It was the devil’s hour in Warsaw and Wiktor’s pockets were empty. The night was unseasonably cold and called for two wool coats, a second hat, and a third pair of trousers. All borrowed. He believed the layers made him look older. Old enough, at least, to get some gambling done without question. He was right about that. His ‘złoty’ was as good as any other illegally traded tender.
Age wasn’t the issue. The problem was that he’d expected to have something to show for the risk, aside from ‘pity drinks’ and growing anxiety. “Bartek,” he called. “Another.” Even Wiktor’s manliest impersonation was weak and shrill. “Be quick about it!”
In the center of the basement speakeasy, there were several crates of homemade vodka, Bartek, and some sloppily slapped together planks dubbed ‘the bar.’ Most in attendance were similarly despondent, derelict, or cold. Wiktor was all three. “Bartek!”
“Settle down.” The burly old man snatched the glass from Wiktor. “You’ve had too much. A growing boy should drink milk not fire.”
“How about I drink your blood instead!”
“How about I teach you some manners,” Bartek barked and punched the bar.
Wiktor leered and nudged his head over the flimsy wooden stand. Arguments here weren’t uncommon. “Do we have a problem, old man?” A heavy hand pulled Wiktor back into his seat.
The third man was older than the two. Some odd mix of wisdom and seasoned vagrancy. His face was wrinkled but clean shaven and his eyes gleamed with a milky blue that looked almost inhuman. He sat beside him. “Easy, Bartek,” the man said. “I’ll pay for his next few.”
Wiktor stared for a moment before remembering his manners. He stepped out of his chair and reached over with an open palm. “Wiktor Marek.”
“Call me Gerhard.” Gerhard smiled, clasped his hand, and shook firm. Wiktor returned the favor, as best he could, before retreating to his newly poured glass. “Good handshake,” Gerhard said. “It’s a sign of strong character.”
“Thank you,” Wiktor said as Bartek stepped away to interrupt a scuffle. “Are you new around here?”
“I’m new in most places.” Gerhard reached over the top plank and grabbed a bottle of vodka. “This place was once home,” he said. “I fear that it no longer is.” He poured them each a second shot.
Wiktor raised his glass. “To home.”
“To home,” Gerhard answered.
They downed their drinks and returned to silence until Bartek scurried off again. “How old are you, Wiktor?” He poured them each a third shot. “Truly?”
“And, let me ask you-” Gerhard poured himself a fourth. “What are you doing here? This is a place for the end. Not the beginning.”
“My life has neither.”
Gerhard inspected the young man from head to toe. “Where are your socks?”
Gerhard grunted. “Have you allowed misfortune to consume you?”
The question deserved a larger response than Wiktor was prepared to give. He answered simply. “All I ever wanted was a fair shot.”
Gerhard smiled. “Some would call that an advantage.”
“What’s the difference?”
Now Gerhard was laughing, almost maniacally. “One’s real. One isn’t.” He removed a paper bag from his coat and placed it on the table between their drinks. It looked like some misshapen pear or a mug with a broken handle. “One of them is right here,” Gerhard said.
“What is it?”
Wiktor reached for the bag. He was rejected with a gentle slap on his knuckles. “Be wary, Wiktor. Misfortune is a lack of experience. Not a lack of luck.” He pondered the thought. “I suppose you could use a bit of both.”
Wiktor looked at the bag, then at Gerhard. “I’ve never known my family. I have no siblings. No mind. No future. If you’re offering me help…”
“Far from it,” Gerhard said. “I’m offering an opportunity.”
Wiktor locked in on the bag again. “What’s in there?”
“It has been many things, for many men. For you, it’s yet to be defined.” Gerhard poured them another and toasted to questions. “Would you like to know?”
“Good,” Gerhard said. “Reach inside.” The bag unfurled and settled like a bowl with five points. “Please. Slowly.” Wiktor reached inside of the bag. A grainy grip clasped and tightened until his knuckles popped.
