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Epitaph for Peter

Peter was a bastard: the result of a rapid union on a dusty road somewhere in Galicia in the summer of 1919.

We begin with a convoy of carts creeping along between fields of golden wheat, creaking as they lurch in mud ruts baked iron hard by the sun. Suddenly a smaller cloud of dust appears on the horizon and moves rapidly towards them. The old man driving the lead cart mumbles a prayer under his heavy beard, and feels along the underside of his seat for a hidden gold piece. The cloud splits up into a group of a dozen cossacks, and one trots up to the cart.

'Come on, granddaddy, some money to fight the Bolsheviks. Quick about it, or feel my whip.'

The old man holds out the coin. The cossack snatches it, and crosses himself. Then he leans forward on his horse and pulls aside a canvas tarpaulin covering the back of the cart. The old man's wife and daughter are huddled together like two frightened animals.

'Oh-ho. The sow and the runt.' The cossack cracks his whip, flicking the tip at them deftly. 'Get out, my dears, I need to see what you're hiding in there.'

The woman and the girl stand in the dust, their heads bowed. Four more cossacks have gathered round, expecting some fun. The cossack leader stares at the girl, and suddenly reaches out, thrusting his hand under her chin.

The girl resists, and he tears at the front of her dress with his other hand, ripping it open to expose her breasts. The cossacks lick their lips wolfishly.

The girl pushes his hand away, clawing out at him, scratching angry lines in a cluster across the side of his face. The cossack stares at her, wiping away a trickle of blood. Then he hurls himself at the girl, knocking her to the ground. Two more cossacks seize her arms, pinning her down, whilst a third holds her parents at bay with his sabre.

The cossack leader begins to strip the girl, garment by garment, until she is lying naked in the dust. He stands for a moment, looking down at her, crosses himself, spits on her, and then rapes her.

The girl screams and screams, and it is an endless scream etched on the sun. She screams as the first cossack rapes her, and then as his comrades take their turn. The last cossack of the four looks down at the pool of blood now formed in the dust under her, and shakes his head, contenting himself with taking the old man's beard in one hand and shearing it off with a lightning cut of his sabre blade.

The old man and his wife stand helpless, their eyes turned to the ground, and they pray. The girl lies on the ground as the cossacks ride away, laughing amongst themselves, and she has stopped screaming.

She gives birth to Peter nine months later at a small town in southern Poland. She is very weak, much to weak to have an abortion. Only her mother and a midwife are present at the birth. There are no guests, no congratulations, no gifts. But the girl refuses to let her child be sent away. She clings to it, nurses it, feeds it, washes it, and she grows dangerous if anyone comes too near to the cradle. It is something between her and her destiny.

She begins to go mad when Peter is seven. Soon she has to be locked away. She grows wild, caring nothing for her appearance, eating with her hands like an animal. Only Peter can calm her.

She dies two days after his eighth birthday. His grandparents have kept him at home until then, because of his shame. But Peter shuts himself in a barn and refuses to speak, or eat, and the elders of the community decide that his admission to community life must represent less of a reproach than the possibility of his death by starvation. He joins a class, and all is well for a few days. But in his second week he is whipped for attempting to strangle a child who taunts him with having three fathers, cossack fathers. Two days later he is beaten again for trying to gouge out the eyes of a girl who asks why he has grey eyes and fair hair.

His grandfather beats him until his back is a mass of blood, and he is locked in the barn and given nothing but bread and water. He is set free again on the Holy Day, but he refuses to speak to his grandparents or join in their prayers, and later hides in his mother's room.

His grandfather locks him in the barn again, and the community elders pray for him through two days and two nights. But he still refuses to speak, and the elders decide to lodge him outside the community, with a Polish family.

The Poles are harsh. Peter is beaten frequently, and taunted even more often with his origins. He attends a Polish school, but his teachers complain regularly of his excessively savage and vicious temper. No Polish child dares offend him. He avoids his own people and refuses to pray.

When he is twelve the local priest declares him possessed of a devil, and orders his exorcisation. Peter throws a flaming candle, setting the priest's cassock ablaze, and flees the town.

The town is occupied in 1939. The enemy marches in with flags flying high and bands braying. A year later the occupying forces publish regulations splitting it in two and creating a special quarter. Peter's grandparents are forced to leave their house and move to a cramped tenement in a former slum.

More than a year passes. Trees begin to bud in a new spring, children come out into the streets to play, housewives smile at each other in the bread queues, and their men cycle off to fish in the river. Life is hard, but life is still worth living. Young men curse under their breath when enemy soldiers force them off pavements into gutters, but in the privacy of the long grass along the river bank they dream of revolt and rank as heroes in the eyes of their girls. Things could be worse.

