Midafternoon on Christmas Eve, in a Jeep not too far out of Bastogne, I got a flat tire. The Germans had switched all the road signs, and I was lost. It’s a big forest, the Ardennes, and I didn’t even know where the front line was from here, and there was two feet of snow on the ground. A week ago, even just a few days ago, the weather was so bad, we couldn’t fight from the air. No visibility. The fog was terrible, so all we had was our ground defenses, but after the weather cleared, which was just yesterday, our planes took to the air again.
So while I was out there with the tire, there was shelling going on. It was all off in the distance, like a thunderstorm, but I could sure hear it. Rumbling, and boom. Boom. Boom. I figured it was us, you know, the Allies, since I knew we was hitting the bridges to keep the Germans from moving in on Bastogne. I didn’t think I was in any real danger, not really, clear off where I was at, but a flat is a flat, and I could think of better ways to spend a Christmas Eve.
Like at home. As I fought with the lug nuts, I tried to keep myself warm by imagining what my family was doing at that moment. I knew they’d be preparing for the Christmas vigil. Wigilia, Mama and Papa called it. Polish for Vigil. There’d be hay in every corner of the dining room, and under the tablecloth; and Mama’s Baby Jesus would be dressed in red, or maybe gold or white, but I was picturing the deep red of blood, I guess because of the war, you know; and Mama and my sisters Rose, Catherine, and Lizzy would be making wild mushroom soup and herring mops and mizeria and the grayish, sticky potato dumplings my siblings and I always referred to as glue balls, and who knew what else, because you had to serve twelve meatless dishes on Christmas Eve; and Papa and my youngest brother John were no doubt in the barn right now, decorating for the livestock, which Poles believed would be able to talk at midnight.
My older brother Stan was in Australia, and Thomas, the lucky bastard, was living it up on a submarine somewhere on the Mississippi, and I was here in Belgium. But the rest of the family would all be at home right now, observing all the Polish and Catholic rituals they could think of, and that was a lot even before they started adding new ones when the Germans invaded Poland in ‘39 and Mama and Papa lost contact with their family and friends back home. No word, no word, no word. Had they gone into hiding? Were they languishing in one of the Nazi camps, or maybe already dead? Nobody knew. The one thing we could be sure of was that they hadn’t been unaffected. I remember thinking how Mama and Papa had railed all their lives against the Russification of their homeland, and now the Russians were our allies and here I was in Europe fighting the Germans who wanted to eliminate the Jews and preferably all the Poles too, and the world had always been crazy, and it wasn’t getting any better.
Mama and Papa relied, as always, on their traditions and their faith, and they prayed almost constantly, but I could only wish I shared their convictions. I’d tried praying many times, but out here so close to the front lines, faith wasn’t easy. I wasn’t sorry this was where I’d been sent, but there wasn’t much out here in the way of blessings.
The lug nuts were giving me hell because everything was frozen, including my hands, and I was cursing like a sailor—that’s a joke, you know, since I was Army—and at first, I didn’t hear the plane. It was all by itself, and it flew right over me, real low. Just one, you know. I just figured it was American, so I didn’t even look up. But then I heard this whistling, and I sure as hell knew what that was—and I looked up and saw it was a damned Kraut. Why he was dropping ordnance clear over where I was at, I’ll never know, but my heart plunged into my worthless Army boots and I skedaddled away from the jeep as fast as I could. You never saw anyone move so fast. I dived headfirst into the woods just in time for the damn Jeep to get blown to smithereens. Smithereens, I’m telling you. Nothing left but shrapnel and a big hole in the road. I couldn’t believe nothing hit me, I was that close—and deaf? I thought I might never hear again. Who’s to say, if I wouldn’t have got the flat, I mean, if I’d been on the road driving that jeep, that I wouldn’t have got blown up with it? So I guessed there was blessings to be found after all.
But I jolly well kept my fanny in the woods after that. I figured I better stay away from the road, you know. I should’ve never been on that road to start with, I guess, but the road signs were all wrong and some were just gone, and I just didn’t know until it was too late. But there’s reasons for things. I’ve learned that. We just get put where we’re meant to be. That’s God’s plan. Mama’s told us that often enough. You cannot changing God’s plan, she always says.
