Underground by Gosia Nealon

August 30, 1944

Warsaw, Poland

A tall brunette stood beside an open hatch to an underground sewer. She was surrounded by skeletons of buildings with glassless windows and streets covered with cross-marked graves. The sun filtered through layers of smog, and the air was full of dust. Two pigeons flying warily around were the only indication of the past glory of Warsaw’s Old Town.

Kalina put on a pickle-green helmet and fastened a leather belt around her oversized military parka stained with mud from the sewer. As she untwisted a white-and-red band with an eagle between the letters W and P across her right arm, the symbol of Fighting Poland, her growling stomach reminded her she hadn’t eaten since the night before, and it was already late afternoon. She sat on a wooden block and dug out a small piece of brown bread wrapped in a dirty scrap of newspaper from the pocket of her parka. She took her time chewing each bite. In her teenage years, she had tried so many different diets, only to fail every time. But the abrupt twist in the world’s politics had changed everything. Now, in the fifth year of war, she was as skinny as could be. If the world were still at peace, in two days she would be starting a new academic year at the University of Warsaw. She dreamed of being a journalist one day. But reality hit her hard—she spent her summer as a courier, often scrambling through the sewers with important reports. When, on the first day of August, the city’s uprising started, she believed in liberation. She believed in help from the Allies. But the expected help never came. They continued to fight alone, and in a matter of a few days, the Old Town would again be seized by the Germans.

Now, Kalina wasn’t just a messenger—she was a guide to many people who were escaping to Zoliborz, the northern district of Warsaw still free from German occupation. Right now, the only possible route for a getaway was the underground sewers—tunnels of stink and disgust.

Kalina craved a warm bath and clean clothes, simple things people used to take for granted. She craved a moment of peace she hadn’t experienced for way too long.

“Kalina?” said a familiar voice from a near distance.

She turned and saw a black-haired soldier smiling down at her. Wiesiek. Her brother’s best friend. The only boy who ever made it into her dreams. At the sight of him in his brownish-green uniform, a submachine gun on his back, she smiled and breathed again. She wanted to say something, but the words stuck in her throat.

“How’s Krzysiek?” he asked as he stared into her eyes.

At the mention of her brother, Kalina felt a wave of familiar pain form in her chest. She didn’t want to talk about him, not here.

“I can’t believe it’s you.” She tried to sound light-hearted. “What are you doing here?” When Wiesiek moved to Warsaw four years before the start of the war to study medicine, Kalina had been seventeen. One day, he came to visit her brother, but she was the one to open the door. The moment she gazed at him; a strange spark of warmth tingled inside her. He just stared at her for a moment longer. Later he kept his distance and treated her like his younger sister, but Kalina couldn’t stop dreaming of him. When the war started, he moved back east, to his family’s town. Without saying good-bye, he disappeared from Kalina’s life for good but remained in her dreams.

“We’re heading to the city center.” He narrowed his eyes, as if he were desperate, and glanced at the two insurgents near him who looked disheveled and exhausted from the continuous battle. “Not my decision, anyway.” He paused and inspected her face for a short moment. “Wait, you’re our guide?”

“No, I’m going to Zoliborz.”

“General Rumak told me to give this to the girl we meet near the manhole.” He handed her a note.

The guide who normally covered that route had not come back from his last mission. Kalina was to lead them to the city center as soon as possible.

“This route is not that familiar to me. I’ve walked it only once.” Her voice cracked with frustration. “You need someone better for this job.”

His tone sharpened. “There is no one else, and we have to leave right away.”

She sighed with resignation. “We’ll have to walk single file.” She paused and signaled to the guard at the manhole that they were ready. “You have to be silent, and I’m the only one to use a flashlight.”

They descended the iron ladder. Once the last man was inside, the guard snapped down the sewer hatch above them. Kalina hated that moment of deep darkness and terrifying silence that isolated them from the light. She used her flashlight to find an opening in the concrete—an entrance to the sewer that led to the city center. She entered the small tunnel full of cloggy mud and slime that lingered on the curved bottom. She was always at a loss for words when she tried to describe the stench in there. The smell of rotten eggs was pleasant compared to the overpowering odor of sewage mingled with mold and rust. She signaled the men to follow her. They had to move on all fours for the next couple of minutes until they entered the main channel. The rounded, slippery bottom of the main sewer was populated by rats, but Kalina was more afraid of the red bricks that enclosed them on every side. The red bricks multiplied, deepening her terrible feeling of isolation. As they moved forward, the wastewater rose and started pouring into their shoes. Halfway in, Kalina whispered, “Soon we will be near the manhole on Miodowa Street, which has a German patrol.” She met Wiesiek’s gaze for the first time since they had entered the sewer. “We have to make sure we don’t get struck by mines laid by them, or grenades—”

She didn’t finish as there was a sudden movement in the water somewhere ahead of them. A group of three civilians approached them, running. Wiesiek snagged the arm of a teenage boy with freckles and red hair.

