Excerpt – Against A Crimson Sky


Whom the Gods love die young.
—Polish proverb

Poland  1794 
2 November  All Souls’ Day
Swollen with recent rains, the river heaved and churned, flowing rapidly away from Warsaw, its burden of bodies propelled carelessly along, like so much flotsam.

A partially clad woman clung to something as the current took her. A log? A piece of planking from the broken bridge? Delirious from the fall, she was certain she was dying—or had died. Her faith—or the hazy filaments of a childhood belief that she conjured now—suggested she might expect to ascend into heaven as if on wings. Or plummet to a hell she had thought little about.

But she was being carried in an undulating line—like a weightless twig—through the drumming rush of water. The sparkling interplay of the afternoon sunshine on the water was deceiving, for the river was brutally cold.

The woman’s mind inexplicably fastened on to the mythical river that was thought to usher one to the Greek underworld. Her cousin had told her about it—the river Acheron, was it? She dared not open her eyes.

What was she to expect in the underworld? There would be the fee for the ferry boat operator. Did she have any coins? She thought not, and without a coin he would not bring her across. Everyone knew that. Might she use her charms on him? Were charms of her kind taken as legal tender in the underworld? She had her doubts.

Her heart felt the icy fingers of the river upon it. How was she to account for her life? The things she had done?

The numbing water seemed to run faster now—like her fear—rushing her to her fate.

The ancient Poles had believed that those who died by drowning were doomed to become water spirits, forever residing in the waters where they had met death. She imagined Marzanna, Goddess Death, waiting for her at the river’s end, dressed in white and carrying her scythe.

The woman pushed the Polish deity from her mind. At the age of twenty, she had run out of time. So? What of it? She had often proclaimed that the years of her youth were ducats to be spent. Wishing she had lived a better life was useless. Just as well, she thought—she had never been one for apologies. Or regrets.

She was cold, cold to the bone. She took in a mouthful of water and coughed. Despite the urge, she knew not to move a hand to her face. To do so would cause her to lose her grip, and the river would draw her to its bottom. Her arms and hands were frozen in position, locked on to the object they were holding . . . holding.

And if God was the Christian God of her parents’ beliefs, she wondered, would he forgive her?
With the numbing cold, she felt darkness descending—and the angry resignation that death was imminent. It was as certain as the fall of night’s curtain. . . . Dog’s blood! How had she come to such an ignominious end?

* * *

The villagers who had hurried down to the river’s edge stared in horror at the cargo the River Vistula was carrying past them. Those transfixed with wide eyes were mostly women, their men having gone off to fight with Kościuszko against the invading forces. An old man gawked much like the others—in silence—as the flotilla of human bodies moved steadily along. Sometimes a corpse became enmeshed in the weeds and foliage at the bank of the river, but the force of other bodies following a similar fateful journey goaded it once again on its way—or the water’s strong current drew it down toward the murky bottom.

In disbelief, the old man turned toward Warsaw; the city was a great distance away, twenty miles upriver, but he could see an eerie, orange glow and above that, thick black smoke rising high into the air. Had the capital fallen to the Russians? God help us all, he prayed. Then aloud: “God and the Black Madonna!”
The man’s grandson had braved the sight, going close to the shore.

The old man called him back. This was no sight for a sixteen-year-old, even one already wounded in the patriots’ cause. The boy seemed not to hear.
“Jerzy, come back!” he called again.

His grandson turned, a queer look on his face, and waved him forward.

Without questioning, the old man obeyed.

When he came to the shore, his eyes widened at the sight that held Jerzy spellbound. A raven-haired woman clung to what looked like planking that had become caught in the thick reeds and tubers at the river’s side. Her skirt was red as blood, and she was naked above the waist. She was both young and beautiful, . . . Something about her told him she must certainly be noble.

The old man saw now what Jerzy had seen. Little bubbles at her mouth. Damn! The woman was gasping for breath. She was alive!

The peasant understood what his grandson meant to do and moved closer to assist.

Jerzy immediately stepped into the water, reaching for the woman with one arm while the other linked him to his grandfather and to the river’s bank.

Jerzy tugged at one of the woman’s arms, trying to force her to let go of what had held her afloat. Her skin was nearly blue. “Let go! Let go!” he cried.

She remained insensible to his directions. The mouth seemed to twist and tighten. Her clawlike hands held fast.
The current spun her body now, pulling her, whipping her legs and lower body out toward the river’s middle, as if the river had mighty hands that would not allow her to be rescued.

Jerzy held on, persisting in loosening her grip, pulling back one finger, then another. At last her hand came free and came to clasp his as he pulled her to him.  Her other hand willingly released that which had held her afloat the long distance from Warsaw, and as the old man aided his grandson in pulling the woman to safety, he saw that she had set free the red uniformed body of a Russian soldier, its mustachioed face blue and bloated beneath the waters.

Part One

The doorstep of the palace is slippery.
—Polish proverb

Warsaw,  1794
The West Gate, 13 December 

Her heart contracting in fear, Anna returned the ice blue gaze of the Russian soldier who stared up through the open doorway of the covered carriage—and she thought she could do murder.

Here was a man with power, the power to keep her from the home she had not seen in three years, from the child who had been sent to safety there two months before, and from the man who should have been her husband in ’91 had it not been for fate and the interference of others. . . .

The soldier’s beadlike, wolfish eyes moved over her, and Anna instantly felt a shiver travel up from the base of her spine—until she had to fend off a trembling at her shoulders. She would not be cowed. Her back stiffened as she steeled her nerves.

