It was the middle of June: hot, shiverless, the fields already thick with wheat. I was spending the summer at my grandparent’s little wooden house, deep in the Masovian countryside. It was my first time back since I was a child, six, maybe seven years old. Most of my days were just empty sweaty spaces. I helped around the homestead, lay in the cool tall grass beside the grazing cows and painted the sky. I wanted to be a painter, I wanted to be wide and unforgettable. I lazed through the slowness of the country. I liked to learn how to churn milk to butter, I liked to watch my grandmother walk out at the break of dawn, and sing her songs to bluebirds. But I also wanted motion; I longed for change and excitement.
The village called my grandmother a witch but I never believed them. My grandfather had white short hair; he was mute and wrinkled. They made him do terrible things in the war and it took his voice away, my grandmother told me. I never asked for more. I heard enough about war. My grandmother looked like a Jew, they told her when Gestapo dragged her to prison and interrogated her. Luckily her mother was German and she too spoke a little Deutsch. Baba survived. Sometimes she says she could have gone mute too, that she’d like to go mute, but that there are things to be said in life and one must be pragmatic. Baba was always pragmatic. One ought to be the backbone of this family, she would often say. Baba was always the backbone.
She would come and visit us in our pre-war apartment in Warsaw. Every time she came she brought a small jar of dirt from the countryside, which she would sprinkle in the corners of our house when my father wasn’t looking. Dirt is sacred, she would mutter to me as I watched, one must always be faithful to it, cherish it. My father was a cool tall man, and he always extended that coolness to Baba. I never knew what happened between them to make their interactions so. My mother was my source of direction, my compass; I loved her and hated her, and felt the intensity of our relationship down to my bones. Both of my parents were scientists studying arctic tundra. They would often leave on month-long trips aboard helicopters and ships to return with photographs, seashells, stories. Their most recent trip was an unexpected one. Communities in Northern Siberia had been hearing a low-pitched ringing sound in the snowy arctic, which persisted for months. So, my parents were summoned to investigate this strange occurrence. I was to be left with Baba for the whole month of June and maybe July.
* * *
I woke up to an unusual commotion about the house. I rolled over in my bed and felt wetness against my thighs. It felt like the house was shaking, jars clinked on the shelves just above my bed. Baba’s prewar country house was made of wood, it stood tucked between apple orchards, sunflower fields and a small, still lake. There wasn’t running water or electricity till five years ago when grandpa’s back gave out and he could no longer haul buckets of water from the well. My room used to be a storage room for the various jars of preserves Baba made–sour cabbage, pickles, marmalade–before it was converted to a minimalist-style bedroom.
Someone slammed the front door. A car engine started.
I looked down and there was blood: thick, red, punctual.
The village called my grandmother a witch but I never believed them.
I slipped from the bed and dug through my suitcase for a pad. But the blood had already soaked through white sheets and into the mattress.
“I cannot believe this, I really can’t–” Baba’s voice came through the closed door. Then the sound of glass breaking.
I’d take care of the sheets later. I threw on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. What was happening? There hasn’t been this much commotion in the house since I’ve been here. I could hear a female voice I did not recognize consoling my grandmother, and my grandfather’s short footsteps pacing across the wooden floor of the main room. I pushed open the door of my bedroom.
My grandmother was sitting on the couch, hunched over with her face buried in her hands. The woman–light blonde hair, creased tanned face–sat beside Baba, softly patting her back. My grandfather paced, back and forth, across the creaking floorboards in a kind of semicircle. It will be okay was written on his pad of paper, which he used to communicate when a simple expression or gesture did not suffice. He noticed me, and snapped his fingers. Something he often did to get someone’s attention.
One of the glass doors of the kitchen cabinet was broken, its jagged pieces shone on the floor.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Baba looked up, “Oh Ada, honey.” She exhaled, “It’s not good. It’s really not good.”
I looked to the woman, who added sympathetically, “they’re making abortion illegal, with no exceptions–not for incest, rape, minors, or life threatening birth, nothing.”
“They’re trying to make miscarriage a crime! Miscarriage! I’ve had three!” Baba cried.
I had no idea what any of this meant. I knew about the conservative party, which came into power last fall. I knew my parents didn’t want them to win, nor did most of our family friends. My friend, Alexandra, had an abortion last year, when we were both sixteen. She said her mother went with her to Germany because that’s where those things had–or could– be done. Alexandra said it felt like her vagina was scraped raw. After a few days she was back at school, once again looking at university applications, excited with the possibility of studying literature like she always wanted. I wasn’t sure what a miscarriage was, I’d heard of them. It usually involved a woman crying a lot, and being sad for a long time. I wasn’t sure why anyone would cry over something that wasn’t even born yet.
