Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

“The Trees of Kleinsaltz” by Andrew J. Borkowski

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“The Trees of Kleinsaltz” by Andrew J. Borkowski

Thomas Allen Publishers and Cormorant Books have teamed up to create cStories, Canada’s first ebook singles program. This unique offering allows readers to download great Canadian short fiction for only $1.99 a story — while supporting independent book stores at the same time. For more information and a chance to win a fully loaded iPad 3, enter the cStories Get into Our Shorts contest.

To celebrate the launch of cStories, this week Open Book is serializing the story "The Trees of Kleinsaltz" by Andrew J. Borkowski (Copernicus Avenue, Cormorant Books). In this final installment, the old man reveals the secret behind the apple tree that never bears any fruit. Don't forget to check out cStories.ca to find this story and other great ebook singles by Canadian authors.

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“The Trees of Kleinsaltz” by Andrew J. Borkowski

One early April morning, six years after their deportation, the inhabitants of the Ulica 1 Maja in Kleinsaltz, Lower Silesia, woke to find my great uncle, Stefan Mienkiewicz, hacking furiously at the apple tree in his garden. Stefan was a small man in a family of giants. But on this day he appeared fantastical and large in his anger, suspenders flailing at his waist like withered limbs.

Nie, nie, wujku,” my uncles and cousins called. “Fruit or no, it’s a fine tree, and so few of them left hereabouts. Look, it’s almost in bloom.”

But no one stopped him. This was his tree, his garden. And he was Stefan Mienkiewicz.

WHEN THE GERMANS CAME in the autumn of 1941, Stefan was reeve of Baranica, the marsh settlement founded by our family. The real leader of the community was my grandfather, Aleksander Mienkiewicz, who was heir to the family estate and landlord of the entire district. The partisans had derailed a train a kilometre or two to the north, and an example had to be made. Aleksander was the obvious choice. So Stefan and the rest of our clan watched as my grandfather and seven of his ten sons were machine-gunned into a mass grave with their wives and children by an SS firing squad along with four hundred and fifty others. After the shooting stopped, the villagers stood still, under a spell, until my uncle turned from the pit’s edge, looked the German commander in the eye, and said, “Can we go now? It looks like a good day coming. The barley won’t harvest itself.”

Stefan spent the next three years in a delicate balancing act. Every day, the German brigades demanded food and fuel. Every night, foraging parties from various partisan factions did the same. Both sides threatened to kill Stefan and everyone else in Baranica if they caught him supplying the others. His talent for shuffling livestock, like so many beads on an abacus, became a legend. There was a story of how he tricked a German quartermaster into requisitioning the same horse twice. There were tales of the mock partisans he trained to steal back food. “He has the power of loaves and fishes,” the villagers said.

The miracles ended after the Red Army arrived. Disturbing reports filtered through from other settlements. Someone had gone to Karstwo and found the place empty, all things left where people had dropped them — a broom, a dish rag, a prayer book. The same scene was discovered at Ludowo and at Sarensk. The people of Baranica shuddered with a single thought: Siberia.

“That’s the Russian way,” some whispered. “Come in the night and drag you off without warning.”

“It’s true,” countered others. “But it’s better than the German way. They take you out and shoot you.”

No one was surprised on the day a convoy of trucks arrived in Baranica and an NKVD man told what remained of the Mienkiewiczes and the other families that they had half an hour to gather whatever possessions they could carry. “You are going on a long journey,” he said. “To a better place.”

The young men spoke of resistance but Stefan scoffed at them.

“And what will you drive the Bolsheviks away with?” he asked. “Bulrushes?”

The Russians herded them into trucks and drove them to the stockyards at Minsk. They were loaded onto freight cars and shipped across their broken country to a station bearing the name Kleinsaltz. After they disembarked, more Russians marched them along cobblestone streets that spilled through the town like dry creek beds. It was a small city built around what was left of a steel plant. But at its outskirts, peninsulas of houses thrust into meadows churned black by shells and tank treads. At the top of one of these, a sergeant said, “Here you are. Now go pick yourselves a new home.”

The Russians were taking away the Mienkiewicz’s marshes and giving them these strange German lowlands in exchange. The full meaning of it struck them only as they stood at the thresholds of the houses. Most had already been sacked by Russian soldiers; in a few, radios played a mix of military music and sombre, German-language bulletins. Cups of cold tea of sat among stale kuchen left half-eaten on porcelain plates. Curtains, stirring at opened windows, gave an impression that they had been brushed by their fleeing German owners only seconds before.

Any deeper reflections were lost in the unbundling of lives. Houses flickered with strange lightning as children fingered electric switches. Other homes roared with the marvel of indoor plumbing. The shapes of lives were decided in half steps, by the speed with which a son could leap a fence and lay a claim. Brothers fought with brothers and mothers with daughters for the sake of a pantry or extra bed.

“Give up that mansion, old one. Everybody knows your daughters and their children are dead! They’re in the pit back at Baranica.”

“No, cholera. There’s still my brother’s family.”

“From Pitowa? Ha! They’re in the bottom of some Russian salt mine by now! Give it up, Grandpa!”

Stefan stilled these quarrels and, in the months that followed, he made sure the families put down roots in the strange new soil. He organized the men into gangs whose labour he sold in order to buy seeds and implements on the black market. He used the first few dollars from relatives in the West to bribe the Russian sappers into clearing the fields of mines. The crops that followed were abundant, with the earth enriched by so much burning (and, the men joked, by the rot of so many corpses). The fields were collectivized. Then the steel plant lurched back to life, taking many of the town away from the land for the first time in generations.

