UNDER THE FLOORS OF CHURCHES
By Libby Copa
She had not wanted him to come with her to the wedding in the first place. That morning as Maren lay naked from the waist up and in a pair of his pajama pants, he sat on the edge of their bed getting dressed, and he told her he would not be going with her now because he had to work. He said he wouldn’t have known anyone at the reception anyway. If Maren had hopes, Gerek would have been letting her down.
She dumped out the large suitcase they had packed together the night before and left Gerek’s clothes in a mess on the bed. She began to collect her things around the apartment. She went back and forth between the hall and the room gathering all of her belongings that she could before she had to leave for the three-day celebration.
She hated their apartment. It had been Gerek’s place first, so most of the furnishings were his and anything that she left she did not think she would miss. The apartment had originally been built to be twice as large, but the Communists had made everything smaller and less convenient and so the apartments had been cut in half. Now the place was all hall and kitchen with one room that acted as everything else. It was a horseshoe and a hassle to move around in when another person was present. She missed her old building next to the market on Ducha Świętego, but she hadn’t wanted to live there with Gerek and have him mix with her old memories of those rooms. The only thing she liked in this apartment was the wood floor and the high ceilings in the old tradition.
When her cousin Lukasz had called to tell Maren he had met the girl he was going to marry, she thought he was just being fanciful, for he had also once assumed he was going to marry her—though they had been only five and believed the whole world revolved around their mothers and the days they’d take them to the islands to feed the swans. Now when he called some twenty years later, she still assumed he was acting on impulses that came with not expecting anything to ever change. Lukasz had told Maren that he had proposed to Irena a week after meeting her. Maren thought that this one too would pass like all his other women, but here she was six months later in the middle of the warmest summer in years, getting ready to make her way to his wedding.
She locked up the apartment and quietly went down the stairs, dragging two large suitcases hoping to not be confronted by her neighbor. Maren worked predominantly out of their apartment and as a distraction she caught the city’s stray cats in a trap she made and brought them to the shelter to have them euthanized. She had been doing this for many years. There had been an outbreak in Wrocław City of strays and viral infections in the felines from the citizens’ lack of responsibility for their animals. They infected what was healthy and pure. For Maren it was more humane to kill them than to watch them suffer. She also felt a slight power over people with each cat she caught; she would take their mistakes and make them right.
She had recently captured a dirty orange tabby that must have weighed twenty-five pounds and whose fur was so matted it had dreadlocks. Just as she was throwing it into her car, a blue Maluch she’d had for years, an old man came running out of her building yelling, “That is my cat! That is my Tiger!” She tried to play innocent and sincere. “Oh, he is? Could I take him in to be fixed? It’s free.” And the old man looked her over. She knew he saw her only as this petite punk girl with long black hair in high lace up boots who lived in the apartment above him, the girl who played her music loud out the open window, the girl who had moved in with a quiet man who wore suits to work. The old man shrugged, “Alright.” Maren had taken her neighbor’s cat and never brought it back. She was glad this would be the last time she would have to avoid him.
When she was safely out of her building, she walked down the block to where she had found a parking spot the night before when she got back from the pub. Maren stuffed one suitcase in the trunk and the other in the backseat. She sped off in her Maluch, hoping it wouldn’t take her as long to get out of Wrocław as it would to cover the distance to the Highlands.
Maren was in fact not really Lukasz’s cousin. Their families had been so interconnected through marriage, they were not exactly sure what the name was for how they were related. They had been nine together at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and ten together at the end of the Soviet Union; they had learned to drive together; they had graduated from secondary school in the same class. They just thought of each other as close family because they didn’t know how it could be any other way.
As Maren went farther from the cities, she passed through all the small towns that still looked so ready for war. When she arrived in the Highlands it was very late. The bride’s family’s grand house was dark, and Maren considered sleeping in the small backseat of her car so as not to have to wake everyone. Although she knew two people could uncomfortably sleep in the back of her dependable transport, and that with her suitcase moved to the front seats, her own body would have just enough room for a rough night, she couldn’t imagine waking up in the morning alone back there. It was so black in the country at night and since no one left a light on for her outside she was just feeling her way along the path toward the porch steps when someone spoke, “You’re late,” and Maren gasped.
“Sorry,” he said.
