The First-Place Winner Of The 2017 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest
“Have you heard about the movie?” Dorota asked.
“What movie?” said Sylwia. Why, she thought, am I always the last to know? Don’t I read the newspaper? Don’t I watch the news every night? They were in Dorota’s kitchen, at opposite sides of a little aluminum table, sharing a freshly made pot of tea. Dorota had begun a long sip during Sylwia’s question that she took her time to finish as Sylwia awaited her answer. How smug she was! Just once, Sylwia would like to…but she did not have the chance to finish her thought, because Dorota put her mug down on the table with a mighty thump, tea slopping over its side, and said, “It’s called The Garden of Evil. It’s about a fictionalized Jewish painter from Hungary who was murdered in a concentration camp—they’re going to film a few of the scenes here.” Here was a little town just outside of Warsaw.
“They’re looking for extras,” Dorota said.
“Oh,” said Sylwia, “A Holocaust movie.” She wasn’t sure how to feel about that. But Dorota had been an extra the last time an American movie was filmed in Poland and she never stopped crowing about it. There she had been on the screen, but so much bigger! “It was like I was seeing myself through a magnifying glass,” she had said. And the food! And the stars! And the sets! She would often say, “If only life could be that beautiful!” Perhaps it could be, sometimes.
The Polish extras had been split into two groups for a montage of concerts given by the young Chopin: asked to portray either the attendees at the receptions given for him in the aristocratic salons of the capital or the members of the audience for his public charity concerts. How pleased Dorota had been to find herself among the smaller group chosen to depict the members of high society! “We were selected especially by the director,” she had said triumphantly. “He picked us out from our photographs!” Dorota had even been allowed to keep part of one of her costumes: a velvety brown hat, its fibers woven to suggest strips of bark, topped by a bright green feather. She’d worn it for a garden party scene set in a forest clearing, and whenever she wore it, no matter how Sylwia tried to deny it, she felt like a deer in that forest during the hunt afterward, pierced by a quiver-full of envy-tipped arrows.
Just as Sylwia was about to excuse herself to go home, where she could think more clearly about whether or not she was interested, Dorota brought out a small chocolate cake of the kind that always signaled the imminent arrival of some especially interesting piece of information. “They’re making a special offer,” Dorota said. “They’ll pay extra to anyone who’s willing to appear naked—it’s for a selection scene at the camp. They say it’s very important for the story.”
Sylwia wondered how her husband would feel about that.
“You’ll be in a crowd,” said Dorota. “The audience probably won’t even be able to make out your face. You might not even end up in the shot.”
Sylwia could hardly refrain from rolling her eyes. You’d think Dorota had been in a hundred movies. “Are you doing it?” she asked.
“Of course!” Dorota said. “Think of the money! But it’s more than that.”
When Sylwia was young and first dating her husband, he had once told her, “You’re so beautiful—they ought to put you in the movies.”
“I’ll do it too,” she said.
Dorota explained that all they had to do was to send in a photo and some basic biographical information—their height, weight, and age, as well as whether or not they colored their hair. Sylwia soon regretted having agreed to let Dorota handle everything for both of them. It would be just like Dorota to take her time to let Sylwia know what the director had decided, once she found out. And what if they wanted Sylwia, but not Dorota—would Dorota pretend that they had both been rejected? How horrible Sylwia felt about entertaining such suspicions! She and Dorota had been friends since they were children. Their husbands often joked that this was why they still squabbled at times like over-sensitive schoolgirls. So it was a great relief when they were both asked to participate for the whole of the two weeks that the movie was to film in the area.
