Translation

Literature

The Fall (Short Story)

The Fall

By Virgilio Piñera

We had scaled the three-thousand-foot mountain. Not to bury a capsule there at the peak, nor to raise the flag of the bold alpine climbers. After a few minutes, we began the descent. My companion followed me, bound, as is usual in these situations, by the same rope that ringed my waist. I figure we had descended exactly ninety-eight feet when one of my companion’s cleated boots glanced off a rock, causing him to lose his balance and somersault ahead of me. Since the rope wound between my legs, it jerked me hard, and to avoid being tossed over the edge, I had to twist around backwards. He, in turn, directed his fall to the spot I had just occupied. His decision was neither ridiculous nor absurd; on the contrary, he was responding to a profound understanding of those situations still unlisted in the manuals. The force of his movement caused a slight adjustment, and I suddenly saw my companion passing like a meteorite between my legs, and then the jolt from the rope—fastened, as I mentioned, to his back—turned me around into my original position of descent. He, undoubtedly obeying the same physical laws as I, and having traveled the distance permitted by the rope, was flipped over backwards, which naturally brought us face to face. We didn’t say a word, but both of us knew that the headlong fall was inevitable. And so it happened that, after an indefinite period of time, we began to fall. Because my sole concern was to avoid losing my eyes, I put all my effort into preserving them from the terrible effects of the fall. As for my companion, his only worry was that his beautiful beard—colored an admirable gray like gothic glass—reach the plain intact, not even slightly dusty. So, with utmost determination, I covered the bearded portion of his face with my hands; he, in turn, placed his hands over my eyes. Our velocity was increasing by the second, as is required in these cases of bodies falling through space. Suddenly, I looked through the slight spaces between his fingers and saw a sharp rock raze the top of his head. Suddenly, I had to turn my own head to confirm that my legs had been separated from my torso by a rock, possibly of calcareous origin, whose serrated edge severed anything that came against it with the perfection of a saw used in the construction of ocean liners. With some effort, it is only fair to admit, we were saving my companion, his beautiful beard, and me, my eyes. It is true that now and then—every fifty feet or so, as I calculate it—a part of our bodies would be separated from us. For example, during five such intervals, we lost my companion, his left ear, his right elbow, a leg (I don’t remember which), his testicles, and his nose; I, the upper part of my thorax, my spinal cord, my left eyebrow, my left ear, and my jugular vein. But this is nothing compared to what followed. A thousand feet above the plain, all we had left respectively was the following: my companion, his two hands (only to the carpal bones) and his beautiful gray beard; I, my two hands (also only to the carpus) and my eyes. A slight fear began to possess us. What if our hands were torn away by another boulder? We kept falling. Approximately ten feet above the plain, a pole left out by a worker capriciously caught the hands of my companion. Seeing my orphaned eyes left totally unprotected, I must confess with eternal, unforgettable shame, I withdrew my hands from his beautiful gray beard to protect my eyes from any impact. I was unable to cover them, for my hands were immediately caught in the same fashion by another pole pointing in a different direction from the aforementioned pole, at which point we were separated from each other for the first time during the entire descent. But I couldn’t complain; my eyes landed safe and sound on the grassy plain and could see, a little ways off, the beautiful gray beard of my companion, shining in all its glory.

1944


This story is an excerpt from Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera, translated by Mark Schafer.

Virgilio Piñera (August 4, 1912, Cárdenas, Cuba—October 18, 1979, Havana) was a playwright, short-story writer, poet, and essayist who became famous for his work as well as for his highly bohemian lifestyle. His best collections are Cuentos Fríos (1956, Cold Tales) and Pequeñas maniobras (1963, Little Maneuvers). Piñera’s stories blend the fantastic with the grotesque, with touches of paranoia, and even with madness. [via Britannica

Mark Schafer has translated poetry, novels, short stories, and essays by many Latin American authors, including Alberto Ruy Sánchez, Virgilio Piñera, Jesús Gardea, Antonio José Ponte, and Sonia Rivera-Valdés.

Featured image from the series “Sick City” by John Brian King.

Literature

The Autopsy (Short Story)

The Autopsy

by Georg Heym

The dead man lay alone and naked on a white table in the big room, in the oppressive whiteness, the cruel sobriety of the operating theatre, where the cries of endless torments still seemed to tremble.

The midday sun covered him, and awakened the death-spots on his forehead; it conjured a bright green out of his naked belly and blew it up like a big water-bag.

His body was like a giant shimmering calyx, a mysterious plant from the Indian jungles, which someone had nervously laid at the altar of death.

Splendid red and blue colours grew along his loins, and in the heat the big wound under his navel slowly split like a furrow, releasing a terrible odour.

The doctors came in. Two friendly men in white coats with duelling scars and golden pince-nez.