What was the difference the between a legal or illegal miscarriage or abortion? I wasn’t sure. My parents rarely spoke about politics. I understood more from arctic tundra than I understood from newspaper headlines. These things, these politicians, did not concern me. I felt politics was something reserved for old, angry men in penguin coats–since those were the only ones I saw on TV. I don’t think I ever heard women speaking about politics; that conversation always felt somehow exclusive. But standing next to Baba, I could feel her anger. It filled up the entire room, all the way up to the ceiling, and then came flooding into me.
The woman, who must have been grandmother’s friend, sat beside her, alternatively saying, “It’ll be okay,” and, “we’ll get through this.”
There was a sudden knock on the door. I opened it to find a newspaper on the doorstep, and a girl, walking away quickly. Her long, soot-black hair made waves as she walked back to her bicycle, which lay on the side of the dirt road, on a patch of dandelions. The girl picked up her bike, turned around, and looked me straight in the eye, her face sharp and worried.
“Thanks!” I called after her.
She shrugged, then called back: “I’m Hana.”
I wanted to tell her my name, talk to her before she rode away, but she was already gone. I picked up the newspaper and there it was, in thick black letters, across the front page: “Polish Government to Enslave Women”
* * *
Baba led something she called a consciousness-raising circle. She’d read about it in a magazine once, the consciousness raising circles that started in the U.S. in the late 60s. She always wanted to help women, and since grandpa was mute she missed having someone to talk to. Baba told me the idea cemented when she saw Ewa, the woman who was at the house that morning, at the marketplace wearing sunglasses. It was an overcast day, the sky opaque and dim. Ewa was reaching to buy a bag of plums, she lowered her sunglasses to inspect the quality of the fruit, and there were two bruises, blue and purple like the plums; one on each of her cheekbones.
Baba held the consciousness raising circle every two weeks. Women from all over the village would come, she’d serve tea alongside her famous blackberry cakes, and they’d talk.
“About what?” I asked.
“About everything, about the things that you cannot talk about anywhere else,” Baba smiled.
“Men, magic, violence, our power, our oppression, our day to day lives– anything and everything. Come tonight and you’ll see.”
I picked up the newspaper and there it was, in thick black letters, across the front page: “Polish Government to Enslave Women”
Magic? That sounded strange, to say the least. I didn’t understand why women would need to talk about any of those things–or why they couldn’t do it over the phone. But at least something was happening in this dull country. I wanted to know what this consciousness business was about, and I was interested enough to find out.
In the evening the kitchen filled with the scent of rising dough and sugared blackberries. My grandpa arranged the chairs into a circle in the middle of the main room. Then he went off into their bedroom to nap, as he usually did during these meetings. The sun set out the kitchen window and the heat of the day gave way to a nice coolness. Ewa arrived first. She lit seven tall candles in the center of the room, then arranged a half circle of crystal stones, each a different color. In the middle, she placed a long pheasant feather.
“For good energy,” she said.
This was only getting weirder. Was this the source of the rumors in the village– about my grandmother being a witch? Of course, magic wasn’t real. But could my grandmother be silly enough to believe it? I never believed in any of this stuff, feathers or crystals, nor did my parents. None of it was scientifically proven. Although, I remember my mother once saying that crystal oscillators were used in various technological devices–to do what I wasn’t sure.
Minutes later, women arrived. Baba instructed me to sit next to her as a circle formed.
“Welcome everyone, as you can see, my granddaughter, Ada, is joining us tonight,” Baba paused and the women around the circle smiled at me brightly. “I’m sure you all have heard the news. Today is a difficult day. But we’ll come together and fight for a way to live in dignity. We will do what women have always done: go on.”
The women around me nodded, some closed their eyes, exhaling. I felt suddenly conscious of my body, my face. Did my suspicion show on my face? Should I be feeling a certain way? I couldn’t tell, which only made me more self-conscious.
“But first thing’s first. Let’s do our rounds. And since it’s Ada’s first circle, please introduce yourself as well.”
The women went around the circle, each introducing herself, saying a thing or two about herself, then describing how her day was. The way these women spoke was different than I’ve ever heard before. They spoke about being tired, depressed; they spoke about menstruation and menopause, about being busy taking care of their children, their husbands. Almost every woman mentioned the news. Some said they had daughters, that they spent their morning crying, that this couldn’t be happening.
Then it was my turn. “Hi, my name is Ada,” I said, “I’m a little tired…sorry, I don’t know what else to say.” I felt my cheeks flush. It sounded dumb, but I really didn’t know what to say. I felt like there was some secret knowledge I was not aware of, that if only I knew it I’d share the sentiments of these women, and understand how to respond to the news.
