Mr. Lasko Goes to L’viv
A prequel story to The Silent Unseen
L’viv (Lwów) Poland | March 2, 1942
It was so cold in the priest’s office that Kostya could see his breath on the air, but his palms were sweating.
A German infantry unit was drilling out on the square. Kostya couldn’t see them — the little office window was clouded over with frost and old grime — but he could hear them. He could hear the instructor shouting commands. Ein, zwei, drei. Each word hit Kostya’s ears like a blow. His stomach squirmed. “Wait here,” the priest had said, “I’ll be back.” He hadn’t been gone very long — three minutes. There was a clock on the wall behind the desk. But three minutes was long enough. Three minutes was long enough for him to have gotten down to the square and told the Germans about the criminal in his office. Three minutes was long enough for Kostya to sit here imagining everything the Germans would do to him. Everything they would do to Mama and Lesya once they were finished with him.
He’d been stupid to come here.
He’d been stupid to trust the priest — to sit here waiting obediently, trusting him, just because he was a man of God and Kostya had been brought up to trust men of God. The priest would sell him to the Germans to save his own neck, just like anybody else. Kostya had come the ninety kilometers from Bród without a travel permit. That made him a criminal. Everybody knew the price for sheltering criminals. He’d been stupid to come.
There were footsteps in the hall — two pairs of footsteps. The priest wasn’t alone.
Kostya got up, facing the door. Too late to run, but he would fight.
The priest opened the door and stood there holding it open. The second man saw Kostya and came up short in the doorway.
Then he straightened. His face was blank, no sign of recognition. Just that moment of hesitation.
“Give us a minute, Father,” he said quietly to the priest.
He wasn’t tall. Kostya, not yet fifteen, five years younger, was taller. But his presence was commanding. He spoke with the expectation of being obeyed — and in fact the priest was already nodding and ducking away without a word of protest, as if he were glad to be gone.
Kostya fought the urge to back away. He had never seen his cousin, Kyrylo Romaniuk, in the flesh, not that he could remember. He had seen a photograph, but the photograph was ten years old, a photograph of a boy. This Kyrylo in the doorway was a man. This Kyrylo was a stranger.
Kyrylo shut the office door.
He was wearing civilian clothes, city clothes, suit and pressed shirt and tie, but the suit jacket was open, and Kostya could see the pistol on the strap under his arm. He was an uncannily familiar stranger. He looked enough like Papa that it hurt a little. He was Papa’s sister’s son. He had Papa’s hair, Kostya’s hair, not exactly brown, not exactly blond. It was cut so close to his scalp that it looked dark except for when the light caught it. His face was cold and smooth and hard like a mask, nothing at all like Papa’s, but you could see the Lasko resemblance in the set of his jaw.
He crossed the room all at once — so quickly and sharply that Kostya did back away, caught off guard. Kyrylo yanked the cord, dropped the window blinds, and snapped the curtain shut, shutting out the daylight.
He rounded on Kostya, snaking out a hand to catch Kostya by the collar. “Are you an idiot?”
Kostya found the desk behind him, reassuringly solid. He closed his hands on the edge of the desktop. His heart was pounding. It wasn’t how he had expected this conversation to start, so he wasn’t sure how to proceed. “N-no, I’m Kostya — Kostyantyn Vitaliyovych Lasko. Your cousin Kostyantyn.”
Kyrylo’s grip didn’t relent. His voice was low and furious. “How the hell did you find this place?”
“At your flat. She said to come here — the landlady. Mrs. Shevchuk. She said you’d be here.”
“How did you find the flat?”
Panic fluttered in Kostya’s stomach. “Mama had the address. My mother — Klara Lasko. She had the address written down. I think when you left the boarding school — ”
“Listen to me.” Kyrylo’s fingers tightened, yanking Kostya’s head down. “Stop saying names. Not my name, not your name, not your mother’s name. We’re nothing to each other, got it? You’re nothing to me.”
“I’m sor — ”
Kyrylo shook him so hard his teeth snapped together. “Got it?”
Kyrylo shoved him away. “Stay here. Keep quiet. I’m going to talk to Father Kliment. He’ll find you a ride home. You’ve got your papers?”
