Wherever you go, you can never leave yourself behind.
—A Polish Proverb
Anna’s eyelids fluttered briefly in the morning light, then flew back. The girl felt the pace of her heart increase. This was the day she had awaited, the first of June. Her birthday. She sat up immediately and looked to the table near the window. On it sat the package wrapped in red paper. She gave out a little sigh of relief.
She sprang spritelike from her bed, pulling at her nightdress. She washed and dressed quickly, donning the blue dress trimmed in lace and the glossy white leather shoes. These were worn only for special occasions. She worked overly hard at brushing her brown curls. She was too impatient, she knew, and when she drew the brush through a tangle, she saw herself wince in the mirror. It was a very grownup expression. One she had seen her mother use.
She brushed and brushed. A bad job would bring a light scolding from Luisa when it came time for braiding. Still, her mind was not on the task at hand. Time and again, her amber-flecked green eyes would shift in the mirror to where the red package sat in her sight line. Tired as she had been the night before, she fought off sleep for as long as possible, fearing that the present might disappear somehow. But it had not. It was here and it was hers. She had only to look at it, red as a ripe apple and many times more inviting, to make certain.
Her morning rites finished in record time, Anna gingerly slid the package from the table into a tight, twoarmed grasp. Taking special care with the opening and closing of her bed chamber door, she moved out into the hall and to the stairway. The aroma of coffee and breakfast sausages was a usual one, but this was no usual day. She reached high for the banister, and descended with the hesitating care of an old woman, stopping on each stair.with a little jolt, until at last she came to the main floor of the country manor house.
Her mother was breakfasting in the dining room while the maid stood at her side pouring coffee into a china cup. Several pans steamed on the sideboard.
The darkhaired Countess Teresa Berezowska glanced up, smiled. “Good morning, Anna Maria. Happy Birthday.”
“Happy Birthday, Anna,” Luisa said in a happy tone. “How old is my little lady?”
Anna smiled, delighted at the attention. “Five!” she said.
Her first instinct was to hold up the fingers of her right hand to underscore the fact, but she realized in the nick of time that doing so would cause her to drop the package. Her heart beat faster at the thought.
“A bowl of kasza with milk and a poached egg this morning,” Luisa was saying, “and if you finish that off there will be some fluffy baba for this happy day.”
Taking small, measured steps, she moved, as was her mornng routine, to give her mother a kiss on the cheek. The countess leaned over to accommodate her daughter. Anna thought her mother the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Her father’s chair was empty, so she went directly to her own place. Carefully, she positioned the package next to her plate. Freed of her treasure, she clambered up onto her chair.
Luisa was just placing Anna’s breakfast before her, humming very prettily. Anna was determined to eat every bite, for she could smell the delicious iced baba. Where is it? she wondered. The light, sugary cake with its hidden raisins was her favorite.
Lifting the first spoonful of egg to her mouth, the girl noticed that her mother’s violet-gray eyes were locked upon the red package. And that her smile had died away.
A little bell of alarm sounded in Anna’s head. She put down her spoon. Her immediate thought was for support. “Where’s Papa?”
“He’s gone off on business,” the countess replied. “Always some farm business.”
Her mother’s tone frightened the child. The countess’ eyes moved from the package to her.
“Now what have we here, Anna Maria Berezowska? Is this your new doll?”
“I see. I thought not. The package seems neither the correct shape nor size. Where is it, then?”
Anna’s lips were dry. “I . . . I didn’t choose a doll.”
The countess’ mouth tightened. “But your father took you all the way to the capital yesterday for the expressed purpose of buying you a doll, one with a painted face, glass eyes, and real hair. Were there none to be found in all of Warsaw?”
“Oh, yes, there were many dolls, Mama, only—”
“Only I chose this.”
“You did, did you? You were quite deliberate, then, in going against my wishes. You were to have chosen a doll.”
Anna didn’t know what to say. Her mother did not raise her voice to her, never had. But Anna recognized the seriousness in her tone and steady gaze. Her little limbs trembled; she would not cry.
“Would you leave us now, Luisa?” the countess asked, smiling.
Anna’s heart dropped. She had seen that smile before. She had learned that it wasn’t a real smile. She longed to have old Luisa stay but knew to say nothing.
