They sniffed with distaste. They went away, disappointed but without being aggressive. From the mud I lifted a Swedish five crown coin from Gustav Adolf’s time and looked at the inscription: PLIKTEN FRAMFÖR ALLT (duty above all). All was beautiful and duty appeared indistinctly. Over the muddy area into which the swine disappeared floated an atmosphere of obligation. As Seneca the Younger said, we are creating the past. I shuddered with horror on a sunny morning. The flock of swine returned to the clearing looking for pearls. The most diligent of them ploughed through the moist soil, while others lay down in the mud contemplating the passing of time. Time was really passing. One of the swine rooted in the earth, found a bird nest among a cluster of shrubs, drove away the female and devoured the nestlings. The mother’s terrible scream attracted the attention of the other swine. They lifted their heads, looking with interest at the eternal drama. It evoked neither dread nor empathy. They wondered at the crazed shrieks of the bird circling over the clearing.
I was born on a Tuesday afternoon. It was raining, a German garrison was stationed in the town. In the hospital, most rooms of which were taken by German soldiers, there were two Wehrmacht doctors, one of whom preferred to visit the delivery room rather than the wounded soldiers. His name is not known, what is known however is that he looked with curiosity at the new-born child with a harelip, a cleft palate, a hernia, and acute hepatitis.
“He is not beautiful, your son”, he said to the woman, who did not understand much, but from his face she did understand that something was very wrong.
The Wehrmacht doctor ordered the infant to be brought to his consulting room, put the child on the scales, and pondered for a moment whether he should operate on the palate first, or on the hernia, and then he called a German army nurse, who had never assisted at paediatric surgery and did not know how to behave.
The doctor did not have suitable instruments, and he would have probably also preferred to have an experienced anesthetist by his side. A nurse later said that he had decided to operate without a general anaesthetic, only with a local one, probably assuming that the infant could survive the pain more easily that the anaesthetic.
And so I was born on a Tuesday afternoon. The Wehrmacht doctor operated until late at night: first the hernia, then the palate, and on Wednesday the harelip. He personally expressed the woman’s milk and, performing the most bizarre tricks, put it, drop by drop, down the throat of the mewling baby. On Wednesday the second Wehrmacht doctor made a fuss, and he answered angrily, but nobody knew what they were quarreling about. For another week he spent more time with the little freak than with the wounded Wehrmacht soldiers. When after all the surgery, he brought the baby to the mother, he talked about something, made a gesture of helplessness, comforted and explained, but she could not understand him and the only thing that was certain was that breast-feeding was not allowed.
Many years later the mother was to remember from those days only my repulsive ugliness. She also remembered the rain, the days of the week, and the face of the German doctor.
I was born when everything was already lost. My father was not killed at the front and he escaped from Russian captivity, in a roundabout way he found his wife, but he was not sure if the fact of his survival was a real success or if he should envy his colleagues. Unsure of everything, he was hiding together with his wife in a village presbytery. Now he suspected that my turning up could mean doom for the whole family.
History was for him no longer a challenge. He just worried about his wife and daughter. He was convinced that the end of the world had already occurred and only the dead were happy. His wife, Maria, whom he could not visit at the hospital, was so engrossed in my ugliness and helplessness that she forgot about her trampled fatherland, about her husband, and even about her four-year-old daughter, who did not make it easier for the parish priest to hide an officer and his family in the presbytery. Maria massaged her aching breasts, squeezed milk out into a cup and with a teaspoon, drop by drop, fed her infant for hours, changed his dressings and diapers, napping for a few minutes only to wake with terror and listen to hear if I was still breathing.
I was breathing. I was breathing air that no longer smelled of cordite, in which an unsettling smell of Spring appeared, the Spring of 1940, when the first flowers were greeted with astonishment and abhorrence.
