It was like waking from a nightmare, an endless dream of fire and blood. Two miles of guns flashed behind my eyelids, six score horses screamed and reared, and men ran. The musket ball ripped through my belly again and again, and another split Jarosław’s head like an over-ripe melon. There was night, many nights, and there were miles and thorns and rocks and the slow easiness that heralded my death.
That was when the pain came, drowning me, searing me, consuming me. There were dreams at first, as though the battle had never ended, but as the pain grew, it blotted out all else, and I had at least a little peace of mind while my body was being torn asunder. There were voices as well, swelling and ebbing wordlessly beneath the roaring in my ears. I heard my brothers, daughters, wife, whispering amidst the death cries of soldiers and students, a low murmur like the echoes in a hallway in a place I had once known, and a few I could not recognize, speaking soft and low as though they feared to disturb my fitful dreams.
I received the impression of sharp steel, frenzy, and still more blood, and the horror and pain faded for a while to allow me to rest.
When I woke, it was like being born. My mind caught hold of a distant light, seized it, and pursued it. The waking itself was painful, but not nearly so painful as the dreaming, relief mixed with the ache of consciousness, and so I followed the light upward.
It led me into a candlelit room that smelled of wood smoke and earth. The light, though dim, shone redly through my closed eyelids, flickering from the draft of an open window. Outside, some flowering plant added its scent to the air. For a moment, I could hear a gentle click-and-swish from across the room, but it stopped after a few repetitions, and I heard instead the rustle of voluminous skirts. A cool, feather-soft hand came to rest on my arm, and two fingers crossed my forehead delicately.
“You are awake,” said a woman’s voice.
I opened my eyes to flat darkness, and I was confused until I realized that I was looking at a low, raftered ceiling of time-blackened wood. A lurch of nausea accompanied the turning of my head, so I closed my eyes again for a moment. The hand on my arm tightened carefully.
“It will pass,” the voice reassured. “How do you feel?”
Some sound passed my lips that was not quite language, half a question and half a moan.
“Relax,” the voice commanded, and I did.
“I’m dead,” I heard myself say, and then, nonsensically: “I saw me die.”
A door shut somewhere, and through the open window, a breeze carried the sound of sheep. The hands smoothed back my hair. I shivered.
“I don’t doubt that you saw death,” the voice said softly, “but not your own. What do you remember?”
The sound of the guns came back to me, and the screams of dying men and horses. I swallowed a scream of my own.
“I was shot.”
“And your leg shattered, yes, from the inside, I would think. Your horse fell on you, perhaps. Then you came here, somehow – dragged yourself. All things for a reason, Panie Lojek. I have done for you what I could.”
I moved each leg in turn, but did not feel even a twinge. I frowned.
“What do you feel?”
“It’s...” The word eluded me.
“Cold? I’ll put more wood on the fire.”
I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut even more tightly.
There was a moment of silence, until another door shut, and I could hear other voices from another room.
“Yes.” The skirts rustled again, and the fire crackled with the addition of more fuel. I opened my eyes.
She was not quite what I had expected. Her hair was plaited into a thick brown braid, streaked with grey, that hung over her shoulder and almost to her knees. She was dressed in the rural fashion, in a white blouse cinched in by an embroidered bodice, numerous skirts that fell to the mid-calf, and laced boots of felt and leather. A long red kerchief covered her head. She was not quite old enough to be my mother, but close. Sharp grey eyes looked at me with mingled apprehension and amusement, framed with an intricate network of thin lines. Thin, paper-skinned hands smoothed her apron, and one slipped into a hidden pocket to produce my wallet.
“You and I have a hard talk ahead of us,” she said as she held it out to me.
I tripped the clasp and unfolded the wallet, checking quickly that all of the portraits were still in place. My fingers lingered for a moment on the thin pane of glass that separated me from my wife’s cut-paper profile.
“My things,” I said suddenly, sitting up and swinging my legs over the side of the bed. Someone had dressed me in undyed linen, a simple but well-made blouse and loose trousers that tied at my waist. Across the room, atop a heavy wooden trunk, I spied my boots and a small stack of the things that had been in my pockets. There was no sign of my clothing.
“My things, where are my things? I have to go. How long has it been? I have to get home.”
The woman folded her hands in front of her and shook her head. “Since you arrived? Five days. You woke once before, but I doubt you would remember. Your clothes were ruined and have been burned. Your arms are safe. You’ll forgive me, but I thought it might be wise to keep you away from muskets until I could be sure of your mental state. Battle is not kind to minds.”
“I have to get home,” I said again and made at once for the trunk to see what remained of my belongings.
“Sit down, Jerzy,” she said. Immediately, the urgency abated, and I moved back to the bed to sit. It never occurred to me to disobey.
“You may go home, but not for a long time yet. It depends entirely on you, but it may be as long as a year. It may be longer. And when you have heard me out, you may not wish to go. For now, you will listen.”
A sick feeling began to grow inside me as she moved to sit beside me on the edge of the bed and took my hand between her palms.
“Jerzy Lojek, my name is Aniela, and I promise you that you are not dead. And I am sorry, but you are not alive, either.”