Baba smiled at me, as if to say it’s okay, and began to speak. She addressed the abortion ban, the need to organize, the importance of coming together and discussing all this. She asked us to think about the ways this new law made us feel; how it affected us, and the women we knew.
“I am furious! Just blood-boiling furious!” One woman said, her face turning light red, “I cannot believe they can disrespect us like that, I mean really, just worse than dirt.” She shook her head.
“They just want baby machines for the state,” someone else chipped in.
“I have a sixteen-year-old daughter, she has her first boyfriend. With contraception being so difficult to get, all the appointments and prescriptions, how can I help her? What am I supposed to do? I don’t even know–”
I listened but still didn’t understand why abortion should affect me. I didn’t want kids; I wanted to paint. Those two weren’t mutually exclusive, but I knew I didn’t want kids. Never did. Babies disgusted me, the whole process of birth felt unnecessarily violent. I wasn’t sure about the required male involvement in the process, either. I didn’t just want to paint, I wanted the whole thing: the galleries, the art shows, the interviews. Famous. Maybe, I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be something dangerous and bright, something you can’t ignore: a thunderstorm.
When it was my turn to speak, I said: “I guess, I still don’t know how the abortion ban affects me. I don’t want kids, I know I’m just seventeen, but I know I don’t. So if I never get pregnant, I never need to get an abortion. Right?”
Maybe, I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be something dangerous and bright, something you can’t ignore: a thunderstorm.
No one answered. Ewa looked at Baba, who smiled sympathetically.
Baba turned towards me, “Ada, sweetheart. We are all women. Some women get pregnant when they don’t want to: by accident, when they can’t access contraception, or are raped. No one should have to be forced to be pregnant or give birth. It’s a human right to have autonomy over your body. These days contraception is increasingly difficult to obtain in Poland, you need several permissions from doctors– they treat women as though we were children. And even if a woman never wants kids, the rates of rape in this country are on the rise, no one speaks about it. It’s scary but it’s true–” Baba paused.
Rape was something I never wanted to think about. It popped up occasionally on the news, or in newspaper headlines. It was scarier than kidnappings or murder. When I thought about my childhood I could remember all the various girls raped and murdered on TV, their bodies discarded along highways, in forests and garbage cans, like trash. Occasionally, when I walked alone to the corner store, drunk men would scream, in broad daylight, what they’d do to my body, what they’d leave on my face and in my hair. I felt this sadistic darkness in the unrelenting stares of older guys in school. I saw it in the way they gripped their girlfriends, the way they pressed themselves into them, as though to suffocate. I never thought about the possibility of being raped, never wanted to. It hurt right in my body, like my flesh coming on fire. It made me both angry and sad, fierce but silent.
“Even if something doesn’t affect us immediately or personally, it does affect other women, and we must fight for it,” Baba continued, “because until all women are free, none of us are.”
Baba’s last words hung in my head long after the consciousness raising circle was over. I wasn’t sure I understood, but some things were starting to make sense. I loved and respected Baba; her whole childhood and family were swallowed up by war, and still she persisted. I knew there was something important in this–in women coming together, speaking so openly about things no one else wanted to talk to me about. My parents certainly never mentioned any of it. All these years they rarely spoke about Baba, was this why?
* * *
In the morning, I took my sketch pad and my paints, and biked to the lake. I couldn’t sleep all night. My head was filled with the conversations of the consciousness raising circle. I felt an excitement, a new kind of strength, beyond myself. I couldn’t wait, I needed to paint.
As I approached the lake, I saw her laying there, in the tall grass. “Hana!” I called
She looked up from her magazines: “Hi?”
“I’m Ada. We met yesterday, you delivered the paper to my grandmother’s house.”
“The Baba Yaga is your grandma?” She raised her eyebrows.
“No. She’s just my grandma.”
“Shit, sorry. I’m so used to calling her that.”
I shrugged. I got used to people thinking Baba is strange, and last night, if anything, should have been a confirmation of it. But now I wasn’t so sure. Baba wasn’t a witch in any sense of the word: she wasn’t luring children into her hut to eat them. She was a determined older woman trying to change something. I could understand that. But she was strange. In the sense that no one behaved like her, no other woman her age had the audacity to.
“So, what are you doing here?” Hana gestured towards my sketch pad.
“I’m painting the edge of the lake.”
“It looks like a bunch of random dots and splashes and stuff,” she tilted her head.
“I’m trying to paint like Snyder,” I said.
“Joan Snyder? The American abstract painter?”
Hana stared at me blankly.
“Never mind. What do you do?” I asked.