Major suffered from the same condition as his wife, Maria - he slept for a few minutes and woke in terror. Every time he closed his eyes he saw pictures which, because of his constant fatigue, turned into real dreams. The repertoire of his short dreams included the face of a German stabbed with a bayonet, the only German he had killed with cold steel, the face that made him wake up with vomit in his mouth, which he could summon without difficulty, but could not banish. In his dreams there also returned a scene of the death of the three soldiers when after the lost campaign his battalion was wandering in forests and found an abandoned German cannon with which he started to tinker, God knows why. In the dream he saw his hand on a lever and heard the bang, and he woke up only when he saw his dead colleagues, when the shell crashed into the nearest tree, striking them with splinters like shrapnel.
Major kept waking up screaming and gasping, then he would rub his forehead with his hand, which was still numb from a shot wound, wondering if he ever would be able to sleep normally. My sister was the only one who did not notice the end of the world; she ran around the presbytery and mocked the priest, who was besotted with her.
The Spring of 1940 was not as beautiful as the Autumn of 1939, but it was undoubtedly a Spring. At the end of March the snow melted, and on the southern slopes of hills the first crocuses burst out, and farmers started to examine the soil, wondering when to start ploughing. Imprisoned in the presbytery, Major tried to find out if the world still existed and was as surprised by his own curiosity as he was by the priest’s stoic calm. While the priest unsuccessfully tried to induce Major to pray, Major with equally little success tried to convince the priest to acquire a radio. The priest recommended prayers for insomnia, but seeing Major’s pursed lips, he would get out some Hungarian plum vodka, about the miraculous properties of which they both agreed.
As Maria’s absence lengthened, Major tried harder and harder to deduce the essence of the new reality. The Hitler-Stalin Pact, which in the very beginning had seemed impossible, now appeared natural and even obvious. After Munich one should have guessed that England and France would stall and only a fool would wait for relief during the campaign. According to Major not only was this war lost, but everything was lost for many generations to come. The priest recommended trust in Providence and assured Major that he and his family could stay in the presbytery for a few more months.
In the middle of April I was still alive and I started to like it. Also the doctor was satisfied; sometimes he allowed Maria to breastfeed me, but the milk would overflow through my nose, because there was a crack in the healing palate. Different fluids were to overflow through my nose, as I passed through consecutive stages of understanding Major’s dilemmas. For the present, however, Easter of 1940 came and I was to see him for the first time. But first I saw the priest, who came in a barouche to collect Maria and me. The Wehrmacht doctor, in a farewell gesture, opened my mouth with his finger and nodded with satisfaction. He pushed Maria affectionately towards the door and towards things she had forgotten about for two weeks. For the present, however, she had another problem – how to shield my face so that the priest would not see me, for the embarrassment and pity which the sight of my face evoked aroused in her anger and irritation. While the priest, who had said that Maria was his sister and that she had escaped from eastern Poland, thought only about disappearing from the town, so as not to provoke human curiosity, not so much by my ugliness as by a young girl with a baby at the presbytery.
They set off. Once they had left the town Maria noticed how fast the world was coming to life again after the Winter. The trees were still naked, but birches and some bushes were surrounded by a subtle mist of greenness. The smell of the air, insistent bird song, swelling buds on tree branches. Maria reached into her overcoat pocket for cigarettes. She had learned to smoke the previous Autumn, and now cigarettes were truly a drug for her. Furtively she drew aside the blanket and looked at my face. She smiled as triumphantly as she had done when she had landed her first contract.
“Asleep?” asked the priest without turning his head.
“Asleep,” answered Maria, hurriedly covering my face.
“Let him sleep,” muttered the priest, “he will see enough.”
“A German doctor saved him,” said Maria.
“We learned to think like animals,” answered the priest, “roe-deer and wolves, wolves and roe-deer, but we are all people.”
At the presbytery I finally met Major. He bravely drew aside the blanket and for the first time we could observe each other. He, with his eyes ringed from sleeplessness and I with a fresh scar on my upper lip. The deep silence was broken by my sister, who from the height of Maria’s arms expressed her genuine astonishment at my ugliness. The priest tried to lie, out of the goodness of his heart, but Maria started to laugh.
“On the first day he was so ugly,” she said, “that they didn’t want to show him to me. Now that he’s been darned, he is starting to look like a human being.”
“What’s his name?” asked my sister, again speeding up the course of action, which should have run in more sedate manner.
