Dark, Almost Night

Joanna Bator

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

The Last Lady

My father brought me a teddy bear from East Germany the size of a two-year-old. He had traveled there on one of his expeditions, from which he usually returned after a few days or weeks, poorer by a few złoty but richer by another underground map of Książ Castle. Each map was better than the previous one, from a more reliable source, he assured us. He had met with a German from Argentina, or maybe from Bolivia, in East Berlin. “Oh, he knows things that’ll make your hair stand on end!” he told us excitedly. “Thanks to this map, I’m home free.” He was so happy, his eyes gleamed, and I didn’t dare correct him to say that his home is here, with us, and not underground. Soon, my father took off with his new map to look for treasure. He waved spiritedly to us from the path leading to the castle but returned once again defeated. We named the ginger teddy bear Hans, and in the evenings, Ewa told me stories about Hans, a German from the GDR, instead of fairy tales about princesses and princes. “Guten Abend, meine kleine!” My beautiful sister became Hans. She talked in a thick voice with a German accent about Hans’s adventures on the front, his meeting with four tank men, and about the treasure, which was hidden under Książ Castle. “Only Hans knows how to get there, meine kleine! He didn’t betray this even to his secret love, Marusia. Only Hans has the real map. With it we’ll find the pearls of Princess Daisy, the last Lady of Książ Castle. Pearls, dear Caramel! Only the pearls matter.” According to my sister, all of Hitler’s loot wasn’t as interesting as this six-meter-long string of the finest pearls that glinted like moonlight kneaded into balls. If we had the pearls, all our dreams would come true, life would become bright and clear, like a garden after a torrential rain. So said Ewa, and I believed her, because when she pronounced “garden,” “torrential rain,” “pearls,” I saw the dripping clumps of phloxes and ragged dahlias shining under the sudden sun as if in a bedtime cartoon. “Listen, Caramel, dummy, listen, meine kleine.” The bear from the GDR raised his paw, nodded, his eyes came to life. “Our ginger Hans is a good German. He didn’t kill children, puppies, or kitties, meine kleine, he didn’t burn babies in furnaces, oh no, and if it were up to him, the treasure hidden under the castle would already belong to us.” Hans’s voice emerged from my sister: “Ja, ja, meine kleine, just tell me what you want, close your eyes, and ein, zwei, drei!” My sister knew what she wanted. She wanted to go to Warsaw and to be an actress. She’d take the pseudonym Daisy, Daisy Tabor. That sounded appropriate! Our last name and the name of the beautiful Lady of Książ Castle, which, according to Ewa, was full of splendor and mystery. As Daisy, she, too, would travel the whole world! She would send us a postcard from each new place. And the presents she’d bring!

It was our father who instilled in her this fascination with the Princess Daisy and the lost string of pearls. Perhaps he recognized his own desires in his older daughter, and he realized that Ewa needed to receive a special gift from him before he lost his clarity of mind. An ordinary life and ordinary dreams would not be able to keep her afloat. Under the spell of a new plan, he was seized by hope and a good mood, and he granted us unusual access to his room to tell us stories of the last Lady of Książ Castle. We used to sit huddled on the old leather couch, which my father said had a camel color. I loved it because I associated camels with travel, infinity, and movement, all that Ewa had ever wanted and what eventually became my fate. Our father rested his elbows on the desk. “A long time ago, but not so very long ago,” he began, “there was a ball in an English palace.” His story was full of words too difficult for little girls—chandeliers, tailcoats, cotillions, panniers, muslin and mittens, valances—but the sound of the words was as intoxicating to me as the events and adventures were to Ewa. I clung tighter to my sister’s arm, afraid that what I felt, listening to our father’s stories, moved her away from me and the house so much that I wouldn’t even be able to catch up to her on a caramel-colored camel. “Princess Daisy’s real name was Theresa Olivia Cornwallis-West, and she was the daughter of a colonel in the British Royal Army,” our father said. “Cornwallis-West,” repeated Ewa in a reverent whisper. “The young Englishwoman was already a dazzling beauty.” My father sighed, and my sister straightened up and tilted her head coquettishly, wanting to show what soon many would notice: that she, too, dazzled. It was obvious that her beauty must also become the beginning of a beautiful story. “Theresa Olivia Cornwallis-West, at the age of eighteen, married the last owner of the Książ Castle, John Henry V von Pless. What a beautiful pair they made. Balls, candelabras, crepe de chine, ottomans, cotillions,” my father continued. “They honeymooned in Paris, and from there, they went to Egypt, where they surely saw camels,” he added especially for me because he knew I was fascinated by those creatures, unpretty admittedly, but stubborn and strong. My sister, like Princess Daisy, liked cats, though they had always frightened me. To this day, I don’t fully understand how one creature can be such a perfect combination of fragility and strength. My sister understood this, and when we fed the feral cats that lived under Książ Castle, I had the feeling that they would recognize in her someone similar to themselves. It seemed to me that they would obviously attribute all this beauty and mystery to my sister, as they must have to Princess Daisy, and when I was near Ewa, perhaps a bit of her radiance might slide over me, an inconspicuous camel-colored girl, and maybe I’d gain a little feline grace. I thought that this quivering aura that surrounded Ewa was such that when you looked at it from a certain distance, the air rippled around her like over hot sand, and foretold something special, something fitting Theresa Olivia Cornwallis-West and her pearls.

