harrigan: (war big bang)
[personal profile] harrigan
Under a Vast Sky
link back to fic masterpost here.




Prologue - 2011 - Montana, USA

An old stuffed bear took up most of the room in the small wooden trunk. Its honey-colored skin was a soft mohair fabric worn smooth by years of grubby manhandling, and it stared back at Alice with mismatched glass eyes that looked something like a friendly wink.

She wondered what stories it would tell if it could.

Alice sat back on her heels on the braided rug that covered much of the warped attic floor. The morning sun came streaming through the dirty window, catching on dust motes like tiny dancing flecks of gold. Apt, she thought, if her ancestors were miners. But they weren't - they were ranchers. What little she knew about them, anyway.

The trunk belonged to her Grandma Rose.

Alice was pretty sure Grandma Rose was born around 1938 somewhere in Europe - England, most likely - and then moved to the US before she was 10. She'd settled here in Montana and eventually married a cowboy named Sam Archer. Alice didn't know her maiden name; she'd died when Alice was just a little girl.

Sam and Rose only had one child - Jensen Archer - and he was Alice's dad.

The house had been built by some distant relative before World War II and had been in the family ever since. It was cattle and horse country out here, but Alice's dad had decided he was no cowboy. She thought there was probably a teacher or two somewhere in the family tree, because Dad had gone away to university and become a college professor instead. After Grandpa Archer moved to a nursing home, the house had been rented out to the family that worked the ranch for them. Now Alice's dad was finally selling the property, and there was more than seventy years' worth of clutter to wade through.

Alice was supposed to be spending her summer working on her thesis on twentieth-century Poland and corresponding themes of loss and recovery in the poetry of Wisława Szymborska. But her dad was certain that she could do that and still work her way through the attic, deciding what could be left for an estate sale and what personal items might have sentimental value for the family.

Sure, Dad. Thanks for the vote of confidence. Maybe she could multi-task, she thought. It shouldn't take all her attention to sort through random keepsakes and dismiss whatever wouldn't mean anything to later generations.

Resolved to work quickly, Alice picked up the bear and settled it on her lap before reaching into the trunk. Her hands sifted through more 'treasures' inside - a red knit scarf, a pawn ticket, a compass, some medals on faded silk ribbons, a Monopoly card... A Monopoly card? She gave the bear a puzzled look but he remained as inscrutable as ever. She set the card down to pull out a yellowed sheet of lined paper next - heavy pencil strokes in a child's uneven scrawl. It was dated December 3, 1945, and the title of the page read Who Am I? It began -

My name is Roza Podlacki and I am almost eight years old. I was born in Poland, but I live with my Uncle Jarek and Nils-the-Bear in England now. I came to this country with the Kindertransport...

"Are you Nils?" Alice asked the complacent creature on her lap, stroking the top of his fuzzy head. And Roza Podlacki? Must be Grandma Rose, she thought. The dates seemed right. She must have been born in Poland, though. Not England. Huh.

Alice placed the school report in a small plastic crate she'd decided would hold her pile of items to keep for her dad or to mull over later, and then she picked up the compass and idly turned it over. Her thumb brushed over etched lettering on the back, and she leaned closer to read a surprising engraving there: Made in Stalag Luft III. Patent Pending.

"What have we here, Nils-the-Bear?" she asked, curiosity making her forget all about her thesis.

He just stared back companionably, eyes full of secrets.



1945, England

The stuffed bear, Jarek thought worriedly, was a mistake. She's probably too old for such things!

To be fair, he hadn't been close enough to a child to have any sort of conversation with one for almost five years now. He was a little out of his element.

Jarek paced nervously in the drawing room of the sprawling old Regency house in Hereford that now served as a Quaker orphanage. He'd written to them first, of course, and explained his intentions. They'd replied, inviting him to 'present himself' on this date, and promising nothing more than that.

Five minutes ago, he'd shown up on their doorstep as directed, introducing himself to the housekeeper with a simple "Flying Officer Jarek Podlacki, ma'am." She'd steered him toward the parlor with a peremptory wave of her feather duster and he'd been left alone ever since.

Those five minutes passed slowly. Freezing rain drummed against the windowpanes. He frowned at the bear, and its glinting glass eyes stared back unhelpfully. Jarek grudgingly tucked it back under his arm.

He felt self-conscious, and his shoulders twitched in the RAF uniform that used to fit him and was now too loose. He wanted so badly to make a good impression, and had so little to offer. A rough cough rattled his ribcage, and he pressed his arms against his chest to try to muffle it.

Small waves of heat curled toward him from the fireplace and he stepped closer, holding out his hands and dripping on the hearthrug. There were candid snapshots in cheap frames scattered across the mantel showing boys and girls of various ages. Some featured children gathered around an enormous Christmas tree, tearing into gift-wrapped presents with glee. In others, children with ruddy cheeks and animated faces played outdoors, laughing in the sun.

Was it right to take Rosie away from this? She was family - but could he really give her a better life than what she had here?

His gaze fell on a photo of a vibrant little girl with black hair pulled back in thick braids, and dark, intelligent eyes. She was curled on a window seat, holding a book. Her expression said, "Hurry up and take the picture! I want to read now!"

Could that be - ? His fingers reached out toward the picture, wanting to draw it closer and study every minute detail.

Behind him, he heard the dignified tap of sensible heels on hardwood floors. He straightened painfully and turned.