Up until our arrival at the presbytery Maria had called me by the powerful name: HE, but now she looked at her husband helplessly, not wanting to say the name she had used or admit that I was living without a name.
A discussion ensued. The priest wanted to endow me with the patronage of St George, and Major, who did not know the lives of the saints and of all writers had the highest regard for Sienkiewicz, taking into account the singularity of the times, wanted me to bear the name of Andrzej. My sister, who had seen a dead bat the day before, looked at my ears and called me Batty, and with this name I started my flight into the dark future.
Maria, tired by the journey, was hiding in the corner to express milk and the men struck a bargain in the matter of my christening. The very same evening through the crack in my palate drops of holy water poured into my throat. I existed now in the parish books as Andreas Gregorias and I was by now a legal heir to tradition: Greek through Byzantium, Kiev and the Muscovites, Roman through Berlin, and Judean through the blind hatred of both the former for the latter, a local hatred, grown out of the muddy area at the end of the trade route.
As Maria maintained later, everything was to be different. Still in August she believed in her emporium of buttons, caps and homespun, which she at the beginning sold in one shop, but when the Commander-in-Chief announced to the world that we would not give away even one button, Maria was ready to deliver buttons to the whole army and was already thinking about ways to buy out the producers. Having been educated in a commercial college, she lived with a deep conviction that a cheaper button should drive out the more expensive button. She agreed with the Commander-in-Chief that buttons should not be given away, though proclaiming such a slogan seemed to her absurd.
Major had other problems. His status was dubious, he had been a major for just a few days, the order confirming his promotion had been lost, so that Major did not know how to present himself, because officially he was a captain, though now he was not the one or the other and he wondered how to hide his military past. According to him the war was finished and announcements from far-away fronts did not have any wider meaning. He was more and more confirmed in his conviction that he had been right when he had decided to look for his wife instead of finding his way to Romania and France. It was not an altogether carefully considered decision; however, he wanted to believe that he was right, and everything confirmed his conclusion.
Major took this decision when he got to know that his wife was wounded and was with her daughter in a village at the presbytery. It was not until he met her that he found out that it was only a superficial wound, for a thick wallet had weakened the impetus of a stray bullet. She had also heard strange things about him; it had been said that he was killed at the front, his body had been seen blown apart by a cannon shell, but it was not said by eye-witnesses, and so she had not believed those stories. In fact, he got shot in the arm in the last battle, and on the same day he started to make his way to Lwów together with the rest of his batallion, still believing that it was just a beginning.
Major only told me about the German cannon forty years later. I understood then his strange behaviour during his Soviet captivity. For Major did not reach Lwów, they were stopped by a Soviet patrol and taken to a camp in which some hundreds of officers and soldiers were interned. Major probably wasn’t any braver nor more enterprising than the others, but after the story with the German cannon he no longer wanted to live. His comrades had taken his revolver, and he did not care for the idea of hanging himself. And so, after many years I understood that his bravado was just indifference. In the camp Major had chatted a moment with some other men, looked around, mounted a bicycle that was standing by the wall, and cycled out the main gate waving to the guard with his driving license.
It could have been different, he used to say later, when he knew the fate of his fellow officers and remembered that when I was born he was sitting at the presbytery playing cards with the priest. At that time however, when he was cycling away from the Soviet camp, it was all the same to him. He first started to laugh on the forest path, when he was sure that nobody would take a shot at him, that nobody was pursuing him, that he was free until he was caught again. His wounded hand as well as his bladder were giving him pain. At the edge of the forest was a Ukrainian village and he knew that the peasants, after what had happened earlier in this land, had no reason to love him. They did not love the Bolsheviks either, so they could club a Polish officer to death or only drive him away, but they would not betray him to the Russians. He had to take a risk, and he knocked at a lonely cottage, where he was received with suspicion, but without hostility and where for his stolen bicycle he got old clothes and a loaf of bread. Years later he liked to tell about the taste of this bread; he remembered its smell, the crumbs carefully picked up from the ground.
