The cold morning light peered across the window ledge and into the dreary, unloved attic room as the door creaked open. A somberly dressed woman entered. Her small, austere form seemed a fitting addition to the sparse surroundings of the chamber. Behind her, the stern-faced owner of the house looked on with an air of impatient indifference.
"This is the room. It is all we have so if it isn't to your liking there's no more," she declared. The first woman turned slightly and shook her head, "No, no, thank you. This is more than enough, you have already been too kind".
The taller woman nodded, as if agreeing with her mild praise,
"Well, I'll give you a few minutes to settle in then there will be some tea and bread and butter downstairs in the kitchen. It won't be much but it will do until supper. We're very busy and don't have time ..."
Again, the somberly dressed woman insisted that she was content with her lot. The second lady nodded and closed the door, leaving her to survey her barren surroundings.
Maria Rutkowska stood for a moment looking at the empty bare room which had become her life and reflected what her life had become. Forty years old and recently widowed, she had had to sell the small shop to pay the debts gained from nursing her ailing husband through the last few years of life. Childless and an outsider, she had no immediate family to take her in. Frau Bernstein, her sister-in-law, had, more out of a sense of duty to her late brother than any concern for Maria, offered her a job helping in her food shop and the possibility of renting a small room cheaply. It was here, in a strange village, that Maria found herself blending in with the dark, uncared for, barren surroundings with only a small window of light to see by.
Downstairs the kitchen was warm and smelled of baking. The table was set with a teapot and a small plate upon which were several slices of bread. As she sat down, Maria became aware of an older woman, wizened and toothless, sitting in the corner of the room, plucking a chicken.
Maria nodded a greeting. "Good day, Madam," Maria said and began to introduce herself. The old woman laughed, interrupting her.
"Old Eva knows who you are, daughter. Not much I miss," she grinned, "The mistress has put you in that room at the top, am I right?" Maria nodded, feeling strange to be called "daughter" at her age. Old Eva continued, "We'll see how you like that room, I imagine".
"It seems comfortable enough for my needs, Ma'am," Maria replied, "I don't need much ..."
"Aint got much, neither, as I can see," Eva cackled, "And you can leave the 'madam', my dear, plain 'Eva' will do".
Maria smiled, hesitantly, as the old lady's insistence on first names was must unusual, both in Polish and especially in German society. Still, as the older of the two, Maria felt Eva could choose and she herself was not in much of a position to insist on social protocol. She smiled and finished her meal.
"Very well, Eva. Now what can I do to help around here?"
At the end of her first day, Maria climbed the stairs to her room. The small candle pushed back a portion of the stubborn darkness, enough to let her attend to her toilet and get ready for bed. After reading a few verses from her Bible, she climbed under the covers and blew out the candle. The darkness rushed back and caressed Maria into a sound sleep. The stillness of the room was unbroken, save for the soft whispering of breath-like breeze at the window.
The weeks passed and the autumn began to make its way across the fields and forests of East Prussia. The leaves turned to red, reflecting the red brick of the village houses. The nights began to draw in and Maria found herself spending more time chatting with Eva at the end of the day before retiring to her little chamber. Frau Bernstein rarely made other than occasional polite conversation. She was satisfied with Maria's work and their arrangement worked well. Other than that she was not concerned with her sister-in-law.
It was one late September evening that Maria found her slumber disturbed by a low whining sound coming from the window. She turned over, trying to get back to sleep but the whine reoccurred intermittently. Unable to sleep, Maria rose and went to the window in an attempt to locate the source of the noise. Unable to see anything outside, she decided it was probably the wind whistling through the loose pane or frame. Eventually it stopped and she was able to close her eyes and drift back to sleep.
Some nights later it happened again, this time disturbing her rest more. She resolved to try padding the window with material. As winter was approaching she would likely have to do that anyway if she was to have any warmth in the room during the long months of snow. She mentioned it to Frau Bernstein the next morning. The mistress shrugged. She had not been aware of any problem with the window but then she never used the room. If Maria wished to pad it, there were scraps of material she could use. She had then left to attend to other business. Maria collected some pieces and heard Old Eva chuckling behind her.