The maid curtsied, then crossed the room toward the kitchen door. She smiled at Anna, a smile that was a smile. The girl knew Luisa meant to give her courage, but it didn’t help much.
“Open it up,” the countess said, once the maid had vanished behind the swinging door. “Let’s see what can be more amusing to a little girl than a new doll.”
“Shouldn’t we wait for Papa?”
“Open it, Anna Maria.” The countess was not to be put off by the cleverness of a five-year-old.
Anna had been so caught up in the wonder of the gift that she had not thought about her mother’s reaction. She started to tear clumsily at the well-wrapped package. Her hands were sweating.It had been her first trip to the capital. Wide-eyed, she had sat on her father’s lap as the carriage rattled along for what seemed hours and hours. They entered the suburb of Praga, then across the River Vistula, the wheels vibrating on the wooden bridge, then clacking along the cobbled streets of Warsaw. It was the most amazing thing, this city, like something from one of her books. “Oh, Father!” she cried. There passing before her was the Royal Castle.
“Does the King live there? Truly?” Her father was smiling. “He does, indeed.” They passed the Cathedral of Saint Jan, and the city mansions of the nobles—the veryrich ones.
Magnates, her father called them. “Why aren’t you a magnate?” she asked. “I have all the wealth I need,” he laughed, hugging her to him. In the castle’s outer courtyard the two of them craned their necks up at Zygmunt’s Column. The bronze figure of the long-dead King held a cross in one hand, a sword in the other—like some warrior saint. He had been the one, her father told her, that had moved the capital from Krakow to Warsaw. Years later she would remember the Royal Castle as merely massive and daunting, but the memory of her father’s embrace— his strength, his warmth, and the faint scent of a shaving soap—these she would carry with her always.
They continued then to the Market Square, a glittering honeycomb of shops and stalls. And Anna did see dolls that she liked, too, dolls of every description and recent style. Beautiful dolls. But once her eyes settled on that sparkling object she was now unwrapping, nothing else would do. “Is this what you truly wish, little Ania?” her father asked, using her diminutive. She looked up at him, realizing at once that her wish was his wish. “Oh, yes!” she cried. It was then—in the enchanting city of Kings—that the notions of birthdays and wishes and magic were sealed together in her mind, it seemed, forever.
The red paper was tearing away at one corner, then another. Something under it flashed and gleamed.
When the paper would not pull wholly free, the countess became impatient, moving swiftly to the girl’s aid.
In moments it stood stripped of its wrappings. The translucent object seemed now to draw in the sun from every direction.
It stood before the countess as if pulsing and glowing with warm life. The molding and cutting of the crystal was exquisite. Secured in a crystal base, the delicately carved legs seemed to thrust the body forward. The wings were extended as if for flight, the beak lifted in anticipation.
“What is this?” the countess cried.
Anna could not tell whether her mother was happily surprised, puzzled, or angry. Still, her own fears momentarily disappeared at the sight of the marvel. “Oh, it’s a bird, Mother. A crystal dove! Isn’t it beautiful?”
“I can see for myself it’s a bird, Anna Maria. But why should you or any little girl want such a thing? . . . And in place of the doll of your choice!”
“Because it’s so pretty, Mama. You know I love birds. I’ve always wished for one, but Papa says they are meant to be free. This is a bird I can keep. See how it sparkles. And . . . it has magic!”
“See how the light goes through it? It makes colors just like a rainbow.”
“Much like a prism,” the countess conceded.
“Never mind. Go on.”
“Well, the merchant said that’s a sign of magic. He said this bird will carry me anywhere I want to go. Even to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!”
“What a lot of bombast! The magic was not in the bird but on that wily merchant’s tongue. I’ll wager he wheedled a pretty price out of your father for this bit of nonsense!”
Anna felt her heart fluttering against her chest. She looked up into her mother’s face, which seemed to have reddened slightly. “Oh, but Father . . .” Anna’s words died away when the countess lifted a forefinger in a shushing motion.
“Anna Maria, darling, it was your mother who suggested the doll for your birthday, was it not? Don’t you think your mother knows a bit more than you?”
