A Faraway Land
The pigeon was not one to sit around and pine, and so the day after he saw the beautiful Anielica Hetmanska up on Old Baldy Hill, he went to talk to her father.
The Pigeon’s village was two hills and three valleys away, and he came upon her only by Providence, or “by chance,” as some would start to say after the communists and their half-attempts at secularization.
He happened to be visiting his older brother, Jakub, who was living at the old sheep camp and tending the Hetmanski flock through the summer; she happened to be running an errand for the Fates and her father to drop off a bottle of his special herbal ovine fertility concoction. Ordinarily, of course, a maiden meeting with a bachelor alone — and over the matter of ovine procreation no less — would be considered verboten or nilzya or whatever the Polish equivalent was before the Nazis and the Soviets routed the language and appropriated all the words for forbiddenness. But the Pigeon’s brother, Jakub, was a simpleton, a gentle simpleton, and the risk of Anielica twisting an ankle in the hike was greater than any danger posed by Jakub.
The Pigeon happened to be climbing up the side of the hill just as the sun was sliding down, and when he spotted his brother talking to the girl in front of the old sheep hut, he stopped flat in his shadow and ducked behind a tree to watch. The breeze was blowing from behind, and he couldn’t make out a word of what they were saying, but he could see his brother talking and bulging his eyes. He was used to his brother’s way of speaking by now, and he was only reminded of it when he saw him talking to strangers. Jakub spoke with a clenched jaw, his lips spreading and puckering around an impenetrable grate of teeth, which, along with the lack of pauses in his thoughts, created a low, buzzing monotone. The only inflection to his words came through his eyes, which bugged out when there was a word he wanted to stress, then quickly receded. It was very much like a radio left on and stuck at the edge of a station: annoying at first, but quite easy to ignore after the first twenty years or so.
If you were not used to talking to him, the common stance was to lean backward, one foot pointed to the side, looking for an end to the loop of monologue that never came, finally reaching in and snapping one of his sentences in half before muttering a quick good-bye and making an escape. But the girl was not like this at all. In fact, she seemed to be leaning in toward Jakub, her nodding chin following his every word, her parted lips anticipating what he would say next with what very closely resembled interest and pleasure.
She was absolutely stunning. She had strong legs and high cheekbones, a blood-and-milk complexion and Cupid’s-bow lips, and the Pigeon was suddenly full of admiration for his brother for having the courage to stand there and have an ordinary conversation with such a beautiful creature. He crouched behind the pine tree, watching them for perhaps half an hour, and he started toward the hut only once she was on her way down the other side of the hill.
“Who was that?”
His brother stared wistfully at the empty crest of the hill long after she had disappeared.
“. . . That, oh, that, that is the angel, she brought me medicine, for the sheep, not for me, and she also brought me some fresh bread, you know, she comes to visit me very often, she is the daughter of Pan Hetmanski, she brought me herbs for his sheep, so they will have more sheep, and I didn’t see you coming, how long were you watching . . .” Jakub breathed in deeply through his teeth.
“The angel? What do you mean, ‘the angel’?” The Pigeon and the rest of the family were always vigilant for signs of his brother’s simpleness turning into something more worrying.
“. . . if I knew you were there I would have introduced you, even though she came to see me, she comes to see me often, and ‘the angel’ is her name — Anielica — and she is Pan Hetmanski’s daughter, she is going to come again sometime soon, she said, maybe she will bring the herbs or bread or . . .”
“She is very beautiful,” the Pigeon said, and he brought the milk pail of Sunday dinner into the sheep hut and set it down on the bench. His brother followed.
“. . . maybe a book, sometimes she reads to me, yes, she is very beautiful, isn’t she, more beautiful than mama, don’t tell mama that, but do tell mama that I like the socks she knitted me, it is very cold up here this summer, not during the day but at night, and Pan Hetmanski brought extra blankets up last week, he is very nice, and they have two dozen sheep, but it is strange that they do not live in a nicer house, it is just a hut over in Half-Village, nothing special, our house is much nicer, I think . . .”
Sometimes the talking could go on forever.
The thing was to act, and the Pigeon knew just what to do.
Throughout history, from medieval workshops to loft rehabs in the E.U., we Poles have always been known by our zlote raczki, our golden hands. The ability to fix wagons and computers, to construct Enigma machines and homemade wedding cakes, to erect village churches and American skyscrapers all without ever opening a book or applying for permits or drafting a blueprint. And since courting a beautiful girl by using a full range of body parts has only recently become acceptable, in the spring of 1939 the Pigeon made the solemn decision to court Anielica through his hands. Specifically, he vowed to turn her parents’ modest hut into the envy of the twenty-seven other inhabitants of Half-Village, into a dwelling that would elicit hosannas-in-the-highest every time they passed.
Besides Jakub, the Pigeon had eight sisters, who had taught him the importance of a clean shirt and a shave, and so the next morning before dawn, he donned his church clothes, borrowed his father’s wedding shoes, and made the long walk over two hills and three valleys to the Hetmanski family door. He knocked and waited patiently on the modest path, overgrown with weeds and muddy with the runoff from the mountain, until Pan Hetmanski finally appeared at the door.
“Excuse me for bothering you so early in the morning, Pan, but I was wondering if Pan wouldn’t mind if I made some improvements to Pan’s house. For free, of course.”
“You want to make improvements to my house?”
“And what did you say your name was?”
“Everyone calls me the Pigeon.”
Pan Hetmanski stood in his substantial nightshirt and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And exactly what improvements did you have in mind?”
“Well, take this path for one, it could be paved . . . and there could be a garden wall to keep out the Gypsies . . . and glass could be put in these windows . . . and a new tin roof, perhaps.”
Pan Hetmanski suppressed a smirk. “For free, you say.” Another man might have been offended rather than amused, but Pan Hetmanski was a highlander and not a farmer, and thus more concerned with enjoying his plot of land than with working it. Besides, there