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Excerpt From LIDA.


In memory of my father

Tomorrow, you must leave this place...

Tomorrow, zavtra -- you repeat these words, and they fade away for a moment, only to return again with intensified pain and regret, uncertainty and fear, like an unwanted echo.

You stare somewhere into the distance and your eyes are dry.

It's early in the evening. A chill that hints of autumn comes off the pastures and the fields, and a fog is settling on the ground.

The songs of women digging potatoes in the kolkhoz fields have faded away. Stupid Antoshka rounds up the last cows, loudly cracking his long whip.

Slowly the day grows quiet and only the dog, Gypsy, occasionally whimpers from where he is chained up, as if he were calling out to someone, or losing the battle with the fleas on his shaggy back. The chickens have fallen asleep, and the cat is coming back from the garden with a dead mouse in his teeth.

The smell of naphthalene wafts through the air, from the wardrobe, which was brought out from the house not long before.

The gate creaked. Mr. Sabatowicz approaches our house, his trouser pocket sagging, the neck of a bottle sticking out of it. "So, you're leaving," he places his thick hand on my just-cut hair. "So it must be," he wipes his boots in the birch branches lying by the doorstep.

As he entered the foyer, my ears picked up the clinking of plates, a snippet of a tune my papa is singing, and the gurgling of samogon being poured. It smelled of roasted bacon and onions.

Somebody rode past the fence, the half-tom mudguard of his bicycle flapping in the air.

The nearby church was slowly wrapped in bluish dusk; something gave out a moan, as if the bell tower were sighing heavily with relief before falling asleep, or as if to drive away the half-dreamed nightmares. Straining my eyes till they almost ached, I could just make out, as if it were a firefly flickering, the oil lamp burning by the tabernacle.

A bat flew over the yard like a dried leaf; there were a few bats nesting in the attic, and in the quiet of the night one could hear now the flapping of their wings, now the rummaging of rats that were slowly moving into their winter lodgings. Their thumping on the wooden ceiling resounded more and more often until it seemed that any moment the whole pack of them would fall through into the room. Only Grandpa and Father were not afraid to go up to the attic and fetch apples or a concealed keg of home-distilled samogon.

You entered the murky hallway and when you bent over the bucket you touched the water with your face, took a few cold gulps that made your teeth throb.

Over the din of the kitchen rang the voice of your half-deaf Grandpa Stefan, who had come back from the Lida prison with his hearing damaged, but still refused to join the kolkhoz. Grandpa's voice rose above the other voices; he was singing some song, confusing the tune and skipping words--singing as if to drown out a helpless plaint or a groan. I could hear Grandma trying unsuccessfully to tone down this concert on one deaf ear.

In the yard, darkness had already swallowed the earth, the garden, the neighboring rectory.

Tomorrow, zavtra... Beneath your cold flesh those words rattled inside you, words you could neither get used to nor befriend; and with them an ever-greater fear, an ever-deeper regret, and a helpless despair which you could not grasp or understand, or ask anyone about. Something was clutching at your throat as if an icicle from last winter had gotten stuck in there. Your eyes were growing heavy, but not from staring at the stars in the sky.

Tomorrow, zavtra... Something rattled heavily inside as if Czesiek, Janek, Marynka, and Walerka were again crushing you to the ground like they did two days ago by the river.

Just then someone opened the front door and by the footsteps you knew it was Grandma Malvina.

"Is that you, Alik? Time to come home," she called out.

And then everything exploded, stars suddenly burst in your eyes and burned them, as if they had turned into shards of glass from a bottle broken against a rock, the chill changed into a hot sweat, and from your throat, clenched to the point of gagging, gushed forth what you were longing to tell everyone, to scream, to stomp with your feet in your childish revolt, but what you only managed to yelp out softly through your aching throat: "Babcia, babushka, ja n'e khachu v Polshu! I don't want to go to Poland, I don't want to go!..." And you snuggled deep into Grandma's apron that smelled of grease--as if she were the engineer operating tomorrow's train, as if she and only she had the power to change everything.