“Your beginning,” Gerhard said. “Keep it close.” He stood up and tipped his hat to Bartek. Leaning into Wiktor’s ear, he continued. “It’s only a curse for your desires. The answers will be revealed in time.” The rigid grip loosened. “Don’t desire too much. Bad for morale.”
Gerhard poured them each another, left his money on the table, and exited the bar. When Wiktor peeked inside of the bag, he realized that he’d been fondling a severed hand.
The panic kept him from saying much else.
He left soon after, amidst knowing stares and the smell of urine.
Wiktor lived alone in an abandoned flat. The owners hadn’t been seen in months and neighbors often joked of their escape from persecution. He could hear them laughing through the walls. Despite the murky circumstances, this was his home for now.
Paranoid of the Steinbach’s return, he slept on the floor and always cleaned the home before leaving. “Maja,” he called and closed the door behind him. The tiny black kitten had been following him around for weeks before he properly adopted her. He’d give her milk and scraps of meat that he accrued throughout the day.
“Maja,” he called again and unraveled his layers.
Wiktor was frail, pale, and normally filthy. Though his youthful appearance could garner charity, he spent most nights in dread of his coming adulthood. With every new erection or flake of mustache, he’d be reminded of his fleeting pubescence. It terrified him more than the boogeyman or hearsay of ‘murderous trains.’ “Maja!”
The home was small and aesthetically mute. Aside from the fireplace, there was a single bed, a single couch, rotting walls, and a large stack of newspapers—he’d burned most of to keep from freezing. He’d relieve himself in a tin bucket. It was beside the bucket, that he found the kitten’s body.
“No. No. No.” He placed the severed hand on the ground and dropped to his knees. Maja was cold but had yet to smell. This death was recent. He surmised that the kitten’s passing was due to his negligence. If not, then his burgeoning alcoholism. He planned to bury the body in the morning, after the patrolmen performed their sweep of the streets.
Until then, it was time for bed. He curled beside his newly lit flame, with the severed hand, in its sack, just inches away.
By the time Wiktor’s eyes closed for the night, he’d mostly forgotten about his day.
He shook from his slumber, trembling in sweat as the fire died beside him. The sky was black but there was commotion on the road. Gunfire, he thought and tried to force himself back to sleep.
He opened his eyes when the second shot fired. The hand was out of the bag and interlocked with his own. “What the-” It wasn’t fear he felt but curiosity. He decided that there were worse things in the world than a hand to hold and curled it beneath his chin.
A third shot rang by his window as he drifted back to sleep, clasping the skeletal palm, and planning Maja’s funeral.
She was a good kitty, Wiktor thought.
Wiktor awoke to the sound of purring and an all-encompassing warmth he’d never known. He opened his eyes and there was his kitten, as alive as she’d ever been. “Maja!”
The kitten laid against him and grumbled with a healthy exuberance. It wasn’t long after that he realized he was no longer lying on the dusty wood panels, but a bed, even cozier than the Steinbach’s was.
The small room was furnished, from ceiling to floor with turquoise floral patterns, a dresser, and a closet filled with clothes that fit him. He hopped out of the bed and searched for the hand. It was sitting comfortably on his dresser, knuckles up, looking deader, and missing two fingers.
“Wiktor,” a woman’s voice called to him and Maja bolted through the door. Stunned, Wiktor froze. He didn’t recognize the woman’s voice but something drew him toward her. “Wiktor, my son! Come eat.”
Son? He thought. “Coming,” he answered and helped himself to a selection from his new wardrobe.
He made his way into the kitchen where a familiar face stood in front of an oven he’d never seen—scrambling eggs and flipping ham. “There you are,” she said with excitement. “It feels like you’ve been sleeping for my whole life.” She was everything he’d ever pictured—medium height, a bit portly, all smiles, and wearing an apron.
“Who else would I be?”
“Hurry, sit down,” she said. “Your father would like to speak with you before work.”
“Dad?” Wiktor said.
“How’d you sleep, Wiktor?” Behind the newspaper that read DECEMBER, 1942, was an older man with a ring on his finger.