Anyway I got as far from the road as I could, as fast as I could, staying under the trees. Big pines, mostly, all covered with snow. Lots of cover. Man, it was cold. Snow up to my knees, deeper in spots with all the drifts. I was used to snow, being from Michigan, but this was nuts, and I wasn’t hardly dressed for it. The coats they gave us wouldn’t hardly keep a man warm in October in Michigan, and in Belgium in December they were a real joke. And the boots! Practically everyone had trench foot or frostbite or both. I’d been lucky so far, probably because I was smart enough to order a size up so I could wear a pair of Mama’s crocheted booties inside.
Thinking of Mama and her booties made me want to tear up, but I shook my head and kept going, making my way deeper and deeper into the woods, trying to move fast through the snow, listening to the air and trying to figure out where the hell I was and how I was going to get back to my unit without the jeep, and praying I wouldn’t run into any Germans, because my M-1 just got blown up. I could only hope I was moving away from the front lines and not right into the enemy’s arms. I heard a dog barking somewhere off in the distance, and I was sure it was a scent dog and it was going to find me, and the last thing I wanted was to spend Christmas Eve with German hosts, if you get my drift. I don’t like to use the word panic, but let’s just say I was watching more behind me than in front of me.
And I fell in a damn foxhole. They was everywhere, you know—since the weather was so bad the past couple weeks, whole units had to dig foxholes with dynamite because the ground was too frozen for a shovel—but I wasn’t thinking about that. I never even saw it. A foxhole is only about chest deep, but that’s a long way down if you’re not expecting it. My leg twisted under me something terrible when I hit the bottom, with a pain like I never felt in my life exploding in me like fireworks. You know how it feels when your feet are cold and you slam your baby toe into a coffee table, and the pain shoots all the way through you? Multiply that by your whole leg. In those first moments, I was sure I was going to die out there if the German dogs and their handlers didn’t get me first. A foxhole is just about the size and shape of a grave, if not as deep.
I didn’t want to die. Mama had lost two of us already, first Josie and then Luke, and that was two too many. Three, if you count my sister Emma, who eloped. I saw what it did to Mama, losing her babies. I was about eight when Josie died, and seventeen when Luke did. Mama took it hard both times. We all did, of course, but Mama most of all. And then in ’36 we lost Emma, too, who was Papa’s favorite, though he would’ve never admitted it.
I decided they weren’t going to lose me, too.
I thought about Papa lying on a battlefield in Russian Poland nearly forty years ago with his own broken leg, and I told myself his injury was much worse than mine, and if he was tough enough to survive, then so was I. I wasn’t my papa’s son for nothing.
So I was lying there rocking and gasping and holding my leg and trying to figure out how I was going to get out of the foxhole with it, and wondering how far I would get if I did, because it was a cinch no rescuers was going to show up for me in a wagon like when Papa was hurt—and I heard someone giggle. Yeah, giggle, I’m telling you. And I looked up, and there was this girl looking down at me. There was a girl in the woods, all bundled up like an Eskimo. The sun behind her made it look like she was glowing. There was a big halo around her. Not much over twenty, she had green eyes and a scarf on her head and a basket over her arm like Little Red Riding Hood.
Or a Rusalka. Staring up at her, I remembered Mama’s stories about the green-eyed Polish fairies that lived in forests. Mama said they could suck all a man’s energy and steal his eyes, and lead him to his death. Then I thought, no—it’s the wila who steal their eyes.
All of this ran through my mind in the few seconds the girl and I stared at each other.
She said something in French about thinking I was a bear. I couldn’t speak hardly any French, just cuss words, and I was pretty sure this wasn’t the place for those, though I’d already been cursing a blue streak in English. So I just nodded, and she gestured behind her like she wanted me to follow her.
“My leg,” I said in English, gesturing at it. “I think it’s busted.”
She rattled off a bunch of French.
