Monday, September 28, 2009

"My Favourite Game" by Jane Boruszewski


by Jane Boruszewski

“Hey, Marek, why do you always have to be the first guard of Dwa Ognie (Two Fires),” I shouted at a sturdy boy holding a ball in the crook of his arm. He stood at one end of a grassy field that was marked off with sticks and stones.
“…ooo…nie nie nie,” the edge of the nearby East African jungle echoed my Polish words.
“Ya, tell us why?” someone else wanted to know.
About a dozen youngsters, milling within the boundaries, waited anxiously for Marek to begin the first round of the game this morning.
His dark eyes went to Bolek at the opposite end of the field. Bolek was the other guard, who, with Marek, was supposed to keep the ball flying from one end to the other, either above our heads or between our bodies. Their aim was to hit a contestant. Even the slightest graze was enough to send us out of the game.
Marek laughed. He dropped the ball to the ground and dribbled it awhile. Then he caught and raised it slowly over his bushy head and held it high for everyone to drool over. Making big circles with it, he yelled, “It’s because I have the only ball in this camp, in Tengeru.”
“Bastard!” called out Stasia, the biggest girl in the group.
Marek pretended to ignore her, but he lowered the ball to his side and, staring into a space to her left, sent it spinning straight at her. With the speed of a cannonball, the ball hit Stasia’s chest, and she fell to her knees.
“You are already out,” he hissed.
“Yes, you are out!” cried the others in the field.
“That’s not fair,” she said, getting to her feet. “Marek, you didn’t say that Dwa Ognie had started.”
“Out! Out! Out!” the others shouted, amid much laughter.
“Get out before I hurt you again,” Marek warned.
“I’m going…going,” she mumbled. On her way out, she smacked small Edzio across his back.
“Fatso!” he called out after Stasia, sticking his tongue out at her as she staggered off the field. Edzio was the best player among us. He had developed the art of ducking the flying ball and using others as a shield at just the right moment. Most of time, he was the last one left in the game. As winner, he was handed the ball to start the next game with a partner of his choice.
I hated the little squirt.
And now, as soon as the ball went into action, we players turned into wild creatures. Running backward so we were always facing whichever guard had the ball in his hands, we swore and screamed. “Come on, Bolek, get me if you can…Marek, you think that you are tough, eh? You are nothing but a bully…” We called the boys names I can’t put on paper.
Caught up in a fearful excitement, I ran about as if seized by madness. I avoided the flying object by jumping up, ducking, or leaping backward. We kicked and elbowed one another, but felt no pain, only a fury of anger. Right now, in the midst of this madness, I was not a child who lived in Africa, but a nine-year-old grownup, ducking bullets with our Polish soldiers, fighting off the Nazis in 1939. In the distance, Jaroslaw was bombed every day while I watched it burn and smoke, flames shooting up to the sky. I had cried to see our captured countrymen being kicked and whipped by Germans. In the beginning of the war, Nazis rode in tanks across our village or rode on horses, but when they left, the Russians came to stay for good. Both invaders robbed me and my friends of our childhood.
And who was robbing us now? Marek? But he had been robbed, too. He had lost both of his parents to typhus in Uzbekistan and crossed the border with a group of Polish orphans, strangers to him.
Suddenly, I saw the ball coming straight at me. I spread my arms and caught it. Bolek had thrown it at me, hoping to get me out of the game, but he failed. I couldn’t believe my luck. As I hugged the ball, I felt sweet success filling up my heart to the brim. I grinned, knowing I was temporarily saved from having to leave the field. I savored my precious moment. I had conquered the ball the way I had beaten the typhus that tried to claim my life in Russia.
“Don’t just stand there gaping, you stupid goose,” I heard Marek’s voice behind me. “Let me have the ball!”
Slowly, I turned around and stared at the ruffian, grinding my teeth. With his arms folded across his chest and his legs wide apart, he looked like a short Lensky assembling our grownups for all-day labor in the Siberian forest. Lensky and his helpers kept the Poles confined to a place of imprisonment in the district of Omsk on the shores of the Irtish River. For two years, my parents worked for meager food alone. For two years, we children were too hungry, too cold or hot, and always humiliated by Lensky. And here in Tengeru, biting my lips hard, I was about to throw the ball, not to Marek, but at him, wanting to hit his nose, wanting to see it bleed. But he caught the ball with ease and laughed his awful laugh.
