The Girl from Zlot

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Four gray walls, and four gray towers Overlook a space of flowers,And the silent isle embowers The Lady of Shalott.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Mile after dark Silesian milethe river wears the forest's frown,only venturing a smileto greet a village or a town: one on an island, wherefour grey walls and four grey towerssee the patients come and go,and sufferers in the small hours,hearing a voice beside them, know the girl from Zlot is there.

Midnight: an emergency:at the operating table,opposite the surgeonshe draws as deft a needle, ties as neat a knot.When screens are drawn about a bed,voices lowered and feet swift,a sick child or a woundedminer on his final shift asks for the girl from Zlot.

Off duty, climbing a grey towerand in her attic openinga window on the lights below her,she stands a moment listening -- listening for what?Water talking to the wharves,wind to rushes; rowlocks -- a latefisherman -- where the river curvescarrying its nightly freight of longing down to Zlot.

She strikes a match. The lampripens and irradiatesfolds of linen in her lap,a border she illuminates with a needle dippedin silk. She has a mind to makea bedspread Book of Hours, and herein her dipping hand's slow wakepictures of the world appear: her world, her manuscript.

First, a workshop: workbench, wall,and a carpenter who standscatching a window's waterfallin a box between his hands. He made it, matched the grainof oak or elm (as she, its shadeof brown, the window's blue and green).He dovetailed the four sides, inlaidthe lid. And in her second scene he holds his box again.

A gipsy fiddler and a ladhugging an accordionmust be playing fast and loudto keep these couples dancing. One, only one is not.It is a guardsman and his girl.The present he is giving her,his broad clear brow and coal-black curls,show him to be the carpenter, and she? The girl from Zlot.

Third, an attic: table, chair,orange moon and lemon lampshining on a woman's hair.She has something in her lap. Her right hand reaches outfor something on the table --a box her hand will enterin search of thread or thimblegiven by the carpenter to the girl from Zlot.


There by night her needle flickersin the margin of her daystill summer-lightning swastikasscissor the August haze. One morning she comes downin a headscarf and a frock,wheels her cycle out and shakesacross the cobbles, past the dock,over the owl-eyed bridge, and takes the Zlot road out of town.

The river keeps her company.Low and slow it holds its peace.Riding high and rapidlyalong the bank beneath the trees, she sings to feel the earthfreewheeling, the wind flattering;to discover in the shadeof the vaulted colonnadea remote sun scattering its petals in her path.

The river keeps her companywith its barges and the menshouting "Tow us home, honey",lifting briar funnels when she waves and answers "Nottoday." The miles unwind. She leavesforest and towpath. Fields away,weary reapers, piling sheaves,hear her singing, stop, and say: "There goes the girl from Zlot."

Two closer voices clutch her heart:an old man talking to a horseand the grumble of a cartlurching from rut to rut. They pause. Cashtanka at the trot,mane shaking, brings the lastof the harvest and with it,as so often in the past,her master and her favourite jingling home to Zlot.

Of the young men who last yearhelped them shift the load and stack it,only one today is here(with a leave-pass in his jacket). At tables set with flowersthey eat their harvest supper, singthe old songs under the old moonuntil sleep enters harvestingthe harvesters -- for two, too soon to share their Book of Hours.

Up at dawn and arm in armstrolling to the river-bankthey hear the rumble of a storm,feel the earth shake, see a tank break cover, growling. Squat,reptilian, a second, third,fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh snouting headsniffs the wind, and then a herdof lorries. "Those are Germans," said the carpenter from Zlot.

Instead of petals, bloodstains starredher path, and more than stubble burnednext day. A pulse was thudding, scarredsky shrieking. And as she returned across the bridge, she thought:If I come through today, tonightI have my Book of Hours, our bed-spread. Then, But how can I delightin pictures when he may be dead? wondered the girl from Zlot.