“Please — I need your help,” Kostya said.
“You’re going home. What the hell were you thinking? I don’t want to see you here ever again.”
“They took Lyudya,” Kostya said.
Kyrylo paused at the door. “What?”
“My sister Lyudya. They took her in one of the roundups — the Germans. I think she’s here — at the transit camp here. Somebody said all the ones from Bród go through the L’viv camp. And I went, and I tried to talk — ”
“You went to the transit camp?”
“I tried to talk to the — whoever’s in charge, because she’s already got the work permit, the Arbeitsbuch, and they’re not supposed to take you if you’ve already got it, but — ”
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“They made a mistake,” Kostya said stiffly. “She’s already got the work permit. They made a mistake.”
“Do you think they give a shit?”
“I just need to talk to them. And I thought — ”
“You’re lucky they didn’t pick you up too.”
“Please,” Kostya said. “I just thought you could talk to them.”
Kyrylo’s face was shadowed in the half-light. His voice was quiet. “Nobody can talk to them, Kostya.”
“But you speak German. Mama said — ”
“Listen to me. It doesn’t matter, do you understand? It doesn’t matter if she had a permit. It doesn’t matter if we beg them in German. They do whatever they want, no consequences. You can’t reason with people like that. The best you can do is try to give them something else they want. Do you have money?”
Kostya didn’t say anything. His face burned. It was a deliberate jab: Kyrylo knew the Laskos didn’t have money. If the Laskos had money, they could have taken Kyrylo in after his parents were arrested, back in the thirties when the Polish government was stamping out communists and Ukrainian nationalists and other so-called traitors. Instead, Kyrylo had gone to an orphanage in L’viv — a Polish orphanage, a Roman Catholic orphanage. Eventually, his uncle in Canada, his father’s brother, had paid to get him out and send him to an expensive boarding school instead, but if Kyrylo had forgiven, he had never forgotten — and Kostya wasn’t sure he had forgiven. They had heard nothing from him since he left the orphanage. Mama had that address on a scrap of paper; that was it. She kept it dutifully with all the other family papers behind the Theotokos in the icon corner back home, and she kept Kyrylo in the family prayers each night. But even that address had come from somebody at the boarding school, not from Kyrylo himself.
Kyrylo exhaled heavily. “I’m going to get Father Kliment. Wait here.”
“I’ll pay you back,” Kostya said in a rush.
“I don’t have any money.” Kostya’s heart pounded. If Mama knew what he was doing — if Mama knew he were here, begging like this. Forgetting every last bit of pride he had and crawling to Kyrylo Romaniuk like this. “But if you — if you could . . .” He faltered, swallowed up in the shame. “I’ll pay you back, I swear. Whatever it takes. Whatever I have to do.”
Kyrylo wasn’t even listening. He was holding up a hand. “Quiet.”
“Please. I’ll do any — ”
Kyrylo’s hand was over his mouth.“Quiet.”
Kostya shut up. Voices and footsteps were coming down the hall.
“Keep your mouth shut.” Kyrylo held a warning finger in Kostya’s face. “I’ll handle this.” He shoved Kostya away and opened the door.
The priest was outside. His face loomed right at the opening. He’d been preparing to knock.
“Lys,” he said. His voice was low and urgent — a warning.
Another man pushed past the priest, throwing the door all the way open.
“I know what you’re playing at, Lys,” he snarled at Kyrylo. “You and your priest, going behind my back, plotting — ”
He caught sight of Kostya all at once. His flinty, furious blue eyes shredded Kostya like blades. “Who the hell is this?”
Kyrylo leaned against the desk and lit a cigarette, slowly and reflectively. His face was blank.
“Sir,” he said. “He brought a tip on another roundup.”
Flint Eyes was still shredding Kostya to pieces. “Whose is he? Yours? I don’t know him.”
“Not on the circuit.” Kyrylo sucked a long drag, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Came to us on his own. I wanted to make sure the tip was credible before I wasted your ti — ”
“I decide what’s credible.”
“You.” Flint Eyes flicked impatient fingers at Kostya. “Who the hell are you?”
Kyrylo’s eyes came over to Kostya’s. Stop saying names. Not my name. Not your name.