“What do you mean, what do I do?”
Baba wasn’t a witch in any sense of the word: she wasn’t luring children into her hut to eat them. She was a determined older woman trying to change something.
“Like, now in the summer. I know you bring the newspaper but apart from that?”
“I don’t know. I help around the house, the barn; we have chickens and cows. Otherwise I don’t do much. Sometimes I read.”
“What do you read?” I asked.
“Novellas, romance stories, anything,” she pulled the loose strands of hair from her face, “What’s this– an interrogation? Let’s swim.”
“In that? It’s dirty–” I remembered I was bleeding.
“Oh god. Don’t be such a snob,” Hana said, already peeling off her dress. She was slightly taller than me, slimmer, her limbs tan. Next to her I looked plump, round, unflattering. Her nose was sharper than mine, her skin freckleless, her country accent charming.
I took off my clothes reluctantly, one by one. I did not feel like swimming, especially on my period, but I wanted to spend time with Hana. I wanted to show her that despite being from the city I could spontaneously go for swims in muddy lakes. When Hana got in the water, her soot-black hair floated on the surface like a living being.
It wasn’t cold. I was half way in the water when she splashed my face. I splashed back. We leapt up and down, our feet pushing off the muddy bottom, laughing and screaming. Once we got tired we floated on our backs: our fingers, toes, occasionally brushing against one another. I glanced at the tan lines on her skin where her shorts and t-shirt sleeves must usually be. Her muscles shone in the water, I could even make out the little black hairs on her forearms and legs. But suddenly something felt off. I remembered what she said.
“Why’d you call her that? Baba Yaga?” I asked.
She looked suddenly embarrassed, “I don’t know, everyone calls her that. Rumor is she leads a witch circle in her house. She invites some of the village women and they boil and dissect farm animals to offer them up to pagan gods.”
I burst out laughing. But Hana stood up in the water, and stared at me blankly. “You don’t believe that, do you?”
She shrugged, “it’s true, isn’t it?”
“Of course, it’s not! I’ve been here a week and I can testify there’s been no animal slaughter or dissection happening.”
Hana shrugged, “I don’t know, why do all these women come to her house every week or so? It feels suspicious–like she’s planning something.”
“My grandma runs this thing called a consciousness raising circle. It’s basically a group of women who meet at her house to talk about things.”
“Things? What things?”
“Politics and life and stuff. There’s one next week. You should come.”
Hana looked unconvinced.
* * *
I didn’t see her all week, so when I finally ran into her at the Sunday market I had to talk to her. Baba sent me to buy a few things for a soup she was making; leeks peeked out of the plastic bags that weighed down my arms. I called out to her across the crowd.
Hana smiled and gestured for me to come over. She was buying cherries, whole bags of them.
“Why so many? Are you starting an orchard?”
“Ha-ha. No. I’m making jam.”
“Jam? You know how to make jam?”
She nodded, “it’s not like it’s hard. If you want I’ll show you,” she picked up her bicycle.
“Okay, hop on. You can ride in the front.”
“Yes… unless you have somewhere to be?” Hana asked sarcastically.
I shook my head.
After a few awkward shuffles, I managed to hop onto the handlebars and we rode away. Hana pedaled frantically through the village, the breeze felt nice in the morning heat. From time to time, I felt her face against my arm, peering over at the road. We sped towards a dilapidated brick building, its balcony left without railing, forever unfinished. Hana stopped before the front door. I hopped off the bike.
“I like your house,” I said.
“You don’t have to say that. It’s a shit hole.” Hana grabbed her bags of cherries and walked into the house. I followed.
Inside everything was dark, there were empty cups and piles of dirty dishes on tables, crumpled bags of chips, and coffee spills on the couch. It looked as though the house had been ransacked. We walked to the kitchen, the window was open, most of the counters filled with empty jars, waiting for jam.
“First you boil them with sugar and apple juice,” Hana moved about the cluttered kitchen effortlessly. Her hands became alive–like two small doves–rinsing cherries, opening and closing a cookbook, measuring out white sugar with her palm. “Okay, after it boils you can stir it.”
I took the wooden spoon from her hand and did as told. There are some people who inspire a sense of authority without fear, Hana was one of those people.
“There’s that meeting I told you about tomorrow, if you’d like to come?” I said, making my voice as casual as I could.
“The consciousness raising at my grandmother’s house, I told you–”
“Oh, you mean the witch circle?” Hana smiled.
“It’s more of a political group.”
“Okay, tell me. What sort of politics do you discuss.”
“Well, you know the abortion ban that the government is trying to pass?”
“I heard of it, yes.”
