On the eve of World War II, in a place called Half-Village, a young man nicknamed the Pigeon falls in love with a girl fabled for her angelic looks. To court Anielica Hetmanskáhe offers up his “golden hands” and transforms her family’s modest hut into a beautiful home, thereby building his way into her heart. War arrives to cut short their courtship, delay their marriage, and send the young lovers far from home, to the promise of a new life in Kraków.
Nearly fifty years later, their granddaughter, Beata, repeats their postwar journey, seeking a new life in her grandmother’s fairy-tale city. But instead of the whispered prosperity of the New Poland, she discovers a Kraków caught between its future and its past.
Whimsical, wise, beautiful, magical, and at times heartbreaking, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True weaves together two remarkable stories, reimagining half a century of Polish history through the legacy of one unforgettable love affair.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
BRIGID PASULKA, the descendant of Polish immigrants, first arrived in Kraków in the early nineties, with no contacts, no knowledge of the language, and only a vague idea of Polish culture. She quickly fell in love with the place, learned Polish, and decided to live there for one year. She now teaches English at a Chicago high school.
Read an Excerpt
A Faraway Land
The pigeon was not one to sit around and pine, and so the day after he saw the beautiful Anielica Hetmanska up on Old Baldy Hill, he went to talk to her father.
The Pigeon’s village was two hills and three valleys away, and he came upon her only by Providence, or “by chance,” as some would start to say after the communists and their half-attempts at secularization.
He happened to be visiting his older brother, Jakub, who was living at the old sheep camp and tending the Hetmanski flock through the summer; she happened to be running an errand for the Fates and her father to drop off a bottle of his special herbal ovine fertility concoction. Ordinarily, of course, a maiden meeting with a bachelor alone — and over the matter of ovine procreation no less — would be considered verboten or nilzya or whatever the Polish equivalent was before the Nazis and the Soviets routed the language and appropriated all the words for forbiddenness. But the Pigeon’s brother, Jakub, was a simpleton, a gentle simpleton, and the risk of Anielica twisting an ankle in the hike was greater than any danger posed by Jakub.
The Pigeon happened to be climbing up the side of the hill just as the sun was sliding down, and when he spotted his brother talking to the girl in front of the old sheep hut, he stopped flat in his shadow and ducked behind a tree to watch. The breeze was blowing from behind, and he couldn’t make out a word of what they were saying, but he could see his brother talking and bulging his eyes. He was used to his brother’s way of speaking by now, and he was only reminded of it when he saw him talking to strangers. Jakub spoke with a clenched jaw, his lips spreading and puckering around an impenetrable grate of teeth, which, along with the lack of pauses in his thoughts, created a low, buzzing monotone. The only inflection to his words came through his eyes, which bugged out when there was a word he wanted to stress, then quickly receded. It was very much like a radio left on and stuck at the edge of a station: annoying at first, but quite easy to ignore after the first twenty years or so.
If you were not used to talking to him, the common stance was to lean backward, one foot pointed to the side, looking for an end to the loop of monologue that never came, finally reaching in and snapping one of his sentences in half before muttering a quick good-bye and making an escape. But the girl was not like this at all. In fact, she seemed to be leaning in toward Jakub, her nodding chin following his every word, her parted lips anticipating what he would say next with what very closely resembled interest and pleasure.
She was absolutely stunning. She had strong legs and high cheekbones, a blood-and-milk complexion and Cupid’s-bow lips, and the Pigeon was suddenly full of admiration for his brother for having the courage to stand there and have an ordinary conversation with such a beautiful creature. He crouched behind the pine tree, watching them for perhaps half an hour, and he started toward the hut only once she was on her way down the other side of the hill.
“Who was that?”
His brother stared wistfully at the empty crest of the hill long after she had disappeared.
“. . . That, oh, that, that is the angel, she brought me medicine, for the sheep, not for me, and she also brought me some fresh bread, you know, she comes to visit me very often, she is the daughter of Pan Hetmanski, she brought me herbs for his sheep, so they will have more sheep, and I didn’t see you coming, how long were you watching . . .” Jakub breathed in deeply through his teeth.
“The angel? What do you mean, ‘the angel’?” The Pigeon and the rest of the family were always vigilant for signs of his brother’s simpleness turning into something more worrying.
“. . . if I knew you were there I would have introduced you, even though she came to see me, she comes to see me often, and ‘the angel’ is her name — Anielica — and she is Pan Hetmanski’s daughter, she is going to come again sometime soon, she said, maybe she will bring the herbs or bread or . . .”
“She is very beautiful,” the Pigeon said, and he brought the milk pail of Sunday dinner into the sheep hut and set it down on the bench. His brother followed.
“. . . maybe a book, sometimes she reads to me, yes, she is very beautiful, isn’t she, more beautiful than mama, don’t tell mama that, but do tell mama that I like the socks she knitted me, it is very cold up here this summer, not during the day but at night, and Pan Hetmanski brought extra blankets up last week, he is very nice, and they have two dozen sheep, but it is strange that they do not live in a nicer house, it is just a hut over in Half-Village, nothing special, our house is much nicer, I think . . .”
Sometimes the talking could go on forever.
The thing was to act, and the Pigeon knew just what to do.