Wiktor knew he’d thrown that newspaper in the fireplace. He also knew that Maja was dead. Despite his certainty, there was his cat and they were undoubtedly his parents. “You feeling okay,” his father asked.
“Fine,” he rushed as his mother placed a hot plate down in front of him. “May I be excused?”
“Sure, honey,” his mother said.
“Don’t take too long. It’ll get cold,” his father added.
“Thank you.” Wiktor stood up slow. He stepped away from the table, hugged his mother, and walked backward into his room while Maja followed close behind.
Wiktor couldn’t make much sense of it and didn’t want to. He spent the day with his mother and convened with his father in the evening, to talk about girls. It was the best day he’d had in years.
Wiktor snuck out at night in search of answers he didn’t really want. From what he could tell, not much else changed from the night before. It was unseasonably cold, the streets were barren, and an armed militia patrolled the roads. They’d ask him questions. He knew all of the right answers. Most were lies.
He made it back to the speakeasy without so much as an honest accusation. It looked the same too. Even Bartek, who remembered him. “You’ve got nerve, boy.”
Luckily, so did Gerhard. “Easy, Bartek. I’m sure he’s here for me. Not trouble.” He looked at Wiktor. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yes.” Wiktor took his seat. It was the same one from the night before. “What the hell is going on?”
Gerhard smiled. “You’ve got the hand, don’t you?”
“Yes, Sir.” The hand was tied in a yarn sack and strapped to the inside of Wiktor’s coat. “I was afraid to leave it.”
“Good call.” Gerhard tapped his empty glass on the bar and signaled for another. “I assume you’ve used it.”
“Not on purpose. But I think so.”
“It’s okay, son. The first one is always the purest.”
“I think I used two,” Wiktor said, pointing to the three-pronged imprint in his coat.
“Even purer,” Gerhard answered. “Walk with me.” He downed his drink and slowed to his feet. “We have much to discuss.”
Snowfall began as the two made their way down the road and around the corner. Gerhard had trouble keeping his stumble straight, but the flurry of snowflakes and indigestion kept him alert enough to achieve a stride. Wiktor followed close behind with his arms stuffed into his pockets, a leaky nose, and chattering teeth.
Gerhard started, amidst a stoic glare to the sky. “Some view this as a curse,” he said. “I’d have to disagree.” He stopped and turned to Wiktor. “It’s an opportunity for balance.”
“The balance of what,” Wiktor asked.
Gerhard smiled. “I grew up in a place like this.” The parallel rows of bland-colored townhomes and simple shops were nice enough, if unimpressive. “Now, I can’t say with much certainty.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The hand grants a balance to those whom are deemed worthy. When I tested you in the bar, it was fate. Not my own judgement.” Gerhard paused to ponder the notion. “I wouldn’t have chosen a child.”
“I’m not a child.”
Gerhard bent down to meet Wiktor’s gaze. “You’ll know better, soon enough.” He popped straight back up, turned around, and continued forward. “Your deepest desires will be granted, should the hand catch wind of it. It’s best to keep it on your person but only hold it when you’re prepared for something to change. Always visualize.”
Wiktor picked up his pace to keep up with the old man. “You mean use my imagination?”
“A man would call it thought. Planning. Precision.”
“So just think really hard about it?”
“Identify the desire. Acknowledge it and don’t be fooled by justifications. Own the outcome.” Gerhard stopped again and leered at Wiktor. “Much of this isn’t up to you.”
“Then who’s it up to?”
“Think of yourself as a vessel for correction.” Gerhard started forward again. “If you’re responsible, everything should work out fine.”
Wiktor eyed the old man, his low-class attire and flaky workman boots were hardly signifiers of success. “Were you responsible?”
“I’ve done my part.” Gerard rushed from the thought. “Don’t hold it when you’re angry and do your best to keep it simple.”
Wiktor decided that then was a good time to ask the obvious question. “What happens when the fingers are gone?”
The two arrived in front of the speakeasy and stopped. Gerhard looked around them both before revealing a stub, where his left hand should have been. “It was my lucky hand.”
