image: Marzena Pogorzaly
VI Wandering Souls
…YOU’RE ASKING AGAIN how it was, back then – Eugeniusz wrote to Miłka – always back to that same memory, you can’t forget. And yet so many died – old and young, innocent and guilty –human memory would have to turn into a vast cemetery to remember them all. It’s not possible to remember everything from that last war – and go on living.
I’ll tell you what I know about the boy. His name was Szymon, but they called him ‘the Duck’, because of his surname. He was an orphan. He couldn’t read or write, before the war he lived – with his brother – at someone’s house, but more on the street, where he begged, cheated, thieved. He was maybe thirteen or fourteen when war broke out. That cheered him up, because for ones like him the worst thing is peace, the rule of law, casting his sort beyond the pale.
When the Germans came through a second time, he was probably close to adulthood. You know how it was then – ordinary people would kill. First because they were ordered to, and then who knows why. Out of fear. Out of hatred. Because they could. The Duck boasted that he could kill a person like a bee. Like a dog. That he liked it.
How much truth there was in it, how much swagger – that I don’t know.
They took him to the forest – he was perfect for it. He had nothing else, the brother wasn’t around any more – disappeared somewhere, I don’t know. Various gangs ran rampant in the forest then, villains, gypsies, us, and Jews later, who’d managed to escape the ghetto. It was like playing hare and hounds. Like a game. Except that people really died.
The Duck found a place for himself in the forest. Found ‘his people’. Didn’t matter that it was dangerous – it was the only kind of life he knew. I think that from the very beginning it was all the same to him who won or didn’t win the war, what mattered was that at last he had a family. That’s how I saw it, when I began going to the forest towards the end of the war. For the Duck it was good, for others – bad. I saw that too. And I saw people who lost their human face, but that’s another story.
But when the Red Army ‘liberated’ us – and I’ll never stop putting it in quotes, you and Michal can think what you like – changes came to the forest too. And then the Duck must have got the wrong end of the stick, or maybe he never understood that the war was for real, in any case, he began talking about making a deal with the Soviets. And then it became clear that there was no future for him with us. And that being the case, no other future either.
So the verdict was in for the Duck, but it wasn’t clear who’d carry it out, because it’s not easy, even in wartime, to kill a comrade in arms. So things carried on, suspended, until that night at our house, when one of them had drunk more than the others, and simply fired. I never saw any of them again. We buried the Duck in the orchard, I remember it clearly, under the plum trees. Deep, so the dogs wouldn’t dig him up. Without a grave, without a marker. Like a bee or a dog.
Mrs Ziemak said this: ‘God pours life into a mould; that’s how a soul is formed. It’s like a cake tin, but pliable. Expandable. What’s inside is hungry. It shifts, it fattens or shrinks; it’s searching for something, always wanting something. And the mould shifts with it. Fattens or shrinks. That’s why, when a human or some other being dies, it gives God back a slightly different mould – reshaped by its own soul. So, when the next person receives the mould, it’s like inheriting a stranger’s hunger.’
Mrs Ziemak said this to Jurek Bułka, who was perching on an upturned crate in a patch of light. Thick and sticky as honey, it rolled lazily over the boy’s tanned shoulders. Ziemak’s wife was sitting on a wooden bench in front of the house. She often sat there when the weather was fine, since now she had nothing to do. The Ziemaks had neither children nor grandchildren and hence no worries. Their old age had scant need of food. What the village housewives dropped off perfectly sufficed, and the women did it willingly. There was something about Mrs Ziemak; they did not begrudge her. So the old woman let clover and couchgrass overrun the vegetable patch and gave away her hens to a neighbour who would bring a few eggs in gratitude, or a sponge she’d baked. Ziemak no longer went out to the fields and reconciled himself to the house settling ever deeper into the ground. He reconciled himself to the leaking ceiling, the cracked pane, the nest of mice under the floor, the cobwebs in the corners. They lived on the borders of time, that oldest of times, marked by the seasons of the year or hour of day, the order of work in the fields, the sequence of crops. The time of sex, measured by the impulses of the heart and the ripening of eggs in the woman, no longer concerned them and they had never come to know the newest time, driven by machines and ideas of progress. They merely marked from a distance that the old world was passing and a new one approaching. This new one was not for them. Thus it had to be and it was fine.
Jurek was not sure if the old woman recognized him, that is, if she recognized Jurek Bułka, the only son of Włodzimierz and Danuta Bułka who farmed 38 hectares of tolerable land; the boy who, as though deliberately to vex, failed to show the slightest promise as grateful heir of a not half bad – by Drohiczyn standards – property, for instead of striding firmly upon the earth, his head soared in the clouds. Of these worldly matters Mrs Ziemak had no clue; all the same, she recognized something, for when Jurek called by, she knew he was a kindred spirit. She’d begin to chat at once, sometimes picking up a thread exactly where she’d broken off the time before, and then it seemed to Jurek that she was not at all in her dotage but simply feigned for convenience sake. For when a person’s memories are few, they need not much concern themselves with life and death. When a person lives on the borders of time, they are not obliged to heed the sequence of events. Everything slackens and even people let go, in the end.
A cloud passed over the sun, sloughing the light from Jurek.
Mrs Ziemak had twice given birth; both children were stillborn. It was long ago, soon after the first war, which few remembered since it was followed by a second and more terrible. But Mrs Ziemak hadn’t registered this second war, and saying ‘war’, she had in mind that other one, the first. The village women gossiped that she hadn’t wished to release the children from inside herself, and that is why they died. ‘To bring children into the world’, the saying goes. Does it not ring of giving them up to the enemy? Perhaps Mrs Ziemak didn’t wish to bring them into this world, into a cold, cruel freedom. This came back to him now, as she talked of moulds shaped by souls. If she was right, then, one after the other, her children had given back to God precisely what they had received, unless they’d managed, in Mrs Ziemak’s belly, to live it up quite keenly, pressing their mark upon time that way.
‘They’re going to slaughter a calf at the Ludeks’,’ he said suddenly, out of the blue.
The old woman wrinkled her nose. The black eyes, deep in their sockets, like openings to another world, emanated a chill nothingness.
‘In the war,’ she said slowly, ‘many of them returned to God completely deformed. Now new ones walk the earth with spoilt souls. Can’t you see?’
The small black embers cast about the yard, but there was no one there. They sat for a moment in silence, waiting. On the other side of the wooden wall, Mr Ziemak lay among grey bedclothes, gazing at the ceiling’s blackened beams.
They led the bull calf out in front of the barn; the cow which had borne him stayed inside, that is, his – the bull calf’s – mother. He had no name in human language, which does not mean that he was not unique. For example, Grzegorz Ludek knew by heart the pattern formed by the black patches set against the calf’s white skin and could have picked out that one and only pair of brown eyes from many other such, but now he didn’t think of eyes or patches, because that was not his role and would help no one, not him, nor even less the bull calf, who also wasn’t thinking. He wasn’t thinking that soon he’d cease to be, and instead of him there would be meat, or that in a sense he was already meat, but arrayed in this unique and dappled skin and frisky, so frisky that people had to hold him from both sides. Grzegorz Ludek had a single task: to kill this calf. That was his role. The bull calf had no task; he simply feared.
Nor did Mr Ziemak have any task. He lay among the grey bedclothes, gazing at the ceiling’s blackened beams. Spiders had filled the hut’s corners with grey yarn so that the space had lost its contours, as the contours of an old photograph are lost when its edges yellow.
