Much of the prose in Asymptote‘s Spring 2018 fiction section (especially Jon Fosse’s Scenes from a Childhood) includes keenly observed sketches from childhood. This Tuesday, we bring you a piece from Poland that continues that theme. In Julia Fiedorczuk’s ‘Moss’, the narrator’s recollections of her grandmother are a powerful evocation of a child’s experience through the grown-up’s consciousness. And fair warning: you’re probably gonna shed a tear or two when you get to the last line.
But I’m still a child, then, who doesn’t know how to read yet.
I’m five, maybe six years old, in a purple flannel dress with little green roses. That child’s thin legs are sticking out from under the dress. Scratched and bruised like seventy sorrows. I’m sitting on a high stool in front of a mirror, legs dangling in mid-air. She’s standing behind me. Brushing my hair. I have long hair, the colour of ripe corn. Fine hair; it won’t survive adolescence: it’ll have to be cut when I hit fifteen.
It doesn’t hurt. It hurts when my mother does it, but not when she does. She touches me delicately, like an angel, like a good witch. I see her veiny hands in the mirror. I see how they tremble. I say ‘veiny’ now, because now, that is four decades later, I think in words; but at the time, as a child, I thought in images. ‘Granny,’ I say, ‘your hands look like spiders.’ Granny smiles at me and so do all her wrinkles. I watch the spiders dance in the mirror: one is holding the comb, the other divides my hair into strands and presses them against my scalp, so as not to tug. Then the first one puts the comb down on the dresser and both together they plait my hair into two thin braids on my head.
The flannel dress has gone. I don’t know what happened to it, but I imagine it went the way of all flannel clothes: cut up for cloths—first to dry the dishes, then to wipe the dust, till finally they end up washing the floor. I imagine the material gradually darkening along the descent through these various incarnations until it ends up a uniform brown. The little roses vanished, absorbed into their clothy background. By the time the rag landed in the garbage it barely differed from earth. And later, it became earth.
The trembling hands—the spiders—tie my braids with two green ribbons.
We wore big bows in those days with ribbons bought by the metre at the haberdashery store. While the store assistant was wrapping them in grey paper and Granny was paying, you could look at the pins with different coloured heads because in her world, that is my world, there was no pink plastic yet. Anything that wasn’t white, or gray, or brown was a thrill. I look at the spools, balls and skeins of coloured threads, the silks and yarns, and I imagine another world, woven or knitted entirely in these colours. There’d be more reds, more blues. And yellow. I think of a saturated yellow verging on orange, like the yolk of an egg or—sometimes—the sun, just before sunset. It would be a light world, a not completely serious world. Lacey. A bit transparent. Knitted by ten spidery legs for that girl I am then, the one who will hatch me.
Granny has pink hair. She pins it up in a little bun like a sparrow’s nest or, if she’s put in rollers the night before, she leaves it down. She has thin grey eyebrows. Since Christmas, she’s been outlining them with a black pencil. Sometimes I ask her: ‘Granny, let me colour in your eyebrows.’ Then she leans over so that I can reach her face and I concentrate so hard, my forehead is all furrowed. These were my first initiations.
From time to time we go to feed a dog. The dog belongs to someone else, but those people are often away. The dog’s chained up or runs about the neglected yard, overgrown with nettles, surrounding a wooden house with pelargonias and little pictures of the Mother of God set in low windows that look out onto the street. He climbs out easily through the holes in the fence and greets granny joyfully. He jumps about, squeals, fawns and whimpers. The people in that house don’t like us visiting the dog. They get really mad if they catch us at it. Then we pretend that we don’t understand what the problem is and we’re just walking by without a care.
The dog is big and lean and black and greying like granny’s eyebrows. I think he’s called Son-of-a-bitch, because when the people from the house call him, they shout: ‘Get back here, Son-of-a-bitch.’ The dog doesn’t want to go back, but he does as he’s told—he’s more attached to his owners than to us. So he goes, glancing at granny apologetically. He knows that granny will understand. She understands everything. Granny puts the sausage back inside the violet bag embroidered with beads; we turn back like we haven’t a care, or go down to the river.
The river is wide and grey. I dream about the other side. On the other side there are villages whose names mean almost nothing to me; they have only some vague dream-like associations. I imagine another world. Haberdasheries, ice-cream parlours, the homes of people I don’t know, whom I’ll probably never meet, and who have no idea—how is that possible?—that I even exist. Girls I’ll never play with and never quarrel with. The pink ribbons in their hair, more beautiful than mine. I envy them those ribbons, if I end up imagining them too clearly. I imagine the girls’ parents too: farmers, fishermen, milkmen. They seem wonderful professions to me, not like the boring office work my parents do. I tell myself that when I grow up, I’ll be a fisherman. I won’t sit my life away in libraries or tap at the keys of a typewriter. I’ll sail out to the middle of the grey river before dawn and wait in the silence for the sun and the birds. I imagine how, for those girls with the pink ribbons, the town where my parents live, where I live, is just as exotic as the other side is for me.