A woman paused at the bottom of the staircase, severe and unyielding, from her iron gray hair pulled back in a bun, to her mouth set in a thin line, down to her practical Oxford shoes. By her pose, one hand draped regally across the smooth, polished banister, Jarek knew that she must be Mrs. Darcy, the matron. Headmistress? Whatever her title - she was the one he would have to convince of his worth. Even her expression was closed, forbidding, and Jarek suddenly remembered that the Quakers were pacifists. Perhaps she wouldn't look favorably on him for wearing a military uniform. But this was the most respectable clothing he had; he couldn't show up in the overalls he wore to the factory every day, or the sole frayed shirt and trousers he had carefully folded away back home. This was too important.

He pulled back his shoulders, determined not to let her see the broken man he saw when he looked in the mirror, and took a step forward. Before he could offer his hand, though, a sudden clatter of footsteps echoed down the stairs.

Mrs. Darcy turned. "Rosie. I told you to wait -" but she was fighting an indulgent smile and Jarek realized that her stern demeanor wasn't a permanent state; it was only for him. She turned back to him and her expression softened. "My apologies. I wanted us to have a few minutes alone before you were introduced, but you'll find she's a curious little urchin who likes to make up her own mind about things."

She stepped aside, and Jarek drank in the sight of the little girl, seven years old and small for her age, with big eyes and tousled black curls.

The little bookworm.

Rosie had stopped, frozen in mid-step. She sat down slowly on the bottom stair, hugged her skinny arms around her knees, and her eyes seemed to grow even bigger. "Papa?"

Jarek's brow crinkled in confusion. His English had been rudimentary at best when he'd joined the all-Polish 303 squadron in the RAF in 1940. He'd picked up enough to become fairly fluent since then, surrounded by Brits, Canadians, Americans, Australians, and all of Britain's other allies in the POW camp who'd found English their common denominator. None of those men spoke of 'papa' in their daily conversations, though.

And in Polish, 'papa' meant the tarpaper used for roofing.

Mrs. Darcy, however, understood. With a soft touch on Rosie's shoulder, she gestured for the little girl to take off the locket she wore around her neck. Rosie handed it to her carefully, and Mrs. Darcy thumbed it open and passed it to Jarek with a meaningful look. "This is the only thing Rosie brought with her on the Kindertransport from Poland."

Jarek cradled it in his palm as gently as if it were a butterfly with a broken wing. There was a small portrait on each side; two faces he had not seen in six or seven years. And would never see again. The right side showed a small woman with thick, dark hair tucked behind her ears and kind eyes framed by dark brows. On the left side, he saw a young man in need of a haircut, eyes shining, dimples flashing as he seemed to be trying not to laugh.

"'You look very like him, you know," Mrs. Darcy murmured. "We've always assumed these are Rosie's parents. We told her this is her Papa and her Mama."

"They are," Jarek whispered. "They are her Tata and Mama," he added, using the Polish terms. "Józef is - was - my brother. And Sara, she was his wife." When he looked up again, his eyes were wet.

He knelt to give the locket back to Rosie. "Jestem waszym wujem," he told her, his voice breaking a little.

"She doesn't speak Polish, I'm afraid." Mrs. Darcy gave a small shake of her head. "Rosie's been in England since before she was two, I believe. I doubt she remembers anything."

"No? Of course, no." Jarek settled the thin chain back over Rosie's collar. "Your Tata, your father? Was my brother Józef. My name is Jarek."

Rosie looked into his eyes for such a long time that Jarek wondered if she could see all his secrets, see all the way into his damaged soul. But whatever she saw didn't seem to frighten her. She climbed to her feet and pointed at the furry stuffed animal that was still wedged under Jarek's arm like a rugby ball.

"And what's his name?"

Apparently, introductions were needed all around.

"This?" Jarek grabbed by bear by the scruff of its neck and tilted it up to face her. "This is... Nils. Nils-the-Bear." He swallowed nervously. "I thought. Perhaps. If you agreed to come with me, you might be missing your friends here and want to have a friend to take with you."

A friend... someone who is always be there to support you, even when you don't realize you need it.

Until it's too late...


Jarek's chest felt tight.

Rosie stepped closer, looked the little bear right in its shiny black eyes and took hold of its embroidered paw. "Nice to meet you, Nils-the-Bear. I'm Rosie." Then she took the bear from Jarek and tucked it into the crook of her elbow, just as she had seen her uncle carry him.

"Her parents?" Mrs. Darcy asked, very softly.

Jarek shook his head.

He had the last letter from his brother indelibly engraved in his memory.



9 August 1939
Zbąszyń deportation camp

Little brother.

I have no words for what is happening.

My Sara is gone. Typhus, they tell me. There is not even the most basic medicine here that could have saved her. We are lucky, they say, that tonight there is straw on the stable floor where we sleep, and there is some dry bread to eat. But Roza cries for her mother, too young to understand.

I do not understand, myself.

Our landlord from Leipzig is here with his family, too. He has news of an organization that is trying to save the children. A train that will take them to the coast, and a ship, and on to England. Roza is not old enough, but if Moshe sends his children away, they will lie and say she is their cousin and he thinks the organization will let her come with them.

Lying is a small price to pay for freedom.

They won't find Jewish families for most of the children, I know. I tell you this - if she would be safer never knowing our family is Jewish, I would rather that it stays secret than she live with such abuse and fear.

Jarek - war is coming. Of this, I am certain. Don't fly off and get yourself killed. Stay alive. And one day, if I cannot return to Roza, find her, if you can. Take care of her for me, and keep our secret to keep her safe.

