The Missing Madonna Excerpt
I thought I was expecting the unexpected, had prepared for the surprises of a foreign country, was looking forward to the new experiences. But Poland was ready for me.
The exchange program notes had forewarned us about the fatigue of the populace (four decades of domination by the Soviets), the hyperinflation of the currency (the zloty), and the gangs of pickpockets on Warsaw trams. I had bought a couple of Polish grammar books for me and sent to the students at my Fulbright school, Marie Curie University, two dozen Twayne Series volumes on American, particularly Southern, writers.
All I had to do was relax and absorb as much as I could from the two-week Fulbright Orientation. But the lined jacket and silk undershirt I had packed seemed laughable once we forty-plus Americans deplaned in Warsaw. An extreme heat wave had Poland in its sweaty grip.
When we arrived in Kraków, the site for our official orientation, we found the heat wave as bad or, if anything, worse. The temperature in Atlanta had been cooler. High 90s in Krakow, a city on the same latitude as Winnipeg, as Vancouver, for crying out loud. My mood was testy. I longed for air conditioning as I pushed open the heavy glass door of the Polonia Instytut dom, dorm. Shouldering my satchel, stepping out in the direction of the Castle, sweat popping out on my scalp, I was overtaken by the Singers, a couple from Ohio.
Drew said, “Susanna, don’t tell me! You’re going to listen to those beginner language tapes?”
I grimaced gamely and nodded. “And you two are going to the theater?”
“Can’t miss this,” Marjorie called as they hurried on.
A rumor that Steven Spielberg would be at a jazz club on the square in the Old Town had lured many of my colleagues away from campus that evening. “They” said he was re-shooting scenes for his current movie. My roommate Maria had left hours earlier to have her nails done at a little salon she’d found, and then she was meeting a male friend at the jazz club. Maria was born in Poland and hadn’t an inkling of the anxiety I felt about my own inadequacy with a Slavic language.
As I crossed the small gravel parking area, a drop of sweat began trickling down my left temple.
It wasn’t that the nightlife in cultural capital of Poland had no appeal for me. It was pure and simple fear of embarrassment that was keeping me at the Polonia Instytut that night. In fewer than eleven days I would be in the college town of Lublin, meeting English faculty at Marie Curie U, and I was determined to converse with them. At least on an elementary level. There would be opportunities to indulge myself in shops and at the casino blackjack tables another time.
Meanwhile, right before my eyes and underfoot lay one of those Polish surprises. My Insight Guide had promised, not only September temperatures in the 60s, but something called The Golden Autumn. The campus sat on a high bluff at the very south end of what had been for hundreds of years the Royal Forest, and below the bluff the Vistula River. The forest’s leaves were scheduled to turn a brilliant gold. The Guide described a curtain of gold lasting until October winds shook them down and November rains washed them away. Not that year.
What lay before me and what drifted down as I walked across the campus were brown and gray fragments of leaves. Crusty, pockmarked, liver spotted leaf remnants rose listlessly as I kicked through them, the dust puffs resettling like disgruntled flies on a long-dead rodent. A blighted leaf fall stretched from the dorm to the Castle.
The Castle itself was not the ordinary castle, not a castle of romantic fairytales. When one of our appointed student guides was showing us around the day before, and used the word castle, his eyebrows rose and his eyes widened, as if to say, “Joking!” Of course, there was no way it could look like a fairytale German castle, because it was built in the first years of the 1940s. It was a solid, no-nonsense manor house in the style Hitler would approve. This is not to say it was plain. Even fifty years later the Carrera marble staircase was a stunner, as was the crystal chandelier that hung over the center of a spacious entry area.
Pushing open one of the heavy double doors, I made straight for the lovely staircase. I don’t know why I didn’t see him. Of course, I was moving quickly, coming through the Castle’s big front doors with one aim in mind, to get to the audio lab and get to work. Also, I had looked at my watch to check the time. He must have come from the dining room, on my left, also walking briskly. We collided at the foot of the wide marble staircase.
“Przepraszam!” He reached out to catch the satchel sliding off my arm.
How could I have missed him, the gentleman who was now apologizing to me? He was wearing a flawless suit, conservative cut, summer wool in navy, and polished black dress shoes. I was wearing sweat pants, an Atlanta Braves tee, Reeboks.
“Sorry! Sorry! Prosze.” I’m sure I looked as pathetic and uncomfortable as I felt.
He grinned and said, “American!” He replaced the satchel strap on my shoulder.
“Don’t hold it against me, okay?” I grinned back. “I didn’t see you coming at all.”
“No, no, I was looking up the stairs, my fault entirely. I like Americans, by the way.” He said this with a twinkle. Really, he did something with his eyes, widened them, I guess.
