Word Count: 492
By Anne Nassar
They were descended from Polish royalty, or so her mother always said. But she said it with her customary sardonic smile, so Anna couldn’t tell if she was serious or not.If in fact, they were of royal blood, they had certainly disgraced it. They lived like pigs, in filth and squalor. Their attic had been colonized by birds and bats. Their cellar was full of mice. The humans could only use the three ground level rooms, and there were eleven of them. There was no point in trying to clean, or be clean, not when there were dirty, bad smelling people all around you.
Anna wanted many things: more food, money, boots, a hat…but more than anything, she wanted to be alone. She wanted to live all alone in her own house. She imagined her siblings knocking on her fancy door, and her servant turning them away. She did not feel at all guilty about this recurrent fantasy, until her siblings began to die. Of the nine children in the family, six died of influenza. Her mother was considered lucky. Some families lost all of their children.
One such family was the Ciembrowskis. They lived in the “Big House” – the best house in town, an elegant three story mansion made of brick. Mr. Ciembrowski owned a grist mill. They had nothing to do with Anna’s family, and it was no wonder. Anna was not even fit to be their maid, or so her mother said. Yet, Anna was sent for.
Anna walked to the Big House, trembling, cheeks burning, trying to keep her head up. She wondered if, upon arriving, she would be turned away, if there was a misunderstanding. But she was shown to the parlor.
Mrs. Ciembrowski was seated in a tall backed chair, wearing a beautiful dress. Her hair was clean and piled up in shining waves on top of her head. But her face was grey, and her lips were bluish and the skin around her eyes was black. Her teeth could be seen through her sunken cheeks. Anna, she said, did you know that we are related?
Anna knew that a response was expected, but she had no idea what. She froze.Mrs. Ciembrowski politely moved on. My daughter Mary has died. We were going to send her to America, to keep her safe from this disease, but we waited too long. She sat back and nodded, and Anna understood that she was to approach.
Mrs. Ciembrowski handed her a piece of paper, and said, you are to go to America in her place. In order to use the ticket that was purchased, you must pretend to be Mary Ciembrowski. That is your name now.And so Anna became Mary. She never told anyone her real name, until it was time to die, and then she only told Tessa, and only because she saw that Tessa had begun to change into someone new. It could be done, she knew.