When they first arrived on set, they were taken to the factory where the scenes showing the inmates’ forced labor were to be shot. To her surprise and to the great displeasure of Dorota, Sylwia was placed at the machine next to Lydia, the American actress who had the film’s main female role. Sylwia was even more surprised when Lydia spoke to her in tentative Polish, with the fluency of a highly intelligent adolescent, rather than that of a full-fledged adult. Sylwia found this endearing, but she tried not to let it show—she could tell by her demeanor that Lydia was somewhat fragile and she didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
Lydia told her that her mother was from Poland, that she had appeared in an old Polish movie called The Cabinet. Sylwia had never heard of it but she was no fool. “Oh yes,” she said, “That’s meant to be quite good.” The next day, she brought Lydia piernik (“It’s honey cake with chocolate frosting,” she explained, in case Lydia didn’t know) that she had baked at home and brought with her to the set. Poor Dorota brought her cwibak, even though everyone knew that Americans hated fruitcake. “I’m so glad you’re here,” Lydia said, during a break in the filming. “It’s almost like having my own mother around.”
Dorota was so jealous that she would hardly speak to her, but Sylwia didn’t care because she often sat by Lydia, even when they weren’t filming, discussing the vast changes in Poland since the fall of Communism, talking about their families, even exchanging bits of gossip. Apparently, the film was well over budget, and its director, Adam Larkman, had been suffering from sporadic panic attacks since filming had started—“It’s a very personal story for him,” Lydia had whispered—while Anthony, the actor playing the commander of the concentration camp, was taking his part so seriously that it seemed to have brought him to the edge of a complete nervous breakdown.
The Garden of Evil was about a painter, Josef Korngold, who had become famous for a technique of distorted portraiture, in which some aspect of the model’s features was exaggerated—the whole body elongated, or one leg made noticeably thicker than another, or some other modification that was intended to illuminate the subject’s self-perception. His most famous painting portrayed a pair of famed young beauties, longtime friends and rivals in the highest social circles, joined at the hip so that they resembled the two halves of a butterfly.
In a perfect world, wouldn’t art be a little boring? Is that the question? Without suffering, we’d have nothing to make movies about?
Lydia explained that early in the movie, after her character became engaged to Josef’s brother, Josef offered to paint her portrait, but once the painting was done and Josef saw that he had painted her true to life, without a single flaw, he realized that he had fallen in love with her over the course of their sessions. To conceal this, Josef had turned the original upside-down and then covered it over with a portrait of his brother instead. He had just enough time to secret it away before all three of them were deported.
“His brother’s wife!” Sylwia objected. “He might have been more careful.”
“Well,” Lydia said. “He is an artist. You know what creative people are like—take Turgenev, for example.”
Well, what could you expect from a Russian? Sylwia thought. Lunch was nearly over. The other extras came around to collect their plates. During the first few days, Sylwia had helped to straighten up the tables, but lately, she was always so busy talking to Lydia. One of Sylwia’s neighbors came around with a tray of homemade butter cookies. How embarrassing Sylwia found her own quick surge of jealousy when Lydia ate one and sighed delightedly.
“Anne, the woman who worked with Adam on the screenplay, is a painter herself,” Lydia said. “They wanted to explore the relationship between art and suffering.”
“In a perfect world, wouldn’t art be a little boring?” Sylwia said. “Is that the question? Without suffering, we’d have nothing to make movies about?”
“I suppose,” Lydia said, uncertainly—Sylwia could see that she was a little thrown. Perhaps that hadn’t been quite what she’d meant?
Sylwia had told her husband there was no reason to worry, but as they prepared to film the selection scene, Sylwia found herself growing more and more anxious. The atmosphere on set was increasingly tense. Anthony had begun to seclude himself from everyone else involved in the production, spending his time exclusively in his trailer, constantly reviewing the research he had done on the particular historical figures that had provided the foundation for the role he was playing.
“He needs to learn not to take the character home with him,” Lydia said. “You have to figure out how to keep your emotions under control.”
