“Martial Law,” a short story
She stepped off the curb into the slush that covered much of Grunwaldzki Square. Icy water quickly soaked through the soles of her leather boots but she didn’t notice. She cinched up the belt of her sheepskin coat and bent into the cutting wind. All the time she searched ahead for some sign of the demonstration.
Only a few others were out in the cold, old women mostly, wrapped in scarves and woolen coats, hoping to find a shop with something worth buying. There were no cars on the streets. Since the sale of gasoline for private use had been banned, people hoarded what little they had in case of emergency. Only an occasional powder blue police car with a single cold blue light on top cruised slowly up and down the empty streets, the officers inside on the lookout for fugitives or demonstrators.
Anna reached Pulawski Street, one of the main thoroughfares that emptied into the square, and paused as a police car glided by. Its tire tore through a half-frozen puddle and splashed gray mud onto her coat. She reached down to brush the worst of it off, carefully avoiding making eye contact with the officers inside the car. How could there be a demonstration today, she wondered, with so many police around? People wouldn’t be so crazy. Maybe she had been misled. Maybe it had been just a cruel rumor.
Turning the corner into New Market Square, she came in sight of the Veterans’ Monument. No one was there. She’d been told the marchers would come from the funeral and gather at the monument. She paused next to a small shop. A single word above its empty display window read “Meat.” A sign on the door said, “Open” but no one was inside. There was only a barren counter and beyond that a row of empty hooks where in better times links of sausages and slabs of ham would have hung. But now this shop, most shops, were bare, part of the government’s strategy to discredit the free trade union movement. The reasoning went like this. A free trade union created chaos. The chaos ruined the economy. A ruined economy could not function. It certainly could not manage to supply this little shop with its complement of sausage for the week. So martial law had to be declared to end this chaos. The army would restore order, and eventually, the little meat shop in New Market Square would have sausage again.
There! A small clump of people had just turned the corner out of an alleyway. Heads down, their gloved hands pumping at their sides, they cut directly across the square toward the monument. Anna recognized one of her husband’s colleagues, a woman who shared his office at the university.
“Professor!” Anna called to the woman. “Please, I must talk to you.”
The group halted at the monument. When Anna approached, the woman thrust a small sheet of paper at her. “Here. Take this bulletin. They have no right. Our strike will bring these criminals to their knees. They cannot win if we all refuse to work. We must save our trade union. ”
The woman spoke quickly, one phrase tripping over the other. Her eyes were rimmed with black circles as if she had not slept for days. “Please, listen to me.” Anna pleaded. “The action at the university, when they broke the strike. Were you there? Do you know what happened?”
“We must all strike. We must show solidarity,” the woman continued as if not hearing her. “We cannot let them win.”
“But, Professor, my husband, Pawel? Was he arrested? Was he hurt? Was he taken with the others?”
The woman seemed to focus on Anna for the first time. “Pawel…” she said, her face suddenly softening. “So brave. Yes, he was there. He watched the front entrance. We were afraid there would be saboteurs.”
“So you saw what happened.”
“No, I left. For my children, you see, but I saw the police vans go by that night. They turned up Marszalkowska toward the university. Twenty vans full of the special detachments, the strike breakers!” She spat out the last words as if they caused a bitter taste in her mouth.
Suddenly the woman reached out and grabbed Anna’s arm. She was staring across the square where a single police car was advancing slowly toward the monument crunching through ridges of icy snow that had formed on the paving stones.
The police inside the car were focused on the group around the monument. Gatherings were illegal under martial law, especially in public. The car stopped several meters short. One officer got out, slipping as he emerged, and fighting to put on his ankle length great coat. He reached out and grabbed the arm of the nearest demonstrator.
The man jerked his arm away defiantly. The policeman started to come after him but stopped. All the people around the monument and even bystanders from around the square were converging toward him. The policeman ducked back into the car.
As the door slammed and the car started backing away, a roar went up from the crowd. Someone began shouting, “Gestapo! Gestapo!” Everyone joined in taunting the retreating police car, “Gestapo! Gestapo!” Anna felt goosebumps form on her arms. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen anyone in Poland openly defy the authorities.
One of the demonstrators was shouting above the noise, “Quiet now! They’ll be back with reinforcements. We must hurry.” The demonstrators huddled together. A prayer was offered for the man who had inspired the demonstration, a university administrator who had died of a heart attack the night the police had broken the strike. As the prayer concluded, the demonstrators crossed themselves and quickly left, going off in every direction. Anna ran after one and then another, but no one could tell her anything. Soon there was no one left to ask.
Anna trudged off toward her bus stop. On the way, she examined the flier she had been given. The printing was crooked and smudged, but she could make out the title “Strike Informational Bulletin No. 6” and below that a date. It was too old to have information that could help her.
When she finally stepped through the door of her apartment, her six-year-old son Marcin wrapped his arms tightly around her waist. “Where’s Papa?” he cried. “Grandma said you would bring Papa.”
Anna’s mother was hunched over a steaming glass of tea at the kitchen table. An empty shopping bag drooped off the table next to her. She turned her head wearily in Anna’s direction and shrugged.
Anna pried her son’s arms away, removed her coat and sat down on a stool. She struggled to remove her soaking boots. She felt very much like crying but instead she said brightly to her son, “Never you mind, honey. He won’t stay away long. He loves you too much.” She leaned over from the stool and wrapped her arms around Marcin and breathed in the scent of his hair.
“Go fetch a book, dear, the one about the old blind mole.”
Marcin went to find his book. Anna stepped into the kitchen and quietly closed the door.
Taking the empty shopping bag, Anna asked, “No luck finding butter?”
