A Thousand Peaceful Cities, Jerzy Pilch (trans. David Frick). Open Letter.
In 2010, Open Letter will publish Polish author Jerzy Pilch’s novel A Thousand Peaceful Cities, his third novel to be translated into English. A Thousand Peaceful Cities bears the hallmarks of Pilch’s prose—it is alternately reflective, zany, and gloomy, as he pulls from his own life to create another short yet potent novel. For this book Pilch focuses on his adolescence to tell a coming-of-age story set in the small southern Polish town of Wisla during Soviet rule in the 1960s. Structurally, the novel is composed mostly of dialogue in order to evoke the contentious and entertaining discussions that took place between the young narrator’s father and a family friend, the trouble-making but lovable drunk Mr. Traba, who is as addicted to booze as he is to philosophizing and political rants.
In this excerpt from the novel, Pilch delivers a scene between the Lutheran sexton, Jerzy, and a few other boys. This scene then flows into more details behind Mr. Traba’s political plot to murder one of Poland’s Communist leaders. After the religious fervor shown by the sexton, and Traba’s mad speech, the chapter ends with a hopeless and humorous twist, a hallmark of Pilch’s work that adds to the general mood of the town, a mood characterized by a fierce inner turmoil endured by pretty much everyone in Peaceful Cities. We see that they all live wanting to shout at the authorities that rule them, but are too afraid to do so.
This excerpt is accompanied by our introduction to Jerzy Pilch’s forthcoming novel, A Thousand Peaceful Cities. The introduction can be read here.
The parchment map of the sky slowly took on life. Streams of deep blue air flowed across it. Golden sand poured from the planets. Within the large constellations you could hear music. I awoke in the middle of the night, and in the dark, gropingly, I recorded in my notebook the word “occupation,” which in a moment someone would whisper in the depths of the sleeping house.
In those days I never parted for a moment with my pencil and notebook. The desire, stronger than anything else, to record words and sentences that had just been or would in a moment be uttered, directed my every step, waking and sleeping. I would place the notebook and pencil on the nightstand, and when the golden-black grandfather clock in the entryway rang out the most terrible of hours, two or three in the morning, when the Antichrist himself touched my featherbed with a wet wing, when during every season of the year an infernal silence reigned, I would reach for notebook and pencil and record the word or sentence that brought relief. “Ocupation,” I wrote, but I didn’t feel relief or consolation. From the kitchen came noises unusual for that hour. Someone was moving a chair. Someone knocked delicately, probably at the window, since the panes rattled. Someone said something. Somebody answered. I lit the lamp, and Mr. Trąba’s voice became more distinct, as if intensified by the light. To this day I am absolutely certain that, throughout my entire childhood, I was awakened from sleep either by Mr. Trąba’s voice, or by the sound of the Wittenberg bells in the church tower.
A few minutes before six in the morning, Sexton Messerschmidt would climb the wooden steps, and in the gray dawn of the fall, in the winter darkness, or with the summer radiance piercing the shutters, the cast-iron caps would begin to move more and more forcefully. In the morning, the sound of the bells was delicate like the slowly rising eyelid of a Lutheran confirmation-class girl. At noon, it possessed the fullness of the fire roaring under Evangelical stovetops. And at twilight, it was mannerly and pliable like the mixed forests on Buffalo Mountain.
* * *
Sexton Messerschmidt knew how to pull the ropes such that he could achieve all those effects at will—the effect of the eyelid, the fire, and the mixed forest.
“You’ve got to have it here,” he pointed to his palms. “You’ve got to have the divine spark here. The divine azure spark,” he added with an enigmatic smile. “Without the divine spark, azure like a gas flame, no bell will ring.”
We would leave our packs in the sacristy. The church smelled of the Sunday clothes of Protestants. Sexton Messerschmidt carefully examined our hands.
“Not a single divine spark, not a trace of ability, to say nothing of talent,” he would say with disapproval. Oh well. Cripples have the right to praise the Lord too. Come unto me. Only the pious, only the most pious will attain today the grace of entry to the tower. You, Chmiel, you Sikora, you, Błaszczyk. Today it shall be given unto you. You won’t even have to put your hands over your ears, since, anyway . . . you are all deaf as posts.”
