In July, my father left to take the waters; he left me with my mother and older brother at the mercy of the summer days, white from the heat and stunning. Stupefied by the light, we leafed through that great book of the holiday, in which the pages were ablaze with splendour, their sickly sweet pulp, deep within, made from golden pears.
Adela returned on luminous mornings, like Pomona from the fire of the enkindled day, tipping from her basket the coloured beauty of the sun: glistening wild cherries, full of water under their transparent skins, mysterious black cherries whose aroma surpassed even that which would be realised in their taste, and apricots, in whose golden pulp lay the core of the long afternoons. And alongside that pure poetry of fruit she unloaded racks of veal, their keyboards of calf ribs swollen with energy and goodness, and algae of vegetables that called to mind slaughtered octopus and jellyfish — the raw material of dinner, its flavours still unformed and sterile, dinner’s vegetative and telluric ingredients with their wild, fresh from the field aroma.
Through a dark apartment on the first floor of a tenement on the market square, every day of that whole great summer, there passed: the silence of shimmering veins of air, squares of radiance dreaming their fervid dreams on the floor, a barrel organ melody struck from the day’s deepest golden vein, and two or three measures of a refrain being played on a grand piano somewhere, over and over, swooning in the sunshine on the white pavements, lost in the fire of the fullness of the day. Adela, her housework done, drew down the linen blinds, threw a shadow over the rooms. The colours then fell an octave lower; the parlour filled up with darkness as if plunged into the luminosity of the deep sea, still murkily reflected in mirrors of green, whilst all the blazing heat of the day breathed on the blinds, swaying gently to the reveries of the midday hour.
On Saturday afternoons, Mother and I would take a stroll. From the duskiness of the hallway we stepped at once into the sunbath of the day. Passers-by, wading in gold, squinted in the glare as if their eyes were glued with honey; their drawn-back upper lips bared their teeth and gums. And all who waded through that golden day wore the same grimace in its scorching heat, as if the sun had bestowed the same mask upon its every disciple, the golden mask of a solar cult. And everyone walking along the streets that day, who met and passed each other by — young and old, every man, woman and child — hailed each other with this mask as they went, gold paint daubed thickly on their faces. They grinned to one another that bacchanalian grimace, a barbarian mask of pagan worship.
The market square was empty, yellowed by the heat, swept clean by hot breezes, like a biblical desert. Thorny acacias, springing up from the emptiness of the yellow square, frothed above it with their glistening foliage, bouquets of graciously gesturing green filigrees, like trees on old Gobelins. A gale seemed to be stirred up by those trees, theatrically twirling their crowns, merely to display with pompous gesticulations the courtliness of the leafy fans of their silvered abdomens, like noblemen’s fox furs. The old houses, burnished by the winds of many days, were tinged with reflexes of the vast atmosphere, echoes and reminiscences of hues scattered to the furthest reaches of the coloured weather. It seemed as if whole generations of summer days (like patient stucco workers scrubbing the mouldy plaster from old façades) had worn away a fallacious varnish, eliciting more distinctly day by day the houses’ true aspects, a physiognomy of the fortunes and the lives that had shaped them from within. The windows went to sleep now, blinded by the radiance of the empty square; the balconies confessed their emptiness to the sky; open hallways were fragrant with coolness and wine.
A ragamuffin gang, sheltering in a corner of the market square from the fiery broom of the heat, beleaguered a section of a wall, testing it over and over again with throws of buttons and coins, as if the true mystery of the wall, inscribed with hieroglyphs of scratches and cracks, might be divined from the horoscopes of those metal discs. Otherwise, the market square was empty. At any moment, at a vaulted entrance with wine barrels before it, the good Samaritan’s donkey might arrive, led by the bridle in the shade of the swaying acacias, and two attendants carefully lift the stricken man down from its burning saddle, to carry him gently inside and up the cool stairway, to the storey whence drifted the aromas of a Sabbath meal.
On we strolled, Mother and I, along the two sunlit edges of the market square, running, as over a keyboard, our crooked shadows over the rows of houses. The paving stones fell steadily by beneath our weightless, flat footsteps, some of them pale pink, like human skin, others golden or greenish-blue — all of them level, warm and velvety in the sunshine, like sundials, trodden underfoot beyond all recognition, to blessed nothingness.
Finally, at the corner of ulica Stryjska, we stepped into the shadow of the chemist’s shop. An enormous jar of raspberry juice in the chemist’s spacious window symbolised the coolness of the balsams there, by which all afflictions might be assuaged. And a few houses further along, the street could no longer maintain a municipal decorum, like a peasant returning to his native village who casts off his smart town attire along the way, slowly turning into a rustic vagabond, the nearer he gets to home.
The suburban cottages were sinking, windows and all, subsided in the lush and tangled florescence of their tiny gardens. Herbs, flowers, and weeds of all kinds, overlooked by the magnificent day, proliferated luxuriantly and silently, delighting in that pause in which they could dream beyond the margins of time, on the outskirts of an endless day. An enormous sunflower, hoisted aloft on its huge stem and stricken with elephantiasis, awaited in yellow mourning its sad, last days of life, stooping under the hypertrophy of its monstrous corpulence. But the suburban campanulas and unsophisticated percale print flowerlets stood around perplexed in their starched little pink and white camisoles, uncomprehending of the sunflower’s great tragedy.