Anna held back the tears. If only she could explain her love for the bird. She had tried, but her mother did not understand.
“You do get the strangest notions, dearest,” her mother was saying, “and you just don’t let go. Yes, you can look at the bird, but you can play with the doll.”
Was there a softening to her tone? Anna dared to hope so.
Seizing the crystal bird, the countess carried it across the room and placed it on the uppermost shelf of the china cabinet, well out of Anna’s reach. “It’ll stay here until I decide what’s to be done with it. If you don’t want a doll—”
“But I have Buttons!”
The countess turned around. “An old rag doll!”
“I don’t need another—”
“And so you won’t have another, either. Perhaps you will just do without a present this year. Do you have any idea how you’ve upset your mother?”
Anna stared. Her mother’s lips seemed to thin, then disappear.
Anna couldn’t speak.
“I see you do not. I’m going upstairs to lie down. Finish your breakfast.” The countess left the dining room.
The girl did slowly finish her porridge and egg, cold as they were. As she ate, her wide, dry eyes never strayed from the cabinet that held the bird captive.
“Ah, Anna,” Luisa chimed as she came in from the kitchen and bustled toward the sideboard, “I can see you’re ready for your fluffy baba, my little birthday girl!”
Anna, however, slipped quietly from the room before the maid turned around with the cake. She was halfway up the stairs when she heard Luisa calling her.
She did not turn back.
* * *
There are three things that are
difficult to keep hidden:
a fire, a cold, and love.
—A Polish proverb..
She stood motionless now, in a painter’s tableau of flowers and grasses, a long distance from home, alone. It was only recent events—not the intervening years—that made Anna question her childhood attachment to the mythical. Today, in fact, the young girl who stood poised on the threshold of womanhood questioned the very world around her. The afternoon was idyllic, the meadow at midday a canvas of color and warmth. A breeze stirred the wheat and barley fieldsnearby, coercing the spikes into graceful, rippling waves. Next year the meadow in which she stood would be made to produce also, but for now it was thickly green with overgrown grasses and rampant with late summer wildflowers, birds, and butterflies.
To all of this Anna was coolly indifferent. She stood there, black dress billowing in the breeze, vaguely aware of a bee that buzzed nearby. In time, though, her eyes found focus as she observed a few fallen leaves hurl themselves at the trunk of the solitary oak, whirl away, and come back again. In them—their detachment and their restless movement—she somehow felt a comradeship. She was as mindlessly driven as they. And from somewhere deep at her core, a keening rose up, piercing her, like that of a mournful siren from some unseen island.
How had it come to this? Only months before, upon the passing of the Constitution in May, Anna’s universe had been complete and happy. The reform seemed to place her father in a good disposition. The Third of May Constitution did not threaten him, as it did some of the nobility. Count Samuel Berezowski was of the minor nobility, the szlachta, his greatgreat grandfather having been conferred the title of count when in 1683 he aided the legendary King Jan Sobieski and much of Christian Europe in keeping Vienna—and therefore Eastern Europe—from the Turks.
The count managed his single estate himself and he already allowed his village of twelve peasant families liberal freedoms of thought and action. It was a happy time for Anna’s mother, too, not for any political reason, but because she was eight months with child.
As a young girl, Countess Teresa Berezowska had gone against her parents’ wishes, foregoing marriage into a magnate family for the dictates of the heart. This did not preclude, however, her own ambition to bring into the world children who would go on to make matches that would distinguish the family. Though her heart had been set on a firstborn boy, she rejoiced with Samuel in the birth of their healthy, greeneyed girl, Anna Maria. She was confident that many childbearing years were left to her and that there would be a troop of boys to fill up the house. Instead, a succession of miscarriages ensued and her health grew frail, her beauty fragile. Still, the countess persisted, against doctors’ advice, until at last—seventeen years after the birth of Anna—it seemed certain that she was to bring another child full term. Anna’s relationship with her mother improved after the incident with the crystal dove, but a certain distance between mother and daughter remained. Anna came to realize that while she was loved by both parents, her mother was much concerned with bringing boys into the world. While Anna’s father gave his love freely, her mother inculcated in her—through the spoken and the unspoken—a sense of inadequacy that sent her into herself, into her own realm of imagination. Alone in her books of fable and fairy tales and the myriad places they took her, Anna longed for a brother or sister to anchor her to the real world. But it was not to be.