A sudden nausea bubbled in Wiktor’s gut. “This is yours,” he shot.
“It’s yours now,” Gerhard said. “The hand must be replaced. There are grave consequences for inaction.” He tipped toward the door and performed the special knock. “I’m sorry, Wiktor. I had to be free.” On that word, Bartek opened the door and Gerhard was gone.
Wiktor stood there for a minute or two. He pondered his next move while the boney digits tickled his stomach. I’ll have to get used to that, he thought.
He returned home before he was missed.
Nearly a year passed without incident. Wiktor toiled for months about his predicament and ultimately decided that it’d be best to keep the hand for himself. Nothing can force me to use it, he surmised and went on with his life as it was.
Encouraged by his parents, Wiktor undertook an apprenticeship with a local craftsman—whom he’d robbed on previous occasions. He was an odd man but after some time passed, Wiktor grew to enjoy his company and dined with Lars’ family more times than he could count. It was at one of these dinners that Wiktor met Lars’ daughter, Julia. All parental parties approved.
“Julia,” Wiktor called from his bed. He’d been watching her fiddle through his things for nearly an hour while he cuddled with Maja. “You don’t have to do that.”
Like Wiktor’s mother, Julia wore simple clothing and birthed her personality from a humble attitude and fantastical-optimism. Wiktor believed that she was the most beautiful woman in the world, if a touch too naive. “Someone should clean this filth,” she said. “Must you have your clothes everywhere?”
“What,” Wiktor shrugged. “I get busy. There’s a lot of life to live, you know.”
“A lot of life to live,” she mocked and piled the clothes in a corner. “You’re such a…” She stopped at his dresser and glared at the knitted brown sack. Wiktor forgot to put it away. “What’s this?”
“Don’t touch it!” Wiktor sprung from the bed. “It’s nothing. Trust me. Work stuff.” He took the bag, tossed it under his pillow, and laid back down. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Wiktor,” Julia said and sauntered over with a smile. “What is it?” She sat beside him and placed her head on his chest. “You can tell me.”
He considered telling her about the hand once before. His mind was changed by Julia’s assertion that the two would be together forever. Surely, then he’d have to come clean. He preferred to wait until that exact moment. “You won’t believe me,” he said.
“Oh, come on,” she protested. “It’s not like you’ve got a body part in there.” She giggled and tickled his stomach. Wiktor was speechless. “Wiktor?”
“If I show you,” he started. “-you can’t say anything. To anyone.”
“Wiktor.” She pulled away from him. “You’re scaring me.”
“I don’t mean to,” he said as he reached a hand under the pillow and brought the sack to view. “It’s just…”
A bullet rang past his window. The shot was followed by another. Then a third. Then a woman’s scream. “Mom,” Wiktor shouted. There was no response. He sped out of his bedroom, put on his coat, secured the sack, and flew out of the door. “Mom!”
Wiktor’s father was bleeding and on his knees. When his mother went out after him, she was held at gunpoint. They shot his father in the head while she watched. Then, they killed her too. He watched it all from the doorway.
“Murderers,” Wiktor screamed and draped himself over their bodies. “Why!”
The captain aimed his gun at the back of Wiktor’s head. “Wiktor,” Julia screamed. They didn’t drag her into the street as he feared they would. Julia was beaten and hauled out of sight. Seconds later, her clothes fell from a third-story window. Her screams echoed through the streets.
“We’re having some fun with that one,” the captain said. He couldn’t have been much older than Wiktor, though his expression ran deep with malevolence and he spoke with a rasp reserved for ruthless men. “Tell me, what’s your profession?”
Wiktor untied the sack, reached inside, and tethered his fingers. “Today, I’m God.”
“Of course, you are,” the captain said and pulled the trigger. As Wiktor fell to the ground, beside his parents, he could still hear Julia begging the soldiers to stop.
He shook from his slumber, trembling in sweat as the fire died beside him. “Mom?” He gasped and breathed in the ember smelling cold. “Dad?” He scanned the dark room and lifted himself up from the dusty wooden floor. “Julia?” There was no answer. Not even from Maja. The kitten was curled beside a foul-smelling tin-bucket. Dead and cold to the touch.