Four grey walls and four grey towerssaw the stretchers come and goand walking wounded at all hoursfile across the blackened snow. She saw them also, notwith her eyes only, but renewedthrough a third, unblinking eye.These by lamplight had reviewedlinen snow and linen sky the night she heard the shot.

She left her needle, left her room.She saw the swastikas, she sawthe helmets' and the jackboots' bloom,the Lüger in the leather claw, the doctor sprawling, dead."Are you in charge?" The girl from Zlotnodded, mirroring the man'sblue stare. "Civilians? I think not.Which of these are partisans?" the Oberleutnant said.

"None of them," she answered. "Thenlead us to the morgue," he said,turned, and beckoning his men,followed the Polish nurses, led by the girl from Zlot.Ten coffins on a flagstone floor.In front of each a woman stands."Listen. I will ask once more:Which of those are partisans? Remember or be shot."

"There is nothing to remember,"said the girl from Zlot. "Turn round,"the Oberleutnant ordered them."Lay your coffin-lids on the ground and then get into bed."But when they raised the lids they sawa Polish or a German head.The baffled Lüger looked at the floorand the living looked at the dead. "Get back upstairs," he said.

Four grey walls and four grey towerssaw Russians come and Germans goand visitors with food or flowers,epiphanies that she would sew. And sights the sick forgotin sleep, or struggled to forget,she remembered and set downby candlelight until the nightshe had visitors of her own, two visitors from Zlot.

The years since they had gathered flax,cooked harvest suppers and made lacetogether, had left panzer-trackson the older woman's face, but in their caves of boneher eyes were smiling. "He has senttwo hundred Deutschmarks for a guideto bring you to his regiment,if you want to be his bride, inside the Allied Zone."

"Your embroidery is nice,very nice," the peddler said."In winter my cross-country priceis not two but three hundred, but GIs pay a lotfor nice embroidery.Remember that I risk my life.You have no money, and would heprefer a present or a wife?" he asked the girl from Zlot.


All that day it had been snowing,and at twilight in the woodsshifting drifts made heavy goingfor the three in sheepskin hoods ghosting towards -- what --freedom or a foot-patrol?The peddler led and at the back,shouldering a bedding-rollas the man in front a pack, stumbled the girl from Zlot.

"They watch the river. Last week, twice,men were machine-gunned as they crossedsilhouetted on the ice,but the tall pine on that crest overlooks a spotof open water." There she founda floating branch, to which she ropedher bedding-roll, and looking roundkissed the flinty wind she hoped was blowing towards Zlot.

Drifts were smoking -- the wind, white --water, black. As she slid in,slant snow hid the men from sight.She heard nothing but the wind until she heard the shot,the shout, more shooting, shouting, thennothing but the wind. A torch-beam trawled the river, trawled againacross and back, but failed to catch the swimming girl from Zlot.

Death was reaching out his handunderwater when she thought,"I would rather die on land"and, reaching our her own hand, caught a root and crawled ashore.Nothing but the wind was thereoffering an eiderdown,which she shook off, and woodsmoke -- where?Following its scent, at dawn she knuckled a farmer's door.

Faces came and went above herin a feverish parade:the Oberleutnant and her lover,moving lips that made no sound. Though she could notmove hand or foot, forest and fieldcame and went before her eyes.Then she knew that she was sealedin a coffin carved from ice and floating down to Zlot.

Resurrected, in a beddraped with her embroidery,"How long have I been here?" she said."A week? That leaves me less than three to get where I have gotto be." When she could lift her load,they let her go -- into the windand snowdrifts of the longest roadever travelled or imagined by the girl from Zlot.

On the last night of the yearin a lighted station, packedwith refugees, he stooped to peerat huddled bundles with a cracked suitcase and cooking pot.Her life was an open bookwhen he found her curled asleep,and kneeling, reading, weeping, tookher in his arms and to his jeep carried the girl from Zlot.

© Stallworthy Jon