Feliks Paduch, one of Count Berezowski’s peasants, had always been trouble. Since adolescence he had been involved in numerous thefts and brawls. At thirty, he was lazy, alcoholic, and spiteful, a man who questioned and resented his lot in life. Some peasants whispered, too, that he had been involved in the murder of a travelling Frenchman, but no one dared accuse him. Countess Berezowska had encouraged her husband to evict Paduch, and he had nearly done so twice, but each time relented.
A few days after the passing of the Third of May Constitution, Count Berezowski set out for the Paduch cottage in response to a local noble’s complaint that Feliks had stolen several bags of grain. The starosta should settle the matter, the countess insisted, but the count, claiming he was ultimately responsible for his peasants, would not leave the matter to a magistrate. It was on that day that life changed forever for the happy family. Anna was sitting in the window seat of her second-floor bedroom reading a French translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when she heard the commotion below. She looked down to see eight or ten peasants accompanying a tumbril in which her father’s body lay on a matting of straw. Because of the sincere mutual respect between the count and his peasants, this time they seemed unafraid to name Feliks Paduch the murderer. It was Anna who had to tell her mother, and who—in her own bereavement—had to listen to the countess mourn her husband while at the same time, in the same breath, rail against him for playing estate manager and attending to the most ignoble business, business well beneath his station, business like Feliks Paduch. Countess Berezowska was devastated. Anna believed that it was the traumatic effects of her father’s murder that precipitated the premature birth of the baby. The boy lived only two days.
The countess never recovered from her husband’s murder and the difficult birth—thirteen hours it had taken. After the baby’s death, the countess stopped taking nourishment. A week later, in a delirium of grief, anger, and despair she died. And so it was that within a matter of days, Anna had lost everyone. The fabric of her peaceful life at Sochaczew had come undone, never to be made whole. She stood alone in her garden that day, the day of her mother’s death, somehow unable to cry.
How her mother had loved the flowers grown there. In fact, Anna had taken to gardening, initially, to please the countess, who so loved to have flowers in the house. Her father had helped her start it that year, the year a five-year-old precocious child hadbrought home the crystal dove. She had been allowed to keep it and wanted so to please her mother by producing bushels and bushels of flowers. That was the way of it always, it seemed. Wanting to please her mother, yet never quite measuring up. The garden venture took no time at all to instill in Anna a passion for things growing. Her father gave her an array of bulbs, imports from Holland. She dutifully planted them in the fall, wondering to herself how such funny looking things could ever produce something delicate and pretty.
But in the spring the green feelers peeked out of the brown earth, and amidst fine rains, reached brave, thickening arms upward. Anna had arranged them in neat rows, like soldiers, so that when the heads burst open with hues of reds, purples, oranges, and yellows she could scarcely contain her delight. It seemed a miracle. That first bouquet to her astonished mother was her proudest moment.
In time she came to see in the flowers an almost symbolic difference between her parents: while her father loved the living, growing flowers still rooted to the earth and warmed by the sun, her mother preferred them cut, placed in cool water, and set out in shaded rooms to be admired. Anna’s lesson with the crystal dove so many years before had been a human one, one that provided a defining moment for her relationship with her mother. Anna persisted in her love for her mother, but its foundation seemed to be one of fractures and fissures which, while they never fully broke away, seemed always to hold the threat of doing so. The difficult truth was—in those intermittent moments when she remembered the dove— that she questioned her mother’s love for her.
The countess’ love was a cool kind of love, taking the form of a nod or a light pat on the head, a love given out sparingly, like formal candies in tiny wrappings, and on occasions few enough for Anna to store away in a half-filled memory box. Anna, in turn, grew up confident only in her father’s unconditional love, a love that radiated like sunshine. She came to fully place herself in his guardianship, so much so that at his death she found that her reservoir of trust had been emptied. Even he, in dying, had failed her. If what he had done was place himself in the way of destiny, no good had come of it. Just as she refused to shed tears in public, she vowed to trust in no one’s love again.
