No heavy machinery could tame the sandy unpaved road outside Babcia’s Augustów house. A grunting tractor pulling a drum came through every couple of months, but soon all who walked the road could feel its sting in their calves again.
Perched on the northeastern tip of Poland, Augustów was an island carved out by four deep lakes and a few rivers which made the area’s map look like a connect-the-dots completed by a tipsy child. A dense forest surrounded the town best known for logging and tobacco. That and for the gang which only a few years earlier, in the winter of 1972, drowned a man in a hole in the ice for beer money. Gnarly pines had settled the lakes’ shores, and people said some of the trees would remember wild bison or even the ancient aurochs, the last of which King Sigismund had killed for sport.
On the right side of Babcia’s chain-link fence, instead of the primeval forest, four tart cherry trees grew. They enjoyed the sandy soil, too.
Robert enjoyed both the cherries and the sand. Where shade didn’t reach, the sand needled his sweaty feet with pleasure, the road was an island, he was Robinson Crusoe, and the cherry trees were coconut palms. Thirty years later, at forty and across an ocean, Robert would learn that the coconut was technically a drupe and not a nut, and this disappointment would lead him to uncork a cheap bottle of Shiraz.
That summer, after a mid-day dinner of bread with some spread, or, on Sunday, pierogi with kiełbasa, the road might become a desert, and Robert would lead a caravan through the dunes helped by a few faithful companions. He was a hero from Kipling, or better yet, Staś from Sienkiewicz, or, best of all, Tomek Wilmowski from the Szklarski novels. Entering first grade Robert had read not a word, but now, by the third, he had wolfed down the library’s contents, soon outstripping Pani Jadwiga’s attempts to keep the supply fresh. Robert wondered if he would ever meet a desert dweller. They sounded rough but, according to fine literature—by a Nobel Prize winner, no less—seemed to make loyal friends and companions once enlightened.
A Tuesday afternoon found a head the size of a coconut sticking out of the ground on one side of the road. The head shook a mop of sun-lightened hair and spat out a mouthful of sand.
“I don’t wanna be Gebhr anymore!” Robert’s six-year-old cousin Marek whined, and continued to spit and work his gritty tongue over his teeth. Clean tracts of skin on his cheeks marked the riverbeds of tears.
“You’re the prisoner. You’ve got to do what I say,” Robert answered, measuring his words out to make sure Marek understood. “Or I’ll shoot you with my rifle, like Staś.”
“Can you tell me to do something I want?”
“Sure, go pick us some cherries,” Robert said and lowered his aimed finger.
Marek’s sandy lips split in a smile. He wiggled out of his hole in the ground, leaving behind a body negative the size of an average mutt, and ran off while continuing to spit. Robert nodded. Given a bit more practice, he would get on with the followers of the Mahdi beautifully when he finally met them in the desert or the wilderness.
Looking up, Robert spotted a Yeti…no, an Egyptian mummy…no, that was most definitely the neighbor Paszko staggering home. The boy raised his head to the sun and estimated the time of the day just like Tomek Wilmowski would. Four o’clock, roughly. Definitely sometime between one and six. That checked out. Mr. Paszko’s regular day involved sweeping the restaurants around the marina in the morning, followed by a checklist of watering holes on his way home. The old man wore a pair of dark pants with a faint memory of a crease, a collared shirt and, despite the heat, a sweater vest.
Robert had seen sailboats struggle upwind. People with tans and muscles like Zeus, straining, zig-zagging, defied the breeze. Now the air was still, the sky cloudless and the heat businesslike on this late summer afternoon. Underfoot: sand. No wind. But Paszko tacked at roughly forty-five degrees to his direction of travel—starboard, port, starboard—each turn weighty like the pendulum of Babcia’s wooden wind-up clock.
“Good day,” Robert said in greeting, like his mother had taught him, as the ship passed by. Paszko grunted something, missed the hole they had excavated for Marek by a smidgen, and sailed on.
Mama had outlawed vodka at home. It continued to pass by in these vessels. It crowded shop shelves. There, it kept vinegar company in the absence of meat and fruit, the last two always lost at sea—sold out. Vodka smuggled itself inside within Father’s body on most evenings. When he staggered in, Mama pointed with her chin and balled up her fists. She ground her dentures, which had replaced teeth lost, she claimed, to motherhood. Father never hit Mother. But Robert knew his backhands well, even if he moved too fast for the unsteady kicks to land.
When Marek came back with a tin cup full of cherries, Robert took it and evaluated the effort: “Good job.” He sat down, resting against the chain link fence under the shade of the nearest cherry tree.
“Have some,” Robert said but maintained a firm hold on the cup. Marek obliged with fingers already streaked blood-red. No one said another word as the boys tasted the sweet tartness and spat the pits as far as they could, already engaged in a contest.
“That’s cheating,” Robert said.
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is, you stupid worm. Quit using your neck.” Robert took a few more cherries in his fist to prepare for the next round.