“What is it, boy?”

There was panic in his green eyes. “Germans dumped and ignited gasoline at the Miodowa manhole.” He paused and looked at his colleagues, but before fleeing, he added, “You should turn back with us.”

“Let’s wait until late night before crossing,” Kalina said, shoulders slumped. “German soldiers are on high alert right now.”

Wiesiek sighed but nodded.

The physical fatigue and the thought of several hours of waiting ahead of them made Kalina sit down in the wastewater and spread her legs. The exhausted-looking men followed her example.

One of them, a middle-aged man named Antek in a gray jumpsuit, glanced at Wiesiek and guffawed, exposing his missing middle tooth. “Told you, Colonel. Soaking in a bath at last.”

“More like you’re soaking your butt in the shit, moron,” said a blond man whose spartan shoulders spoke of strength.

“Shut up, Janek. You have no clue.”

“Calm down, boys.” The warning tone in Wiesiek’s voice made Kalina uncomfortable, but the two men ceased their argument.

While he instructed his men, she glanced at his face. It was the face of a man from the battlefield who had been deprived of sleep and clean water for days, but still, these were also the features of an extraordinarily handsome man. She recalled someone had approached him once at the bar and asked if he was interested in a modeling career.

But now, there was something different in his facial expression. It’s as if someone had injected a droplet of fear of powerlessness into his gray eyes.

Wiesiek caught her staring at him. Normally, his face wore a brotherly expression when he spoke to her, but now, his gaze bored into hers as he whispered, “Why did you change the subject when I asked you about Krzysiek?”

She focused her eyes on a set of red bricks in front of her. “He spent Christmas Eve with us, but he insisted on going back to his place for the night.” She paused and clutched her helmet. “The same night, the Gestapo killed him for hiding a Jewish family in his flat.”

He rushed to his feet and spread his hands on the red brick wall, his head hanging down.

She sensed he was trying to control his anger and, probably, the urge to run to the manhole and fire a series of rounds into the Germans. Seeing him like that started a familiar gnawing pain in her chest. To her surprise, Wiesiek knelt in front of her and wrapped her in a tight hug. It was as if he understood that no words could ease the pain. Maybe one day she would be able to talk about it.

A couple of hours later, she was weary and lethargic. “I feel like I have sand under my eyelids,” she said, rolling her head to one side.

“I bet those bastards are pouring in damn gas.” Janek said, eyeing Wiesiek. “Colonel, want me to see if it’s clear?”

He was back fifteen minutes later and, after he caught his breath, said, “Not a peep.”

Before they moved forward, Kalina instructed everyone to watch out for aluminum cans and broken glass bottles beneath their feet. It was the Germans’ trick to leave them near open manholes, so they could hear when Poles walked by and throw in grenades.

“Let me walk up the front. Janek, follow me; Antek, stay at the end,” Wiesiek said, his voice quiet and tense.

Kalina saw no point to protest, remembering how stubborn he could be, so she waded after Wiesiek and Janek. She concentrated on her every step; her ears alerted to any suspicious noises. But she only heard their careful but still sloshing footsteps, dripping water and odd echoes. She tried to ignore her racing heartbeat that caused pains in her chest. But then her ears were struck by the sound of an aluminum can being crushed. She felt dizziness and weakness in her legs. They all froze.

“Dammit,” Antek swore under his breath, but no one paid him the least attention.

They all focused. Weak but stable light shone down through the manhole, but there was no movement. Wiesiek gesticulated to continue, so Kalina gulped down her breath and moved after the others, praying Antek would be more careful. But luck was on their side this time. They were able to pass quietly through the rest of the dangerous territory.

As they moved forward, the stench from dead bodies lying on the slimy curved bottom of the sewer was unbearable, worsening their ordeal. Then the main sewer split into three different tunnels. There were no directing signs.

Kalina bit her lower lid. “I don’t remember which one leads to Wilcza Square. When I walked through here about a month ago, I was a part of a large group led by another guide.” Her eyes held a puzzled look. “I’m so sorry, my mind is foggy.”

“Any guess?” Wiesiek asked, his voice firm as a rock.

She held up a finger to the two tunnels from right. “It’s definitely one of these.” She gave a shrug and contemplated for a moment. “It must be the last one to the right.”

He scratched his beard. “Let’s take that one, but we must be careful before climbing up any ladders.”