The Countess Berezowska’s older sister, Countess Stella Gronska, arrived with her husband and daughter Zofia for one funeral and stayed for three. When they left Sochaczew to return home to Halicz in southern Poland, they insisted on taking Anna with them. The count and countess would provide guardianship for her until she reached eighteen.
At first, Anna was grateful. Her world shattered, she was happy to have someone deciding and doing for her. And her aunt and uncle were warm and loving people. Zofia, too, was welcoming. Anna found her cousin very different from herself, so outgoing and worldly-wise.
The Gronskis tried their best to be a family to her. But as the days at Halicz wore on, Anna came to miss her home and its familiar surroundings more and more. Sleep brought with it dark dreams of abandonment, of isolation. At night she sometimes awoke to her own voice calling out for her father. Her aunt and uncle responded to her melancholy with genuine concern, but she would only pretend to be comforted. What she longed for was the cocoon of her father’s library, where she had spent countless hours of her childhood transported to other times and places by the stories on the darkly varnished shelves. And, most of all, she missed the opportunity to mourn at her family’s graves, to touch the earth that held them, when she could not. Anna often wondered why it was that she survived. Had she done something to lose her whole world?
Sometimes she found herself wishing she could join her family in the earth on that little hill where they and three other generations rested amidst daisies, cornflowers, and poppies. What did living have to offer now?
Her life had taken on a tragic dimension, one that reminded her of the many tales and legends she knew. So often they, too, ended tragically. Why? In growing up, she would often read a tale only to the point when things went wrong. Then she would stop in order to provide her own, happier, ending. Her favorite story was of Jurata, Queen of the Baltic. If Anna could not quite identify with the mythical beauty of Jurata, she did acknowledge that they had in common their green eyes. What she admired most about the goddess was her passion. Oh, Anna wished for such passion in her own life.
Jurata lived in a palace of amber under the sea. One day a young fisherman broke one of her laws, but the kind Jurata forgave him. Falling in love with the fisherman, the goddess courageously defied custom and law, swimming to shore to meet him every evening. Anna thought the myth very romantic. It was at this point that she chose to amend the story.
She had no taste for the unhappy ending that went on to depict the god of lightning and thunder, Percun—who loved Jurata—flying into a rage because Jurata, too, broke a law: that magical beings marry only among themselves. Percun destroyed the palace with his thunderbolts and Jurata was never seen again. The pieces of the broken palace, then, accounted for the bits of amber found in the Baltic area.
In Anna’s ending, Jurata chipped away at her amber palace, breaking it down bit by bit, a mythical feat in itself. She then cleverly created among the gods and goddesses a great desire for the yellow stones. At last, she was able to assuage Percun’s anger by presenting him with the largest cache of amber in the world, thus making him more respected and powerful. Jurata’s passion was so great that she assumed a human form, giving up her immortality for the love of her fisherman.
Now, transfixed in the meadow, Anna was aware of the sights and sounds about her only in a peculiar and distant way, as though she stood—an intruder—in some French bucolic painting. She wondered if this panorama were even real. Perhaps her very life was no more than a dream. Might she be dreaming her life? Strange as it was, the notion caught hold in her imagination.
Was such a thing possible? Somehow, at that moment, it made sense. If only recent events were illusions, she thought. . . . If only— Suddenly a voice shattered the trance: “You must be theCountess Anna!” The deep voice jarred her into consciousness, and an instinctive, fearful cry escaped her lips before her mind could work. She wheeled about, shielding her face against the western sun, her eyes raised to take in the mounted rider. Her skin felt the full heat of the afternoon sun. His visage was at first little more than a silhouette cut against the sunlight, like a blackonyellow paper cutting. Still, she knew he was not from the Gronski estate.
“It is a fine day, is it not?” He was smiling at her. A smile shecould not interpret.
“Who are you?” She hardly recognized the voice as her own. It sounded distant and tiny. Her heart beat rapidly against her chest, and for a moment she thought of running.
“I’m sorry if I startled you.” The smile was fading. “I assumedyou would have heard my horse.”
“You did—and I had not.” Anna swallowed hard. She foughtfor composure. She would not run. “You might have called out from a distance.”
