“I call this piece, Among the Widows.”
Viktor hands his sketch done in black charcoal to Professor Grabski. The teacher scrutinizes the lines of apron strings wrapped twice around the body of a fatigued looking woman opening a shoddy door. The angles of her face are heavy, especially at the edges of her eyes.
A memory floods Viktor’s mind as if he’d just sketched the woman’s fingers wrapped around the doorknob yesterday. He imagines what it’s like to view the piece before him through the professor’s eyes. The door opens to nothingness. Viktor knows what waits on the other side of the plank of wood that acts as a flimsy refuge for the woman.
The whites of his eyes burn as he presses them together to slow the trauma that prepares to ooze from his tear ducts. Viktor is a man now, and men do not cry in front of their college professors, at least he’s yet to see any of his classmates do such a thing.
The flashbangs come like this, all bright and deafening when he least expects it.
Viktor taps his fingers on his ribcage with the staccato of a machine gun while he waits. His throat is a trench barricaded with barbed wire that he dare not pass through unless necessary. The fear that his words will be torn apart like flesh inhibits his ability to speak.
Viktor stands at attention, with his arms rigid by his sides awaiting his critique and further orders from Mr. Grabski. The professor mumbles under his breath, audible only to Viktor.
He is not a stranger to silence, but hearing the noises leave the professor’s mouth shakes his concentration. Moments like this where he cannot tell the difference between past and present rattle Viktor’s sense of consciousness. Once, he went without speaking for nine months straight, only communicating through art and hand gestures. Speaking freely has been an adjustment for him and so he relies on the strokes of his pencil and the brittle shards of his charcoal to communicate because it is a familiar haven.
Viktor’s mother once told him that silence could be mistaken for weakness. It's an adage he struggles to let go of now. He doesn't want his classmates or professor to find him weak because of the sanctuary of quietude he once lived in. It was this place in his life where he survived simply because of his silence. It's impossible for him to not connect the two.
Viktor gasps as Mr. Grabski’s hand smudges the drawing.
“Please, sir! It blurs easily if you’re not careful.”
Panic covers Viktor’s face in crimson for talking out of turn.
“I’m so sorry. Sir, forgive me for my harsh tone.”
The professor is too wrapped up in the strokes and lines of the intricate image. It’s as if he’s reading a story where each blending of charcoal is a sonnet made up of life and death. Viktor watches Mr. Grabski as he translates what’s being said on the heavy piece of paper.
“Your use of lines is impressive, that’s difficult to accomplish with charcoal. The way that the architecture forks here, at the hinges of the door– it’s heavy. I see the weight of what’s on the other side. It alludes to something pressing in on the woman, and yet there’s nothing there, just white space. What’s below her tells an entirely different story.”
Viktor has been careful with his words since the day he drew his mother’s hands.
“If only mother hadn’t opened the door… ”
Professor Grabski nods. Many came to Poland with mouths full of secrets, tight-lipped, as if they’d been chased from Russia with pitchforks. The professor knows this and so he does not press the interpretation of what is beyond the door.
“Where’s your papa, Viktor?”
Parts of his latibule was in shambles before he and his mother even took the women in. His art supplies came in the form of smokey pieces of scorched wood that the bombings left behind. Between the makeshift charcoal and his imagination, his mother slid pieces of used parchment paper down through the floorboards so that he and the others could communicate through written word.
Viktor begged his mother to send the refugees to the church.
“They can seek asylum there. What can we do for them now that papa is gone?”
He watched as his mother loosened and re-tied her apron strings, her face firm and indignant. She wasn’t the kind of mother to use her tongue to cut others up, but the kind that would use her words to lap up any sadness as if it were her last meal. She’d consume their hurt and harbor it within her so that it couldn’t damage another ever again
“Viktor, if a church can be a sanctuary, why not a home? We pray here do we not? We love one another without judgment. We made a vow to protect one another through sickness and health and that goes for these women. They have no one but you and I, my boy. We don’t need your father, you’re here.”
He relinquished the argument that by taking in a dozen women to hide from the enemy they’d be putting themselves at risk. His mama was right, the room under the floorboards was as much a sanctuary from the war as any church in the town.
When his papa was captured by the enemy Viktor knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d be found too. He was just a boy then. He and the widows developed a love for the darkness and accepted that silence was what it would take to survive.
They were nyctophiliacs, hidden away, forced into finding comfort in the obsidian shadows. They were left to rely on faith that the other wouldn’t dare make a sound.
He gestures to the bottom of the sketch where women stand huddled under the floorboard beneath his mother’s feet. Grime and dust appear heavy on the wool of their smocks from months of hiding. His own face is a self-portrait that he doesn’t recall sketching. The jerky lines around him show that he is on edge, ready to barter with his mother’s urge to be the tutelary for them.
“He was killed for being a traitor to our country. Hiding the enemy was one of his crimes, leaving my mother a widow was the other.”
Professor Grabski heightens the clarity of his words and delivers them like a sermon on a bleak Sunday morning.
“The war cost us everything.”
Viktor stares at the mix of grief and stoicism in his mother’s eyes. If he could draw her again, she’d be among the widows with a smile of pride. He’d be at the door barricading the sanctuary where they remained safe, together.
“What happened to your mother and the widows?”
A flashback of the last words Viktor’s mother spoke to him lodge themselves into his windpipe.
She told him, “To do nothing in the face of oppression is the least humane thing one can choose, Viktor. To show love to those who need it the most is the true revolution, and my boy, there would be no ‘we’ without ‘you and I’. That is the true meaning of providing sanctuary, whether we live or die, it doesn't matter. It matters how we rise, even if it’s in silence.”
“The soldiers killed my mother. But the widows... I helped them escape.”
Of all the times he’d wished to had broken their vow of silence, it was when his mother opened that door. It should have been him, but she wasn’t afraid of the enemy the way that he was.
The professor nods as if it’s a story he’s heard a million times over. For the first time he looks up at Viktor with condolences tucked into the folds of his weathered face.
“My home is gone, and so is my mother. A home– that can be replaced. But my mother, she was my last sanctuary.”
Viktor allows the roaring sound of grief to erupt from his body. He prays that the noises his body makes will travel far so that all will know that his mother was loved.
“No my boy, you still have your mind and your art. You don’t have to speak. You can tell the whole world with pencil strokes about how a mother loved her son. How a neighbor became a revolutionist by allowing you to stand among the widows.”
Viktor knows that dead air is easy enough to breathe if he wants to continue to live. He tucks the sketch into his portfolio and thinks of the other pictures and stories he’ll tell about his mother and the widows. Even if he never speaks another word his soft strokes of charcoal will provide refuge to those coming out of the dark.