We followed him up the wooden stairs. Then with all our might we squeezed ropes fatter than our arms. The sweltering noon slowly began to smolder.
“Let the littlest bell sing,” cried Sexton Messerschmidt at the top of his voice, and he looked ironically upon our pathetic efforts. With seeming negligence he grasped the rope we had been straining at so ineffectually. “You gentlemen lack not only artistic talent but also physical strength. You are an absolutely worthless generation. When you grow up you will bring not only the Lutheran Church but also People’s Poland to ruin—which, after all, who knows, maybe would be for the better.
“This is how it’s done. With your entire being, not just with your hands. We are in a holy place, therefore you gentlemen will magnanimously forgive me if I don’t suggest just what you can do for yourselves with nothing but your hands. In the profession—in the vocation—of the bell-ringer the hand is not an upper extremity but the extension of the soul. Let the littlest bell sing,” cried Sexton Messerschmidt, and at his call the littlest bell moved. “Tym’s bell-foundry in Warsaw,” Messerschmidt outshouted the first heartbeats, “Tym’s bell-foundry in Warsaw, bronze practically in statu crudi, bronze without alloy, which is why it has a pure sound, even if it doesn’t carry. As the story goes, this bell was cast by order of the enlightened protector of the Reformation, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black. It was hung by our Calvinist brethren in the church tower in Kiejdany. It served them faithfully, and with its pure voice it sustained them in the faith, which, although perfect, is after all also the correct one. Henryk Sienkiewicz mentions the church in Kiejdany in his Trilogy. Unfortunately, Sienkiewicz’s pen did not describe the sound of our bell, and it’s a pity, a pity. You, gentlemen, of course, haven’t yet read the Trilogy.”
“I’ve read it, I’ve already read With Fire and Sword, and The Deluge, and Pan Wołodyjowski. I’ve read it,” I wanted to call out, but I restrained myself and bit my tongue. My psychological instinct, not yet perfected, but already existing, whispered to me that it wasn’t a good thing to demonstrate any sort of abilities in the presence of Sexton Messerschmidt. He was without a doubt a virtuoso, a virtuoso bell-ringer. Perhaps he was also a virtuoso in other arts, but above all else, he was the sort of virtuoso who feels like a fish in water among ignoramuses.
“But alas, alas, alas,” you could tell that Messerschmidt had mastered to perfection all the intonational nuances of the story he was telling, “Mikołaj Radziwiłł dies too soon, and a few decades later the brother Catholics take away from the brother Calvinists their, that is to say, our church. Truth be told, they regain it, but from the great perspective of history, minor historical details are unimportant. What happens now, however, is a minor historical detail that creates great history, not only history in the historical sense, but also history in the epic sense. What happens now, gentlemen?”
Sexton Messerschmidt tore his hands away from the rope for a moment. Snatched upward by the swinging Radziwiłł rhythm, it danced above us its desperate, violently jerky dance.
“What happens, gentlemen? Well, one dark Kiejdany night four gentrymen—history hasn’t recorded their names, we only know that they were three Calvinists and one Lutheran—one gloomy night that heretical foursome takes Mikołaj Radziwiłł’s bell down from the Kiejdany town church. They load it on a sleigh, cover it with hay and with pieces of straw, and off they go. The team of six horses sets off into the depths of the dark and icy Commonwealth. Although they couldn’t have measured it back then, the heavy frost well below zero causes the sleigh to glide nimbly over the Kiejdany high road. A seventeenth-century full moon, black forests, and white fields. Gentlemen, the history of that expedition awaits its epic poet. But—there is no reason to hide the fact—this would have to be a man at least as linguistically talented as Henryk Sienkiewicz. Just think, gentlemen, and above all try to give rein to your completely Bolshevized imaginations. Four Protestants, four riders, not of the Apocalypse, rather four riders of the Gospel carry the Protestant bell on their sleigh across the frozen century. They don’t know where to go. Maybe to Warsaw? To Leszno? To Lublin? Or maybe to Prussia, to Königsberg? They don’t know the way, they have no destination, they know only that they must protect the sacred object. And all around them is darkness, cut-throats, Cossacks, Tatars, Turks, Swedes, riff-raff, and savages. At the speed of lightening the news spreads along the route that our musketeers are carrying royal treasures. Ambuscades. Skirmishes. Adventures. In the course of one of them, one of the Calvinist brethren is mortally wounded. The mythical dramaturgy of this journey lies in the fact that its participants slowly peel away. The next Calvinist is an ecstatic enthusiast of aquavit. He swills, you should excuse the expression, like Mr. Trąba, only he swills more desperately. One night, his extremities warmed to excess, having imprudently fallen asleep, he freezes to death. The remaining duo takes part in the scene of fatal initiation described so many times elsewhere. Flakes of morning snow settle on the eyelids of their inertly lying comrade. They don’t melt. His face becomes covered with a white scale, and no one will ever know whether our erstwhile comrade in faith and comrade in arms had brown eyes or blue eyes, or whether in his breast pocket rustled a letter jotted down in someone’s very tiny hand, for whom he longed and from whom he had fled.
