Andrzej Stasiuk

Midsummer, Pogórze

at four in the morning the night slowly raises its dark backside as if it were getting up from a heavy dinner and going to bed. The air’s like cold ink, it flows along the road surfaces, spills to each side and congeals into black lakes. It’s Sunday and people are still asleep, that’s why this story ought to lack a plot, because no one thing can cover up other things when we’re headed toward nothingness, toward the realization that the world is merely a momentary obstacle in the free passage of light. Lutcza, Barycz, Harta, Mały Dół, Tatarska Góra: faded green road signs show the way, but in those places nothing is happening, nothing is moving except dreams, which can see in the dark like cats or bats and which keep pacing about, brushing against the walls, the religious pictures, cobwebs, and whatever else people have accumulated over the years. The sun is still hidden deep, it’s fretting at another world right now, but in an hour’s time it’ll rise to the surface, emerge like a beetle crawling out of a piece of wood. The sound of the car engine can probably be heard for miles. The road follows the crest of the hills, dipping then rising again, each time higher and higher, and in that incomplete darkness, between the specters of woods and houses, it feels like a spiral tower.

At this time of day the sky is barely separate from the earth, the boundary between them hasn’t yet been fixed; the two are simply different kinds of dark in which the imagination can run wild. Though what can people imagine to themselves, in fact, aside from all the things that others have seen in this place, banal things made from the faint, indistinct forms of reality; this is nothing but a kind of night blindness, an absurd game of Chinese whispers. And the truth of it is that sight touches the dark, cold, damp colors the way a hand strokes smooth satin, the warm lining of an overcoat when it’s chilly outside, in the same unthinking way, with the same sense of pleasure.

There won’t be any plot, there won’t be any story, especially in the night, when the terrain is stripped of its landmarks, when we’re driving from Rogi to Równe and on through Miejsce Piastowe. We’re traveling between place-names in a solution of pure idea. Reality doesn’t put up any resistance, so all stories, all consequences, all the old marriages of cause and effect are uniformly devoid of meaning.

Kombornia. Where do these names come from? It’s been so long since the last moment they still had any significance. The puttering sound of the car rising high into the air is like the rattle of a sewing machine. Darkness leaches into the seams, and tacking the journey together does no good whatsoever. The eastern skyline lightens like a silvery snake that’s come to rest stretched out between the peaks of the hills. Its cold hue is a forecast of heat and dust and so we need to get a move on, mount those motionless waves then plunge down again to the bottom of a desolate ocean where houses shake off the darkness like dogs coming out of water, or stand whitely there like skulls in flashing sunglasses. And that’s where all the people are. They’re lying on their backs, or on their bellies with their shoulders pointing upward, dreaming their dreams, sweating or calm, covered up or outside a kicked-off mound of sheets, some still in their Saturday clothes. They have no idea someone’s thinking about them. Actually they don’t even really exist. Their minds are at rest, the sickness that is life has let up temporarily and they’re like pieces of heavy fabric—almost lifeless and almost happy. Jan, Stanisław, Florian, Maria, Cecylia—a litany addressed to the old saints. Another minute and time will blow them out like the wind extinguishing a candle. They’ll become part of the past and nothing will be a danger to them anymore, no rising dawn, no sweltering day. Shades in the dark.

Domaradz. The mist is joining the sky. It reveals haystacks, black fences, pointed roofs. The air is dark green. A viscid sky detaches itself from the horizon. In the crack, the glow of another world can be seen. Those who were dying imagined that this was where they were going.”

Midsummer, Pogórze, the dawn is taking air into its lungs and each successive outbreath is brighter. For another hour it’ll still be possible to imagine the lives of other people. It’s that dead time when the world is gradually becoming visible but is as yet unpopulated. The light has the hue of melted silver. It’s weighty. It spreads along the skyline but does not illuminate the earth. Down here semidarkness and inference still reign, objects are no more than their own shadows. The sky is bursting with the glow, but it remains trapped inside like air in a child’s balloon. The people lie in their houses and the story of each one of them could move in any direction if it weren’t for fate, which lives with them under the same roof and has a certain number of possibilities up its sleeve, but never oversteps itself. The saints watch over them from their pictures, eternally vigilant, motionless, already having done all they had to do. Their idealized visages are mirrors that time in its purest form now rubs up against. It’s undisturbed by any gesture, any deed. This is what heaven is like: life does exist there, but just in case, it never takes on any form.

