Saturday, January 9, 2010
(art: Andrzej Gorecki)
The Cinnamon Shops
IN THE PERIOD of the shortest, sleepy winter days, enclosed on both sides — the mornings and the evenings — between furry edgings of dusks, as the town branched out deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of the winter nights, to be shaken to its senses only by a fleeting dawn — my father was lost, sold, pledged to the other sphere.
His face and head developed a covering of grey hair in those days, luxuriantly and wildly, protruding irregularly in bunches, bristles and long brushes, shooting from his warts, eyebrows and nostrils, which lent to his physiognomy the appearance of a bristled up old fox.
His senses of smell and hearing were inordinately sharpened, and it showed in the play of his tense and silent features that, through the mediation of those senses, he remained in continual contact with an invisible world of dark nooks, mouse-holes, musty empty spaces beneath the floor, and chimney ducts.
All the scratches and nocturnal cracks, the secret, creaking life of the floor, found in him an unfailing and vigilant observer, a spy and a co-conspirator. He was absorbed to the point of utter engrossment in that sphere, inaccessible to us, that he never attempted to explain to us.
Often, when those antics of the invisible sphere grew too absurd, he could only flick his fingers and laugh quietly to himself; and then, with a glance, he would commune with our cat, also initiated into that world. It would raise its cold, cynical face, etched with stripes, narrowing in boredom and indifference its slanting chinks of eyes.
During dinner, he might put aside his knife and fork in the middle of the meal, and rise with a feline motion, his napkin tied under his chin — he crept on toe-pads to an adjacent door, an empty room, and peeked with the greatest circumspection through the keyhole. Then, with a shameful air, he returned to the table, smiling sheepishly and purring, indistinctly muttering something that pertained only to his own internal monologue.
To distract him somehow, and to tear him away from his morbid investigations, Mother would take him on evening walks, which he acceded to silently, without resistance, albeit half-heartedly, distracted, and miles away.
Once, we even went to the theatre.
We found ourselves once more in that great, dimly lit and dirty hall, all sleepy human hubbub and incoherent confusion. But once we had struggled through the human throng, a gigantic pale sky-blue curtain loomed before us, like the sky of some other firmament. Great pink painted masks with puffed out cheeks undulated on the enormous canvas expanse. That artificial sky spread widely, and flowed down and athwart, swelling with an enormous gulp of pathos and great gestures — the atmosphere of the world, artificial and full of radiance, that was erected there on the clattering scaffolding of the stage. A shudder flowing through the great countenance of that sky, a breath of the enormous canvas, in which the masks expanded and came to life, betrayed the illusoriness of that firmament, and gave rise to that tremor of reality that we, in our metaphysical moments, sense as a glimmer of the mysterious.
The masks fluttered their red eyelids; their coloured lips voicelessly whispered something; and I knew that the moment was approaching when the secret tensions would reach their zenith, and the swelling sky of the curtain would finally be raised, revealing stupendous and enchanting things.
But I was not allowed to savour that moment, for Father had meanwhile begun to display certain signs of anxiety — he grasped his pockets, and at last announced he had forgotten his wallet, along with his money and important documents.
After a brief consultation with Mother, during which Adela’s honesty was subjected to hasty, comprehensive appraisal, it was proposed to me that I return home in search of the wallet. Mother judged that sufficient time still remained before the commencement of the performance, and, given my nimbleness, I could easily be back in time.
I went out into a winter night coloured by the sky’s illumination. It was one of those bright nights in which the astral firmament is as immense and branching as if it has fallen to pieces, been broken up and divided into a labyrinth of separate heavens, enough to be shared by whole months of winter nights, to overlay with its silvered and painted globes all of their nocturnal phenomena, adventures, scandals and carnivals.
It is unpardonable recklessness to send a young boy out on an important and urgent mission on such a night, for in its half light the streets will become multifarious and entwined, each one exchanged for another. Deep inside the town there open up, so to speak, double streets, doppelganger streets, mendacious and delusive streets. Enchanted and misled, one’s imagination produces false maps of the ostensibly long known and familiar town, where those streets have their places and their names, and the night, in its inexhaustible fecundity, finds nothing better to do than produce continually new and fictitious configurations. Such temptations of winter nights usually begin innocently, with the intention of taking a shortcut, of chancing some unaccustomed or swifter alley. The enticing arrangements of an intersection arise, of convoluted progress along some untried cross street. But this time, it began differently.