Your cries were heard in the kitchen; father ran out into the yard.

"What has happened?" he asked, taking me up in his arms, and carried me towards the open door.

We stood in the kitchen, Grandma and I, tears flowing down our cheeks. The sobbing stifled our words, and everyone was looking at us; Mama was already wiping the corners of her eyes with the hem of her apron; Pan Sabatowicz held out a piece of candy in his hand -- "Nu, take it, try it, I brought it from Lida"; and that piece of candy on his great, cracked palm looked like a ladybug.

Grandpa raised his constantly drooping head: "Dzietki, children, what's happened, why is dzietka crying?" --saliva was trickling out of his mouth. I snuggled closer to Grandma Malvina but she couldn't do anything to help me either.

Grandpa opened his mouth and that strange, broken song once more filled the air.

"Hush, hush, old man, gone an idiot on that vodka..."

But I wanted Grandpa to keep singing, to sing even louder so that the whole world would burst with this song, all of its trains and this Polsha we had to go to tomorrow. But Grandpa suddenly broke off and his head drooped onto his chest. It got quiet, and then Papa filled the glasses with samogon.

"Nu, na zdarovie... Don't cry," his voice sounded as if a glass had gotten wedged in his mouth.

Grandpa snored at the table. The men took gulps of vodka, tore off chunks of blini, dipping them in bacon bits fried with onion, and nibbled on pickled cucumbers. Papa and Uncle Wacek picked up Grandpa off the chair and walked him out of the kitchen.

I heard an apple fall in the orchard.

Grandpa's snoring already reverberated behind his bedroom door, rising high and suddenly dying off, like the song he was not allowed to howl through to its finish.

He was thirty-five years old that day...

This could be the opening of some epic or elegy. But this will be no song full of pathos, heroic deeds, or superhuman efforts. Perhaps it will do no more than touch lightly on the fate of one person--neither good nor terrible--though who can say whether a fate is good or terrible, or perhaps a little of one and a little of the other...

That autumn you were as old as I am now, bending over my notebook and attempting to return with you to those September days. I am trying to go back to those places with you, our yard in which another dog now barks, our house no longer bordered by the jasmine shrub; beneath those skies, to that precise moment, that September, to the streets of Lida and the platform of Lida station, to that train crowded with other repatriates...

You didn't live to make it back There.

One day I had the feeling that I had to talk to you about this; but the only possible form of communication is this letter written to the next world--so that you can revise it and correct the mistakes.

I cannot completely explain this, but I knew that if I didn't wrest from my heart that repatriate tale, my life would never be fulfilled, that there would be a shadow lying over it; an unfinished matter weighing on it.

It is all the harder for me to write it--for you certainly remember and know it best.

When you died, your little granddaughter said, "Dziadzius is in heaven, sewing on his machine..." So, put down for a moment your bobbins and thread, the thimble, the lining, and try to add something to my tale.

We are both thirty-five years old.

Next to the table at which I am writing stands that brown valise, now battered, its buckles worn...

It was quiet. The September sun was climbing through the window; the maple tree outside was turning yellow. The bell rang at the school nearby; something thumped in the attic.

Perhaps we're not going after all? Perhaps someone came to say we don't have to go. Perhaps Papa has gone as always to his shop in Lida to sew drab military overcoats; Babcia is digging for potatoes in the kolkhoz; and Mama has gone out for a moment to the store to buy salt, and maybe she'll remember to get candy?

Perhaps it's no different from any other day just after waking?

The rooster has crowed. Children in the school ground are playing tag; and Marynka is there with them, her leg, which got stuck between the spokes of a bicycle wheel and turned as purple as a river right before a storm, is already healed; she's running around again with her one stocking sliding down as always.