Ziemak had built this house with his own hands, long ago, right after the first war. People were just beginning to return from Russia, the ones who’d fled the Germans earlier, Russniaks mainly – Orthodox, but some Poles, too. It wasn’t Poland that they’d fled, but it was Poland to which they were returning. And when they did return, they tried to find their old homes in this new Poland. Sometimes they did, if the retreating army hadn’t burnt then down, setting them alight so that nothing should fall into the hands of the enemy: houses, entire homesteads, the wheat in the fields. He remembered it well: it was August, harvest-time, the longed-for abundance of autumn was approaching. And a terrible heatwave, drier every day, so dry, that the first yellow leaves began to fall from the trees as though it were October, and even the river dropped so low that islands appeared and you could cross to the other side almost without swimming. At such times, you’d pray that when the storm came, the thunderbolts would pass over the fields and houses, leaving time to bring in the harvest. For a storm is a divine matter. But when a human hand stokes fire in the field, and the ears of wheat so ripe that grain spills into the hand, how do you turn to God then? How can it be His concern?
His village survived, but beyond the river, though not far away at all, half the houses went up in smoke. It was a Russian-speaking village and everyone had fled. They’d taken fright of the German, or someone had ordered them to leave. There were such cases. Some man would arrive from the front, or so he claimed, and go round the houses, telling tales of what the German did when he conquered a village, what horrors he’d perpetrate on women, children, and the old. They believed him and fled – into the depths of a Russia ready to receive them like a mother. They packed everything into carts: furniture and clothes, food supplies, children and animals. He remembered those days, hot as a precursor of hell, when the procession of exiles moved at a snail’s pace through the villages, while all around the fields were in flames and the stink of burning rose and hung long in the air, sliding into the cracks of houses, clothes, and hair.
He must have seen Evdokia on one of those carts – she was fifteen when they fled – since he recognized her four years later, when she returned. Or he’d seen her earlier, but didn’t remember the incident itself. What has happened cannot unhappen and a coincidence need not necessarily be memorable to fix a mark upon a life. She came back with only her younger brother. The rest, her parents and three more sisters, they’d consigned to the earth along the way – so she said. Their cottage had survived; it had not gone up in flames. Lucky, you might think. Except that while they were wandering the world, the sister and brother, someone had moved into their home. A whole big family with a heap of little children. Perhaps they had returned earlier, or perhaps they’d never left at all – Ziemak couldn’t remember now. In any case, when Evdokia and Eugeniusz knocked at the door, those people were in no hurry to invite the rightful owners in. The door stayed closed. Brother and sister, worn out after months on the road, lacked strength to fight for what was theirs and, for now, they set up camp beside the river. They’d grown accustomed to sleeping anywhere along the way, so Evdokia cobbled together a shelter from willow branches and some rags they’d dragged with them and thought: ‘we will survive’. But her brother, who had fallen ill already on the road, just as they were apparently home, was running a temperature. So she settled him in the shelter and came to the village to ask for help. That was when he recognised her. She was thinner than four years earlier, at the time of flight, and older. By much more than four years. And yet she was the same Evdokia. He took what food there was in the house and went down to the river with her. It was springtime and lovely, with young leaves on the willows, but the evenings were cold. When they reached the place, Eugeniusz was in a very bad way. He was delirious and tossing with fever and did not recognise Evdokia at all. She didn’t despair, nor cry, nor did she pray. Neither did she touch the food. She waited. And Ziemak waited with her. It was their first night together. And their first death together; a death which united them.
In the morning, he brought Evdokia to his parents’ house and said he was going to be married. And though his mother wrung her hands that the girl was not one of them, that there was no dowry, that who knew what had befallen her on the way, he was so unbending, that in the end she had to yield. They lay Evdokia on the stove where she slept for weeks almost without pause. In the summer, he built a house, and in the autumn he carried his bride across the threshold.
It was no more than a hamlet then – three cottages in all. Now it had grown, spread almost to the old village; only a small corner of woodland remained between the settlements, like a wild strait, a dark throat open to the world’s two sides.
And that was the story.
And now both man and house were sinking into the earth. Maybe that was justice? Did a person need a tomb other than the one they’d extracted singlehandedly from nature, and crafted through their own labour? You should leave this world together with the work of your hands, Ziemak mused. There’d be space for new work, since a person must always be concocting something. Because concoct they must.
Should a dog stray into the forest at night, the wolves will immediately tear it apart, for to the wolf, a dog is neither kin nor stranger. So it is with people. They dislike strangers, but most particularly those who are too close, too like, as like, in fact, as one their own. The people who’d occupied the house beyond the river later put about that Evdokia was a witch, that she had the evil eye, that she could cast a spell, and that was why no one from the family had survived, not even Eugeniusz, but only she alone, that it was her mischief and only a matter of time before the Ziemak family, too, met with some misfortune. Guilt made them inventive. A villager once lay in wait for Evdokia as she was walking through the forest; he was curious, and planned to look into those eyes close up. He barred her way. Evdokia made to skirt him but he wouldn’t relent, he spread out his arms and tried to seize her. She did her best to dodge those arms, but he would not let her. They skirmished for some time like this until eventually he caught hold of her. But when he caught her, something strange happened: Evdokia, usually so quiet, cried out. Or rather, she emitted a terrible, inhuman howl. It was a cry so piercing that a shiver ran through the man. He stepped back and retreated like a dog with its tail between its legs. The scream carried as far as the hamlet. Ziemak ran into the forest. He found her easily. She was standing motionless where the man had barred her way. But she was completely calm. She was expecting a child at the time, though it didn’t show yet. A few months later, their first daughter arrived – stillborn. It was their second death together. And not the last.
Mrs Ziemak fixed the boy with unmoving eyes. She looked like some bird of prey. Again the sound of lowing; Jurek wanted to stop his ears.
‘There’ll be more and more of them,’ said the old woman, perhaps to herself.
‘I’m going now,’ said Jurek and he left.
Grzegorz Ludek had one task: to kill the calf. It fell to him.
‘Get a better grip,’ he hissed at his assistants, tying the flailing leg to a stake driven into the ground. ‘Don’t let him thrash about – the meat will be spoilt.’
The task had to be completed quickly. Ludek bound the bull calf with twine, cut the artery just above the hoof; they pushed up a bowl. The calf still struggled to break free, but the life was fading quickly from the brown eyes and now they didn’t need to hold so tightly, only the flies began to swarm over the blood.
When he had weakened completely, they tied him by the back legs to a wooden construction resembling a swing, but without a seat. Ludek cut his throat and released what still remained of the calf’s life, opened the stomach, swiftly pulled out the guts, and Ludek’s wife rinsed inside with hot water. He slit the skin at the hoofs in order to remove it neatly – just the way you’d peel bark from a young willow branch to make a switch. It was hard work; Ludek kept wiping sweat, blood and sweat, from his brow, someone brushed away the flies, each person at their own task. Old Mrs Ludek came. She stood a moment, stared, but soon left.
Next, they hung the calf’s parts on hooks – gleaming red cuts of meat; this was the form adopted now by the body which only yesterday had been running about the meadow. ‘Fine meat,’ Ludek was pleased – ‘hasn’t spoilt. Enough for the tribute, so no talk of no permission.’
How is it that one day a person is living peacefully from dawn to dusk, from business to business, feeling that they lack for nothing, and the next day it’s as though a crack had appeared in them, a fissure, and through that fissure, some part of them has escaped…
For Jurek, this began soon after coming home from the technical college. It hadn’t gone too well for him; he was a good, but unexceptional student. Everyone liked him, but he had no closer friends. Days, weeks, and months went by; Jurek woke early in a small gloomy room which he shared with three other boys at the hostel, he ate his breakfast, went to lessons, came back, sat down to his books, or trailed around the town, or beyond, through the woods, along the river. He would go to where the Mahomet flowed into the Kamionka and sit listening to the water. ‘This is life,’ he thought to himself sometimes. ‘This is me. My legs, my hands, my head, my thoughts.’ The same – day after day, week after week. He crammed for tests, but quickly forgot what he’d learned. He had a memory riddled with holes, his mother said. Riddled as a sieve. Knowledge dropped into his head and fell straight out again immediately.
‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ he confessed one day to the Polish teacher.
The teacher of Polish was liked, but little respected, because why would you read all those books? Who’d pore over all those sheets of paper when so much tangible life was all round, so much work in the fields? Perhaps that was precisely why Jurek trusted him.
‘Don’t you know why you’re in school?’ the teacher pressed him.
‘No,’ replied the boy. ‘I don’t know why I’m in the world. I don’t know why I’m alive.’
The man glanced at Jurek over the rim of his thick glasses, held together at one side by a grubby plaster.
‘You’re still very young,’ he said slowly. ‘You don’t need to understand straightaway. You’ll understand later.’
‘But nothing changes,’ Jurek protested. ‘I’m not getting any wiser. Every day it’s the same, over and over. I get up, eat, cram, sleep.’
The teacher responded with a question, immediately, as though he’d had it ready:
‘And did you ever feel yourself growing?’
Jurek liked this answer. He said nothing. The man adjusted his spectacles and patted the boy on the shoulder.
‘Well now,’ he said, as though to a child. ‘It’s fine. You have to study. You’ve got your whole life ahead.’
Jurek trusted his teacher and in that growth which is, after all, common to every living thing, and thus must be powerful – really powerful. For some time, he ceased to wait for anything. He began to read books. It absorbed him. But he did not remember the contents so well – it was the rhythm that sank in, the melody of the sentences, the music lying deeper than the sense the words contained. He had no way to express what he found there. He never spoke with the Polish teacher again. He finished school, got his certificate. The ‘examination of maturity’ they called it, but Jurek did not feel mature. ‘This is my life,’ he thought again. ‘This is me.’ Still he understood nothing. His legs carried him about the earth, his hands seized objects, his stomach absorbed food, and still Jurek did not know what his role was in all this. What was he for, this person whose legs carried him about, who could seize things, who felt hunger?
Returning home, he hoped that back in the village they would see a change in him, that his parents would see, and his neighbours, and that thanks to them, looking into their eyes, he too would see how very much he’d grown, that the most powerful of forces, the same that stirred the sweet scent of jasmine on June evenings, had also done its work in him. And for some time after his return it really was like a holiday, as though something important had happened which had a meaning, which somehow left its mark on time. His mother and father rejoiced. So did his little sister who, in the meantime, had turned from a small child into a girl, and Krysia Ludek called by, who had turned, in the meantime, from a girl into a woman. She was wearing a flowered dress and over-sized men’s sandals. The dress was fastened with buttons at the front; one, above the waist, had come undone, disclosing a small patch of white flesh. Jurek kept glancing furtively at the spot, exposed and defenceless, and a wave of tenderness swept over him. She had brought the first strawberries in a basket and placed it on the earth bank.
But after a few days everything returned to normal. There was work to be done. Diploma or no, the fields would not till themselves.
It was then he thought, for the first time, that he hated this village, this ‘colony’, as they called it, since the true village lay still further east, separated by a strip of forest. That it was a trap, a quagmire, a prison. That nothing would ever change. The sun would rise and it would set. The wheat would put out shoots in spring and ripen in the summer; in autumn, the last butterflies would flit over the stubble like the first falling leaves. The rain would fall and mud would flood the cellar. The frost would bite and the snow would flurry. And then again from the beginning. Thaw, mud, green shoots. The sun would rise and the sun would set and he, Jurek, would never understand why he had been born at all.
It was the beginning of July; the nights were short. He couldn’t sleep. The books he’d brought from school lay on the chair by the bed, gathering dust. He hadn’t touched them since he’d placed them there; they grew more and more alien, stranger and stranger, like fragments of another, distant world, set in this one by mistake. He lay down and closed his eyes, but the bedding tickled and scalded his skin; not for the world could he find a comfortable position. He tossed and turned interminably, got up, opened the window. The nights were full of noises – birds, insects, plants – sounds which began to drop deep into Jurek’s soul and awaken a longing for something undefined. He listened intently. The more carefully he listened, the more certain he became that they were contriving a melody, some wordless meaning. He strained to concentrate, he wanted to grasp it, but the harmony he sensed faltered at the threshold of existence, half-realized, unborn. Mentally, he named each individual sound: this was a cricket, this the barking of a dog, and this the wind, soughing in the branches of the old linden. The tree’s entire form was inscribed in the sounds of the wind: the shape of its crown, the thickness of its trunk and abundance of its leaves; the dog’s bark charted its own causes and direction. He could hear it all so clearly. But sometimes, under the surface, he could hear something more – quiet and low, a monotonous humming, like the barely audible gathering of a storm.
His little sister slept like a log on the bed beside his; nothing woke her. No fissure marked that childish life through which the singing could slip inside. The child rolled into a ball, the body in a state of rest, the soul wandering perhaps, but through safe familiar parts from which it was easy to return.
Jurek drifted off at last, but his sleep was brief and shallow, full of strange and sometimes terrifying images. He dreamt of incidents which he couldn’t remember, but which, he was sure of it, had really taken place. Perhaps he’d learnt of them from his parents’ whispers, or maybe in some other way. And when the first light glowed on the horizon he woke immediately, as though this were his body’s natural response to light – always tense, poised for flight, or ready to attack. It didn’t help to close either his eyes or the shutters. The sun did not communicate via its rays, but via the sap flowing through his body as through the trunk of a tree.
It kept happening. All day long his head keeled with tiredness, his eyelids drooping, he couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t understand what was said to him, but as soon as it was time for sleep, the tiredness melted away and Jurek would toss hopelessly from side to side, longing in vain for the briefest moment of real rest. A week or so into this torture, he went out at night for the first time. The scent of the linden struck him with such force that he almost fainted. He leaned his back against the rough old trunk. His heart beat fast with tiredness and some indeterminate fear, but the wind stroked his face with cool fingers and Jurek remembered the Ludek girl.
How is it that the body is stronger, more vital than… than the head, which constantly conjures up images and exhausts itself with its own imaginings? Stupid body, stupid its clumsy ideas. Or were they actually wise? But stupid and wise are words from the head, while the body simply does what it must, what it wants. Jurek’s body reacted to the thought of the Ludek girl, and was roused even further. He remembered the exposed whiteness of the skin at the spot where, on the first day, the button of her dress had come undone: a succulent blade of grass nudged into the foreground, the whiteness of fresh wood beneath slit bark – that small gap led to her body – mysterious, soft, sweet. How is it that one day a person has everything, and the next, though nothing has ostensibly changed, somehow he feels a growing lack, as though of oxygen, clean water, nourishment? Jurek stepped out of his pyjamas and, completely naked, pressed his shoulders back against the linden and gazing through half-closed eyes at the field of flax, sunk in shallow darkness, in a cloud of sweet scent, he surrendered to the unfaltering will of his own body. He thought about the Ludek girl, about the small white gap, but he made love to the wind and the night. And to the music which encompassed everything, including him and her.
After a few weeks, his strength for work began to ebb. He did as he was told, but carelessly, just to be done with it. His father despatched him to weed flax with the women, but Jurek would keep straightening and staring into the distance, as though he had forgotten why he was out in the fields, among the tiny blue flowers. He sat by the cottage and drank orangeade from a bottle, and then out of the blue began to catch the wind in the bottle’s neck and to listen to the sound. ‘A plague on us,’ muttered old Bułka under his breath. He was a gentle man, a man of peace – so he saw himself – though he’d grown up in wartime. He spoke little and slowly, and only to the point. Somehow, he had coped with everything so far, even the the people’s republic. And now this boy. His own son.