Finally, the time came for the extras to line up in the courtyard. Adam Larkman and the principal actors wouldn’t arrive until right before it was time to start shooting. Abbie, Sylwia’s favorite of the assistant directors, told them all where to stand. “Lydia said you should try to stay near her,” she whispered. It was strange to think that Sylwia was about to see some of her neighbors naked. “Shouldn’t they be here by now?” Dorota asked. Sylwia wondered whether they would have to take off their shoes. It was cold and the courtyard looked uncomfortable to run on. They heard the sound of raised voices behind them. It was Anthony and Adam Larkman—they were fighting. Lydia hurried up to Sylwia as one of the extras began to—Sylwia could see that Lydia wanted to be the one to tell her.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Adam wants Anthony to choose between the extras himself,” Lydia explained. “To pick who lives and who dies. He wants to make sure he really feels it.” Abbie was looking on at the argument with a look that Sylwia couldn’t quite understand. Was she on Anthony’s side? Or Adam’s? The conversation had grown quieter; Sylwia could see that Anthony was in the process of giving in, a little white handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket of his tailored suit, as if to signal that he was about to surrender. Lydia took her position at Sylwia’s side. It was too late to back out now. For a moment she felt afraid. Anthony looked so terribly angry! But then she realized that he was simply in character.
“Action!” she heard Abbie say, holding up one of the two canes she used to help her stand. As Sylwia undressed, she realized that she didn’t know what to do with her uniform – she let it fall to the ground as she began to run around the square, hoping that she would be able to find it again quickly once they were done. It was chaos out there. It had rained early that morning and the ground was still muddy, so that some of the extras slipped and fell. When they did, another more select group hit them with foam truncheons. Gregor from the post office was crying. Martin the librarian looked like he was enjoying it too much. He called Dorota a foul name, and she could not tell whether he was just trying to do a good job or if this was something he had always wanted to say and he was glad to finally have an excuse to say it. Sylwia’s breasts hurt from running. She did not recognize the music they were playing from the kind of record players she hadn’t seen in many years. She turned a corner and there was Anthony! There was blood on the ground and on his boots. She hoped it wasn’t real. She stopped for a second to look around for Lydia, but there were too many people—she couldn’t find her in the crowd. But this seemed to draw Anthony’s attention to her from where he had been striding through the mass of pale flesh, taking people by the arm and pulling them off to the side. These were the ones who would be sent to the gas. He began to walk toward her. Oh, she thought, not me. She had not considered the possibility that she might not make it. If she died, then the movie would go on, but she would no longer be part of it. She tried to run, but the whole scene felt as though it was taking place in slow-motion. She felt more conscious than ever of her nakedness. Some of the extras were screaming. She didn’t think they were supposed to do that. Perhaps they would have to end the scene! She listened intently for the word, “Cut!” It was one of the first English words that Lydia had taught her.
Anthony strode through the mass of pale flesh, taking people by the arm and pulling them off to the side. These were the ones who would be sent to the gas.
How horrible to think that this had actually happened, with no one there to make it stop! She wished again that they would end the scene! If only she could shut her eyes or cover them to peek out between her fingers. For a moment, she felt afraid that she might faint. Someone brushed against her and she nearly tripped—almost instinctively, Anthony reached out to steady her. “No,” she tried to say, “Not me! Not me!” To her surprise, he let her go and turned his attention to Dorota instead, grabbing her roughly by the shoulder and shoving her into Martin’s arms. Martin hauled her away with one hand on her breast – he and Dorota would never speak again because of this, although they would see each other often in town in the next few years until he died. “Cut,” she heard at last. Dorota turned to Anthony. Sylwia had never seen her so upset. She was even crying. “Why me?” she said. “Why not her?”
“Very good, Sylwia,” she heard Lydia say. “You were really in the moment.” Adam Larkman was talking to Abbie and his new director of photography, Marcel Kahn. “Should we do it one more time?” he asked. Only Sylwia noticed Anthony leave; everyone else was too distracted by the need to re-claim their clothing, or get their equipment back in place. Noticing her watching, he put one finger to his lips, signaling her to stay silent—this gesture, normally innocent, took on an ominous tone, given the context. The next day, during the little good-bye luncheon sponsored by the production company, Lydia told her he’d locked himself in his hotel room and refused to come back out. Luckily, this had been the last scene they’d needed to film.
As Sylwia was finishing dessert, Adam Larkman surprised her by coming up and saying, in a much better accent than Lydia’s, “Sylwia, Bardzo dobry! Very good work.” Afterward, Dorota whispered, with unconcealed hostility, “Sylwia, congratulations! And when will you be leaving us for Hollywood?”
