I'd lean against its trunk watching my mother
tug beets from the wet earth,
with others bent low
beside her—two Poles
and an Italian, she said.
Though later she recalled a Ukrainian
who came but couldn't stay,
shot dead during his escape.
That's how she told her Rügen story,
piecing scattered shards
recovered over sixty outcast years.
That Ukrainian—yes, she said,
a thin boy with a shaved head
whose corpse the soldiers heaved
into the sea foam from a white cliff.
Still, for her, it was an island like no other,
where the great men of Europe had found
renewed sweetness in long summer days.
She imagined wild-haired Einstein
conjuring the universe
as he looked out at the sea,
and barefoot Thomas Mann
aching with secret joy
at the sight of his lover on the beach.
Herr Hitler, of course,
made his visit too, she said,
but that was years after,
during that October harvest,
yes, it had to be then,
when you were there,
and I gathered beets,
and the rockets screamed for London.
Hard to say how much can remain true.
All I keep is a simple memory
of that apple tree,
recalling how it overlooked flat fields
and fought hard winds
bent on stripping its leaves and fruit.
And I know too
that in the gray light of dawn,
with the cry of roosters behind me,
I'd run out to climb
and shake its branches
until a forbidden apple
thumped the ground.
I'd polish its red skin
with my shirtsleeves
and bite deep into white flesh
so cold it pained my heart.