The boy was 9 years old, in love, and knew already that he was in love for the rest of his life. In any case, he told his father in confidence first, but later, at his father’s urging, he agreed to bring his mother in on the secret as well, though he doubted she could understand it. The girl he loved was named Eva, she was younger than him by a month and 12 days. She lived with her parents in the neighboring home, and she came over to see the boy during the evenings.
“Can’t you come earlier?” he asked one day.
“No,” she said.
“My father won’t let me. I’m only allowed to leave the house when it’s dark.”
“I’ll speak with your father,” said the boy.
“He won’t agree.”
They were sitting in the shed where the boy had once kept rabbits, until a stranger snuck in at night and took them. Then he no longer wanted to raise rabbits. He just asked his father whether he couldn’t fix up the shed and keep it for himself, so that nobody would ever come in there, and his father agreed, with the condition that come spring the boy allowed him to store the wood in there that they’d cut together. And that’s how it was. He was sitting now with the girl on a pile of sawdust—loose, bright and fragrant: It was evening, quiet, and he heard his heartbeat, and he heard how her heart was beating. When you are 9 years old, you don’t know yet know what desire is, because desire gives way to curiosity and surprise that another body supplies, and then the throat goes dry, the heart beats fast, and the hairs stand up on the head like a dog’s fur. But the boy didn’t yet know that curiosity is stronger than desire. He was sitting on the pile of sawdust beside the girl, he ran his hands along her body and knew but that he was in love for the rest of his life.
“Come earlier tomorrow,” he said.
“You really don’t want me to talk with your father?”
“My father is sick,” she said. “Maybe another time.”
“I’ll find out tomorrow for sure,” he said.
“From this one guy who used to go to school with me,” he said. “He promised me, tomorrow. I have to give him the cages in exchange.” The boy sighed. “He didn’t want to tell me at all until he saw the cages.”
“You think he knows?”
“He knows for sure,” he said. “You know who he is? Nadera.”
“Nadera,” the girl said.
“Yes,” he whispered. “He’s the brother of the other Nadera, you know. His father is a railwayman. When he leaves the house, he locks the brother in the cellar or chains him by the leg. He’s 17, the older one. And this is his brother. And he is going to tell me.”
“Do you think we’ll be able to do it?”
“If he tells us how. He’ll tell us for sure. See those cages? I made them with my father. You just have to pull the string and they open.” Suddenly he turned around and looked at her, but he couldn’t make out her face. He could make out in the dark only the glimmer of the saw standing in the corner. “Will you be scared?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“When you will have a child, they’ll have to let you out during the day,” he said. “Your folks … they won’t be able to say anything. You’ll be a grownup and you’ll be able to do what you want.”
“I have to go,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ll walk you home.”
He waited until the next day. He was impatient, angry, but his friend hadn’t arrived. It was evening again, dark, he was sitting with Eva on the pile of sawdust, which was warm from the warmth of their bodies, and then he heard a whistle. He stood up and went out into the yard.
“Why are you so late?” he asked.
“I couldn’t come earlier,” the other one said. “My father got drunk and made trouble at home. He’s asleep now. Where are the cages?”
“Come on,” the boy said.
They went into the shed.
“This is Nadera’s brother,” the boy said to Eva. “The one whose father chains him by the leg. He came for the cages.”
“I have to go,” the girl said.
“You don’t want to wait?”
She shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” said the boy to the friend. “We have a secret. Just a minute.”
“I’ll take a look at the cages,” the other one said.
He went with the girl into the corner.
“Why don’t you want to wait?” he asked. “Because that’s why he came, to tell us.”
“If I don’t return home, then tomorrow they won’t let me out at all,” she said in a whisper. “You don’t know my father.”
He shook her hand.
“OK,” he said. “Go. Meanwhile I’ll figure everything out. But come earlier tomorrow.”
“Is it going to take us long?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never done it before. But a baby is a baby. You can’t do it one two three.”
The girl left. Young Nadera looked after her until she’d gone into the house and closed the door.
“What’s with the skirt?” he asked.
“Just a girl,” the boy said.
“She’s dark,” the boy said, thinking. “And her hair is dark, and dark eyes.”
The boy took a step forward with his left leg, pressed his chin into his chest.
“You don’t like her? Tell me you don’t like her.”