They approached the dead man, and looked him over with interest, talking in scientific terms.

The took their dissecting equipment out of the white cupboards, white boxes full of hammers, bone-saws with strong teeth, files, gruesome batteries of forceps, small sets of giant needles like crooked vultures’ beaks forever screaming for flesh.

The began their ghastly handiwork, looking like fearsome torturers, with blood streaming over their hands. They delved ever deeper into the cold corpse, and brought forth its inside like white cooks disembowelling a goose.

The intestines wound around their arms, greenish-yellow snakes, and the excrement dripped onto their coats, a warm, foul fluid. They punctured the bladder; the cold urine shimmered inside like yellow wine. They poured it into large bowls; it had a sharp, biting stench like ammonia.

But the dead man slept. He patiently allowed himself to be torn at and pulled about by the hair, this way and that; he slept.

And while the hammer-blows rang down on his head, a dream awakened in him, a remnant of love which shone into his light like a torch.

Outside the big window, a great wide sky opened up, filled with little clouds swimming in light in the stillness of the afternoon, like small white gods. And the swallows circled high above in the blue, shimmering in the warm July sun.

The black blood of death ran over the blue decay of his forehead. It evaporated in the heat into a horrible cloud, and the dissolution of death crawled with its gaudy claws all over him. His skin began to fall apart. His belly grew as white as that of an eel under the greedy fingers of the doctors who dipped their arms elbow-deep in his wet flesh.

Decay pulled the dead man’s mouth apart, he seemed to be smiling; he was dreaming of a glorious star, a sweet-smelling summer evening. His decomposing lips trembled, as if touched by a fleeting kiss.

“How I love you! I have loved you so much. Shall I tell you how I love you? As you moved through the fields of poppies, yourself a flame-red fragrant poppy, the whole evening was swallowed up in you. And your dress, which billowed around your ankles, was like a wave of fire in the setting sun. But your head bent in the light, and your hair was still burning and flaming from all my kisses.

“So you went on your way, turning all the time to look at me. And the lantern swayed in your hand like a glowing rose far off into the twilight.

“I shall see you again tomorrow. Here under the chapel window, here where the candlelight falls from within, turning your hair into a golden wood, here where the narcissi brush your ankles like delicate kisses.

“I shall see you again every evening at twilight. We shall never leave each other. How I love you! Shall I tell you how I love you?”

And the dead man trembled softly with happiness on his white table, while the iron chisels in the doctors’ hands broke open his temples.


This story is an excerpt from The Thief and Other Stories, by Georg Heym.

Georg Heym (1887–1912) was the son of a Prussian military lawyer and rebelled against his conservative family to become one of the outstanding poets of the Expressionist generation in Germany. His first volume of poetry, Der ewige Tag, was published in 1911 to great acclaim. In January 1912 Georg Heym drowned when he fell through the ice while skating on the Havel river in Berlin.

Susan Bennett is a freelance filmmaker, writer, and translator.

Literature, Publishing

A Dandy in Aspic: Review of “Monsieur de Bougrelon”

Contemporary caricature of Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly by “L’Héritier” (Romain Thomas)

Contemporary caricature of Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly by “L’Héritier” (Romain Thomas)

Head on over to STRANGE FLOWERS for James J. Conway’s remarkable writing on the most “eccentric, extravagant and extraordinary” personalities of the last 200 years. One of these extravagant dandies is Jean Lorrain, author of Monsieur de Bougrelon. Conway has written about Lorrain before, and his review of Spurl’s forthcoming translation is both insightful and entertaining:

But as his siècle hastened to its fin, Lorrain wasn’t going to cede the floor before offering a minor (and perhaps not even that minor) masterpiece: Monsieur de Bougrelon.
Monsieur de Bougrelon is the original dandy in aspic. Lorrain’s book is an archive that arrests life at its moment of greatest beauty, preserved in vitrines, suspended in solutions, arrayed in filigree caskets like saintly femurs and the many foreskins of Christ.
It is a reliquary, in other words, and this is precisely the term that the astute Rachilde, loyal companion to Lorrain and fellow adherent of Barbey d’Aurevilly, applied to Monsieur de Bougrelon. The Decadent’s very vocabulary is a collection of lexical curios, recherché jewels here lovingly transferred to an English setting.
It’s a singular and intoxicating experience that ends all too soon. When the ‘old puppet’ departs the stage, you may well elect, as I did, to leaf straight back to the Café Manchester and wait for his silhouette to fill the doorway once more.

And of course we love this sentiment about our books: “These prose works come with the thick black frame of a cigarette health warning or Sicilian funeral notice.

“Caveat lector.”

Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain
14.00

Trade paperback, 128 pages, translated from French with an afterword by Eva Richter. Free domestic shipping.