Wiktor tucked the two-fingered hand into its sack, closed his eyes, and tried to force himself back to sleep. He was back where he started.
I was angry, he thought. “So angry.”
It’d been ten years, since Wiktor first used the ‘lucky’ hand. He swore off the ‘ungodly thing,’ and moved to Krakow when the war was over. He hoped a change of scenery would help to stop his nightmares. They got worse. Every night he dreamed, he dreamed of that night on the street. The death. The rape. The bullet through his skull.
He was a grown man now and his struggles were destined to multiply. Thanks to his year with Lars, he no longer had to lie, cheat, beg, or steal for his survival. He found work as a carpenter—providing his services to locals in exchange for small sums and simple favors. His new home was in the attic of an acquaintance who pitied him.
Wiktor spent most of his days carving and his nights as a degenerate. Drinking. Women. And whatever else would distract him. He thought this life was a fitting punishment for the deaths he caused. ‘Don’t be fooled by justifications,’ he’d recall Gerhard, in any moment of emotional relief. ‘Own the outcome.’ It was maddening. He deemed it fair.
“Let me check your pockets,” the one-eyed man had been testing Wiktor’s patience all night. This small-town pub was no better Bartek’s speakeasy, though it was legal, and properly lit. “I know you’re cheating!”
“Normally, I would agree,” Wiktor said. “But your luck’s actually worse than mine.”
“Show me your pockets!”
“Get the fuck away from me!”
The scuffle lasted only seconds. In the end, Wiktor had a bloodied nose and his coat was on the ground. The man he’d fought was knocked out cold and the dozen in attendance encircled the mayhem.
“What the hell is that,” a patron called.
“Murderer,” another yelled.
In the midst of commotion, the hand fell out of the sack. Wiktor grabbed it and picked up his coat. There was no time to put much else in order. “It’s not what you think,” he pled and eased backward, toward the door. “It’s… It’s…”
“I’m calling the police,” a third patron said.
“Hold him down,” a fourth demanded.
Done with his apologies, Wiktor charged through the door and hustled down the wintry road—hoping he didn’t desire anything too badly. Around the second mile, he managed to lose their trail and took refuge in nearby brothel. The whores here knew him well. He crafted their beds. They’d keep him safe until sunrise. Thanks to the nights’ winnings, he didn’t have to sleep alone.
“Wake up, daddy,” the small voice said. “Wake up.” The little girl couldn’t have been much older than five. She climbed atop Wiktor like he was a mountain. “Daddy.”
The bed felt different and this was not the guest that he remembered. “Hello,” Wiktor said, feeling nervous and somewhat ashamed. “Can I help you?”
The little girl was an angelic brunette with a smile twice her size. “You’re funny,” she teased, hopped off of the bed, and danced a giddy jig. “Mommy told me to get you,” she sang.
“Mommy,” he asked.
She grabbed his hand and yanked as hard as she could, not very hard at all. “Come. On. DADDY.” She huffed and puffed until Wiktor relented and got out of bed. “We did it!” She led him out of the room and into a hallway, where the smell of bacon, eggs, and coffee filled his nose.
“Little girl.” He stopped at the top of a winding staircase and kneeled to meet her excited gaze. “What’s your name?” Suddenly her smile was gone. It was devastating.
“Did you forget my name, Daddy?”
“No,” he said. “Of course not. I just want to make sure that you remember.” He smiled and pinched her cheeks. “Daddy’s need to check on these types of things.”
“Oh.” Her smile returned, wider than before. “My name is Amelia Julia Marek.”
“Amelia,” he repeated and couldn’t help but laugh at himself. “That’s a lovely name. Come on. Let’s go get breakfast.”
The little girl ran downstairs, humming a tune that Wiktor himself had hummed in his youth. After a moment of pride, he bolted back to the bedroom and searched for the sack, just to be sure. He discovered it wrapped up in his sheets. There was only a thumb.