One Sunday, Jurek went as far as the river and cut some willow branches. Then he sat under the linden the whole day long, stripping off the bark. He notched along both sides, tapping the switch to separate the bark from the wood, and then slowly worked it off. He made holes in the pipes, tied them into bundles with string, and fastened small metal objects at the bottom – some little screws, nails, whatever he’d found – and then hung them in the linden, listening and testing them. Bułka grew angry when he saw the linden hung with strange decorations – like a Christmas tree.
‘Is there not work enough in the fields, in the farmyard?’
‘But it’s Sunday,’ the boy answered defiantly.
‘Rest then, if it’s Sunday,’ said Bułka in a tone that cut short all further discussion.
Jurek had noticed long ago that what was truly wicked provoked far less than the incomprehensible. Murder, theft? Bad, but understandable. But if someone wanted to live differently than decreed by custom – no; that was unacceptable.
How is it that the salmon finds its way to the sea through a labyrinth of rivers, that the stork, traversing thousands of miles, returns to its nest, but Jurek, though he searched and searched, could not find himself?
The harvest was approaching. Still Jurek could not sleep; in fact he had grown used to it, as though he were living in a slightly different world, parallel to that in which the village belonged. Extreme exhaustion had sharpened his senses. He sat behind the cottage, under that linden of his, and suddenly, inexplicably, sensed that from the other side, the front, Ludek’s girl was approaching and then – that she was leaving. In the evening, following the edge of the forest between the colony and the village, he knew when a wild sow had passed close by with her young, right here, so close to the road that she had detected him – a human being – and hustling on her young, still small, though now without their stripes, she’d withdrawn into the darkness of the pines. Or when he’d trudged to the Ekonomiuks, beekeepers, and had fallen into a kind of trance among the hives; he listened to the humming and couldn’t move, and the bees grew anxious and began to circle crazily about his head until Ekonomiuk raced up and was forced to chase him away. All day he couldn’t shake off that buzzing and at night he went out into the fields, but making love to the wind brought no relief this time and the next day he got up more tired than ever.
It’s hard to be always aware that this moment will never be repeated, that now is now and there won’t be another chance to look closely at this precise instant. Later, you can turn it over in the memory still, but your sole access then will be through words – and even if a scent or taste or sound lets you touch something inside that’s bound forever to that unique now, still that something, bonded with the past, is become other, and what’s other can be touched only with words. That evening, when he felt the sow’s presence, he walked a long way, right to the village where the school was, and the teacher’s house.
It was late, the sun had set behind the forest, a pink glow stained the sky, blue stripes, pink stripes. They’d thrown open the windows at the teacher’s house and music could be heard coming from inside. A piano and a voice. Jurek stopped and listened. He felt the voice as though he himself were singing. The teacher came out, paused in front of the house, he looked at Jurek, tilting his head to one side.
‘Would you like to come in?’ he asked.
Jurek didn’t know what to say.
‘Come on,’ the man urged; it was simplest to go.
Stepping inside was like entering the music. Right after the porch, you turned into a large room; there, on a separate little table, stood the source of the sound: a gramophone.
‘Sit down,’ the teacher urged, pointing to the divan. In another part of the room, a large table was strewn with papers; beside it, on the sideboard, stood rows of books. So much of everything, it made Jurek’s head spin. The teacher’s wife came in and two small daughters. The woman asked if he was hungry. He said he wasn’t. He heard his voice as though from the outside, from beyond the bubble in which he’d found himself together with that music. The woman put a glass of compote in front of him. ‘This is my life,’ thought Jurek. ‘This room, these people, this music. These legs, these hands, these ears, this head, throbbing with a deluge of impressions, with a terrible weariness.’ The teacher pulled out a few records from the sideboard and asked Jurek to choose something. The boy chose randomly, since the titles and covers meant nothing to him. He drank some compote and saw his hands were shaking.
`The teacher stopped the gramophone and there was silence, only the distant sound of children laughing in the next room. Then he put the record Jurek had chosen onto the turntable, lowered the head to the right place, switched on the player. Sometimes, usually, music begins gently and slowly, gradually grows more dense, but this was different: the sound appeared suddenly – like the wail of a fire-engine’s siren. Jurek couldn’t say if he liked it or not, he didn’t think about that – he just followed the sound.
‘It’s from New York,’ the teacher explained with pride, and then Jurek thought that maybe not for everyone, but assuredly for him, this village was a bog, a quagmire, a trap with no way out, a prison from which he was granted the sight of the whole wondrous miracle of the world, but only through glass, from behind bars.
Returning through the darkening forest, he tried to sing something, or hum, but all that emerged was a kind of screech. He tried again – the same. Then he stopped trying to sing and emitted only bestial screeching sounds which flew up to perch somewhere among the treetops, where so many human and non-human cries had already gathered. ‘A person turns savage in the forest,’ they say sometimes. Then he remembered that these were his father’s hushed words, and that they carried an undercurrent, touching on some matter that his parents hid from him. He began to laugh: at himself, at his own singing and at that human savagery which was a means of escape when someone had nowhere to escape to, because the world was fenced off by a windowpane and bars and entirely possessed by others.
He stopped his ears. Now he could hear his voice from the inside, he could feel the vibrations. He realised that he sometimes felt the same thing lying on the ground – so it was something linking him with others, all others – beyond customs: an impersonal force rampant in the entrails of every living thing. It became steadily darker. ‘How is it,’ Jurek wondered, ‘that there are so many kinds of darkness and the darkness of flax is different from the darkness of pines?’ Only one step now separated Jurek from freedom, but it was a step into the dark, into vibrations where all stories, those told and those unspoken, returned to their sources, where they mingled with others to form a single mass, which Mrs Ziemak’s God poured into the next mould. And everything began again: the sun rose and the sun set, like an unflagging wanderer it returned again to its morning watch; each being received a fresh assignment of events, its own portion of hunger. Only one step separated Jurek from freedom, but he did not take that step. He emerged from the forest into the fields. Inside the houses they were getting ready for bed, some slept already. People grew quiet, and shifted their affairs inside.
In the little house more like a mushroom every day, the Ziemaks lay between their grey bedclothes on the border between waking and sleeping. In fact, they did not much need to sleep, with their days barely differing from the nights, consciousness from drowning, the present from the past. Mr Ziemak spun out the inventory of death begun by day – time for item number three. The little son born in the winter, in the very middle of a stretch of leaden days. Before it began, she said: ‘He won’t live.’ The birth took all night, but was quiet. The village midwife he’d brought from beyond the river said later that never had she seen such a birth. No cries, no groans. The woman had spent the greater part of the night squatting, bent double, her face set, betraying a grimace of pain or anger from time to time. And no cry from the child. Towards the very end, the midwife helped pull out its fragile body from the body of the woman. It grew cold quickly in that frost.
No one seemed to bother Mrs Ziemak after that. Calling her a russki or a witch. Until finally, they began coming to fetch her when someone was dying. Perhaps they believed that after all of that she had befriended death. She went from house to house and sat with the dying. And it helped them somehow, it helped, that unearthly calm of hers, deeper than sadness and grief and completely devoid of hope.
‘We could probably have tried, at that point, to reclaim the house beyond the river.’ Ziemak often thought. But what would they have gained? Reclaiming, settling accounts: no more than words. And who would have lived there, beyond ghosts? Justice, too, is just a word. For what could a just payment be for youth stolen by sudden flight – by terror and hunger and filth? For lives consigned too soon to other earth – the earth of forest, field, and lands beyond the river? Ziemak decided they would live here, here would be their world, their place, their field, their bit of forest. Why go beyond the river? He didn’t go. Everything that could exist, existed here as well: the clouds and the wind, the sun and the rain. And what pertains to human fate, that is, every kind of loss.