“Truly, I am sorry. Really, Countess Anna—it is Countess Anna?”
She mustered decorum now. “Countess Anna Maria.”
“Forgive me.” He was maneuvering his horse around her now.
“Do you often go about sneaking up on people?” She lifted her head to him, feigning boldness. She found herself turning, too, in a half circle until it was no longer necessary for her to shade her eyes against the sun. She was certain that he had initiated that little dance for just that end. He was laughing.
“It’s a habit I thought I had broken, Countess Anna Maria.”.
His cavalier attitude was disconcerting. Anna chose not to answer. “And what,” he pressed, “is it that brings you out here, my dear Countess?”
Anna conjured up one of her mother’s smiles that wasn’t a smile.
“I might ask you the same question.”
It was he who was shading his eyes now, but he took his hand away long enough to point. “Your uncle’s land ends there to the west with that wheat field. This meadow is mine.”
“Oh.” Anna felt her confidence go cold and drop within her, draining away like a mountain stream. How neatly he had put her in her place.
“I am nothing more than an interloper then, is that it? I’ll go back immediately.”
He smiled. “You need do nothing of the kind, Countess. There’s no key to the woods and fields.”
It was a saying she had heard her father use, one she had thought was his alone. Her gaze was held by the stranger. She answered: “It’s just that I found the meadow so very peaceful, so conducive to thinking.”
“Ah, so pretty—and thoughtful into the bargain!”
“Are they qualities so incompatible with each other?”
The man was impossible, she decided, her spine stiffening.
“No, of course not. It was a stupid comment.” The cobalt eyes flashed as he stared down at her. She smiled now, her head lifting to meet his gaze.
“At last we agree on something.”
He laughed. Anna sensed her little victory a hollow one. Was he laughingat her? She turned away.
“It’s well past time for me to return to the house, so if you’ll excuse me—” In one quick movement the stranger swung down from the black stallion. Anna felt fear rise again. She took a cautious step backward.
“Oh, but we haven’t met yet,” he was saying.
“Allow me to detain you but a moment longer. I am Jan Stelnicki.” He bowed, stood erect, gazed down at Anna. The dark gray trousers tucked into high black boots, white silk shirt, and red sash around the waist made for an impeccable appearance. His costume was a mix of western and Polish influence, but that he wore no hat was neither western nor Polish. Anna nodded, lifting her eyes to take in his considerable height.
“Well, since you seem to already know my identity,there’s little else to say.” She persisted in her petulant tone even while her mind was seeking its own course. Despite the missing hat and familiar manner, his nobility was evident in his speech and bearing. Once he stood in the shade of the great oak, she took in the aristocratic and masculine features chiseled under a mane of wavy yellow-gold, the laughing smile above a dimpled chin, and those dark blue eyes. Some current at her core stirred: something profound and alien. No man should be so beautiful.
“Countess Anna,” he was saying in a voice almost intimate,“may I offer my sincerest condolences? I was saddened to hear of your parents’ deaths.”
“Thank you, Lord Stelnicki.” The mourning which for months had consumed her life took on a strangely distant quality now. Her impatience with the stranger was giving way involuntarily to a dichotomous mix of caution and attraction. She watched the motion of his mouth, the porcelain flash of teeth. He wore no moustache. This, too, ran against the Polish mode of the day. There was a mesmerizing presence about him and a strength, not merely physical strength— though he possessed that, too—but a force that came from deep within and resonated in his gaze, in his voice.
“Will you be staying with the Gronski family long?” he asked.
Her immediate response was to tell him that it was of no concern to him, but she took just a moment too long to formulate the reply and her annoyance dissipated. She heard herself telling him that she would be staying with the Gronskis for some time and that, yes, they were treating her very well. While he turned to tether his horse to a wiry branch jutting from the thick tree trunk, he continued his questioning, asking why they had not previously met.
Studying him at his task, Anna replied that she had been to visit her aunt and uncle twice several years before. He took studies at the University then, it seemed. When he turned to face her, Anna averted her eyes, politely asking where. In Krakow, he responded, then two years in Paris.