Summer grows hot, and the enemy fences off the special quarter and places checkpoints at all the entrances and exits. The community grows fearful, especially when it is ordered to sew the mark on its clothes. But the elders accept the new order, and form a special administrative council, printing new ration cards and appointing policemen to enforce strict new regulations.

They know that it is wiser for them to act in this way than leave decisions to the occupiers: they can govern fairly where the enemy might choose to be brutal.

Enterprising businessmen and craftsmen start small factories serving the enemy war effort. Other communities may be starved, or deported, or massacred because they have meekly stretched out their necks. But here the community will set a different example. They will make themselves an indispensable part of the new order by working hard and working well, surviving as machines survive.

The enemy administration is intrigued and agrees to provide raw materials and components. The enterprising businessmen, the craftsmen and the elders smile at each other joyfully and dream of peace. All wars must end some day, and then they will rank as heroes, and be richly rewarded.

The enemy issues the factory workers with special papers, and the rush to work becomes a flood. Elegant girls with snowy skins fight to become machinists. Wealthy fathers pay gold for their sons to become lathe operators. The community bathes in the glory of its special role, and the enterprising businessmen rub their hands and think of themselves as the saviours of their nation.

They no longer resent the hatred they see in the eyes of the Poles outside the fence. The Poles can vanish, Poland can vanish, but the community will survive, because the community is necessary.

Peter returns to the town at about the same time. He is seen at enemy headquarters wearing the grey uniform of a police auxiliary. People who try to catch his eye return to the elders and report that he is completely camouflaged. His appearance, his bearing, his manners: all suggest that he might have been born a child of the enemy.

His grandfather, now a senior member of the council of elders, is pleased. Nobody could ever have imagined that this child of sin might one day come to be a protector of his community. He sends messages to Peter through trusted acquaintances. They return, and report that Peter has ignored them. His grandfather quite understands: he realises that he is frightened of being compromised. He will keep Peter solely as a solution for the most desperate of emergencies.

The enemy seal off the special quarter in the following spring. Soldiers string barbed wire across the few remaining gaps in the fence, and the entrances and exits are all closed, barring only one of each. The elders appeal to the community to work harder than ever.

The appeal is signed by Peter's grandfather in the office of the enemy liaison officer. The officer smiles approvingly as he reads it.

'This is good. Quite frankly, we are glad that you are proving so co-operative. Some of the other special communities are going soon to regret their' He pauses momentarily. 'Their shortsightedness. But we will safeguard you, as long as work for our glorious war effort. You have my word for it.

'In fact we will soon allocate special units to guard your quarter. The Poles resent your efforts on our behalf, and our glorious leader feels that you deserve special protection.'

The officer gets to his feet and salutes, his arm outstretched, as Peter's grandfather leaves the room. The old man is pleased. The salute is a mark of appreciation and respect. No enemy officer would salute him unless he was valued.

The other elders are also satisfied, even after the first wave of detentions. One day checkpoints appear in the streets as the birds sing in the trees. Enemy soldiers ask passers-by for their papers, and those able-bodied men and elderly community members who are not carrying special council passes are taken to the police station.

The exercise is carried out most correctly, and one or two who have left their passes at home are even released with friendly warnings. Those who are kept in detention are given food and blankets.

The next day they are shepherded quietly to the railway station. An enemy officer explains that the community is being trimmed to a bare minimum, whilst non-workers are being relocated to a forest area in the mountains where they will be able to help with haymaking and harvesting.

The enemy liaison officer asks for permission to address a meeting of the community elders. His face is grave.

'Gentlemen, I must apologise to you for the suddenness of our new administrative measures, but they were ordered suddenly at the very highest level. The military government greatly appreciates the noble efforts you are making on our behalf. But it was felt your community was carrying too much ballast.

'Your special quarter will now become a special production area, where every effort must focus on output. Production must accelerate and be kept at the highest possible level. Services must be pared to the barest minimum. You must work hard, you must work long hours, above all you must work for victory. We expect your total co-operation.

'Yesterday's measures will not be repeated. But we shall expect you to create and administer an efficient selection system, and hand over a regular weekly quota of non-essential personnel for relocation, so that we can complete the programme before the onset of winter.'

He salutes and leaves the meeting. The room hums with a murmur of resigned acquiescence. The elders know very well that about half the community plays no part in factory production, and also that the enemy liaison officer has long resisted any demands from his superiors that might split up family groups.

They sigh, and instruct the council's secretary to start compiling a list of names.

Two weeks later the enemy carries out a second wave of arrests, and this time the enemy dragnet has no loopholes. The enemy liaison officer points out that the council's secretary has supplied him with barely twenty names, whilst his superiors are demanding at least a hundred a week.