Sexton Messerschmidt was clearly moved by his own rhetoric. A tear glistened in his eye. He didn’t even try to hide the fact at all.
“You gentlemen will forgive me,” he said in a rough voice, reining in his own emotion, “but, as the Bolsheviks are wont to say, I’m a ślioznyj czeławiek, a tearful man. The third, the youngest of the Calvinists,” he continued, wiping the tear with his sleeve and blowing his nose on the floor, “the third, the youngest of the Calvinists was undone by what will soon undo all of you, as well: a hasty exchange of glances with a certain Catholic woman.
“A tavern in the vicinity of Częstochowa, and a widow tavern-keeper of impressive corporality, older than him by a few good years. At dawn, instead of setting off further, instead of further escorting the bell, he’s cutting wood in the courtyard, carrying water, and claiming that he’s discovered the meaning of life. Gentlemen! The meaning of life and a mixed marriage—this is like fire and water! You don’t understand a thing now anyway. Any moment, you will tumble anyway into the arms of alluring young papist girls, but the time will come when you will remember my words. Never mind. On the field of battle, that is, on the route of the journey there remains the final rider of the Gospel, the Augsburg Lutheran evangelical. The route leads, God guides him, further to the south. It is already the height of a luxurient, sweltering spring. The sleigh was long ago replaced by horse and cart. He is alone on the sandy road. His fingers graze the surface of the bell, smooth like a Protestant girl’s skin, and that freezing, dark Kiejdany night when they took the bell down from the tower, when, driven not only by a divine calling, they set off into the unknown—that time, so it seems to him now, is not of this world, and not of this life. Now the road leads upward, hill after hill, higher and higher, and finally—there it is. At his feet stretches the promised valley. Evangelicals busy themselves around their farmyards. Church choirs sing psalm after psalm. Birds fly up to the sky. Everywhere a good, amicable light shines forth. Hosanna.
“And in that manner,” the Sexton’s voice suddenly seemed to break off, and now he spoke entirely without conviction, “and in that manner my ancient ancestor reached the Cieszyn land. Let the middle bell sing!” he suddenly shouted, and there was no way not to think that with this shout he wished to drown out something that either had not yet been said, or that had already been said in excess. “I’ll tell you the story of the middle bell another time, another time. For today it is enough for you to know that it was cast and offered to us on the personal instructions of King Charles XII of Sweden, who not only routed the Evangelical-Eater, Emperor Joseph I, but he also wrung from him six churches of Grace! That’s right. Six churches of Grace! Sagan—Żagan! Freistadt—Kożuchów! Hirschberg—Jelenia Góra! Landshut—Kamienna Góra! Militsch—Milicz! Teschen—Cieszyn! And now, and now,” Sexton Messerschmidt readied himself for the finale, “and now let the great bell sing!”
Hearts rocked under cast-iron domes that beat for all their might in their own rhythm, even though it was all directed by Messerschmidt. His voice was entirely buried in their music. It seemed to us that we pulled the ropes, but it was they that pulled us up and let us down. We flew up, and we fell down, like apprentice angels. Sexton Messerschmidt told the entire unhearable story of the great Wittenberg bell.