"It's about time," she muttered. Maria waited for more but as Eva simply went back to her baking, Maria assumed she was referring to the windows needing to be insulated, a task she later undertook.
Two nights later, Maria was again woken by a whining sound. As she rose to check the padding at the windows, the whine stopped. She made sure the material was in place and turned back to her bed when a new sound disturbed her. It was also a whine but different, slightly louder and a more full bodied sound. It came in more varied bursts, almost like a series of moans. Maria returned to the window but could find no source. Eventually this sound also diminished and disappeared, only to return on subsequent nights.
Commenting on it one day at breakfast, Maria suggested that maybe there was a cat living somewhere nearby or perhaps trapped somewhere. Nobody else in the house claimed to have heard anything but once more Eva chuckled to herself and muttered something about it being the right time. Nobody else took any notice but Maria, who asked,
"About time for what?" Eva looked up from her plate and stared across the table into Maria's eyes, holding them for a few seconds before saying, "Sucklings". With which, she collected the crockery to wash.
Over the next week, the noise grew stronger. Some nights Maria even went downstairs to see if she could find the cats but outside it was silent. The noise seemed to be somewhere near the window or possibly within the walls. Maybe there were kittens trapped inside the wall itself. What she found most unnerving was just how much they had begun to sound like human cries.
It was not until early evening, after they had finished work, and were alone drinking tea in the kitchen, that Maria was able to enquire further.
"When you said 'sucklings', do you think a cat has kittens somewhere? Is that what the noise might be?" she asked the old woman.
"Well, kittens of a kind... But nobody called them kotus" she replied, using a Polish term of affection. But what did Eva mean by it being the right time, Maria asked.
"Time they arrived. They often arrive now ... Count from Sylvester, count from Carnival ... No surprise, really, is it?" Eva replied. Maria frowned. What had New Year and Carnival to do with anything? They were nine or ten months ago. These cats had obviously had their kittens recently.
She mentioned to Eva about looking outside and that she was now thinking of where else the cries might be coming from. Eva had stopped chuckling and was holding her with a solemn, yet caring look.
"Yeh can look outside but that's not where you'll find lost ones and there's certainly lost ones here. They'll not be in the wall, tho', although there's places that might be so. Old Eva remembers. Long before Frau Bernstein came, there were a lost one here," she said. "How did you lose yours?" she asked gently. Maria stared, uncomprehending,
"Your kittens, child... It's plain to Old Eva, I can see."
"I never had any kittens, just the old tom in the shop but ..." she stopped, seeing Eva shake her head.
"Did you lose them in the womb or did you get to hold them a while?" she asked. Maria sat dumbfounded, she tried to choke a reply but her throat stuck. Eva nodded and continued, "No matter, child, it's His will, but there's those who had them of their own and those who held them. But not all of 'em were welcome, a bit of fun at Carnival or at the harvesting, but no ring after. Just like unwanted kittens in a sack in the lake."
Maria, choked back a cry and wiped her eyes
"Mine would have been loved!" she sobbed.
Eva nodded, "I don't doubt you, child, but there were them as weren't and there's many a lass whose life was harder for having one. Come winter, less work, less food, nobody wants an extra mouth to feed that brings no blessing. One harsh winter, an open window, one less kitten, nobody asks, no one is surprised." the old lady murmured. Maria stood and walked silently up the stairs.
Throwing herself on the bed, Maria sobbed, cursing the words of a senile old crone. She cried for her lost life, her dead husband; Cried for her lost children whom she'd never even got to hold, never given a proper birth to, and somewhere, cried for herself and the stale unused love she had never been able to give.
That night the sound came again stronger, unmistakably like a child, whimpering and crying. Maria pulled her blankets up and buried her head under her pillow, sobbing until the crying stopped.