Anna feigned nonchalance. She had never been to Krakow, but she had been to Warsaw—not often, even though her home was so near Poland’s capital. Paris, however, seemed worlds away. Paris was the City of Light: the quintessence of European culture. She longed to see it. Now, of course, the unrest there made it quite unsafe. . . . How old is he? she wondered. Twenty-two? Twenty-three?
“I am glad that you will be staying,” he was saying. “I trust that I will be allowed to show you the sights here at Halicz. Our Harvest Home will be concluding with much celebration . . .”
Her mind a blur, Anna watched as the young man went on speaking of the local autumn customs. What emboldened him to speak to her as though he had known her all his life? She absently fingered the dark lace at her throat. The voice was so warm, so musical, the eyes inviting as a lake in August. Still, she wondered at his sincerity. Did sincerity and boldness coexist?
“Lord Stelnicki,” she managed when he took a breath, “I am afraid that such festivities are out of the question for me for some little while yet.”
“Of course. Forgive me.” He bowed from the waist. “But once you are out of mourning there will be many winter gatherings to which we shall look forward—parties, sleigh rides, and—”
Anna interrupted, smiling indulgently. “Oh, I’m afraid that in a few weeks my aunt and uncle will shut up the house. We are to winter in Warsaw.”
“Of course. For the moment I forgot the Gronski custom. Why, were you staying, I would personally organize a kulig. Our joyrides are well-known around here and no Halicz manor home turns away a sleigh party!”
“At least,” Anna laughed, “until the master’s vodka reserve has been drained!”
“I expect so.” Lord Stelnicki laughed, too. Then he let out a great sigh and his face fell with an exaggerated disappointment. “Ah, winter will not be such a happy prospect for me.”
He was so glibly forward that Anna could only stare. This comment, certainly, was insincere. But the mocking attitude vanished suddenly and he brightened. The blue eyes held Anna’s.
“Time is the world’s landlord and he may be friend or foe. May he be our friend, Countess Anna Maria.”
Anna had never heard this saying before, but she knew his meaning and she felt her face burn. His forwardness unnerved her. No man, and certainly no stranger, had ever behaved toward her with such familiarity. Her throat, already dry, tightened as she sought a diversionary tactic.
“Do you not winter in the city, Lord Stelnicki?”
“You must call me Jan. Please.”
She longed to extinguish that expectant smile. Did this man ever meet with resistance? Even as she thought this, she found herself nodding in acquiescence. Silently, she promised herself to ignore the request. He was satisfied, nonetheless, and told her that in years past he had spent December and January in Krakow—where his father lived now—but that he enjoyed the country far more. Yes, he assured her, even in winter, admitting himself to be an odd sort.
His mother, it seemed, had died some years before and he assured Anna from experience that Time would help to heal the hurt. Despite his forwardness and her own awkwardness, Anna was surprised by some interior part of her which sought to prolong the conversation, but having been reminded of her mourning, Duty, not Time, prompted her to insist that she return to the house.
“Very well, then,” he said, “I’ll lead my horse to the Gronski home, if you would care to ride?”
“You do ride?”
“Of course, but I did come out for the walk, you see. Otherwise, I would have ridden out myself. I look forward to walking back.” The words had spilled out in a rush, but he seemed satisfied with her excuse.
“Well, Countess Anna Maria,” he said, bowing, “I welcome. you to Halicz and look forward to our next meeting. I hope that one day soon we will ride together. The countryside is breathtaking. . . . When do you put off your mourning?”
“In three weeks’ time.”
His deep voice was no longer alien and startling. It was somehow a lyrical voice she had not known but had held always within her, like some ancestral song, primal yet soothing. Is his interest as keen as it seems, she wondered, or am I too vulnerable in my grief? Or merely too easily snared by my own imagination? What stupid and easily caught bird was it that Polonius had compared Ophelia to? . . . A woodcock, that was it. Is that what I am? Her heart was quickening nonetheless. He wanted to see her again. The thought was at once exciting and unnerving.
“Forgive me for disturbing you today,” Lord Stelnicki was saying. “It was just that from the distance I took you for Zofia and so I rode over. I will make a point of calling on the Gronski family in exactly three weeks. What is it? . . . Why, Countess Anna, I do believe that you’re blushing!” Anna inwardly cursed him for pointing out her embarrassment.