Heritage requires memory, and memory requires a beginning. The continuity of my memory is marked by the death of a cock. From the time of the cock’s death, the virtual faces of Maria and Major exist, and the cock perished two years after the war on the Recovered Territories, where Major decided to hide from the Communist secret police. I remember when Major, by now discharged from the army, crept with his sabre among some nettles. The short, curved Cossack sabre, which might have looked terrifying in the hands of a bearded horseman in a black Russian blouse, in Major’s hands looked strange. Major looked like a Persian or Arab bandit. His shirt had come out of his trousers and, looking from the window through the bushes, one might imagine that he was running around in the garden in a nightgown with a sabre in his hand. The cock, confident in his superiority, did not hurry, but he did not let Major out of his sight. He ran a few steps, paused, ran onto the path and again returned to the nettles.
It was a big German-built cock, which delighted Maria when they moved into this house, where after the front and migrations of people he was the only inhabitant of a huge hen house. Maria wanted to start raising hens, but Major advised against it, anticipating problems with obtaining the grain. And so through the Winter the cock was fed with scraps from the table, but in the Spring the cock started to irritate Maria with his constant crowing. Finally, one Sunday morning in the middle of one of the cock’s concertos Maria asked the Major to kill him. Silently Major cut the top off his egg, reached for the salt and asked, “How?”
“What do you mean ‘how’?” said Maria, surprised. “Catch it and cut its head off.” Silently Major ate his egg and drank his coffee. Then from the wall he took down one of the four sabres, left after the war from his famous collection of side-arms. Maria looked at him with suspicion and I took up an observation post by the window.
When the cock disappeared for the fourth time in the nettles, Major used his sabre to mow both the weeds and the raspberry bushes that grew in the corner of the garden. The cock still had the upper hand, but he was obviously rattled. Major gave up the surprise tactic, stopped creeping and decided to wear down his opponent. At first it seemed that Major’s chances were still slimmer than when he was trying to sneak up on him. However, either Major, who was seasoned in combat, proved stronger, or the cock lost his bearings for a moment in the corner of the garden, and then the Cossack sabre swished. I thought that he had missed, because the cock rose in the air, but then I saw the fountain of blood. Major’s face was gray; for a moment he stood motionlessly by a tree, and then he vomited.
Maria buried the cock in the garden, and a few days later she sent me to Grandmother Waleria. Only many years later did I learn that my sudden departure had nothing to do with the death of the cock. When I came to Poznan, Waleria was still the owner of the shop in Wrocławska Street. Like her daughter Maria, she sold caps, buttons and home-spun, and wanted to teach me respect for commercial integrity. She was a devout Catholic, but had the soul of a Protestant. An inscription on the door of the shop in Wrocławska Street was the give-away: “No beggars allowed, I give to Caritas”. But I got to know about Grandma’s Protestant soul only gradually, for what she demanded from herself, she also demanded of others. Waleria scrupulously counted out what to render to God and what to render to Caesar, being careful not to be left without a profit.
Through the crack in my palate now overflowed drops of morning carrot juice and cereal coffee. Air escaped this way too, which distorted the sound of words I pronounced. Until the cock’s death, when I was protected by Maria, I had not paid any attention to it. Now, however, I went to school, where I often had to repeat the word “fatherland”, which - because of the hole in my palate - changed to “fodderland”, which caused ridicule not only from the other children but from the teachers as well. I often returned home crying, and our maid Jadzia reported it every evening to Grandma Waleria. Grandma took me first to a speech therapist, and then to a judo course.
The speech therapist did what he could, but “fatherland” remained “fodderland”. Slowly I learned to be silent, and especially to avoid words which directed too strong a flow of air onto my palate. In the new Communist empire, the nature of which gradually emerged from the darkness of uncertainty, it was a convenient handicap. I learned to know my heritage from allusions, overheard whispers, and sudden looks in the old flat, where there were strange photographs of Maria and Major, Grandmother Waleria, and Grandfather Konstanty, who died before the war and before that had been deported to Siberia for a long time.
There was more talk about the dead than about the living, and there was no shortage of dead and so no shortage of subjects to talk about. I had known before that Grandfather Konstanty had been in Siberia, because Maria was born in Kharkov on the way back from their deportation. I knew that he was a socialist, which Waleria was too embarrassed to mention in her stories.