That last winter, my sister spoke only about them. She woke me at night while I slept hugging ginger Hans from the GDR, and she told the story of Princess Daisy once again, though differently, and I was too young to notice that her abnormally enlarged eyes and the cold sweat on her forehead announced disaster. “Sis, camel-colored Caramel, it’s me, Daisy,” she chattered. “Das ist Daisy,” repeated Hans’s thick voice, “wake up, meine kleine, and listen.” She lay beside me on her back and said: “There was a black black forest in this black black forest was a black black house in the black black house was a black black room in this black black room was a black black table on the black black table was a black black coffin in this black black coffin was a white white corpse.” I was paralyzed with fear and Ewa tickled me and kept saying: “White corpse on a corpse string of pearls radiant corpse black house string of pearls. Don’t sleep! Repeat with me.” She spoke faster and faster, so that my tongue tied into knots and I couldn’t keep up. That was our relationship: I couldn’t keep up or catch up to her when she needed me.

Ewa’s favorite part of our father’s story concerned Princess Daisy’s expedition to Egypt. “Listen, Caramel! Egypt, the Gulf of Aden. It’s so hot,” Ewa fanned herself with theatrical exaggeration, as if an Egyptian heat wave had suddenly reached Wałbrzych, “it’s so hot that you could cook eggs in the sand. Your beloved camel-colored camels devour dates under the palm trees and the herders dream in the shade about cold Pepsi-Colas and Eskimos. In Egypt, dear sister, the sun is five times larger than here, and beneath its rays, gentlemen light their pipes. Poof, poof, they let the smoke go. It smells like fresh cattails with whipped cream.” Cattails, the world’s best cookies from the café Madras in Wałbrzych Square, cattail smoke, my mouth watered, and my sister talked about Daisy: “The princess dressed in white stood on the seashore under her Chinese parasol. She was looking at the Egyptian boys who dove with knives between their teeth. Swarthy boys, knives between their teeth, teeth like pearls, dummy, focus. They hunted for pearls, for her, for beautiful Daisy, while she spun her parasol on its bamboo handle.” My sister’s story was enriched by new details each time she told it. But the punch line was always the same. After a while, Daisy began to get bored in the provincial port, maybe a wave of melancholy overtook her and she wanted to keep moving in the hope that she could escape from the next one. So she pressed her husband and Prince von Pless hurried on the hired divers, and in the hot nights, he tried to convince his young wife that a beautiful life awaited them at Książ Castle and that her melancholy was nothing but fatigue brought on by travel and the foreign climate. He didn’t want to hear the divers’ explanations that at this depth the boys could not go down again and again without risk, that they needed rest. The string was short a few more pearls until it reached its ideal length of six meters. “Six meters,” Ewa repeated, fascinated, and asked if I was imagining it, a string of pearls as long as two pythons from the Wrocław Zoo, like six, little, camel-colored sisters placed head to toe, one after another. On the last day of diving, Daisy took a boat ride to once again oversee the work of the divers. One of the divers, the one who always fished out the most impressive oysters, emerged from the sea with one last ounce of strength and a huge shell. He threw it to the feet of the Princess and said something, looking her straight in the face. Before anyone could respond to this insolence, blood spilled over the diver’s lips and he died. Supposedly, the Egyptian pearl diver cursed the Princess, and everything that happened next to the Lady of the Castle was a consequence of that curse. “Cursed cursed cursed,” repeated Ewa, and I had the impression that the word itself, whose pronunciation requires sticking the tongue to the palate, its madly repeated sounds like the clapping of an inhuman creature, holds terrible power. Pearls and curses, my sister’s obsessions, the stars of stage and screen. The six-meter string of pearls had been immortalized in a famous photograph of Daisy. Its reproduction was on the table at which we did our homework. “I look like her, right?” Ewa asked and held the photograph of the Princess to her face. “I look like her?” She poked Hans in the stomach and demanded confirmation. “Similar,” I nodded, but to me, Ewa seemed much more beautiful.

