“Breakfast,” he announced.
The hare was a doe, nice and plump. He skinned it and sectioned it with astonishing skill. We cut a pair of slim branches from a tree and impaled pieces of rabbit meat upon them, then roasted them over our little fire. A sort of lapin en brochette, or rabbitkabob. It wasn’t the most suitable breakfast in the world, but it was tasty and filling.
I asked Milan how he had caught the hare. He shrugged as if it were the sort of thing any fool ought to be able to accomplish. “I found a place where hares were likely to be,” he said, “and I waited until this one appeared and I brained her with a rock. Then I cut her throat and bled her and brought her here.”
And later, after we had talked of other things and had quite forgotten the little doe, he said, “The only hard part is hitting them with the stone. You have to drop them on the first cast. The rest is just a matter of moving in silence and keeping one’s eyes open.”
It took me a moment to realize that he was referring to hares. My first thought was of the Ustashi sentries. Hunting is the same sort of business, I suppose, whatever the quarry.
We were in Krakow by nightfall. We spent most of our time in horse-drawn carts, which was fine with me. I was at least as bored with hiking as Milan was and equally tired of the countryside. I wanted to be in a warm house in a city where I could get a bath and a shave and clean clothes. Our dirty, unshaven faces were a good disguise – we looked entirely too disreputable to be persons of any importance – but mine, at least, was a nuisance. It itched. So, for that matter, did the rest of me, especially under the damned oilcloth packets.
We entered Krakow from the east, passing first through the new city of Nowa Huta. It had all been built up after the war to accommodate workers at the Lenin Metallurgical combine. We passed through streets laid out in neat geometrical monotony, street after street of identical rows of semidetached houses. Little boxes made of ticky-tacky. We might as well have been in Kew Gardens. The twentieth century imposes its own special brand of monotony whenever it’s given a free hand, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether the government is capitalist or socialist or fascist; either way, the end result is a sort of Levittown of the mind.
After Nowa Huta, clean and fresh and modern and sterile, Krakow was a glorious relief. The city was one of the very few in Poland to remain intact throughout the war. There were no bombings by either side. The population was largely devastated, of course – Oswiecim, which the Germans called Auschwitz, is only thirty miles to the west. But the castles and cathedrals and old buildings remain, and the city is beautiful.
I steered us through the center of the city, into the oldest section around the Jagiellonian University, a center of Polish learning for over six centuries. Copernicus studied there, and later determined that the earth was not the center of the universe. My comrades in the Flat Earth Society are inclined to dispute this and perhaps they are right. What does the movement of stars and planets have to do with the center of the universe? Milan ’s universe was centered in a Montenegrin town called Savnik. The center of the world for Tadeusz Orlowicz was indisputably Krakow, however frequently he found it advisable to leave it.
And the center of my own universe? I pondered this in silence while we walked through the narrow old streets of the student quarter. There was, I decided, no permanent center to my universe. Sometimes it was a hut in Macedonia, sometimes a cottage in Hungary, sometimes an apartment on West 107th Street. I wondered if it might be important for a man’s universe to have a center and if there was any vital self-discovery I could make through the realization that mine did not. Men have told me that they like to sleep every night in the same bed. If I slept, perhaps I would feel this way.
But self-analysis and self-absorption are subtle forms of self-destruction, leading sooner or later to what Hindi call nirvana and psychiatrists call catatonia. The center of the universe, for the moment, was Krakow, and the man at its very hub was Tadeusz Orlowicz. I did not know where he lived – he found it advisable to move frequently, and to keep his address a secret – but I did know where I might be likely to find him, or to get word of him.
We worked our way in and around the university district. In an alley off Wislna Street was a small cafe of which I had often heard in the past. It appeared to be closed, but I had been told that it almost invariably appeared to be closed. I went to the door and rang the bell, one long, two short, two long, three short. Then I waited for approximately three minutes before repeating the process.
An old woman, dressed in loose black clothing, opened the door a crack and peered out at me.
I said, “My friend and I are fond of roasted partridge and understand it is obtainable here.”
“It is out of season,” the old woman said.
“Some game is always in season.”
“One tires of game.”
“One cannot afford to tire of the game.”
It was an elaborate sequence and, I felt, rather a foolish one. It brought to mind the pudgy man from Washington and cryptic scribbles on Juicy Fruit gum wrappers. And what good did the password do? All the woman could really be sure of, after we’d gone through this silly bit of business, was that if I were a government agent, I was an exceedingly well-informed one and thus most dangerous.
She was not that deep a thinker. She opened the door wider, and I entered with Milan close behind me. She led us through one darkened room and into another. There were half a dozen tables, all of them empty. A candle glowed on one of them at the rear. She pointed us toward that table, and we took seats.
“You wish to eat?”
“Chlodnik? Kolduny? Tea?”