Grandfather’s socialism sprang from cafés in Paris, where he, reading newspapers and drinking coffee with cream, learned how to save the world. From where, however, sprang Waleria Łuczak, daughter of Jan, a merchant from Łódź, father of seven children of whom Waleria was the youngest? She appeared somewhere between the Parisian cafés and Siberia when Konstanty, who was sorely deprived of any actual financial means, sat in Warsaw cafes informing anybody willing to listen about the latest ways to repair everything. It is not known how she appeared in his life, but one thing is sure, that from their wedding day in the Autumn of 1904 until his death two years before World War II, their life was based on a division of labour – Waleria supported the family and Konstanty fought for justice. Konstany put his hope in the masses, and when the masses took to the streets he left the café to join them and paid for it with deportation, from which he returned with a broad knowledge of Siberian fauna, and Waleria with a primitive aversion to Russkies.
Overflowing carrot juice and troubles with the word “fatherland” merged with the beautiful legend of Grandfather and worries about Major, stemming from the secret knowledge that some day he would be caught.
Grandmother Maria, Major’s mother, was still called “Miss” in the village, though after two world wars which were split by a scanty independence, she returned wrinkled. What am I saying, “was called”. Only Liskowa called her that, another old woman, who lived on the hill outside the village with her four hens and a goat. Liskowa called my grandmother “Miss”, because once upon a time she had wiped Miss’s bottom, and now the two old dears sat silently over one bottle of malt beer.
The house was not Grandmother’s old home. That one was surrounded by trees and legend, gnawed at by time like the triangulation tower on the forest hill. This house in which we were living, was bought by Waleria, and when after much interrogation by the secret police Major and Maria returned to Poznan, Grandmother Maria settled with me in this house in the village. Neighbouring villages had been made into collective farms, but not this one; as of old, Bratkowski worked on his own, his boys went to the church on horseback, and only Szerauc’s property was expropriated and split up. Grandmother Maria’s grey wisps hung over her tomato seedlings.
“Come on, Liskowa, stop rabbiting on about asparagus. Who do you think you’re going to sell it to? Buy a pair of turkeys from Bratkowski instead, breed them, and somehow we’ll survive. Turkeys like pigweed and there’s more and more pigweed, because now everything’s running to weeds.”
“Miss, the trees should be whitewashed, or else worms will eat the apples.”
“And does Liskowa know where to get the lime, since there’s no lime to be had any more?”
“What are you talking about, Miss, you can just send the boy to the collective farm and he’ll bring back a bucket of it.”
Grandmother Maria cannot agree. What does “send” mean? To steal? Liskowa says that it was like that under the Germans. There is nothing for it. The trees must be whitewashed. Grandmother Maria looks at me and says something to Liskowa in German.
Where did Liskowa get the lime? Not from the village shop, because they had only fly-paper and kerosene for the lamp and for the primus stove. The primus was old, from before the war, with a little pump; Grandmother Maria says that we have to be careful with it, for if it gets broken nobody can mend it. We boil tea water on pine cones from the forest, and I collect cones for her and for Liskowa, because it’s hard for her to bend.
“God bless you, Miss, it would be hard without you.”
Now after half a century it seems to me that the turkey hen’s chicks hatched out in no time. What does a man remember? A squeak of the door of the hen-house, a streak of light, the smell of the birds’ droppings, the outstretched neck of a frightened bird.
The shop in Wrocławska street was nationalised a year earlier and Grandma Waleria was now only a cashier. Aniela became a manageress, Aniela, who on the quiet gave Waleria reports on everything. Grandma saved some weaver’s looms and a stock of purl to embroider the caps, and she was sure that after a few years even the Bolsheviks were bound to see the senselessness of their enterprise. She advised Aniela to become a Party member, afraid that otherwise the stupid little Hania would become the manageress.