She composed herself quickly. “You should be.”
Lukasz was seated on the porch dangling his legs over the side into the shrubs.
“I am not late.”
“I needed you here earlier.”
“Need and want are different things.” Maren sat down next to her old friend and they smoked a cigarette together.
“When Irena’s grandmother speaks to me, I can hardly understand a word she says, her accent is so thick.”
They looked out across the property, which Maren could only assume was a large rolling field. In the distance she could see a few lamps still on inside a house on a hill.
“Where’s your fellow?” Lukasz asked.
“He couldn’t make it,” she told him.
“He’s in marketing.”
In the morning Maren ate fresh bagels that the women in Irena’s family had risen early to make. She smoked on the porch, drank tea and played Frisbee with the little ones as everyone else got ready for the ceremony and what would follow. Gerek called her cell phone just before she left for the church but since she was rejecting him, she refused to answer. In the car she checked the message he had left; he explained that he was at a bookstore in their city where he was waiting for the next bus to take him to their apartment and wanted to know if she would like anything. She thought it was a sweet gesture, and yet did not call him back because she had left him and he hadn’t noticed.
The silence in churches, the ones that echo with history of war, with all that request for forgiveness built up for centuries, always made her feel as if she had done something wrong, as if religion was not about worship, but only about guilt. That is no way to praise God, she thought.
Lukasz had shaved off his mohawk for this day. He was wearing a grey suit with a black tie. He appeared a different man than the one Maren had known all her life. Looking him over the only thing that reminded her of the rebel kid that snuck her in clubs and stole liquor from the convenience store around the corner from her old apartment was his heavy military boots that thudded against the limestone.
Lukasz and Maren stood at the entryway of the old church and waited to greet the witnesses as they arrived. It reminded both of them a bit too much of Lukasz’s mother’s funeral three years earlier. They had worn jeans and Iggy Pop and The Stooges concert tee shirts to the service because in their mourning, they hadn’t changed their clothes in days.
Lukasz was now in this church, dressed in attire that Gerek wore every day to the office, and she didn’t like the comparison. She was wearing a lightweight peach dress that she had made many years ago; it fastened with small buttons all the way down the front. She wore her hair tied into a braid down her back. Lukasz was nervous and drank from a flask he kept in his inside coat pocket.
“If Gerek arrived right now and asked you to marry him— this could be a double wedding.” Lukasz reached over and unclasped the top button of Maren’s dress. Then took another drink from the tin. His cheeks were flushed and becoming too obvious, so Maren took a tip of the drink and then slipped it away into her purse.
“I would not do something with so much haste.”
“I never knew you to be so unspontaneous.”
“Haste and spontaneity are different things.”
Lukasz bent down to retie the laces of his boots. “What if I asked you to run away right now to the Ukraine? We could start a gypsy rock band.” Lukasz reached up and unfastened the last two buttons at the hem of her summer dress.
Maren turned her knee outward. “Neither of us speaks Ukrainian.”
“Not spontaneous and not romantic.”
“We are at your wedding,” Maren crowed. Lukasz stood and straightened himself.
“A thousand years from now when they find your bones buried under the floors of a church just like this one, do you want them to be able to say ‘See, her heart was made of stone and the cold ground has kept it still so perfectly intact’?”
During the nuptials Maren sat between the members of Lukasz’s band who had their rightful spots in the wedding replaced with cousins of Irena’s. The last time they had been together, many months ago, Maren had attempted to make a nice dinner for them after they had been on tour for so long. Nothing had worked out as planned. Everything either burned or was undercooked. Maren had been lax on her measurements. She had guessed. She was careless. But they had all eaten it, tried to smile, and told her it was good. Lukasz had slipped his arm around the lower part of her back as she washed the dishes and declared that he believed it was about the act of trying to fill your family that mattered and not necessarily the quality of the food.
“Our money is still on you,” Honok whispered so the other wedding guests would not hear.
“You mustn’t say things like that anymore,” Maren responded. She did not take her eyes off the couple in front of the priest.
“I don’t think he even likes her,” Olés chimed in.
“Boys,” Maren scolded and with that the men went silent.