I don't think I can bear to let my little girl go. But I can't protect her here.


The letter ended there. The page, torn and stained, had been included in another note from the landlord's wife: the last letter he ever got from Zbąszyń. It said briefly that the children were gone. Safe. But her husband and Józef had both been taken away. She said that she was afraid.

The letter had taken months to reach Jarek. By then, war had been declared and his parents were dead, too.

He'd never found out what had happened to Józef.

Jarek pinched the bridge of his nose, pressing back the tear that threatened. Then he straightened and reached into his jacket to take out an envelope, passing it to Mrs. Darcy. "You will want to see my papers, I think."

She nodded and quickly scanned his National Registration Identity Card, proving his name and that he had a permanent address. A copy of RAF Form 1394 confirmed his honorable discharge with the reason given: "failing to fulfill Royal Air Force physical requirements".

"I have a job," Jarek reassured her, hoping she wouldn't linger over the suggested disability. "I will provide for Rosie; give her a good life. You have my word."

"You know? I think you will."

Jarek thought her lip trembled, just a bit, and he realized that this was a woman who cared for her little ward very much.

Mrs. Darcy turned to Rosie. "Do you want to go with him, child?"

"Yes, please!" Rosie tugged on Jarek's hand. "Do you have a motor car? Will we take the train? Where will we live? Can I bring my crayons?" She bounced with excitement, and Jarek smiled so broadly his dimples unexpectedly appeared.

"Yes, very much like her father," Mrs. Darcy said softly, almost to herself, and she knelt to kiss Rosie goodbye.



It took two trains and then a very long walk to arrive at their new home. Rosie was excited - whether she was going to live in a castle like a fairy princess or in a tree like a character in Winnie the Pooh, it didn't matter to her. It was all a fantastic adventure. Mrs. Darcy had packed her crayons and notebook to keep her amused on the long trip and sandwiches to eat on the train. Right now, Rosie was warm and well fed, and getting sleepy curled up next to "Wujek", as Jarek had told her to call him. He called her ‘kochanie’ – which he explained meant sweetheart in their homeland.

He woke her when the train rumbled to a stop in a quiet station on the outskirts of nowhere. The rain had gradually turned to sleet and then snow during their journey, but it looked now as if the sky was clearing and the clouds were finally drifting off to the east. Rosie clung to her new best friend, Nils-the-Bear, with one hand and Jarek's hand with the other, while he carried her cheap, cardboard suitcase with everything else she owned.

They walked briskly at first along the edge of the road, and that kept them warm despite the chill as night fell. At first, Rosie had to skip to keep up with Jarek's long legs, but she laughed as she did, so he didn't slow down. Not right away. After a mile or so, his stride started to falter, limping, and she could walk at her normal pace. Then he led them off the gravel, cutting through a small patch of walnut trees that lined the road.

Rosie was delighted to find large nuts crunching under her feet. She stopped to pick up two of them. "Can we take some back with us?" she asked, holding out her hand.

Jarek shook his head. "Leave them for the squirrels," he told her with a gentle touch on her closed fist. "They will have a hard winter this year. It isn't good, being hungry."

"Oh. Alright." Rosie opened her palm and let the walnuts tumble back to the ground. "This is for you, Squirrel Nutkin," she called back over her shoulder as they emerged from the grove. "Don't forget to share with your brother Twinkleberry!"

Then she looked up and stopped in her tracks.

"So many stars!" Rosie tugged at her uncle's hand, drawing him out from under the trees. "Just look at them all!" Her voice was hushed with wonder, her face upturned as if the sky was made of velvet and she could feel its soft caress on her cheeks.

Jarek gazed down at her sparkling eyes, feeling more awed by the little miracle holding his hand than all the constellations in the heavens.

"Have you ever seen so many stars, Wujek?" she persisted, letting go to toss her arms out wide and pirouette on the grass like a figure skater. "I think there must be ten thousand!" That was her favorite number - ten thousand.

Jarek smiled and obligingly looked up. And shivered then.

He remembered a night sky like this. A frigid night pierced by air raid sirens, and the sudden darkness as all the searchlights were extinguished. The stars came out of hiding then, stars he hadn't seen in years, peeking through the inky black until the sky was almost bright with their glow. And then came the rumble of bombers overhead, as if they were coming to liberate the sky. He'd felt the deep yearning to be back in the air again, remembered almost shaking with the desperate want to rejoin the fight.

He remembered years behind prison walls, and the bitter taste of helplessness. And later - the adrenaline-fueled flare of hope filling his chest and then…

Then.

Jensen.

Secrets revealed and heart-numbing fear and the shattering crack of a gunshot...

"Come now, kochanie," he said, his voice catching. She skipped back to his side, and slid her hand back in his, and it was warm.

Up far ahead, bright lights seemed to be trying to erase the black night like an eraser on a blackboard, turning everything above a cloudy slate gray. When they got closer, they could see the source of the light coming from a compound, illuminating the empty wooden guard towers, two or three stories tall, perched on spindly legs. Snow glistened on barbed wire that circled the camp like a cheap necklace.

Jarek shuddered, and Rosie tucked herself tight against his side. He put his arm around her and held her close. They made their way through the main entrance, Rosie trying to sound out the words on the big sign on the gate.

National Assistance Board - Northwick Polish Hostel.

Home.







Home, it turned out, used to be a prison camp that held captured German soldiers during the war. Now the war was over, they'd all been sent back home, and the facility had been put to use housing refugees.

