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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Checkout (06/09/11)

TITLE: The Countess
By Ann Grover


She stood out, like a lily among thistles, when she stepped off the train. It was more than the fur collar on her coat or her leather shoes; her regal and reserved bearing set her apart amidst the anguished and frenzied chaos.

How she’d kept so clean on the train was beyond my understanding. My own clothing was stained with vomit, sweat, and urine, and I reeked of smoke and fear.

“Please deliver my bags to my room,” I heard her say to a guard, who laughed, especially when the stately woman rifled through her handbag, I presumed for a coin or two.

She did not flinch when commanded to remove her fine clothing and shoes, nor when they sheared away her hair and flung delousing powder over her. Rather, she suffered the indignities and ministrations with serene composure.

We were assigned to the same barracks.

“I am Irena Wawelberg, wife of Doctor Antoni Wawelberg. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” She inclined her head gracefully and shook our hands. Gazing about at the crude bunks and planked floor, she asked, “When will the dining room be open? Has the concierge delivered my bags?”

We were speechless.

Irena, though elderly, was assigned to the clothing building, sewing Nazi uniforms, and her fingers bled from working with the stiff fabric, especially in the cold. Most people her age were taken away when they arrived, and at the time, we’d had no inkling of their destiny.

Each morning, in darkness that hid our shivering, we stood long hours for appel, waiting to be counted, and sometimes, recounted, to the accompaniment of slaps and strikes of the guards’ cudgels. Irena remained steadfast, never recoiling, and hideous bruises often discoloured her petal-soft skin.

Irena would request fresh cream for the tepid and disgusting ground acorn coffee we were given and she’d ask why her makowiec was stale, yet she accepted any deficiencies with stoic grace. She’d stir her watery soup, searching for a nugget of moldy potato or turnip, and the tiniest smear of butter for our hard bread was greeted with triumphant rejoicing.

“Shall I tell you about the time we had a picnic by the sea? My husband, a doctor, you know, ordered fresh asparagus and the chef created a special pastry for us.” She’d ramble on, with captivating charm, regaling us with stories of another time, another life, one we’d never known and never would. Her reminiscing allowed us to taste fragrant szarlotka, caress damask tablecloths with our dirty fingers, and arrange roses in crystal vases. We dreamed and hoped of a place beyond the barbed wire, where women strolled, pushing plump babies in prams and pansies still bloomed in lush gardens.

Our kapo called Irena “The Countess,” out of respect, not derision, and blows from the kapo’s baton were merely token taps.

Yet, there were moments when I know Irena understood, for her eyes would become distant and shadowed, and her smile would fade. She never mentioned going home or seeing her beloved Antoni again; with unwavering persistence, she asked about the train schedule, resolute in her determination to relocate to accommodations with heated water and clean linens. Amenities in this place, she said, were deplorable.

Irena weakened, as we all did, becoming more frail, her skin more translucent, her fingers gnarled and twisted. Her hair had grown back in fine silvery wisps, like the down from milkweed. We knew it was but a short time before she’d be taken from us, one way or another.

Finally, on a bone-chilling and snowy morning, a guard pulled her roughly from the lineup during appel.

“Move out,” he snarled, striking her across the shoulders.

“The train has arrived? Please, I must see the concierge immediately,” Irena declared.

“Everything has already been arranged for you.” The guard spit and smirked.

Irena turned to me, her eyes deep and moist. “Thank you for a very delightful time, Katarzyna. I shall leave a forwarding address when I settle my account with the hotelier. Perhaps we’ll meet again under more felicitous circumstances. Farewell,” she cried, as the guard pushed her forward.

Regal and graceful as always, and hidden within her safe cocoon of elegance and dignity, Irena walked ahead of the guard through the drifting snow and entered the narrow passageway, not of deadly electrified wire, but of gleaming wood, marble floors, and shimmering chandeliers.

Snowflakes melted on my cheeks and mingled with hot tears.