But in the winter, when the river freezes, that other side becomes less inaccessible. Sometimes, the ice is so thick, you can cross to the other bank, wading through snow up to your calves. The fishermen hack blowholes in the ice and light fires, maybe to make it melt more readily, or maybe just to warm their hands.
Then the dog died. I don’t remember when, but it must have been before I cut my hair. I don’t know if it happened out in the yard by the wooden house, or if he went off somewhere to die alone, as animals do. It doesn’t matter, because he’s just earth now.
I’m five, maybe six, and Granny is teaching me to use the telephone. I know most of my letters, and I’m slowly learning numbers. I count. First there’s the delight of counting up to ten, then somehow, before you know it, up to a hundred. Like all children, I love the astonishment of adults, their praise and applause. It hatches a vanity which grows. It will come in useful, but in the end it has to be overcome; that is, I shall have to overcome the vanity, the applause, my own self, and measure up to life—measure up to death. Granny shows me how to dial the number of my house in town—the place I live when I go to pre-school and where my parents live. This amuses me. I wait for the praise. I stick my finger into the round space with the right number and I turn the dial. Then the next one. The number has five figures. I have to concentrate and use some force because my fingers are still very small. We practise lots of times and finally I manage to do it by myself. ‘Hello?’ my mother’s voice answers in the receiver. They both applaud, granny and my mother.
There are lots of records and books in granny’s house. The records were left by her second husband, who wasn’t my grandfather, because my grandfather died in the forest at the beginning of the war. No need to explain which one. When I’m a child, there is only one war. Apart from the records, granny has lots of different knick-knacks and bits and bobs; so many that there’s always new treasure to find. There’s a plaster figure, half standing, half lying on the chest of drawers—it’s an angel with a broken hand and a wire protruding from the stump; granny hauled it back from an old church. By the wall there’s an openwork wooden music stand and part of a piano found in some barn. ‘Mice were nesting in it,’ says granny. At the bottom of the wardrobe, under the coats, I find a piece of pale-coloured stone with strange letters that make you think of bird tracks. And little pictures—I recognise a candelabra, a bit of a hand. When I ask about the stones, granny explains that they’re old headstones for which there was no room left at the cemetery. For a while, I’m quite convinced that that’s what you do—that old headstones which for some reason can’t find a place at the cemetery are kept in the wardrobe under coats. Granny gathers these stones on the overgrown hillside by the river, in the tall grass under the junipers. Like mushrooms.
Granny is queen of her house; me—I’m a page. The queen’s page is a butterfly. So, I’m a butterfly. And granny is the house. Granny fills the house with the smell of paint—she paints pictures, which seems to me then the most natural thing in the world. The other smell comes from herbs: basil, thyme, sage, parsley. I’m not keen on herbs, but granny says that each of these leaves has some information meant for the parts that make up my body, for me. So I learn to eat scrambled eggs with sage, sandwiches garnished with parsley, tomatoes with basil. In this way, the mysterious force that makes things grow, seek the sun and produce fruit, is on our side.
In the mornings, I jump into granny’s bed. She sleeps well and long and soundly. She goes to bed late. I hear the shuffle of her slippers across the kitchen floor as I doze off. She keeps watch as I sleep. Those fathomless dark hours, when I’m no longer among those keeping watch, all belong to her. I envy her that time, or maybe I envy the time having her—the granny I don’t know and never shall. I know that before I fall asleep and before I cease knowing anything, she’ll light a cigarette and begin mixing paints by the light of the lamp in the kitchen. And then, on boards or bits of plywood, she’ll paint grass, trees, flowers. Much later, I realise that she rarely painted anything but plants.
‘Look,’ she says sometimes, ‘this leaf looks like a hand. and the veins like rivers. Life flows like rivers.’
‘Where to?’ I ask. ‘Where is it flowing?’
‘To the sea,’ she says without hesitation. ‘Everything came from the sea and everything returns to it, but sometimes in a roundabout way. Sometimes very slowly. Sometimes quickly.’
But I still hadn’t seen the sea then.
So, I jump into her bed, and she is still sleeping. I tug her pinkish hair, she doesn’t react. I tickle her under the chin, she smiles. She starts to snore very loudly, pretending. Finally, she says: ‘Fetch yourself a book, granny needs three more minutes.’ But I’ve got a book already, because this is our usual ritual. I look at the pictures, I touch the letters and words, at first they’re mostly opaque and strange, but with time, with the flow of weeks and months, they become more and more readable. At last, granny gets up, she yawns, stretches, complains about her aching back. For an instant, I see that she’s fragile; but it’s barely a moment: she’s quickly queen again. And me—who will I be today?