Chlodnik is a cold beet soup not unlike borscht. Kolduny is dumplings stuffed with ground mutton. Tea is tea. She brought food to us, and we ate.
From time to time a face would peer at us through a darkened window a few yards away. I had the feeling we were being studied by a variety of persons. Eventually the old woman returned to clear the table. She asked if we wanted anyone.
I took a pencil and wrote out a brief note. “Since there is no partridge,” I said, “you might have this given to the sparrow hawk.”
Sparrow Hawk was not exactly a code name for Orlowicz; more a nickname. She seemed to know whom I meant and to be unsurprised by the request. She went away and a while later she returned with another pot of tea.
Through all of this Milan had been nicely silent. But by now I suspect he was getting echoes of the bit of idiocy we’d undergone in Hungary. He said softly in Serbo-Croat, “If we are bundled again into the underpart of some slimy truck-”
“Do not worry,” I said in Polish.
“I am not worried, I am simply determined. At this very moment there are guns trained on us. Did you know that?”
“No, but I’m not surprised.”
“Nor am I. In their place I would do the same. Still, it is tiresome. I have told you how guns play upon my nerves. From where I am sitting, I can see a blackened gun barrel at the mouth of a knothole in the wall behind you. Do not turn, the idiot might shoot. I wish I were in Savnik.”
We nursed that pot of tepid tea for three quarters of an hour. Then the woman came out and led us into yet another back room and down a flight of stairs to a dank basement. There she turned us over to a very young man wearing a very false beard. “You will come with me,” he said, and an accurate prediction it was, for we did.
He led us through a maze of subterranean tunnels that led me to conclude that the word “underground,” in Krakow, was taken very literally. We emerged either half a mile away or right back where we started – it was impossible to guess, with all the twists and turns the tunnels had taken. We went up a short flight of steps, down a hallway, up two more flights of steps, and paused in front of a door upon which our false-bearded escort duly knocked.
The door opened, and there was Tadeusz.
In good, clear American he said, “Evan, you son of a bitch, it’s really you, isn’t it?” and pulled me inside, and motioned Milan in after me, and nodded reassuringly to our escort, and closed the door, and punched playfully at my shoulder, and without further preliminaries filled three small glasses with clear Polish vodka.
“To Poland,” he said, “citadel of culture, home of Chopin and Paderewski and Copernicus, land of beautiful lakes and forests, and to all the stupid Polacks all over the world, long may they wave.”
He was a most unusual man. He was, in appearance, the sort of tall, gaunt, blond, dreamy-eyed young Pole who plays upon the piano in a Swiss mountain resort while quietly dying of tuberculosis. Appearances could hardly be more deceiving. I had met him in New York, where he appeared occasionally on fund-raising and propaganda missions that took him to Polish communities throughout the world. For three weeks he lived in my apartment, sleeping in my bed, sometimes alone, more often with any of several Negro and Puerto Rican girls with whom he would fall hopelessly in love for two or three days, after which time his love would burn out and the girls would return to the streets from whence they had come.
He was a fervent Polish Nationalist who despised the overwhelming majority of his countrymen. He was a Christian who hated churches and clergymen, a Socialist who loathed Russia and China, a devout pacifist with an astonishing capacity for ruthless violence. He smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, drank enormous quantities of vodka, and fornicated whenever given the opportunity.
He said, “Evan, how many Polacks does it take to change a light bulb? Five – one to hold the bulb and four to turn the ladder. Evan, how do you tell the groom at a Polish wedding? He’s the one in the clean bowling shirt. Evan, how do you keep a Polish girl from screwing? Marry her!”
He roared, I laughed, and Milan stood around looking politely puzzled. Tadeusz told half a dozen more Polish jokes, then came abruptly to a halt. “But you have been traveling and need refreshment. Are you hungry?”
“We ate at the cafe. But we need to bathe and shave, and I will also need fresh clothing for both of us and a roll of adhesive tape.”
“Of course,” Tadeusz said.
After the bath and the shave, after I’d used fresh tape to affix the silly packets once again to various portions of myself, after I had dressed again in clean clothing, I felt, if not like a new man, at least like a much-improved version of the old one. While Milan bathed I sat in the front room with Tadeusz and we talked about friends in America.
“So,” he said at length, “you have come to Krakow. Business in Poland, or is this merely a way station?”
“You will want transportation, eh? Where do you go next? West Germany, perhaps?”
His eyebrows shot up. “You are taking Milan Butec to Lithuania?”
“Evan, please. Even a dumb Polack can count past ten without taking off his shoes. I know the man has left Yugoslavia. I know what he looks like. I know a wig when I see one, especially so crude a wig. It’s as obvious as the beard on that young moron who fetched you here. You don’t have to worry about me. Why, he was one of my boyhood heroes! And I respect him now more than ever. But Lithuania! Polacks are stupid enough, but you would take him among the crazy Litvaks?”