The Replica Cityby Al Bray
In Warsaw's central station, Edwin's train arrived below ground, pulling into a narrow slot and letting loose streams of passengers who made their way to stairs leading up to the main hall. Once a month for the past five years he'd come, and it was during his second journey that he'd begun to see his parents on the platform.
A passing crowd of travelers would leave a space, and, against the bare concrete surface, the outline of two figures would remain, like shadows without much substance. Each time he came, they filled with detail and shades of gray, resolving into sharper focus, as if the accumulated journeys had adjusted individual lenses on a private telescope.
The figures on the platform resembled the couple on the postcard he'd found at the Olimpia flea market one Sunday morning. It had been taken at the old train station-the one which had burned down in 1939-and showed a man in his late thirties, a woman several years younger-much younger than Edwin. She wore a dark hued suit, tailored and belted to fit snugly like a uniform. Heels and a hat-a fedora which shaded a pale face. Her companion-also well-dressed-had his head down, studying a printed railroad timetable next to a locomotive spewing steam.
Today, they were in the usual place, standing to the side of a kiosk plastered with colored posters and official notices in black and white. Edwin squeezed his eyes shut and counted to ten-a game he played with himself. When he opened them, his father was still there, glancing down at the tips of his shoes, frowning. His mother gazed up into the windows of Edwin's car, then checked in her bag as if she'd misplaced something, hesitating before looking up again. Beams of light shone from above, showing her pale cheeks wet and shining, as if rain were falling through layers of concrete and steel.
She was the one who searched the cars as the train pulled into the station. But her gaze never stuck on Edwin; it passed through him as if he weren't there.
His father seemed impatient; he shook his head, and his mother took a last look in the train car and followed his father as he walked away. From somewhere beneath the car, steam rose, which was-of course-odd as the train was powered by electricity. The steam condensed on the windows, making tears streak across the surface. Perhaps that was why his mother's cheeks were shining, Edwin thought, wishing he could comfort her. He stood, took the weight of his suitcase from the overhead bin, and moved down the aisle. When he reached the platform, he headed towards the stairs.
In the main hall, his parents were motionless before the giant arrival/departure sign which no longer clattered mechanically but was electronic-digital, in fact, and silent. The names of Poland's major cities were displayed there-Cracow, Lublin, Lodz. Some-Gdansk, Wroclaw-used to be called by other names, and had been changed-perhaps to facilitate a process of forgetting. Others weren't there at all; Oswiecim, Brzezinka, and of course, Treblinka-those place-names were shrouded by an enormous length of death which trailed like a wake across a sea of ashes.
Edwin had learned his parent's habits; as usual, they spent time gazing up at the sign. He'd given up trying to gauge which train they were looking for; whether they were continuing their journey-or had ended it and were meeting some other traveler. His mother looked over her shoulder in his direction, and, even though she never seemed to see him, Edwin couldn't stop from raising his eyebrows and smiling. But her gaze went past him, and he turned away, leaving the station by the side exit to set off for the new, modern hotels across the street.
He'd taken the job-advising Eastern European hotels on how to attract American guests-late in life after retiring from the diplomatic service. He was the father of grown children who only needed him in the periphery, and the widower of a beloved wife whose death had surprised them both. Money wasn't an issue; he worked because he liked the travel and the people.
After an afternoon of meetings, he decided to walk to his own lodgings in the Old Town. He took his time, comparing certain neighborhoods with the way they appeared in his collection of black and white postcards-all taken before the city's destruction seventy years before. It was often hard to tell the difference; the oldest districts were careful replicas of what had been.
Except replicas were not the same as originals; the new buildings hadn't aged; they were clean and shining, without blemish or layer of soot; beneath their surfaces, there was modern steel and plastic, wood from younger trees. Like sinews and arteries, ducts and pipes ranged for many meters beneath the facades, and electrical wires were strung; they carried heat and power, and removed waste from places which had once relied on human energy to cart buckets of coal and water and waste.
Around the Castle Square, it was too early for the bars to fill, and too late for the musicians and jugglers to attract crowds of tourists. He checked in, and showered before dinner. At a small restaurant, the owner seated him immediately at a table with a view of the Old Town Square. For ceremony, and politeness, Edwin accepted a crystal glass of vodka, served with a bowl of pickled cucumbers which left his mouth tasting of nickel.