“Well, it’s horrible, and it will hurt women, and we have to do something about it.”
Hana took the wooden spoon from my hand and stirred, much faster than I did.
At once conversations erupted around me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Hana. About her life, which was so completely different from mine, with the burden of an alcoholic father, the chores, the dust, the eternally unfinished balcony.
“But what can be done about it? What can you or your grandmother change?”
I wanted to give her a quick response, to convince her that the meetings were important, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I never thought about it, just sort of assumed my grandmother could do anything she set her mind to.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but it seems silly to me. That’s all.” She said, not looking away from the cherries sizzling in the pot.
A stone dropped in my stomach: now she was never going to come.
Suddenly, a door slammed. A slurred male voice broke into the house: “Hanaaa!”
“Oh shit. It’s my dad, you should go.” Hana picked up my bag of leeks and shoved it into my stomach. That’s when her father walked into the kitchen. He was tall, slouching, and bobbing his head like one of those toy dogs you put in the back of the car. In his hand was a half empty bottom of vodka. He reeked of it.
He saw me standing there and yelled: “Heeey! Girlss!”
I felt instantly uncomfortable, a bolt of electricity over my skin.
“Who’s the friend Hana? She’s pretty, why don’t you introduce us?” Her father moved closer, slurring his words, bubbles of spit formed in his mouth.
Hana took me by the arm and pushed me past her father and out the kitchen door, “She was just about to leave.”
“Come on Hana, why are you always such a–” He called after us. I couldn’t hear the end of the sentence. Hana had already slammed the door behind me.
* * *
The following day, I hadn’t seen or heard anything from her. I was left with the uncomfortable image of her drunk father. Hana had never told me anything about her family, she never mentioned her mother, so I assumed there wasn’t one. I never imagined where she lived, or how she lived. Turns out, she had reasons to keep it from me.
In the evening, the consciousness raising circle gathered once again. Baba had something special planned, she told me earlier, a surprise.
“So, what is it? The surprise?” Ewa turned to my grandmother, slightly impatient.
“Black Protest,” Baba announced, as though we were all meant to understand what that meant. “I read in the papers that there are protests being organized in all the major cities. They are being called ‘Black Protests’ to mourn the death of women’s rights,” Baba continued, “I think we should organize one in the nearest city, in Warka.”
At once conversations erupted around me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Hana. About her life, which was so completely different from mine, with the burden of an alcoholic father, the chores, the dust, the eternally unfinished balcony. All these things were foreign to me. I suddenly felt as though I lived in a different world, so far away from the countryside, so far away from Hana.
“How will we get there?” someone asked, and I zoned back into the conversation. The discussion of a protest felt stupid after what Hana said. Maybe she was right: it was silly and pointless.
I raised my hand.
“You don’t need to raise your hand here, honey, just speak,” Ewa smiled.
“Okay. Well, what’s the point of the protest? What will it change?”
“It can change a lot of things. The government can see us, for one. They can see public manifestation of disagreement, outrage, and resistance, I think it’s a good idea,” Ewa replied.
“When someone, especially someone who will never get pregnant, takes your rights away, you fight back. We can’t just disagree in silence, we can’t afford that. We owe each other more than that,” Baba said.
“So what? We’ll just walk into the streets of Warka and everything will change?” I asked, this time sarcastically.
“We will wear black, we will make signs, we will occupy public space, we will be loud and unapologetic.” Baba said, “Whether anything changes, we won’t know unless we try.”
I wanted to object further, but all my arguments had run out. Maybe Baba was right after all: you don’t know unless you try. So, when Baba took out a sheet of paper and asked for volunteers for the different jobs, I agreed to paint the signs. I also decided I’d try to talk to Hana.
* * *
I ran into her on the outskirts of town, sitting by the little stream with her bicycle. It was late afternoon, and I was on my way home from the village library, a few books at my hip. Only a day passed since the last consciousness raising meeting but my forearms were already permanently stained with paint. I must have done dozens of signs by now, each bearing a different slogan or symbol.
I walked up to her, “Hey”
“Hey,” she looked up. She was holding a magazine, one of those colorful women’s magazines that tell you how to stay thin, how to dress, how to be a better woman.
There was a silent pause.
“Look, I’m sorry you had to see that Ada. My father…he’s um–”
“It’s okay. Really. Just bad timing.” I said, cutting her off.
Hana gazed into the slow flowing water of the stream. She twirled a blade of grass in her hand.
“It’s not just that… well it is, it’s been my whole life, like this, with him,” she paused, “forget it. I’m not even making any sense.”
“No, you are. You can tell me, I’ll listen.”