Jurek paused for a moment beside the windows which now almost touched the ground. He thought he could hear whispering. Close as close, on the other side of the wall, two pairs of eyes stared at the ceiling’s blackened beams. The hungry night nibbled soundlessly at the edges of the photographs.
‘Father, maybe we could buy a gramophone after the harvest?’ Jurek began, the next day after work.
All day long the rye had cast itself compliantly before the scythes. Tired, shoulders aching, they were placid with labour, the father mollified, and even Jurek smiled as he downed orangeade. The dark freedom he’d touched the previous day in the forest had retreated and once again he was living among others.
‘Work first,’ answered Bulka sternly, but not too sternly, ‘and then we’ll see.’
‘I can’t sleep,’ said Jurek. Bułka pondered. ‘What about taking the Ludeks’ girl to a dance?’
In August the nights began to lengthen, and Jurek’s sleeplessness eased. Hard physical labour filled the boy’s days, keeping craziness at bay. When everyone with rye had mown it, they organised a party at the manor, with music and dancing. They each brought what they had: food, beer, moonshine. The school benches were arranged outside in the yard and the food on the benches. In the evening, they lit a big bonfire in the garden. The teacher had an understanding with the authorities so no need to worry. Jurek did not dance, but he was there with the rest, he stood by the fire and stared into the flames, waiting to see if the Ludek girl would come. He did and didn’t want her to by turn. She came. He was pleased. She wore a dress he hadn’t seen, smooth and graceful, without buttons. She’d pinned up her plait into a crown. She stood beside him and then he felt a warmth radiating from her that was stronger than the fire. Not hotter, but stronger.
‘Will we dance?’ she asked.
He didn’t want to.
‘Maybe we could go for a stroll?’ he suggested.
‘Where to round here? It’s too far to the river…’
‘Come on,’ he insisted.
And suddenly he felt completely happy, all the exhaustion, all the madness of the summer seemed to melt away. He felt an urge to take her with him and set out immediately into the world, no matter where, just away from here. Slowly they drew back from the reach of the fire’s glow. Old Bułka noticed, but said nothing. It was a peaceful evening; a trace of light, sticky and thick as dark honey, still trickled over the forest from beneath the scattered clouds. They went down the garden, through the orchard, then along the stubble, to the edge of the forest. Gradually, they distanced themselves from human voices, from the music, until they entered other, wilder terrain. The grasshoppers sang, a bird called from time to time, you could hear it was no longer spring, but almost autumn, not a beginning, but almost an ending. But how did one hear it? That remained a mystery. Jurek loved mystery. He felt some unspoken happiness in these, now less feverish sounds and in the lazy displays of the fading sky. Here and there, quails stood about the fields, braided with straw and dressed in flowers: the season pressed towards its resolution.
They sat down at the very edge of the field, right by the forest. Neither knew what to say. The boy put his arm about the girl and they sat, listening to the sounds of the dying day.
‘It’s terrifying when you’re caught in the forest at night,’ said the girl at last.
‘Why terrifying?’ he asked.
‘You never know what’s hiding there. In the dark.’
‘We can go together, if you like,’ he suggested. ‘Into the dark.’
She glanced at him frightened, she had slightly slanting, amber eyes; some traces of the day, little sparks, still lingered in their irises. He stroked her cheek. She brightened. The glow faded over the forest. She drew him close more firmly and they lay down on the ground. For a long time they lay nestled in their own warmth and scent. He kissed her lips clumsily – she returned his kiss. Then he kissed her neck, the hidden place behind her ear, the dip of the bone above the boatneck collar edging her dress. He made out the shape of her breasts with his hands, and that was all for now. He was completely happy.
The weeks that followed were a time of discoveries. She took him to an empty house at the end of the village. He knew about it, but never went there – no one did. The house had stood empty since the war; people had long ago taken whatever had been left inside and the land that went with it had been joined, bit by bit, to their own fields, but the house stood on, though decaying in the wind and rain. The roof leaked and greenery flourished inside.
‘Aren’t you afraid here?’ he asked.
‘Here – no,’ she replied. ‘Here, I know everyone.’
He did not question her further. They brought old blankets and wound them into a nest. Inside, they gave free rein to their bodies, which were slowly slowly learning each other. They did what they had to – what they wanted to. Jurek unbuttoned the dress in disbelief that this was really happening, that the small white gap was opening ever wider – opening up before him – revealing the miracle that was her. He gazed at this miracle from every side, until she ceased to be embarrassed; he touched with his hands, his tongue. ‘This is my life’ – he said to himself – ‘this is my happiness.’ And again he touched and kissed and caressed.
But happiness was surprisingly like unhappiness – the thought appeared almost immediately, as though the fissure with which Jurek had long been living had expanded, absorbing love too. When she lay beside him, he was thinking that in a moment she would have to leave. He wanted everything to happen as slowly as possible, for time to stand still, for nothing to change, even at the cost of fulfillment, which distanced them from each other every time – because it was too real. It was the waiting that he liked best of all. He would arrive early, lie in the nest and dream: then he didn’t fear the passing of time. But when she arrived, the losing began.
Krysia was different: she wanted life to press ahead, she had dreams and plans, distinguishing one from the other. When she arrived, she did not worry about leaving. When she arrived, she was happy, and her happiness was different from unhappiness. But when she left, then she began to worry. She worried that it might be the last time, she sensed that Jurek would not stay with her for long, because he might not stay anywhere for long. And when she worried, she suffered. Suffering was different from happiness.
The first, truly cold evening: she arrived a little later than usual. Two old apple trees grew in front of the house, they bore tiny, rather indifferent apples; the apples fell and rotted in the tall grass. In the blue dusk, Jurek was picking over the apples. ‘There are so many things to experience ,’ he thought. ‘There’s so much of everything in the world, to look at, touch, hear.’
When she arrived, he greeted her with the indifferent apples. She couldn’t understand why he was offering them to her. It was cold, they burrowed under the blankets and only then, in thick darkness, did they pull off their clothes. They knew each other well by now. Yet at the same time, everything always began anew, because these moments could not in any way be held in the memory – they disappeared faster than a thought. ‘This is my love, this is my happiness,’ Jurek repeated to himself. But they were only words. They nestled against each other afterwards, tightly wrapped in blankets to keep the warmth from escaping.
‘I don’t understand why I’m here,’ he said at last.
He felt the girl’s body tensing. He tried to explain:
‘I don’t know why I’m alive, why I walk the earth, breath, eat, watch the sun rise and set, since all of it’s only heading for…’
The alarm in her eyes spoke more than any words and Jurek felt the fissure expanding, and this new image, their love, collapsing into two parts.
‘If I knew how to – I don’t know – write, or compose,’ he continued desperately, ‘perhaps I’d know what to do with time, with the world.’
It was nothing but the truth, yet the words sounded stupid and false somehow.
‘You’re strange,’ said Krysia, after a moment’s silence, without any tenderness.
He tried to embrace her once more, but she didn’t open up again and, still under the blanket, she began to dress.
‘It’s cold,’ she said, as though wanting to justify herself. ‘Mother will be angry, you know,’ she said. Jurek knew.
‘Will you go back by yourself?’ he asked.
She nodded. He stayed a little longer in the house, until nightfall. It grew colder and dark, very dark. The darkness of the house was different from the darkness in the fields. The darkness of the stubble different from the darkness of the forest. Autumn nights are quieter than nights in spring. He went outside. There was no moon. He could sense no animals. He walked ahead, through the fields, to the forest. No sounds, only wind. As though everything living had hidden from him.
It was almost midnight when he got home. His mother was still awake. Tap-tap tap-tap knocked the wheel’s pedal; his mother was spinning flax. He felt ashamed when he saw her, tired, dark rings under her eyes, worn fingers drawing out a single thread from the fibrous mass. He wanted to apologise to her, but didn’t know how.