As he was finishing his coffee, a couple were seated next to him; Americans-he could tell right away by their clothing and the way they stared openly all around and kept smiling. To make room for the woman, he pulled his table to one side, nodding his head in acknowledgement of the man.
After a few minutes of studying the menu and whispering, the woman caught Edwin's eye. "Excuse me," she said in English. "We're not from here, and-"
"Of course, may I be of help?"
"Could you? My husband didn't want me to bother you, but I just knew you spoke English. The hotel recommended this place, and we don't understand the menu."
"If you like, I could suggest some things."
Edwin signaled for the waiter. After determining that the couple was hungry, he ordered roast duck with baked apples and potatoes, along with a reasonably priced bottle of wine. The couple asked that he stay and join them, and he agreed, angling his chair towards their table, and nursing a second cup of coffee while they ate. They were young, recently married, and on a tour of Europe.
"Everyone asked us: why go to Warsaw?" the husband said. "We came from Prague on the train. Last night."
"Ah, the overnight train, I ride it myself. I like to sit up all night in the compartment," Edwin said. "You'll want to see Kracow too."
"And you are American?" the wife asked. "You sound British."
"I grew up in London. Now I live in Virginia." Edwin thought for a moment, gazing into his nearly empty cup. Something about the young man and woman made him want to say more-a thing he'd lost the habit of doing. "As a matter of fact," he began. "I was born here, in Warsaw. My parents-well, it was during the war, I was sent to England."
"And your parents?"
"Disappeared-I never saw them again. My father was involved with the Polish government, the Resistance. I suppose it's safe to assume the Nazis killed them both."
The young couple glanced at each other open-mouthed. "That's horrible," the wife said. "We've heard stories, and of course we saw Schindler's List."
Edwin smiled. "I was too young to remember that time. In fact, I don't even remember what they looked like."
"Won't you let us buy you something-a brandy? Yes?" The husband waved the waiter over and Edwin ordered. "Have you ever tried to find out what happened to them?" the husband asked, once the brandy had been served. "It must be hard not to know."
"Yes. I've tried rather hard, searching archives, police records-without much success. All I ever found was the testimony of a man who knew my father. He claimed to have seen him along with my mother at the Umschlagplatz-that was the railroad terminus; from there, Jews from the Ghetto were taken to Treblinka-the place where they were killed."
Since childhood, he'd had a particular image: the two of them, carrying battered suitcases which they wouldn't need, his father weak and hollow-cheeked from hunger, his mother a slim, defiant wraith. He'd struggled without success to replace it with the image on the old postcard from the train station.
"Were your parents Jewish?"
The wife pushed back from the table. "How can you come here-to Warsaw? I could never-" For an instant, a struggle between anguish and compassion played out around her eyes and mouth. Then her brow smoothed. "I'm sorry," she said.
"No, that's quite all right. I only returned here six years ago, when I was already sixty-five. Never once in all those years between. But it's become somehow comforting; I think of them often, being here. More, it seems, as I get older-yes, another brandy, please. It's hard to explain."
They talked more about Warsaw, how it had changed. Edwin told them some of the old stories he'd heard from others, about the city before the war, and after.
"It's true, when they re-built the city in the Fifties, they studied a series of 18th-century paintings by an artist named Bellotto. He'd painted Warsaw in extraordinary detail, and the architects relied on his vision for the arrangement of every brick. Have you seen the Old City, the Castle?-all copied from his work. The funny thing is that some of the paintings weren't done from real life; they were of an imaginary Warsaw, a Warsaw which might have been built."
"Why?" the man said. "Why was it so important to re-create the past?"
"When something precious is taken from you, you want it back, one way or the other."
Later that night, Edwin went for a walk. The brandy had made his head and feet heavy, and the cooler night air, damp with smells from the river, refreshed him. A pleasant encounter, he thought, remembering the American couple's concern and kindness; perhaps, before he left, he'd see them again.
On the stones just ahead, high heels tapped, and there was a cough, a familiar cough, and he stopped and peered through the darkness. His parents were there, walking arm in arm. They were without their suitcases; they both wore fedoras and belted trench coats, and his father exhaled a plume of smoke and threw a cigarette quickly away to the side. In all his journeys to Warsaw, Edwin had never seen them outside of the train station. He began to follow at a discreet distance, his own footfalls pursued by a rapid echo.
As they turned to the right down the Royal Way, some density of the surfaces of the buildings and the earth made their voices audible. His father spoke in Polish. Let's go this way, he said.
