The Mighty Angel
It’s a frosty winter before the war. Mid-January 1932 or 1933. In the part of the world where my grandfather, Old Kubica, is right now drinking another glass of Baczewski vodka, the frosts and snows will last a long time yet. Old Kubica’s immense sheepskin coat has slipped from his shoulders; he’s wearing a white shirt with an upright collar, and a black vest. He’s hot, his blood is circulating vigorously in his veins, yet pain is radiating from somewhere. Over his heart or under his lungs is an intramuscular or intercostal gap—a wound that cannot be healed.
At the Blackbird pub darkness prevails: there’s only a faint shaft of light from an oil lamp on the bar, only the red-hot iron door of the tiled stove glows like the insignia of the god of war, only a distant white light gleams through the window. The proprietor, who is stacking glasses on the shelves of a dresser, glances into a dark corner. Old Kubica is sitting motionless; that is to say, he sits motionless for a quarter of an hour, then after a quarter of an hour a faint movement of the arm can be seen, there is a soft chink of glass, and his head tips back. My grandfather Old Kubica is drinking and he doesn’t know what to do. He’s fighting off thoughts of his debts, his farm, Grandmother Zofia, his children. He doesn’t even think about his favorite chestnut mare, who has the male name of Fuchs. He’s thinking rather that in the early morning he’s going to have to kill the merchant from Ustroń—grandfather sold him the chestnut mare called Fuchs today.
“I tell you, Mr. Kubica, it’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s the most beautiful horse in the world,” the merchant has been repeating to him for more than six months. “Mr. Kubica, Marshal Piłsudski’s chestnut mare can’t hold a candle to your chestnut mare. Name your price; for what I pay you, you’ll be able to build a new house.”
Old Kubica would smile, stroke the horse’s mane, and listen to it stamping its feet, snorting, neighing; his head was tipped back like an orchestral conductor listening to perfectly played music, like a drunkard drinking his glass of delight.
In the early morning today his hands had been trembling, his heart pounding irregularly, his brow was bathed in sweat, and insistent thoughts roared in his head: everything is lost, everything is gone, all is wasted. The bailiff will come, and he’ll have to take his woman and his child and move out.
In the room where he slept it was perhaps thirty, perhaps twenty-five degrees fahrenheit. He was standing at the window; waves of heat and cold struck him in turn. He rested his forehead on the frost-covered window pane, gazing at the empty yard in front of the house, gazing at the path that my ten-year-old father had diligently swept clean of snow, down which the merchant was approaching.
“He must have gotten up early,” Old Kubica whispered to himself, and for a moment he thought about how people who get up early, wash in ice-cold water, eat scrambled eggs and bacon, drink hot coffee, then hitch their horses to a sleigh, cover themselves in blankets, and ride in absolute silence and whiteness the whole six miles from Ustroń to Wisła—that such people must be happy, that they must not feel pain. Maybe he should hitch up and head out for nowhere in particular? My proud grandfather grimaced in disgust and was annoyed at himself for entertaining such women’s notions. “Head out for nowhere in particular? Where on earth would I go?” He gave a sour smile. “Except to the pub.”
“Right,” he murmured, “the furthest I’d get would be the pub in Ustroń.”
The merchant was standing in the doorway, his hands spread in a half-hearted gesture, a smile of collusion on his face.
“Mr. Kubica. . .”
“All right,” grandfather interrupted him. “What you said, and another twenty zloties.”
The other man immediately reached for his wallet.
“And one more thing.” The merchant’s smooth hand paused amid the folds of his warm jacket. “The money today, the horse tomorrow. Come back tomorrow at the same time.”
The merchant was about to say something, but the expression on my grandfather’s face must have been such that he said nothing. He dug around much less briskly in his pockets, and eventually pulled out a wad of banknotes.
“I’ll bring the extra twenty tomorrow,” he said in a voice so wan it seemed the longed-for transaction had suddenly ceased to interest him. “I trust you, Mr. Kubica—everyone hereabouts knows you to be a man of his word.”
“Till tomorrow then,” said Kubica, and, paying no more attention to the merchant, he left the house first.
Out in front he stooped down, took a handful of snow, and wiped his face. The merchant saw him standing motionless in the middle of the yard; he saw his snow-covered eyebrows and forehead. He didn’t go up to him, and even strayed a little from the cleared path. Once he was sure the other man was at a safe remove he said:
“Goodbye, see you tomorrow.”
Old Kubica saw nothing and heard nothing. He did not hear the bells of the merchant’s sleigh fading into the distance, and he did not see the children on their way to school. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the houses, the sound of wood being chopped came from somewhere far off, and in the forest on Ochodzita Mountain someone was calling: “Come on, come on.” An almost completely black cat was cautiously crossing the yard at an angle.
