It Is the Breath That Spins the Living

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

After weeks spent at a hospital, I am back at the sanatorium in Rabka. Rabka is a two-hour ride on a public bus, 50 kilometers south from Krakow where we live. My parents warned me, they might not be able to visit every Sunday. I sobbed asking why I had to go. The city, filled with cars and factories, caused my asthma. (The aluminum factory, whose production was exported to the Soviet Union but left us with polluted air and river, was the worst, I’ve overheard my parents say.) But Rabka, surrounded by mountains and mineral water springs, healed my lungs.

I am in second grade and have to go now to a school with kids I don’t know. They all wheeze and cough spitting green phlegm into wrinkled sheets of toilet paper. To get better means to be separated from my parents and my little sister for months. It means to be woken up at night to pee in a paper cup even though you don’t have to pee. It means to have metal needles forced into your veins and watch blood seep into glass flasks. You have to swallow pills of various sizes that get stuck in your throat, and then a nurse pinches your nose to make you swallow. It means to have for breakfast burnt oatmeal or cream of wheat with thick milk skins that make you gag, unlike at home where parents make sure your cereal is cooked smoothly. It means to have to keep your voice low, especially during meals. That’s why pork chops and mashed potatoes (never as creamy as mom’s) get cold, while I form letters with my fingers spelling out words. It’s actually fun to converse this way but takes a long time to say what I want to say.

When Sunday comes, parents visit. Not all kids have visitors. Many live too far to travel. I think that maybe some don’t even have parents, because nobody ever visits them. When my parents do and bring me an orange or a jar of strawberries with sugar, I eat it right away, as it would be unkind to show off. Today is Sunday. I wear a dress my mom made before I had to leave. She stayed up all night sewing hems by hand, embroidering flowers on the skirt. I am waiting for her to show up and a nurse to call my name. It’s mom’s turn to visit while father stays home with my sister. I know that no children under 12 years of age are allowed to visit, and she’s only 4. There are rules everywhere: at home, at school, even at workplace, and they have to be followed, my parents say when I ask them to come with Nika. I miss her. They bring her drawings, which I tape to the wall above my metal bed. So I do not expect my sister to show up. I am waiting for mom. I braided my hair the way she did at home: two tight braids over my ears. I sit in a chair in the cafeteria, hands on my lap, and wait for my name to be called. During lunch a nurse makes an announcement that there are no more visitors. The peach I am eating is sweet and juicy. I stop chewing. Juice drips from my fingers. It drips on the white flowers embroidered on the dress. Stains make my dress look ugly. I know I should stop crying, or I will get an asthma attack. I try to stop, and hold my breath. I can’t breathe.

In the evening, I am told to watch a little girl sitting at my table finish her dinner. I hate lazanki; they smell bad. Just looking at a plate of pasta baked with cabbage and onions makes me nauseous. I didn’t eat my lazanki. I tell the girl to stop crying and to finish her dinner. She does. She’s still crying when she gets up from the table. Then she throws up. A nurse comes and says the girl has a fever. I don’t want to clean up. I start to cry.

Next time my father visits, he hands me a small wicker basket. I know it’s the Easter basket, but hardly pay attention to it. Father explains that mom couldn’t come last week. Since it was Sunday, the post office was closed and they couldn’t place a call. I nod and say I remember that nobody in our apartment building has a telephone, and yes, I do want to go outside. The outside is overgrown with grass. There are already wildflowers blooming. While we walk, I collect the colorful flowers into a bouquet. For mom. We reach a fence. The grounds of the sanatorium complex are enclosed with a metal wire fence. I haven’t stepped outside the fence for a long time now. There are school and medical buildings on the fenced grounds just for us, kids with bad lungs. We are to be protected from the outside germs, we are told, but I think that it is the town’s people who don’t want to have sick children walking on their streets. I plaster my face to the metal wires woven into uneven diamonds, and watch families on the outside. My dad takes my hand, and we walk along the fence. We stop by a big hole.

“I noticed it this morning,” he says. “Let’s go.”

“We can’t do that,” I say in a low voice. “We are not allowed to leave the grounds.” I am surprised he doesn’t know that.

“I know that we are not supposed to.” He looks at me and pauses. “But sometimes rules need to be broken.”

My lower lip starts to quiver. I feel my throat tighten. I blink. I don’t want to cry.

“Don’t cry, coreczka. Don’t cry!” My father kneels on the grass and wipes my wet cheeks with his open hand.

I am always told what a good girl I am. When nurses tell me to stop crying, I cover my mouth with my hands, duck under the sheets, and try hard to stop. Sometimes I just can’t. I cry too much. I cry at the drop of a hat, my mom says. That’s why dad can’t even raise his voice at me, she says. I try to stop crying now. My father’s face becomes all blurry.

“Follow me,” he says gently. He squats by the hole in the fence and puts his right leg through, wriggles his body then pulls his left leg, and then he’s on the other side. Crouching, he puts the basket on the grass and reaches his hand for me. I come closer to the torn fence.

“Watch your head,” he says and puts his hand on top of my head pushing slightly.

The gap in the fence is large enough for me to just bend my neck and walk through. And I do.

Smoothing my braids, he asks if I want to carry the basket. I do. He takes my other hand in his, and we quickly cross the street. We walk through a park.

“You know where a church in Rabka is?” I say in disbelief when a stone tower with a cross appears on the plaza.

There are families walking together: fathers in suits and ties, mothers in high heels and flower dresses reprimanding children to walk straight, to stop kicking rocks with their church shoes, and to stop teasing their sister. It’s a regular Sunday afternoon. I start to skip. I giggle. Swinging the basket, I ask if mom and Nika have a basket too, and gently touch the painted hard boiled eggs nestled in the folds of the crocheted napkin.

“I like pisanki they made for me,” I say. “And I love the sugar lamb in our basket.”

The piece of kielbasa wrapped in paper smells like holidays and makes me hungry. I ask if we are going to eat it after it gets blessed. Together? I skip and sigh, take a deep breath, exhale. I like how the breathing feels. It feels easy. It doesn’t happen often. I take another deep breath, just to make sure I can really do it, and hold the air before letting it out without wheezing. Freely.


by Edytta A. Wojnar


Edytta A. Wojnar.JPG


Edytta A. Wojnar emigrated from Poland and now lives with her husband and children in northern New Jersey. Her poems have appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Narrative Northeast, Shot Glass Journal, Adanna, and other journals. She is the author of chapbooks Stories Her Hands Tell (2013) and Here and There (2014) published by Finishing Line Press.


Appears In

Issue 2

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