“You shouldn’t call me that.” Marek blinked water out of a pair of brown eyes. He had cleaned the sand off his face.
“Alright, but no neck.”
No neck. Marek’s next shot bounced off the wires at the bottom of the chain link fence across the street. Robert’s best had buried itself next to a doomed tuft of grass at least two steps closer. Now he set himself, tensed, drew all of the air his lungs could contain and snapped his ribs like a fly-eating plant. He got the next pit to within a few centimeters of Marek’s.
“You said no neck,” Marek breathed. “You said no neck yourself!” A bit of red spittle appeared in the corner of his mouth. “You cheat!”
Robert scrambled over and slapped Marek over the head with his cherry-wielding hand. He was unprepared when Marek sprang up and slammed into him with all his skin, all the bones and sinew, and possibly some muscle. Robert fell on his back and held Marek, as the younger boy thrashed atop attempting to land a blow.
When Marek came to a rest Robert released him, and the boy got back to his feet in silence. Robert rose, exhaled. Then he hugged Marek’s head, caked with cherry juice mud, tight to his shirtless chest.
“Sorry,” Robert said. His heart pumped less adrenaline now, the void replaced by shame he could feel in his belly, solid and heavy like hunger.
Marek sniffled in response.
“I have an idea,” Robert said and proceeded to lay out a plan he knew would cheer Marek up.
They found two small but serviceable shovels in Babcia’s barn, across from the pig and next to the pile of coal left over from last winter. The thin sticks they needed came from under the trees and, when they’d run short, from the bundle of kindling Babcia kept by the coal. Marek accepted the mission to retrieve a tablecloth from the house and performed it with courage and cunning. Robert didn’t think Tomek Wilmowski himself could have done better and told Marek so.
Robert measured the distance with an explorer’s squint. This looked right: about two steps from Babcia’s fence and in the shade of a cherry tree, but far enough to the side that if an unlikely car came through, it wouldn’t get too close.
“We’ve got to dig deep. This will be hard. Like digging the Suez Canal.” Robert assumed the lead.
“What’s Suzy Canal?”
“It’s like the canal on the other side of Babcia’s house, just way wider. The English dug it up, but then the Arabs stole it.”
“How do you steal a canal?”
“Don’t know. That’s what the books say. Let’s dig.”
The sandy soil gave up shovelfuls with little resistance, but the sides continued to collapse, and Robert wondered if the English had come up with some brilliant way to make sand behave. Finally, the boys resolved to reinforce the hole with sticks. At knee depth, the earth began to turn darker and heavier. Worms squirmed, and the ones not sliced in half by the shovels carried on doing whatever worms did.
Robert judged the hole deep enough, called a halt to the proceedings and looked up toward the sun again. Five o’clock? Somewhere between one and six. They needed to execute the rest of the plan now to stay on schedule.
They placed the longer sticks across the hole, interspersed at right angles like a thatch. Smaller sticks and delicate kindling went over the top. Robert folded the tablecloth to size and laid it carefully over the wooden support. Then, taking small handfuls, the engineers covered the trap with a thin layer of sand until, if they didn’t know the hole was there, they would never, ever, not in a thousand years, suspect its presence. Robert’s heart began to thump more now than it had in the middle of all the straining and digging.
Marek and Robert sat down a few steps away and waited. There was nothing to say. They would on occasion gaze up and then look back down. They ran their fingers through the dusty, gray sand and let it fall from their palms.
Waiting for battle turned into absent shredding of leftover sticks. The little abrasions soon made Robert’s fingers smart, the excitement seemed to vent through them, and his heart resumed its regular pace. Robert got up and headed inside. Marek followed. They banged through the outside door, passed across the veranda where the aluminum tub waited for the evening’s baths, then negotiated the inside door with greater care.
In the kitchen, Babcia rested on her stomach on the wooden bed Dziadek had made. The buttons on the back of her dress were undone. His mama held a stick, aflame with a bluish denatured-alcohol tint, and with practiced movements took small, bulbous cups, stuck the burning end in each cup for a blink, and then pressed the opening to her mother’s back. The smell—wet chicken coop mixed with garlic—made Robert’s mouth water with hunger and his stomach lurch up toward his throat, all at once. The scent always took a minute to get used to. The cupping would go on for a bit; Mama had just started. As each cup attached itself like a barnacle, the suction drew a satisfied grunt from the old woman.
The boys ladled drinking water from a bucket into mugs, cut a couple of slices of bread and sat down to an evening snack. The bread had been hot this morning. Dziadek had brought it before leaving for work, and it went down like cake.
The crash of a slammed outside door made Robert sit up. His father staggered into the room, back from his livestock buyer job at the slaughterhouse. Robert sometimes wondered whose tables and mouths ended up holding all that meat.
“So hot, too hot even for the pigs,” Father said, then chuckled. He navigated the three meters of floor and dropped onto the bench on the other side of the table from the boys. His head slammed the wall and made the dull sound of a hazelnut cracked a bit too hard. He took no notice.