Having gone only a few steps, I realised I had left my overcoat behind. I was about to turn back, but on reflection this seemed a needless waste of time, as the night was not at all cold — quite the reverse, it was veined with streams of strange warmth, the wafts of some false spring. The snow was dwindling into white strands, into an innocent and sweet fleece scented with violets. The sky thawed into those strands, where the moon showed itself twice, three times over, demonstrating by this multifariousness all of its phases and positions.
The sky laid bare that day the interior of its construction, as if in many anatomical specimens, displaying spirals and veins of light, sections of the night’s turquoise solids, the plasma of its expanses and the tissue of its nocturnal reveries.
On such a night one was unlikely to walk along Podwale or any of the other dark streets that are the reverse side — the lining, as it were — of the four sides of the market square, without recalling that, occasionally in that late season, one or two of those curious and so alluring shops would still be open, which were forgotten about on ordinary days. I called them the Cinnamon Shops, after the dark wainscoting, of that hue, with which they were panelled.
Those truly noble businesses, open late into the night, had always been the object of my fervid dreams.
Their dimly lit, dark and solemn interiors exuded a deep aroma of paints and lacquer, an aroma of remote countries and rare materials. There you might find Bengal lights, magic caskets, the stamps of long vanished countries, Chinese decals, indigo, colophony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects, parrots, toucans, live salamanders and basilisks, mandrake roots, mechanical toys from Nuremberg, homunculi in tiny pots, microscopes and telescopes, and, above all, rare and peculiar books, old volumes full of astonishing illustrations and intoxicating stories.
I remember those merchants, old and full of dignity, who served their clients in discrete silence, full of wisdom and understanding for their most secret wishes. But, most of all, there was one bookshop there, where I once saw some rare and forbidden editions, the publications of secret clubs, lifting the veil from tormenting and intoxicating mysteries.
It was so rare to have an opportunity to visit those shops, and with, moreover, a small but adequate amount of money in my pocket. It was impossible now to forgo this opportunity, notwithstanding the importance of the mission entrusted to one’s zeal.
According to my reckoning, I must press on into a side street, passing two or three cross streets, in order to reach the street of the nocturnal shops. This took me away from my objective, but I could make good the delay, returning by way of Żupy Solne.
Lent wings by my desire to visit the cinnamon shops, I turned into a street I knew, and flew more than walked onward, eager not to lose my way. Thus I now passed three or four cross streets, and still the looked for street was not there. Even the configuration of the streets no longer corresponded to the image I anticipated. No trace of the shops. I walked along a street where the houses had no entrances, only windows shut tight and blinded by the gleam of the moon — the correct street must lead along the other side of those houses, I thought to myself, where their entrances are. Anxiously, I quickened my step, deep down relinquishing any hope of visiting the shops — merely with the intention of emerging swiftly from there into a region of town I knew. I approached an exit, anxious as to where it might bring me out this time. I entered a broad, sparsely built-up highway, very long and straight. A blast from its broad expanse swept over me at once. Here, alongside the street or deep within gardens, stood picturesque villas, the decorative buildings of the wealthy. Parks and the walls of orchards were visible in the gaps between them. At a distance, the view was reminiscent of ulica Leszniańska in its lower and rarely visited regions. The moonlight was pale and as bright as day, unravelling into a thousand strands, silver flakes in the sky, and only the parks and gardens loomed blackly in that silver landscape.
Scrutinising one of the buildings closely, I concluded that before me was the rear and hitherto unseen side of the gymnasium school. I went straight up to the entrance, and, to my surprise, found it unlocked, the hallway lighted. I entered and found myself on the red carpet of a corridor. I intended tosteal unnoticed through the building, and leave by the front gate, thus taking a magnificent shortcut.
Then I remembered that, at that late hour, one of Professor Arendt’s elective lessons must be taking place, which he conducted late into the night in his classroom, where we would gather in wintertime, burning with the noble enthusiasm for drawing exercises that our outstanding teacher inspired in us.