“That’s right, that’s right. The great bell comes from the castle church in Wittenberg,” Sexton Messerschmidt’s gaping mouth dumbly told the tale. “The generous folk of Wittenberg made an offering of that bell to the oppressed folk of Cieszyn, so that they, listening to the very same tones to which our Reformer, Dr. Martin Luther, listened, might not grow weary in their reformatory zeal. That’s right, that’s right, gentlemen, the great bell rang in the tower of the castle Church of St. Paul. It rang on that cold October morning when our Reformer, with the help of a sixteenth-century hammer, nailed his ninety-five theses on the topic of indulgences to the church door. If you gentlemen will listen carefully,” Sexton Messerschmidt turned his face upward, “if you gentlemen will listen carefully, you will hear that the passionate banging of the Lutheran hammer has settled forever in the tone of the great bell, and it echoes in it quite clearly even now. That is to say,” in Messerschmidt’s unheard narration there echoed an almost audible venomous accent, “that is to say, if you are pious, you will hear it. The impious, Bolsheviks, pagans, and other slayers of Catholic girls won’t hear a thing. For the might of our bell is based not only on the fact that its tone surpasses other tones, but that it also absorbs other tones and records them in the abysses of its substance. That is the reason why it is said that all of our bells are Wittenberg bells, although we also have a Swedish bell and a Radziwiłł bell. But the great Wittenberg bell surpasses them, it leads them, it absorbs their voice, and it bestows its own voice upon them. Listen, listen, and you will hear, in the transparent, cold, October air (the first snows lurk in the clouds over Wittenberg), you will hear the banging of the irascible hammer, piercing the parchment with iron nails.”
* * *
I strained my ears, I slowly dressed, and more and more clearly I heard blows that were, admittedly, not irascible, but regular and forceful. An inky glow filled the kitchen. Someone had screwed a deep blue light bulb left over by the Germans into the lamp that was hanging over the table. Mr. Trąba stood on a stool and nailed a large gray blanket to the window frame with unexpected skill.
“A black-out like during the occupation, like during the occupation, chief, only even stricter. Verdunkelung sensu largo. Stricter, because under the Germans we were younger and often, especially after we’d had a glass, hastier. Stricter,” Mr. Trąba sighed heavily, “stricter, because we are passing from the phase of theoretical debate to the phase of praxis.”
With the lightness of a youth, he jumped down from the stool and occupied his place at the table. First of all he glanced intently at Father, then, I suppose absolutely by chance, since after all he couldn’t see me—I had hidden among the coats in the entryway, and I spied on the course of events through the crack of the open door—and so, absolutely by chance, Mr. Trąba glanced in my direction, was silent for a moment yet, and then began to speak in an especially stifled but at the same time solemn voice.
“Chief. I will speak off the top of my head, since, obviously, I didn’t make any notes. Notes in our case mean certain deportation. I believe I remember everything, and I’ll be able to say everything. If, however, it should turn out that my memory, impaired by excessive doses of the world, should bring me to some reprehensible lapse, I insist you call it to my attention. Gentlemen!” Mr. Trąba took too copious a gulp of air, like an inexperienced swimmer, which made his theatrically altered voice resound even more strangely. “Gentlemen! Comrade Gomułka lives in Warsaw at 7 Frascati Street, on the second floor of a five-story building built in the twenties. Functionaries of the security police occupy one of the apartments on the ground floor. There are six of them. They take shifts, three at a time, to cover twenty-four hours. They are armed, of course, even though they are demoralized by the peace and shameful—that’s right, shameful—renunciation of traditions of uprisings that has reigned in our land for years. Practically the entire time, yes, the entire twenty-four hours of their shift passes in card play. Mostly they play poker, although one of the shifts prefers gin rummy or a game called “tail,” about which I know nothing more. They play for high stakes, sometimes even for ten złotys per point. This proves conclusively that bribery as a means of attaining our goal no longer comes into consideration. Unless first, in order to acquire the appropriate means, we rob a bank, or even several banks. As you gentlemen know perfectly well, the great terrorists, both Asiatic and European, operated in this manner. I fear, however, that we can’t afford to join this tradition in any strict fashion, to follow faithfully in the footsteps of the classics of terror. Any