“V-Valerik,” Kostya managed hoarsely. It was the first name he could think of, and he was a little afraid that was because he had seen it on some paper right there on the priest’s desk. But it was too late to take it back now. “Valerik, sir.”
“Valerik,” Flint Eyes repeated.
Flint Eyes reached inside his coat, brought out a pistol, snapped the slide, and put the muzzle against Kostya’s forehead.
“All right, Valerik. Give me the tip.”
The priest in the doorway said, “Marko — ” just as Kyrylo said, “Sir, they’ll hear a shot up here.”
Marko ignored them both. “Give me the tip, Valerik.”
Kostya’s lips were numb with panic. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t think. Kyrylo’s eyes bored into him. Lie to him, they said, lie to him, you idiot, tell him anything — but he couldn’t think of anything except the cold mouth of the pistol on his skin, and whether it was really true that it didn’t hurt, that it happened too fast to hurt, and how did anybody really know . . . ?
“One last chance, Valerik,” Marko said.
“I — I came for help,” Kostya stammered. “For your help.”
“I told him I had a tip because I n-need to talk to you.” Kostya’s teeth chattered. He clenched them tightly. His knees were quivering. “I need your help. Didn’t know how else. He wouldn’t let me t-talk to you.”
Marko’s voice was tinged with suspicion. “What kind of help?”
Behind Marko, Kyrylo shook his head once. The priest was frozen in the doorway.
Kostya swallowed. His throat was closed. The words were stuck in a lump on the back of his tongue. “M-my s-sis — ”
The pistol pushed against his forehead. “Stop stammering.”
Kostya shut his eyes. “My sister. She’s at the transit camp next to the train station. I came to ask if you could get her out. If you could help me get her out.”
“How did you know to come here? Who told you to come here?”
Kostya opened his eyes to steal a frantic glance at Kyrylo.
Lie to him, Kyrylo’s eyes commanded coldly, lie to him — but Kostya couldn’t think of a lie, and the mouth of the pistol was cold and hard on his skin.
“Shevchuk,” he whispered. “Her name was Shevchuk. At the flats by Kościuszki Park.”
“Shevchuk.” Marko tilted his head. “One of yours?” he asked Kyrylo over his shoulder.
“Yes, sir.” Kyrylo wasn’t looking at Kostya now.
Marko was silent for a moment, head tilted, considering. Abruptly, he took the pistol away from Kostya’s forehead.
“You — priest.” He jerked his chin. “Take Valerik below.”
The priest hesitated, flicking an uneasy glance at Kyrylo. “Below?”
“Make me repeat an order again — any of you.” Marko gestured impatiently with the pistol. “Yes, below, take him below. Get him something to eat. Lys and I have a little security problem to solve.”
Below was the crypt beneath the nave. Kostya would have found it calming normally, this cool, dark, quiet room under the earth — reassuringly holy and familiar, smelling of earth and smoke and candle wax. But it felt wrong. It felt unsettled. It looked like an office now, strewn with tables and chairs and cabinets and electronics and papers, lit harshly with bare electric bulbs strung on a wire across the vaulted ceiling. It made him uncomfortable — the wrongness of it, the profanity of it. The invasion of paperwork and electric lights into this dark, sacred space.
Mostly he kept thinking about how sound wouldn’t carry down here — how a gunshot wouldn’t carry. How they could put a bullet in his head down here and none of those Germans drilling out on the square would even hear it. Nobody above would ever know. Mama would never know.
He couldn’t help thinking about it. The priest had been uneasy when Marko said take him below. The priest had tried to protest.
Kyrylo hadn’t done anything.
It hurt more than Kostya wanted to admit. He thought Kyrylo would do something. That whole time, he’d been waiting for Kyrylo to do something. To knock the pistol out of Marko’s hand. To stop it.
But Kyrylo hadn’t done anything except lean on the desk, smoking and watching, and Kyrylo hadn’t said anything except, Sir, they’ll hear a shot up here.
Not Don’t shoot. Not Sir, they’ll hear a shot.
Sir, they’ll hear a shot up here.
And Marko had said, Take him below.
Below, which was not up here.
Below, where they wouldn’t hear a shot.
And Kyrylo had said nothing, and Kyrylo had done nothing.