“Something has to be done, but what?” grandfather was saying to himself. “Something has to be done. . .”
He gazed about distractedly, though not so distractedly as to look at the gate leading to the stable. At the far end of the farmyard he saw a fir tree leaning against the wall; just two weeks earlier it had been decorated with apples and candies. Christmas had come and gone, though it would have been better if it hadn’t come at all.
He had been in no state to say prayers, or to sing carols. At the Christmas Eve supper hardly anyone had spoken; the children were tearful. His heart had been like a stone exploding in the fire. Grandma Zofia served undercooked cabbage. The white-enameled serving dish of barely warm food tipped the scales toward the evil spirits; one of them entered into him. He leaned across the table, took the ill-fated vessel in his hands, and hurled it against the opposite wall, on which there hung the likeness of Martin Luther after the portrait by Cranach; the candle on the table went out, and the portrait of our reformer fell to the ground. Everyone ran away—my father always told stories about running away from Old Kubica—everyone hurried, they fled down the hallway and across the unlit yard, put the ladder against the trapdoor to the loft in the barn, and agilely climbed up one after another, like a well-trained fire brigade. Old Kubica was knocking over chairs, knocking over the table, knocking over the dresser. He took his shotgun down from the wall and summoned my ten-year-old father. They crossed the farmyard together; grandfather had the gun slung over his shoulder and a bottle in his hand, and he was singing carols:
God grant a merry eve and night.
God grant a merry eve and night.
First for the farmer on his farm.
First for the farmer on his farm.
Then to the farmer’s wife so fine.
Then to the farmer’s wife so fine.
And to his farmhands, good men all.
And to his farmhands, good men all.
He drank from the bottle, and his splendid voice carried across the valleys. My father tried to sing too, but he was seized by a fear stronger than the twenty-below frost—the shadow of that fear would remain with him forever. At that time, on Christmas Eve 1932 or 1933, my nine- or ten-year-old father was afraid that an angel hurrying to Bethlehem would pop out from behind one of the buildings. He was afraid that somewhere very close there was an angel who had gone astray or had decided to take a brief rest on its flight. On the night of Christmas Eve the sky was crisscrossed with angels flying in swooping arcs like swallows; on this night angels stopped in fields and flew over roofs, and a person could sometimes hear the sound of their wings and their choral singing. My father was afraid because he was convinced that Old Kubica would shoot at the angel. They’d come round the corner of the house; a white-winged creature would be standing before them under a snow-covered apple tree, and without hesitation my grandfather would take the gun from his shoulder and fire almost without taking aim, and he would hit the angel. And on its wing there would appear a single drop of blood, and that single drop would have such power that if it fell to the ground, everything would catch fire and everything would burn. Everything would catch fire, even the snow. But they made it all the way across the yard and through the orchard behind the house, and nothing happened; the fear slowly dissipated, Old Kubica’s movements became ever more sluggish. He had stopped singing and had stopped looking for the one responsible for the evil, who needed to be killed. He went back to his freezing room, stood the bottle on the floor by the iron bed, and fell asleep.
“Something needs to be done, but what?” thinks my grandfather; he gazes at the Christmas tree leaning against the wall, and he remembers the promissory note he signed right after the holiday, and he remembers the moment of hesitation before he appended his signature. Him! He, who never hesitated, who never had doubts—he had not only had a moment of doubt before appending his desperate signature, but he also had not stopped, had not drawn any inferences from his doubts. It was nothing but the devil addling his brain; nothing but the Lord God punishing him for flinging a dish of lukewarm cabbage against the wall instead of sitting quietly and praying at Christmas Eve supper. The whole farm for a single dish of cabbage, and a cold one into the bargain? What sort of accounting is that, Lord? he asked without conviction, and the Lord with all the conviction in the world answered nothing, and in his soul Old Kubica accepted the divine reckoning; the dish of cold cabbage was evidently the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back of his irascibility.
He goes into the woodshed and with both hands seizes the axe that next morning he may use to kill the merchant from Ustroń. How exactly he’ll kill him he doesn’t yet know, but he knows he’ll kill him. Details have never interested him and at the present moment they interest him even less. He doesn’t think about whether he’ll use a shotgun or an axe or a hammer; he’ll use whatever is at hand, because he always uses whatever is at hand, and if there isn’t anything at hand, he’ll do it with his bare hands. What will he do with the body of the murdered merchant? How will he do it? He won’t do anything. He’ll leave the stiff where it is and go to the pub. He’ll sit at the pub like he does every morning, except on this particular day he’ll wait there till the police come for him. When they come, he’ll go with them. Old Kubica grips the axe in his hands, and at the thought that around noon tomorrow the police will take him away, he finally feels a sense of relief.