The pale gray flecks and a streak or two in his black hair could suggest anywhere from mid-thirties to late forties, as could the crinkles around his eyes and the deep smile lines from nose to chin. He looked near my age, maybe a little older.
“And I usually like Brits,” I said. “Is it Oxford?”
“Yes, well done!” He extended his hand, “My name is Mark May.”
I shook his hand. “Susanna Shepherd. May I ask, are you fluent in both English and Polish, Mark?”
“Polish mother, I grew up in Britain.”
We began climbing the steps side by side.
“If only my Polish were a tenth as competent as my English. That’s why I was out of it, you know, didn’t see you. I’m on my way to the audio lab to work on my non-existent conversational Polish.”
“Ah, you’re only nervy. No need to swot. You must know, everyone here under thirty speaks English.”
“Worried, yes, a little anxious, you know.”
“Everyone here under thirty speaks English—so my students already speak English.”
“Yeah, sure. Polish students begin English in fifth or sixth year.”
“Huh. It’s the students I’m most nervy about, to be honest. What do they need, really? What can I do for them?”
“Profesora, if I may, you will find Polish students the sweetest in the world. I have taught sociology in several European countries, so I feel qualified to say, your Polish students will do anything for you. Not to worry.”
We had reached the top of the stairs. He turned my way and said, his head lowered a bit, “I’m a bit nervy myself, job interview,” and he gestured toward the offices and conference room.
“Then I’ll say best of luck, Professor May and let you get on your way. I hope no one else careens into you.”
He smiled and took a step, then turned. “Good luck with your Polish, Susanna.”
I’ve had plenty of opportunities to replay that brief scene and ponder the what-ifs. What if he had walked me to the audio lab and stopped to chat? What if he had stopped long enough for Juliusz or Grzegorz, the rest of his interview committee to arrive? But nothing would have changed his date with death, not as long as he was in Kraków.
* * *
The language lab was tiny, the coat rack wobbly, the desk chair hard oak, the earpieces scratchy, but I tuned it all out, unconscious of distractions and unaware a lovely man was being murdered next door.
The headphones muffled everything. Everything except a faint, vibrating rumble, and I ignored that at first. It might have been thunder, a welcome break in the terrible heat wave.
What’s more, I was a bit preoccupied. So much heavy history associated with the first week of September. I hadn’t been born when Hitler made his infamous push into Poland, starting in Kraków, the cultural heart of the country, a big prize. More vivid in my mind was the recent excitement, the fall of the Berlin Wall and all that would mean for the Poles now.
Secondly, this battle of my own—with the Polish language—seemed insurmountable.
The Fulbright mission was to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” I was alone in the audio lab because of my doubts, with my limited grasp of Polish—a dozen words or so—that I could increase anyone’s mutual understanding of anything.
Then I felt as much as heard that muffled rumble a second time. I pulled off the headset and walked to the door. The hall outside ran from the staircase landing on the right to the auditorium and classrooms on the left.
Not a sound.
Nothing in the hall.
No one on the wide marble stairs.
Was I imagining things? Hearing things? I had plenty of reasons—thousands of miles from home, with lingering jet lag, being force-fed a stream of rich cultural tidbits in lecture form and on daily field trips. It was European history, Polish history, Polish art, Polish ruling families, feuds, global politics, geography—too much too fast! Who wouldn’t be stressed?
So I was wound a little too tight. I felt sure some quiet study time and a Mento would cure that. I resumed my seat, popped a chewy mint inside my cheek, and resettled the headphones. I turned the page of the textbook POLSKA PO POLSKU to verb conjugations and slipped back under the spell of a baritone Polish voice reciting verb conjugations.
Jestem: I am … jestesmy: we are … jestes: you are…. And so on.
Most of my Fulbright colleagues came from families with Polish roots, maybe a grandmother in the home. Naturally, Polish did not seem so daunting to them as it did to me, a Scots-Irish-Welsh-American girl. So, they were out enjoying the Kraków scene, the world-famous Stare Miasto or Old Town, St Mary’s Basilica, maybe a hotel casino or the famed restaurant, Wierzynek’s, meeting place of kings. Good for them! But my deadline was fast approaching. Twelve days.
In twelve days I would be on the train to my assignment at Marie Curie University, and once there, I would be the only American English speaker in Lublin. All on my own. Unless I could hear the difference between three, thirteen, and thirty, how could I buy groceries? Hold my own at a market stall, with a taxi driver, in a faculty coffee room? I would have to sample Kraków’s nightlife another time.
Trzy! Even though the Polish for three—trzy—sounded like a sneeze when I said it, I kept at it. In time the tape advanced from verbs to sentences. The smooth Polish voice had woven its trance for some time when I became aware of an odor. Part soured fabric, part dry cleaning fluid, and aftershave? Something dropped on my shoulder. I reached up to flick it off and touched something alive.
I whirled around. A heavy hand tightened its grip on my shoulder.
