by Thomas Joyce
Inside a jail in Poland: October 1946
Sitting alone in his cell, 26-year-old Father Yakub Paskievich, suffering from the effects of a bad beating inflicted on him, lowered his head. He wanted to think, sort things out, but he became aware of a distracting noise, a dripping sound.
Because he had lowered his head, blood from his nose was dropping onto the cement floor.
He didn’t lift his head. He tried to ignore the dripping sound. He believed the important thing right now was for him to make sense of things. Yesterday his life had been good, but this morning, the minute he left the priest house and began walking around in the church garden, he had been jumped on by five characters who didn’t say anything, just did a lot of punching. He didn’t learn the five characters were police until he regained consciousness and found himself in jail.
Now he was in a small room in the jail. With him in the small room were the five men who had jumped on him in the church garden. Now they were wearing badges that identified them as Polish police. He stared at one of the Polish policemen. He realized the man was talking to him, but it was difficult for him to understand what he was being told. The difficulty wasn’t because of any accent. It was caused by a brain terribly confused by a bad beating.
Finally Father Paskievich’s head cleared enough for him to realize he was being told that he wouldn’t be beaten any more if he signed a confession admitting that he was “an enemy of Mother Russia.” He quickly signed the confession, but as soon as the policeman got his hands on the confession, there was laughter and the policeman started doing more punching.
While being punched, Father Paskievich happened to see that two of the police seemed to be making a point of signifying to each other a low opinion of the policeman who got the confession and then did more punching. All five of the police had jumped on Father Paskievich in the church garden, but at this moment he decided two of the five Polish police might not be bad characters. When the beating began in the church garden, he would have affirmed that there was nothing but foulness in any of the five men beating on him, but at this moment he found himself conscious of a positive feeling for two of the five Polish policemen.
One of the other three policemen in the small room made what sounded like an announcement. The policeman said Father Paskievich was required to write out and sign a letter that would cause Police Inspector Karl Marbach to come from Vienna, Austria, to Poland. The letter was to state that the police inspector should go to a specific Polish café for a meeting with two Polish brothers, one of whom was the famous scientist Dr. Simon Polder. A draft of the letter Father Paskievich was expected to write and sign was handed to him.
Father Paskievich knew if he wrote and signed the letter, it wouldn’t draw Karl Marbach into a trap. Two weeks ago he and Karl Marbach and the two Polder brothers had agreed that in order to continue their struggle against the Soviet, none of their future meetings would be arranged via letters sent to regular addresses. Only secret addresses would be used. If a letter from any of them was received by one of the others at his regular address, it would be recognized that the letter was trickery intended to draw one or more of them into a trap.
Father Paskievich wrote and signed the letter that would be mailed to Karl Marbach’s regular address and, therefore, ignored. Then he tried to focus his troubled mind. Yesterday a private messenger had delivered to him a message from Karl Marbach informing him of an intention to come to Poland in four or five days from the date the message would be received. Private messengers, like the one who delivered Karl Marbach’s message, were skilled at evading border security and avoiding police attention in whatever country they were in.
According to the message received yesterday, Karl Marbach intended to keep a low profile, but there was something important he felt he and the Polder brothers needed to do in Poland. Father Paskievich realized that things had changed and that the plan for a meeting in Poland would end in disaster for Karl Marbach and the Polder brothers.
Father Paskievich knew he had to find some way to warn Karl Marbach and that the only way he might do that was for him to write out a letter addressed to an imaginary priest at Karl Marbach’s secret mailing address and see if he could get that letter put in the mail. If Karl Marbach read a letter sent to his secret address containing a warning, it was a certainty he would cancel his plan to come to Poland. If mailed promptly, such a letter would probably be delivered in two days.
But how to get the letter mailed to Karl Marbach at the secret mailing address? Given present circumstances, stuck here in the jail, Father Paskievich knew that his only chance was to get one of the two Polish police to put the letter in the mail. It would have to be an obscurely written letter containing a warning Karl Marbach would have no doubt was valid if the letter was delivered to his secret address. The thing to do was see if it was possible to get one of the two Polish police who seemed like they might be all right to put the letter in the mail. Getting the letter put in the mail was the only possible way to get a warning to Karl Marbach. There was no other way a warning could be provided.
But what to put in what would have to be an obscurely written letter? A letter that would only be mailed if one of the two police agreed to mail it. A way that might work was to make it an innocuous-looking letter addressed as though from one priest to another, a letter that somehow communicated to Karl Marbach that he and the two Polder brothers were in danger. If Karl Marbach knew there was danger, he would find a way to warn the Polder brothers. But was it possible to get one of the two Polish police to mail such a letter?
Father Paskievich found it difficult to think clearly, yet he knew he would have to think clearly if he was going to write the kind of letter that needed to be written. The awful beatings had clouded his mind, and he knew he had to think clearly if he was going to be able to write an innocuous-looking but informative letter.
The attempt to think was interrupted by a noise from the hallway.
Father Paskievich lifted his head and stared at the cell door.