“Yes, the police,” he whispers to himself, and unaware he is paraphrasing an as yet unknown poem, adds: “the police is always some kind of solution.”
My grandfather now hacks the branches off the fir, already knowing what he’s going to do that morning. He finds a piece of glass, some sandpaper, and a small handsaw. He’s going to carve various objects out of the fir wood. Above all, he’ll make at least four rogulas. The fir is beautifully branched, like a star, and the rogulas, which resemble miniature ski poles, and which Grandma Zofia will use to stir food in the blue enameled pots, will be perfect. For an hour, or perhaps two, grandfather works with pleasure; he handles the resinous wood, the smell of the fir calms his jangling nerves, and his hands are steady. He gently removes the bark from a fir branch and, at first discordantly, like an orchestra tuning up, then more and more harmoniously, like musicians playing an overture for a grand ball, he begins to sing. After two weeks of silence my grandfather begins to sing again, and now it’s as if he were adding his voice to our choir, the choir of the alcoholics.
In the hallways of the ward all the voices and all the melodies of the world join together, and sometimes in the plaintive polyphony I can distinctly hear the highland tune that Old Kubica sang decades ago in the snow-covered yard. The melody is the same but the words are different; he’s bent over the slippery bark-less trunk of the fir tree and, inspired it would seem, sings whatever comes into his head:
You’re not here, you’re not here, you’ll always be gone.
On the lake, on the lake, there swims a white swan.
Is my grandfather singing a song for the death of the merchant from Ustroń, who he is going to kill the next morning? Or for the departure of Fuchs the chestnut mare? Or for his own departure in the company of the police? Is he singing about me? Is he singing about you? You’re not here, you’re not here, you’ll always be gone. No, you’re here. I am here. I’m here because I do not choose death. Old Kubica, given a choice between the lack of a bottle at his bedside or death, would have chosen death. I choose life, and Old Kubica drinks to my health in the heavenly pub, where an angel tops up his glass. Grandfather, I say to him, drunken father of my drunken father, grandfather, I was in the same snow-covered yard; a bottle stood at my bedside, the same black perspiration poured from me, my heart quaked and my hands shook. But I choose life. At my side there is a love that is as strong as your singing; it brings me salvation. Our addiction, which killed you, drops from me as the skin drops from the snake; I am victorious, and I’m sharing my victory with you. I’m writing about you and I’m writing about myself not only to show that true alcoholic prose does not end in death; it ends in life, and who knows how life will end.
After an hour, or perhaps two, of work Old Kubica suddenly jumps up. Maybe he’s decided to do immediately what he was going to do the next day; maybe he’ll hitch the horses to the sleigh and gallop off amid billowing snows to Ustroń, the axe at his feet. But no, Old Kubica jumps up because what always happens to us is happening to him: the time comes when a person has to have a drink. And my grandfather, already possessed of the knowledge and certainty that he would soon be having a drink, and mightily relieved by this fact, throws his immense sheepskin coat round his shoulders and goes to the pub. He sits in the furthest corner and orders Baczewski, the most expensive vodka. He pays for successive bottles, but to all those who during the day, and also now after dark, want to come and sit by him, he says:
“Don’t sit by me today. Sit somewhere else.”
Today the only person who can put his glass next to Old Kubica’s glass is Dr. Swobodziczka. The doctor comes into the pub in the late evening; he’s on his way back from visiting someone whose aches he eased (early tomorrow the pain will pass, in three days the fever will be over, in four days you’ll start to feel weak, in five days I’ll come again), he’s on his way back from visiting someone whose pre-mortal or perhaps life-giving sufferings he eased. First he shakes Old Kubica’s hand without a word, then he sits down and gazes at him intently.
“You’ve lost everything,” he says, half stating, half asking.
Old Kubica says nothing.
“Property’s just something to be bought. In a year you’ll get it all back, in two years you’ll have even more.”
Old Kubica says nothing; he picks up the bottle with a smooth motion, but the doctor places his hand over his own glass.
“It occurred to me not to drink,” he says in a tone that is striving not to be apologetic.
Grandfather turns to him with great difficulty, his face changed, his features drained of expression.
“How long?” he asks in a voice that is not his own. “How long? A month? Till Easter? A year?”
“It occurred to me not to drink at all,” the doctor now says with relief; the guilty note is gone from his voice. “I woke up this morning and decided not to drink, but I didn’t have anyone to tell, because no one would believe me anyway. Since, as you know full well, Paweł, one drunkard can only be fully understood by another drunkard, I tried to tell my fellows in addiction, but they were all already drunk. So I came to the conclusion that a drunkard who’s decided to say goodbye to booze can only be understood by another drunkard who’s also decided to say goodbye to booze. Unfortunately, all day long I’ve not been able to find anyone like that in our neck of the woods. I see that I’ve come to you too late as well, Paweł.” The doctor slightly raised the hand that was covering the empty glass. “And it’s a great, great pity. I’m convinced it’s a fine idea—the only thing. After that a third drunkard would be found who also wanted to say goodbye to booze, then a fourth, a fifth, a hundredth, a ten thousandth. There’d be a whole army of drunkards supporting each other in not drinking. If you’d not had a drink today, Paweł, we’d go down in history as the founders of an worldwide movement. I feel so sorry. . .”