Maren thought Irena was beautiful in a normal kind of way. She also saw how very young she was: smelling of lavender, wearing white without shame, agreeing to marry a man she only slightly knew. Maren had taken no interest in her particulars. She had hardly considered Irena. None of it mattered other than she was the one who would be blessed beside Lukasz for the rest of his life.
Lukasz’ father Andros had come over to Maren’s apartment a few days after Lukasz had called and informed her that Irena had accepted his proposal. She had just moved in with Gerek, and Andros brought her a very small green cabinet as a house-warming gift. She had placed it in her kitchen and used it to keep her teas in. It was something Maren now knew she would regret not taking with her yesterday when she left.
“She’s a pleasant girl,” Andros had told her of Irena. “Very quiet and unexpected, but she will make a nice house for him.” He tried to fix the water temperature in her kitchen sink that no matter how long it ran, never flowed hot. “Do you think that it’s too soon for them to get married?”
“Do you?” she asked.
“I think you either know about someone or you don’t.”
Maren looked for Andros seated in the front pew of the church. She could see the side of his face and that his eyes were wet.
Lukasz’s grandfather sang on his behalf during the ceremony, the traditional song that argued with Irena’s family to make her his bride. Lukasz and Irena knelt on the marriage cloth and prayed. Irena placed the embroidered headscarf over her hair, symbolizing the old custom of a woman’s union to a man. When the guests threw the coins for the new bride and groom to collect, prophesizing their prosperity, Maren slid a zloty under her shoe and kept it there until everyone walked away.
That night Lukasz’s younger cousin, Elzbieta, made out with Irena’s fifty year old uncle Josef, Lukasz’s father became sick from eating too much smoked sheep cheese, and the second cousins decided to start a band and replaced the musical entertainment for the evening. As expected, everyone drank too much. Olés stayed in the kitchen with Irena’s grandmother who kept crying over the beauty of the day and the war over half a century before. They threaded a garland of dried mushrooms. “The only way soldiers can hurt you is if you have something they can take away,” Maren heard the old woman tell Olés, or that is what it sounded like to her.
Irena tore her gown on the dance floor and asked Maren if she could fix it for her before tomorrow. Lukasz brought Maren upstairs to the bedroom where his bride had hung her dress when she had changed into a more versatile outfit.
“What is the urgency in getting this fixed tonight? Is she planning on marrying someone else tomorrow?”
Lukasz opened the window and leaned on the sill and smoked a cigarette as Maren sat on the floor against the bed and saw to the white gown. “The photographer is coming again tomorrow.”
“Well aren’t you lucky that you happen to have a seamstress right on hand.”
“I am very lucky.”
Maren and Lukasz were used to being in the quietest of rooms together. Maren recalled one night in particular when they sat around her apartment and he played guitar and she sewed patches on his jacket and together they watched a Danish soft-core dwarf porn thriller.
“I know what you are thinking about,” Lukasz said looking over at her on the floor.
“No you don’t. You couldn’t possibly.”
“But I do.”
Maren snuggled down on the basement floor between Honok and Olés; the air mattress hissed and shifted under their joint weight. After having slept so many consecutive nights beside Gerek, she realized that it was such a unique thing to have to adjust to the sound of someone different asleep beside her. She had to remind herself she liked only the idea of him.
Maren did not sleep long and at dawn, she rose and went up to the kitchen to help with breakfast. The only ones awake were Irena’s grandmother and Lukasz. Neither had been to bed that night and on the kitchen table were many loaves of bread. They were adding flour to a new mixture in the bowl.
“May I help?” she asked.
“Oh, but my love, your dough never rises,” Lukasz said.
Maren watched the two of them knead the mixture of ingredients and then begin to twist it into pretzel designs on the pan. The old woman buttered the tops and Lukasz began to dust the tray with salt. It reminded Maren of how it had snowed on that one New Year’s Eve. Lukasz and his band had made it back from Budapest in time for him to meet her near the square to watch the fireworks. As they walked together toward the islands, the lights exploding in the sky around them, the first of that winter’s snow began to fall in large flakes that never touched the ground. Lukasz had called them “wishing flakes” and they just seemed to stay afloat in the air, in a dance that wasn’t ending. They made love on the balcony wearing their winter coats.
Maren went to the stove and stirred the sauerkraut soup that those who still remained at the house would use to cure their hangovers. A white shorthaired cat entered the kitchen and rubbed against the old lady’s leg. Maren glanced down at it.