“Drunk again? When do you find time?” Mama continued to place the cups while Babcia continued to grunt.
“Drunk? You’re drunk.” He smiled and winked at Robert. “Robercik, my son, bring me some water, will you?” Father had said more than once that buying pigs and cows for slaughter was thirsty work.
Robert looked toward his mother and obeyed once he’d seen her nod.
Father noticed, and clenched his jaw as he accepted the glass. “Mama’s boy,” he chuckled. He chugged the water and slammed the glass on the table.
“Leave the child alone, drunk pig.” Mama placed another cup.
“Piece of shit,” Father said. Gave another vodka chuckle.
Robert slid off his bench and in one pivot grabbed a piece of wood off the stove pile and let it fly on the turn. No, wanted to let it fly. Wanted to grab it. He wanted to be brave like Tomek Wilmowski. But he wasn’t. Father was right. Robert’s muscles seized up and his face burned as if the stove were the sun. The chunk of wood remained undisturbed, and all he’d accomplished was to trip and scrape his palms on the rivets fixing the sheet metal to the floor.
Robert ran out of the house without waiting to hear Father’s laughter. He got to the other side of the fence, by the cherry trees, before he looked around. Marek came to a stop beside him and rested a hand on his shoulder. Before the boys could say a word, they saw a tacking traveler traversing the sandy road in their direction, each step a battle against the headwind.
Robert used the unbroken back of his hand to wipe away the tears he would later swear were never shed. “Battle stations,” he said.
The enemy drew nearer. He was a short, slight man. Brown hair draped his shoulders. His lips moved and a sound came out. Robert didn’t know if the man was speaking in tongues like they did in Babcia’s bible, but every few moments a yell and a sob escaped him.
“Ready?” Robert asked.
The boys waved their hands and hooted.
“Hey you, drunkard!” Robert screamed.
“Hey, dog’s prick!” Marek did the best he could.
They jumped up and down.
“Asshole, come get us!”
The man’s possessed monologue stopped and his eyes see-sawed, struggling to find them in the squall. His walk became a diminishing shuffle until he came to a stop.
His face, pink and molten with sweat, was like Father’s and yet unfamiliar.
Up close the man was larger than he had appeared. Marek tugged at Robert’s shorts. Robert imagined Marek’s pursed lips, his feet set, waiting for a command to flee, but prepared to stay until the bitter end if duty required it. He was a good, faithful companion, just what an adventurer needed in the wilderness.
A command to flee would not be forthcoming.
“Hey, you fucking cunt!” Robert screamed, and a thrill traveled up his spine.
The man lurched as if struck and heaved himself toward Robert and Marek. A sob from deep down in his chest preceded the man’s frame.
“Retreat,” Robert shouted and ran, hoping Marek followed.
The boys stopped twenty paces later. Turned around. The man had covered perhaps three steps. He now stood with his right foot poised to complete the fourth. The foot wore a sandal over a checkered sock of an indeterminate color. It came down.
Like the Colossus of Rhodes, the man toppled. The boys heard the cracking of sticks. He had now fallen silent, his face blank, and he continued the fall. The man hit the ground with a crack louder than any of the sticks would have made. The kind of sound a Nazi dog with a partisan’s shin bone in its maw might make in a Soviet movie.
A small cloud of dust rose.
Soon, the dust fell like dew. Then all was still. Even the thrushes dining on the cherries shut up. Robert knew there was someone behind him before he heard the steps.
“What have you done?” Mama whispered.
Robert swallowed. The man began to wail, while lurching, struggling to free himself: a lurch, a scream. A crack. The bread came up Robert’s throat, bitter, burning.
“I made a trap to hunt down the drunks,” Robert said and turned to face her.
Mama’s face bore no expression. There were no tears in her eyes. Her breath came in steady and under control. Balled up in pale fists, her hands rested by her hips. Robert wondered where her fingernails had gone.
“Go inside,” she said. “Your father’s asleep.”
Karol Lagodzki left Poland at twenty. His non-writing careers have ranged from fixing stucco while dangling from roofs in Paris to sorting through human cadaver heads in Jacksonville. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Storm Cellar, Panel Magazine, NUNUM, Streetlight Magazine, and elsewhere. His story won the 2020 Ruritania Prize for Short Fiction, and he has been nominated for the Pushcart and the Best of the Net anthologies. Karol lives halfway down an Indiana ravine with his family and a large dog. Find him at klagodzki.com.
G.D. Brown has worked as a literary editor and as an award-winning newswriter. His debut novel, Sinners Plunged Beneath That Flood, is available now through Leftover Books. His literary work has appeared in The Woven Tale Press, COUNTERCLOCK, Abandon, Full Stop, Oyster River Pages, The Champagne Room, Jokes Review, Westview, PopMatters, Oracle Fine Arts Review, The Tulsa Voice, and elsewhere. This is his first published photograph. He is a Goddard College MFA graduate and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can find him at GDBwrites.com.