A thousand stars burn in the sky,
As I trek this barren land.
Soldiers crawl the earth behind,
The lands they tread all damned.
I’m the sole survivor left,
The one the foe set free
Blood sprayed the wooden floors
While I – just I – could flee.
No breath in terror, weighed down with child,
I stumble through a world defiled
Where cinders of war drift past my skin,
My emaciated form still soaked in sin.
My hand lets go What Might Have Been;
In this war-torn land, no one can win.
We were trapped in a church.
Dusky light filtered through latticed windows, illuminating wooden pews where women, children, and elders crowded, their voices a hum in my ears, their breath heating the air on my arms, my throat, my ankles.
The Red Army was outside. Any second the soldiers would pour in, and I was right by the door – I would be the first to meet them, but there was no space to retreat. Hundreds of us crammed in here, where we became a medley of uneven breathing and shuffling feet.
A wide-eyed girl stared up at me from where she clutched her mama’s skirts, hair straying from her loose braid. Her mother gripped an older woman’s hand, possibly her mother, and the old woman was clasping the bodice of her dress and praying loudly, her wrinkled lips moving in a frantic – Save my daughter, my granddaughter, save us, save me, save…
But they wouldn’t cut us down in here, would they? Not in a church. Surely not in a…
But we’d heard of the atrocities committed: atrocities became the norm in the aftermath of war when raging victors rampaged through surrendered towns.
What are civilians when they belong to the other side? When our brothers, fathers, sons, and lovers slaughtered their soldiers, what army wouldn’t want vengeance? Or was it bloodlust? Or perhaps it was something else altogether, something greater than they, higher than us, something wicked that leaked into our bones from some vicious underworld.
Someone knocked into me – a girl my age, slender, her pale wisps of hair a flutter over her brow, her eyes glazed over, teeth gnawing on her nails. Sweat dribbled down my own temples and my ankles ached.
They always ached now, when my pregnant belly weighed heavily on my bladder… and on my heart, because this child might never know its father.
This was my penance for giving in to his hands in my hair and his lips on mine. I still felt the grass crinkling under our moving bodies, its prickling against my skin along with him, our passion and sweat entwining – but I didn’t regret it. I only regretted that he never came back. Like the rest, he’d gone off to war and I might never know what happened to him, might never find him again. The thought of never feeling his touch again eludes me, because he’d been so alive against me, wildflowers brushing against my cheeks, his hands pressing my hair into the soil, his mouth on – but I shouldn’t be thinking of this in a church.
Someone was sobbing to my left but I didn’t look. Another was coughing. Others were praying, a murmur of rising panic that thrummed in my ears as the pounding on the doors escalated – throb throb throb. People mashed themselves back toward the altar. I was shoved forward by the mass piled behind me.
Giving up, I pushed myself away from the writhing bodies and up against the wall instead, its cool surface under my blood-hot cheek. I pressed, feverish, against the wall of God’s house. I’m a sinner, I thought, carrying a child out of wedlock, daydreaming of my illicit lover.
Fists pounded on the barricaded door.
Why should I be saved?
Cries rose from the crowd.
Please, God, please, my plea rose with the rest: the grandmother’s, the mother’s, the child’s, incoherent and frenetic.
The girl beside me wept.
The door banged open. I swung away too slowly, too clumsy. It rammed into my shoulders, knocking me back against the wall, my feet slipping. I fell to my knees, my kneecaps smacked hard on the floor. My hands covered my belly, grasping–oh, God, please.
Cries and screams echoed around the church. Everyone recoiled as the soldiers jammed themselves inside. One strode right by where I knelt. The muzzle of his machine gun passed right near my cheek, then he turned, swung it toward me, and froze.
Please, I begged with my eyes, because my mouth wouldn’t work. Please please–
His gaze dropped to my belly as I cradled it.
The other soldiers were shouting, the people screaming.
He lifted his gun and pushed nearer to me–and grabbed my arm. He hauled me up and shoved me out the door into blazing sunlight that reflected off the glittering water surrounding the church. “Get the hell out of here!” he shouted – and shoved me again.
I stumbled forward. Behind him, the other soldiers were lifting their machine guns. The cries escalated into shrieks – shots peppered the air. Beyond him I saw the grandmother, mother, daughter, all blossoming with scarlet and collapsing – the soldier’s words were lost in the sound, but his mouth kept moving “Get out of here! Get out of here-”
I spun and ran.