Jarek and Rosie's unit was a corrugated asbestos hut with funny shaped walls like half a barrel, lying on its side, so everyone in the camp called their new home a 'beczka', which was Polish for barrel. Jarek and Rosie had just half of one to live in; Pana Maciejewska and her teenage daughter lived on the other side, separated by a brick wall down the middle. Each side had a door and two windows. There was no indoor plumbing, but an unheated brick washhouse shared by a dozen other displaced families was nearby. They did have a round iron coke-burning stove for cooking, whose lingering heat also helped keep the room warm in winter.

Not very different from Stalag Luft III in many ways, Jarek thought. But Obóz huts here had only two twin beds per room, hidden from the 'living area' by a privacy curtain. Much better than the eight narrow bunks crowded into a fifteen-by-fifteen foot room that he'd endured for years. They also had a chest of drawers here with a mirror hanging over it. And a radio, too - one that was completely legal and store-bought, not cobbled together with illegal parts. There was even a folding table and chairs where Rosie could do her homework after dinner, like she was doing now, sitting next to Nils-the-Bear whose opinion she sometimes sought.

They didn't have a phone, of course, and one evening in November there was a knock at the door.

Jarek assumed it must be Mrs. Maciejewski, in her colorful babushka and apron, with yet another bowl of steaming sauerkraut to bestow upon them in her motherly quest to fatten him up. He hadn't the heart - or maybe the stomach - to tell her that after sauerkraut every day, and almost no other vegetables for all the years he'd been a POW, he couldn't stand the thought of it now. He accepted her kind gesture for Rosie's sake, and because it made Mrs. Maciejewski beam with pleasure. And if the smell made him lose his appetite while Rosie dug in with relish, well, he'd wake up with hunger gnawing at his belly. It wouldn't be the first time.

But this visitor wasn't his neighbor: it was a stranger. She was petite and dressed for business in a fitted navy gabardine suit under her open coat, with perfectly coifed blond hair that shone like corn silk.

She craned her neck to look up at him. "Jarek Podlacki?"

Jarek looked down at her, past her, and then around uncomfortably, before settling back on her. What could such a woman possibly want from him?

"I'm Julia Skalski, with Dziennik Związkowy, the Polish Daily News, in Chicago," she said. "In the U.S.A?" she added with a friendly smile when he continued to look confused.

Jarek just stood there looking worried, his big body instinctively blocking the doorway as if to protect Rosie.

"May I come in? I have something I think is yours that I’d like to return to you, if I may.”

Jarek could fit everything he owned in the small locker under his bed, so he doubted that he could be missing something and not realize it. But he shook himself a little, nodded sheepishly at his bad manners and stepped aside.

Rosie was swinging her legs under the table, hunched over the lined paper, with the tip of her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth. She looked up brightly at their uninvited guest. “Hello!”

Julia smiled at her, and her eyes danced when she saw Nils-the-Bear propped on the table across from Rosie. She came closer to see Rosie’s homework. "Hi! What are you writing?"

Rosie moved her arm so the woman could see. The title of the paper was Who Am I?

My name is Roza Podlacki and I am almost eight years old. I was born in Poland, but I live with my Uncle Jarek and Nils-the-Bear in England now. I came to this country with the Kindertransport.

"Look, Wujek!" Rosie turned the paper so her uncle could see it. "I'm drawing a picture of the boat, too. My teacher said Kinder means 'children' and ten thousand children came to England on the Kindertransport. But I can't draw that many." She stuck out her lower lip.

Jarek leaned over her to rub the back of her shoulder and give her an encouraging smile. "They didn't all come on one boat, Roza. They sent a new boat almost every week to save the children, from Krystallnacht right until the day war was declared and they had to stop. Besides, you don't have to draw the children on the deck. Perhaps they were inside because it was raining."

"I can do that!" Rosie grabbed a black crayon and began adding bold, dark thunderclouds to the sky. Jarek straightened, his hand lingering on her shoulder, and turned back toward their visitor.

"Kindertransport is a big word! She's a very bright little girl," Julia said, impressed.

Rosie heard that. "I like knowing things," she said matter-of-factly, switching crayons again.

"Me, too." Julia smiled. “You know, I'd like to find out more things about you. And your family here."

“Why?” Rosie put down her crayon, curiosity overriding her passion for coloring.

"Well, as I said, I write for a paper in Chicago. The Polish Daily News,” Julia explained, and turned to face Jarek. “Our readers are all Polish immigrants, anxious for news about our people, all over Europe. Especially now." Her gaze swept their small, drab accommodations and then settled on Nils-the-Bear, balanced haphazardly on the table. She set her purse beside him to prop him up better. "Our weekend edition is very extensive, full of feature articles. Like a magazine. I'd like to tell our readers the story of some of the displaced Polish families here."

She sounded friendly and sincere, but her words sent a small chill down Jarek’s spine. "I'm sure you can find other 'displaced' families in the camp who will be happy to talk to you." The word 'displaced' tasted bitter on his tongue. "Our story is no better than someone else's story."

In the uncomfortable silence that resulted, Rosie piped up, oblivious, “What did you bring? That belongs to Wujek, I mean?”

Julia looked a little embarrassed as she opened her purse and reached inside. "To get some ideas about which families to talk to, I went to the pawnshop in town first,” she admitted. “I thought there might be a human interest angle, reading about family treasures from Poland that had been exchanged for necessities in their new lives here.”

Then she held out what she had fished from her purse: a pawn ticket and something else still hidden in her closed palm.