After a moment the cell door opened, and Interrogator Rudnicki entered, accompanied by a guard. Father Paskievich prepared himself for another beating.
“We can’t waste any more time,” said Interrogator Rudnicki. He continued, “I have decided to put a recording of you on one of our radios. The police inspector will think it is a live message. He will hear you begging him to come and save you. It will be a very short message. He will hear what is only a recording, but he will think it is real, and he will waste no time coming to Poland. This is a trick that has worked before. We can make the recorder sound like you are personally on the radio phone, but it will only be a recording with words we have teased out of you. We will arrange and rearrange the words on the recorded message.”
Standing behind Interrogator Rudnicki was a guard with a fierce look on his face.
“I will not cooperate,” said Father Paskievich. The way recorders and radios worked these days, it seemed to him that it was best for him to refuse any cooperation for what was being suggested.
Interrogator Rudnicki didn’t address Father Paskievich as a priest. Only the full name was used. “Yakub Paskievich, I will have nothing less than your full cooperation.”
“I have given cooperation. I gave you my confession. And I have written the letter you are sending to Police Inspector Marbach.”
After saying that, Father Paskievich began praying. He prayed that the beating he expected to receive in the next few minutes would bring an end to his life. He would rather die than let his weakness place Karl Marbach in jeopardy. He hoped he wouldn’t yield to pain and fail to keep Karl Marbach safe.
Interrogator Rudnicki peered closely and smiled. “You will do as I want. I have a way to make you do what I want you to do. I have your sister. I have Wanda Paskievich. Her fate is in your hands.”
“You have…my sister? …That is impossible. My sister is dead in the war.”
“Wanda Paskievich is alive.”
“Wanda alive?” Father Paskievich shook his head. “Wanda alive?” He didn’t believe it.
“Bring in the woman,” Interrogator Rudnicki said to the guard.
Father Paskievich closed his eyes as the guard left the cell. He opened his eyes a brief moment later when the guard returned with his hands on the shoulders of a very young woman the priest immediately recognized was his sister, the sister he hadn’t seen for more than five years. The sister who, for three years, he had thought was dead.
“Wanda,” he said, rising to his feet. He spoke his sister’s name as though it was a prayer word.
“Yakub,” the young woman said while keeping her eyes focused down on the floor. “They will put me in jail if you don’t do this thing for them.” She spoke with remoteness, like her words were rehearsed. Most likely they were.
“Wanda? You are alive.” Father Yakub’s voice was filled with wonder.
The young woman repeated her words. “They will put me in their awful jail if you don’t do this thing for them.” The same rehearsed sound in the voice, but as she lifted her face, it filled with emotion. She stared and her eyes spoke to Father Paskievich of a long-ago past, the distant past when they had been children together, when he had been her older brother, her protector.
“I thought you were dead,” Father Paskievich said, staring at his sister’s face, the face of a mature young woman, but a face as precious to him as her childhood face had been.
Animation captured the youthful face. “Jakub, remember, oh, please remember the pledge you used to make all those years ago.” This time there was no rehearsed sound. “Do your good or lose it. Those were words you used to speak. At this moment I am asking you to do your good.”
“Do my good…?” Father Paskievich’s mind registered how courageous his sister was, at this time, in this place, given what she was facing, to remind him of the pledge he used to make to her when they were children. It was a pledge he had found on a piece of paper that had been left to be picked up in a Vienna coffeehouse, like many pieces of paper that were left to picked up in coffeehouses.
Interrogator Rudnicki spoke with an irritated voice. “Prisoner Wanda Paskievich, you will be treated harshly unless your brother agrees to help us get information we need.”
The woman stared at her brother. “Yakub…”
Father Paskievich said to his sister, “Wanda, they want me to do something bad.”
Wanda spoke in a firm voice. “Of course, you won’t cooperate. My brother will do his good.”
Father Paskievich marveled at the young woman who was his sister. “Do my good or lose it,” he said to her.
“This is out of my hands,” said Interrogator Rudnicki.
“Do your good or lose it,” Wanda said to her brother, repeating one more time in a fervent voice what she had already told him fervently.
“God bless you, Wanda,” Father Paskievich said to his sister.
An angry look captured the face of Interrogator Rudnicki. He said, “I am out of patience.” Without saying anything more, he seized Wanda roughly by her arm and pushed her out the door.
The cell door slammed with a loud sound.
Left alone in the cell, Father Paskievich sat down limply. After a few moments, one of the two police who was possibly a good man entered. Father Paskievich lowered his head, tried not to think about what might happen to his sister.
In despair he looked at the Polish policeman he had judged to be a decent man. With an effort of will, he picked up a piece of paper and wrote a letter to an imaginary priest. He scribbled Karl Marbach’s secret mailing address on the piece of paper and made a beckoning motion to the Polish policeman.
The Polish policeman said, “If you want me to mail a letter for you, I will have to look at it.”
Father Paskievich showed the Polish policeman the letter.
“Ah, a letter to another priest. Well…it looks all right. I will put it in the mail for you.”
Category: Fiction, Short Story