“It gets tiring, you know, having to take care of your own father. Sometimes I get so angry when he does this, and he always swears he’ll get better. He tried to get sober a million times, then he comes back totally drunk. And it’s always when I’m having a good day, when something for once is going right in my life,” she turned toward me, “like the other day.”
I paused, not really knowing what to say, so I babbled out a stupid “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Forget it. I don’t wanna think about it.”
I nodded, and we sat there for a while. I watched her play with the blade of grass, twisting it into a knot and then undoing it.
“What are you up to?” Hana gestured at my books.
“I went to the library, found a few decent-looking novels.”
“Ugh, you and your books,” she groaned as she leaped off the ground, “let’s do something fun.”
“Don’t know. Aren’t you the creative one?”
“Okay, let’s go paint something then,” Hana smiled, her eyes shining.
The sun set behind our backs as we walked to Baba’s place. I dropped off my books, grabbed a few paintbrushes, and a bucket of paint. Then clumsily climbed on board Hana’s bicycle.
We rode back into town as buildings began to disappear into dusk. I didn’t know whether Hana had anywhere specific in mind. I did know, however, that painting over public or private property was considered vandalism–regardless where it was.
Hana stopped the bike before the city hall. “Here,” she said.
“Let’s paint it,” she gestured at the wide, white expanse of the wall.
“Because it’s vandalism!”
I got to know the other women better. They told me stories of what it was like to live under communism, having to learn Russian in school; how they stood in lines to get a block of rubbery cheese. I welcomed any, and all, distractions.
Hana narrowed her eyes, “Aren’t you an artist?”
“Yeah. But vandalism is not art.” I exclaimed.
“So? Let’s make it art then,” she smirked and grabbed a paintbrush along with the bucket of paint.
“Hana, I really don’t think this is–” But it was too late, she had opened the paint, dipped the paintbrush and smeared a huge circle on the white, white wall.
“Didn’t you want to protest the government law or something? Well, here’s your chance,” Hana said, gleaming.
She handed me the paintbrush.
I stared at the wall, then at the brush. I could feel Hana’s eyes just burning into me. What the hell.
I touched the tip of the brush to the wall. My hands drew a giant O, then a small cross attached to its base: the symbol for woman. Underneath it I wrote: no country for a woman. Hana came up to me and crossed out the o in country. She smiled, almost bursting out laughing.
“This is crazy,” I whispered.
We stepped back to examine our work. This was probably the most important painting I’ve done.
“Wow. This is really something,” Hana stood next to me, her eyes wild with contentment, “aren’t you happy?”
I was. Happier than I’d ever been. It felt like I could do anything, like wings had suddenly sprouted on my back, and if only I’d leap up I’d fly.
I turned toward her, leaned into her face and pressed my lips to her lips.
We stood like that for a moment, before she pulled away violently, furrowing her brow. She turned around and, without saying a single word, biked away.
My heart dropped as I stood there.
* * *
Over the next few days protest preparations were happening at Baba’s house. Women sat around for hours, discussing who would organize the transport, how to spread the word and get more people involved. Hana never came. I hadn’t seen her since that night, but I distracted myself with the work that needed to be done: painting posters, attaching wooden handles, helping Baba fix the old printer. My grandfather walked incessantly back and forth to the kitchen, bringing more tea, more biscuits. I got to know the other women better. They told me stories of what it was like to live under communism, having to learn Russian in school; how they stood in lines to get a block of rubbery cheese. I welcomed any, and all, distractions.
The day before the protest arrived, and everything was finally coming together. Final details were taken care of as we gathered in Baba’s living room to celebrate. Sparkling wine flowed, and Ewa played the fiddle as my grandfather clapped his hands. One after another, women began to stand up, sway and dance. Someone caught my hand and pulled me up, it was Basia. We danced, jumping up and down to the quick pace of the music. I hopped from foot to foot, laughing and laughing. Everyone was howling, clapping, smiling. A wild energy coursed through the room, and I surged after it. I wanted to dance, leap outward, to move without inhibition. Just as I was about to turn to Hana and confide in her this feeling, I realized she wasn’t there.
I stopped dancing, and sat down. Suddenly the sound of a car engine cut through the music. Then a loud thud, and a crash: a rock came flying into the living room. It landed past the “dance floor” just at my feet. “Duck down!” someone yelled, as a handful of fist-size stones crashed through Baba’s windows, smashing the glass, darting across the room. I heard a few squeals as people got hit, but none touched me. I moved closer to a wall, towards the window, where I stood, flat against the wall.
“Goddamn witches!! Burn!” several male voices shouted from outside, followed by a string of profanities.