Grandma Waleria knew all about broadcloth, even though she could not distinguish between a cherry tree and an apple tree in the winter. No wonder that after grandmother Maria’s sudden departure the turkey chicks died and I, as a sign of protest and anticipating defeat, made holes in the paper covers of all the jars of preserves. Waleria, who had previously praised the idea of turkey-raising, after Maria’s departure decided to kill the turkey hen. The hen-house became deserted and the bees died during the winter. The folded looms were in the attic now with the boxes of purl and some dummies’ heads made of plaster of Paris. In the living room holy pictures replaced grandmother Maria’s dried flowers, and carrot juice overflowed through my nose again.
I had seen Maria and Major more often now, because they were living in Grandma Waleria’s flat in Poznan, where Major occupied himself with mending ladders in women’s stockings, while Maria supported the family with unlicensed trade. Maria treated the new laws with contempt, for she knew that goods still had to change hands. Major was called for interrogation by the secret police and let go, while others disappeared without a trace. It was the icy January of 1952. Every morning Waleria travelled by bus to the shop and returned late in the evening. After school I fed the iron stove with wood from trees cut down in the garden.
Grandma Waleria died as a result of a blow to her head with a blunt instrument. That day, just after she had left for the shop and before I went to school two men knocked at the door. They introduced themselves as officers of the secret police and started to question me. One put more wood into the stove and ordered me to make tea. They asked where Grandma Waleria had gone and when she would be back, whom she was meeting and where she had hidden the gold. Later they started a search, they tapped the walls, looked through all the books, they stripped the bed and looked into its metal pipes; for some hours they looked for something and found nothing. I seemed to know the face of one of them, but I couldn’t place him. He was very young, too young, but I could be mistaken. After all, I knew that they were going to come one day, here or there, I knew that they could come any time.
They got tired and interrupted their search and cooked scrambled eggs, which they shared with me. Then they played draughts and told jokes to each other. From time to time they left the room and talked out in the hall about something, exchanging meaningful looks. When it became dark they ordered me to follow them to a room upstairs and there they tied me to a huge armchair in which, long ago, Grandfather Konstanty had sat at his desk, and they said that if I didn’t sit quietly they would come and kill me. They turned the key in the door, and I tried to see if I could manage to free myself from the ropes; I loosened one knot and became terrified that they would return and see what I had done.
Grandma Waleria was killed by a blow with a blunt instrument to her head. The two men who introduced themselves as officers of the secret police were just bandits. A few hours later I freed myself and climbed down to the ground on a rope, and later after cautiously walking around the house and looking through the window, I saw her on the bed, she was dead.
I was later asked why I so easily believed that they were officers of the secret police. Why during this long day didn’t I try to escape and inform the police? For a few days I was driven in a police car to the scene of the crime. They said that if I would not tell the whole truth my father would be imprisoned. They asked if Grandma Waleria used those looms, if she produced cloth or caps; a few times they conducted a search and only in the third search they found some dummies tucked behind the chimney. First the police sergeant got scared and fell off the ladder and somebody grabbed my shoulders and shouted, “Who’s hiding there?” When I said that those were Grandma’s dummies they looked at me uncertainly, but a policeman again climbed the ladder and threw down a head made of plaster of Paris which shattered on the floor. Then, for the first time after Waleria’s death, I heard human laughter, croaks from those men towering over me. The policeman now threw down boxes of purl, a bicycle wheel, and another head of a dummy, which a second policeman caught and carefully placed on a window-sill.
The same day a police car drove me to a juvenile remand centre. It was a barracks surrounded by a fence and barbed wire. After a long wait in the hall a man took me to the dormitory, where he first gave me pyjamas and then showed me my bed and cupboard. It was a mealtime and so he took me to the dining-room where a crowd of older and younger children swarmed. The youngest could be six or seven years old, the oldest approached eighteen. At once somebody hit me hard on the back. A tall blond boy stamped on my foot and pushed me against the wall. He asked me if I knew who was the boss. I already knew. For the next two weeks I learned the life of a pack of animals, where the strongest and the most cruel rules, in a pack ruled by the law of the greatest wickedness. I had seen a rape whose victim tried to defend himself in silence knowing that calling for help would not protect him against still more cruel vengeance; I had seen sadism just for fun, I had seen the fear of a counsellor when for a moment he was alone with a group of child bandits, and his revenge when reinforcements appeared.