Her mother snorted in response and took a drink of her tea. “What about the hero?” her mother asked. “Has he beaten the government all by himself? Is martial law all over now?”
Anna moved over to the sink, took a dishtowel, and held it to her eyes.
Her mother continued, “I told him to stay at home. This was his place, not helping with some crazy strike. A man with a family, with a tiny boy. What did he expect? How could you allow this?”
Anna spun around, “I didn’t allow it. You know Pawel. The trade union meant everything to him. He had to fight. He wasn’t going to go back to the way it was before.”
Her mother laughed. “The way it was before? Well, before that damn trade union he was here, wasn’t he? And we ate. It wasn’t so bad. You should have been alive during the war.” She raised her hands and cupped them together, forming a little pocket. “For such a tiny potato we would thank God. All we had for the whole day and we would count ourselves lucky.”
The door opened and Marcin marched in with his book. Anna took him in the other room where the television was showing yet another movie about the tremendous sacrifices the Russian people made liberating Poland during the Great Patriotic War. When the movies were not playing, army officers were reading the news, army choirs were performing patriotic songs, or documentaries were running about the army’s role in catching provocateurs and getting enterprises running smoothly again. She switched the television off and pulled Marcin onto her lap. “Old blind mole tapped his way down Cabbage Lane…” she began reading.
After awhile, Anna’s mother came in and said she had soup on the table and it was getting cold. “Oh, the neighbor dropped this off. Said he found it on the floor in the elevator.”
Anna took the small piece of paper from her mother and unfolded it. “Strike Informational Bulletin #10” it read. Anna’s eyes raced down through the blurry printing. It was a list of locations where strikes had been broken. One line read, “Strike breaking action: university administration building, 27 Dec” and then, “Arrested held at Black River army base.”
That night, Anna could not sleep. Whenever she closed her eyes, she saw Pawel shivering in an unheated army barracks, being beaten, or being marched out into a snowy courtyard at midnight and doused with water. She’d heard the rumors of such treatment many times.
When the clock struck four, she flung her comforter off, wrapped herself in a thick robe and tiptoed into the kitchen. She carefully removed an old army field kit from its place in the cupboard and began washing its parts. The field kit was a marvel of construction and durability. It had three compartments, all securely fastened by a single locking mechanism.
Anna started a pot of fresh mushroom soup and began steaming cabbage leaves. She sliced thick chunks of bread off a fresh loaf and spread them with the very last of the family’s margarine. She pulled precious bags of frozen strawberries and raspberries out of the tiny freezer section of the refrigerator and began carefully thawing them out.
By six o’clock, she had all three compartments of the mess kit jammed full. Her mother walked in as she was wrapping the mess kit in layers of towels to keep the warmth trapped inside.
“What do you think you’re doing?” her mother growled.
“I’m taking food to Pawel,” she said calmly.
“What?” her mother shouted. “Have you fallen off a horse? They’ll arrest you.”
“Quiet,” Anna shot back. “You’ll scare Marcin.”
“Scare him? You’ll leave him without his parents. He’ll be terrified. What am I supposed to do if you don’t come back?”
Anna put down the mess kit bundle on the table and took her mother by both arms. “Mother,” she said firmly. “I will be very careful. I won’t take any chances. I’ll be polite and I’ll be smart. But I have to find Pawel. I have to see that he is all right.”
Her mother saw that it was no use arguing. “Do what you want, you fool. Do what you want.”
After getting dressed, Anna kissed Marcin goodbye being careful not to wake him. She took up her bundle and went down to Pawel’s car. The engine barely turned over at first, but then to her relief, it caught and idled smoothly. She checked the gas gauge. They hadn’t used the car since martial law had been declared so there was almost a full tank. Anna was sure it would be enough to get her to the army base, which was not far out of town.
She inched out onto the icy streets and made her way slowly across the city until she picked up the main road leading out of town.
The sign caught her attention from very far away since it was out in the middle of nowhere. A symbol on the sign indicated a full stop. Anna braked carefully to avoid sliding. In tall red lettering, the sign read, “Strictly forbidden to go beyond this point!” Anna couldn’t believe her eyes. This road was a main artery between her city and the next. It couldn’t be closed, although she realized that she had not seen another car since leaving the city behind. Surely this little sign couldn’t be all the warning she would get. Shouldn’t there be some kind of manned checkpoint, someone to talk to?
She bent her head and rested it on the hard plastic of the steering wheel. What could she do? What if she went on? Would they arrest her? She heard her mother’s words warning her. It was true. The police could do anything. And under martial law, penalties were vastly out of proportion to the crime. Three years in jail for being caught with a flyer. Ten years for hiding a fugitive. What would the punishment be for the crime of trying to visit your husband?
Down the road, there were fields of white snow as far as she could see. In the distance a sharp dark needle pointed to the sky, the bell tower of a church sitting on the edge of a tiny village. She imagined Marcin waiting for her to come home, her mother sitting on the kitchen chair, muttering to herself, watching the clock.
Then she imagined a room with a barrier built across the middle topped by partitions of glass. She would sit in front of the glass and watch as her Pawel was led into the room. She must be very careful not to seem shocked by his appearance no matter what he looked like. She must smile and nod and talk to him calmly. She would give her mess kit to the guard who would open it and examine it and make sure it was only food. Then he would pass it over one section at a time to her husband and she would sit and watch him eat, one spoonful after another. Her Pawel would have the food she prepared for him in his hands. He would eat and not be cold for awhile.
Anna looked again at the sign. She thought of her son, how she had left him at home curled in his warm bed. Then she took her foot off the brake and slowly let up on the clutch until the car inched forward. She drove past the sign and searched ahead for the turn to the Black River army base.