way, as the English say. All the guards on watch over Comrade Gomułka’s safety know the taste of alcohol perfectly well, to put it mildly. More often than not they take a few nips while on duty, which might seem to create the impression of carelessness and lack of responsibility. Gomułka, like every disciplinarian in a position of leadership who lacks even a hint of a sense of humor, combats every sociable frivolity connected with work with all severity. He himself reaches for the bottle rarely, and he must always have a reason for it, moreover a reason that is exceptionally solemn, which puts him in the category of alcoholic layman and makes me, personally, utterly disgusted by his person. As you gentlemen know perfectly well,” in Mr. Trąba’s voice there sounded the note, which I knew well, heralding the genre of selfless epic, “as you gentlemen know perfectly well, alcoholic laymen who drink exclusively for solemn reasons or on festive occasions belong to a despicable category. The true artist of spirits drinks exclusively without a reason and without an occasion. What is more, he avoids—with all aristocratism—the typical occasions on which common mortals plunge themselves into the swamp of unexpected transports. Gomułka gets drunk exclusively on New Year’s Eve. I really don’t know a manifestation of worse taste. That’s not all. On New Year’s Eve he gets drunk with exceptionally repulsive methodicalness. Namely, around nine in the evening he makes his appearance in the ballroom (usually in the Palace of Culture and Science, if it is the “Ball of the Working People,” or in the assembly hall of the Warsaw Politechnic, if it is the “Ball of the Citizens of the Capital”). He takes his seat at the head table, and he doesn’t budge from the spot until midnight. With relish, bending his neck in that characteristic way of his, he observes the absolutely spontaneous (of course!) merry-making. He sips moderately at a first, then a second glass. He doesn’t dance. When, however, the midnight hour strikes, the beast in him is awakened. True, not right away, for first he stands and raises a toast to the New Year: “Comrades, Citizens, Working people. The passing year was a year of strenuous labor and further advancement of economic progress . . .” But as soon as he has finished his toast, the first secretary immediately marches off to battle. He begins to drink more. True, it is with repulsive methodicalness, but he drinks greedily, and with great strides he surrenders himself to the art of dance. He renders compliments. He takes active part in the choral singing of proletarian songs, and he finishes his merry-making around six the the morning in a state of absolute alcoholic dementia. If not for the tiny detail that this is a man constantly divorced from reality, you could say that once a year Comrade Wiesław divorces himself from reality. I once planned . . .”
“Mr. Trąba,” in Father’s voice curiosity vied with irritation, “how, by God the Father, do you know all these pieces of information and details?
“I drew them from the same source where you, Chief, draw so much knowledge.” Smiling playfully, Mr. Trąba tapped his index finger on the table on which the huge sheet of newspaper was spread out. “I read this between the lines of The People’s Tribune.”
“Mr. Trąba,” Father said with a smile that was full of admiration, “if it weren’t for the fact that we are on duty, I would pronounce the ritual formula: that this is a beautiful phrase, and worthy of reward. This is one of your most splendid ripostes. You have my esteem.”
“A thousand thanks, Chief. That’s right. We’re on duty, and there can be no talk of even a drop of alcohol. On the other hand, however, I have to say that I would feel a particular distress if one of my most subtle lines went without the reward it deserves, even if it were to have a somewhat smaller measure, let’s say half. Second, the hour is so late that we can accept the notion that the proverbial glass takes on the function of the bracing mocha. Third, and most important, it is time, I believe, that the youngest participant in the action,” Mr. Trąba clearly pointed in my direction, “attained knowledge of our secrets and initiation.”
Father remained silent and didn’t budge from the spot.
“Chief,” Mr. Trąba said with his official voice, one well trained in its officialness, “what you heard wasn’t the empty twaddle of your friend, rather the voice of your superior and the commander of this action. Have the goodness to appreciate the fact that, bearing your merits in mind, I do not use the word ‘order,’ but I also ask that such acts of insubordination not be repeated in the future.”
Father obediently stood up from the table, went up to the sideboard, and took out a bottle and glasses, and placed them on the table.
“Come, Jerzyk,” Mr. Trąba beckoned in my direction, and I entered on trembling legs into the inky abyss of the kitchen.