"The shopkeeper's name is Mr. Hawkins. And one of the stories Mr. Hawkins told me was about a tall, lanky young man in an RAF uniform who came into his shop one day, looking for used toys for sale. There wasn't much of that sort of thing in the pawn shop, Mr. Hawkins said - he dealt more in watches and jewelry and china. Things like that. But he had an antique dollhouse he thought the soldier might consider. So he started to lead the customer toward the back wall, until he realized the other man had stopped, and he turned around to see what had caught the soldier's gaze."

Julia paused in her story, and nodded when Jarek couldn't help glancing across the table at Nils-the-Bear. "It was a stuffed bear, up on a high shelf over the manager's head. It had been sitting there for several years just collecting dust. But that bear happened to be right at the soldier's eye level. Almost like it was meant to be, Mr. Hawkins said."

"It was meant to be!" Rosie picked up Nils and hugged him against her heart. "Wujek and Nils and I were meant to find each other and be a family and live happily ever after."

Jarek said nothing, but his eyes glistened.

Julia opened her palm and revealed a bronze medal shaped into a six-pointed star. It was attached to a blue and white striped ribbon; a narrow bar clasped across it was embossed Battle of Britain. "The manager said the soldier pawned this medal in exchange for the bear. Mr. Hawkins explained to me that this clasp on the ribbon here means that the man had flown combat missions over London in 1940 and 1941, risking his life to defend England from German bombers. So I asked him to look through his records and come up with your name and address for me." She looked at Jarek hopefully. “I thought perhaps you could tell me something about protecting England during the Blitz and how you find yourself actually living here, now, in peacetime?”

Jarek said nothing, jaw tightening, his mood darkening. She wanted a feel-good piece for her Sunday magazine, not his story. He'd fought for England’s safety, and lost his own country in the process. Now he had next to nothing, a 'displaced' refugee. Resented by growing numbers of citizens who taunted him as he left the factory each day, shouting that English jobs should go to English men. Poles go home.

No, he didn’t want to talk to a reporter.

Julia seemed to sense his reluctance to talk about his current life. “Maybe we could focus on your military service? I think the Polish RAF deserves a lot more credit for what they did in the war, don't you? I know our readers would be very interested in that story."

Jarek's pulse started to race. She couldn't know... no one knew what had really happened, what it had cost for him to be here today. His heart began pounding so hard he was afraid everyone could hear it. He shut his eyes, made his lungs expand and held his breath. Repeated to himself: She doesn't know anything. I'm alright. Rosie's alright. We're safe.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw both curiosity and concern in Julia's face. "I’m sorry," Jarek told her. “But – no. I have nothing to say.”

There was a scraping sound, chair legs dragged across the floor, and then Rosie was standing at her uncle's side and taking his hand, tilting her head way back to see his face. His expression softened as he met her gaze and his heart rate began to settle.

“Of course.” Julia pulled out a business card. "Please call me if you change your mind, Mr. Podlacki. I'll be here this week, talking to other families, but you can call me collect or write me any time. If you ever want to tell me your story, I’d like to hear it."

Jarek took the card to be polite, and walked her out. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but the only story I am going to tell tonight is about an enchanted princess on a glass mountain.”

Rosie squeaked, “Yay!” and wrapped her arms around him in a hug.

Jarek shut the door and then lifted Rosie off the ground and hugged her back.

She kept the darkness at bay.



"Wujek?"

There was a light touch on his arm, and Jarek sat bolt upright, flailing. His heart was racing and he couldn't speak; it was like trying to talk with a mouth full of sand. He felt his knuckles connect with something soft and he flinched, recoiling until he felt the wall against his back.

"Rosie?" he forced out in a whisper. His eyes shot open, but everything was in shadow.

"Shhh, Wujek... it's alright."

That was so wrong. She shouldn't be taking care of him. "O mój boże! Did I - did I hit you?" He reached out a trembling arm.

"No." Rosie climbed onto the thin straw mattress to curl up beside him. "You clocked Nils-the-Bear. But he forgives you."

Jarek felt a fuzzy paw patting his shoulder. "Oh, good. That is good." He wrapped one long arm around Rosie and pulled her tight while his eyes adjusted to the darkness. "What is wrong?" he asked, when his stuttered breathing had evened out. He touched her arm. "Why are you up? Did you have a bad dream?"

"I think you did, Wujek. You were calling for someone. Someone named Jensen?"

Jarek stilled.

"Who is that, Wujek?"

He didn't answer. Heartache turned literal; his chest hurt and it felt like he couldn't get enough air in his lungs. A coughing fit threatened. He recognized the signs and closed his eyes, concentrating on relaxing the muscles around his ribs, feeling them slowly expand.

"Who's Jensen?" Rosie repeated, in the way of persistent children everywhere. "Is he a friend of yours?"

"Yes." Jarek opened his eyes and gave her a weak smile.

"When you were in Poland? When you were little? Like me?"

"No." Jarek started stroking her arm again, hoping the gesture would help her grow sleepy. "I met him... He was... a lieutenant in the RAF. A pilot in the war. Like me. But from Norway, not Poland."

"Oh." Rosie yawned. "When I have a bad dream, you tell me to think happy thoughts."

Jarek nodded, murmuring yes. "Tak..."

"So. Tell me and Nils a happy story about Lieutenant Jensen, to chase the bad dream away."

"Tell you a story?"

"Yes. And make some hot milk to help me go back to sleep."

"Hot milk?"

"Yes. With chocolate!"

