Edward Stachura

Edward Stachura: Prose


The Winter of the Forest Folk

(an excerpt)

He got under the wheels, tumbled a little and kaput.

“It was in the morning. That express to the capital.”

“But they say he was jumping to the last car.”

“The last car, but the front door.”

“Oh, the front door. I see.”

“That’s where he made a mistake. If he jumped not to the front door but to the back door of the last car, he would have only got hurt, but he wouldn't have got under the wheels.”

“That’s right.”

“At the end there's still the mail car.”

“Either at the end, or at the very beginning, right behind the engine. They put them differently.”

“Maybe he tried the back door and maybe, you know, it got jammed.”

“Either it got jammed or it was locked altogether.”

“That could have been. It's possible. He got to the back door, pulled the handle, saw it was locked, and then he ran to the front, to the front door. That could have been.”

“He was meant to die, and he died. That is fate.”

And so this is what the whole train was talking about, whispering, mumbling and muttering with rare joint involvement. This unexpected and sudden death was the subject of conversation in the crowded compartments and piled-up corridors of the train going westward through winter fields. The train, not that one but the train as such, was a tool of tragedy. A long knife, a sword, an axe, a hammer, a so-called monkey wrench, an iron crowbar of tragedy. The wheels of the train were cogs of tragedy, and they pulled in the one about whom everybody talked. The train was the tool of tragedy, and the train set off from the place of tragedy. From the city where it happened. The train was the tool of tragedy, it set off from the place of tragedy, and on the day of tragedy. The famous three ancient unities: of action, place and time. For it happened today. Early in the morning. Just a few hours ago. A few short hours ago.

“If the train had gone slowly, it would have beeen different. But that’s an express. It picks up speed right away.”

“That's right. And he was out of breath. He ran all the time. Through the station, down the stairs to the underpass, then from the underpass up the stairs, then along the platform after the train which had started and was running, like he was. It got to him, he was worn out at the end.”

“That's exactly right. He was all worn out, and if he was all worn out then you know, he couldn't gauge his jump right. He misjudged.”

“Maybe also he was a little tanked up. Add one to the other, and he misjudged the jump.”

“Tanked up in the early morning? Right at dawn? What are you talkin’ about?”

“But it could be that the day before he drank until late at night.” 

“Or until the early morning.”

“And he had no time to sober up.”

“What I think happened is that he simply grabbed the railing too soon. He grabbed the railing by the door too soon, and the train was gaining speed and he had no time to spring. It pulled him forward, and he couldn't let go anymore and then his legs got in the wrong place, between the car steps and the platform. He held on for a while, until his hand got numb, and he let go. And then he got pulled underneath.”

I sat like frozen on my sack in the corridor, low, between the legs of travelers who stood crowded shoulder to shoulder and leg to leg. I smoked a cigarette carefully, in my hand rolled into a trumpet, to keep it from burning the leg of somebody's pants, or the so-called flap of somebody's coat. I listened to the voices above my head.

“Who knows what really happened.”

“It could be it was those tinted glasses.”

“Could be. Maybe they fogged on him, steamed. He was hot, and here the frost, his breath was steaming and his glasses could get fogged. Not only tinted, but also fogged.”

“Why did he wear those tinted glasses? Summer, winter – he always wore them. He had them in all his movies.”

“I saw this movie Ashes and Diamonds. And there he says at one point to a girl, who is also asking, why is he wearing these tinted glasses? What for? And he tells her that during the occupation he lived almost all the time hiding in the sewers that are under the streets. And now, after the war, he must wear tinted glasses because the daylight bothers his eyes too much. His eyes hurt from the light. They got used to darkness too much in those sewers.”

“Ah, but, you know, he says this in the movie. It doesn't have to be true.”

“It doesn't have to be, but it may be. Truth is, he always wore those tinted glasses. In the movie or not in the movie. In life, that is.”

“That's right. He always did.”

“What I think is such a man should have a car at his disposal, and not have to chase after a train.”

“They'll give him a posthumous medal and that's it.”

“Will they even? They only give to heroes.”

“For the culture he was a hero.”

“Such a gifted boy. What a shame.”

“And he died right on Sunday.”

“I'm saying it again: he was meant to die, and he died. That is fate. Sunday or no Sunday. That is fate.”

I sat like frozen, I say again, on my sack in the train corridor, low, between the legs of travelers who stood crowded shoulder to shoulder and leg to leg. I smoked a cigarette in my hand rolled into a mourning trumpet. I smoked carefully to keep it from burning the leg of somebody's pants, or the so-called flap of somebody's coat. I listened to the voices above my head. Up there. It was a little as if I had been buried alive and heard the voices of people standing above me, on the surface. It was a little like that, but it was much more unlike that. It was much more like I was sitting on my sack in the crowded corridor of the train going westward through the winter fields of this land. Whatever I would feel, wherever I would reach with my thought, and after it, after my thought, followed some volatile parts of my body, such as my heart on the saddle of my breath, my aerodynamic head with the set sail of my hair, and the like – still, there was no denying that first of all I was where I was: in one of the cars of the train. And not buried underground. Underground, on the other hand, in the underground, was buried he, or rather was soon to be buried. And not alive, for being alive he could bang his fists and legs on the coffin lid and make those above, those on the surface of the earth, hear him and dig him out. And so he was to be buried in the underground not alive but dead. Although just a few hours ago he was as alive as I am now. As I, who, although completely enwrapped enfolded enclosed at the moment in the thick cloud of death, am alive. So alive was he just a few hours ago. Praise the clock that can go back in time.