I was certain that I would immediately hear the word “child,” reeking of ghastliness. “Please don’t involve the ‘child’ in this,” Father would immediately say, or “The ‘child’—absolutely not,” or “The ‘child’ should be sleeping by now,” or “He’s still a ‘child.’ ” But Father filled the glasses in silence. I sat down slowly on the white lacquered stool, which now was as if coated with a light blue varnish. And Mr. Trąba spoke further:
“Jerzyk, my man! That you are a man is universally known.” Could it be that he knew what I had been up to with the angel of my first love? The panicky thought flashed through my head, but Mr. Trąba was clearly not interested in concrete details. “We will not, therefore, repeat the obvious and thereby trivialize the beginning of the ritual. Namely, as a man, Jerzyk, together with other men (contrary to appearances both your Father and I still deserve that appellation), you will have the chance to participate in a great patriotic act. But as a child”—there you have it! I thought, there you have it! I have divine gifts and outpace reality by some half a step—”for, after all, even being a man, you still are—and what is more, you always will be—a child in various ways, if only in the sense of being the child of your parents; and so, as a child, Jerzyk, you will have a completely unique opportunity, which, already at the very beginning of life, will put you in an incredibly privileged position. Namely, as a child, Jerzyk, you will have the chance to wring the hydra’s neck:
‘Who, yet an infant, crushed the serpent’s brow,
In youth will choke the centaur’s breath,
Snatch victims forth from hell below,
And win heaven’s laurels after death!’ ”
Mr. Trąba recited, placing schoolmaster’s accents and pauses in the appropriate places. “Whether in your further life you skillfully exploit the opportunity given you, that is, whether you will strangle, snatch, and reach where you ought—that, Jerzyk, is your business. We are giving you the sort of opportunity that none of your cohort has. But now, raise your glass, Jerzyk.” From the beginning of his oration, Mr. Trąba had held his glass behind the safe enclosure of his fingers. “And now, raise your glass and drink. We all know, gentlemen,” Mr. Trąba arose and we with him, “what the first sip of alcohol means in the life of a man. Jerzyk, in order to avoid the picture of the choking debutant so derided by second-rate authors, proceed according to the following method: just before drinking, take in a modest amount of air: in other words—inhalation; then, drink up in one gulp, not breathing out, of course: in other words—non-halation; then, delicately but decidedly release the air: in other words—exhalation. This is the point: after drinking schnapps you must release the air from the body in order to make room there for more of it. Gentlemen—Jerzy, Stanisław,” Mr. Trąba clinked glasses with us, and Father and I did the same, we clinked our glasses, “gentlemen, let the head of the tyrant fall. To our health and to the health of all our tyrannicidal colleagues, living and dead.”
And we drank. And I drank. And it went as smoothly as could be. The transparent cloud of blackthorn vodka threaded its way among the shadows of my entrails, and there were upon it signs and prophecies, and there were in this first sip of mine the prefigurations of all my future sips. Recorded in it were all my future falls, bouts of drunkenness, bottles, glasses, retchings, all my future delirious dreams, all my gutters, counters, tables, bars, all the cities on the pavement of which my corpse would once repose. There were all the waitresses with whom I would place orders in my life. You could hear in it my incoherent babble, and in it my hands shook. Even my death, shrouded in a cloak made of nothing but bottle labels, sat there astraddle and laughed terribly, but I wasn’t afraid in the least. And so I drank. The first power entered into me, and together with it came the first great bestowal of wings. I was able to do everything now. With one action I was able to solve a thousand complicated equations. With one motion I was able to summon a thousand protective angels. With one kick I could kick a thousand goals. With one gesture of my powerful hand, with one finger, I could grind Władysław Gomułka to dust. I glanced at the faces of Father and Mr. Trąba, masked with a light-blue glow, and I knew that the same mask graced my face, that on my hands (just as they did) I had the light-blue gloves of the conspirator. I recalled Sexton Messerschmidt telling the story of divine sparks, light-blue like a gas flame. I looked with rapture at my hands, which were now not only the hands of the born bell-ringer, but also the hands of the hired murderer, mercenary, marksman.
“And if by some miracle I should succeed,” Mr. Trąba’s voice returned a feeling of duty to me, “even if by some miracle I should succeed, and if I should manage to get into his immediate proximity, I wouldn’t be able to do it from close quarters anyway. I wouldn’t strike him down with a stiletto, to say nothing of doing it with my bare hands. The physical repugnance that I feel for Comrade Wiesław would certainly paralyze me. With my bare hands I could destroy Comrade Mao. Gomułka—absolutely not. And besides, it’s easier to kill from a distance . . .”
“It’s easier to kill from a distance from the moral point of view, harder from a technical point of view.” Father very rarely formulated such general maxims.