They led Edwin to the right again down a side street, walking back in the direction of the train station. His mother looked over her shoulder, and spoke to his father. Someone's there. Edwin froze; his father turned around, his eyes moving all around the place where Edwin stood. His father's hands went into the pockets of his coat; he raised his head as if he were sniffing the air. His mother also looked.
Edwin stepped forward. He kept his head down and walked around his mother, at the last minute looking up to meet her gaze. Her head turned; her eyes tracked his passage, like someone recently blinded who hears footsteps but must try to fill in appearance from memory.
Edwin knew where they were going. An address which, seventy years ago, had been written on a scrap of paper and pinned to his clothing before he was put on the train. He would lead them, show them the way which all three knew very well. They passed through the park; ahead, the spire of the Palace of Culture and Science loomed with its giant clock, then the new hotels. At the station, they crossed beneath Jerozolimskie Street, passing a pair of policemen in soft caps and military fatigues who swung truncheons around their wrists and looked at Edwin with raised eyebrows. It was late for a man to be walking alone.
The three of them continued past the huge Marriott as if it wasn't there. His parents were nearly abreast of him; he imagined himself pushing ahead under their watchful attention.
At the end of the block, he turned left. Midway down there was a four-story townhouse made of yellow brick. He walked past it, stopped and turned, waiting for his parents to catch up.
His mother still held his father's arm; their pace slowed as they neared the townhouse. They glanced all around the street, and again, as if they were caught by a sensation of already having been there, already having seen the house, the plantings of tulips in the center of the street where the streetcars used to run. They stopped in front of the house and looked up.
It's just as it was, his mother said. His room-right up there.
Edwin saw the dormered window, the gutters stained bluish-gray. Two memories returned: one the sound of an air-raid siren, a wail he'd recognized years later while watching a documentary film. The other was the bustle and coo of pigeons. He glanced to the right; his mother was there, her eyes shining. His father stood to his left, and it seemed as if all three of them exhaled at the same moment.
He held them in the periphery, wishing he could touch them, let them know he'd survived, that they no longer had to haunt the station, waiting for a train to arrive, to depart. They must, he thought, feel so lost in this future they weren't a part of, in this city of finely wrought replicas. For a moment, he closed his eyes and sobbed-an old man's sobs from long ago.
When he looked again, he was alone.
The next morning, he made the call from the telephone in his room.
Bill-it's Edwin…Yes, fine. I have to talk to you about something.
Have you ever tried to find out what happened to them?-the American man had asked. It must be hard not to know. Edwin saw the woman's face too-how it had been caught between two things.
I'm thinking about leaving-retiring, I suppose. No, no-I'm fine. It's not that.
Perhaps he'd spent too much time searching archives and old photographs, he'd missed something, but it wasn't too late to search elsewhere.
I appreciate that, Bill, but I should be clear: I've decided; I'll send you something formal in the mail…Yes. I'm going to move closer to my son and his family.
Three days later, his work done, he returned the key and checked out of the hotel, ready to retrace the route to Prague, Frankfort, and home. There'd been no sign of his parents, but of course he hadn't been to the station. He took a cab there, unperturbed by the extravagant fare. After boarding the train, he found his compartment occupied by two young women who were struggling to stuff big backpacks into the overhead bins. The door was locked-an accident, he was sure-so he remained in the corridor and looked out of the thick Plexiglas panel onto the platform.
A few travelers hurried along, faces turned up to peer into the cars and then down to check their watches. The doors hissed shut; there was a metallic clang, and the car jerked forward and stopped. No one remained outside except a conductor who spoke into a bulky walkie-talkie and then shifted the top end close to his ear.
Edwin reached into his suit pocket and touched the old postcard, feeling the blunt corner, imagining the foxed surface. Could it be that he'd never see them again? Perhaps they really were lost in the new section of the city, unable to find their way back.
A different image rose in his memory-also a photograph, but not one bought at a flea market or printed on paper, not faded to black and white. It was a gift, one of many given to him by his son. It had appeared across the silvery screen of his computer and showed his eight year old granddaughter, a little girl who had Edwin's straight, thin nose and broad cheekbones-features which were, on her, lovely.
The train began to move, and he shook his head.
But then, as he turned back towards his compartment, the sudden, mysterious gout of steam appeared, droplets of water streamed down the window, and there they were, standing side by side. His father had his hands in his pockets, and he met Edwin's gaze with a nod. His mother waved a handkerchief, her face made half-full of grief, half of joy.