And then, as you lift your head from the pillow, you will see a sight that brings tears to your eyes, as if grains of sand, picked up by a sudden gust of wind, were blown into them; a sight that burns your throat with wormwood bitterness; that fogs over the sun's radiance outside the window; that mutes the shouting of the kids in the playground; that rushes through your body with a violent cramp like an electric current or lightning; that chills like an ice-cold wave. Then you will collapse back on your pillow and refuse to open your heavy eyelids; what you saw will crush you--that terrible and, for a child, cruel sight; and you will no longer be able to believe or convince yourself that it is merely a dream or an illusion.

For what you saw, piled up in the corner of the room, right by the furnace where Grandpa used to sleep, was bags and bundles packed for the road: your father's sewing machine wrapped in the orange linen covering that Grandma had woven; the brown valise and the picture of Our Lady of Ostra Brama leaning against it; a wicker basket; a tightly strapped goose-down comforter.

Our perpetually sad Lady of Ostra Brama now even sadder it seemed, as if she, too, wasn't looking forward to the trip; as if she, too, was in no hurry to get to that Polsha. After all, things here for her were just what they seemed to be: good and bad, cool and warm, sad and festive. Displayed in the window, in the company of lighted candles, she protected us from summer storms; she listened to Grandma's prayers and Grandpa's grousing at the Russians; she helped us with her presence, and sheltered us--and now she stands leaning against the suitcase, waiting for the sign that it's time to depart. She is unable to take a step in any direction; and her eyes are fixed on that white space on the wall that she has left behind and where a shadow of her mysterious smile remains, as if she already knew everything: what awaited us and what would happen to us--to Papa, Mama, and me, to whatever it was growing day by day in Mama's belly, to Grandma, Grandpa, our uncles and aunts, to the whole earth and everything on it. And as if from that terror of the future her eyes were permanently half-closed; as if she were afraid of those landscapes and days still ahead of us; as if she knew every single turn of our future road, every stone we would stumble over, every tear that would roll from our eyes, every shadow and every bright spot, every drop of sweat, every premonition and every abrupt revelation.

And now they are taking you, too, even though you don't want to go anywhere, and they are going to take you to a place where you don't even know what the sky is like, what kind of birds alight on the tree branches or fly over the houses; maybe they don't have birds there, and you won't be able to hear the rustling of leaves ruffled by the wind, like our little maple's. They're taking you away, too, without asking whether you want to go or not... Polsha, Polska... Didn't you like it here, on that wall, in this room? And this past summer, they even white-washed the walls, which is as much as if they had built you a new chapel; and now they've stuck you in a corner, next to the luggage, and only a rusty nail still haunts the wall, empty without you. Maybe we could hide away someplace, where no one would find us, and they'll have to leave without us if they want to go so much? But where could we hide, to make them search for us long and never find us, where? It might have been easier at night, but by day, when s omeone could be nearby... Our Lady didn't reply, she didn't budge when a sunbeam grazed too hard against her face, she didn't even shield her eyes with her hand, or cover her face with her scarf.

Or maybe they simply haven't had time to unpack yet, since word came that we don't have to go after all--or that there is no reason to go, because that Polsha is no longer where it used to be, or because of something that happened yesterday or the day before yesterday, Polsha doesn't even exist anymore? Perhaps they've gone to the other Grandparents in Pusiawory, to tell them that the trip is off, that we're not leaving, that the postman brought the news that there is no more room for us in Polsha?

I listened for some voice, I froze in hopes that someone might say we're staying after all; that we're not going to leave Grandma and Grandpa here all alone, and Gypsy, and that all that packing, all the farewells and wailings were premature, and how we'll need to bring the wardrobe back in.

I pulled a chair up to the wall, picked up Our Lady of Ostra Brama in my arms--she seemed so light and fragile in the picture, and now it took a lot of effort to lift her up and hang her back on the rusted nail that they forgot to pull out of the wall and pack.