“Wiktor,” a woman called from downstairs. “Are you okay, honey?”
He didn’t recognize much of this new world but he knew that voice. “Coming, Julia,” he answered. “I just need a minute.”
The room was large and broken up into sections that included a master bathroom and office space. After a speedy survey, he decided that whatever desire had come true, was better than the last life he’d lived. He thought to hide the hand. Recalling events, Wiktor chose to leave it on top of the dresser. “Julia,” he called. “Can you join me upstairs?”
“I’m cooking, Wiktor. Your parents will be here soon and Amelia’s not even dressed yet.”
“It’ll only be a moment. I just need to tell you something in private.”
He told her everything. He showed her the hand.
She loved him anyway.
This new life was far better than the last and Wiktor enjoyed every minute. For the next fifty years, he lived in relative bliss. He had three children, Amelia, Wiktor, and Zofia—who all went on to have families of their own. He never thought much of himself, but for his family he made a point to be everything.
As he would learn, his new life included plenty of new opportunities. Along with Julia’s father, Wiktor owned and operated a franchise of furniture stores, hardware outlets, and several popular bars. Money was never a problem. Neither, he assumed, was the one-digit hand in the filthy brown sack. After some years, he began to leave the house without it.
Now, in the twilight of his life, the nightmares were commonplace and a perpetual headache was to be expected. ‘It must be replaced,’ would echo in his mind but he’d drown out the noise by keeping busy and drunk. The hard work made him very wealthy, though his constant exhaustion and paranoia worried Julia. She’d been complaining about that the previous night, before bed.
The next morning, he thought to console her woes with a day to themselves. “Julia,” he whispered and nudged her back with his shoulder. He called to her again. Nothing. He touched her skin and she was cold. “No…”
He turned Julia onto her back and checked her pulse. Still nothing. “Hang on, Julia,” he said. “I’m going to get help.” Wiktor rolled off of the bed and crashed to the floor. His head cracked with a migraine that locked his jaw and shut his eyes. He saw his parents, dead on the road. He heard the youthful Julia’s screams. He tasted blood and smelled gunpowder.
Gerhard’s voice echoed, “It must be replaced.”
“Fuck,” Wiktor barked and dragged himself to the dresser, where he kept the hand. The waking terrors bludgeoned him, worse with each passing moment. The migraine intensified. Gerhard’s voice grew louder. “It must be replaced.”
“Is this what you want,” Wiktor ripped open the sack and held tight. “Is this what you fucking want!”
He tore off the thumb, threw the hand across the room, and roared to the ceiling.
Julia awoke a moment later, looking confused, and sounding very worried. “What’s wrong, Wiktor,” she said. “Was it another nightmare?”
Wiktor arrived at the side of the bed. Julia sat upright and caught her breath. Resting his chin on her lap, he took in her scent and clenched her hands in his own. “I thought I’d lost you again,” Wiktor said.
“I’m right here,” Julia smiled. “I’m not going anywhere.” She wiped the tears from his cheeks and lifted his face from between her thighs. Her emerald eyes were the fire that kept him going, the gateway to his heart, and the eternal beauty that he wished to never part with.
Wiktor pulled himself up from the floor and kissed his wife. “I don’t know what came over me. I’m sorry,” he said.
“We’ll get through it together, Wiktor.” Julia took his hand and kissed it. “We always have.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Wiktor spent the remainder of the morning sharpening an unused butcher knife that he’d purchased decades earlier. He only planned to use it once. When he was done, the headaches worsened and he could no longer trust his mind.
It was the devil’s hour in Warsaw and Wiktor sat silently in his car, watching groups of young men and women embark about their weekend routine. He looked over at the small brown sack in his passenger seat and for a moment, thought he could withstand the headaches for one more night. He glanced at his bandaged stump and affixed an empty mitten to its end.
“It must be replaced,” he whispered to no one.
He thought of Gerhard, stepped out of the car, and into a random bar—hoping that soon he would be free.
Also available on Google Books.