“Non je parlez vous Francais,” I said, and she laughed like a lunatic. I wondered if maybe she was a lunatic. What was she doing in the woods anyway, so close to the front line? If she wasn’t a Rusalka—and she couldn’t be, I told myself, because they were ghosts, and she was real—then maybe she was a spy. There was plenty of English-speaking Germans around, pretending to be American GIs—at the checkpoints we were always being asked questions about baseball and so on, to make sure we were real Americans—so how could I be sure she wasn’t one of them? But no, I thought, she wasn’t speaking English.
She was still smiling, a crooked smile with big teeth, like I was the funniest thing she’d seen all month. It made me mad. I’m down in this foxhole and this pixie girl is laughing at me.
“Look, damn it, this isn’t funny. Where the hell are we? I need to find my unit.”
“Vous êtes américain?” she asked. “Ou britannique?”
Ah. Something I could answer.
“Américain,” I said, knowing I was slaughtering the accent and not caring.
Still smiling, she shifted her basket to her other arm and reached down to help me out of the foxhole, and I automatically took her hand. The moment our flesh met—it was electric. She gasped and let go as if my touch had burned her. I fell back.
“Il est vrai,” she said in an awed whisper, looking down at her hand and then back at me. “Mon Dieu, il est vrai!”
I knew enough French to know what she was saying, but not what she meant. It’s true, she’d said. My God, it’s true. But—what was true? My French didn’t stretch that far.
“Are you going to get me out of here, or not?” I reached my hand up again, and this time she took it and didn’t let go. I remember being surprised at her strength. She found a branch I could use as a crutch, and we started walking—more stumbling than walking—back the way she had come, following her footprints in the deep snow. I wondered again if maybe she really was a Rusalka, leading me to my death. But anything was better than being led off by Germans.
Anyone who knows snow knows it’s deceiving. The ground under it dips and heaves, and you never know how far down each foot has to go. I’ll tell you, gimping along through the drifts like that, I didn’t feel like much of a soldier. I couldn’t put any weight on my leg, so I had just one good foot and the makeshift crutch, with the bad leg dragging along on the snow with every step. It was slow going. And it hurt. Man, it hurt. I didn’t want her to see how much.
We made our way through the woods like that, not speaking, for what felt like a mile, and I was just glad that based on the sound of things, we were moving away from the front lines. It was starting to get dark when I saw that we were headed for an abandoned-looking little shack of a house tucked way back in the trees. We came up on it from behind, but I could see that the path to the front was barely more than a cart track, two feet deep in snow if it was an inch. I had no idea what road it might lead to, but I could see that nobody had used it all winter. Seeing that little shack made me think of another one of Mama’s old stories, the one about the frog princess, where the young man keeps having to say, “Little house, move on your crooked legs free: Turn your back to the wood, And your front door to me.”
As we approached the cottage, it didn’t turn around, but a frantic woman flung open the door and erupted in a furious torrent of stage-whispered Polish.
I leaned on my crutch and stared, wondering again if I’d been knocked out in the fall and this was all a hallucination.
“Gdzie byłeś?” the woman hissed. “Martwiłam się chory! Nie możesz po prostu iść na spacer do lasu w srodku wojny, jak gdybyśmy byli bezpieczni w domu!”
The girl let go of my arm and moved forward. “Nie, mama! Słyszałem szczekanie psa, i szukać, znalazłam amerykańskiego żołnierza!”
Wait, the French girl was Polish, too?
“Nie słyszałaś bombę?” The woman was half screaming, half whispering. “To było tak blisko, to mogła—”
“Nie, nie, Mama! Ten żołnierz, Niemcy wysadzili jego jeepa!”
I couldn’t believe it. Polish, here in the Belgian woods. I’d never spoken it very well, but I surely did understand it. I’ve been worried sick, the woman had said. You can’t just go for a walk in the woods in the middle of a war, as if we were safe at home! And the girl had said, No, Mama, I heard a dog bark, and look, I found an American soldier! Then the woman said, Didn’t you hear that bomb? It was so close, it could— And the girl responded, No, no, Mama! The Germans, they blew up his jeep! I stood leaning on my crutch, listening in wonder to the volley between the girl and her mother. It was like coming home, like listening to Mama and Papa. But what were these Polish women doing here?
“You’re Polish?” I said to the girl. “You’re Polish?”