“Communist!” I called him the name we Tengerians hated and despised.
Marek seemed to ignore my insult, but I knew he was up to no good. As I thought, he sent the ball whizzing at me again. Today, his and Bolek’s shots were harder and more twisted than ever before. The two bullies kept aiming at our heads or chests. At this moment, I was one of four contestants left in the game, and I wanted to win this turn, even if it killed me. My fingers itching and palms sweating, I braced myself. “Ready for another catch,” I muttered to myself. “Be careful,” a small voice inside of me warned. But I did not listen to its advice. I spread my arms, but forgot to jump up a bit.
Woops! I felt a hard blow on the left side of my face. A million stars exploded before me, and then faded away. I went down to the ground, and the ball rolled away from me, laughter floating about me.
“Another loser,” someone sneered. “Got what you deserve.”
I got up with effort and staggered off the field to join the players grouped outside the boundaries. With my cheek numb from the blow, I sat down on the ground next to Wanda, the shortest girl of us all, who was sniffling, as always. Her hands embraced her knees, and she looked like a fetus curled up in its mother’s womb. From the time I met her in Pahlevii, our first friendly camp on the other side of the Caspian Sea, I had felt compassion for this playmate. She told me then that her papa was shot in Warsaw by the Nazis for hiding a Jewish family in his cellar. After his death, Wanda’s mama went to live with her cousin in Eastern Poland, which was occupied by the Russians, and they had deported the woman with her daughter to Kazakhstan. Two years later, they both found themselves in Iran, where her mama died of dysentery.
I had lost my little brother in Siberia, a month after our arrival at Bialy Jar, the Russian settlement. Extremes of climate and lack of proper nourishment killed the poor baby at nine months of age. We buried him in a hole we dug in the woods. A month later, my aging aunt died, for what reason, I never knew.
“Janka, you got a whopper there on your cheek.” Wanda’s voice brought me back to Africa and to my gang. There were still two players left in the field, and I wished I were one of them. But now my head was getting hot, and I felt dizzy.
“Have to go home,” I whispered, glancing at Wanda’s sweet profile, outlining itself against Mount Meru on the western horizon. I smiled sadly. The mountain was always there, like a loyal friend, for everyone who wanted to look at it and be consoled.
“Don’t you want to stay for the next turn?” asked Wanda. “You usually wait to the end of our games.”
“I…I don’t feel well,” I moaned, touching my face. It felt hot and lumpy. I tried to stand up, but sat right back down in order not to fall on my back.
“I’ll walk you home,” said Wanda.
Before I could say no, she helped me up and put her arm about my waist. I leaned on her thin shoulder. Listening to our playmates hollering, we plodded toward my hut, where I lived with my big sister, Marysia, Mrs. Nadzieja, and her daughter, Irena, who was my age. Wanda helped me to get into my bed. It was one of four leaning against the round, white-washed walls and shielded carefully with a snowy white mosquito net. We were all told that mosquitoes here carried malaria and were advised to keep the nets down at night.
No one was home, and I was glad. “Sit down, Wanda,” I said, pointing to one of the wooden stools that embraced the round table in the middle of the hut. Everything here was round to match the walls of the round hut. The pointed roof was covered with palm leaves, and the earthen floor was smooth and hard.
Wanda looked around. “Where is your washbowl?”
“What do you want it for?”
“To bring water from the faucet.” Tengeru had no water inside our shelters. Each group of huts had stoves, laundering tubs, and water pipes installed outside.
“I’m not thirsty.”
“A cool compress on your face will stop some of the swelling.”
After Wanda left me with a wet rag on my face, I fell asleep. Right away I plunged into a nightmare from my past:
I am lying in the hospital bed next to Marysia’s. We are both ill and hurting all over. Marysia tells me I have a very high fever, and she begs the nurses to give me some medicine, but in vain.
“Where is Mama?” I keep asking. “I want my mama.”
“Janka, don’t you remember? She and the rest of our family are on the train that is supposed let them off in Bukhara.”
I nod. Tears fill my eyes, and I’m blinded by the naked light bulb above my head. I keep asking the nurses to shut it off…
Someone shook me by the shoulder, and I woke up in the round hut.
“What’s the matter with you, Janka?” Marysia said, leaning over me.
“It hurts,” I said, touching my swollen and throbbing cheek.
“They hit you with the ball. Have I not asked you to stay away from those bullies? But you don’t listen.”
“I wish Mama was here,” I moaned.
