Separacja – The Separation
We will be strangers, Milo thinks. But he contains his thoughts, holding them tightly, refusing to let his mind be drawn into a riot of negative possibilities. Instead, he focuses on neatly folding his shirts and packing his carefully chosen gifts into a bag that is already too full.
But thirty hours later, in the largest medieval town square in Europe, amongst the flower sellers, pretzel carts and crush of tourists, he finds that he is wrong. He sees and knows his brother instantly. ‘Jacek,’ he calls, and as his brother turns, he struggles to maintain his composure.
The drive to the village is long and the road challenging. Milo clings to his seat as Jacek weaves the old car around massive coal-trucks at a speed that is terrifying. After everything he has been through to get here, Milo ponders the irony of dying before he actually arrives.
Everyone is waiting. The table is laden. Chicken noodle soup, potato salad, Kielbasa, sauerkraut with onion; cups of sweet black tea; a white bowl of plump perfectly formed raspberries, still warm from the morning’s sun. Twelve people cram together, passing plates, laughing, arguing. A huge golden retriever is under the table licking everyone’s bare feet and causing havoc. Jacek’s youngest son is steadily eating up all the sausages while his father is distracted. Milo watches, enthralled. It strikes him how much can be understood without words. He sees his brother watching him; their eyes meet and they grin foolishly, like the little boys they once were.
‘I feel sad for what our father lost… Jestem smutny ojciec stracił,’ Milo says, but the concept is too complex for his rudimentary Polish and appalling pronunciation. He waves his hands around the table, trying to indicate all this, this sense of family, this connection. But they just say ‘tak, tak tak’ and offer him more tea.
In the morning Jacek takes Milo to the house where their father was born. Grandmother kept a place at her table for their father always, he says. At the house Milo has only ever seen in photos, he sees his father’s stories play out before him like a Cinesound movie reel. The shingled barn is still standing. Chickens still scratch and flick the heavy Polish dirt.
Fragments remain of the old fence where his entire family had been lined up to be shot in World War II; their story of survival a random accident of fate. This is what Milo has come to see and to feel. To see that fence, to feel its splintery substance; to touch the earth they were made to dig with bleeding fingers as they dug the graves they were meant to fill. But it had not been their time to die – they were liberated by the soldier they had helped and hidden months before.
They go to visit their mother’s grave. Milo hardly remembers her. He was three when she left to return to Poland. Why she took only Jacek he would never know. His father had refused to discuss it.
The unexpected morning humidity sticks to his skin as he and Jacek walk to the cemetery on the hill. Jacek solemnly lights a candle in the lamp he has brought and Milo places it on the grey polished granite of their mother’s gravestone. The brothers stand, side by side for the first time in 45 years. Milo feels a sense of unnameable loss.
Other people who had lived with such similar separations had told him, ‘Beware. They have had a different life to you. It will not be what you expect. They may not want to see you; you may not want to see them.’ And indeed that had been the experience of some of his friends, who like him had stumbled on a parent’s secrets and, in seeking the truth, had found nothing but silent resentment and recrimination.
Jacek’s son does most of the translation for them. He is young and their sentimentality embarrasses him. As he waits for them to compose their clumsy sentences, he fiddles with his mobile phone and texts his girlfriend. Milo has so many questions, but some of them will have to wait. He now has a reason to learn the language his father had tried to teach him.
On the morning of Milo’s departure, Jacek takes him aside. ‘I need to tell you this,’ he says, placing each word in English like a piece of precious stone on the table before him, ‘Our mother cry for you every day until day she die – she never, never forget you.’ The brothers embrace until Jacek’s wife calls, ‘Jacek, Milo, time to go.’
They drive to the airport. A silence full of possibilities fills the car as they fly through the Polish countryside.