All Tata had left of Mama was the piano. She had loved the piano. It was her prize possession and she had played it every day.
I had accidentally killed my Mama by coming into the world, so I never knew her. But we had her piano. Everyday Papa polished it, kept it so shiny that sometimes as I practised I imagined I could see her reflection in the surface, as if she was sitting beside me, teaching me.
“This is all we have now of Mama,” Tata would say, swiping the cloth over it one last time, “and we must look after her.”
So when Tata heard the word on the wireless, “Wojny!” – War, he looked at the piano with concern. Not at me.
It is not easy to move a piano. Papa would need help. For three days he worked – he screwed a piece of wood along the back, and one along the front under the keyboard, and two braces at each end. There were handles, that he wrapped in rags, and when he was satisfied, Papa smiled at me. “We won’t leave her behind. When we need to go, she comes too.”
It didn’t take long for Tata to grow concerned. Each day he would read the newspaper and mutter and frown to himself, and then at night, after I was in bed, he’d turn on his wireless and listen to the crackling broadcasts, while he paced back and forth in our little płaski over Madam Bobineski’s hat shop.
Tata didn’t like Madam Bobineski. She was our landlady, and although Tata was careful to pay her the rent on time every week, she would look down at us, as if we were rats in her roof, and not tenants. Tata said it was because we were Jewish. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I could tell he was worried. He said that Madam Bobineski would turn us in as soon as she could, even if she lost her rent.
Then one night Tata woke me up in the middle of the night. “Come on, dziewczynka, time to go.” He whispered, shaking my shoulder. I had never been up so late, and the world looked very different in the dark. I noticed that Mama’s piano was gone from the sitting room, and everything else was packed up or covered in sheets.
Outside in the road, he set me down on the cobbles in front of Madam Bobineski’s store. The faces on the mannequins in the window looked strange in the dark, despite their lovely hats. Tata’s friend, Mr Stolarz was standing in the street, leaning on Mama’s piano. I wanted Tata to carry me, but he said, “nie, Agata. You are a big girl, you must walk. Besides, Tata must carry Mama.” And with that, he silently indicated to Mr Stolarz, and the two men bent down, one at each end of Mama’s piano. “Raz, dwa, trzy…” Tata counted, and then both he and Mr Stolarz rose, the handles wrapped in rags resting on their shoulders and the piano suspended between them.
I don’t know how long we walked. A long time. At dawn they set the piano down in the middle of the forest. The two men groaned as they stretched their muscles. Then Tata shook Mr Stolarz hand. “Dziękuję moim przyjacielem,” he thanked him. Mr Stolarz said he’d be back in a few days, and we would move further away from the village.
Tata made me a little bed under Mama’s keyboard, and I feel asleep, but I woke up very hungry. Tata said he had food, and we ate together in the forest. He had a canteen that he filled with water from the stream, and this is how we camped. We had no fire, as Tata said it might attract unwanted attention, but it wasn’t so cold, and Tata had brought blankets.
But Mr Stolarz didn’t return when he promised and for days Tata would pace back and forth in the wood. Without his wireless and his newspaper, Tata had no idea what was happening in the world, and he couldn’t move Mama without someone to help. Days turned to weeks. We had to risk lighting a fire – only small, and Tata always put out after we had cooked. Tata had to fish from the stream. At first he was terrible. We had to eat snails instead that he boiled over the fire. We didn’t do too badly, but it was getting colder, and I knew my Tata was worried. I asked when we could go back home, but Tata just laughed, “Why do you want to go home, Agata? We are having a family adventure!”
But finally, one morning, Tata said he would go and investigate where Mr Stolarz had gotten too. He promised he’d be back, and left me with the what was left of our food and the canteen, matches, and the blankets. He’d only be half a day, he insisted, he’d be home by nightfall at the latest, and made me promise to be a good girl while he was gone.
“Kocham Cie malenka,” he smiled, taking my face in his hands. “Być dobrym.”
I could hear Mama singing, through the trees. I hadn’t heard her play for so long that at first I didn’t know what I was hearing, but as I looked up from the stream I knew it had to be her. Random notes at first, and then a song. Was it Tata? He had been gone for days, and but now he had returned and I was not there, and he was playing Mama to beckon me.
I slung the canteen strap over my arm and raced through the woods, birds scattering as I disturbed them. “Tata, Tata,” I called with relief, as the heavy bottle bounced against my leg.
But as I burst into the clearing where we had left Mama, it was not Tata who made her sing, but another man. A soldier, with a gun slung over his shoulder. He heard me come and turned. He saw me and smiled at me, “Oh, hello,” he grinned. I thought I saw Mama’s face reflection in her veneer. “Is this yours?” he asked, touching Mama’s keys again. “Do you play?”
I shyly went to the piano and touched the piano’s side, protectively. “Mama,” I whispered, shyly.
Another soldier appeared, coming out the trees on the far side, laughing, but he stopped when he saw me.
“Who’s that?” he asked, pointing at me.
The man who was getting Mama to play Lullaby of Broadway, grinned at me, “What’s your name?”
I liked him. The music he was getting Mama to play was nothing like what Tata made play She sounded happy; slightly out of tune from her move and living in the woods, but happy. “Agata.” I mumbled, “Agata Dziedzic.”
The first man grinned and turned to his friend, “She’s Agata Dziedzic.”
“Dziedzic…” the second man frowned, “That’s familiar. Wasn’t there that intellectual in the village… what was his name… Aleksy? Aleksy Dziedzic?”
“Tata!” I am excited to hear his name.
The man playing Mama stops playing and frowns, then his softens and his eyes turn sad. “Chodź, mała dziewczynka,” Come on, little girl. He takes my hand, and leads me towards the other man, “Let’s get you somewhere safe.”
I turn back and look at Mama, a piano alone in the forest, and I see her face reflected at me, smiling, and I know she is telling me to go and she will be all right.
A piano alone in the forest.