Just after the war, granny lost a child. Luckily not my mother, or I wouldn’t be here, unless someone else had me, but then I wouldn’t be me. My mother told me about the child who died; granny never mentions it. It was a long long time ago. Granny’s dead child is just earth now.
Sometimes, rarely, at special moments, granny takes me to the forest. The forest begins just beyond the meadow and goes on for miles. I’m convinced then that it goes on for ever. I imagine what a misfortune it would be to get lost in that forest and wander about between the thick resinous stumps, under the needle-leaved crowns which deprive the sun of its force and extinguish the moon. I wonder what it would be like to spend the night in a forest like that. I want to and don’t want to. I want to and don’t want to.
Granny teaches me the word: ‘sanctuary’. It’s a place in the middle of the forest where animals live. A wild place which is needed to maintain life on earth. Including the life of the imagination. And then she shows me some twisted roots.
‘Look,’ she says. ‘They look like my fingers.’
She spreads out her spider-hands and smiles.
‘This tree is old,’ she says. ‘As old as your grandmother. ‘She laughs. ‘When it dies, it will turn into moss. It will be so tired, it will fall asleep for a thousand years. A thousand thousand.’
‘A thousand thousand thousand,’ I add.
Soon, we really do find a fallen tree. It’s sleeping on the moss, leafless, with its bark come away. Its tangled roots stick up.
‘There’s someone living in those roots,’ says granny.
‘I don’t believe you,’ I answer, slipping easily into my role.
Granny takes a penknife out of her pocket, cuts off a piece of dead root, and starts to whittle. I get it. I’m not sure if it’s a trick or not. A few minutes later, I hold a roughly carved dwarf in my hand. He’s got a head, a pointed hat and a bit of a trunk. He still has.
Only one photograph of my granny has survived. I don’t like it. She’s badly dressed, looks old and her smile looks fake, made awkward in the role of model.
During one of our trips to the forest she tells me about the war—only once. She talks about the people who were driven through the village, thin and bloodied. About how she looked at them through the gaps in the wooden fence, after she’d shut her children in the house. Then she’d take milk and bread out to the forest. But so that the village headman didn’t find out because if he had, they would all have been done for—the ones in the forest and she and her children too. I find it hard to understand. Granny says—and it’s the only time she says such a thing—that I’ll understand later. In the end, someone took the people away; she never found out where.
‘Did you look for them?’ I ask her.
‘Yes. I look for them in every forest.’
And then we discover fairy rings; toadstools growing around a big pine stump in a near perfect circle, as though someone had planted them specially. Granny explains that they’re growing out of the mycelium, under the ground. The mycelium is one great big branched-out body from which individual pericarps grow.
One morning I jump into her bed. I look at her for a moment: when she’s sleeping, her wrinkles almost completely smoothed out. Then I tug her pink hair—nothing. I tickle her under the chin—nothing.
‘Granny!’ I call.
Nothing. She doesn’t smile. she doesn’t snore.
For a moment it’s as though I’m paralyzed. I can’t move; it’s like I’ve frozen solid. Then, slowly, I walk to the telephone. Very carefully, I dial the number of my house in town. My hands are shaking. I hear the tone, three, five seven long notes. Eventually:
My mother is hoarse, sleepy, I’ve woken her up.
‘Granny’s fallen asleep,’ I say, straight to the point. ‘Get some moss.’
Translated from the Polish by Anna Zaranko
Julia Fiedorczuk (b. 1975) is a Polish poet, prose writer, translator, and lecturer in American literature at the University of Warsaw. She has published five books of poetry, a collection of short stories, and two novels (including the Nike-nominated Nieważkość). She is the author, with Gerardo Beltrán, of a trilingual essay on poetry and ecology: “Ekopoetyka” / “Ecopoética” / “Ecopoetics”) and a member of ASLE (Association for the Study of Language and the Environment). In her writings she explores the relationships between human beings and nonhuman nature, as well as the questions of identity, otherness, and ethical responsibility. Her work has been translated into nineteen languages. Her latest volume of poetry, Psalmy, has been nominated for the Wislawa Szymborska Prize and for the Wroclaw Silesius Prize.
Anna Zaranko translates from Polish and Russian. She worked on the revised edition of Boleslaw Prus’s novel The Doll (1996). In 2015/16 she was an ALTA mentee, working with Bill Johnson. She is translating Julia Fiedorczuk’s stories and is also currently working on The Memoir of An Anti-Hero by Kornel Filipowicz. Her translation of the Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim was published by Penguin in 2017.
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