The Vaulting Horse
ON A BLISTERINGLY HOT DECEMBER DAY, I stand in a line of high school students, my first gym class in a new school and a new country. The vast polished hardwood floor and exercise equipment along tall walls remind me of the gym I left three months ago in Poland. In the centre, atop green rubber mats, waits a vaulting horse, a leather-padded bench on four wooden legs that reaches up to the waists of the two teachers stationed at each end.
The familiarity comforts me. I have made many jumps over just such a contraption, and I’m eager to resume my athletic life. I hear the instructions in the foreign tongue, and then watch each girl, in turn, trot to the bench, place her hands on its surface, and bounce to the top onto her knees. The teachers then grip her forearms and help her slide down.
It’s my turn. I inhale, sprint, jump high, clear the top and nail the landing on the other side. I’m happy I haven’t lost the skill during my idle months in transition. I stretch my arms in the dismount, straighten legs and back, and run to the end of the line, ready for my next turn.
Then silence. My classmates’ puzzled faces signal that something is wrong. I gaze towards the teachers and see them both standing still, staring at me. One of them says something in the noodle-chewing English that will take me months to comprehend. An earlier Polish arrival translates: “What you did is very dangerous for girls. Next time watch the others and do as they do.”
But I’ve done this many times! I am bewildered. What’s gender got to do with it? Maybe they think it’s a fluke that I jumped over. If I do it again, surely they’ll realize I know this routine and change their minds.
At my next turn, I begin the sprint when a loud voice calls, “Stop!”
Too late. I’m already clearing the bench and landing. The teacher extends her arm to block me from returning to the line. I look up at her as she barks unintelligible commands and summons the interpreter.
“You’ll be suspended from school if you don’t follow the rules.”
My throat constricts. Being a functional mute has made me feel helpless many times, and this is one of them.
I want to bolt, fly back to Poland where I belong, where I can run and jump and become my country’s president. But I’m stuck. I’m only sixteen and ten thousand miles away.
How can I forget the exhilaration of the fast run, the high jump, the thrill of accomplishment on the other side? I don’t know how, but I must.
Some weeks later, mentally disengaged, I move forward in a line of girls, listlessly, without momentum. At my turn, I trot up to the vaulting horse and find it large, looming, so tall that I can barely muster the courage to hoist myself all the way up onto its precarious surface. Once I kneel on top, I grip the hands of the two teachers who ease me back down.
But there was a time when I was able to jump over this colossus. Wasn’t there?
Tears press under my eyelids. I squash them down, all the way down to my aching belly, where they will hibernate with my spirit.
He lived in the days before movies
Horse-drawn carts clopped on cobbled streets
Bands of musicians braved heat and snow
trudging to play in distant towns
He wore a long black beard
black hat and long coat
and a Torah tucked under his arm
as befitted a wizard of his day
The town carousel that he built
whirled with swans and ponies
in white red green and blue
Young boys squeezed into its core
to propel the spokes with bike power
sending the carousel on its merry twirl
children’s squeals blending in happy dance
The boys were paid not in cash but in the joy
of riding bikes Ben offered for rent
The carousel soon burned like the town
the horses…the children…the swans
Ben died to the sound of mazurka
kicked to his knees
dragged by his beard
He lies buried somewhere unknown
like the children and the carousel boys
Only we who would have loved him miss
honouring his name, marking the place
where he helped young men
speed on new machines.
Eight years old, 1944
Skipping down a Polish city street
Polka-dot dress, white patent shoes
Red bow clasping ponytail.
Eight years old, 1954
She is on a movie screen
Skipping away from me
Dark shadow, German uniform,
Black-gloved hand with a gun
Steel grey, shiny death
Points at her flying tress
I grip the armrest
Scream a silent NO
The gun blasts staccato
She is me, I am her
The film blurs red and grey.
I walk out shaken
Crying inside for Ditta
Who could be me
Father tags my brown ponytail
Lovingly pulls me close
“Ditta,” he calls me softly
With a sad, vacant smile
He loves me, but she died!
Is he thinking I look like his mother?
Is he saying I ease his pain?
That I live for the children who died?
I force a smile, carry the burden
Alone, like a brave girl should.
I am eight, twenty eight, forty eight.
In unexpected moments I am still
And she is me.
ABOUT THE POET
Mira Peck is an author of poetry and prose that blend her interests in science, art, family and justice. Her inspiration comes from a wide range of experiences, including the fields of chemical engineering, business, music and law; living in Poland, Australia and the USA; and hitch-hiking across Asia and Europe. During her twenty years of creative writing she has edited and published a quarterly newsletter, arranged literary workshops and public readings, and coordinated local critiquing chapters. Her multigenre collection, Sour Cherry Tree, was published in 2012 and received recognition from the San Francisco Book Festival. Her first novel, My Men, was published in 2013. She received the annual Goldfinch Prize for poetry in 2011 and for prose in 2010. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children and travels widely.