“Ya, if she were here, she would know how to deal with you.”
I turned away to face the wall, and she walked away.
Mrs. Nadzieja made delicious potato and beef soup that late afternoon. The good woman checked my face over very carefully and told me I was fortunate not to have lost my eye. I waited for her to scold me the way Marysia had, but she did not. For the last several weeks, she had advised me to stay away from Dwa Ognie. Ever since we moved in with her, she had been pestering me to hang around with her precious Irena. Irena herself wanted to be my friend, but I thought she was too boring and not very popular. Today, everyone left me alone after supper, so I could recover from being hit.
Next morning, my eye had closed from the swelling. Irena told me that the lump on my cheek had turned black and blue and was as big as a hill. I had a slice of buttered bread for breakfast, and a cup of coffee sweetened with sugar and whitened with powdered milk. The powder made grease dots on the surface of the coffee; one had to get used to such a drink. Today, I was excused from washing the dishes, and I stayed in bed.
“Would you like to play a guessing word game?” Irena asked, after she had done her share of housework. I liked to hear her speak because she never hurried or skipped any syllables, and she rounded her mouth for perfect O’s. But I shook my head.
An hour later, I saw her drawing something on a piece of brown paper on the table. All she ever did in her free time was draw or scribble. From my bed, I watched her pencil getting shorter and shorter from being sharpened so many times, and I could hardly wait for it to get too little for her to use. Then I got bored and was about to nap, when she noticed that my eyes were open. She returned to my bed and offered to stay with me in the hut. Her dark, expressive eyes seemed to search my soul, and I resented the look.
“Leave me alone,” I hissed. Hurt or not, I was not going to be stuck with her company.
Without a word, she left. Where did she go? She was always so polite, and that also irritated me.
Now I was alone again. Marysia had gone gallivanting with her friends, as usual. She told me they were going to Duluti Lake with someone who was supposed to take pictures. Irena’s mother was doing laundry at the outdoor sinks, which had built-in washboards and running water. With no one to disturb me, I could think clearly about things and people I did not think about often. Maybe I should quit Dwa Ognie. I was getting hurt, and I hurt others by kicking, shoving, and hitting. Down deep in my heart, I didn’t like what I was becoming. Yet what would I do without my gang and the ball? I would have nobody to hang around with except Irena. Maybe she could be a good friend, after all? Eck. No. Even that leafy young tree in our back yard would be more fun than she, if one wanted to climb to its top. Irena did not fit with my crowd because she was neither brave nor active enough, and she was such a good daughter and perfect child that it made me sick to my stomach. But what about the gang itself? How many of my so-called playmates had bothered to visit me in the hut? None, so far. And who would be next to get hurt by the ball?
On the third morning after I was hurt, I got out of bed and moved about the hut. I gladly helped Irena with washing the dishes and making up beds. I also swept the floor, simply out of boredom.
“Since you are up, Janka, what are you going to do today?”
I shrugged. “I want to go back to play Dwa Ognie, but I don’t want my friends to see me looking so bad.”
“Come outside with me?”
“No way. I’m not showing my bruised face to anyone.”
“Let’s climb up my tree.”
“What can we do up there?”
“You will see,” she said, grinning.
Twenty minutes later, she and I had settled down in the tree house she had made up there. “So this is your secret hideout, Irena.” A spark of interest stirred in me for this skinny, long-legged girl with straight, brown hair.
She nodded and smiled. Right now, her round face not only looked interesting, but almost beautiful. I asked how she had made this cozy room in the elbow of the branches. And she said that she found pieces of cut boards behind the outhouse and nailed them to the tree. She made three walls and a floor, which she lined with grasses and leaves.
“You are clever, Irena,” I said sincerely. “But what do you do up here all by yourself?”
“Daydream,” she whispered, staring into a hole in the foliage toward Kilimanjaro, which sprawled like a giant haystack to the north of Tengeru, about fifty miles away. The mountaintop was covered with snow even though it smoked or shot flames upward sometimes. It was volcanic, we were told, but not expected to erupt for hundreds of years to come.
“What do you dream about?”
She paused for a long time before answering. “I try to imagine how it would be to go back to Poland after the war ends.”