I ran – ran… My feet thundered with my heartbeat. Fast, faster. Faster.
But my battle was only beginning.
I don’t know which church this took place at.
Just that my paternal grandmother was the only survivor.
She recalled that the church was surrounded by water, and about 200 or more civilians were trapped inside with her. She was knocked behind the door when the Soviets kicked it open, and that’s where one of the soldiers saw her and yelled at her to get the hell out, and she did. She fled, the only one spared while everyone else was gunned down.
As to what she did next, here is what I know of my grandmother’s story:
She kept walking across war-torn Europe, pregnant, alone, and living off cigarette butts she scavenged from the ground. That was her diet, how she survived, and her body developed such a dependency on nicotine during that time that years later when a doctor checked her out, he said if she stopped smoking, she would die.
She made it from what was then Prussia to Vienna in time for her child’s birth… which was stillborn according to the doctors, although she never believed it. She swore the baby was alive when he came out, and that the doctors had killed her child. She loathed Vienna ever after because of that, a hatred that endured her entire life.
I’m not sure where she met my grandfather, a Hungarian soldier who towered over her because she was tiny and bird-boned, but they both ended up in a refugee camp and had my father there, then she got pregnant again, and around that time, the members of a church in Houston, Texas pooled together some money to bring one single refugee family over to the States. They created a lottery of a thousand or so families, and my dad’s family, amazingly, was drawn. The church members paid for their trip over, purchased a house for them, Christmas presents… and my grandparents started a new life.
But both had secrets. It’s possible my grandmother may have been Jewish – a Star of David was found among her things after her death in her 90s. My grandfather faked his birth certificate, making himself four years older than he really was, a fact only discovered when my dad and stepmom visited his relatives several years ago. He’d been born illegitimate and raised a bastard, which, back then, accrued an immense amount of stigma and ostracism, making him a tough man with no tolerance for weakness (and scary as crap to me when I was a little girl!). Around the same time that he forged his birth certificate, he also cut off all ties with his family in Hungary, changed his last name, and got married. And what’s really whacked is my grandmother never knew he was four years younger than he’d said he was. I guess I would be freaked, too, though, if I thought I’d married an 18-year-old and he was really 14!
Not that he was fourteen when they married (I don’t think), but he kept his true age from her his entire life.
As to what the truth is – why did he change his age and name, and was she really Jewish? – I don’t know, and more than likely we’ll never find out. Just like my grandmother never found out what happened to her first love, just like I’ll never know which Soviet soldier out of hundreds of thousands spared my grandma’s life, just like we might never know which church it happened at.
My father thought it might have been in Kaliningrad (former Koenigsberg), although I couldn’t find any specific mention of a massacre in a church there, and when I asked one of my friends who thrives on history if he knew of a church where such a massacre in Prussia could have taken place toward the end of World War II, he wrote: “I wouldn’t be surprised, though I can’t name a specific massacre like that. Considering Stalin said ‘only the unborn are innocent’ regarding the treatment of German civilians once the Red Army reached Germany proper I wouldn’t question that it happened. But there was so much violence at the period, unless it was particularly barbaric it wouldn’t stand out. There were refugee ships being sunk with thousands of dead, dwarfing the death tolls of the Titanic and Lusitania combined. The SS did massacres like this on both fronts too. Konigsberg was all but razed to the ground, so it’s a possible candidate. But in the chaos and revenge of postwar Germany, it would be hard to stand out…”
Life is cheap in times of war, and it’s scary when I think that some people are predicting we’re entering another phase of destruction, based on historical patterns and the current direction global events are steering the world in. It feels like everything is spiraling out of control and the powers that be aren’t listening to the voices of the people. Hostility is on the rise between opposing groups, factions, and cultures when need for solidarity is more essential than ever.
It sometimes feels beyond my power, but the more I look at actual stories, the more it becomes apparent that massive movements begin with a single person, at a local level, with one soldier deciding ‘I’m going to save this one girl’, one church deciding ‘we’re going to save one family’, one nation deciding ‘we’re going to welcome outsiders’, giving refuge to those fleeing from war-ravaged lands.