“Maren,” Lukasz said firmly. And she looked to him. He shook his head. “Not that one.” She hated how he could read her thoughts. “Are you still doing that?”
This was a July heat like no other and no one had complained during the ceremony in the church but now everyone had removed their wedding wear for the least amount of clothing. Maren sat around in the yard with Lukasz’s father. The sun beat down. They drank lemonade and tequila. Lukasz and Irena returned from being photographed at the church for the second time. Maren could tell he was tired. Irena’s family buzzed around him, vying for his attention.
“It is strange that my wife is not here for this. It almost doesn’t seem real,” Andros said, resting his drink between his bare knees, letting the perspiration the ice made on the glass run off onto his skin. “It’s not how I pictured it, if a father can really imagine the day his son starts his own family. I never thought Lukasz’s day would be like this—so luxurious. It’s not his style.” Maren put her hand atop his.
“I saw you yesterday with tears in your eyes.”
“I remembered what it was like when I found his mother,” Andros told her.
“How did it feel?”
“Like nothing I will ever be able to put into words.” Andros brought her hand up to his lips and kissed her fingers. “You and Lukasz were always getting into trouble together. But you made each other happy. There was no crime in that. Do you remember what it was like?”
“It was just like this, except now he is married.”
Andros laughed. “Tell me, is there still a man in your life?”
Maren smiled at the innocence or the cunning in the question. She told him, “There is always a man in my life.”
After she ate a large lunch of barszcz with meat pancakes she went down to the cool and damp of the basement and lay on the air mattress. Lukasz soon came and crawled in next to her. He was the most familiar beside her.
“I want to come home,” he told her.
“I don’t live in that apartment anymore. You know that,” She said, turning away on her side.
“That’s not what I mean.”
“I know what you mean.”
He curled his body around hers. “No one will ever be you.”
“I’m being sweet.”
“I am too tired for sweet.”
“You know, I’m really getting sick of you rejecting me Maren.” They lay there together. Lukasz ran his hands through her hair. He attempted to make a few small braids with her long locks.
When they were teenagers Lukasz had been with Maren when she found the litter of kittens behind Saint Marie-Magdalene Church. He watched her stuff them into a bag and throw them into the waters of the Odra.
“That was really cruel,” Lukasz had said with a dark sadness, dragging his feet behind Maren on the way back to his house.
“Yes, well, it is for the best,” she had told him.
Maren thought of how it never felt as if Lukasz judged her for anything that she had ever done. He observed the actions of her life and reflected them. Maren pulled her hair from his hands and moved it over her shoulder.
“The only reason you have been with any of those other men is because they will not love you exactly as you want,” Lukasz told her, as he rolled away so their backs faced one another. “Then you leave them using it as an excuse.”
“Don’t you start to say hurtful things to me,” Maren warned.
“I’ll mean every word of it,” Lukasz said, and he sighed deeply. “But don’t be mad for keeps.”
Maren decided to call Gerek. Usually she left without much explanation, but she was curious to see if he could convince her to come back to him.
“Have you noticed?” she asked. She was sitting on the front steps of the house. There was a continual flow of people around her, the twenty or so guests still celebrating, going in and out of doors, kids chasing each other around the yard.
“I’ve noticed but I don’t understand.” Gerek sounded sad.
“I can’t explain it to you.” It wasn’t that she couldn’t, it was that she didn’t want to.
She imagined Gerek sitting in the apartment looking at the things she left behind. Reminders of her. She wondered how long he would keep them.
“It’s like you don’t know how to talk to me,” she told him.
“We are talking now.” She could tell he already missed her.
She said, “Not like this.”
“I don’t understand.”
When Maren hung up the phone she watched as Irena left the picnic area where her family gathered together and walked toward her. She hoped the bride was just going into the house. She didn’t know what they would say to one another.
“Lukasz said you liked cats,” was what Irena spoke when she stopped in front of Maren, and she knew that Lukasz was watching the interaction between them and smirking. “There is something I should show you.”
Maren followed Irena across the grassy knolls away from the house. She saw how untested she really was. How little she suspected anything about the man she married. She saw Irena’s ignorance and her kindness. In time she would become more self-serving. After being with Lukasz for a while she’d learn his sense of adventure was always at someone else’s expense.