Baba stood up from the floor where she was lying. She walked up towards me, to the broken window, and looked out across the yard to where the car was parked. Baba stood there in silence, in full view of the rock throwers. I saw her eyes narrow, her breathing stop, and then– a loud cracking sound. Glass was breaking. But not inside the house, all the windows were still intact. I looked outside and there I saw the car windows, all six of them, shatter. The men stood there, shards of broken glass at their feet, with jaws open. Then quietly, they got into the car and started the engine.
Just before the car took off, I saw a familiar face, disfigured by a grotesque smile. It was Hana’s father.
* * *
It felt like a stab in the back. Everyone always says that’s how it feels, and that was exactly how I felt. The worst part was that it was Hana who outed the consciousness raising group. It couldn’t have been anyone else.
Was this her way of getting back at me for the kiss? The more I thought about it the more it seemed so, which hurt me even more. I wondered what else she told her father, did she tell him about the protest? Would those men come back to haunt us, this time with reinforcements? I began to feel unsafe, and couldn’t fall asleep. I left my room, and walked into the kitchen, where Baba was sitting at the table.
“Can’t sleep?” She asked.
I shook my head.
“Come, sit,” she pulled out a chair.
I sat down. Baba poured me a glass of milk from the pitcher on the table. Two ice cubes bobbed in the glass, Baba liked milk to be cold.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
I nodded, “I guess so, yeah.”
“Look Ada, I’ve never told you this, and I’m sorry you had to witness it for yourself. But it wasn’t something that could be talked about. Certainly not in front of your father– I never wanted to burden you so unnecessarily with something.”
Only then did I realize Baba was talking about the incident, about the broken glass. In thinking about Hana I had forgotten all about it. I mean, it was impossible to break glass with sight. Right?
“So that was real?” I asked, “You can really do that?”
Baba calmly nodded.
I always sensed that things were a little rigid between my grandmother and my father but could never figure out what went wrong. They were still polite to one another but there was a visible strain in their relationship. Now it made sense.
“You’re joking. What? Tell me–how?”
“It first happened accidentally, when I was in high school, sitting in the cafeteria. My own grandmother had just passed away and it left me in a horrible depression. I wouldn’t eat or speak for months. I was just sitting there, staring at a glass cup when suddenly it broke. I didn’t know what happened, maybe an accident. But then weeks later sitting at dinner with my family I broke a glass cabinet.” Baba’s face suddenly became serious, “My parents got very angry with me, they called me the devil’s child, they said I could never do something like that again, and never spoke about it.”
I sat there, not knowing what to say. Then I remembered the broken glass the day news of the abortion ban broke. “The morning the news broke? The broken glass, was it–”
“Sometimes when I am furious it happens. Like today with those men coming here, throwing stones. Someone could have gotten seriously hurt, you could have been hurt. I couldn’t just stand there.” Baba looked down at her hands. “I’m sorry you had to witness that.”
“Wait, is that why I wasn’t allowed to visit you for so long?” I asked.
Baba nodded, “Your father doesn’t like when I do it. I can control it for most of the time, but sometimes I slip, and it happens. He saw me do it once, when you were here visiting, you were just six years old.”
“And my mom? Why didn’t she defend you? She didn’t want me to see you either?”
“Your mother knows all about it, it scares her a little, but she got used to it for the most part. But your father was, well, less tolerant. After it happened he was both furious, and refused to believe it.” Baba shifted in her seat.
I always sensed that things were a little rigid between my grandmother and my father but could never figure out what went wrong. They were still polite to one another but there was a visible strain in their relationship. Now it made sense. My father believed in science as other people believed in god. This must have been a huge blow to his world view, the fact that something “illogical” like that could actually happen. It happened before his very eyes. Now I knew why I couldn’t come here all these years; why I didn’t know much about Baba; why, when she visited, she always seemed a little quiet.
I, too, felt the laws of my world rearranging themselves. My grandmother has magical powers, my grandmother has magical powers, I repeated to myself when I went back to my room. I began to wonder: was I capable of it too? Did I myself possess some special power?
* * *
Next morning, the sound of an engine woke up me from a string of nightmares. All night I dreamed of people trying to break into the house, come through my bedroom window, and attack me. I had to stand up, and touch the window glass to make sure it was still intact.
Outside all was quiet, dew hung on the grass. Several minutes later, the sound of an engine gradually increased, until the bus rolled up the driveway of the house. Ewa sat behind the wheel, I could vaguely make out the faces of women packed inside. Quickly, I put on a pair of black jeans and a black t-shirt. I grabbed the signs, kissed good-bye to grandpa, and ran after Baba, who was already out the door.