I ought to be a ghost, I ought to enter their homes and seek out everything they have to hide. The imagination is powerless. All it does is repeat things it’s seen and heard, repeat them in an altered voice, attempt to commit sins that were already committed long ago.

Another moment and daybreak will rise higher, dogs will be seen standing by their kennels or at the roadside, but not barking. At this time of day smell and hearing slowly lose significance, while sight hasn’t yet acquired it, so it’s best to treat everything as if it were a dream, a figment of the doggy imagination. A cat is crouching on the windowsill of a brick-built house. It’s chosen the place where the first rays of the sun will fall.

There’ll be no plot, with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end. A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of the day. Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.

Already it’s bright enough to see fences, trees, trash, junk-filled yards, broken-down cars sinking into the dirt and disintegrating patiently like minerals; pickets, stakes, slim cold chimneys, shafts of carts, motorbikes with lowered heads, outhouses lurking around corners, telegraph poles festooned with cables that droop in mourning, a spade stuck into the ground and forgotten—all this is there, in its place, but none of these things yet casts a shadow, though the sky to the east resembles a silver looking glass; the brightness is reflected in it but remains invisible. This must have been what the world looked like just before it was set in motion: everything was ready, objects poised on the threshold of their destinies like people paralyzed by fear.

A couple of months ago R. and I drove through here together. It was the middle of the day, April, we were headed in the opposite direction. Snow lay among the trees. The clouds were standing in place, the light was rarefied and immobile, it yielded before the eye, and the farthest ridges, houses, spiked rows of trees were as distinct as objects close by, just slightly reduced in size. We didn’t meet any other cars, no people could be seen. One time a face appeared briefly at a dark window. Yellowish, waterlogged meadows dropped downward from the hill; at the bottom of the valley they were taken in by the swollen river. Stillness hovered everywhere. Lace curtains in windows, closed doors, wickets, farmyard gates, deserted bus stops, there wasn’t even a single stupid chicken. The only things moving were us, the water down below, and the tatters of smoke hanging over the cottages. The landscape, unpeopled to its furthest limits, looked like a stage set on which something was going to take place only later, or else already had. The entire area was dominated by space, it filled every nook and corner of the world like liquid glass. We were talking. But there were people in every one of the houses and I kept losing track of what we were saying, because all of them, children, women, men, they all had names and blood flowed in them from head to toe, and even though they couldn’t be seen they were all living their own lives. Dozens of them, hundreds, along the whole route thousands of bodies and souls, each one trying in its own way to cope with the day. They were sitting around tables, stoves, televisions. Their heads were populated with all the people they’d ever known or remembered. The people they knew and remembered had their own people, and those people had theirs . . . R. and I were talking but I kept losing the thread of the conversation, because infinity always inspires awe.

From time to time a wind blew up and pushed the clouds along; snow would begin to fall, then melt at once. It was Maundy Thursday, and we were taking the long way back from Jarosław. We’d wanted to see Przemyśl, but there’d been a blizzard there, the green road signs had been covered in snow and the only thing we’d visited was the cold inside of a corner shop in some village on the outskirts. R. bought a mineral water and I got something else because we were both really thirsty. We got clear of the whiteness, it tossed a few handfuls after us but we were quicker than it. The way in front of us was light, far, empty. Life had no intention of showing itself. The hills, houses, water, clouds all had the distinctness of a supernatural photograph. In a landscape like that, thoughts sound like mechanical music. You can watch them, listen to them, but their meaning is always ominous, like echoes in a well. The glass dome of the sky was tightly closed over the earth; the air was receding, making way for pure space, and our journey, the movement of the car, was becoming less and less self-evident.