Throughout history, from medieval workshops to loft rehabs in the E.U., we Poles have always been known by our zlote raczki, our golden hands. The ability to fix wagons and computers, to construct Enigma machines and homemade wedding cakes, to erect village churches and American skyscrapers all without ever opening a book or applying for permits or drafting a blueprint. And since courting a beautiful girl by using a full range of body parts has only recently become acceptable, in the spring of 1939 the Pigeon made the solemn decision to court Anielica through his hands. Specifically, he vowed to turn her parents’ modest hut into the envy of the twenty-seven other inhabitants of Half-Village, into a dwelling that would elicit hosannas-in-the-highest every time they passed.
Besides Jakub, the Pigeon had eight sisters, who had taught him the importance of a clean shirt and a shave, and so the next morning before dawn, he donned his church clothes, borrowed his father’s wedding shoes, and made the long walk over two hills and three valleys to the Hetmanski family door. He knocked and waited patiently on the modest path, overgrown with weeds and muddy with the runoff from the mountain, until Pan Hetmanski finally appeared at the door.
“Excuse me for bothering you so early in the morning, Pan, but I was wondering if Pan wouldn’t mind if I made some improvements to Pan’s house. For free, of course.”
“You want to make improvements to my house?”
“And what did you say your name was?”
“Everyone calls me the Pigeon.”
Pan Hetmanski stood in his substantial nightshirt and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And exactly what improvements did you have in mind?”
“Well, take this path for one, it could be paved . . . and there could be a garden wall to keep out the Gypsies . . . and glass could be put in these windows . . . and a new tin roof, perhaps.”
Pan Hetmanski suppressed a smirk. “For free, you say.” Another man might have been offended rather than amused, but Pan Hetmanski was a highlander and not a farmer, and thus more concerned with enjoying his plot of land than with working it. Besides, there had been enough young men lurking around lately to make him aware of what the Pigeon was up to, that the request was not to work on the hut, but to work somewhere in the vicinity of his fifteen-year-old daughter, Anielica. At least this one had the decency to come to the door and offer something useful.
“And how do I know you will not make rubble of my house?”
“If you would like to see my work, I can take you to my parents’ house. I did a complete remont last summer.”
“And you will work for free.”
“And would this have anything to do with my daughter?”
“I will leave that up to Pan. In time, of course.”
“I’m not going to help you with any of the work.”
“Of course not, Pan.”
“And if you touch her I will throw you off the mountain and let the wild boars gnaw your bones.”
“Of course, Pan.”
“And if you make up stories about touching her, I will cut out your tongue and my wife will use it as a pincushion for her embroidery needles.”
“That won’t be necessary, Pan.”
The others had been easily scared away by such talk, and as Pan Hetmanski stood in the doorway scowling at the Pigeon, he regretted that he had not answered the door with a knife or an awl in his hand to appear more threatening.
“And when will you begin?”
“Now if you like. I brought a change of clothes.”
“Now? Good God, you are an eager one. Why don’t you preserve your enthusiasm until the weekend?” He smiled. “And whatever else might be propelling you.”
“Friday evening then?”
“Saturday morning,” Pan Hetmanski countered, suppressing another smirk.
“We’ll see if he shows up, the young buck,” he mumbled to his wife after he had shut the door.
“I hope so. I do need a new pincushion.”
The attention given to Anielica in the past year was not entirely unexpected. Some said that Pan Hetmanski had even planned for it. He had always been known as a man with big dreams born into a small village, and though he occupied himself with the modest business of sheep, he had conferred his dreams on his children. His son he had named after the great medieval king, Wladyslaw Jagiello, which, despite the obvious bureaucratic snafus it caused, proved to be the perfect name for a partisan when the war came. By the time his daughter was born, he had raised his aspirations to even greater heights.
The angel herself had heard the entire conversation from the corner of the main room, where she was pretending to do her embroidery. “Who was that?” she asked her father as indifferently as she could manage.
“He calls himself the Pigeon. He says he is from one of the villages on the other side of the Napping Knight.” The Napping Knight was the optimists’ name for the Sleeping Knight, a rock formation and legend that is believed to wake in times of trouble to help the Polish people. After being thoroughly tuckered out by the Tatars, Ottomans, Turks, Cossacks, Russians, Prussians, and Swedes, however, it hadn’t risen in some time, and would, in the years of Nazi occupation, also come to be known as the Oversleeping Knight, and later, during the Soviets, the Blasted Malingering Knight.
“Is that because of his nose or the way he walks?” Indeed the Pigeon was well-endowed of nose, and his feet turned in, causing his toes to kiss with each step.
“Hopefully, it is not because of the size of his pecker,” Anielica’s mother interjected, laughing roughly. She had, in the tradition of górale women, become weathered by the merciless wind and snow that pounded the Tatras.
“Fortunately, he didn’t provide me with that information,” Pan Hetmanski said.
“And why is he going to work on the house again?” Anielica asked.
“Don’t you see?” Her mother laughed. “Your father has sold you to the highest bidder.”
“Sold? What are you talking about? Don’t be ridiculous! This one is just like the others. He will give up before he even gets a chance to peep in the window.”
“You can’t see anything through the blasted greased paper anyway,” Anielica’s mother said, waving her arm in her daughter’s direction. “But that doesn’t mean that he can’t picture it all in his mind from the yard.”
Anielica went over to the window. She pulled back the edge of the greased paper and watched the figure disappear into the woods, the corners of her mouth creeping upward, cocking the bow that would eventually lodge the arrow securely in the Pigeon’s heart.