Well, Sylwia thought, Dorota would get over it. The hardest part of the experience was saying goodbye to Lydia. But all in all, Sylwia felt glad to have been part of making the film.
About a year later, Sylwia and her husband were invited to the special Polish screening that followed the movie’s premiere in America. Adam Larkman was there, but not Lydia. Her mother was ill and she needed to be at home with her. Sylwia was nervous about how her husband would react to the film. He had not wanted to be an extra, but he would not or could not tell her why. The first part of The Garden of Evil focused on the development of the love triangle between Lydia’s character, the painter Josef Korngold, and his brother; in the second half, once the three characters were sent to the concentration camp, Anthony’s character agreed to keep them all alive if Josef would paint a giant portrait of Anthony with his mistress.
Soon, the fatal music began to play. Lydia had told her that it was Mozart. “I will never be able to listen to Mozart the same way again,” Sylwia had said, forgetting that she’d never really listened to Mozart in the first place. There was shouting and screaming in the background, but she felt sure that it was not theirs. Adam Larkman must have hired people to do it exactly the way he wanted. She noticed that the camera focused mostly on the shabby bodies of the middle-aged and older men and women; it made sense, when she thought about it—they wouldn’t want the scene to be titillating. Yet how strange to think that might have been why they were chosen, not because Adam Larkman had seen something special in them but because of what they had been lacking. She could not believe how quickly the scene went by; it had seemed to take hours when they were filming.
Josef refused to allow Anthony’s character to see his work-in-progress, reminding him that the Pope himself had not been allowed to see Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel until after it was complete. Knowing that he would be killed once the painting was finished, at the end of the day Josef would always tell Anthony about some new flattering detail he needed more time to perfect. But as the war came to an end, Josef was shot by another officer—a rival of Anthony’s character—and left to die in the street. The movie was nearly over. Soon, Sylwia would have to figure out what to say to Adam Larkman. If only Lydia could have also been here!
After the camp fell to the Soviets, one of their soldiers finally lifted the enormous curtain that had concealed Josef’s work for so long. The camera zoomed in on row after row of painted square black and white images, like a collage of photographs, showing not the portrait the commander had been promised, but evidence of what had taken place at the camp, a record of everything the painter had witnessed there. Lydia was pictured, with the other important characters, and even Sylwia and Dorota and all their neighbors. When the screen faded to black and the credits began, the audience stayed seated—no one seemed to want to be the first to stand, whether because they were moved or simply afraid of doing the wrong thing, Sylwia could not tell. In the end, it was not until Adam Larkman rose himself that everyone else began to applaud and then gather their things.
Sylwia’s head had begun to ache. During the reception, she and Dorota embraced. Adam Larkman came to say hello to them; he looked tired, and his translator was already wearing her coat, as if to signal Adam’s impending departure. “Sylwia!” he said, “I have a gift for you from Lydia—she wanted to apologize that she couldn’t come. She would have liked so much to see you!”
He gave her a small package; unwrapping it, Sylwia found a painting of herself and Lydia standing side-by-side; it was one of those that had appeared at the end of the movie, depicting a scene they had filmed together at the factory.
“Anne painted them,” he said. “Do you like it? Sylwia, what did you think of our movie?”
But she could not speak. Instead, she clasped his hand between both of her own, shaking it again and again, pumping it up and down as if it were that very machine that she had so much difficulty figuring out how to set into motion before Lydia had introduced herself and explained it, back when she and Lydia had first met.
If asked, she could not say herself why she was crying.
Michalle Gould’s first full-length collection of poetry, Resurrection Party, was a finalist for the Writers League of Texas Book Awards. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Slate, New England Review, The Texas Observer, The Toast, The Nervous Breakdown, The Awl, and other publications. Her poem “How Not To Need Resurrection” was featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily and adapted into a short film for the Motionpoems web series, and other poems of hers have been set to music by the founder of the Washington Women in Jazz festival. She currently lives in Hollywood, California, where she works as an academic librarian.