“Sorry for what?” asks Grandfather Kubica, still in a voice that isn’t his own. Not everything the doctor has said has gotten through to him, and what has gotten through is utterly staggering.
“Sorry for Poland,” says the doctor bitterly. “Sorry most of all for Poland. Poland could have been the first, but this way America’s going to get there before us yet again.”
“America,” grandfather repeats mechanically, and he thinks of America, from where he returned ten years ago, and he thinks of the green-eyed Jennifer, the pastor’s daughter, with whom he twice went for a walk. They strolled down a path between two endless fields of corn; on the horizon was the Mississippi River, vast as an ocean. My grandfather didn’t understand what the green-eyed daughter of the pastor was saying to him, but he longed for her to confide in him about her intense emotions, to try and persuade him to stay for good, to tell him about the log cabin they would share, from the windows of which they would be able to see the great flowing Mississippi.
“I’m sorry for Poland,” repeated the doctor. “Sorry for life, sorry for us.”
“Either way, here or there, in Poland or in America, either way we’re going to die,” says my grandfather, and he sees the doctor’s hand not only capitulate and cease guarding the empty glass, but even, in an eloquent gesture, push it toward the almost full bottle of Baczewski.
And grandfather fills the doctor’s glass, and both of them drink, and both of them say:
“Good health, good health!”
The scale tips again, this time not in the direction of evil spirits: this time the scale tips in the direction of hell. The last glassful fills the measure and exceeds the measure. Old Kubica feels the vodka bursting his skull open.
“America, America,” he sputters; flecks of foam appear in the corners of his mouth. Yet he stands up with unexpected ease and walks toward the exit with an even tread. He forgets his sheepskin coat, which is draped over a chair like a shepherd’s hut that’s been demolished by a gale. My grandfather walks through the snow towards home in his black vest and his white shirt with the upright collar. The frost fills the measure and the frost exceeds the measure, and Old Kubica starts to shout, he starts to howl; terrible, terrible is his howling, he howls, the way I howled when the mafiosi appeared in my apartment along with the dark-complexioned poetess Alberta Lulaj.
When was this? It was never. Literature doesn’t exist, because that past does not exist and those stories do not exist. There’s only the present—a late evening in January 1932 or 1933. My grandfather reels and howls like an animal that’s being killed. They hear his howling from a long way off. They run down the hallway and across the unlit yard, place the ladder against the trapdoor to the loft, and agilely climb up, one after another, like a well-drilled fire brigade. When Old Kubica lurches into the yard, not even their breathing can be heard; he himself falls silent and starts to come to his senses. He’s standing in the same place where he stood in the morning; he’s standing in the same place, even though it’s impossible to stand in the same place twice. Old Kubica must be reading what I’m writing, because he says, as if he were repeating after me:
“It’s impossible to rub your face in the same snow twice. It’s impossible, but maybe, god-dammit, it is possible!”
He stands in the same place, and sets off down the same swept path toward the woodshed, and with the same movement he takes hold of the ax. The wooden door of the stable opens and closes, and now there is a terrifying silence. A minute, two, three, five minutes of terrifying silence and then, maybe close by or maybe far away, there comes a single dull sound, perhaps a horse’s hoof striking the ground, perhaps a pine tree splitting open on the distant slope of Ochodzita Mountain. More silence, several more seconds of silence, then immediately there comes a diabolic percussion and the stable door opens, a drum-roll sounds, someone tries to play an out-of-tune violin, someone hammers iron on iron, there is mad laughter and howling, and a cry from my grandfather, Old Kubica. He’s standing in the door of the stable; his white shirt and black vest are covered in blood. In one hand he grasps a torch; the other, raised to his shoulder, is holding up the severed head of Fuchs the chestnut mare. And he sets off walking; his pace quickens, he’s walking ever faster, he runs, he stumbles as he is running, and traces of blood and fire mark his faltering steps. Then all that can be seen is the flickering light of the torch climbing ever higher up the steep hillside. The wood needs to be burned, and the snow needs to be burned, and the world needs to be burned. And a moment later a fire, a great fire is upon the snow-covered mountains, it’s as if a single drop of blood had fallen from an angel’s wing. You’re not here, you’re not here, you’ll always be gone. On the lake, on the lake, there swims a white swan.