The other one suddenly rammed his head into the boy’s stomach, but he knew him, he was ready. His father had taught him a little how to fight. He sprang up to him and struck him twice strongly and again jumped backward remembering that his feet should work evenly and that his leg should move with his leading hand.
“I’ll tell my brother,” the other one sobbed.
“I’m not afraid of your brother,” the boy shouted; he believed now what he was saying; he held the other one by the collar of his jacket and shook him. “I’m not afraid of anybody! Anybody!” And then he pushed him away and ran across the courtyard.
He walked into his house looking in the light at his bloody hands.
“Did you fall?” his father asked.
“No,” the boy said. “I got into a fight with Nadera’s brother.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know very well what I mean. I’m asking you—what did you fight over?”
“I can’t tell you,” said the boy.
“You can’t tell me?”
He pointed imploringly at his mother.
“I can’t,” he said.
“That’s something else,” said his father. “Go to sleep.”
But later, when the boy was lying in bed, the father came in and leaned over him. “Did you tell him where Eva lives?”
“He knows,” said the boy.
“Do you know?”
“Do you know who Eva is?”
“Eva,” the boy repeated. “What are you trying to say, Papa?”
“Nothing,” said his father. “It’s OK. But Nadera. He works for the Germans, I suppose. At least that’s what people say.” Suddenly he stood up, walked to the wardrobe, took out a rucksack, a sheepskin coat, and a ski cap.
“Nobody will do anything to you,” he said. “But I want to make myself scarce for a few days.” Then he said to the mother, “Go to them and tell them it’ll be better if they disappear for a few days. I’m afraid of those Naderas. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d rather wait it out.”
His mother left.
“Do you know, Papa,” the boy said yawning, “that Nadera’s father ties him up with a chain when he goes out? And once he even locked him in the cellar and Nadera sat there for three days.” And then he remembered Nadera: He only thought with regret that he didn’t find out what he wanted to find out. And that Eva would have to wait a while longer and only come out at nightfall. He didn’t even hear when his mother returned.
“Well?” asked his father.
“They don’t want to leave,” she said. “They say they don’t have anywhere to go. And that whatever happens will happen anyway.” She looked at his thick, dark hand fiddling with the cords on the pack. “And you want to leave now?” she said.
“Anyway, I wouldn’t be able to defend you,” he said. “They won’t do anything to you. I believe that. But those others—they’ll destroy them.”
“Is there nothing you can do?”
“It’s too early to talk about this,” he said. “We will think about it when the war is over. Maybe God will preserve the Germans; he’ll preserve them for sure. I think that of all the nations they’re the one God needs most, and that’s why he’ll preserve them. So that everybody will know and feel what evil looks like. Only for that, so that they can choose good.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” she said. “If you will be able to teach again, I’m sure it won’t be that.”
“I wasn’t a good teacher,” he said. “But I think I’ve learned something. When the war is over, I will talk about it. But now I’m going, to try to kill them, but I’ll pray to God that he preserves them. I will let you know.” He threw his pack over his shoulder, walked over to the bed, and kissed the boy. Then he walked to the stove, carefully extracted one of the tiles and pulled out a pistol wrapped in a greasy rag. Then he said, “Take a little plaster tomorrow and smear it on those bricks.”
“Go with God.”
“With God,” he said. “And tell him to watch well when they will kill them. So that he sees and learns. And so that he remembers it his whole life.”
The father walked out, closing the door quietly behind him. But the boy was sleeping soundly and didn’t hear his father leave. He didn’t even hear when they drove up to the house at 4:00 in the morning. He didn’t hear their voices and their pounding at the door, and the barking of the dog. He slept soundly without knowing anything of their presence or of the noise they brought with them at 4:00 in the morning. He only woke up when his mother shook him and sat down on the bed. He was alert and well-rested, like a young animal.
“Get dressed,” his mother said.
“But it’s Sunday,” the boy said.
“Yes,” said his mother. “Later, you can go back to sleep, but now get up.”
He put clothes on and walked out of the house. He wanted to run up to the vehicle but his mother caught his arm. She stood on the porch of the old wooden house and let out a loud sigh, and he felt the warmth of her hand.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “Did something happen, Mama?” She didn’t answer him, so again he asked, “Did something happen?”
