The Girl from Zlot

Original Text: 
Jon Stallworthy, Rounding the Horn: Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998): 210-18.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle embowers
    The Lady of Shalott.
      Alfred, Lord Tennyson
1Mile after dark Silesian mile
2the river wears the forest's frown,
3only venturing a smile
4to greet a village or a town:
5    one on an island, where
6four grey walls and four grey towers
7see the patients come and go,
8and sufferers in the small hours,
9hearing a voice beside them, know
11Midnight: an emergency:
12at the operating table,
13opposite the surgeon
14she draws as deft a needle,
15    ties as neat a knot.
16When screens are drawn about a bed,
17voices lowered and feet swift,
18a sick child or a wounded
19miner on his final shift
20    asks for the girl from Zlot.
21Off duty, climbing a grey tower
22and in her attic opening
23a window on the lights below her,
24she stands a moment listening --
25    listening for what?
26Water talking to the wharves,
27wind to rushes; rowlocks -- a late
28fisherman -- where the river curves
29carrying its nightly freight
30    of longing down to Zlot.
31She strikes a match. The lamp
32ripens and irradiates
33folds of linen in her lap,
34a border she illuminates
35    with a needle dipped
36in silk. She has a mind to make
37a bedspread Book of Hours, and here
38in her dipping hand's slow wake
39pictures of the world appear:
40    her world, her manuscript.
41First, a workshop: workbench, wall,
42and a carpenter who stands
43catching a window's waterfall
44in a box between his hands.
45    He made it, matched the grain
46of oak or elm (as she, its shade
47of brown, the window's blue and green).
48He dovetailed the four sides, inlaid
49the lid. And in her second scene
50    he holds his box again.
51A gipsy fiddler and a lad
52hugging an accordion
53must be playing fast and loud
54to keep these couples dancing. One,
55    only one is not.
56It is a guardsman and his girl.
57The present he is giving her,
58his broad clear brow and coal-black curls,
59show him to be the carpenter,
60    and she? The girl from Zlot.
61Third, an attic: table, chair,
62orange moon and lemon lamp
63shining on a woman's hair.
64She has something in her lap.
65    Her right hand reaches out
66for something on the table --
67a box her hand will enter
68in search of thread or thimble
69given by the carpenter
70    to the girl from Zlot.
71There by night her needle flickers
72in the margin of her days
73till summer-lightning swastikas
74scissor the August haze.
75    One morning she comes down
76in a headscarf and a frock,
77wheels her cycle out and shakes
78across the cobbles, past the dock,
79over the owl-eyed bridge, and takes
80    the Zlot road out of town.
81The river keeps her company.
82Low and slow it holds its peace.
83Riding high and rapidly
84along the bank beneath the trees,
85    she sings to feel the earth
86freewheeling, the wind flattering;
87to discover in the shade
88of the vaulted colonnade
89a remote sun scattering
90    its petals in her path.
91The river keeps her company
92with its barges and the men
93shouting "Tow us home, honey",
94lifting briar funnels when
95    she waves and answers "Not
96today." The miles unwind. She leaves
97forest and towpath. Fields away,
98weary reapers, piling sheaves,
99hear her singing, stop, and say:
100    "There goes the girl from Zlot."
101Two closer voices clutch her heart:
102an old man talking to a horse
103and the grumble of a cart
104lurching from rut to rut. They pause.
106mane shaking, brings the last
107of the harvest and with it,
108as so often in the past,
109her master and her favourite
110    jingling home to Zlot.
111Of the young men who last year
112helped them shift the load and stack it,
113only one today is here
114(with a leave-pass in his jacket).
115    At tables set with flowers
116they eat their harvest supper, sing
117the old songs under the old moon
118until sleep enters harvesting
119the harvesters -- for two, too soon
120    to share their Book of Hours.
121Up at dawn and arm in arm
122strolling to the river-bank
123they hear the rumble of a storm,
124feel the earth shake, see a tank
125    break cover, growling. Squat,
126reptilian, a second, third,
127fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh snouting head
128sniffs the wind, and then a herd
129of lorries. "Those are Germans," said
130    the carpenter from Zlot.
131Instead of petals, bloodstains starred
132her path, and more than stubble burned
133next day. A pulse was thudding, scarred
134sky shrieking. And as she returned
135    across the bridge, she thought:
136If I come through today, tonight
137I have my Book of Hours, our bed-
138spread. Then, But how can I delight
139in pictures when he may be dead?
140    wondered the girl from Zlot.
141Four grey walls and four grey towers
142saw the stretchers come and go
143and walking wounded at all hours
144file across the blackened snow.
145    She saw them also, not
146with her eyes only, but renewed
147through a third, unblinking eye.
148These by lamplight had reviewed
149linen snow and linen sky