She looked confused, so I said it again in Polish. I can do that much.
“Yes,” she said, also in Polish, and laughed. “You speak it too? How is this possible? You said you were American!”
“I am American. My parents are Polish.”
She was delighted. The pixie grin threatened to split her face in two.
Praise be to God, what a girl. Beautiful and funny, strong and brave and intelligent.
Men search the earth for the right girl. Her name was Angéle. My angel. A Polish girl with a French name, living in the Belgian woods. The world’s gone crazy, I tell you.
“We are hiding here,” she said, still in Polish. “We will hide you, too.”
I told her I had no need to hide. I just needed to get back to my unit and get to a medic. But she and her mama, they wouldn’t let me leave. It’s Wigilia, her mama said.
Wigilia. Of course. The vigil. I’d forgotten it was Christmas Eve. Now I understood why the girl had been giggling in the woods when she found me. I remembered what she had said to her mama—I heard a dog bark, and look, I found an American soldier—and it reminded me of how my mama used to say that in Poland, on Christmas Eve, an unmarried woman would listen outside for the sound of a dog barking, and in the direction from which the sound came, she would find her future husband.
There was no denying a dog had barked. I’d heard it myself. Angéle had heard the dog, followed the sound, and found—me. No wonder she’d been laughing. It’s true, she’d said.
But that’s just folklore, I told myself. An old-country bedtime story. Things like that don’t happen in real life. And yet, what more logical explanation could I offer?
I confess, I didn’t try very hard to get away. My injured leg made leaving impossible, and spending Christmas Eve with these welcoming Poles was certainly preferable to whatever sad semblance of a yuletide celebration might be happening back at camp.
They helped me into the cabin, where a candle burned in a front window. A tiny Christmas tree hung from the ceiling over the table, which was in the middle of the little house’s single room and was already set for supper with three place settings. I knew without asking that the third setting wasn’t in anticipation of Angéle’s father’s imminent arrival, but my own. My mama, too, always set an extra place at the table on Wigilia in hopes that a visitor would show up. She said the extra setting represented the hospitality that should have been extended to Joseph and Mary, and that the visitor, if one should appear, was the Godchild himself. “A guest in my house is God in my house” was something I’d heard both Mama and Papa say many times. Gosc w dom, Bog w dom.
Angéle’s mother said it now. Her Polish was accented differently from my parents’, but I had no trouble understanding her. “And you are the guest,” she added. “You are the Godchild.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I bowed and kissed her hand, completely humbled.
Just like at home, there was hay under the tablecloth and in each corner of the room, which I knew was a reminder that Jesus was born in a stable, that he could not possibly have come from more modest means, that there was honor in being poor. I had never really understood what my parents meant about Polonia being everywhere until I stumbled upon this private little Wigilia in Belgium and felt so at home.
The old woman found a blanket and sent us back outside to watch for Gwiazdka, the first star. “There are no children,” she said. “So the two of you must do this. You are the youngest.”
Angéle and I went out and sat on a fallen log behind the cottage, wrapping ourselves together in the blanket against the cold as if we’d known each other forever. My leg still throbbed, but it already seemed a little better. Maybe it wasn’t broken after all.
“Polish children all around the world are now watching for this star,” she said, and I nodded. Wigilia meant vigil, and this was the vigil. I couldn’t speak for all Poles everywhere, but I knew my family was certainly holding the same vigil back home in Michigan, where it was likely that my sister Catherine’s two-year-old son Michael had been given the important task of watching for Gwiazdka. I mentally stood for several moments outside the window of the farmhouse in Jefferson City, looking in at the warmth of my family in the dining room, the Infant of Prague standing benevolently on the sideboard in his red vestments. The image made my eyes prickle, and I was glad that in the dark, Angéle couldn’t see my tears.
And then—there it was. We both saw it at the same time, twinkling as it had done since eons before Joseph and Mary ever lay little Jesus in his manger, and Angéle reached shyly for my hand. “Wesolych swiat bozego narodzenia,” she whispered, which meant Merry Christmas. “Christmas has begun.”
She helped me back into the house then, and before sitting down to the meal, we stood at our places around the table as Angéle’s mama broke the opłatek, the Christmas communion wafer, and expressed wishes for peace, safety, and health in the coming year before passing the larger piece to Angéle.