And so Our Lady hung in her usual place, the sun no longer shone into her eyes; she was hanging on her wall and not standing in some corner, as if for bad behavior, and maybe even, yes--she seemed to be smiling for the first time since I'd known her.

And wild geese are flying, losing strength.

By the table, swung over the chair, lay my traveling clothes -- a blue sailor suit, with a large collar and white stripes, as if we would have to sail over the sea to this Polsha...

Papa worked at his sewing machine for several afternoons, fashioning this festive garment. He put much heart and vexation into it; and when the sewing was not going as it should, he sang. His voice was as powerful and clear as the tolling of bells sunk in the river, as fierce as the hot winds of the steppe, and as cold as the Siberia of his songs. He sang church hymns, Russian folk ditties, and sad songs that sometimes tore apart as he sang them, sometimes it sounded like sobbing, his singing did, like the howling of a wolf lost in the night; then he would press the pedal of his "Singer" even harder, creating a choir of two voices that were as one, like two joined hands unable to bid each other farewell, like a pair of starlings in a jasmine bush, like love and death, until the house trembled with his voice, until Grandma would stand on the threshold and stand there rapt with hearing. They sang in unison, Papa and his sewing machine, my travel outfit slipping out from under the needle; their song sailed thro ugh the half-open window, over the sandy path and the kolkhoz fields, through the woods and through Lida, it never ended nor did it break off; that sewing machine accompanied my father like a harmonica or a balalaika on a Sunday afternoon, when the men went down to the orchard.

How much of this singing and wailing did this five-year-old traveler's sailor suit take, what with all the basting, all the stitching, all the creasing carefully shaped with the needle, with the charcoal iron, with the song...

But for several days now father had not been sitting at his sewing machine--he made only a cap for Grandpa, to keep his ears well protected, the hollow one and the good one, and one day, he and Uncle Wacek started to take apart the machine. They cleaned it, oiled it, and folded it into the linen covering that Grandma had woven during the long Belorussian nights. And so the sewing machine went to rest in the corner of the room, at first alone, then joined by a growing number of traveling companions. It no longer sang and father, too, had stopped: he paced the house lost in his thoughts, folded up his patterns, wound up the threads, gathered into a tin can his thimbles, his measuring tape, his French chalk, and his pencil butts with which he used to mark the measures--he was taking all of it to Polsha, which he himself knew so little about: where it was, or what one would need to take with to feel at home there. Grandma would stop and stand on the threshold out of habit, but, not hearing any song, she would re turn to her pots and braziers.

Leaves are slowly getting ready to fall from the trees, although the sun seems as yet unconcerned about the approaching cold and snow, which even now are somewhere else, preparing for their visit to us. Jackdaws burst out with screeches on top of the chimney. Gossamer floats over the yard like the memory of the bat that flew by yesterday, of that strange creature, neither bird nor mouse, that makes girls tuck their hair in and shriek. Under the eaves hang abandoned black swallow nests.

Grandma Malvina walks from the well with a yoke on her shoulders, water splashing out of the buckets.

I recognize Mama's dress coming back from Pani Malinowska's with a baking sheet full of yeast cake. The cripple Wincuk passed by, nodding in her direction, but today he did not sing out: "Malvina has boobs like clay tubes..."

Grandma noticed me standing on the porch and she paused, weighed down with two buckets of water.

"Our young gentleman already up...," she said, her voice sad and heavy as if she were carrying the whole house on the yoke. "You're leaving today already, you are going away...," and she turned around so abruptly that the water sloshed in the buckets and spilled over her legs.

The cat was sleeping on the fence in the sun to make up for his night-time prowling, and seemed to be guarding the clay pots fixed on the stakes. The cat will not be coming with us; we are not taking Gypsy, either, who is hunting a stray flea in his fur.