They dawdled forward through the tunnel. Soon the contaminated water level had risen all the way to Kalina’s waist. Cold water soaked through her clothing. Touching the red brick walls made her shiver, giving her the eerie feeling of being enclosed in a tomb.

“I see something there,” Antek said in a rather weary tone of voice. It struck Kalina how glossy his eyes suddenly appeared.

But he was right; in front of them was a manhole access point with a ladder leading up to the street. Kalina swung a flashlight up and down, scanning the walls for any markings, but beside some irrelevant writing, she found no indication if they were in the clear area.

“It doesn’t look familiar to me, and it’s definitely not the Wilcza Square manhole,” she said. “We should go back and try the other tunnel.” Panic raised her voice almost to a scream.

Wiesiek nodded, but Antek said, “These are our boys, Colonel. Szkopy [Nazis] wouldn’t leave a ladder for us like that.” He leapt to his feet and advanced toward the ladder.

“Antek, come back, damn it!” Anger shook Wiesiek’s voice.

But he didn’t even glance back at them. While he climbed up the ladder, there was a silence that didn’t feel at all good to Kalina.

Janek made a move, but Wiesiek held his arm.

Just as Antek reached the top rungs of the latter, he hesitated as if to back down, but in that exact moment there was gunfire, and he crumpled as a rain of bullets struck his body.

“Run!” Wiesiek grabbed Kalina’s arm, and they fled back the way they had come. A moment later, they heard an exploding grenade in their wake, but they were out of its range.

After an exhausting escape, they stopped to catch their breath. Kalina knew that German patrols rarely went down the sewers. Rumor had it they were too afraid and disgusted.

Janek bent his head forward and stared at the brick walls. Wiesiek averted his eyes, sadness shading his face.

She broke into tears. “It’s all my fault,” she said, her heart sinking. “If only I’d known the right way––”

“No, it wasn’t your fault.” He framed her face with his hands as his gaze burnt into hers. “Antek took a risk, and we couldn’t have stopped him without being killed as well.”

“But if I’d taken the right tunnel, he would be with us now. “

“Maybe yes, maybe no. We are at war, Kalina. You can’t afford to wallow in self-pity for too long, or you will not survive,” he said with a meaningful look in his eyes. “Soldiers don’t cry on a battlefield, they move forward, they fight.”

His words were like a bucket of cold water to her. She knew he was right. That had become their new normal, and they lived in fear every day. But could one ever get used to people vanishing just like that? Could one ever learn to ignore the constant fear of being killed? Could one ever accept the fact of being powerless? Could one have at least some hope in this nightmare?

“It’s just not fair. All of this is just not fair,” she said, sobbing.

 He pulled her into an embrace and wiped the tears off her cheek with his calloused fingers.

~~~

They returned to take the other tunnel, but half an hour later, their spirits plummeted again.

“What the hell!” Wiesiek inspected a barricade made of barbed wire going all the way to the ceiling. A group of civilians gathered near the barricade seemed to be suffering from both lethargy and panic. Gassed for a prolonged time with fumes from the wet carbide thrown in by the Germans, some of them were suffering mentally. They paced; their eyes glassy. They were all fighting not to lose consciousness and slip under the water. But how long had this been going on? The barbed wire fence appeared impenetrable.

“Colonel, there’s a gap in the bottom wire!” Janek’s voice echoed and bounced back at them. “It’s large enough.”

Diving under the foul water was an awful experience for Kalina, but she felt even worse for Wiesiek and Janek, who made a couple of rounds helping the half-conscious civilians pass through.

Soon after they resumed their walk, Kalina recognized the manhole to the Wilcza Square. They helped the civilians to climb the ladder first, and that took an extra effort, but Janek’s broad shoulders made things easier. He was practically lifting them up to the guard in the square.

“Ladies first,” Wiesiek said, when only three of them remained.

Kalina climbed up the cold iron rungs of the ladder, despite her knees and hands shaking from exhaustion. Wiesiek’s protective hand supported her back, triggering the sensation of lightness in her chest. The guard grabbed her hand and helped her up.

She gazed around in a daze and inhaled the clean air. Her skin enjoyed the kiss of warmth from the early morning sun. The city center was still untouched, its peace intoxicating. The buildings still had glass in their windows. People wore clean clothes.

“We made it,” Wiesiek said, his voice laden with emotion. Kalina felt his warm breath on the nape of her neck. “We look and stink like hell, but we made it out alive.”

~~~

Gosia Nealon lives in Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, with her husband and two sons.  Her work was recently awarded fourth place in the Genre Short Story category in the 89th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her previous work had appeared in Eko Swiat, The Polish Ecological Monthly (discontinued).

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