April 18, 1906
She only stopped screaming when she died. It was then that he started to scream.
The young boy who was hunting rabbits in the forest was not sure whether it was the woman's last cry or the child's first that alerted his youthful ears. He turned suddenly, sensing the possible danger, his eyes searching for an animal that was so obviously in pain. He had never known any animal to scream in quite that way before. He edged toward the noise cautiously; the scream had now turned to a whine, but it still did not sound like any animal he knew. He hoped it would be small enough to kill; at least that would make a change from rabbit for dinner.
The young hunter moved stealthily toward the river, where the strange noise came from, running from tree to tree, feeling the protection of the bark against his shoulder blades, something to touch. Never stay in the open, his father had taught him. When he reached the edge of the forest, he had a clear line of vision all the way down the valley to the river, and even then it took him some time to realize that the strange cry emanated from no ordinary animal. He continued to creep toward the whining, but he was out in the open on his own now. Then suddenly he saw the woman,with her dress above her waist, her bare legs splayed wide apart. He had never seen a woman like that before. He ran quickly to her side and stared down at her belly, quite freightened to touch. There, lying between the woman's legs, was the body of a small, damp, pink animal, attached only by something that looked like rope. The young hunter dropped his freshly skinned rabbits and collapsed on his knees beside the little creature.
He gazed for a long, stunned moment and then turned his eyes toward the woman, immediately regretting the decision. She was already blue with cold; her tired twenty-three-year-old face looked middle-aged to the boy; he did not need to be told that she was dead. He picked up the slippery little body--had you asked him why, and no one ever did, he would have told you that the tiny fingernails clawing the crumpled face had worried him--and then he became aware that mother and child were inseparable because of the slimy rope.
He had watched the birth of a lamb a few days earlier and he tried to remember. Yes, that's what the shepherd had done, but dare he, with a child? The whining had stopped and he sensed that a decision was now urgent. He unsheathed his knife, the one he had skinned the rabbits with, wiped it on his sleeve and, hesitating only for a moment, cut the rope close to the child's body. Blood flowed freely from the severed ends. Then what had the shepherd done when the lamb was born? He had tied a knot to stop the blood. Of course, of course. He pulled some long grass out of the earth beside him and hastily tied a crude knot in the cord. Then he took the child in his arms. He rose slowly from his knees, leaving behind him three dead rabbits and a dead woman who had given birth to this child. Before finally turning his back on the mother, he put her legs together and pulled her dress down over her knees. It seemed to be the right thing to do.
"Holy God," he said aloud, the first thing he always said when he had done something very good or very bad. He wasn't yet sure which this was.
The young hunter then ran toward the cottage where heknew his mother would be cooking supper, waiting only for his rabbits; all else would be prepared. She would be wondering how many he might have caught today; with a family of eight to feed, she needed at least three. Sometimes he managed a duck, a goose or even a pheasant that had strayed from the Baron's estate, on which his father worked. Tonight he had caught a different animal, and when he reached the cottage the young hunter dared not let go of his prize even with one hand, so he kicked at the door with his bare foot until his mother opened it. Silently, he held out his offering to her. She made no immediate move to take the creature from him but stood, one hand on her breast, gazing at the wretched sight.
"Holy God," she said, and crossed herself. The boy stared up at his mother's face for some sign of pleasure or anger. Her eyes were now showing a tenderness the boy had never seen in them before. He knew then that the thing he had done must be good.
"Is it a baby, Matka?"
"It's a little boy," said his mother, nodding sorrowfully. "Where did you find him?"
"Down by the river, Matka," he said.
"And the mother?"
She crossed herself again.
"Quickly, run and tell your father what has happened. He will find Urszula Wojnak on the estate and you must take them both to the mother, and then be sure they come back to me."
The young hunter handed over the little boy to his mother, happy enough not to have dropped the slippery creature. Now, free of his quarry, he rubbed his hands on his trousers and ran off to look for his father.
The mother closed the door with her shoulder and called out for her eldest child, a girl, to put the pot on the stove. She sat down on a wooden stool, unbuttoned her bodice and pushed a tired nipple toward the little puckered mouth. Sophia, her younger daughter, only six months old, wouldhave to go without her supper tonight. Come to think of it, so would the whole family.
"And to what purpose?" the woman said out loud, tucking a shawl around her arm and the child together. "Poor little mite, you'll be dead by morning."
But she did not repeat these feelings to old Urszula Wojnak when the midwife washed the little body and tended to the twisted umbilical stump late that night. Her husband stood silently by observing the scene.
"A guest in the house is God in the house," declared the woman, quoting the old Polish proverb.
Her husband spat. "To the cholera with him. We have enough children of our own."
The woman pretended not to hear him as she stroked the dark, thin hairs on the baby's head.
"What shall we call him?" the woman asked, looking up at her husband.
He shrugged. "Who cares? Let him go to his grave nameless."