It starts with a single person standing up and saying s/he cares, and it grows with each additional person demanding that those who have the power to change things do so, until there are hundreds, thousands – millions of voices saying ‘We will not stand for it.’ The common woman’s power is in unity, in our voice, in civil disobedience when it’s called for, and that power fails when we don’t add ours to what we believe in. The more people that stand up, the greater the chance those in power will listen. Like in my previous blog post about the women in 1943 Berlin who protested to get their Jewish husbands back in the face of soldiers with machine guns. Sitting back in hopeless silence never accomplished anything. Just look at how many Germans were silent during the war.
Thinking back on my grandma’s story makes me wonder now if there’s any church in the States that has raised funds to bring over a family from, for example, Syria, to offer them a chance at a new life.
In fact, rather than offer safe haven, the United States has elected a president promising to build a wall. Our social media is inundated with expressions of hate and intolerance. Any day now, something could spark a major conflict.
I, for one, don’t want that spark thrown while I’m on this earth.
As long as I can, I will try to advocate love and acceptance and add my name to causes I believe in, even if it’s only through petitions that might reach the right people, or through supporting organizations attempting to make a difference. If anyone else wants to join in, I’m linking some petitions below (as I’ve been doing in my past few blog posts) and also added a link to a list of human rights organizations for anyone wants to add their voice or support to some cause in the hope of saving something – anything – in the face of the world’s abuse.
“Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.” – Grace Paley
And I have more news – writerly stuff from my written repertoire! Brace yourselves for a flippant fairy tale, a dark romantic fantasy (or maybe not romantic so much as a what-the-heck-happened-there story), and a dystopian sci-fi about futuristic mutants with wings fighting a rigid regime, all coming out (God willing) in December! If anyone’s interested in an advance reader’s copy of one of them, e-mail me at email@example.com
My overlord forged me into a pawn taught to fight, to detect poisons, and to disconnect my soul. Now, in a land where our spurious peace is at an end, I am a concocted lie – princess, decoy, murderess, spy – with only one truth left: greater loyalty to my family than my country. I play the overlord’s heartless daughter to save their lives, but in so doing, I condemn my entire nation to an alliance that will destroy it.
Then a ruthless foe kidnaps me for his own agenda. I need to escape to alleviate the coming disaster, but my every attempt fails – and the stakes keep rising. I’m falling in love with my silver-haired captor, making it harder to fight him. More and more die for my deception, making it harder to believe in. And the ever spirits in the spirit realm keep sending me back from the dead, making me realize that more than my family’s lives hang in the balance, and not only the spirit of my people will break if I fail.
But I am Alynah Commonborn – what’s left of her – and I will not fail.
I was taken by shadows in the night when I was six and broken.
My father put me back together again, into something made of blood, sweat, and fight, but I broke again when the Coalition mutated us and gave us all wings with unexpected powers. Spiders swarmed from our professor’s wings, and I was lost, lost, lost. My new scarlet wings blazed into crimson flame, and it was over. Prof was dead and I was on the run with my dark boy-fantasy, the smirky guy who always watched me from scarred eyes.
Now I’m falling unexpectedly hard for my guy with his wings of knives while he and I wage an underground war against Coalition spies and mutants to find out why they mutated us – and to stop them from doing it again-
But I’m struggling to hold everything together: to protect my best friend, trust my secretive father, appease divisive rebellion members, and hold myself together—
To hold anything at all when my hands are slippery with blood.
Why did Prince Blandsome have to kiss me and break my curse? I was perfectly happy as a cat.
Now people expect me to behave like a human princess again, and princesses don’t do anything interesting like dangling off curtains with their teeth or pouncing on people’s faces when they’re sleeping.
But then – hope! – a peculiar rat-killing piper tells me I can find my happy-ever-after by undoing my curse, which seems not to have been undone entirely.
So I make a very (un)princessly decision:
I decide this curse of mine had better start running for its life.
Links to petitions:
- Tell tech companies: Publicly refuse to build Trump’s Muslim registry now
- Proposed law would charge protesters with terrorism
- Protect the Great Barrier Reef
- Save animals:
- Requests in general for wildlife / environmental protections
- Tell the Obama administration: Keep Big Oil off our public lands in Alaska
- Tell Congress: Stop the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline!
- Tell President Obama To Expand His Conservation Legacy
- Request the Trump Administration protect environment and wildlife
- Defend the Endangered Species Act
- Insist the White House protect endangered animals from extremists in Congress
- Protect Wildlife from Drilling
- Standing Rock