The bus thrummed with excitement. All around me conversations about the march erupted. The general spirit was fierce but joyful. But I couldn’t feel any of it. I was still in awe of Baba, still sad about Hana. I wanted her to be here with me. Instead I sat there, next to my grandmother, holding the signs Hana and I painted. I kept staring at the bus window, trying to make it break. Nothing happened.
I saw a girl walking on the side of the road, her hair the same dark color as Hana’s. The more I wanted to stop thinking about her, the more my mind ran towards her. Finally, I turned to Baba and asked: “Have you ever felt betrayed by someone you care about?”
Baba exhaled, “Oh yes, many times.”
She put her hand on my arm, and asked: “is it Hana?”
I nodded. “I can’t believe Hana outed us. I can’t believe she betrayed me– I mean, us. It’s all so stupid. I just don’t get it.”
“Oh honey, sometimes people aren’t ready for consciousness raising. Maybe the idea of a protest was too much for her right now, or maybe she mentioned the circle accidentally. I bet Hana is busy with her own problems, I heard that her father has a drinking problem. That’s not easy on a kid, especially without a mother.”
It was true. Hana’s world was completely different from my own. She didn’t have a mother, she had no siblings to my knowledge, no one to confide in, no one to help her with taking care of her father. I couldn’t imagine my life without my own mom; the idea of losing her was my biggest fear. But even if Hana’s life was messed up, she still didn’t need to send her father and his crew to stone us.
It still hurt, it was still betrayal, or retaliation.
“I didn’t tell you one thing,” I said to Baba, “a few days ago I kissed her.”
“You kissed her?” She asked, in a gentle tone.
I nodded. Now I felt like I wanted to cry.
As the bus pulled up to the city square, I began to get nervous. I looked out for the men, who just yesterday raided Baba’s house, but they were nowhere to be seen. Everyone was a stranger here. The bus stopped, doors opened, I grabbed my sign and followed Baba.
“Oh Ada, sweetheart, it’s okay,” Baba put her arm around me and hugged me, “I understand now. You like her, and she pushed you away?”
I nodded, now softly crying.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Baba repeated, stroking my back. “Maybe Hana wasn’t ready. Out here in the countryside, women loving women is rare. It’s a difficult thing to understand within yourself.”
“I guess.” I wiped the snot from my face.
“Even if she has feelings for you Ada, I don’t think a girl raised in this place would know how to deal with them. Don’t get angry with her, give her time and space.”
Out the window the countryside houses and fields blurred into one. Maybe Baba was right. Joan Snider married Margaret Crammer when she was 72. There might be hope for me.
“What about the consciousness raising circle? Is it safe still?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll survive, we always will.” Baba said calmly.
Wooden country homes transformed into buildings. Gradually, traffic increased until we arrived in the little town of Warka. You could immediately tell something was different that day: women flooded the streets, carrying signs, and coat hangers. There were children, daughters and sons, mothers and grandmothers. Everyone was dressed in black. Some held signs that said: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this.”
As the bus pulled up to the city square, I began to get nervous. I looked out for the men, who just yesterday raided Baba’s house, but they were nowhere to be seen. Everyone was a stranger here. The bus stopped, doors opened, I grabbed my sign and followed Baba.
Outside everything burst into intensity: loud voices, chants, stomping feet. The little town of Warka felt like a wild metropolis compared to the weeks I spent in the countryside. I moved up next to Baba at the start of the group; we inched towards the square, where the protest would begin. It was far less scary than I imagined. In fact, it wasn’t scary at all. It was magnificent: all those people, all those women, dressed in black, moving together towards the same goal. Suddenly someone bumped into me. I turned around. It was Hana.
I stared at her, my heart thudded in my chest like it wanted to jump into my throat. At first I wasn’t sure if she was real or a figment of my imagination. What was she doing here? Did she come here with her father or did she want to see me? Hana opened her mouth and said something that was immediately swallowed up by the loud crowd. Then her lips mouthed: I’m sorry.
I wanted to ask her a million questions, but at the same time I didn’t care. She was here, she came. I nodded, and she took my hand. Together we held up the two ends of the poster we made. “We’re not incubators for you to regulate!” it read.
Like this we marched, slowly moving towards the square. Baba, still at the front of the group, turned around and for a moment she caught my eye. I squeezed Hana’s hand, and she looked back at me, smiling. An overwhelming feeling of pride filled me as I watched the streets fill to the brim with the moving body of the crowd, one unified group of women. I marched alongside all of them, these hundreds of women, towards the square, softly stepping into my power.
Ania Mroczek is a B.A. student at the University of British Columbia. She was born and raised in Poland. Her work has previously appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Matador Review, filling Station, Juked, Lines+Stars, and elsewhere.