The rundown house was shaded by a wooded area in the hills. It was small like the cottages made of spruce trees that were once so popular. The panes from the windows had long been knocked out by salvagers, or weather, or little kids with rocks. They stepped inside the empty structure and a few cats immediately darted out in all directions. When they entered the hollowed area that would have been someone’s main living quarters once, they saw other cats that stayed on their perches, six or seven of them, a few kittens. The purring was astonishing.
“When I was a little girl my grandfather took me here to get a kitten of my own,” Irena told Maren. “Maybe it would be nice for me to get one for Lukasz.” She looked around. “That one there.” She pointed to a grey kitten hardly old enough to leave its mother on the railingless stairs that led up to a high open loft. The feline darted up into the second story of the old house when Irena moved toward it. Maren wondered what diseases they were being exposed to by just being there. Irena started to climb the stairs to go after the kitten. She walked carefully up the steps, trying not to touch the walls covered with grit. The cat Irena wanted eyed both of them now from the loft. Its coat was almost silver.
Irena went down on her hands and knees when she reached the last step. She called softly to the kitten trying to coax it to her. She was twenty feet off the ground. The loft floor had been partially eaten away. The dust and grime from years fell through the cracks and holes as the wood creaked and groaned under Irena’s movements across the old panels.
When the floorboard broke under her, Irena was able to catch herself with her arms on the awning boards that remained. Her sandals slipped off her feet and landed on the floor below her with a heavy thud that set the cats darting off in all directions. Maren looked at Irena’s feet kicking as if she were in water and it would help keep her from going under.
“Maren, do something!”
But she didn’t. She just stood there looking at the two halves of the new wife of her oldest lover, anticipating that she would not be able to hold her own weight much longer. Maren thought of it as a mercy killing. She knew what it was like to love Lukasz and this would be better for her.
Maren watched the rest of Irena come through the hole in the floor. Her neck hit ground first and the remainder of her body followed. She landed on her back. Her legs were perfectly straight out; one of her arms was crooked and broken under her body. Her eyes were open.
Lukasz was playing cards with Irena’s uncles on the patio when Maren came and pulled him away. She could not speak. She did not like that he could be unbearably hurt by what had happened. It wasn’t until she had to tell him of his bride’s death that she began to worry he may have actually loved Irena. Lukasz put his hands on her elbows and moved in close to her when he realized something was wrong.
“Tell me. What is it?”
“Please don’t be angry with me.” The thought that this could make him finally pull away from her was suddenly overwhelming.
“What happened?” Lukasz said. He stared her down.
Maren shook her head.
“What did you do Maren?”
They went across the field together.
Lukasz looked at Irena’s corpse for a long time. He sat beside her cross-legged on the dirt-layered ground. He closed her eyes and then closed his own and tried to cry. Maren smoked a cigarette in the open doorway. She thought about the whole house burning down. When he finally spoke he said, “Couldn’t you have just taken me up on one of my other offers?”
“That’s not funny,” Maren scolded him.
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” Lukasz said sullenly.
“Yes you were.”
Maren wondered if there was a way they could get rid of the body and forget about it. Immediately following her thought Lukasz said, “There was a well out front. We could put her in there. It would look like she fell.”
“She did fall.”
Maren took Irena’s arms and Lukasz, her legs, and they carried the body outside. Irena didn’t drop into the long tube of the brick well easily. She was crumpled and strange parts of her stuck out of the water that was not deep enough to completely cover her thirty feet below. An elbow. A knee.
They were both hot and sticky as they walked slowly back to the main house together. Maren tied her hair onto the top of her head and hiked her skirt up. Lukasz removed his shirt and lay it over his shoulder. The sun had just begun to think of going down. Before they reached the house Lukasz put his arm out in front of Maren and they stopped in the long grass.
“Something good must come from this,” he said softly, almost pleading.
“I believe it will,” she told him.
“Do you really?”
They paused for just a moment longer to breathe in the open air, and then they continued back to the reception.
About the Author:
Libby Copa has degrees from Prescott College and Hamline University. Her work has appeared in publications across the country, including Hanging Loose, Dash, Matter, and Quail Bell Magazine. She loves a good adventure.