The little group of students would be all but lost in that great dark room, where the shadows of our heads grew enormous and fragmented on the walls, cast by two small candles glowing in the necks of bottles.
In truth, not many of us drew during those hours, and the professor did not stipulate too exacting demands. One or two would have brought pillows from home, and settled down on the benches for a light nap. Only the most studious would draw something, under a solitary candle, in the golden circle of its radiance.
Growing bored, holding sleepy conversations, we usually had to wait a long time for the professor to arrive. At last the door to his study opened, and he entered — small, with a beautiful beard, all esoteric smiles, discrete silences and a scent of mystery. He quickly fastened the study door shut behind him, where, in that brief instant it had stood open, a throng of plaster shades had huddled together behind his head — classical fragments, mournful Niobids, Danaïds and Tantalids, a whole sad and barren Olympus withering for years in that museum of plaster figures. The haziness of that room was cloudlike, even in the daytime, and it overflowed sleepily with plaster dreams, empty looks, fading profiles and musings receding into nothingness. We often liked to eavesdrop at his door, on the sighing, whispering silence of that rubble, crumbling in cobwebs, that twilight of the gods, decomposing in boredom and monotony.
The professor strolled, solemn and dignified, along the bare benches where we, dispersed in small groups in the grey gleam of the winter night, made a drawing of some object. It grew hushed and sleepy. Here and there my colleagues were settling down to sleep. The candles slowly burned out in their bottles. The professor was engrossed in a deep glass case full of old volumes, antiquated illustrations, etchings and prints. He showed us, making esoteric gestures, old lithographs of evening landscapes, dense nocturnal forests, and avenues of winter parks, looming blackly on white, moonlit pathways.
Amid our sleepy conversations, time passed imperceptibly and ran unevenly, seeming to tie the lapsing hours into knots, somewhere swallowing whole periods of their duration. Imperceptibly, without actual transference, we rediscovered our gathering already making its way home along a lane white with snow, flanked by a dry, black forest of bushes. We walked along that shaggy edge of the darkness, brushing against the bearskin of the bushes, which cracked under our feet in the bright, moonless night — the false, milky daylight long after midnight. The diffuse whiteness of that light, drizzling with snow, and the pallid air and milky space, was like the grey paper of an etching, where strokes and hatching of compact brushwood were entangled in deep black. The night, deep into the early hours, now replicated those series of nocturnes, Professor Arendt’s late night etchings, and carried further his imaginings.
In that park’s black forestation, in its shaggy fleece of brushwood and its mass of brittle twigs, there were niches and nests, places of the deepest, downiest darkness, full of embroilment, secret gestures, and incoherent conversations in finger language. It was hushed and warm in those nests. There we sat in our shaggy coats, on the soft summery snow, gorging ourselves on nuts, which the hazel forest was replete with that springtime winter. Martens, weasels and ichneumons wound their way silently through the brushwood — furry, sniffing little animals, stinking of sheepskin, elongated, on short little paws. We suspected there were specimens from the school cabinet among them, which, although disembowelled and moulting, had heard in their empty innards the voice of an old instinct on that white night — a mating call — and had returned to the lair, for a short, illusory lifespan.
But the phosphorescence of the spring snow slowly grew cloudy and died down, and the thick, black murk before daybreak set in. Some of us fell asleep in the warm snow; others scrabbled in the dense forest for the entrances to their houses — they went gropingly into dark interiors, into the dreams of their parents and siblings, into a continuance of the deep snoring they had tracked down on their belated ways.
Those nocturnal assemblies were full of mysterious charm for me, and I could not now forgo this opportunity to peek into the art room for a moment, resolving to spare only a few moments for the visit. But, ascending cedar backstairs full of ringing echoes, I realised I had now reached a hitherto unseen and unknown part of the building.