“Health especially,” said Angéle with her pixie smile, motioning toward my leg and giving me the last third of the wafer. I held up my piece and could find no words in English, let alone Polish, to express my gratitude. All I could think of to say was Thanks be to God. It was Mama’s favorite phrase. I said it, and then I thought of the anxiety that had plagued my parents since the invasion in ’39, and I added in what I knew must be horrible Polish, “and may God bless and keep safe our family members and friends in Poland, with whom we’ve lost contact.”
They nodded their agreement and said “amen,” which was the same in both languages.
The food, though limited, still consisted, as it always did at home, of several meatless courses, including a wild mushroom soup that tasted just like the one Mama and Rose always set on our own table at Christmas, as if every Pole in the world had the same recipe. I was grateful that neither of them mentioned that my presence was bad luck; I knew an odd number of people at the table was an omen that one of them would not survive the coming year, and I wondered how I could be both the Godchild and an omen of ill fortune wrapped up in one. I looked around the table and silently prayed that none of us would die in the coming year.
After the meal, Angéle and her mother exchanged small gifts—a tatted lace hair bow for Angéle from her mama, for whom Angéle had made a small, hand-woven basket.
“We have no gift for you,” said Angéle, “so this must be your gift.” She kissed my cheek. “Merry Christmas, Wojtek.”
I protested that my name was Alex, and she told me that Wojtek was the name of the famous Polish soldier bear. “I could call you Niedźwiedź,” she said, “but you are Wojtek. Soldier bear.”
I laughed at niedźwiedź. That’s what Mama called Papa. It sounded like nidge-vidge, and it didn’t just mean bear—it also meant galoot. You big galoot, Mama would say, and she said it with love.
But I couldn’t think of anything to call my savior but Angel. “You gave me a gift already,” I told her. “You gave me my life.”
I was there for three days, which was how long it took scouts from my unit to find the jeep’s wreckage and follow our tracks in the snow to the cottage. Three days was also, I discovered, how long it could take for a man to fall in love—a love my angel and I had sealed, hungrily but almost silently, a mere two days after we met, thrusting in intensified slow motion as tiny mewing sounds escaped her lips while her mama slept only a dozen feet away and the tools of war exploded in the night. “You sound like a kitten,” I whispered to her in Polish, and she put her mouth on mine and continued to make the sounds into me until they consumed me. I smoothed my hands over her skin and breathed her earthy scent and found myself filled with a certainty there had never been, and never would be again, any human being so perfect. Even a rough patch of skin or a bump or mole became merely an integral part of her perfection. For just a few precious moments, satiated, our passion momentarily spent as the war raged around us seemingly on all sides, we sheltered together in an impenetrable and private cocoon of warmth and peace before forcing our bodies apart and returning to the positions her mama would expect to find us in the following morning.
I was certain it was a love like none anyone else on earth had ever known, certain that even the poets had known nothing like it, certain that all of the poetry ever written about love would have been much better if they had. I couldn’t bear to leave her, and I realized that I now understood both why Emma had left home and the depth of Catherine’s grief over losing Everett, her fiancé who had been killed in a plane crash in ’41, just after Pearl Harbor.
With the men from my unit waiting on the porch, I wrapped my arms around Angéle and felt her soaking into me like warm water into a sponge. I promised I would be back, that we would marry when the war was over. We would have lots and lots of daughters and sons, I whispered, and we would raise them in Polonia just like my Mama and Papa had tried and failed to do with my siblings and me. The past three days had made me understand Polonia better than I ever had before.
In those moments, holding her, I saw my entire future, warm and comforting.
And my Angéle, she touched my face with her electric touch and called me her Wojtek, and with tears in her eyes, she assured me she would wait until the end of the world.
Melinda Hagenson taught college English for twenty-five years and now spends most of her days inventing new kinds of soup and devising other ways to put off editing her first novel, a collection of linked stories from which “The Vigil” is excerpted. She lives in Northwestern Wisconsin with her husband and two cats, Karma and Kafka.
© 2021, Melinda Hagenson