After two weeks I was taken to the director. He was a huge man with a bloated face. He told me that my mother was to collect me in a moment. He added at once with a malicious smirk that I was going to return, because everybody always came back. He said that what I had seen there was a secret and I was not allowed to tell anybody about it. “Nobody, you understand, not even your mother.” Probably I didn’t answer quickly enough, because he struck me in the face. He asked again if I understood and this time I nodded quickly enough. He pushed me towards the door. Maria stood in the hall holding my overcoat and my cap. She was shaking. She helped me with the overcoat and took my hand as if I were a small child. We walked through the long hall, the guard turned the key and opened the gate, then we took a taxi. It was only when the car moved that Maria hugged me and started to cry.
* * * * *
“You are wasting your life,” she said. In my youth I myself sometimes used to say that somebody was wasting his life, but with time such statements started to irritate me. I answered that in our country everybody imagines that they are wasting their lives. I stopped the conversation by shrugging my shoulders, only to return to it in my thoughts during the next few days, trying to explain the reasons of my own irritation.
For many years I had been seeking the answer, quarreling with myself, rummaging in books, feverishly writing one answer after another to one and the same question, which seemed my own, and which I had heard before I started to understand words.
I remembered my father’s face hidden in his hands and my own childish curiosity, curiosity about a mystery which became more and more dense and ubiquitous, and later I knew that his defeat was only a repetition of an earlier one, and another one which was still earlier, that they repeated themselves generation after generation and that those men, who were all so alike, hid their faces in the same way in their hands, no longer knowing what to do with their lives.
I was a copy of my father. I had the same build and the same voice, but this physical likeness was most faithful in the shape of my hands and in my movements, a likeness so deceptive that glimpsing my own reflection, I had seen with the eyes of the child I once was before I was transformed into the man I once saw. More and more often I had the feeling that I was living for the second time, and for the second time I reached the point beyond which there is no horizon.
Since the time when I had seen him with his face hidden in his hands when I came into the room with a piece of candy that I had been saving for him for many weeks, I tried to comprehend, first with a child’s intuition, and later with youthful emotion mixed with rebellion, and finally by consciously seeking the answer. Then, in my childhood, Major returned from prison already knowing the full extent of the defeat, which he did not want to believe, neither after the lost Uprising, nor later when he was warned that the new regime was introducing a new occupation and that he was a wanted man. Only when they arrested him and let him go, announcing that they would come for him again, did he understand the dimensions of the defeat, which was celebrated by the world as a victory.
I had seen his face hidden in his hands not knowing yet that I would take this sight with me, that I would try to forget it and erase it from my memory, and once erased, I would try to retrieve it again, undertaking awkward attempts to understand, until my own hands clamped to my face would tell me how it was.
I already knew, though I would have preferred not to have had this knowledge. I escaped into jokes, repeating somebody else’s words – that life was a joke, a foolish and shoddy joke.
“You are wasting your life,” she said. I wanted to answer that generations had wasted their lives between deceptive hope and defeat, pining for a normal life, for the trivial passion of collectors of butterflies, growers of roses, and inventors of egg-top-cutters.
I tried to escape from those grumpy thoughts that appeared every time somebody’s careless question touched the mask.
Generations of tragic protagonists of the drama, men who after a defeat had hidden their faces in their hands, generations of women supporting the burden of daily life.
On a train which was moving me through districts of a foreign city a black woman sitting next to me was reading Dante. Soundlessly she moved her thick lips, trying to evoke the sound of the Italian language, to hear the hum of a non-existent street, to look into the hell of another human being. Her face was ordinary, but the longer I observed her reflection in the opposite window, the more clearly I could see a defiant gentleness that forced her to seek answers in words. She noticed that she was being observed, and it seemed to me that she was vacillating between anger towards an intruder and a readiness to smile.
I left my country once, though I guessed that there was no escape and that I was taking with me the defeats of my fathers and my own defeat – the departure could only give it a different form. I left to forget, not knowing to what extent I would remain, how this luggage would swell, luggage taken around the world but devoid of meaning. Now, when I observed in the window the reflection of Dante’s reader, I wondered what defeats had brought her to this train that was moving her through districts of this northern metropolis. She got out and a young Swede with a brutal face and an earring sat in her place.