Praise the clock that can go back in time just a few hours. Early dawn of that winter day. Platforms in frost, trains still not warmed up in frost. The express to the capital is leaving shortly. I was going west, to a job in the forest. In my pocket I have a newspaper clipping with the address of a forest district which had a classified ad under the heading Help Wanted. That they now have openings for forest clearing. That seemed to me quite nice in my recent situation, which I don't think I will explain to anybody. And so I was going there, to the forest, and not to the capital, but at the last moment I suddenly got this new idea and changed my mind. It sometimes happens to me. Even quite often. Almost always I give in to that, for almost always it is, if I may say so, the voice of blood intoning a new song. The back door of the last car is locked. I walk fast to the front door. The conductor standing farther up front is rushing me with his little flag. I climb the step of the car and the whole load of the express-train moves on. I press the handle and half-turn my body left and sideways to let the door open and then, in this famous last glance backwards, I see a delayed traveler rushing after our train. I'm not getting into the car, I'm still standing on the step, and he's running. I yell to him to run to me, for the back door is locked. The fellow is tired, you can see, out of breath, but he's already right by me. I get a better hold with my left hand and lean sideways to make room for him on the step. He jumps, I grab around him in the air with my right arm and we're saved. I lean farther still to the left, he opens the door, enters, I follow him, and we go to the dining car.

“And that Englishman they never even found.”

“Campel. He was the speed champ.”


“That's what his machine was called.”

“It exploded in the middle of the lake, and he blew up with it.”

“Everything blew up five hundred feet up in the air and fell back into the lake.”

“Now divers are lookin’ for him.”

“What's there to look for when everything went to pieces.”

Or differently. Praise the clock that can go back in time. Early dawn of that winter day. Platforms in frost, trains still not warmed up in frost. I was going west, to a job in the forest, but at the last moment I suddenly got this new idea to go to the capital instead. I'm about to board the train which is leaving momentarily, but at the very last moment I changed my mind again to go to the forest after all, the way I had planned for quite some time, and not to the capital, where in any case I wouldn't find her, the only one who could make me go. I do not enter then, I back up, and the train sets off. Suddenly I hear patter on the platform. A belated traveler is running after the train. The fellow is panting, his heavy breath in the frosty air turns immediately into clouds of steam; I see him lift his hand as if he tried to wipe off the dark glasses he’s wearing. I stretch my arms wide and stand in his way. All of this is, of course, happening very fast. It lasts less than a peaceful reading of these words with a nice cup of tea.  He's running into me, and I'm standing with open arms, as if I were to welcome him in my embrace, but the thing is to stop him, to keep him from running after the train, for it's not worth it, he can take the next one, it’s not the end of the world if he doesn't take this one, and what if something bad happens during the jump. He runs to one side to go around me, but I do the same. Then he moves to the other, and I do it too. And he bumps into me. We fall on the platform. The train is already far away, whistling from a distance; we get up and he either doesn't say a word, because he understands why I stopped him in his run, why I stood in his way with my arms stretched out like a scarecrow, or he understands, but in spite of that he's screaming at me, what do I think I'm doing, calling me a jerk and a shithead, and then I too start calling him a jerk and a shithead, and so we're calling each other names, but calling names or even fighting each other, if it came to that, which is possible, we would still be two living people, and it could never happen that one would kill the other. It would never come to a situation where one of us would become a corpse on the battlefield, on the platform, or, falling off the platform, on the tracks, the way it happened just a few hours ago.

And so I meditated on what could have been, if it could have been. Curse the clock that can’t go back in time. And so I thought and I pondered, sitting like frozen on my sack and among other bundles between the legs of travelers standing crowded leg to leg. I sat like frozen not only in this tight narrow sense. I sat like frozen as they say about somebody who froze before a terrible sight. Or: he froze when he got the terrible news. And so in this way, in this double sense, I sat like frozen and in my thoughts I floated in the air of the space. In thoughts, and not in the body in most of its elements unfortunately nonvolatile. Only in thoughts then. In thoughts I am everywhere. Here, there, and somewhere else and even in a few places – simultaneously. So in thoughts I was everywhere. Among others, but first of all, I was there now: on the platform in the early hour of the day. In thoughts I was now in the recent past. Just a few hours ago. In the body, in most of its elements unfortunately nonvolatile, I was here, in the train going west. I was in the train, smoking yet another cigarette and looking at the winter fields and forests through a little circle cleared with my breath low on the frozen window, an eye to the world, which ever so often got covered with icy web-eye, and on which ever so often I had to breathe-blow with a hot living breath to melt this hoarfrost and rime. To breathe like that on him who died today, to melt the ice gag filling his mouth, the icicle filling his throat, the ice dam filling his veins, the ice attack filling tightly the ventricles and auricles of his heart. To breathe on him so as to bring him alive; on others who died young and too soon, on others who died not so young; on others yet who died old, but didn't want to die, didn't have enough, were not tired with life, were not bored with the seasons, were not fed up with the air. On all of those, I say, to breathe so as to bring them alive. Oh, well! As it is, our body’s nonvolatile, and our breath is blue.

And what can you do? Play something quietly on the harmonica. I dug out my harmonica and started playing very softly this wonderful saddest melody to the frightful and most sacred poems of Baczyński: Only take out of my eyes the painful glass – painful sight, which keeps rolling the white skulls through the burning fields of blood. Only change the crippled time, let the river coat the graves: wipe the war dust off your hair, the angry years – the black dust.