time.
He snatched his flask out of his pocket and was about to take a drink, when gritted his teeth and hurled it as far as he could. If I am going to die, I am going to die sober. Probing around in his other pocket, he located his rosary and counted the beads.
“My life is in Your Hands.” Josef squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head. “Father, be with them. Hail Mary, full of Grace.”
The world began to go white, but he could make out the outline of two men standing in front of him.
Franceska slowed, unable and unwilling to take another step. Not that she lacked the strength, but she couldn’t abandon Josef. She’d rather die with him than abandon him. They barely knew one another, having only met yesterday evening, but she felt bound to him in a way she had never been bound to anyone.
Cupping her hands around her mouth, she called Mirjam back.
Mirjam halted in her tracks and stalked back to Franceska, jostling Alicia and upsetting the child. The woman’s haggard face was knitted in fury.
Franceska rubbed her tingling cheek and though she was risking another slap, she squared her shoulders. “We – I can’t. I can’t leave Josef.” She declared, lifting her chin. Being hit wasn’t too bad; she had been hit before and recovered from it. “I’m going back.”
Mirjam stopped a few paces away and suddenly her expression softened. “No.” She looked to her daughter and then shook her head. “You take Alicia and go to the resistance camp.” Before Franceska could protest, Mirjam shoved the child in her arms. “I am dying anyway and if I do make it to my brother, I won’t last long.”
Mirjam is right. Were Franceska to return to Josef, Mirjam would be on her own with Alicia and there was more than a good chance her illness would claim her. Then the little girl would be alone in the woods.
Franceska shifted Alicia on her hip and cringed when the child began to scream. “You hate me.” She reminded the woman. Mirjam had treated her like dirt from the start; she couldn’t think of what possessed the woman to give Alice to her.
“Yes, but Alicia needs a mother who will live and you have done your best for her.” Mirjam patted Alicia’s tearstained cheek and then kissed it one last time. “You can and will love her. You must save my daughter; I beg of you.”
Franceska nodded, unable to deny a dying woman her last wish. Peering into Alicia’s tiny face, she knew that she could love the girl if she let herself. But she didn’t know how to be a good mother, or a good anything.
“But what if the Nazis capture you and torture you?” she asked.
Mirjam withdrew a knife from her coat pocket. The blade was red-tinged with the soldier’s blood and the sun’s rays glinted off of it. “I will make sure I won’t be taken alive. Take care of Alicia; you are her mother now.” Next, she pulled out a white cloth and handed it to Franceska. “Use this handkerchief as a sign of surrender. My initials are on it, my brother will recognize it. He will show you mercy. Now go!” She grabbed Franceska’s arm and propelled her forward.
Franceska ambled off, trying to sooth Alicia’s howls and not lose her way. She didn’t dare look back at Mirjam or else she would lose her courage. But to her, after a while every tree, brush, and rock looked the same and she suspected she was wandering in circles.
She heard a snap of a twig, followed by the crunching of snow beneath a heavy boot and intended to dart behind a thicket, when Captain Holtz emerged from her blind spot.
Franceska tensed, which made Alicia’s wails intensify.
“I can’t believe it.” Captain Holtz shook his head, tisking his tongue. “My whore betrayed me for Jews and a priest. After all I have done for you. You are more trouble than you worth.”
Josef’s tender words played again in her mind, about being ‘fearfully and wonderfully made,’ and they emboldened her enough to no longer accept the Nazi’s cruel barbs. “I don’t belong to you, I never did.” Franceska instantly regretted defending herself, since it might aggravate him further. Especially when she needed to stay on his good side to bargain for Alicia’s life. “Please, this is just a little girl and she doesn’t deserve to die. Let her go and you can do whatever you want to me.”
“I think I shall kill her first and then do whatever I like to you.” Captain Holtz snorted and began to advance towards them.
Franceska guided Alicia’s small head to her shoulder and prayed that whatever he intended to do, he would be quick about it. The child shouldn’t have to suffer.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
Captain Holtz’s head snapped back and he flopped to the ground. From a distance she could see a large hole in his noble forehead and her stomach churned as blood flowed out.
Franceska backed away, shaking all over, was on the verge of breaking out into a run when two young men came from behind. Rifles slung over their shoulders, they stood over the Nazi, proudly determined he was dead, and then looked back at her.
She whimpered and realizing the handkerchief was in her tightened fist, with Alicia clinging to her neck, she knelt and waved the cloth wildly for them to see.
Josef, Josef, Josef! A familiar, angelic voice intoned his name.
Josef squinted through his thickened lids, his surroundings were blurred, but he could make out that he was in a makeshift tent, and he was lying on a pallet. The kles’ of the storks informed him that he was not in heaven, or hell, or in purgatory, but in the densely wooded countryside outside of Krakow. He smacked his lips, his mouth tasting like he swallowed a gulp of cotton.
He moaned when he attempted to raise a fist to his eyes and barely remembered being shot. But the dull ache from where he had been hit assured him that he was indeed wounded.
“Josef!” His heart fluttered at the sight of Franceska’s face hovering over him. Her nimble fingers stroked his clammy brow. “Josef! I-I thought- I was afraid we were going to lose you.” Her chin wobbled and he could tell she still feared his demise.
Alicia scrambled over to his side and though she didn’t speak, her tiny mouth had a chocolate ring around it and it was puckered into a smile.
Miraculously, the three of them had made it to the resistance camp and he supposed they had been accepted into the group. Otherwise, they would have killed him and Franceska on the spot.
“It was just my shoulder. I will be all right.” Josef promised.
Kle, kle, kle…the storks called out from the distance, in the tree tops. It was a benediction. Kindred spirits of man…I am not going to die…I don’t want to die. In a day’s time, he went from being suicidal to finding his purpose in life. He was meant to help Franceska and Alicia…if not do more for them. Returning to the priesthood was out of the question, he no longer felt called to serve God in that capacity. But Franceska and Alicia…they needed him and he needed them. The Lord must have brought them together for a reason, to be a family.
“Captain Holtz shot you, but we don’t have to worry about him anymore. And…Mirjam didn’t make it.” Franceska leaned in closer and murmured low enough that only he could hear. “The resistance found her and brought her here, but when she knew Alicia was safe, she went to sleep and never woke up.”
Josef nodded, knowingly. He was grateful though Mirjam could go peacefully and believed God would show her mercy.
He patted Alicia’s cheek, vowing to care for his old friend’s daughter. Then he took Franceska’s hand and kissed the back of it, silently promising nothing would ever separate him from her.
Veronica Leigh has been published in numerous anthologies and is a regular contributor to Femnista Magazine Blog. Her fiction has appeared in Dark Moon Digest, The Scribe, After Dinner Conversation Magazine, and The Nosleep Podcast. She makes her home in Indiana with her family and furbabies. Her blog is: http://veronicaleighauthor.wordpress.com.