What was the meaning of this search, what was the sense of tracing the reasons of the defeats of bygone generations? Angrily I rubbed my forehead with a remembered gesture, a gesture Major also knew from his own childhood, an obsessive gesture which led us both to the controversy about God in a Lithuanian forest, in a language unknown to me, to a legend about two men, one of whom went into exile and the other changed his faith to be left in peace. Grandmother Maria told me about this other one, she said that he also rubbed his forehead, declaring that he hadn’t stopped believing that people were equal, pressing money into the hands of the first man and hiding his face in his own hands when the other one went away.
I did not know how much truth there was in this story about a peasant pastor of a Calvinist church, about the burned down school and about the broken promise, after which assurances about faith in equality must have been empty. I tried to fill in this story with reading until a chain of defeats started to merge into a wholeness, which I started to understand, or thought I did.
I started to understand many years after I left, and I had left though I myself did not know why. I escaped, not wanting a repetition, and only then among strangers (knowing that strangeness would now be my way of life), did I return to the search for answers to my question from childhood. I sprang from a country where too many people had given their lives for the fatherland, and too many people did not know what ordinary honesty was. I thought that I would be able to forget about this eagerness to sacrifice one’s own life and also about those habits of living the life of a sacrificial lamb.
You are wasting your life! They were all wasting their lives, looking in impotent torment at tumble-down fences and falling-down houses, at the world which was friendlier to others, at temples in which a silent God still postponed a miracle, so necessary for everybody. In his youth Major had believed that the miracle had already happened, that evil forces had fallen into ruins, and that history had started at the beginning. We often talked about it but we were so alike that we could not talk to each other. The miracle had ended with defeat, evil forces had awoken again, still more mighty, still more ruthless towards sacrificial lambs.
We quarrelled because I said that the fault was ours, and Major reacted angrily, repeating that nothing could stop the evil forces. Probably we were both right, but I, thirty years younger, saw the world differently, though I started to feel the mystery of the inherent ties between those defeats of consecutive generations, defeats joined by love, respect for futile sacrifices, joined by anger towards strangers, by a feeling of powerlessness, by a constantly festering wound caused by a long forgotten broken promise. Finally Major’s death broke this dialogue about nothing, about a history neither of us could influence. I did not intend to acknowledge this death. We continued our discussions and to my astonishment I found that with every passing day I was more and more like him. I did not pass on this likeness any further, and I did not think I was wasting my life. I looked at this series of men hiding their faces in their hands and knew that not one of them had tried to rebuild the school, not one understood that we were repeating gestures of despair in a lethargic dream.
* * * * *
Towards the end of her life Maria sometimes cried, but then in the taxi she cried for the first time, or rather it was the first time I had seen her cry. Major was not at home. The same evening Maria took me to Grandmother Maria in the south of Poland. We arrived at dawn and they talked for a long time while I slept. I slept for the first time since the death of Grandma Waleria, I slept day and night until Grandmother Maria woke me up and said that I had to get up, I had to go to school, I would live now with her and everything was going to be all right.
New fluids overflowed through my nose. I spoke little, but I had to speak, which caused ridicule from my peers, and sometimes after that I lost buttons which Grandmother Maria patiently replaced on my clothes. Grandmother Maria often took me to the botanical garden, she talked about plants, sometimes she even talked about people, but then she talked more to herself than to me. She did not ask about the missing buttons, nor about Grandma Waleria’s death, nor what had happened after that.
I returned to Poznan in June for the trial where I was the only witness. Grandma Waleria’s murderers were caught, one of them proved to be a son of somebody she had known whom I had seen five years earlier; he remembered that Waleria had sold a block of flats a month before the money reform. The judge asked me to speak up and only once wanted me to repeat a word he could not understand, and when I pronounced the word for the third time I heard Maria’s voice from the courtroom: “Scissors!” The judge looked in her direction and mumbled, “Excuse me.” Scissors was never an easy word for me, but it was not worse than fatherland.