Pascale looked at the last refugee standing on the platform. The rest of the crowd had been shuffled away by the soldiers. Only this one had somehow remained, wistfully assessing the train as it idled and steamed. Pascale had seen thousands like him, gaunt, hardened, bleak. She glanced at the letter in her lap, a friend from home who had not been able to resist telling her the latest news, then wiped the window to look out again at the lone boy.
He was probably from Poland, judging by his shock of blond hair, his high cheekbones. Typical wreckage of war, stranded now in the closing gap between the Red Army and Allied advances.
A squadron of Dakotas roared overhead toward the American air force base south of town. The refugee looked instinctively for cover as their engines shook the sky. Pascale stared. Something about him reminded her of the faces back home, of her mother's sister, the same look of wariness in a strange land. Pascale was surprised that his desperation could touch her. She had thought her heart numbed by the pain of too many refugees too lost, too needy, too bereft for any help she could give.
The train's whistle blew. The general must be settled in his suite. Steam billowed across the platform. The refugee leaned forward, fists clenched, and his eyes met hers through the window. Pascale knew, in a heartbeat knew, and was on her feet, out the compartment, wrenching open the carriage door, shouting "Come!" over the locomotive's grunting chuff. "Kommen! Przychoc!"
He looked at her outstretched hand.
Pascale gestured. "Przychoc!"
His eyes lit up; he started across the platform. The train began to roll and he quickened. The train was faster. Pascale braced herself on the handrail and leaned out. He ran full tilt for her, greatcoat streaming behind him. Pascale's hand touched his, gripped his sleeve. His fist closed around the handrail and he heaved himself on board, was on the step gasping, pressed against her for a second as he slipped, regained his footing, and now Pascale did know. The train shot free of the platform.
As it gathered speed, the bombed town rushing past them, Pascale found that she was holding onto the refugee's lapel like a police officer onto a ruffian. "Come inside," she told her in Polish.
The refugee stumbled up the steps. Pascale closed the outside door, the woman's breath rasping in the quiet, and took her to the compartment. The woman looked around as if at a palace.
"Sit by the window," Pascale said, careful to keep her word endings masculine until she saw how the woman played her masquerade.
The refugee sat and wrapped her greatcoat around herself, trying to be even smaller and less significant than she was. Pascale settled opposite and, knowing that the others would be returning soon, said urgently, "I don't know how long you'll be able to stay on this train. You'll almost certainly be put off at the next stop. Are you Polish or Russian? Were you a soldier for the Soviets? It's important."
"No," said the refugee. "I am Polish only."
"That's good." Pascale was relieved. "If you were Russian I'd be required to detain you. Are you trying to get back to Poland?"
The young woman gave her a wintry smile. "Poland? Where is that? All that is east is Communist territory."
"Where are you hoping to go?"
"West. Netherlands, France, anywhere that is not here." The woman studied Pascale's uniform. "You are an American soldier?"
"Yes, but I don't fight. I'm a translator in the Women's Army Corps."
"Your Polish is very good."
"Thank you. I also speak German, French, and a little Yiddish." A shadow across the woman's face made Pascale ask, "Are you Jewish?"
"No. That is why I am alive."
They avoided each other's gaze, saying no more as the bleak landscape sped by.
"What is your name?" Pascale asked her at last.
"Witold. Witold Rukowicz."
"Is that your real name?" Pascale asked. It was a man's name and could not be.
"It is what I am called."
That was how she was playing her game. Very well. "This is an American army train, Mr. Rukowicz. I haven't the authority to keep you on board, but I'll get you as far west as I can before they take you off. From there, you should try to find a displaced persons camp."
"Displaced person? That is what I am now?" Witold shook her head. "I will not go to a camp. They will send me back."
"Not everyone is returned."
Witold looked mulish. Pascale knew that look, had seen it through the past months on hundred of people whose desires were being crushed by the policies of governments. She remembered the Russians who had served as forced labor under the Germans, how they had screamed and begged for death as they were herded into trucks for the Red Army exchange points. Her face must have reflected her thoughts, for Witold said, "I know that you are trying to help me."
"These few minutes might be all I can give. The others, my unit, will probably call my lieutenant and have you dealt with."
"You will intercede with him for me?"
"She. Lieutenant Bergman. We're all women."
"Women." Witold's expression was closed. "Perhaps they will be kind."
"They are kind, but they must obey."
"Everyone obeys something." Witold smiled a small, tight smile and looked out the window.
Pascale studied her. Witold had made herself convincing: cropped hair, waistcoat, faded twill trousers, scarred British army ammunition boots, and, beyond these, a gaze of masculine levelness, a lack of eagerness for approval. But Pascale knew this was a woman. Something she had seen in her, something she could hardly name, perhaps from being half Polish herself and knowing the way her aunt and mother looked, how the people at her aunt's church looked, perhaps being what she was, open to women, and when pressed against Witold for that instant on the step, already knowing what a woman's body felt like beneath heavy clothes.
The thought made Pascale hunt for her letter. Most of what had to say was elliptical where it was not censored, but Diana's glee filtered through. Pascale had seen too much to care now about Diana or Edie or anyone back home. The woman in front of her was from a different world. The shadowed look in Witold's eyes, the scars around her wrists from the wire Russians used to bind their prisoners' hands together, told of ordeals terrible past Diana's understanding, past past Pascale's understanding. She wanted to say to her, I know, rest, drop your shield, but what right had she to take away the secret that had kept Witold safe, had kept her alive?
Witold returned Pascale's scrutiny. Coloring slightly, Pascale did not look away.
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