He passed away earlier this year, the old man. We spent a number of Christmases with him and his wife, in their crowded, crumbling apartment in a village called Mysliborz near the German border. It was on one such Christmas night that he told this story, which even after all these years I am unable to forget:
FOR CHRISTMAS that year I received a brand new bicycle. This was in the first year of the war. The bicycle was a Lucznik, sleek and fire engine red. I was the envy of all the kids in the village. I still cannot imagine how my father saved enough to buy such a thing, but somehow he had.
That was the winter German troops arrived in our village. Immediately the soldiers began posting notices all over town. Every week a new notice ordering villagers to bring this or that item to police headquarters. One week it would be butter churners, the next week it was goats. If you ignored the order and you were found out, or if someone reported you, you would be severely punished. You can probably guess what that meant.
I was attending school the day the Germans decided to round up all of the bicycles in the village. I can only imagine how terrible my father must have felt, knowing how much I loved that bicycle. Nevertheless he dared not disobey orders. My father was a practical man. He wasn’t going to risk being shot over a bicycle.
That afternoon my friend Radek and I walked home from school just like we always did. It had been raining earlier but now the sky had cleared and the cobblestone streets shimmered in the late afternoon sun. Suddenly Radek halted. He nudged me and asked if that wasn’t my bicycle leaning against the wall of the tavern. We hurried to get a closer look. True enough, it was my bike. No one else in town had one like it, and no one would for many years.
“How do you suppose it got here?” asked Radek.
I shrugged. “Beats me.”
I climbed on my bicycle and began pedaling up and down the street. It was my bike all right.
Radek ran alongside me for a while. “Can I try?” he cried.
“I have to get home now,” I said. I rode off doing tricks down the alley.
I did not go home directly. Chores waited at home. I rode up and down the wet cobblestone streets, enjoying the looks of all the wide-eyed villagers envious of my new bike.
My mother and father were working in the garden when I rode through the gate. I saw my mother straighten and the hoe fall from her hands. She let out a small cry.
My father looked up. His face had turned ashen gray. He raised his arm and pointed as though he were seeing a ghost. “Where did you get that?” he cried.
I was confused. What kind of question was that? “I got it for Christmas,” I said. Even then I was too old to believe in St. Nicholas.
“No! Where did you get it just now?”
Something caught in my throat. “I found it leaning against the wall of the pub.” I seemed to have done something wrong, but for the life of me I had no idea what. I dropped the bicycle to the ground and ran to my mother. I began to cry.
“Shhhh. It’s okay,” she said weakly.
My father stared blankly down the road. “I’m a dead man,” he muttered.
My mother bunched her apron in her hands. “Take it back to where he found it. Maybe they haven’t noticed it missing.”
“But it’s mine!” I cried. I still didn’t know what the matter was. My mother patted my head and shushed me.
My father sighed and picked up my bicycle. He looked at me, almost kindly. “Stop that. Be a man,” he said. He climbed on my bicycle and rode off awkwardly down the street.
Mother and I stood by the front gate a long time. We waited in silence until we saw the first star come out. At length she said it was time to go inside for supper.
Later that night, after I had gone to bed, my father came into my room. He sat on the edge of my bed. I turned away from him, still angry. “I am sorry,” he said. I felt his rough hands stroke my hair. I edged closer to the wall. I could tell by the sound of his voice he had been crying.
THE OLD MAN paused and slowly shook his head. “Six million people died in that war, but that was the only time I ever heard my father weep,” he said.
It was late and my wife and the baby had drifted off to sleep. This was many years ago when we were living in a small town in western Poland.