This story was inspired by a brief scene in the video for ‘Uprising’, a Sabaton song about the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The song’s chorus ends with the exhortation, “Warszawo, walcz!” (Warsaw, fight!)
Death is everywhere, but in this brief moment it is not here. Not yet.
In the rubble above, men, women and children have been fighting and dying for fifty-six days; here in my basement, I do what little I can to keep some of them alive. I can do less each day. Allied planes drop scant supplies, but we fight alone. No one has come to our aid, not even Our Blessed Mother.
I don’t know this man’s mother. I don’t even know if he is a man, or still a child: there’s no stubble on his chin, only crusted blood and brick dust. It must be someone else’s blood because his only wound is lower. When his comrades carried him in and laid him on the table, I had to tear tourniquets from my blouse. I tied them above his knees; there is nothing below them.
I pray — my God, I always pray — but his death is inevitable, and it will come soon.
I have no morphine, so I’ve given the boy as much as he could swallow of Wojciech’s final bottle of duch puszczy — the spirit of the forest. Perhaps it was his first taste; it will surely be his last. His mind is detached now, wandering the streets and alleys of his own neighbourhood, greeting phantom friends, unaware of pain and my presence.
If he must die, he’ll depart with what scraps of dignity I can salvage for him. He should meet his maker with the shining face of a hero. I cannot spare water to wash the stains of war from him, but I still have the tattered remnants of my blouse, hanging loosely from my shoulders. I can do for him what his own mother might have, not so long ago.
I tear another rag, and spit on it. As I gently wipe dust from his lips, he mumbles, “Jadzia, moja księżniczka. You came.”
Jadzia. His sweetheart, I suppose. If she still lives, I do not know where she might be. She ought to be here, with him, but this is war and all of us should be somewhere else.
I caress his cheek. “I’m here, mój drogi.”
He reaches up to touch my face. His fingertips are as soft as my cloth: the hardest work this boy has ever done is killing. And now his trembling hand holds all the horror of that damnable task, everything he has seen and suffered in the cause of freedom spills from fingers that could never be large enough to hold it all. But even at the end, a human hand can always find a little room for love.
To hell with spit soaked cotton! Let him have love. Let him feel soft lips, one last time. And let his Jadzia be here for him, in me.
I lower my face to his… and I pause. I don’t know how to be her, how she would show her fondness. I was kissed so often when I was eighteen, I should not be able to forget the complex, delicate ballet of youthful desire. But I have.
Then I feel his hot breath on my lips and memory floods back, becoming reality: I used to imagine myself as Pola Negri, as the beautiful, passionate, scandalous Madame du Barry, and my heart would race, I’d part my lips in timid, guilty hunger and it would feel as it does now, like our mouths were the whole world, as though the boy and I were all that lived, a bright bubble of possibility whirling through a darkling void.
And I pull away, as I always did at eighteen when my guilt was stronger than my hunger.
Even in his delirium, the boy remembers those ardent, falsely sincere words that eager boys use when they want more. “Kocham cię!”
He wasn’t born when I was eighteen, but boys never change: each new generation learns the same sweet lies as the last. I’ve changed. I’m no timid maiden anymore, fearful of the judgment of a priest who never succumbed to his own urges. I am a woman.
This boy should know how a woman feels, while he still has feeling. What remains of my blouse doesn’t hinder me when I reach back to undo my bra, but what remains of the guilt-ridden, eighteen-year-old virgin does: I fumble at the hooks, just as this boy might have fumbled with Jadzia’s, just as Wojciech fumbled in the darkness behind the Palac Blocha twenty years ago, the night I first learned to abandon guilt. Wojciech succeeded, and so do I.
I take the boy’s hand in mine and raise it to my breast, returning his hopeful lie, honestly: “Ja też cię kocham, mój mały bohaterze.” I love you too, my little hero.
His fingers are cold against my stiffening nipple. Too cold; he’s slipping away, he needs warmth.
Undoing one button is enough for a pre-war skirt to fall from hips slimmed by brutal rationing. I move his hand to my thigh, so he can know all my softness at the end of his hardest day. His fingers slide over ragged nylons to rest on smooth skin… and further, to faded silk, and to the heat beneath it. And further still.
With this boy’s fingers in my cipka, I am no longer in my basement, nor even in 1944. I am back upstairs, in my kitchen, trying to scramble eggs while Wojciech is hugging me from behind, nibbling my neck, running his hand under my skirt.
I remember pushing back, laughing, rubbing against the bulge in his trousers. But I pulled away when his hand slipped inside my knickers. I swore at him. In truth, I wasn’t angry. I wanted him to fuck me, right there on the table, but our son was awake. He could have come in at any moment, hungry for his breakfast. That was another September 25th, five lonely years ago. The morning the bombers came.
In 1944, I press this boy’s hand against warmth, and love, and life, and I lean down to kiss him again. I do not pull away this time. I have no timidity left in me, no guilt. I kiss him as Jadzia might if she were here, if she had lost all inhibition along with everything she treasured.
He sighs her name; I lay his hand on his chest, and close his eyes.
I should cover myself, quickly: the artillery has begun again. More casualties could arrive in this charnel house soon, many more than I can cope with. The uprising does not go well. If we lose…
No. I will not lie to myself anymore. Hope will not become delusion. This boy has gone to meet the ultimate truth, and his sacrifice deserves truth from me. When we lose, when surrender finally comes, the suffering will not be over. There will be reprisals. What happens to me will happen, there will be no one to stop it. But the memory of this boy’s love — for his city, for Jadzia, and so briefly, for me — that will be my shield against horrors yet to come.
After 63 days of fighting, Warsaw capitulated. In the following weeks, the Germans expelled the entire civilian population. Of the approximately half a million people who were deported, 90,000 were sent to labour camps, and another 60,000 to concentration and death camps.