150    the night she heard the shot.
151She left her needle, left her room.
152She saw the swastikas, she saw
153the helmets' and the jackboots' bloom,
154the Lüger in the leather claw,
155    the doctor sprawling, dead.
156"Are you in charge?" The girl from Zlot
157nodded, mirroring the man's
158blue stare. "Civilians? I think not.
159Which of these are partisans?"
160    the Oberleutnant said.
161"None of them," she answered. "Then
162lead us to the morgue," he said,
163turned, and beckoning his men,
164followed the Polish nurses, led
165    by the girl from Zlot.
166Ten coffins on a flagstone floor.
167In front of each a woman stands.
168"Listen. I will ask once more:
169Which of those are partisans?
170    Remember or be shot."
171"There is nothing to remember,"
172said the girl from Zlot. "Turn round,"
173the Oberleutnant ordered them.
174"Lay your coffin-lids on the ground
175    and then get into bed."
176But when they raised the lids they saw
177a Polish or a German head.
178The baffled Lüger looked at the floor
179and the living looked at the dead.
180    "Get back upstairs," he said.
181Four grey walls and four grey towers
182saw Russians come and Germans go
183and visitors with food or flowers,
184epiphanies that she would sew.
185    And sights the sick forgot
186in sleep, or struggled to forget,
187she remembered and set down
188by candlelight until the night
189she had visitors of her own,
190    two visitors from Zlot.
191The years since they had gathered flax,
192cooked harvest suppers and made lace
193together, had left panzer-tracks
194on the older woman's face,
195    but in their caves of bone
196her eyes were smiling. "He has sent
197two hundred Deutschmarks for a guide
198to bring you to his regiment,
199if you want to be his bride,
200    inside the Allied Zone."
201"Your embroidery is nice,
202very nice," the peddler said.
203"In winter my cross-country price
204is not two but three hundred,
206for nice embroidery.
207Remember that I risk my life.
208You have no money, and would he
209prefer a present or a wife?"
210    he asked the girl from Zlot.
211All that day it had been snowing,
212and at twilight in the woods
213shifting drifts made heavy going
214for the three in sheepskin hoods
215    ghosting towards -- what --
216freedom or a foot-patrol?
217The peddler led and at the back,
218shouldering a bedding-roll
219as the man in front a pack,
220    stumbled the girl from Zlot.
221"They watch the river. Last week, twice,
222men were machine-gunned as they crossed
223silhouetted on the ice,
224but the tall pine on that crest
225    overlooks a spot
226of open water." There she found
227a floating branch, to which she roped
228her bedding-roll, and looking round
229kissed the flinty wind she hoped
230    was blowing towards Zlot.
231Drifts were smoking -- the wind, white --
232water, black. As she slid in,
233slant snow hid the men from sight.
234She heard nothing but the wind
235    until she heard the shot,
236the shout, more shooting, shouting, then
237nothing but the wind. A torch-
238beam trawled the river, trawled again
239across and back, but failed to catch
240    the swimming girl from Zlot.
241Death was reaching out his hand
242underwater when she thought,
243"I would rather die on land"
244and, reaching our her own hand, caught
245    a root and crawled ashore.
246Nothing but the wind was there
247offering an eiderdown,
248which she shook off, and woodsmoke -- where?
249Following its scent, at dawn
250    she knuckled a farmer's door.
251Faces came and went above her
252in a feverish parade:
253the Oberleutnant and her lover,
254moving lips that made
255    no sound. Though she could not
256move hand or foot, forest and field
257came and went before her eyes.
258Then she knew that she was sealed
259in a coffin carved from ice
260    and floating down to Zlot.
261Resurrected, in a bed
262draped with her embroidery,
263"How long have I been here?" she said.
264"A week? That leaves me less than three
265    to get where I have got
266to be." When she could lift her load,
267they let her go -- into the wind
268and snowdrifts of the longest road
269ever travelled or imagined
270    by the girl from Zlot.
271On the last night of the year
272in a lighted station, packed
273with refugees, he stooped to peer
274at huddled bundles with a cracked
275    suitcase and cooking pot.
276Her life was an open book
277when he found her curled asleep,
278and kneeling, reading, weeping, took
279her in his arms and to his jeep
280    carried the girl from Zlot.


10] Zlot: a town in Silesia or present-day Poland (not the small town in Srbija, Serbia and Montenegro). Back to Line
105] Cashtanka: proper name, meaning "horse chestnut." Anton Chekhov wrotes a short story about a dog namned "Kashtanka." Back to Line
205] GIs: US soldiers (from the phrase "government issue"). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
The Guest from the Future (1995).
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
Special Copyright: 

"The Girl from Zlot" from <i>Rounding the Horn</i> &#169; 1998 by Jon Stallworthy. Reprinted by permission of the author.