A man in black. He spoke in a deep rat-a-tat rush. Every phrase out of his mouth was unintelligible. All I could do was stare, and while I stared, details were registering. Less than six feet tall, long face, and wide mouth, thin lips, puckering and un-puckering as he spoke. Pants legs tapered, style-conscious grad student or assistant prof? No. No European academic of any age would wear such closely cropped hair. Boxy jacket, shoulder straps, insignia. Clunky black shoes. Cop.
Something bad must have happened for the policja to be on campus. Right here in the Castle.
As the policeman’s sharp tenor Polish flew past me, I caught one short phrase: “Proszę pani.” I understood that! Please, ma’am, he was saying.
I jumped up and stuck my right hand out to signal stop, wait! His mouth hung open in mid-pucker. I inhaled and pronounced what I believed to be the Polish syllables for “I do not understand.”
“Ja nie rozumiem!”
Then I switched to English.
“I am.” Pointing to myself. “Professor. Susanna. Shepherd.”
“Amerikanką?” His eyes widened, not in a friendly way.
It was his turn to look me over. From the expression on his face I briefly wondered if I measured up to his idea of an academic. I had worn comfort clothes—jogging pants, Atlanta Braves tee, Reeboks—not expecting to meet anyone, least of all a policeman.
“Fulbright Scholar. Here,” I said. I pointed to the floor, trying to overcome the language impasse. That didn’t work, so I stepped toward the coat rack where my satchel hung. He moved with me. I bent down, pulled out a gray folder, and pointed to the label. There was my name in rounded cursive, beneath the date.
Polonia Institute, Kraków
31 August – 11 September 1992
The policeman said, “I am… jestem…Detektiv, Sierżant, Czub.”
Czub, chubby (which he was not), I could remember that. His English wobbled out word by word at first, soon growing clearer and clearer.
“Ja … I am here—policja, nie, po-lice here. In building, in this Polonia Institute offices”—he nodded to the left, to the right—“answerink call.”
I nodded my understanding.
“My chief sending me czek, is search, górny piętro, yes, floor, entire floor. I find you.”
Sufficient understanding achieved, we both sat, and DS Czub pulled out a notebook and a pen.
“First, your name.”
I pointed, and he copied my name from the orientation folder.
“How long you are here, in this room?”
I checked my watch, “An hour, more or less.” I squelched an impulse to point to the numbers on the watch face. I did slow my words. “I came … here … before six … and it is now … almost seven.”
“Before six,” he said. He wrote, then scanned the room with visible distaste, as if skeptical anyone willingly lingered in what once must have been a janitor’s closet. He pointed to the tape player.
“When you listen, with headphones? Yes? You heard anything more? At the time, the same time. Any other … noise? Talk?”
“Yes. I heard a rumble, sort of like thunder. Boom! Da-dah-boom.”
His forehead furrowed. He wrote. “Grzmot,” he said. “Tunder. More?”
Instead of using words, I demonstrated, walked to the door, opened it. Czub followed me, jotting as he walked. I looked out and instead of an empty stairway saw men hurrying up and down the stairs, moving in and out of the administrative suite, some in police uniform others in coveralls. What the hell!
This wasn’t the Poland I envisioned when I sat in Darley typing my Fulbright Application. Above my desk stood Gary Cooper on the High Noon poster reworked for the Polish election of 1989 in black and white, the SOLIDARNOSC banner in red. On either side of Coop, I had arranged photographs of Faulkner, John Paul II, and Harper Lee.
Had I immersed myself in Polish sentences while something awful was going on? Had I been lost in concentration?
I looked to DS Czub for whatever he could tell me about the crowd on the stairs, only to remember we didn’t speak the same language well enough for more than superficial explanations.
It was just then I had the strangest vivid memory. For only an instant I saw and heard Rick. He had found me in my library carrel. He grinned and said, “Are you planning to spend the night in here?” The memory lasted no longer than a firefly’s glimmer. I believed it was my dead husband’s way of cheering me on.
DS Czub waited impatiently.
I turned from the hallway and walked back to the desk, again fit the headphones on my head, leaned toward the tape player, nodded. He seemed to get the idea—I had gone back to work.
Removing the headphones, I looked Czub in the eye.
“Detective? I must ask, the call to the policja? What was it about? What happened?”
“You come, proszę bardzo!”
“Come. Proszę pani, profesora. To meet my Chief.”
He stood at the door waiting, but I balked. Polish law, I’d been given to understand, was modeled on the U.S. Constitution. It seemed a good time for me to learn my rights.
“Why? Why should I come?”
He gestured toward the open door with one hand and held the other out to me. I shook my head. I didn’t budge.
His long face seemed to grow longer, and his thin mouth turned down at the corners. He tilted his head beyond me, toward the wall behind the desk. “Dead man lies in room, there.”