We’re nothing to each other. You’re nothing to me.
Kyrylo was never going to do anything for a Lasko. How could Kostya have been so stupid? Kyrylo had never forgiven and was never going to forgive.
The priest was gone. Kostya was sitting here on the cold, flagged floor like a prisoner under the watchful eyes of some of Marko’s men. He assumed they were Marko’s men. Maybe they were Kyrylo’s. They all had pistols on their belts or, like Kyrylo, in shoulder holsters under their arms. One of them offered Kostya a cigarette. He shook his head, teeth clenched tightly. Mama would break his head if she knew he’d been smoking. The man laughed and said something Kostya didn’t catch, and they all laughed. Somebody brought a boiled potato for him, but he didn’t touch that either, even though it was still beautifully steaming hot, and the smell made his mouth water, and the protesting murmur in his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since the wood outside Malekhiv, the day before last, when he ate the last of the old bread in his pack.
He had no idea what he was going to eat on the way home. He had knotted the last of his money in his scarf and stuffed it through the wire at the transit camp yard when the soldier on guard wasn’t looking. “For Lyudya Lasko,” he told the Polish woman prisoner who took it. “Lyudya Lasko, sixteen years old, from Bród.” He had no idea whether it had gotten to her. He wanted to think it had. The woman promised it would. He wished he had saved some of that bread to knot in the scarf too.
Footsteps on the crypt stairs. Marko was coming down from the nave with Kyrylo.
Marko’s pistol was holstered now. He had a hand clapped familiarly on the back of Kyrylo’s neck. Kyrylo looked very small beside Marko. He came barely to Marko’s chin. If they were standing back to back — Kostya and Kyrylo — Kyrylo would come just about to the top of Kostya’s ear. It was a satisfying thought.
“Come here, Valerik,” Marko ordered Kostya.
They all sat at one of the tables, Marko and Kyrylo and Kostya. There were maps on the table. One was a map of L’viv, all the streets and rail lines, even the buildings. One was a map of all of Poland, like the map that used to be on the wall in the schoolhouse back home in Bród. Somebody had added Bród in pen to that map in the schoolhouse since Bród wasn’t big enough to be there on its own. There was no Bród on this map, but Kostya knew where it would be if there were: a fingernail’s width up the river from Radyvyliv, just off the thin line of road that ran between Radyvyliv and Dubno. He remembered. He remembered because Lyudya had showed him. She decided she was going to university in L’viv. He asked how far it was from Bród to L’viv, so she showed him on the map in the schoolhouse. Ninety kilometers. She was twelve then, and he had been almost ten. He remembered.
“You’re brave, Valerik,” Marko said. “You’re a brave kid.” He lit a cigarette and held the pack out to Kostya. When Kostya shook his head, he offered it to Kyrylo. “He’s got guts,” he said. “Keeps his story straight when he’s got a gun against his head. Keeps his cool — eh, Lys?”
Kyrylo selected a cigarette, slipped it between his teeth, and leaned forward to let Marko light it. His eyes were somewhere distant. His hands shook a little as he took a drag. “Sir.”
“How old are you, Valerik?” Marko asked.
Kostya’s stomach was tying itself in uneasy knots. He doubled his hands into fists under the table and looked at the map of Poland. “Fifteen,” he said. “Almost fifteen.” Almost fifteen sounded better than fourteen. Almost fifteen was practically grown up. Almost fifteen was old enough to be unafraid of these men with guns across the table from him.
“I could use a brave kid like you,” Marko said. “I’ve got work for you. A real man’s work. How would you like to join the UPA, Valerik?”
Kostya swallowed, keeping his eyes on the map. He should have guessed what this place was — what Kyrylo was. The landlady Mrs. Shevchuk hadn’t actually said “UPA” when she sent him here, but he should have guessed. Radical Ukrainian nationalists. Terrorists, like the ones who blew up trains and assassinated politicians back in the thirties. Like Kyrylo’s father. He should have guessed.
“I can’t,” he said.
“It’s paid work,” Marko said.
The emphasis felt deliberate, paid work, the way Kyrylo’s question had felt deliberate — Do you have money? when of course he knew Kostya didn’t. He had probably told Marko how Kostya had come begging for money. How Kostya Lasko had dared come beg him for money.