It struck them as curious that Stefan, who had always been more of an administrator than a farmer, chose this moment to become so passionate about his garden. He garnished it with a magnificence of sunflowers and hollyhocks, which, all summer long, were alive with bees from the hives of his nephew, Stanislaus Komarowski. In its first season it produced enough beans, tomatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, peas, and squash to feed himself and his wife through most of a winter.

The apple tree in his front garden was his main obsession. Each year it yielded a cloud of blossom and a thick canopy of leaf but no fruit. As time weighed more heavily on my great uncle’s hands, his desire for a harvest of apples, for the taste of their tart, cool flesh, grew to a mania.

He went to the libraries of Wrocław and Pozna´n and returned with the knowledge of blights and scales. He spent his days in the branches of the apple tree searching for signs of shot-hole, canker, or stinking smut. He inspected limbs twig by twig for some wound, perhaps the gouge of a German bullet, one that had served as a portal for disease. His shed became a dispensary for sulphates, hydrates, and arsenates that killed several chickens and a dog, but had no effect on the barren tree. As for my great uncle, the effort of climbing, the inhalation of the chemicals, and the long nights of study took their toll.

“What the Germans and the Russians could not do to Stefan Mienkiewicz,” his neighbours said, “that tree will.”

One day, as he sat pondering the distribution of scaffold branches around the apple tree’s leader trunk, a voice addressed him in German.

Güten tag. Is this the gentleman’s house?”

Jawhol!” answered Stefan, making out the wizened face that peered through the sunflower blossoms by the fence.

“I am curious,” the stranger said. “You see, before the war, this was my house.”

My great uncle was not a man of poetic gestures, but he knew that if any good were to be done the old German that day, it would have to be done by him.

“Of course, of course,” he said. “Let me show you around.”

He spent the afternoon reacquainting the visitor with his town, his fields, and his street. Shuffling the dirt with oversized, broken shoes, the old man recited the names of former occupants as he passed each house. When they came to the big stucco dwelling occupied by the Myczek family, he choked.

“This was the house of my parents. I was born in there.”

The Myczeks had lost six cousins to the firing squad at Baranica. There was no sense in knocking.

My great uncle placed a hand on the German’s shoulder. “You will dine with us and stay the night.”

A turkey was slaughtered, and the old man was served as fine a meal as anyone on the street had eaten since before the war. Afterwards, Stefan opened a bottle of rectified spiritus vodka and the two men sat drinking and talking late into the night. The German told him of his family’s expulsion from the town, the fate of those who resisted, the holding camps in East Germany.

“Such is the world we have known,” countered my great uncle, “that the only comfort I can give you are stories of our own suffering.” And he told the German his family’s story. “But it’s best to forget these things,” he concluded. “Now we have new lives. It’s a new world.”

The old German shook his head. “It is easier for you.” He waved a hand at a window that overlooked the garden. “You have been given paradise. It has been taken from us.”

“It’s true,” ventured Stefan. “This is good land. But if the Russians would give us back our swamps and you these plains, we would accept.” Then he tried to bridge the chasm between them with a joke. “And if this is a paradise, it’s a strange one whose trees bear no fruit.”

The old man’s hollow eyes followed Stefan’s to the apple tree shivering in moonlight.

“Three years I’ve worked on that tree. I’ve tried every remedy and still no apples.”

The gnarled hands unclenched for a moment in the German’s lap. “Yes, fruit trees can be difficult here. They are meant for higher ground than this.”

Stefan nodded. “I’ve learned about that. But I wondered if it’s something in the earth, some pest buried so deep it can’t be detected.”

“My people worked this land for two hundred years,” said the German. “We know its tricks.”

“And the tree? You have the answer to that?”

“Yes. I have the answer. Why shouldn’t I share it with you? It won’t do us much good in Leipzig. Tomorrow, before I go, I’ll write out my little remedy.”

The next morning, Stefan woke early, excited at the prospect of a cure for the tree. But the German was gone. His bed had not been slept in. There was a note on the kitchen table. Stefan took it up and read:

When my sons return to Kleinsaltz and hang your sons from the branches of the apple tree in my garden, then it will bear fruit.

— R. Richter

The note had scarcely settled back on the table before Stefan Mienkiewicz was searching for his axe. Moments after finding it, he attacked the tree’s trunk, his thinning hair turned upwards in gossamer horns. His clansmen watched dumbstruck until the tree fell and Stefan trudged back to his bed, chilled and delirious. After one of his sons found the note and had it read to the crowd by a cousin who knew German, the men went to their sheds and cellars and returned with axes in hand. They set upon the stump and roots, hacking and sawing until all trace of the tree was gone from Stefan’s garden. That night they burned the branches, brush, stump, and roots on the meadow behind the house. Never, the men said afterwards, had a fire thrown such heat.

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Andrew J. Borkowski was born and raised in Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village. He studied Journalism and English Literature at Carleton University. As a freelance journalist, he has published articles in the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Forum, Quill & Quire, TV Guide, and the Los Angeles Times. His short fiction has appeared in Grain, The New Quarterly, and in Storyteller magazine. His short story “Twelve Versions of Lech,” which appears in Copernicus Avenue, was nominated for the 2007 Writer’s Trust/McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize and published in Journey Prize Stories 19.

 

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