“What is your destination?” he demanded in broken Polish for the second time.

“Sochaczew.” She kept her voice steady. “To my family home.” Her reply came in Polish. She would not let him know she could speak his tongue.


His brusqueness did not surprise Anna. Nothing since the fall of Warsaw into Russian hands surprised her anymore. “Here,” she said, handing him the parchment Pawel had given her.

She tried not to watch as he officiously perused the documents. Her upper teeth tore at her lower lip as she silently cursed him—and a fate that had brought thousands of such interlopers into Poland, catapulting them into positions of power.

The open door allowed for the coach interior to go cold as a vault. But Anna had more serious concerns and a chill that ran deeper. What if she was denied egress from the city? What if he saw fit to take her into custody? What if –

“Your purpose in Sochaczew?” he barked, failing to address her properly. The man was impudent. She knew that if he could read, he had to be aware of her title.

“My mother is near death.”

His eyes narrowed as if to assess her veracity. “Too bad.”

It was a lie, of course, but Anna felt confident that he could have no way of knowing both of her parents had died in ’91. She neither flinched nor turned away her gaze. The ruddiness of his face—that not hidden by a great black mustache—was enlivened by the red of his uniform.

“And when will you return to Warsaw?”

“I am not certain. Such things are hard to predict.”
“Of course,” he said without a trace of empathy. “And this?” He nodded toward the passenger opposite Anna, as if she were a parcel.

“Lutisha, my servant.”

He looked from one to the other. “Any weapons to declare?”



Were they to be searched? “I am quite certain, Captain.” Anna smiled nicely. She knew well the soldier’s uniform was that of a lieutenant. It couldn’t hurt to inflate his stature a bit.

He did not correct her. “Very well.” Without further questions, he handed the document back to Anna and slammed the door. “Move on!” he called to Anna’s driver.

The carriage lurched and rumbled forward, passing through the city’s western gate. The fingers of her right hand moved over the folds of her dress, lightly tracing the object stowed in a hidden pocket—her pistol.

Anna smiled at the wide-eyed Lutisha—so faithful a servant—hoping to reassure her, but her own heart continued to race. The swine! The filthy swine! She had won the little battle with the Russian soldier but cursed him nonetheless. He, with the assumed power he held over her, had put fear into her breast, and she was tired to death of being fearful.

As the carriage moved away from the city, Anna took herself to task, for it was fear that had made her draw closed the leather window curtains at the outset of their journey. In leaving Pawel’s town house on Piwna Street, they had passed through the Outer Courtyard of the Royal Castle, and Anna could not bear to look at the palace, knowing as she did that Poland’s monarchy was most likely at an end. Even less did she want to see across the River Vistula to the once-vibrant suburb of Praga, now in charred ruins, her aunt’s pristine white town house on the bluff burnt to cinders. She smiled tightly at Lutisha’s puzzlement and gave no explanation for shutting out the light.

The cobblestones now gave way to the hard earth of winter, and the carriage started to bounce and roll through the countryside at a moderate clip.

Anna’s fear ebbed. The journey—barring the unforeseen—would take less than a day. They should arrive at her estate in time for supper. She would be home. She felt lucky, indeed, for her family estate remained intact while Jan had lost his estate at Uście Zielone and her cousin Zofia had lost both the family estate at Halicz and the town house in Praga, all to the invading Russians.

Anna and Lutisha sat in silence and semidarkness for half an hour.

“May I open my curtain, madame?” Lutisha asked at last.

“What? Oh, yes, of course.” The briefest of knowing looks on Lutisha’s face told Anna she had misjudged her, that the servant knew exactly why Anna had closed it.

Anna opened her own curtain now, too. The sun was shining brightly for a cold December day. She sat at the small window, her eyes on the passing flat expanses of whitened fields, patches of birch and evergreen forests, an occasional manor house—and myriad cottages and huts where people tended to their animals, living their lives as their ancestors had done. Each blink of the eye produced a new living portrait. She wondered at the sights, for they gave no clue to what Poland had endured, no clue to what had befallen her country. The sights touched a place in her heart, a joyless place, because she knew that this was merely the appearance of things, for the peasants’ losses were as heartrending as those of any other patriot. A close examination of the passing scenes revealed many more women than men at their tasks. A multitude of their men had willingly taken up scythes at the call of Tadeusz Kościuszko. Many of them had been slain by the allied powers of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. They would not be returning to their modest homes.

Lutisha sat across from Anna, her large round face a stoic mask, her fingers moving over the beads of a well-worn rosary. Still, the gray eyes of the old and corpulent servant could not veil their sadness, blinking at long intervals like the eyes of a falcon.

How loyal she is, Anna thought, loyal and brave and strong! With the Russians descending on Warsaw, she had chosen to stay with Anna and Zofia in the city rather than leave with her daughter’s family for the safety of the country.

“You’ll see Marta and her family in time for supper, Lutisha.”

The woman’s toothless smile lifted Anna’s spirit. It struck her how alike was this peasant to Aunt Stella, the countess Lutisha had served all her life. One noble at birth, one peasant—and yet both born with Polish hearts and souls. Aunt Stella . . . Anna’s own heart caught. Countess Stella Gronska had been fortunate in that she had not lived to see the destruction of her Praga town house, the fall of Warsaw, and the impending dissolution of her beloved homeland. Anna turned her gaze again to the passing landscape. She could not help but wonder whether her own son would grow up to call this land Poland.