“It would be wonderful to see my farm,” I said. “Our house was big and had smiling windows. The barn and fowl shelters and the silo were surrounded by a white wooden fence, and so were the flower gardens—”
“But I also think of something else.” Irena interrupted the thread of my thoughts. “And I dream of…”
“Of what?”
“I wish…to have…a boyfriend.” She giggled into her fist.
“You do?” I looked sideways at her.
“Yes, I do. But most of all, I would love to have a best friend.”
“I see,” I said, adding to myself, Don’t look at me, kiddo.
“And I do something up here.”
“Huh? If it’s something weird, don’t tell me.”
“I draw pictures, silly, and write poems.”
Thinking that I would be bored looking at her things, I was about to suggest we descend the tree and go back into the hut. But when I opened my mouth, I said words that surprised me. “Can I see your pictures?”
From under planks used as a table, Irena pulled out her sketches of Meru and Kilimanjaro, with huts and trees umbrelling them. Her drawings were simple, but full of details. She had captured the image of the rocky top of Meru, which was pointed and constantly hugged by fluffy clouds. Even Kilimanjaro smoked its pipe, like it always did. She even drew monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
“You’re an artist,” I said, envy kicking at my guts. How I wished at that moment that I could create something constructive, too. Maybe, just maybe, I could start a diary. If I only had a tablet and a pen. These things were hard to find in Tengeru until after our people began to organize schools. “Yes, you are good at drawing,” I repeated, picking up the image of a monkey sitting on the roof of a hut. “This one is my favorite.”
Irena stood up and, bending over like a monkey, sang out, “Eech, eech, eech.” She scratched her underarms, and I imitated her. Soon we both were laughing, making monkeys sounds and giggling until noontime. While I was with her, I forgot about the bruises on my face and about my gang. Then Irena showed me the poem she had written. In it she described how she missed her birthplace and her father, who signed up with the Polish Army while still in Russia. I thought the poem was beautiful, but didn’t tell her so, because I was now jealous of her talents, of which I had none. Maybe because of that feeling or because of sitting up in the tree so long, I suddenly turned off Irena’s voice. Now I was listening to the screaming of my gang, playing Dwa Ognie in the distance. Suddenly, I wanted to be with them. But I said nothing about it to Irena.
Early next morning, Marek showed up on my doorstep before the game started. I came out of the hut and, standing before him, I asked, “What do you want?” I pulled my light brown hair over my ugly bump. With one eye, I stared at him, an old hatred stirring in me. He doesn’t look so big or mean now, I thought.
“Came to see if you were all right,” he said.
“I’m still living, no thanks to you.” Now I brushed the hair from my face. “See what you did?”
“Wow!” His mouth opened wide. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, blinking and stepping back a bit. Yet, after a short pause, he said, “Coming back to play with us?”
I ached to say yes, yes, yes. But instead I blurted out, “And who else did you hurt lately, Marek?”
“No one, and I’m sorry, again, for hitting you.”
“That’s all right,” I heard myself say. “What’s going on with everyone?”
He scratched his head. “We’re still playing, but now we don’t have enough people in the field.”
“You see, some kids stopped coming.”
He shrugged.
“Is Wanda…?”
“She quit the day Stasia elbowed her in the stomach and made her throw up right in front of everybody.”
“Dear Heavens!”
“The twin sisters attacked Edzio and broke his arm…”
“My God! Marek, you, I, and the whole gang are bad, very bad.”
He stood in silence, looking down at the ground.
“You know, I don’t think I’m going back to play with any of you anymore.”
“I…I don’t blame you for feeling this way.” With his head still down, Marek, the bully, shuffled away. He looked like a confused boy of thirteen now, which is what he really was.
That he was changing for the better, I knew then. And that I was changing, too.

* * *

What every writer needs most is perseverance, and Jane Boruszewski definitely possessed that quality. She began submitting her stories to OASIS Journal in 2003, and has had a short story or memoir published every year since then. Jane also followed the edict “Write what you know,” and her fiction was based on her own experiences, or the experiences of people she knew. But she also had a vivid imagination and was able to embellish the facts, adding depth and drama to characters and events in order to create a good story. Along with perseverance, the best advice I can offer to any aspiring writer is to read ... read ... read!

—Leila Joiner, editor and publisher

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