Not the slightest sound disturbed the solemn silence here. The corridors in this wing were more spacious, lined with plush carpet and replete with finery. Small, dimly glowing lamps shone at their corners. Having passed one such turning, I found myself in an even wider corridor, bedecked in palatial sumptuousness. One of its walls opened through wide glazed arches into the interior of an apartment. Before my eyes a long enfilade of rooms began, disappearing into the depths and furnished with dazzling magnificence. My eye was led along its lane of silk hangings and gilded mirrors, expensive furniture and crystal chandeliers, into the downy pulp of those extravagant interiors full of coloured whirling, shimmering arabesques, winding garlands and budding flowers. The profound silence of those empty parlours was filled only with the secret looks that the mirrors exchanged, and a panic of arabesques running aloft in friezes along the walls, and losing themselves in the stucco-work of the white ceilings.
I stood in admiration and awe before that sumptuousness. I suspected that my nocturnal escapade had led me unexpectedly into the headmaster’s wing, and before his private apartment. My heart pounding, I stood transfixed with curiosity, ready to flee at the slightest noise. How, if discovered, could I justify this, my nocturnal espionage, my audacious snooping? The headmaster’s little daughter might be sitting, unobserved and silent, in one of the deep, plush armchairs, and suddenly raise her eyes to me from behind a book — black, sibylline and calm eyes with a look that none of us could hold. But it would be cowardice, I thought, to withdraw in mid-course, without having fulfilled my objective. And besides — in those interiors, full of sumptuousness and lit by the dimmed light of the indeterminate hour, absolute silence reigned everywhere. Through the arches of the corridor I saw, at the far end of a great parlour, a large glazed door leading to a terrace. Everything was so quiet that I mustered my courage. It did not seem too great a risk to descend the few stairs leading to floor level, and, in a few bounds, cross the great, expensive carpet to reach the terrace, from where I could easily reach a street I knew.
This I did. Once I had stepped down on to the parquet floor of that parlour, under the great palms that stood in vases there, shooting up to the height of the ceiling’s arabesques, I noticed that I had, in fact, reached neutral ground, since the parlour had no front wall at all. It was a kind of loggia, connecting by a few steps to the town square — an offshoot, as it were, of that square, where a few items of furniture had been placed on the pavement. I ran down the few stone steps, and I was in the street again.
The constellations were now standing precipitously on their heads; all the stars had turned over on to their other sides in their sleep; while the moon, buried in an eiderdown of little clouds, which it illuminated with its invisible presence, still appeared to have an endless road before it, and, absorbed in its convoluted heavenly procedures, it spared no thought for daybreak.
A few worn out and rickety droshkies loomed black in the street, like crippled, dozing crabs or cockroaches. A coachman leaned out from his high seat. He had a small, red and good natured face. ‘Shall we go, young sir?’ he asked. The coach shook in all the joints and ligatures of its many limbed body, and moved off on its light wheels.
But who on such a night will trust the whims of an irresponsible droshky driver? Amid the clattering of the spokes and the rumbling of the box and roof, I tried to make my destination known to him.
Heedless and indulgent, he shook his head at everything I said. He hummed a tune to himself, driving by a circuitous route through the town.
Standing in front of some tap-room was a group of droshky drivers, and they waved to him amiably. He cheerfully made some reply and threw the reins on to my knees, not even drawing the carriage to a halt. He got down from his seat and went to join the group of his colleagues. The horse, a wise old droshky horse, looked around nonchalantly, and then continued on his way with his steady, droshky trot. As a matter of fact, this horse filled me with confidence — he seemed to be smarter than the coachman. But I didn’t know how to steer him; I had to submit to his will. We proceeded along a suburban street enclosed on both sides by gardens. Those gardens, the further they extended, slowly gave way to parks of many trees, and they to forests.
