Promise Land | John Guzlowski

Promise Land

Coming to America
When I asked my mother what we had when we came from the camps in Germany,
she shrugged and started the list: some plates, a wooden comb, some barley bread, a crucifix, two pillows and a frying pan, letters from a friend in America.

We were as poor as mud, she said, and prayed for so little: to find her sister, to work,
to not think about the dead, to live without anger or fear.

The Farms of Buffalo, New York
In the orchards that first fall, my mother and father picked apples, red ones sweet as white sugar, and my sister and I waited near the ladders to catch the apples before they touched the ground, but our hands were small, the apples big and hard. They came so fast, like stones thrown by bad boys.

We begged our mother to please let us go back home to the camps in Germany. We’d be good. We’d be careful when we picked the strawberries in the spring. We wouldn’t stop till we were done, and we promised we’d never cry if she’d let us go back.

But her heart was stripped to bone, and she told us if we didn’t work, we would die there in Buffalo.

Winter in America
My mother remembered the German cold, winters that broke the souls of old people and left children frozen like wheat stalks in the fields, hollow reeds the winds and ice blew through.

In Buffalo, there was cold too. Picking the apples in early November, she felt it on her hands and feet, remembered the wooden shoes she wore in the work camps, how
cold the frozen wood was on her skin as she dug for beets in Germany.

She knew nothing about America but thought that maybe farther west, there wouldn’t be so much snow.

We lived in a single room, slept on the floor, went to the bathroom outside like in the refugee camps, but no one here spoke German. At night we stared out the window at the cars in the street. They struggled in the snow where a green bus sank into a white hill tall as a cow.

My father hugged me and said, “In the spring the snow will melt and turn to water,” and I asked him will the water be like the sea, will a bus take us back to Buffalo or will we sail on the hard gray waves all the way back to Germany.

My mom answered before he could. “This is America, and here’s where we stay.”

My Father’s First Job in Chicago
That winter working a construction job west of Chicago, my father loved the houses, how fragile they looked, the walls made of thin layers of brick, the floors just a single planking of plywood.

A fussy, sleepy child could destroy such homes. They weren’t meant to witness bombing or the work of snipers or killer tanks.

He worked there until the cold and wind cut him, and he found himself thinking for hours of the way he stacked bricks in the ruins of Magdeburg and Berlin.

Finally, he quit, not because he was afraid but because he knew he could without fear

He left his shovel standing at an angle in a pile of sand.

In the House across the Street from the Church
I pretended I was a baby, walked on all fours, saw things I didn’t understand, a couch, a lamp, a new refrigerator.

Later, my hassock seat was a blue boat in a white ocean the waves higher than the trees in the front yard, and I thought about the lost girl in the story my father told me: why was she in the wrong forest, was the girl dark like the children who live next door in the red house, why did the witch spin in her rags, dance a polka and then fall down?

Later, I looked out the window and saw a penny in the grass. When I went outside to get the penny it was not there, but when I stood again at the window, there it was.

I wondered who I will be in the story my father will tell when he comes home from the factory where he makes white string like the string in my shirt. Will I be the sister who runs away or King Sobieski riding a blind horse searching for her in the yellow mountains?

Later, I baked bread in the TV set and kissed everything in the house. The dirt in the flower pot tasted like chocolate, the carpet hurt my lips.

Later, I was a rabbit and a father afraid of stealers, and I grew wings and flew to the ceiling above my head.

Years Later in America
My mother took her deaths hard and quiet. She hid her mourning in the bedroom, the door closed. Behind it her grief turned to anger, and her anger turned to fear. She feared everything, the sky in the morning, a drink of water, a sparrow singing in a dream. She feared my father’s love and faith, and she beat him. She feared my sister’s love and need, and she beat her. She feared my love and taught me love was the thing you left behind in the mud on the side of a road.

My Mother Dying in a Blue Room in Arizona
I wait for her to stand again and sing about the young girl who stares into the deep well and dreams of her lover whose blood gives life to the poppies on Cassino.

And I want her to call me Johnny again and take my hand and dance an arm-twirling Polka the way she did when I was six and she could not have yet dreamed her own dying or all the distance between us.

And I want her to tell me “Tso benje, benj” (what will be will be).

And I want to believe that these words are some kind of grace that will free her from her ocean of fears.

Life in America
At the end my father sat in his garden in the early morning, the desert in Sun City, Arizona, still cool, the clear light tinged with desert blue, the pigeons cooing.

He couldn’t lift the shovel anymore, drag the bag of topsoil from here to there. He couldn’t breathe or stand either. There wasn’t much left to him.

But he could nod toward an orange tree, its roots bound in burlap, and point to the place
where he wanted me to plant it.

There, he’d say to me in Polish, please plant it there.

John Guzlowski’s writing appears in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, The Ontario Review, Modern Fiction Studies, Exquisite Corpse, Atlanta Review, Crab Orchard Review, Rattle, Atticus Review, The Drunken Boat, and other print and online journals here and abroad.  His poetry collection Lightning and Ashes tells the story of his parents and their experiences in World War II.


  1. Anisoara

    Hi John,
    It reminds me of when we first came to Canada, I was 8. Long after WWII, but my mother never recovered from the trauma
    as a young teen.My father’s brothers were less than welcoming, for she felt so alone that she attempted to take her own life. It must have taken my father great effort to hide everything from me. She survived and I vaguely remember her bandaged wrists after she had been whisked out of the bathroom…perhaps I shouldn’t be so candid,but you really struck a cord with me.

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