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This article has been read 1016 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Robyn Burke06/16/11
Wow. Masterfully done.
Virgil Youngblood 06/16/11
A compelling read from beginning to end. Outstanding writing.
Laury Hubrich 06/17/11
She was indeed a countess to the end. Such a horrible time in history.
Verna Cole Mitchell 06/17/11
This wonderfully written story gripped my heart and would not turn loose. It seemed so real.
Beth LaBuff 06/17/11
You have beautiful characterization of this regal lady. This is poignant and touching. Excellent!!
Tracy Nunes 06/17/11
I think W-O-W pretty much covers it!
Rachel Phelps06/18/11
Your writing never fails to leave me touched. Exquisite details!
Bonnie Bowden 06/18/11
Masterful account. This sure goes to #1 on my list. The countess and the MC's retelling of the story are priceless.
Kate Oliver Webb 06/20/11
Powerful, poignant and gripping story of an excruciatingly painful part of human history. You told it with exquisite reality and love. Congratulations.
Charla Diehl 06/20/11
Everything about this stirred me--the bravery of the Countess, and the way she tried to lift the morale of her fellow prisoners--the tender telling by the MC of the departure of the Countess, and your last sentence had me hurting for all those who suffered such tortures during this horrific time in history. I expect to find this with the winners.
Helen Curtis06/21/11
What can I say about this that hasn't already been said? Your writing is inspirational. The characters and their tales are the kind that linger in the mind; and this is one of the most powerful tales I've read. I don't normally say this, but I really do believe this deserves to be highly rated. Magnificent!
diana kay06/22/11
great story.I love the way you end it. It is inevitable but your message that she will be truly going to that beautiful place that up until no had only been in her mind and imagination brings an added richness to the piece.
The countess denial was her defence mechanism against the horror of her present reality.
again a original use of the whole check out theme with the idea of arriving and leaving a hotel
Noel Mitaxa 06/23/11
This is truly masterful in its scope. The dignity of the countess' constant denial recalled two extremes for me: Firstly the black humour of an old Robin Williams movie "Jakob the Liar;"
Secondly the dignity of Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist whose life-changing Logotherapy was born in his experience of being stripped naked to be registered as a captive at Auschwitz.
Thank you for relating beauty against the degradation of a shameful period of history.
Janice Fitzpatrick06/23/11
You are an impeccable writer and each time you pen a piece the words you choose flow like a refreshing stream truly quenching our thirsty minds and hearts. Bravo! Well done. It's been said before so I can't really add much Ann but say thank you for sharing your gift from the Lord with us. God bless you richly! Congrats on your win.:)
diana kay06/23/11
yes and so it should be ....congratulations masterful awesome ... inspiring top of the tops 1st place
Margaret Kearley 06/23/11
I thought this was just wonderful when I read it - a really well deserved win. Many congratulations.
Patricia Turner06/23/11
This is such a compelling piece, spanning the spectrum of the different shades of humanity. You took us masterfully back to a hideous time and showed us grace amidst the horror. I thank you too for sharing the gift of your writing. Congratulations and SO very well done!

Bonnie Bowden 06/23/11
Congratulations Ann,

It really deserved to win 1st place on the EC award.
Mona Purvis06/23/11
Ann, what I continue to admire about your writing is how you always offer the reader a life-experience story, a life-changing story.
You are a superb story-teller.
You were able to take a simple subject, checkout, and weave the most amazing tale. I envy you your skill.

Debbie Roome 06/24/11
Absolutely beautiful!
Nancy Bucca06/25/11
How do you do it? You should teach a writing course. Excellent work. Congratulations on your EC! (I have a feeling you'll keep your crown)
Pamela Calhoun07/10/11
I couldn't stop reading! I love how this made me see myself as Irena, conducting myself from Heavenly Places as I struggle through this life on earth. I also love how it challenged me to do it with the grace and consistency of The Countess. Thank you, I feel entertained, enlightened and like I've just been to church! Great Job
Daniel Leonard10/19/11
The details are wonderful. Masterful writing. This story makes me want to know more about her past.