The boy opened his eyes. It was still dark. Dawn was approaching, time soon to rise from the wooden bed, with it's lumpy, horsehair mattress and thin blanket. The hut was cold. The little heat provided by the stove had escaped through the gaps between the boards which formed the walls of the hut, during the night. Soon, it would be time to get up, and start his work. But for these few moments, he lay still, and indulged himself in memory.
He thought first about his father, dead now. Remembered him standing in the doorway, in his officer's uniform, proud and full of honour. Thought next about the school he should have been at now; the reputable, old military school that his father and his father before him had attended. He had been scared, then, at the prospect. Scared to leave mother and father, nanny and the comfortable apartment. Scared at the thought of the spartan, strict regime of boarding school. He would give anything, now, to have that life back. To have his father back. With a sigh, he brought himself back to the present; to the cold hut; to his mother, asleep beside him, and the other family, breathing noisily at the far side of the space. He knew it was time for him to get up, get started. His mother stirred beside him. "Stasiu, czas wstawac". Time to get up.
They dressed quickly, quietly, in the dark. Mother coaxed the stove back to life, using a few of the precious sticks collected last night, and placed a pot of water on the stove to boil. There was nothing to put in the water, but at least it would be hot, and his stomach would be fooled for a few short moments into believing it was less empty than it really was. Boots on, and time for Stas to start his day's work.
His job was to take the cattle belonging to the villagers out onto the steppe to graze. He hadn't wanted the job. He'd been happy picking cotton with mother; occasionally coming across an egg, laid by one of the village chickens. His mother would crack the egg straight into his mouth, silently, then bury the fragments of shell as quickly as possible, to hide the evidence. But he was small, and couldn't pick as much as the others. It hurt his fingers. It hurt his arms. The kolhozniks had decided he could be put to better use herding the cattle, out on the steppe every day. Mother told him he had to do it; told him how lucky he was to be given this job. Lucky; because every day, one of the villagers in turn would give him a piece of bread to take out with him for the day. Lucky, because out there on the steppe, he could steal a drink of warm milk. But he hated the work. He hated saddling up the old horse in the half light of dawn. He hated trudging through the mud, from hut to hut, to collect the cows. He hated riding out to find pasture, and spending the whole day, every day, day after day, out there on his own. But choice was a luxury no longer available. He laced his boots, and drank the hot water.
Soon, he was riding out of the village and onto the steppe, his hunk of hard bread reassuring in his pocket. He had to ride for at least an hour to find decent grazing. When he found a place, he dismounted, unsaddled the horse, let him drink from the stream, then let him loose to graze also. He desperately wanted to eat the bread, but once eaten, there would be nothing until evening. So began the familiar daily battle between hunger and willpower. Eventually, hunger won. He took the bread out, unwrapped it from the dirty cloth, and broke off a piece of hard crust. Re-wrapping the rest of the bread, he put the hard crust in his mouth, fighting the urge to chew. If he held it in his mouth for a while, the flavour and taste let him pretend he was eating. He hadn't seen himself in a mirror for many months, but he knew he was skin and bone. He knew by looking at the other Polish people in the Kolhoz. Cheekbones visible and prominent. Clothes hanging like sacks. Once he'd eaten the crust, he started to search the ground. You could be lucky. Sometimes a few berries, some wild seeds. Sometimes, if he was very lucky, he'd find a bird's nest, with eggs still warm; he'd crack them and eat them raw. No need to hide the shells out here. Wash them down with water from the stream.
Then, when the sun was overhead, at midday, he'd decide which cow to steal milk from today. The cows were placid, easy going - skinny and underfed, like himself. He'd position himself under the cow, lying in the long grass, and squirt the warm milk directly into his mouth. Three squirts, four, - maybe five if he was daring. No more. any more would be noticed.
Later, he would eat the rest of the bread. Make it last as long as he could. Mother sent out lessons with him, every day. The teacher in her refused to give up. She told him he had to continue to learn, to study, and every day, she would write out exercises for him, using the stub of a pencil, and whatever she could find - the wrapper from the tea, an old envelope. Sums to do. Spellings to learn. Tonight, by the light of the naphta lamp, she would check and correct his work with him. He knew it was no good leaving it, It would be harder to do in the dark, in the hut, the life of another family beside him. So, he worked his way through the exercises, as the sun made it's way across the expanse of sky.
When he was finished, he walked around and checked each of the cows. Sometimes they might scratch or cut themselves, and if this happened, he would be to blame, so he liked to check each one, carefully, before heading back. All alright today. No beating tonight. A little while more, and it would be time to return. Time now to dream a little. Remember again. Remember the visits at the weekend and in the summer to the country house. How his pet mouse disappeared, and was found at the end of the week, at the bottom of the bucket of cream in the cellar. Poor Myszka. Remember how his half brothers and sisters would alternately tease and spoil him; the baby, the youngest, little Stasiu. The one who lived in town, in the apartment with tata and their kind young stepmother, his mother, Zofia. The rest of them, adults, or nearly so, living in the country house. Were they still there, he wondered? Had they been taken away, like he and his mother had been? Or were they still living that simple, peaceful, comfortable country life, full of good food, good books, music and happiness?
Shaking himself back to reality, he resaddled the horse and began the return ride to the village. Returned the cows, one by one, each one checked carefully by its owner. Returned the horse and settled it for the night. Returned to the hut, mama waiting. Time now to collect sticks and reeds to feed the stove tonight.
A thin soup for dinner, shared with the other family. Shared prayers before eating, the familiar Polish words bringing succour in this alien land. Slow eating, eking out the food for as long as possible. After the food, time to correct his lessons. Mama sitting close to him under the dim light of the naphta lamp. Close and comforting, his safety here in this world. After the lessons, the two families gather round the stove, and one of the adults begins to recite, from memory, the Polish classic, Pan Tadeusz. "Litwo! Ojczyzna moja!, ty jestes jak zdrowie. Ile cie trzeba cenic ten tylko sie dowie kto cie stracil..."* The familiar words wash over him, as he snuggles into his mother's side, as his eyelids begin to droop. He's nine years old. Soon he'll be ten. He feels his mother lifting him, into the bed, pulling the covers over him, but he knows no more. He's asleep now. Dreaming. Somewhere else until morning
Translation: *Lithuania, my country! You are as good health:
How much one should prize you, he only can tell
Who has lost you."