Life rolls on through the summer. Special trains carry away everyone except for the community's factory workers, the council of elders, the community's police force and a skeleton municipal staff, together with a maximum of one adult dependent and two dependents under sixteen for each person excepted. It is rumored that some families are hiding more than their quota, and smuggling food in under the fence, but the elders prefer not to know of such things. They are family men themselves, and they have no wish to be cruel.

A Pole named Iskar also opens a 'Sunshine Path' escape route across the Carpathian mountains into Ruthenia, and from there to the Black Sea. But Iskar's path is treacherous, and expensive. Each prospective fugitive has to pay eight hundred gold pieces for a place in a cramped cattle truck routed through enemy checkpoints by corrupt railway officials. Each is told to carry food and water for five days, but the cattle trucks are often sidetracked to make way for military convoys, and none are opened until they reach their destination. Sometimes the journey takes a week, sometimes ten to twelve days. Iskar also takes all the women he wants. He sells those who refuse him to Romanian army brothels.

In October the enemy liaison officer calls a special meeting of the elders. He is jovial. 'Well, gentlemen, your performance has been magnificent, and our glorious leader is grateful. We have completed the first phase of our relocation programme according to schedule. Now we shall move to the second phase, which will relocate everyone except your production workers and some essential managers.

'Your council and municipal employees, and all dependents, must report to me at the railway station a week from now at ten in the morning.'

Peter's grandfather and the other elders listen in silence. This time the enemy liaison officer does not salute when he leaves them. They stare at each other, and pray together. But those with hidden stocks of gold pieces leave quickly.

When he has finished praying, Peter's grandfather walks to the enemy headquarters building and asks for Peter. He has to wait for four hours, and their meeting is forced and artificial. Peter's uniform is a barrier, and the old man is awed by the stony stare of his grey eyes. Peter ignores his greeting in their own language, and the old man has to speak to him in Polish. He ignores the old man's appeal.

'It is dangerous for me to stand and talk to you here, old man. I have no past, I have forgotten my past. Now I have only my duty, and whatever may have been has gone. You could have protected my mother, but you placed a greater value on your own neck.'

The old man starts to protest, but Peter cuts him short. 'You must go. You are a danger to me.'

The old man has a gold piece. He stuffs it into Peter's hand. "You must listen to me, for the sake of your mother. I am rich, I have more gold.'

Peter visits his grandfather two days later. Life is now a commodity, to be bought and sold, and his terms are very clear. The old man must pay two thousand gold pieces to travel to the Black Sea with Peter's grandmother, and Peter makes it clear that the transaction is purely a business deal, spitting on the floor when his grandmother attempts to enter the room.

But the old man is pleased. He has always mistrusted Iskar's sunshine path: too many have died, too many have been betrayed. Now he knows that he and his wife will travel to the sunshine of the Holy Land. Peter even promises to cover the floor of his cattle truck with straw, and to allocate him a special corner position.

The following night Peter comes to his tenement at midnight. His face is as grey as his uniform, and he is shaking.

'Old man, you must leave immediately. Partisans have ambushed an army convoy twenty kilometres west of here and killed many of our men. They are believed to have been armed by your community, making rifles in secret. The final relocation has been moved forward, and whole of the special production quarter is to be cleared by dawn.'

Peter's grandfather snatches up a small case he had been keeping ready, and drags his wife down the tenement stairs. They will have to chance the curfew.

Suddenly a beam of light sweeps past them. It is a truck filled with enemy soldiers. A second truck follows, halting almost in front of them. Peter flattens himself against the wall of the tenement hallway as a voice barks at them through a megaphone.

'Come on out, swine. We know you are in there, rooting with your snout in the trough. It's time for you to join your own people.'

Peter curses and seizes his grandfather, holding him as a shield in front of him. 'This is your fault, old man. You got me into this, now you can get me out.'

He begins to edge back towards the rear of the building, still holding his grandfather. But a second group of enemy soldiers is waiting for them. They fire as he backs out, killing both men instantly, and Peter falls to lie spread-eagled out over his grandfather's body.

Their bodies are left in the doorway, and Peter's grandmother is taken away. Two days later a Polish detail clearing refuse from the now empty special quarter buries the two bodies in a single grave. The auxiliary policeman commanding the detail notes the grave with the words: 'once a traitor, always a traitor'. He is proud of his epitaph, he considers it poetic.

The town is freed two years later, and a few refugees trickle back. They find the grave, and read the policeman's report, but his epitaph has no place in a free world. Peter and his grandfather are reburied under a stone with a simple inscription: 'youth died to protect wisdom'. The mason who carves the stone is proud of his epitaph. He considers it heroic.