I shall never forget that luminous drive on the brightest of winter nights. The coloured map of the heavens had expanded into a vast cupola, where fantastic lands, oceans and seas were amassed, etched in lines of starry whirlpools and currents — luminous lines of heavenly geography. The air became easy to breathe, and was lit up like a silver gas. It was scented with violets. From under the snow — woolly, like white karakul furs — tremulous anemones began to appear, a spark of moonlight in each of their delicate chalices. The whole forest was illuminated, as if by a thousand lights, stars that the December firmament was plentifully shedding. The air heaved with some secret spring, with the inexpressible purity of snow and violets. We entered hilly terrain. The lines of the hills, shaggy with the bare twigs of trees, rose up like blissful sighs into the sky. I caught a glimpse of whole groups of wanderers on those exultant hillsides, gathering up amid moss and bushes the fallen and snow dampened stars. The road grew steeper. The horse skidded and struggled to pull the carriage, all of its ligatures screeching. I was elated. My breast imbibed that delightful spring air, the freshness of the stars and the snow. A bank of snowy white foam piled up higher and higher before the horse’s breast — the horse arduously dug a passage through its pure, fresh mass. At last we came to a standstill. I got down from the droshky. He was breathing heavily, his head bowed. I held his head to my breast — tears glistened in his great, black eyes. Then I noticed a round, black wound on his belly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I whispered, in tears. ‘My dear, it is for you,’ he said, suddenly becoming very small, like a little horse made of wood. I left him. I felt strangely light and happy. I pondered whether I should wait for the local train, the little narrow-gauge train that stopped there, or return to town on foot. I set off walking along a steep serpentine in the depths of the forest, going at first with light, flexible steps, and then, gathering momentum, in an ambling, euphoric run, which soon became a ride, like skiing. I found I could adjust my speed at will, and steer the ride with nimble turns of my body.
When I reached the edge of town I curbed my triumphal run, modifying it to a sensible, leisurely pace. The moon was still high. The transformations of the sky, the metamorphoses of its multifarious vaults in ever more masterfully described configurations, were unending. The sky that night opened like a silver astrolabe its bewitching internal mechanism, and exhibited the gilded mathematics of its constantly turning cogs and wheels.
In the market square, I came across people out taking strolls. Enchanted by the spectacle of that night, their faces were all turned heavenward, and silvered by the magic of the sky. All concern about the wallet had left me. Father, caught up in his eccentricities, had surely forgotten by now that he had ever lost it — and I didn’t care about Mother.
On such a night, unique in a year, happy thoughts come, inspirations — prophetic touches of the divine finger. Filled with ideas and inspiration, I was about to head for home, when my school friends sidetracked me, carrying books under their arms. They had set off too early for school, awoken by the brightness of that night that did not want to end.
We set off walking in a group, along a steeply descending street where a breeze of violets blew, uncertain whether it was the night’s magic that still shimmered on the snow, or whether the dawn was now rising...
Translated by John Curran Davis
Friday, January 8, 2010
(art: Fred Barnard)
I slapped him again because when I was carrying him in my arms he tore my glasses off and hurled them at the grate in the hall. But he wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been so angry already. After that I put him to bed.
Downstairs, I sat on the sofa eating and reading a mgazine. I fell asleep there for an hour. I woke up with crumbs on my chest. When I went into the bathroom, I could not look at myself in the mirror. I did the dishes and sat down again in the living room. Before I went to bed I told myself things were getting better. It was true: this day had been better than the day before, and the day before had been better than most of last week, though not much better.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
I am selecting cat food at the pet shop in Dillon's supermarket and I meet an old woman. Seems her cats won't eat any cat food with fish in it. Well, I tell her, mine are just the opposite. They prefer the fishy foods like Salmon Dinner and Seafood Supper.
"Well," she says, "they certainly are company."
And what can she do for her company when there is no Dillon's and no pet shop? What can I do? I simply could not stand to see my little cats hungry.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Attack of the Mammoth
Kaska First Nation
S. E. Schlosser
A man and his family were constantly on the move, hunting for beaver. They traveled from lake to lake, stream to stream, never staying any place long enough for it to become a home. The woman sometimes silently wished that they would find a village and settle down somewhere with their little baby, but her husband was restless, and so they kept moving.
One evening, after setting up camp on a large lake, the young mother went out to net some beaver, carrying her baby upon her back. When she had a toboggan full of beaver meat, she started back to camp. As she walked through the darkening evening, she heard the thump-thump-thump of mighty footsteps coming from somewhere behind her. She stopped; her heart pounding. She was being followed by something very large. Her hands trembled as she thought of the meat she was dragging behind her. The creature must have smelled the meat and was stalking the smell.
Afraid to turn around and alert the beast, she bent over as if to pick something off the snowy path and glanced quickly past her legs. Striding boldly through the snowy landscape was a tall, barrel-shaped, long-haired creature with huge tusks and a very long trunk. It was a tix - a mammoth - and it looked hungry. She straightened quickly and hurriedly threw the meat into the snow. Then she ran as fast as she could back to camp, dragging the toboggan behind her. Her little baby cried out fearfully, frightened by all the jostling, but she did not stop to comfort him until she was safe inside their shelter.