But now it’s midsummer, Dynów is coming up soon, and I’m remembering this road from a year ago when W. and I drove this way. Haystacks ascended the hills in single file, vanished over crests, and reappeared again on the next rise, till in the end they were engulfed by the green darkness. Because it was evening, Saturday evening into the bargain. Young men were swaggering along the side of the road, night was coming out to meet them and was so immense that each of them thought they’d see all their dreams come true. Under trees, outside little stores, or in orchards there were plastic tables and chairs. They looked like herds of diminutive skeletons. People were drinking Leżajsk beer or sticky fruit wine instinct with hotness. The women were sitting with their arms folded, the men were gesticulating, the children ate potato chips and formed their own circles—precise miniatures of the adults’ leisure time. White and red Prince parasols, blue and white Rothmans ones, crimson to the west, in the east a darkened blue. Dirt roads led down from the hills toward the main road. People were coming down them on their way for a night out. Their white shirts were bright as sails, or phantoms. We were driving slowly. The whole place must have looked like a moving map, it seemed like no one had stayed home, though windows were lit up with the gray glow of television sets. Perhaps the TVs were waiting alone in empty living rooms, like faithful dogs. Leżajsk beer and wine viscid from the heat. The young guys were disappearing in the darkness, girls stood for a moment longer in the ring of light then vanished too. Through the windows of stores the shop girls could be seen in their regular clothes. Their aprons had already been thrown in the laundry. It was a sultry twilight carnival, as the dark hour advanced from the bushes and orchards. That’s where night assembles before it heads out into the world, while they were entering into it, vanishing, passing through the gloom one by one, lighting the way with their cigarettes, and meeting up somewhere in its heart, far from view. The windows of the car were rolled down. I could smell that smell, I was like a dog that could think.

The air stood still in the squares in front of churches. It was as if the entire emptiness of the world had gathered in exactly those places. A little mongrel ran diagonally across the dry, trampled earth, a church spire rose slowly into the sky, which was dropping lower and lower, and the dog, its living presence, seemed a caprice, a tiny piece of madness brought here from some other time. All around, in the depths of space that had been warmed during the day, people were burrowing passageways for themselves like worms in cheese, and in church courtyards the silence and chill were forming into something that resembled large, irregularly shaped aquaria.

W. was driving cautiously, because Saturday evenings are filled with apparitions. People separate into their selves and their longings, emanate their own half-visible likenesses so the latter might try all forbidden things. The boys resembled their own dreams as they strutted along the side of the road on the lookout for girls, who were trying on dresses earlier that day, but in the mirror the fabric of their outfits became invisible and they found themselves looking at their own naked bodies. Moving at thirty miles an hour, we passed through air that was dense as water and filled with proliferating reflections, cloudy spots, and waves. Somewhere close to Dubiecko the sky finally joined with the earth and night fell for good.

All these journeys are like transparent slides. They’re superimposed upon one another like stereoscopic photographs, but this doesn’t make the picture any deeper or clearer. Light can’t be described, all that can be done is to keep imagining it afresh. A man in a drab shirt and denim overalls comes out of a house and heads toward the stable. Seven seconds. That’s it. We’re already further on. It’s quite possible that during that night he made a baby, it’s possible he’ll manage to lead the horse out to pasture and then, smoking his first cigarette of the day, he’ll die. An untold number of past beings came together to make up his existence, and each of them was the size of the whole world. Reality is nothing more than an indefinite number of infinities. Then the child in the womb adds its own and everything starts again from yet another beginning. Seven seconds before he disappeared around the red brick corner. The story is motionless and offers protection from madness.

The shadows of early morning lie upon the earth as if the wind were blurring them. They’re black yet hazy, because the dew atomizes the light and refracts it at the edges. Even in the middle, the black is far from distinct—it rather resembles a reflection. Beyond Dynów the San touches up against the road with its crooked elbow. We have to flip down the visor, because the sun is shining directly in our eyes. It hangs there just above the road. The blacktop is peeling like old gilding. The river down below has the color of a mirror in an unlit room. For the moment the brightness remains high up in the air, and the future is probable but by no means certain. Before Dubiecko we pass a car. We see its black belly and four wheels in the air. It looks like an animal that wants to play. The cops have their hands in their pockets as if the whole business is over. The blue flashing light on the police car rotates helplessly in the luminous morning air. A few rubbernecks crane over the fence by the ditch. As they stare they smoke cigarettes, we see the blue smoke. This kind of stillness always sets in at a place of death. The sun is rising ever higher, so people can take a look at their world.