She forced out a little laugh. “It is funny, I should think. I have never been mistaken for my beautiful cousin, I can assure you. I could only wish for such beauty.”
“Why, Anna—it’s only fair now that I address you so—you have little reason for such wishing.”
He mounted his black steed. The leather creaked as he settled into the saddle with the grace and ease of one who has ridden all of his life. Once again Anna found herself staring up at him.
“Look!” he said, gesturing in a sweeping motion. “See the two meadow flowers, the yellow and the violet? One is as different from the other as day from night. Yet who will say that one is more beautiful? . . . Oh, a fool might. But only a fool.” The saddle groaned again as he leaned over, motioning her nearer, as if to impart some great secret.
“But do you know what may determine the desirability of one over the other?” He spoke with a great earnestness. The intense eyes held Anna’s, and she could only shake her head in mute response.
The playful, widening smile, set against a complexion coloredby the sun, revealed the even white teeth. Suddenly, he drew up on the reins, and as the animal reared, he waved and turned the horse into the wind. Anna stood close enough thatshe felt the earth tremble when the horse’s forelegs came down.
She took a stumbling step backward, feeling a quick breeze made by the swish of the animal’s tail. As the horse thundered off, Jan Stelnicki called out his goodbye. Her lips apart as if to speak, she stood and stared until the figure crested the hill and fell from sight. Anna’s legs quaked. She felt as one abandoned by the enemy on a battlefield. The man was incorrigible: insufferably confident, proud, strutting. He caused defenses within her to rise like drawbridges. And he was toying with her to the last.
Yellow and violet flowers, indeed. You are a scoundrel and a rogue, Jan Stelnicki! And yet she was drawn to him. For a short while, her life had been filled with something other than death and darkness and mourning. Anna sank now to the ground, the stiff satin skirt billowing up around her like a great black cushion. The world went on as it had before he arrived. The leaves were continuing their circuitous movement. A butterfly fluttered among the meadow flowers. A tiny sparrow sat appraisingly upon a nearby branch. The meeting with Jan Stelnicki played out again in her mind.
She tried to make sense of her feelings. Of course, he is strikingly handsome, she conceded. There was something else about him, too, a special manly grace or energy that accounted for an immediate and deep attraction. A simple meeting . . . and yet Anna felt that somehow her life had changed. Was this to be the kind of mythical romance of which she read, dreamt, invented?
Doubt ran close behind and she scoffed at the notion: I will not be some easilysnared woodcock. I am too old for such a wishful and girlish infatuation. But her mind grasped and held to one thought, one memory.
Anna’s mother often had told her that she herself had known she would marry Anna’s father from the very first meeting. And she had, despite the concerns of her parents and offers from other wealthier and higherplaced nobles. She had known! It is possible. Anna’s heart surged at the thought. Might it be so with me? Her mind was not through playing devil’s advocate, however, conjuring up myriad reservations and fears. Maybe Jan Stelnicki is less than sincere, she thought. Maybe he is merely taking advantage of his looks and charm. To what end? Perhaps he has long been skilled in the arts of seduction. Perhaps it is only his ego. . . . But there was something deeper—some mysterious link—which attracted Anna and gave profound meaning to what seemeda happenstance encounter, a link that the blacksmith to the gods, Hephaestos himself, might have forged. Anna sat, her eyes alert now, suddenly aware that the meadow about her teemed with color and movement and warmth and life.
This experience of intense attraction she savored for the first time in her life. She drank it in like a fine French wine and it lifted both her body and mind to a strangely ethereal plane.
Rainless clouds came and went. The sun slowly moved over her. Anna stood at last, and the movement stirred the little sparrow from its perch. With purposeful steps she set out in the direction of the Gronski home. Perhaps she was to have a future, after all. If the endings of myths might be changed, why not the ending to herstory? A light breeze began to blow, catching the folds of her black skirt as it might a sail, pushing her along. Anna laughed to herself as she broke into a run. She was thinking about his expression that Time was the world’s landlord.
She would conscript Time as friend rather than foe.
“After all,” she said aloud, “it will take time to learn how to ride a horse!”.