She told her husband at once about the terrible mammoth that had stalked her and taken the beaver meat. Her husband shook his head and told her she was dreaming. Everyone knew that the mammoth had all died away. Then he light-heartedly accused her of giving the meat away to a handsome sweetheart. She denied it resentfully, knowing that he really believed that she had carelessly overturned the toboggan and had let the meat sink beneath the icy waters of the lake.
After her husband went to set more beaver nets, she prepared the evening meal. While it was cooking over the fire, she walked all around the camp, making sure that there was an escape route through the willow-brush just in case the hungry mammoth attacked them in the night.
The husband and wife lay down to sleep next to the fire after they finished the evening meal. The husband chuckled when he saw that his wife kept her moccasins on and the baby clutched in her arms. "Expecting the mammoth to attack us?" he asked jovially. She nodded, and he laughed aloud at her. Soon he was asleep, but the woman lay awake for a long time, listening.
The wife was awakened from a light doze around midnight by the harsh sounds of the mammoth approaching. "Husband," she shouted, shaking him. He opened his eyes grumpily and demanded an explanation. She tried to tell him that the hungry mammoth was coming to eat them, but he told her she was having a nightmare and would not listen. The wife begged and pleaded and tried to drag him away with her, but he resisted and finally shouted at her to begone if she was afraid. In despair, she clutched her little child to her chest and ran away from the camp.
As she fled, she heard the harsh roar of the giant creature and the sudden shout of her husband as he came face to face with the creature. Then there was silence, and the woman knew her husband was dead. Weeping, she fled with her child, seeking a village that she had heard was nearby. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, she heard the thump-thump-thump of the creature's massive feet stomping through the snow-fields, following her trail. Occasionally, it made a wailing sound like that of a baby crying.
The woman kept jogging along, comforting her little baby as best she could. As light dawned, she saw a camp full of people who were living on the shores of an island on the lake. She crossed the icy expanse as quickly as possible and warned the people of the fierce mammoth that had killed her husband. The warriors quickly went out onto the ice and made many holes around the edges of their village, weakening the ice so that the mammoth would fall through and drown.
As evening approached, the people saw the mammoth coming toward them across the ice. When it neared their camp on the island, the creature plunged through the weakened ice. Everyone cheered, thinking that the animal had drowned. Then its large hairy head emerged out of the water and it shook its long tusks and bellowed in rage. The mammoth started walking along the bottom of the lake, brushing aside the ice with his large tusks.
The people panicked. They screamed and ran in circles, and some of them stood frozen in place, staring as the mammoth emerged from the ice and walked up onto the banks of the island. The wife of the eaten man fled with her baby, urging as many of her new-found friends as she could reach, to flee with her. But many remained behind, paralyzed with fear.
Then a boy emerged from one of the shelters, curious to know what was causing everyone to scream in fear. He wore the bladder of a moose over his head, covering his hair so that he looked bald. He was a strange lad, and was shunned by the locals. Only his grandmother knew that he was a mighty shaman with magic trousers and magic arrows that could kill any living beast.
When the boy saw the hungry, angry mammoth, he called out to his grandmother to fetch the magic trousers and the magic arrows. Donning his clothing, he shook his head until the bladder burst and his long hair fell down to his waist. Then he took his magic bow and arrows and leapt in front of the frightened people and began peppering the beast with arrows, first from one side and then the other. The mammoth roared and weaved and tried to attack the boy, but the shaman's magic was powerful, and soon the beast lay dead upon the ground.
Then those who fled from the mammoth returned to the camp, led by the poor widow and her baby. The people whose lives had been saved by the bladder-headed boy gave a cheer and gathered in excitement around the boy. In gratitude, the people made the shaman their chief and offered him two beautiful girls to be his wives, though he accepted only one of them. The widow and her baby were welcomed into the tribe, and a few months later she married a brave warrior who became close friends with the shaman-become-chief.
And from that day to this, the people have always had chiefs to lead them, and no mammoths have troubled them again.