And the birds, too, will stay here or fly away for winter, only to return in the spring. And the trees will stay, and the fence, the tiny church, the river, and the sky. Everything will stay in its place: Grandma, Grandpa, the gray-haired priest, the postman, stupid Antoshka, apples in the orchard and jars of plum marmelade. And the fish covered in rushes that Marynka's father will be bringing in the basket. And the snowman with the carrot nose that children will make in winter in the school yard. And the cow will stay, and the horses, and the potatoes in the kolkhoz. And the nachalnik, the kolkhoz supervisor Grandpa argued with in Russian and called a "stupid Ivan," and spat at, his saliva brown with makhorka, his cheap tobacco.

And the sun will stay here, and none of the seasons are going anywhere. And the moon that brings dreams and nightmares to the earth. The falling leaves will return to the same trees in spring. The rowans and hawthornes will stay behind, along with the stones in the field and the rats in the attic. Warm milk in the evening and bread and sugar placed next to the clay mug from the market in Ejshyshki, where Papa sold his tailored caps. Flour for blinis and lard to spread them with. Summer storms and fragrant herbs. A shard from a broken bottle in the grass. And the church bell that would summon parishioners for Maytide devotions and matins during Advent; until one year it would finally fall silent. And Grandpa's newspaper wrapped makhorka that made the eyes smart and the throat itch. Everything, everything will stay in its place and in its order, guarded by stars of heaven and earth, suspended in this sky, sunk in this mud, because the sky and the mud will stay here, too-seen with so many absent eyes, sought fr om another distant place, from beyond some other horizon, and that mud, blotting our footprints, our paths, and our tears until everything unites, until the sky and mud fuse and swallow the stars.

It's today, not much longer... I can hear these words in every leaf, in every ray of the September sun, in the reflection of stained glass in the church, in Mama's blue eyes, in the cat's fur as he suns himself between jugs and bowls, in the clamour of wild geese that just minutes ago flew over the house and the yard, in this song with which I see them off on their winter journey -

Oh, you geese, farewell to you

Come flying back here soon...

Grandpa stepped out of the barn, looked up at the sky, and spat. In one hand, he was holding a rooster with its head hanging to the ground. That rooster thrashed about and gurgled imploringly, for he had already caught sight of the gleaming blade of the hatchet in Grandpa's other hand. He flapped his wings, trying to twist around and grab Grandpa's hand with his strong beak. But Grandpa's hands were strong, and he squeezed the bird's legs even harder. These hands didn't come from living a genteel life, they were trained by banging on the doors and walls of the Lida prison, the whole of his hatred concentrated in these hands, tough and coarse as a stubble field. Our variegated little lord stood no chance. The clucking chickens weren't helping him either; they flocked from all corners of the yard and made a racket loud enough to be heard in the village. Still, Grandpa walked through the yard with the rooster and the knife, muttering under his breath, and leading a retinue of desperate chickens to the execution site, which smelled of fresh lumber and sawdust. The rooster must already have seen the smallish stump, but there was no way he could have seen his own head lying there on it, then tumbling, falling from it with his last cock-a-doodle-doo, a rattling of the hacked vocal chords that he had played on so beautifully every morning.

Now the stump was coming closer and closer while the chance of a miracle happening grew further and further away. The chickens froze out of horror and pity, while Grandpa, still staggering slightly from yesterday's samogon, kept walking to the place of execution.

The dog raised his head and looked after them. Although they had never liked each other much, he now felt sorry for that bad-tempered cockerel and lowered his tail like a man taking off his hat before a hearse, a chill shuddered through his fur.

Grandpa placed the hatchet against the stump and the whole of the sun played its farewell along the blade. He took the rooster with his left hand, flipped back the visor of his cap, which kept falling over his eyes, picked up the rooster, already half-dead from fear, and laid him out on the stump.

The chickens shifted as one from left to right, from right to left, as if they wanted to observe and remember everything, so that one day they could pay back Grandpa by not laying eggs, and keep him from exchanging them for his smelly makhorka.