‘They’re slaughtering a calf at the Ludeks’ tomorrow,’ she said, as if nothing had happened. ‘They promised us some feet; go over, you might be of use.’
The next day, Krysia saw him through the window, he was standing with the others who’d come to stare. The calf was hanging from the swing; her father was slitting the stomach open. The blood is red, but the guts are grey. Her father was taking out the guts and throwing them into a large basin. Krysia glanced in the mirror, fixed her hair. It crossed her mind to put on that dress which buttoned up at the front, the day was so warm again, but in the end she didn’t. She came out of the house, stood, as though by chance, next to Jurek, just as before, a month earlier, by the bonfire. Her mother was rinsing the empty stomach with hot water. Her father knew his craft, he knew how to kill gently, he knew how to handle meat. She didn’t look at Jurek. Nor did he look at her. She stood a moment and then she returned to the house, to the speckled mirror. She looked and looked until her face, with its prominent cheekbones and the faintly slanting eyes, became completely strange. She stepped away from the mirror and slowly took off her dress. Standing in just her underwear, she examined her body: the slender arms, round belly, full hips. She was learning herself in a new role; the one who was not enough.
‘They’ve slaughtered a calf over at the colony,’ said Miłka, poised on the threshold of the room. ‘At the Ludeks’.’
Michał was sitting at the table, deep in thought. It was already dark outside. The electric lamp cast its light over a pile of books and papers: a Polish-Esperanto dictionary, volumes of poetry, notebooks, stamp albums.
‘We could call by tomorrow,’ she continued.
‘I’ll go,’ he agreed, distractedly, without lifting his eyes.
‘You’re working,’ she stated cheerfully after a moment’s silence, and then he looked up at her finally.
A storm of chestnut hair framed her round face. She was wearing a brown knitted dress, caught at a waist no longer that of a wasp after the birth of the girls, and Miłka was forever planning to lose weight but something always got in the way and she’d tell herself: tomorrow.
‘I’ll work a little longer,’ said Michał softly, ‘but not too long.’
He heard her steps along the passageway; she went straight to the bedroom. She never switched on the light, but went on living automatically as though they had no electricity. The girls were sleeping on a fold-out sofa. She leaned over them and checked in turn that each of them was breathing. She had done this every day since she had brought them into the world. Twice a day, in the morning, as soon as she woke up, and again before she went to bed. He couldn’t hear her, but he knew it via that sense that people long linked together sense things, that now she was listening to their peaceful sleepy breathing. Next – another constant – she knelt down to say her prayers. For when her parents died, Miłka had started to pray again. Her prayer was very direct, asking always one thing only: that there should be no war. She had no other business with God. ‘Please don’t let there be a war,’ she said, sighing deeply. Then she recited prayers quickly, mechanically, as one performs repetitive household tasks, simply, without needless philosophising.
At last, he heard the creaking of the sofa. She had gone to bed. She always fell asleep within seconds and slept like a log, dreamlessly. He, on the other hand, now seemed to wake from his lethargy. The light trembled, flickered and flared again. He really needed these few quiet hours at the end of the day – he told himself. He really needed to think about everything in solitude. He liked it when they were sleeping safely in the house which he had built. Close, but separated from him by a curtain of sleep. Then, at a certain distance, he could experience his love for them –experience it as best he knew how, that is in thoughts and words. Life seemed then to expand, taking in other perspectives – other trajectories and possibilities. At such moments he was still a poet, a traveller, a painter. At such moments, through the life of the imagination brought alongside actual life, he could participate again in what had once belonged to the sphere of possibility and which, with the passing of time and the shrinking of the options still offered by fate, had disappeared from the horizon.
When Miłka had gone to sleep he rearranged his desk. He sorted through his books and papers and pulled out a letter from under a pile of envelopes. The stamp, imprinted JUGOSLAVIJA, depicted a pale pink flower of clary sage. He had been waiting several nights in a row now for this moment of nocturnal solitude, so that he could examine the envelope again, its narrow side slit open carefully with scissors, and next take out the piece of paper folded in four, unfold the sheet and read the text written in Esperanto, from the date in the left-hand corner (Sarajevo, September 1961), down to the signature: Jasna.
Almost two years have passed since our last and only meeting! You will forgive my directness, perhaps, if I write that throughout this time you have become exceptionally close to me, despite the distance separating us. I wait for each of your letters as for a meeting with a dear friend. Every day, things occur to me that I’d like to tell you, in fact I’d like to tell you about literally everything, important matters and trivial ones alike.
For example, yesterday evening I was sitting on the terrace, the red glare of the setting sun spilled over the hills around the town and I thought: I must describe it for him. At this time of year, when the hot summer is finally ending, the light is at its most beautiful – the whole earth gives an impression of indolence and contentment. Nothing can compare with the sleepy peacefulness of these hours, even though I live, as you know, in the very centre of town. And how is the weather where you are – do you feel winter approaching already? When I think of Warsaw, I think, of course, of winter.
You write that the first literary work translated into Esperanto was Pushkin’s ‘Blizzard’. It is a most amusing novella, don’t you think? Look at this fragment: ‘Burmin found Maria Gavrilovna by the pond, under the willow, a book in her hand and in a white dress, as befits a true romantic heroine. After the first questions, Maria Gavrilovna deliberately ceased to maintain the conversation, thus intensifying their mutual embarrassment, from which only a sudden declaration could save them.’ Pushkin’s theme is not love, but literature, isn’t that so? But perhaps it’s one and the same thing?
She went on to describe an outing to the hills with friends (what friends? Misha fretted) and included a photograph of the landscape, without people. As usual, she wrote a great deal about her work. She was in the middle of translating the English metaphysical poets. She ended with a quotation from John Donne: ‘Sir, more than kisses letters mingle souls; for thus friends absent speak…’ She gave the original, but wrote out the translation too: ‘Sinjoro, pli ol la kisoj, la letroj konfuzas la animojn; ĉar tiel parolas la forestaj amikoj…’
He pondered these words as he contemplated the dark, predatory hills on the black and white photograph. He knew every detail of this picture, and what it did not contain he imagined on subsequent perusals of her letter: the weather, the village house in which she was staying, the wooden table at which she ate her meals, the little carafe from which she poured wine. He folded up the letter and, together with the photograph, delicately pushed it into the envelope, and hid the envelope among other letters. He took a blank sheet of paper, penned the date, then sat motionless for some time, gazing at the sheet, bright in the flickering light of the lamp.
‘Love and literature’ – he thought – ‘love and poetry.’ He realized that in fact he’d always loved with the help of poetry. Love had appeared earlier in his life than a woman able to satisfy the pre-formed hunger for that love. My dearest friend, he began. Earlier, these words had flowed readily, he had simply written, only later deliberating if they were good or bad. Now the paper resisted him, he searched endlessly for words, for the right rhythm. I cannot express how delighted I was at your letter. Again he broke off.
He got up and went to the gramophone. He opened the lid; Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ was on the turntable. He remembered Jurek Bułka choosing the record a few days earlier and his thoughts wandered to that strange boy. There was something puzzling about him, for sure. It was hard to say if he was clever or not; he rarely spoke at school, and when he did, it was never quite what you’d expect. Sensitive, he was easily discouraged. As though he were simply waiting to be disappointed.
Michał picked up the record and carefully pushed it into its sleeve. He put on Tchaikovsky. Quietly, so as not to wake Miłka and the children. He stood a while by the gramophone, following the sounds. He knew it by heart. The music had chiseled a pattern into his soul – as rivers carve a trough into the ground – which is why listening brought him such pleasure.