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Literature

Oh Serafina! A Fable of Ecology, Lunacy, and Love (Fiction)

Excerpt from Oh Serafina!

by Giuseppe Berto

translated by Gregory Conti

From CHAPTER THE FOURTH

In which, as Signora Palmira
remains rather frustrated,
another character leaves us.

He left, as is only natural, for his wedding journey. He had told the bride that, for their honeymoon, they would be going to the city of the Saint, and she had asked him if by chance he was referring to Padua, the city of Saint Anthony, which she had never seen but which she didn’t have much desire to see, and he had replied that it wasn’t Padua, and so she, a bit audaciously, had thought of San Remo, where at that very time they would be holding the Song Festival that ever since she was a little girl she had watched on TV, all three nights, before some obscure oversight committee had imposed on an entire country to do without two of the three. There, she thought, her strange and in many ways gloomy husband, by taking her to San Remo for the Festival, was fighting the arrogant callousness of people who, their own hearts having hardened, wanted everyone else’s to harden too. Fascists, Palmira called them, even though now, by matrimony and wealth, she was no longer a proletarian.

But, instead of San Remo, the city of the popular songs, Signora Palmira came to find herself in the city of Saint Francis of the downtrodden, Assisi, where, shit, there was a festival of sacred music going on.

However, it wasn’t for the sacred music that Augustus the Second had made the long journey to a place that was, all in all, out of the way, nor for the olive trees that “made the slopes pallid and smiling with sanctity,” nor for the clear sky and breathable air. He had pushed himself all the way there for the sole purpose of admiring, in person and up close, the famous painting by Giotto whose photographic reproduction he had hung in the Administration, on the wall opposite his desk.

Indeed, upon their arrival in the town so sweetly perched on its hills, Augustus the Second, even before going to drop their bags at the “Sister Moon” pension, where he had reserved a double room with bath, ran, holding his recent bride by the hand, to steal his way into the Upper Basilica, where he effortlessly discovered his painting. Nobody had ever told him so, but he knew that it was right there where indeed it was.

He stood before it, immediately fascinated, but then also a bit amazed and bewildered, not so much because of the extraordinary nature of the deed represented, for to him there was nothing extraordinary about it, but rather because, voila!, through the art of a consummate painter, something so fundamentally normal as chatting with a few songbirds was portrayed as sacred, or even miraculous, and in the end he felt, not without trepidation, caught up in the sacredness. And as this sort of spiritual uplift pervaded him, he kept on holding his recent bride by the hand, maybe out of distraction, or maybe because unconsciously he was hoping that even she, perhaps helped in some way by the flux of emotion that he himself was undoubtedly emanating, would rise to the sphere of superior perception and supernatural relation that we are accustomed to calling mysticism. But Signora Palmira, on account of her nature and constitution, was not cut out for such celestial journeys, and anyway the thing couldn’t even get off the ground due to the intervention of a humble Franciscan friar who came to say, so the lady was dressed in a way that was a bit too revealing, fine; so instead of praying she was constantly working her chewing gum, fine; but the transistor radio, crackling with the silly songs of that profane festival, had better be turned off.

“If that’s the way it is, we’ll go outside,” replied Palmira, full of decorum, and she put the accent on “we” so the little friar would understand that she would also be depriving the cult of Saint Francis of her husband who, if he had married her without so much as discussing it, must be the kind of jerk who did everything other people wanted him to do.

But her husband, without taking his eyes off of the sacred painting, replied, “You go outside, and don’t break my balls.”

Signora Palmira looked at him, at first incredulous but then very quickly indignant, hating him more than she had hated him up to that moment, because she could see perfectly well that the jerk would not be moved. So she stiffened her back and, still working her gum and listening to the radio, went out to the square in front of the church where, little by little, her anger waning but her self-pity waxing, she began to think that their marriage, which she had firmly desired not to say plotted for, might actually be a calamity if the man she married, instead of taking her to the San Remo Festival, had brought her to this place for losers that made her feel so sad.

Eight days they stayed in Assisi, and she never again set foot in the Basilica, where that friar had treated her so discourteously. She stayed in bed with her trusty radio and her thoughts, or, still listening to the radio but with fewer bad thoughts, she would go sit in the sun at a table in some outdoor café.

He, on the other hand, outfitted with a hunting stool he had bought for himself, spent the whole day, until the light grew too dim, sitting in front of his fresco, apparently a dullard but actually searching, although confusedly and at bottom without a lot of torment, a more uplifting justification for having found himself in the world talking to birds. Who knows, maybe he would have managed to find that more uplifting justification, or rather, in plain words, he might at least have gotten closer to his own state of holiness, but for the fact that in him, as in any other being, but in a form certainly more exalted and distinct, there was both good and evil, the wolf and the little boy, so that, after all that daytime uplift, when darkness fell, in a sort of schizophrenic dichotomy, he was overcome with lust and wantonness. So, in the double-room with bath at the pension “Sister Moon,” he threw himself like a mad man on the body of his bride.

