My grandmother lived in Podlasie. The house wasn’t in the village itself. The neighborhood was known as “the colony”—scattered farms separated by stands of aspen and avenues of age-old, slender poplars. The cottage stood amid an orchard. In the summer, even at high noon it was cool out there. The apple trees were ancient and had grown rank. Their crowns joined overhead; it was a realm of eternal shade.
This forest of fruit trees on one side bordered a meadow. But I never heard the usual word for meadow, łąka. People said smug, the cows would grazing “on the smug.” Somewhere in the middle of it was a green strip with a well for watering the cattle. The well was old, and in place of a regular wall there was just a framework of planks. The bucket was pulled up using a long pole with a hook on the end. The pole was known as a kluczka.
The “u” has the softest, most gentle sound of all the vowels.
Whenever I think of my grandmother I remember those two words: kluczka, smug. And also a third one: duch—ghost.
Grandmother believed in ghosts.
In the sixties they had no electricity there. Grandfather would climb up on a small wooden stool and light a kerosene lamp that hung from the ceiling. In the fall it would be lit quite early, at six, maybe even five. In the fall my father and I would come for apples, we’d load whole cratefuls of them onto the Lublin truck of my uncle, a bona fide truck driver of early and middle communism.
So anyway, grandmother believed in ghosts. And it wasn’t the sort of fearful or reasoned belief that’s acquired from contacts with the beyond on special occasions, or from dreams or visions—nothing of the kind.
She would sit in the corner, on the woolen bedspread; behind her was a green and blue landscape with two stags at a watering hole, the delicate yellow light of the lamp bringing out only the silvery white of the water; and she would tell stories. They were long ones. They concerned banal happenings, work, visits, trips to the next village, family get-togethers. A measured narrative replete with facts, names of things and of people. The topography of their village and others nearby, a chronology that ran from Christmas to the Assumption to All Souls’.
In this humdrum subject matter, from time to time cracks would appear, the threads of warp and weft would pull apart, and the gap would reveal the other world—supernatural, in any case Other.
For example one summer evening, coming back from a visit to one of her many female cousins, grandmother saw a white figure among the hayricks. Half-human, half-animal, it was running along a field boundary, now on two legs, now on four, clearly visible in the moonlight, yet entirely immaterial.
Another time, after the death of a close relative she saw the deceased come into the kitchen. The door creaked, the visitor opened all the drawers and cupboards in the dresser then left without taking anything with him. It was at dawn. Grandmother had just been getting up. She saw the visit from where she sat on the bed, the same place from which she told her stories.
I don’t remember them all, of course, I can only recall snippets. But the atmosphere of those tales has stayed with me—it was utterly ordinary, devoid of surprise or exclamation.
This tearing of the fabric of existence mostly took place in my own imagination, I was the one who saw the holes. Grandmother ignored them. In general, for her there seemed to be only one indivisible order of events, all equally real and equally valid. It may have been that she was aware of certain distinctions, that she tacked and patched those doubtful, worn places, but in her stories there were no traces of the repair.
When a miniature whirlwind would appear over the fields on a still, windless afternoon, snatching up a line of hay cones, grandmother would simply cross herself, watch the phenomenon move away, and return to whatever she had been doing. After all, it had only been Evil manifesting its presence in one of its many forms. There was no excitation of the kind associated with table-turning or the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. If anything she was more like Svidrigailov and his banal excursions to the other side of existence. I’ve come to realize that her relative rummaging in the dresser was just as real and powerful as the phantom of Filka the servant entering Arkady Ivanovich’s room with a very ordinary hole in the elbow of his coat.
Why did she never tell stories about the saints? About the supernatural beings whose existence is confirmed by the teachings of the Church? Why did she never see Peter and Paul, or Saint Lucy? Them, she used only to measure time. Exactly as if they’d been lifeless objects, along the lines of ideal weights or measures. Their stillness was the stillness of the figures she saw at Sunday Mass. The little wooden church stood among trees in a shade as profound as that surrounding her own house. Once a week the squeaking brown-and-gilt interior offered her an image of eternity, of light, of a distant pledge and an even more distant reward.
Whereas ghosts, accursed sin-burdened souls, death—these accompanied her day to day. The truth that humans beings are closer to death, damnation, and chance than to salvation, found its embodiment in her life.
Nor was she an isolated case. The many aunts and great aunts that I’d meet in her home would take part in these stories, supplying all kinds of additional details, till my grandfather would lose patience and burst out: “Give it a rest, all of you”—though whether he was prompted by rationalism or dread I’ll never know. At such moments they’d fall silent for a while, then start up again like perverse Fates spinning the thread of that other, hidden human life which never for a moment forgets it is made up in equal parts of loss and dying.
The story about the mother who in broad daylight saw an unknown old woman in a gray dress out in the fields, and the same day the mother’s child fell ill, and subsequently died.
The story about how grandmother went into the cattle shed one evening and something almost knocked her over as it ran out the door, and no cow had milk to give that day.
Stories. . . stories. . . stories. . .
Grandmother died in the fall. I was too small to be able to remember the exact date. The wind was blowing at the time, and my father and I were there because the doctors had calculated not just the day but even the exact hour, it seemed. She lay on a board that was covered with black cloth, all dressed in black herself, thin and serene. Before they put her in the casket—such was the custom—all her relatives kissed her on the forehead. Maybe I was too young to comprehend the notion of death. Led by habit and affection I kissed her on the mouth, the way I would always greet her when I arrived at the start of the summer vacation. I was surprised that she was so hard and still, and that there were none of the usual warm, familiar aromas about her.
The fear came later. At the moment when I saw the black church banner with the silver cross hanging outside the house. Someone had fastened it to the wall in such a way that it was flapping noisily against the pale blue sky and the leafless branches.
That was my first ever lesson in the ascendancy of symbol over reality.
What am I driving at in this memoir-cum-story?
Before long the last grandmothers who looked upon the world of ghosts with their own eyes will be dead. They looked with faith and equanimity, though of course also with trepidation. A vivid, existing supernatural reality will disappear along with them. Aside from the rare mystical experiences of the chosen few, we’ll be reduced to a hard, exhausting trust in the existence of the unknown. The polished surface of the everyday will obligingly show us our own shallow reflection as if those were the depths.
My grandmother sat on the edge of her bed and told stories. She did it disinterestedly, without any particular goal. The ordinariness of these extraordinary happenings lent them credence.
When you left the house to go outside you passed through a large dark space known as the granary. Old horse tack hung there, clean winnowed grain lay behind wooden partitions. The pungent odor of leather impregnated with horse sweat mingled with the grain’s dry smell. Light entered through a small square opening in the wall. On sunny afternoons the darkness of the granary was pierced from end to end by a narrow beam of light filled with spinning motes. I’d run through the blackness, break the rays of light for a moment and rush outside. Each time I did, I was accompanied by the same fear. It was only once I was in the sunlight of the yard that my breathing returned to normal.
Through the window I could see the indistinct figure of my grandmother bustling about between stove and table, preparing dinner. She was all alone in the empty house; the brown-painted floorboards would creak at every step, while in the most ordinary way in the world she would be at the haunted dresser, taking out the condiments, plates, spoons and forks that the dead man had scorned.
Later, after she passed away, I often imagined death. The instinctive picture I saw was always the same: an old woman with a kind, mildly quizzical face, the face of my grandmother.