In a single moment all sound ceased so completely that the silence hurt. The poor rooster tried weakly to lift his head off the stump; his eyes were already beginning to fog over, he could already feel the coolness of the metal approaching in the executioner's right hand, he could hear the mournful silence of the chickens seeing him off on his final journey and keeping a worried distance from the ominous blade, he opened his beak wide and with it caught his life's last odors--the sweetness of sap and rotting apples.

And then he summoned the courage to do something that left the chickens and the dog dumbfounded, the cat opened its eyes and glanced their way, even the jackdaws on the chimneys fluttered their wings, the clamor ceased.

The rooster crowed! He summoned the strength for one last gesture of protest or of farewell. He crowed as never before, as if his entire roosterly life were but a preparation for this final cock-a-doodle-doo. Maybe he believed that the artistry of his song, which would have been the pride of any rooster in Novgorod Oblast, would help him pulverize Grandpa's hands and save his head from the hatchet?

He crowed for the second time. "Cock-a-d--," and died.

Flapping its wings in pain, the maddened bird stirred clouds of sawdust; blood jetted out in all directions; and Grandpa, who his whole life had hated the sight of blood, dropped the rooster in disgust and began shaking drops of spattered blood from his trousers.

This was not, however, the end of the miracles for that day. For an unexpected thing happened: the rooster, who was already lying there headless next to the stump, convulsing in deathly spasms and thrashing the ground with his feet and the tips of his wings, jumped up and, reeling, dashed forward, pushing at the air with his dying wings. The shocked chickens began to cluck, which put the rooster into even more of a trance. He ran forward, through the yard, passing Gypsy's dog house, and provoked a yelp, as if death itself had run a hand through the dog's fur.

The rooster half ran, half swam, staggering like Grandfather after a round of samogon. The chickens' clucking turned into a eulogy of death or of resurrection.

Bewildered by this unexpected turn of events, Grandpa cursed loudly and grabbed the hatchet, still dripping with the rooster's warm blood, as if it had cut not the rooster's neck, but the sun's neck. Grandpa flung himself after the crazed bird, which was spurting blood out of the erect stump that had once been his beautiful neck and instrument, and which, accompanied by his chickens like professional weepers or maids of honor, raced through the yard and then, hearing perhaps my hell-bent, hatchet-wielding grandfather huffing just behind him, jumped on the fence.

Blood from his neck dripped on the white linen that was used for straining milk after the cows had been milked in the evening.

He stood, wobbling, on the railing, and right when Grandpa's hand was about to land on his rainbow-hued plumage and send him sprawling to the ground, he took to the air; and as if it were sheltering the bird, the air lifted him and aided his flight higher and ever further away from the hatchet, Grandpa's swearing, and the unconsolable chickens.

He floated away like a blood-soaked shred of cloud toward the maples losing their leaves, on to the next flock of wild geese or cranes.

Our soup was flying away, our last dinner at home had become a dwindling spot in the sky, a note of a Belorussian song forgotten with the years, a single tear that never dried, a stain of mud or blood on Grandma's apron, until finally it vanished, melted away, and maybe some day, after we'd already left, like some ghost or bad dream it will scrabble at the window frame in winter, maybe along with a gust of cold wind it will fly in for a moment through the chimney and notice that whoever lived here has been gone for along time... Maybe its crowing will awaken us some other morning in another city and under another sky?

"Ah, fuck your bloody bitch you damned scamp!" Grandpa howled, menacing the sky with his brandished hatchet, and for along time he stared with growing resignation into empty space, but he could no longer see a thing. He turned around, bested, or maybe hoping that the rooster was lying dead and cold next to the stump, the site of a terrible crime that September day in 1957, of a wonderful victory over death, and of the humiliating defeat of Grandpa Stefan.

* Aleksander Jurewicz (b. 1952) was repatriated with his family from Belarus to Poland in 1957. He has published several books, including: Lida (1990), which earned him the Czeslaw Milosz Prize; and most recently, Zycie i lyrika (Life and lyric, 1998), a collection of feuilletons. He lives in Gdansk.
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Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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