Maria's tiredness and lack of attention at work soon brought comment from Frau Bernstein. If Maria did not take more care of herself and her work, she, Frau Bernstein, would have to make serious consideration about their arrangements. That night, the events changed.
The crying from the window ledge had started after midnight and Maria, only half asleep, had woken. She reached for the Bible she had placed open next to her bed for the last few weeks. Slowly she became aware that the crying was louder, closer. Fumbling at her bedside table, she knocked the unlit candle to the floor. In the darkness, she rose slowly, holding the Bible firmly, and walked towards the window. Perhaps if she laid the open book there it might chase these sounds away. As she felt her way across the room the moon lit up the small window ledge. Maria gasped, freezing in her steps. She clutched the Bible hard between her trembling hands and held it upwards and outwards, like a shield to protect her from what lay before her.
The baby was lying, naked and blue by the window. Blue as if dead but somehow still alive, writhing and whimpering. Then slowly, it turned its head and stared straight into Maria's face. She choked a scream and stepped backwards, further and further until she had retreated to her bed. Huddling under the blankets she lay transfixed by the baby's pleading stare. A small, blue arm reached out as if to beckon to her. Maria clutched the Bible to her chest and sobbed in fear and pain until the small phantom faded with the dawn rays.
"Why, why me?" Maria sobbed to Eva in the morning. The old lady took a sip of her coffee.
"Who better?" she asked, "Maybe you can give it peace".
"But I don't understand, what does it want?" Maria asked the old woman.
"What could a lost one want?" she replied. "What could any foundling want? But maybe, child, you might ask what you want?"
* * *
The crying had started in the early hours. The moon crept slowly through the window, lighting a pathway from the bed to the little blue figure on the window ledge. The child stared entreatingly at the terrified woman and whimpered in fear and loneliness. Loneliness, for a friend, for the touch of a warm body, loneliness of a life unloved ... how could Maria not hear that in the cry? Did she not know the same thing?
Slowly, suppressing her fear, she laid the Bible aside and climbed from her bed. She walked slowly over to the tiny vision and reached for it. Somehow the touch of the solid form did not surprise her, only the coldness of the body. Gently she picked the little figure up and held it to her body, wrapping it in her shawl. Whispering soothing words she carried the quietening babe to her bed and curled up with it under the covers. As the baby began to sleep, so too did Maria, a deep, comfortable sleep which she had not known for a long time. As the moon-path retreated across the room, Maria and the baby held each other for warmth.
As the sun shook her awake, Maria sat upright, feeling around for the little body but found nothing. Jumping from the bed she looked under the covers and around the room but could see nothing. Still, she felt somehow fresher and more peaceful than she had in some months, something Old Eva commented on with a sly grin as they sat at breakfast.
That night there was no visitation, no crying, and Maria slept a fitful sleep. She woke in the morning and reached under her bed for the chamber pot just before she vomited into it.
The horse and cart stood waiting outside Frau Bernstein's shop as Maria came down the stairs. One of the delivery boys helped carry her bag and handed it to the man driver. Frau Bernstein stopped Maria at the door.
"I have asked him to take you to the railway stop and when you get to the town you may approach me once for a reference. I shall say my brother passed away recently and that should spare more questions. Please understand, I do this only for the sake of my brother's memory and to avoid the shame that this could bring. I do not wish any further contact with you," she said. Maria expressed her gratitude!
"Thank you, I appreciate all your kindness. Your reference will be most useful and I have a little money left which will do when the time comes. I shall respect your wishes and my late husband's memory." she said, at which Frau Bernstein turned and left.
Maria turned to Old Eva who sat by the fire. The old woman rose and they embraced. Eva stepped back and put a hand on Maria's tummy.
"So, do you think you both got what you wanted?" the old woman smiled.
Originally from Britain, Trev Hill now lives in Poland with his wife and his cat, Molly. He sings folk songs and occasionally writes plays.