My sister was sure that Princess Daisy’s pearls were still in Wałbrzych, and to put an end to the curse, we had to find them. “You can’t do it alone, and if you keep the necklace for yourself, you’ll die in a terrible way, torn apart from the inside. That’s why you have to cut the string and separate the gems. That’s very important!” Ewa’s confidence seemed unshakable. I was curious about who would get Princess Daisy’s pearls. “Us?” “The guards of the pearls will get them,” Ewa explained and her eyes shone. “Who are they?” “The guards of the pearls are people who have special properties: the power to offset the curse of the diver.” “And if we can’t find Princess Daisy’s pearls. What then?” “Every once in a while, something very bad will happen here.” “How bad?” I wanted to know. “So bad that, even in the best person, gateways to evil will open and then, that person will be lost.” “How?” She hugged and tickled me. “Through the nose, ears, under armpits, between fingers, like that.” “We can’t let that happen!” “So we have to find the pearls and take them to the sun, but we’ll have to make sure we’re wearing sunglasses, otherwise they’ll blind us with their brilliance.” “We’ll lay them under the black currant bushes in the garden. No one will find them there,” I offered. “We’ll sink them in Zagórz Lake! Let them disappear forever. Or we’ll change them into food for the cats in the Castle!” I was a practical girl, and in comparison to Ewa, devoid of imagination. “We can’t, Caramel. They don’t belong to us. But we’ll walk onto the hanging bridge in Zagórz, and we’ll rock it hard like the swings in the playground, do you want to?” That was Ewa: confusion, pearls, and a swinging bridge.

I crouched in the basement over the destroyed teddy bear from East Germany and mourned my lost sister. She had been seventeen and knew that she was departing. Each of Ewa’s stories ended the same way. Thanks to Princess Daisy’s map, our brave trio of treasure hunters, us and ginger Hans from the GDR, broke through the labyrinth of tunnels, defeated enemies 007 wouldn’t have balked at, guessed the secret code, and opened the gate, behind which a string of pearls gleamed in the darkness. We were close, but always at the last moment, they appeared. “Who?” “Do we have to give them a name, Caramel?” “Yes.” “Why?” “Because everything else has a name, even ectoplasm and ghosts.” “Well, in that case, they’re the cat-eaters. But in lowercase. They don’t deserve a capital letter.” “Cat-eaters?” “Exactly!” “Why cat-eaters?” “They hate cats, and cats are the first to sense them, they hiss, their fur bristles, and they duck into their cat channels. The cats most sensitive to the presence of the cat-eaters are those living under Książ Castle. They’re extraordinary animals! As sensitive as seismographs. Princess Daisy left them here as guards. Some are so sensitive that when the cat-eaters approach, they die.” “To death?” “Unfortunately, Caramel, permanently,” my sister replied. “What are the cat-eaters?” “Their skin is cold and thick, their breath poisons the air and muddles the mind, empties the body, as if it were eaten from the inside. And cold, dummy, as cold as a corpse. The people the cat-eaters enter become as cold as the freezers in the supermarket!” “When do they come?” “When the gateways are open. Typically, in November.” “What do they look like? Are they from Poland, the Soviet Union, or maybe Egypt?” I inquired. I had always had a thirst for specific and accurate knowledge. “Cat-eaters,” said Ewa, “are everywhere. Each time they take on a different form, Caramel. They’re hardier than camels, stronger than rhinoceroses. Hungrier than man-eating sharks. They’re eternal, and they devour. They penetrate through walls, through the body, and when they get inside, they make it so everything rots and is filled with a stinking fog like a spoiled wheel of blue cheese. They lurk in bathroom pipes, mirrors, rabbit burrows, chimneys, and nostrils. Under the beds of the camel-colored!” “How do you recognize them?” I persisted. “You have to ask: one, two, three, are thou good or are thou mean?” Ewa replied, but that was a joke. Ginger Hans from the GDR threw himself at me, tickling me so that I choked with fear and laughter at the same time. I believed that Ewa would protect me from the cat-eaters, because apart from her, I didn’t have anyone. I didn’t understand how close the danger really was, not even when my sister stopped eating and sleeping, when she stood naked in the open window of our bedroom, saying over and over: “In this black black house was a black black table in the black black coffin was a white white corpse on the corpse a string of pearls Caramel dummy pray to the Virgin Mary rather hairy black house black coffin white corpse.” She repeated it so fast that I started to cry, helpless and terrified, and she begged: “Take me to the vet and put me to sleep, dear sister. And then, throw me to the crocodiles, skin them, and run away into the world in your crocodile boots. Don’t look behind you."

The teddy bear now lay forgotten and damp. He looked at me in the light of the flashlight. If he had eyelids, I would have closed them. I didn’t come here to mourn my sister, I’ll be doing that the rest of my life, unceasingly and with increasing skill. I’ve come back to understand what happened.

translated from the Polish by Maggie Zebracka