"Of course with chocolate." He pushed back the blankets and shuffled in his wool socks across the cold concrete floor to the black iron stove.

Rosie wrapped herself in her blanket, settled Nils in one folding chair, and pushed another chair across to the stove, while Jarek took down some chipped teacups and a battered saucepan from a cupboard. "Tell me a funny story," she demanded, climbing onto the chair and waving a wooden spoon at him like a royal scepter. They were in England, after all. And because Jarek could never refuse her anything, he tried.

"Yes. Alright." He thought for a couple minutes, grateful that Rosie was patient. Nils was, too. Finally, Jarek cleared his throat. "I will tell you how we met," he decided. That was a safe memory.

"You know," he began, pouring the milk into the saucepan and lighting the stove. "You know that in a war, sometimes one side captures men on the other side. You understand this? And because they don't want them to fight anymore, they lock them up."

“Like when we play Capture the Flag in school! At play time!” Rosie's face lit up in understanding. “I’m fast. They never catch me!”

"Yes. That's right. Well, not everyone is as fast as you, kochanie." Jarek smiled and felt his tension start to ease. He could do this. "And the prisoners, of course, don't want to be locked up. They dream of the day they can return to their families and friends. So - they try to escape."

"Were you a prisoner? Did you try to escape?"

He chuckled. "Many times. So many times that the Germans built a special camp for all the worst troublemakers - a camp they... meticulously? Is that the right word? Meticulously designed and constructed. They said that no one would ever be able to escape from Stalag Luft III. All the most... incorrigible prisoners were sent there."

Rosie passed him the powdered cocoa and a spoon. "And that's where you met Lieutenant Jensen? He was - incorrigible - too?" She pronounced 'incorrigible' with a Polish accent, echoing his.

"Oh yes. Yes, he was. Our first day there -" Jarek paused to measure the cocoa and then the sugar very attentively - an unconscious habit from the days of waiting eagerly for the next Red Cross packages to come, a time when such luxuries were too precious to risk wasting a speck. "Our first day there, hundreds of prisoners, from every Allied country you can think of, were brought there in trucks from other camps. And as we were arriving, many Russian prisoners were leaving. The Germans were using them as forced labor, to cut down trees. The new camp was in a clearing in the middle of a big forest, you see."

Ingredients added, he positioned Rosie's chair a little closer to the stove so she could stir the hot chocolate as bubbles appeared.

"Some of the Russian prisoners were wearing heavy coats and old fur caps, and they carried axes and shovels. I watched carefully, waiting for a good moment when the Germans weren't looking, and then I jumped in the line with them. I had a cigarette to trade with one of the prisoners, and he gave me his ax. Another gave me his hat."

"But - weren't you wearing your uniform, Wujek? Wouldn't the Germans see?"

When Jarek's plane had crashed a year before, his flight suit had been too blood-soaked to be salvageable. But he didn't tell Rosie that. "No, just pants and a sweater. I thought perhaps I could pass for Russian. And although they were prisoners, too, they had to go outside the gate to return to their compound. If I could somehow make it to the forest before then, I thought, anything could happen!"

The smell of hot chocolate filled the room, and Jarek turned off the burner. Rosie climbed down and dragged her chair back to the table, where she took her seat next to Nils-the-Bear. Jarek stood beside her and poured the frothy liquid into the first dainty cup Rosie held steady for him. "The Russians all came to a stop while the gate was opened," he continued. "Then, before we began to move out, I was surprised to find that another one of the new prisoners had fallen in line, right behind me."

"Lieutenant Jensen!" Rosie clapped her hands together gleefully.

"That's right. We were all huddled close together, four across. I felt a tap on my shoulder and then heard him whisper, 'Do you know any Russian?'

"Without turning around, I shrugged. 'I know just one phrase,' I told him." Jarek finished pouring Rosie's drink and began pouring his own. "я тебя люблю." (ya tebya lyooblyoo)

"I heard him repeat it to himself, but I didn't want to turn to look at him. It might draw attention from the guards. We began to march slowly toward the open gate. After a minute I discovered he had changed places with the Russian who had loaned me his hat, and now Jensen was marching at my side."

Rosie took a small taste, then blew across the surface and set the cup down. "What did Lieutenant Jensen look like?"

Jarek smiled, setting the saucepan back on the stove. He had already discovered that Rosie liked stories with dashing young heroes or heroines and she liked to draw pictures to illustrate stories she made up. He could see that she was already spinning stories in her head of a daring young Lieutenant.

"Well, he was smaller than me -"

"Everyone is smaller than you, Wujek!"

"Really? Are you sure?" He picked her off her chair and lifted her high overhead until she squealed. Then he set her down and nudged her chair closer to the little folding table, taking his seat across from her. "He was handsome like a prince, is that what you want to hear?" he teased. "He was wearing a borrowed coat that was too big for him, and a stolen knit cap, too. All I could see was that he had bright, intelligent eyes. Always thinking, always plotting, that one!"

Rosie set an empty teacup and saucer in front of Nils-The-Bear, and looked at her uncle expectantly. Jarek clapped a hand on his forehead in melodramatic apology and quickly rose to get the saucepan and fill another cup.

When he sat back down, Rosie wrapped her hands around her cup, and leaned forward to blow across the skin of the hot chocolate again. "Then what happened?"

"Then the Germans started looking more closely at the prisoners marching toward the gate. They were specially trained guards, alert to any escape attempts. They had pitchforks they used to stab at the evergreen branches on the trucks from the trees they'd cut down. In case any of the new prisoners had tried to hide there," Jarek added with a smile, remembering how comical the new arrivals had looked, crawling out and slinking sheepishly back to the others.