A tangled clump of grass, weeds and thistles crackles in the afternoon fire; a garden’s afternoon doze resounds with a swarm of flies; a golden stubble field screams in the sunshine like red locusts; crickets cry out in a torrential rainfall of fire; seed pods quietly discharge, like grasshoppers.
Over by a fence, a sheepskin of grass rose up into a rounded hummock-mound, as if the garden had turned over onto its other side in its sleep and its broad, peasant shoulders were breathing the silence of the earth. On those shoulders of the garden, August’s unkempt and harridan luxuriance was expanded into silent hollows of enormous burdocks, holding sway with their flaps of shaggy, leafy tin plate, straggling tongues of fleshy green. Those distended rag dolls of burdocks bulged there like peasant women sitting around half-devoured by their own crazy skirts. The garden was giving away for free there its cheapest pellets of wild lilac, stinking soap, a thick plantain gruel, a wild aqua vitae of mint, and all the worst of August’s rubbish. But on the other side of that fence, beyond that lair of the summer where the idiocy of the stupid weeds grew rampant, was a rubbish heap, overgrown wildly with musk thistle. No one knew that, right there, August that year was holding its great pagan orgy. On that rubbish heap, leaning against the fence and shagged with wild lilac, stood the bed of Tłuja, the idiot girl. That is what we all called her. Atop that pile of debris and waste, old pots, shoes, rubble and dirt, stood her green-painted bed, supported by two old bricks where one of its legs was missing.
The air above that rubble, run wild in the heat and shot through with lightning flashes of glistening, sun-crazed horse-flies, crackled as if from the shaking of invisible rattle-boxes, rising to the point of madness.
Tłuja squats amid her yellow blankets and rags; her huge head bristles with a shock of black hair; her face is contractile, like the bellows of an accordion. Occasionally, a grimace of anguish folds that accordion into a thousand transverse pleats, but bewilderment soon stretches it back, smoothes out the folds, and reveals the chinks of her tiny eyes and the moist gums and yellowed teeth behind her snout-like, fleshy lips. Hours pass, filled with heat and boredom, whilst Tłuja babbles in an undertone, dozes, grumbles quietly, and coughs. A dense swarm of flies covers the slumberer. But all at once that whole pile of dirty rags, tatters and shreds begins to move, as if brought to life by the scratching of a litter of newly-born rats inside it. The flies awaken, startled, and rise in a great, resounding swarm, full of furious buzzing, flashes and flickers. And as the rags spill onto the ground and scatter like startled rats over the rubbish heap, the nucleus extricates itself from them and slowly unwinds. The core of the rubbish heap is unpeeled; the half-naked and sombre idiot pulls herself slowly to her feet and stands looking like a pagan goddess on stunted, puerile legs. And from her throat, swollen in a surge of fury; from her face, darkening and reddening with rage, where arabesques of distended veins bloom like a barbarian painting, she lets out a shriek, a hoarse, animal shriek torn from every bronchus and pipe in that half-beast, half-goddess breast. The thistles scream, charred by the sun; the burdocks swell and parade their shameless flesh; the weeds drool their shiny poison; and the idiot, hoarse from shrieking, in convulsions of wild impatience, strikes with her fleshy bosom the trunk of an elder tree, which creaks softly at the insistence of that licentious lust, exhorted by that whole beggarwoman chorus to degenerate, pagan fecundity.
Tłuja’s mother hired herself out to housewives, to scrub their floors. She was a small woman, yellow as saffron, and with saffron she seasoned the floors, the deal tables, the benches and banisters that she cleaned in poor people’s dwellings. Adela took me once to that old Maryśka’s house. It was early in the morning; we entered a bluewashed little room with a floor of trodden-down earth and straw, where the early sunshine fell garish yellow in the silence of a morning measured out by the strident clanging of a country clock on the wall. Stupid Maryśka lay in a crate of straw, pale as a Christmas wafer and still as a glove from which the hand has been withdrawn. And as if taking advantage of her repose, the silence prattled; the yellow, glaring and malevolent silence soliloquised, disputed, proclaimed its maniacal monologue in a loud and vulgar manner. Maryśka’s time, the time locked up in her soul, flowed out of her and ran riot about the room, frighteningly real, noisy, knocking, and infernal, rising up in the glaring silence of the morning like rancid flour from the loud, grinding-mill clock — friable flour, the stupid flour of the insane.
In one of those cottages — encircled by a brown fence and drowned in the lush greenery of its garden — lived Aunt Agata. Going in to visit her we passed by coloured glass spheres fastened to poles in her garden, pink, green and violet, in which entire, bright and limpid worlds were conjured, like those ideal and auspicious pictures enclosed in the matchless perfection of soap bubbles.