He sat down at the table again, reached for one of his old notebooks, opened it at random and began to read:
What makes a person do one thing and not another? Or believe one way and not another? No situation can be seen from every side at once. Let’s say something threatens a person – that he’s afraid of something. He runs away. But the place to which he runs holds even greater dangers. He falls into a trap, because he didn’t see the whole situation, only a part of it. But the question is, had he seen the whole, would he have acted otherwise? Or maybe everyone does what he must, and it’s only later you can say that it was good or bad, wise or stupid?
He closed the notebook and put it aside. He hid his face in his hands. Sarajevo. He tried to imagine that lazy light she wrote about. The hills circling the town. The towering minarets. And her, on the balcony of her apartment, looking at it all and thinking: I must describe it for him.
He got up eventually and went outside, leaving the door ajar behind him, letting the music drift out quietly. It was a fine night. Cold, but completely cloudless and starry. Still. A dog barked in the village; another one replied. In such weather, he sometimes thought that he could hear the river. More than anything, the river and the landscape shaped by it marked out home for him. ‘I must describe it for her,’ he thought. The manor was sunk in darkness, it occured to him that he missed Francis. The stars were reflected in the pool, you’d think they were just waiting to be fished out.
He went back into the house – turned off the music and switched off the light. Miłka and the little girls were deep in sleep, each in her own world. He undressed quickly and slipped under the quilt next to his wife. He felt the chill of the autumn night upon him. He pressed his face to her hair, sank into the warmth. All thoughts quickly scattered. Warmth permeated his skin, penetrated his heart. One single life [WU1] simmered in the woman’s soft body and the hard body of the man. He gathered her hair aside and kissed the place behind her ear which so loved to be kissed. He embraced her waist and caressed the soft folds of her stomach under the material of the nightdress. Miłka stretched along the border of sleep and waking. She whispered some word, but he didn’t catch it.
Jurek saw the door open and the teacher come outsided. His heart was hammering so hard, he was afraid the man would hear. Feeble starlight surrounded the house. The boy was hiding in the bushes, by the fence, on the fringes of the dark. The teacher walked up to the light’s border, threw back his head and stared at the stars. No more than three metres between them, but each inhabited a world of his own, inaccessible to the other, linked only by the music seeping quietly through the open door. Jurek tried to breath evenly, but the body did as it pleased. He felt a burning pain along his forearm; he must have cut himself when he dived into the bushes.
A dog barked, though it felt to Jurek that the barking came from inside him. And immediately another answered: ‘Here I am! Here I am! Everything’s fine.’ The dog communiqué spread through the neighbourhood. The teacher started as though from sleep, rubbed his face and eyes with his hands, went back to the house. When the door closed behind him, the music faded, and a moment later ceased completely. The light went out too and the house sank into darkness. The boy gave a quiet growl. There was no reply. He tried a little louder. This time he heard a bark in the distance.
He sat hidden until his eyes had grown accustomed to the dark. The mass of the house emerged again, then the outline of trees and even the branches. He noticed raspberries still hanging on a cane. He plucked and ate a whole handful. He licked the blood from his wound, fuelling the pain’s flame. He stretched his arm into the cold air to cool it. A gust of wind; the pain eased. When he felt that it was safe, he climbed out of the bushes and returned to the road. The whole night belonged to the rest of the world, but this moment was his alone – he felt sole master of this moment. True, there was nothing of a moon, but many stars – he smiled at them, and they smiled back. When he entered the forest, the darkness grew even deeper. The wind rustled in the treetops, a bird took flight in a flutter of wings. Jurek no longer cared if he lost his way or not. He heard the crack of a branch snapping underfoot somewhere. And again. He smiled like someone who knew exactly what to do, who had no choice and was therefore free. He followed the cracking of the branches, without fear, almost happy. Along the road and endless night.
The howling of dogs rose from the colony. The village dogs soon joined in and the whole world was wound in lament, like a siren warning of fire or invasion. Miłka woke abruptly and sat up in bed, listening. All the maternal terror she carried inside, resting like an unexploded shell, rose to the surface.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Michał, awake now too.
‘The dogs are howling,’ said Miłka.
‘So they’re howling,’ he said, for the sake of replying.
‘They’re howling for a death,’ Miłka retorted with conviction. ‘Someone is dying.’ Michał slowly emerged from sleep. It was still grey, not night, but not yet day, a lifeless hour at that time of year, on the threshold of autumn.
Miłka scrambled out from under the bedclothes. The house was cold. She threw a coat over her nightdress and went outside. She looked at the sky. Empty, grey. No aeroplanes, thank God. The world had not yet mustered any colours, the fence showed black against a background of uniform grey, faded sunflowers stood in a row with drooping heads. The howling subsided for a moment, but then resumed.
Mrs Ziemak scrambled out from the grey bedclothes and said: ‘Someone to be lulled.’ Again a dog’s howl was heard, nearby.
‘They don’t send for you any more,’ said Mr Ziemak.
The old woman fell silent. She let down her hair, long, thin and grey. She combed it with her fingers, gazing out the window full of colourless prefigurement of day. She twisted a plait, pinned it up. Smoothed her blouse, inspected her hands. Her nails were still growing. She sat down at the table and trimmed them with a penknife. Then she opened a cupboard, balls of dust and moths flew out. Next to her yellowed wedding dress hung a black coat. It was bigger than before, which meant that she had shrunk. She told her husband she was going out. But he had no words.
Cold and warmth tussled outside, like bright with dark. The sun inched slowly into the sky, as though very tired at the end of a long summer. Mrs Ziemak was tired too, but she went on, as it appeared she must. She did not turn into the Bułka farmyard, though, but headed for the forest.
The manor, village, and colony were like a single organism, a web of links making up a single brain, so that if someone learnt something, then so did the rest. The news of Jurek’s suicidal death spread quickly round those parts. A villager had been riding his bicycle through the wood at dawn, he saw a boletus and then another, he made for the trees to look for their brothers, but found instead a boy upon a tree. Mrs Ziemak did not need to wait for the news to arrive. Her own being was so porous that it was soon permeated by what must normally remain external, enabling a person to say: ‘here is where I am – and all the rest – is somewhere else’. Mrs Ziemak felt whatever might be happening within herself.
The trek was difficult, her body had grown unused to movement and there was still a good distance between hers and the forest. She didn’t think about it. She walked on, bent over, step by step, concentrating hard, seeking some store of tears inside. For a person’s sadness is exhausted eventually, just as hope is. The sun rises and the sun sets while a person is forever headed somewhere. Mrs Ziemak had quickly used up her allotted portion of hope; sadness sufficed a little longer, but it too extinguished at last, giving way to a muted emptiness. But now Mrs Ziemak had need of grief again, and so she searched and searched, step by step, trudging arduously in the direction of the forest, she searched and searched and searched until she found it.
The smell of moss and mycelium enveloped her at last. Whole years had passed since she’d last breathed forest air. In the shadow of the trees, the cold was winning out, the dark was winning out; it was the nature of the forest. Mrs Ziemak was surprised that the forest could shrink so. There was a time when she could recognise individual trees, and when she left the path she’d never lose her way. The forest was inside her which meant she could be inside it safely. Now she needed time to find her bearings. Completely new young pines were growing along the edges, the path had turned into a wide track. She stood motionless for a long time until she gathered where she was, or rather felt the direction where, in the distance, the river was flowing.
A horsedrawn cart emerged from between the trees. Old Bułka sat in front with another peasant. Bułka looked like a dead man. Pale, expressionless, he stared straight ahead, but saw nothing. He passed her without a word, because there simply were no words. Mrs Ziemak plunged deeper into the forest. It was high noon, sunny and honeyed, when the cart bearing Jurek reached the Bułka house. Mrs Ziemak found a good place and lay down on the wet moss.