"One of the guards stopped our group and started inspecting all the men. The Russians were muttering among themselves, and - maybe in an effort to blend in - Jensen pretended to engage me in conversation.

"'я тебя люблю,' he said.

"I was startled. I tried to signal with my eyes that he should stop talking. The guard came nearer, and Jensen cleared his throat, and then tried to act normal and he repeated, like we were having a conversation, 'я тебя люблю.'"

Jarek brought his teacup up to drink, so tiny in his big hands that it didn't hide his grin. "The Germans pulled him out of the line, and then me, too, because he had been talking to me. Unfortunately for Jensen, the guard spoke better Russian than either of us."

"What was wrong? What did that mean? Ya tebya lyooblyoo?"

"Jensen asked me that, as they hauled us away. So I told him. 'It means, I love you.'" Jarek shrugged. "I told him I wasn't planning to use it, myself!"

Rosie giggled into her cup. Not long after, when Jarek tucked her back into bed, she wrapped her arms around his neck and whispered into his ear, "Ya tebya lyooblyoo, Wujek!"

He stilled for a moment, distant and lost, so long that Rosie drew back to give him a puzzled look. He felt her stare then and blinked the past away, bending close to nuzzle her, too. "It's better in Polish, kochanie. Kocham Cię!'

"Kocham Cię, then, Wujek!"

"Ja też cię kocham." I love you, too.

His broad hand brushed a stray hair away from her face, and he dropped a soft kiss on her temple before straightening and turning out the light.

The next morning, as Jarek was buttoning her into her coat for school, Rosie was apparently still thinking about the failed escape. "Did you get into lots of trouble? When you tried to run away?"

"Nie - just a week in the cooler. For each of us," he told her, tying the strings to her knit hat under her chin.

"The cooler?" Rosie's face scrunched up in a perplexed frown. "Like - a big fridge?"

"No!" Jarek laughed. "It's just a separate cell... a room, solitary, where they locked you up for punishment. You had to stay in the room, all alone - you couldn't go outside, or eat with your friends, or anything."

"That would be awful! Were you very angry at Lieutenant Jensen, for getting you caught? Or was he very mad at you for teaching him the wrong thing to say?"

What Jarek remembered was that for his first week at Stalag Luft III, it turned out that Jensen was the only person he could talk to.

The only one.

In his early days with the Polish Air Force, Jarek was gregarious. A chatterbox. He was young and foolish and liked to talk, and tell stories, and laugh and drink and throw his arms around his mates' shoulders. Just like most of the other young Poles who'd escaped when Poland fell and had made their way to England where they could rejoin the fight. Living among the reserved Brits had felt like a shock of cold water when he first joined the RAF. But his squadron was made up almost exclusively of expatriates from the Polish Air Force, and among his own people, he'd remained his talkative, friendly self.

So he talked to Jensen. They couldn't see each other, but their cells shared a common wall, and there was nothing else to do but get to know each other and tell each other stories.

They didn't talk about being prisoners, not then. They talked about home.

At least, Jarek did. Jarek told him he was from Frampol, Poland. As a child, he said, he was always outside, climbing trees so high he could touch the sky. Fashioning bed sheets into parachutes and jumping off the roof. When he wasn't reading poetry.



Jarek sprawled on the floor of his cell, flattening his shoulder blades against the thick concrete wall, and tucking his hands behind his neck, elbows flared out like wings. "The farmers who came to trade in my village always said it was a shame that someone my size wanted to go to school and read poetry and study. Do you have the phrase "mieć głowę w chmurach" in English? To... to 'have one's head in the clouds'. Yes?"

From Jensen's cell, only silence.

"Everyone always said I had my head in the clouds. Always daydreaming. But one day I saw a plane make an emergency landing in the pastures outside our village! The plane had an open cockpit. The pilot's hair had blown in his eyes and I knew he had been sharing stories with the birds and exploring the inside of a cloud! And I knew from that moment that one day I would see the inside of a cloud myself."

Jensen didn't respond in kind, not then. He spoke very little, in fact. Later, other prisoners who'd come from Jensen's last prison camp told Jarek that Jensen was that way with everyone. He just didn't like to get close to people. But that first day in the cooler, Jarek hadn't talked to anyone else in the new camp yet; he didn't know anything about Jensen.

Alone in his cell, he pondered Jensen's silence and wondered what expression might be on his face if Jarek could see him. Probably mocking.

Jarek was used to being teased for being a romantic. It didn't bother him - he was certainly too big for anyone to bully. Still. He stopped himself with an effort from waxing lyrical about the 'vast embrace of the sky' and with an embarrassed chuckle, he'd turned to more mundane topics.

"My father - he was a teacher. But he was fiercely patriotic: he fought in the Bolshevik War in 1920. Was so proud when I was accepted into the Air Force Academy in Dęblin. My mother - she was a gentler soul. She gave me my love of poetry and nature. And, it must be said, I get my nose from her, too," he added sheepishly.

"And what of you, Jensen? Where are you from?" Jarek hadn't heard him speak enough to make a good guess, but he took a stab at it. "Denmark?"

"Norway."

This was good. After prolonged silence from the adjacent cell, he had coaxed two syllables from his neighbor. Maybe they would become friends yet.


"Wujek?"

Jarek's fingers had fallen still, tangled in the strings to Rosie's cap, as he was lost in thought. She wrapped her small hand around his to get his attention back. "Was Lieutenant Jensen mad at you?"