In the hallway, dusky and hung with old chromolithographs, devoured by mould and gone blind in their old age, we rediscovered a smell that was familiar to us. In that dependable old aroma, the lives of those people were held in a strangely simple synthesis, an alembic of their race, the category of their blood and the secret of their fate imperceptibly sealed inside the everyday passing of their own, unconnected time. The wise old door, whose dark sighs ushered those people in and out, taciturn witness to the comings and goings of the mother, daughters and sons, opened as silently as if it led only into a wardrobe, and we entered their life. They sat as if beshadowed by their fortunes, and they put up no defence. In their first clumsy gestures they revealed their mystery to us; for were we not related to them, by blood and by fate?
Royal blue upholstery, patterned in gold, made their parlour dark and velvety, but an echo of the fiery day flickered even here, on the brasswork of the picture frames, on the door handles and along the golden skirting boards, albeit trickling in through the entanglement of the garden’s greenery. Aunt Agata, huge and luxuriant, her plump, white flesh mottled with a ginger rust of freckles, got up from her seat by the wall. We sat down with them as if on the brink of their fate, a little disconcerted by that defencelessness with which they had so unreservedly disclosed themselves to us, and we drank water with rose syrup, an astonishing drink in which I almost caught something of the deepest essence of that sweltering Saturday.
My aunt was complaining; it was the usual tone of her speech, the everyday voice of that white and copious flesh, soaring as if it had already breached the confines of her person, barely, loosely held in convergence in the fetters of her individual form, and multifarious even in that convergence, ready to split open, to ramify and be scattered among the family. It was almost autogenic fecundity, her unrestrained and morbidly profuse femininity.
The merest scent of masculinity, a whiff of tobacco smoke or a bachelor’s joke, seemed liable to impel that perturbed femininity to licentious parthenogenesis; and in truth, all of her complaints, be they to her husband or the servants, all the concerns she voiced about her children, were merely her capricious, discontented and petulant fecundity, a continuance of that terse, angry and tearful coquetry which — to no avail — she inflicted on her husband. Uncle Marek, hunched and small, his face purged of gender, sat in his grey bankruptcy, resigned to his fate in the shadow of that boundless contempt, where he appeared to relax. A distant glow from the garden, spreading at the window, smouldered in his grey eyes. Occasionally, by an ineffectual motion, he attempted to put up resistance, to suggest terms, but a wave of self-sufficient femininity heedlessly tossed that meaningless gesture aside. It passed him by triumphantly, washing away in its broad surge the feeble spasms of his masculinity.
There was something tragic in that slovenly and uncompromising fecundity. It was the destitution of a creature fighting on the frontier of nothingness and death; it was a womanly kind of bravado, triumphing by fertility even over nature’s decrepitude, over the insufficiency of man. But her offspring disclosed the purpose of that maternal panic, that frenzy of child-bearing that had worn itself out in the generation of undersized fruits, an ephemeral genus of bloodless and faceless phantoms.
Łucja entered, the middle child, her head grown too large and adult for her childlike and plump body of white and delicate flesh. She held out to me her doll-like little hand, as if just barely budding, and her whole face flushed at once like a peony, overflowing with pink plenitude. She closed her eyes, distressed by her blushes, which spoke shamelessly of the secrets of her menstruation, and she burned even more deeply at the touch of the most nonchalant question; for they each contained a hidden allusion to her overdelicate virginity.
Emil, the eldest cousin, with a flaxen moustache and a face from which life seemed to have washed away all expression, paced back and forth across the room, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his voluminous trousers.
His stylish and expensive apparel bore the impress of those exotic countries he had visited. His sagging and clouded face seemed to forget itself from one day to the next, to become a blank, empty wall behind a faint net of veins, in which the waning reminiscences of that stormy and wasted life had become entangled, like lines on a faded map. He was a master of card tricks; he smoked long, noble pipes; he exuded oddly a scent of faraway countries. His gaze wandering over old reminiscences, he related strange anecdotes, which before they were ended, broke off suddenly, grew muddled and blew into nothingness. I cast a wistful glance at him, hoping that he might turn his attention to me and deliver me from the torment of my boredom. And in effect, he seemed to wink at me, going out to the next room. I hurried after him.
He was sitting deep in a little couch, his crossed knees practically at the level of his head, bald as a billiard ball. It was as if only his clothes lay there, creased and crumpled, tossed over the armchair. His face was like a breath of a face, a streak left hanging in the air by some anonymous bypasser. In his pale, blue-enamelled hands he held a wallet, in which he was looking at something.
From the mist of his face the bulging film of a walleye struggled to emerge, luring me with a mischievous flutter. I felt an irresistible fondness for him. He took me between his knees and showed me, shuffling photographs with his skilful hands, images of naked women and their lovers in strange positions. I was leaning against him, looking with unseeing, distant eyes at those exquisite human bodies, when I was struck by an aura of vague disquiet which suddenly clouded the air, which ran through me in a shudder of unease, a rushing wave of comprehension. But at the same time, that haze of a smile drawn under his soft and beautiful moustache, the primordium of desire that tensed in a pulsating vein on his temple, the exertion holding for just a moment his features in concentration, withered into nothingness, and his face became absent, forgot itself, and blew away.
*Translation © 2013 John Curran Davis.