“I can’t,” Kostya said, teeth clenched. “I have to find my sister.”
“At the transit camp.” Marko let out a smoky breath. “When was the roundup?”
“Last week. Last Monday. The twenty-third.”
“She’s already gone, Valerik. If she was healthy, she’s already gone. The healthy ones don’t stay here. They go to Germany. Are you going to go to Germany?”
“If I have to.”
“There — I said he’s got guts.” Marko jostled Kyrylo’s arm. “I said he’s got guts, didn’t I, Lys?”
Kyrylo pulled on his cigarette, eyes narrowed, as though whatever he saw in the distance had gone out of focus. “Guts for brains.”
Marko laughed — a short, ugly bark of a laugh. Kostya’s face burned. Bad enough being the butt of a joke. Worse being the butt of a joke he wasn’t sure he got.
“I have to go,” he said tightly.
“See, now you’re being stupid,” Marko said.
“I have to go.”
“No — Lys is right.” Marko stubbed the ash from his cigarette. “Guts for brains. That makes you stupid, Valerik.”
Kostya shoved to his feet, scraping his chair back.
Kyrylo moved just as quickly. He slipped his pistol from the shoulder holster and trained it on Kostya across the table. “Sit down.”
Kostya stared into the mouth of Kyrylo’s pistol. His feet were rooted to the flagstones. A tremor of panic had started in the pit of his stomach. His mind was stumbling over itself frantically: Nobody will hear, nobody will know, nobody will ever know —
“Sit down, Valerik,” Kyrylo snapped.
Numbly, Kostya sat. Kyrylo’s pistol followed him back into the chair.
“You have to let me go.” It came out in a whisper. The panic was crawling up his throat. “Please — you have to let me go. I won’t talk, I swear. I won’t tell anybody anything.”
“Your sister in the transit camp.” Marko exhaled — a long, soft, smoky breath. “You would do anything for her, wouldn’t you, Valerik? You would go to Germany for her.”
It was a trick. Kostya was sure it was a trick. He slipped his hands back under the table and clamped them tightly over his trembling knees. “Yes,” he whispered to the maps on the table.
“You would go to the camp commandant, wouldn’t you?” Marko smiled at him coldly, triumphant. “You would go to the commandant and trade intelligence on the UPA for your sister’s release. Wouldn’t you, Valerik?”
Kostya didn’t say anything. He clutched his knees and looked at the maps.
“See — you already said too much.” Marko’s voice was quiet. “Now the only way I let you go is with a bullet in your head. Do you understand?”
Kostya swallowed. His mouth was as dry as dust.
“Look at me, Valerik,” Marko said softly.
Kostya concentrated intently on the map of Poland — on the little space where Bród would be, where home would be, a fingernail’s width above Radyvyliv.
Marko flicked his fingers at Kyrylo — a wordless command. Kostya looked at the space where Bród would be. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. It happens too fast to hurt.
Kyrylo lowered his pistol.
Marko gestured impatiently, irritated. “Do it.”
Kyrylo set the safety and slipped the pistol back into the shoulder holster. “He’ll be useful.”
“He’s no good to me.”
“He’ll do what he’s told,” Kyrylo said.
“The same as you do, eh?”
“He’ll do what he’s told,” Kyrylo repeated, “because he knows what happens if he doesn’t — the same as I do.”
Kostya looked up. Kyrylo’s eyes met his, cool and blank. The threat dug at Kostya like a blade.
Mama and Lesya — he meant Mama and Lesya.
He meant he would hurt them.
He meant You do what we tell you, or I hurt them.
Kyrylo had never forgiven. He was never going to forgive. This was how he was going to make the Laskos pay.
Marko was looking back and forth from Kyrylo to Kostya. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you just lost your nerve, Lys. Can’t stomach it?”
Kyrylo pulled on his cigarette, eyes narrowed on Kostya’s face. “When it needs to be done, I’ll do it.”
Marko snorted. “If it needs to be done, that means you made a mistake, and I’ll kill both of you.”
“It’s a good thing I don’t make mistakes,” Kyrylo said, pulling on his cigarette.