"No," Jarek reassured her, collecting his emotions first and then standing to gather last night's teacups, setting them aside with the saucepan to wash later. He would have to go outside to get water from the taps located across the camp, so he'd left them on the stove after their midnight tea party. "We weren't mad at each other. In fact, when we got out of the cooler, we found out we were to be roommates in the same hut. We even shared the same set of bunk beds."

She opened her mouth to ask more questions, and he silenced her with a fingertip to her nose. "There's a story about those bunk beds. Be a good girl, and maybe I will tell it to you one day. But it's already half to the eighth; we need to be going now or there won't be time to stop in the kantyna for breakfast."

Rosie pulled the curtain closed that hid their beds and grabbed her schoolbooks. "I'm ready, Wujek!" He heard her muttering 'bunk beds' under her breath, too, committing it to memory, and he knew she wouldn't forget. Sometime, she would ask for that story, and he would have to find a way to be strong. To tell her the little anecdotes, for there were good memories, too. He needed to learn how to hold onto them without feeling like he was falling apart.



Until the reporter had visited with questions about their past, Jarek had been fairly successful at burying the memories he didn't want to think about. Like all POWs in the RAF back from the war, he'd been required to talk to a psychologist at Cosford – a grueling, intrusive interview. Jarek had had nothing to say and the doctor plenty – lecturing about probable nightmares, grief, and guilt, before he finally gave up and just warned Jarek not to be surprised if healing emotionally turned out to be harder than healing physically.

Jarek had just tuned the man out. He had far more important things to think about. He was finally discharged after months in hospital. There was nothing they could do for his damaged lungs, but his frostbitten feet had recovered enough that they hadn't had to amputate after all.

He was free, and the RAF couldn't tell him what to do or think any more.

He had a new mission. Find Roza. Find Rosie, get a job, and make a home. He couldn't afford to let himself think about anything else.

The search had kept him occupied for weeks. Toddlers had been rare on the Kindertransport, and the few who were that age usually came with siblings. Rosie had arrived in England with the landlord's children, but apparently she was soon separated from them. The Red Cross had been able to confirm that Rosie had gone to a foster family in London, and there the trail had ended.

She'd disappeared from the system sometime in 1940 while Jarek was flying over London, on patrol in his Hurricane.

Jarek would never forget looking across the sky above London's docks, the chill of seeing dozens of German bombers and their fighter plane escorts approaching fast in attack formation. He’d flown with reckless abandon that day, diving at the heavy Dornier bombers, close enough to strafe the cockpits before pulling up, relying on his teammates in the 303 Squadron to keep the Messerschmitts off his tail. There was nothing he wouldn't do to keep the air over Rosie safe. Wherever she was.

That winter, it seemed at times like all of London was on fire. Jarek heard that hundreds of thousands of children were being evacuated to the countryside; he'd prayed that Rosie was among them.

Five years later, the Red Cross couldn't tell him. There was no record of what had become of her. He went to one organization after another, and finally met a miracle worker named Ann in an organization called the Refugee Children's Movement. She tracked down paperwork that had been lost and located a Roza Podlacki at the Quaker orphanage in Hereford.

Now, they were together, finally. They had a home. He had a job.

He should feel safe.

But ever since the reporter’s well-meant questions, his war memories had turned insidious, like the tunnel sand that had to be shoved out of sight into an attic groaning with the weight. Julia Skalski had poked a crack in that ceiling, and specks of sand were starting to trickle out.

His guilt about Jensen weighed heavier each day, and the crack deepened.

continued in chapter 2 of 4 here.

Date: 2011-06-23 09:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] norahy.livejournal.com
Truly intriguing prologue, go to download to phone.

Date: 2011-06-24 09:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] harrigan.livejournal.com
Hope you enjoy!

Date: 2011-06-24 01:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] madebyme-x.livejournal.com
What a stunning opening - I'm completely enthralled! I'm frustrated that I won't be able to read the whole story today and that I'll have to wait until next week (hopefully I'll squeeze one more chapter in today!)

I love the tapestry of time-lines as we flick to different periods, characters and points of view, it's so effortlessly done and with each section we get a few more clues and pieces of information about Jarek's secrets.

I've always been a fan of mysteries and you've certainly caught my attention with this one. And I loved the Beatrix Potter reference in Squirrel Nutkin (who often gets overlooked!)

Rosie has a immediate lovable factor, her childlike innocence and inquisitive nature. And Jarek, well, I love how already we've seen how his experiences have changed his 'chatterbox' and sociable nature into a quiet and almost reserved man. But I adored his scenes with Rosie and how he is with her, such a gentle giant with those huge dimples.

Fantastic opening! I can tell this is going to be an epic tale. Catch you again soon.

Date: 2011-06-24 09:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] harrigan.livejournal.com
You always catch the things I'm hope come across! In my mind, Jarek was more Jared-like before the war, but by the time the story starts, he's been changed. Hope you enjoy the rest!

Date: 2011-06-24 11:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] spn-2008.livejournal.com
Wonderful story, brilliant first chapters

It's perfect

thank you!

Date: 2011-07-14 12:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jjinmo-356.livejournal.com
Really enjoying this, so fresh from other stories out there. Great job on develping each of these charactors.

Date: 2011-07-14 12:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] harrigan.livejournal.com
Thank you! That's one of the fun things about AUs, I'm finding: developing new characters!
Edited Date: 2011-07-14 12:14 pm (UTC)

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