“Chief,” Mr. Trąba shouted enthusiastically, “I am madly envious of the accuracy of that formulation. I’m madly envious, and at the same time I reward you.”
Mr. Trąba filled the glasses, mine, however, only half way, which hurt me terribly. The venemous thought of desertion and betrayal immediated flashed through my mind.
“One way or another, the operation will have to have a sniper aspect to it,” said Mr. Trąba. “Unfortunately the use of firearms is out of the question. It’s out of the question for a thousand various reasons, among which, however, one seems sufficient to me: namely, I don’t know how to use a firearm. Yes,” Mr. Trąba became gloomy, “on the list of my numerous inabilities, you will find this inability as well. . . . And even if,” he continued, full of melancholy disgust for himself, “even if, by some miracle we were able to acquire, let’s say, a shotgun, all the same there’s too little time for me to master the art of marksmanship with the required precision. In a word, gentlemen,” Mr. Trąba’s voice again became the voice of the seasoned field officer, “in a word, gentlemen, there remains . . .”
“In a word, gentlemen, there remains the bow.” Father’s voice vibrated with mad fury. “Mr Trąba, enough of these jokes. If this is what you want, I can say that I refuse obedience as of this moment, I leave the detachment, I refuse to carry out any orders whatsoever, I leave the army, I join civilian ranks. I can utter any one of these scurrilous formulas. And I utter,” it seemed to me that the light-blue glow on Father’s face lightened even further on account of his deathly paleness, “and I utter this formula, and I utter all these buffoonish formulas at once, and at the same time,” Father grabbed the bottle standing on the table, “I suspend in perpetuity all rewards for even the most breath-taking phrases. . . . You go beyond the bounds of taste.” Father spoke a bit more quietly, but he didn’t calm down at all. To the contrary, the fury constantly growing in him now seemed to stifle his own voice. “The very idea of an assassination attempt, the very idea of an assassination attempt is a risky one. This whole story constantly questions itself. But now we have the nail in the coffin of all plausibility. … You, Mr. Trąba, offend this whole unhappy nation. … Don’t you know how debased people are. Don’t you know that it really is necessary to kill him? And you? If you intend to kill him at all, before you get around to killing him, you’ll talk yourself to death. Don’t you understand this, or what?”
“I understand it, I understand it well,” Mr. Trąba said with a hollow voice.
“Since you understand it, why in the world do you dilute the situation with grotesque props? By a billion barrels of beer! An assassin with a bow! A policeman with a lady’s umbrella! Meanwhile people are being carted off to Siberia. Hi diddly dee, the bowsman’s life for me.” Dots of foam appeared in the corners of Father’s mouth. “With a bow! Or how about a sling-shot! Or how about just like that!”
And gathering monstrous momentum, Father threw the bottle with all his might. Whether the ostentatious gesture was inversely proportional to his strength, or whether the power of Mr. Trąba’s hypnotic and saving gaze, which never took an eye off the bottle, was so great, or whether this was a rare conjunction of various coincidences—whatever it was, nothing happened. If there was a target, the projectile missed its target. The bottle made a short and remarkably slow flight in the direction of the window. The blanket blacking out the window deadened the blow. Like an air vehicle approaching landing, it slipped down along the gray surface, and, bouncing off the bench standing under the window, it landed safely on the ground and drowsily, with its final impulses, rolled in the direction of my feet. For a moment we stared at it in silence, perhaps in fear that any moment it would explode all the same and be blown to pieces, flow away in glass mixed with juniper vodka; or perhaps in the hope that some sort of energies and forces would enter into it and that, as if turned by someone’s invisible hand, it would twirl roguishly and illicitly? But nothing happened. It was quiet, and the bottle filled with the feverish and silent tussling of light-blue lights rested at my feet.
“Chief,” Mr. Trąba’s voice had an atypically realistic tone, “Chief, I really will kill him. Not with a simple bow, of course. I intend to shoot him with an arrow from a Chinese crossbow.”
Jerzy Pilch is one of Poland’s most important contemporary writers and journalists. In addition to his long-running satirical newspaper column, Pilch has published several novels, and has been nominated for Poland’s prestigious NIKE Literary Award four times (finally winning in 2001 for The Mighty Angel. David Frick is a professor in the department of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of California at Berkeley and the translator of Polish author Meletij Smotryc’kyj.
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