He stared at the hood of the vehicle glistening with dew, at the dog lying there with an alert expression and at the barrels of the rifles—then he whistled softly and the dog perked up his sensitive, sharp ears. The policeman who was standing off to the side walked forward now.
“Come with us,” he said.
“Where are you leading us?” asked the boy’s mother.
“It’s not far,” said the policeman. “You’ll watch, and then you can go home.”
“I’ll come alone,” the mother said. “There’s no need for the boy to see these things. You understand that I’m sure, Sir.”
The policeman hesitated for a minute.
“Those are the orders,” he said reluctantly. “We were told that everybody has to watch. For an example.”
They walked behind the policeman and the Germans. The mother was still holding his arm, and the boy was embarrassed. He tried to free himself once and a second time, but his mother was holding him tightly. He regretted that his father wasn’t there. His father would never do such a thing. At most, he’d lay a hand on his shoulder and then they’d simply look like two friends returning home after work.
They stood then and watched as Eva’s father and the peasant whose house they were living in dug a ditch, working quickly and silently. He saw Eva, whose mother held her by the hand just like his mother, and he lurched toward her, but his mother was stronger than he was. He stood and watched. He saw how one of the Germans walked over to the crying Eva and stroked her head.
“Don’t cry, sweetie,” he said. “Do you know who we are?”
“Who?” said Eva.
“We are the star searchers,” he said. “We are searching for the yellow stars.”
“Bring her a doll,” he said to the policeman.
“A doll,” the policeman said surprised.
“Yes,” said the German. “Something to entertain her.”
The policeman walked into the house and came out after a minute holding a stuffed teddy bear.
“How old is she?” the German asked Eva’s mother.
The German gave her the bear, and Eva stood now with the stuffed animal in her hand.
“Well,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. Do you know the fairytale about the wolf and the seven baby goats? No? One time the Mama Goat said to her kids, ‘Don’t open the door for anybody when I’m not home,’ and she left. Then a wolf came and knocked his paw on the door. ‘Who’s there?’ asked the little goat. And he said, ‘It’s me, your grandmother.’ ‘Then why do you have such a low voice, Grandma,’ asked the little goat …’ ”
The policeman walked up to him and said, “It’s ready. Do they have to undress?”
“No,” said the German.
The policeman reached out his hand to Eva.
“Give me the bear, sweetheart,” he said.
“Why take it away from her?” the German asked.
“I wanted it for my child,” said the policeman.
“But you see, she’s also a child,” said the German. “You’re a strange man. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
They walked home and the boy, crying, was glad his mother had been with him, not his father. Because in front of his father he would have been ashamed to cry, and he had to cry and there was nothing to do about it. During the following days the partisans killed Nadera and his eldest son; a young man shot the German on the station platform in clear daylight, and a Jewish family committed suicide by putting their necks to the train tracks at night—the boy knew all this, he heard about all of it and he slowly forgot. But sometimes he cried, at those times when he remembered that he would never have a wife and children, because he had already sworn to be faithful; and that he was in love for the rest of his life.
Translated from the Polish by Ross Ufberg. The original, ‘Szukajac Gwiazd,’ first appeared in 1963 in a Polish story collection titled Stories.
To read more Tablet fiction, click here. The Tablet Longform newsletter highlights the best longform pieces from Tablet magazine. Sign up here to receive bulletins every Thursday afternoon about fiction, features, profiles, and more.
Marek Hlasko, born in 1934, was a representative of the first generation of writers to come of age in post-Holocaust Poland. Known for his brutal prose style, he fell out of favor with Communist authorities in the 1950s and spent the rest of his life as a wandering exile until his death in 1969. His translated works include the novels Killing the Second Dog, Eighth Day of the Week, Next Stop–Paradise, and The Graveyard, and a memoir, Beautiful Twentysomethings. His novel about Israel, All Backs Were Turned, will be published by New Vessel Press in December.
Marek Hlasko, born in 1934, was a representative of the first generation of writers to come of age in post-Holocaust Poland. Known for his brutal prose style, he fell out of favor with Communist authorities in the 1950s and spent the rest of his life as a wandering exile until his death in 1969. His translated works include the novels Killing the Second Dog, Eighth Day of the Week, Next Stop–Paradise, and The Graveyard, and a memoir, Beautiful Twentysomethings. His novel about Israel,All Backs Were Turned, will be published by New Vessel Press in December.