Basia was not pleased that morning. It had apparently begun so well, with dumplings and honey: her favourite. But mama and papa behaved so oddly, as though they hadn’t slept, or like those times when they got a bad letter. Then some man arrived on a bicycle and called from the threshold:
‘Mr Teacher! Mr Teacher!’ Her father got up from the table and went right down to the gate to see the man and when he came back nothing was the same, nor would it be for now.
‘Jurek Bułka…’ papa said to mama, without finishing.
Mama opened her eyes wide and covered her mouth with her hand. It wasn’t clear why, since it was closed already. Then she sprang up from the table and ran outside to talk with the man as well. Ludmila got up too and went to eavesdrop. And breakfast was over. Basia went on eating her dumplings, but they weren’t so tasty now. Ludmila came back first and with such an expression, like a know-it-all.
‘What? Well what?’
‘He hanged himself,’ said Ludmila, a hint of pride in her voice. ‘He hanged himself and died.’
The whole rest of the day didn’t go as it should. First of all, Papa got out the motorbike and quickly rode off somewhere. The children had to wait for him in front of the school. He came back at last. Basia sat in the last bench as usual, drawing patterns, but Papa couldn’t concentrate on the lessons and assigned the pupils some exercise from a book. Basia was terribly bored. Lessons finished early and then Mama packed a lot of sweet rolls in a basket and both of them went to see the parents of the hanged boy. She wanted to go with them but they said no. Basia and Ludmila were to wait at home. They waited. They ate a few rolls. They played checkers. Ludmila got bored, so Basia went to play outside.
The sky was smooth and yellow blue. The air smelt of leaves and mildew. The last raspberries hung from the canes by the fence. Basia picked them carefully so as not to get scratched, crammed them into her mouth – they were very sweet, but had lots of small hard pips. ‘Yesterday they slaughtered a calf at the Ludeks’,’ she said aloud to herself. ‘And then a boy hanged himself on a tree and died.’ She didn’t really understand why he had died. Perhaps because he’d fallen? He hit himself on the ground. Or on a stone. And splat, his head had split. ‘Splat!’ she said aloud. He’d died. That meant he couldn’t move. A bird which falls out of a nest can’t move. A mouse caught in a trap can’t move: ‘Splat!’ She swallowed the fruit and licked her fingers.
Basia and Ludmila used to play funerals. They buried mice, birds, and May bugs in little paper coffins. Then they’d stick in crosses made of twigs, strewed flowers and cones – any pretty thing they found. Mama had forbidden them to do it. She said crosses were only for people. Basia felt angry with her mother now – for that, but more because she’d gone off for a whole afternoon and left her alone.
She squatted under the lilac bush. It was covered with ugly, dry brown flowerheads. She gouged out a sizable hole in the ground with a stick. She didn’t have anything to bury just then, but you can always find something dead on the ground. She searched and searched; but, as if to spite her, there was simply nothing, no half-eaten mouse, not a single frog, dried into a smooth pancake. In the end, she found a ladybird. Maybe it was dead, maybe sleepy, maybe paralyzed with fear. ‘I’ll make you a coffin out of leaves,’ she promised, clutching the tiny thing in her fist. She found a beautiful round plantain leaf and lay the corpse down, yellow traces of sap on her small hand. She made a little parcel, threw it into the hole and quickly buried it, so that it should not come unravelled. ‘You hanged yourself and fell out of a tree,’ she said to the ladybird. ‘And splat! You split your head open!’ ‘Splat!’ she repeated with emphasis.
Then she fell silent. She wasn’t a bit happy with this game. The ladybird had no neck with which to hang herself. And she was too small, too light. Basia encircled her own small neck with her hands and squeezed, as hard as she could. It hurt and for a moment she gasped for breath. She tasted raspberries again but mixed with something sour and salty. She got a fright. She dug up the corpse and threw it into the bushes together with the leaves. She rubbed away the traces of the grave. She ran out onto the road to check if her parents were returning, but there was no one there. The black streak of the forest showed clearly against the horizon. The sky grew grey, a chill descended.
She took a first step, and then another. She’d never even walked through the village by herself, let alone through the forest, but she went now. She was afraid, but couldn’t not go, because she was even more afraid that her mother wouldn’t return. That she’d died, like that boy. There are many kinds of fear: the shallow and the deep, the fleeting and the persistent. Basia’s fear was of the deepest kind, older than her, passed down. When such a fear takes hold, it’s hard to lull it still again. The forest had seemed far away, yet she seemed to cover the distance in no time. It grew darker. She stepped between the trees. The pines murmured, a bird screeched.
Mrs Ziemak lay on the moss gazing into the darkness. She’d been lying there many hours, ready to receive anything that might require a human form, all human fear, desire, anger, even hatred. Some stubborn resistance of matter meant she still had a body – still had blood in her veins.
Basia walked on.
Bacteria, fungi, worms and ants remade dead matter into compost. Mrs Ziemak breathed the forest air. Time, swollen with human torment, passed through her gently, without hindrance.
Basia walked on.
She walked past the tree, a forked pine, from which Jurek had hanged himself twenty hours ago. Little caps of new boleti emerged from the moss; maybe someone would find them, or maybe they would grow, scatter their spores and end up fodder for some slug. A hedgehog caught a beetle. Basia tried to look straight ahead and not lose the path. Ludmila had once told her that this forest was haunted. They’d killed a man there once, because they often used to kill people during the war and after the war, but they’d ordered this one to take off his shoes. And they buried him with bare feet. And now, whenever he can, the man climbs out of his grave and looks for his shoes, searches for them all over the forest. Ludmila told her that you could get lost in any forest. And then, instead of going straight ahead, a person starts to wander in circles. They go round and round. Like mushrooms which grow only in rings and never in rows. You think you’re getting somewhere, but then you come back to the same place – again and again and again. Until you’re reeling with hunger and exhaustion.
A tear dribbled down the old woman’s wrinkled cheek. A cone dropped from a tree. Basia could hear her own heart beating and the murmur of the trees. The murmuring soothed her.
The edge of the forest was not yet in view when muffled human voices reached her from a distance. Her heart hammered even harder, whether from hope or fear, she didn’t know. She stopped. The voices became clearer. Among them, she heard the voice of her mother. She dashed forwards, laughing and crying at the same time.
The barefoot man scrambled out of the shallow grave; he was going to hunt for his boots. Mrs Ziemak rose slowly from the moss. All her bones ached. She had the impression that she could hear the river in the distance. It was some three kilometres away. Too far for her ever to get there again. Bacteria, fungi, worms and ants were remaking dead matter into compost. Mrs Ziemak would not see the river again. No matter; after all, she’d had her fill of gazing at it, in her time.
I can’t tell you how delighted I was at your letter. I, too, think of you often and wait eagerly for your tales. You write so well – I can imagine everything: your apartment, your town, the route of your wanderings, the burning afternoon sun, your daily reality, but known to me only through literature.
I live, as you know, in a village, not far from a stream called the Kaluza, yes, exactly so, and not far from here it falls into a river called the Toczna which in turn flows into the Bug. The Bug is a wild and beautiful river, you would have to see for yourself how it meanders through forests, spills into misty valleys, among fertile marshes and lazy oxbow lakes. It truly is a paradise for birds of which there cannot be so many anywhere as we have here.
I write of the river, birds and landscapes, yet today I’m particularly moved because a tragedy has befallen our quiet village. A local boy– sensitive, closed-up and proud, a seeker – hanged himself in the forest. People say it is out of unrequited love. Would that – in your view – be a poetic gesture? Fulfilling fate in which this role and not some other had befallen him? I find it easier, when I think of what happened in this way…
I have no new reading to relate to you, nothing particularly interesting has come my way. Myself, I hardly write at all these days.. I am drawn more to sketching, and I particularly like to dabble at portraits. Perhaps you could send me your photograph?
Translated by Anna Zaranko
MARCH 2021 Julia Fiedorczuk MONK