He relished that body to the point of delirium, not only its perfectly modeled buttocks, but also everything about it that was soft and curvaceous. And there was plenty to relish. Abundant, firm breasts, round tummy, raised pubic mound, glorious hips, shoulders and arms and feet. He gazed at it, caressed it, kissed it, licked it, all the while emitting sounds of sensual gratification.

The bride, gum in her mouth and radio at her ear, let him do as he wished. Only sometimes, when it seemed to her that he was dragging things out a little too much, she would intervene to ask, “But when are we going back home? We can’t spend all this time away from the factory!”

“Signorina Rosa will look after the factory,” he answered, still grazing.

And she took offense. “She’s deaf, blind, old, and brainless. What do you mean she’ll look after the factory.”

“She’ll look after it. She knows how things were done in my grandfather’s time, bless his soul.”

Signora Palmira would have liked to tell him exactly what she thought about his blessed grandfather and his entire family of nut cases, but she held back, waiting for a more opportune time. She felt, how to put it, as though she were expanding.

Anyway, the time eventually came for them to head home.

As soon as they arrived, Augustus the Second went to the door of the bedroom where his mother had shut herself in, and said, “I’m back, Mama. Everything went fine.”

He got, obviously, no response.

Signora Belinda, as everyone knew by now, was not doing well at all. Her personal physician, Doctor Bardi, had come to examine her a few days ago and he was worried. Unable to come up with a diagnosis, he had advised hospitalization, but the patient had said no, and had refused to allow the doctor to examine her again. So her personal physician was kept outside the door too, asking her questions that never got an answer: Had she had a bowel movement? Did she have a fever? Feel pain, nausea, dizziness? Nothing.

A few days later, however, she sent for her son. She didn’t even look at him. She waited for him to come to the side of the bed, and said to him, “You’re the one who wanted me to die.”

Augustus the Second did not comment.

After a long pause, Signora Belinda added, “Your father was a halfwit, you’re a total nitwit, and your wife is a whore.”

Even then Augustus the Second made no comment.

Signora Belinda let an even longer silence go by, summoned her energies, and concluded, “The child that will be born is not yours. The father is Carlo Vigeva. And now, get out of here, let me die in peace.”

She died during the night, without any further disturbance.


Giuseppe Berto (1914-1978) started writing novels when he was a prisoner of war in Hereford, Texas, from 1943 to 1946. He went on to write some seven novels, as well plays and many screenplays, including several based on his own novels. He won all of Italy’s major literary awards, two of them in the same year for his masterpiece Il male oscuro (1964). All of his novels except La gloria (1978) and Oh, Serafina! (1973) have also been published in English.

Gregory Conti recently translated The Fault Line: Traveling the Other Europe, From Finland to Ukraine, published by Rizzoli Ex Libris. In addition, Conti has translated works by Rosetta Loy, Mario Rigoni Stern, Tiziano Scarpa, and Alessandro Barbero. After growing up in Pittsburgh and studying at Notre Dame (B.A. in American Studies, 1974), at Yale (M.A. Am. Studies, 1976), and at Yale Law School (J.D., 1980), he immigrated to Italy and now teaches at the University of Perugia. Follow his work on his website

Literature

The Diving Bell (poem)

The Diving Bell

by Maurice Maeterlinck

Lo, the diver, forever within his bell!
And a whole sea of glass, a sea eternally warm!
A whole motionless world, a world of slow green rhythms!
So many curious creatures beyond those walls of glass,
And any contact eternally prohibited!
And yet there is so much life in those bright waters yonder!

Look! The shadows of great sailing-ships
           —they glide over the flowers, the dahlias of the submarine forest!
And I stand for a moment in the shadow of whales that are voyaging to the Pole!
And at this very moment, I doubt not, my fellow-men in the harbour
Are discharging the vessels that sail hither laden with ice:
A glacier was there, in the midst of the July meadows!
And men are swimming and floating in the green waters of the creek,
And at noon they enter shadowy cav­erns . . .
And the breezes of ocean are fanning the roofs and balconies.

Lo, the flaming tongues of the Gulf­-Stream!
Take heed lest their kisses touch the walls of lassitude!
They have ceased to lay ice on the brows of the fevered
And the patients have lit a bonfire
And are casting great handfuls of green lilies into the flames!
Lean your brows upon the cooler panes,
While waiting for the moonlight to enter the bell from above.
And close your eyes tightly, to the forest of colour,
The pendulous blues and albuminous violets.
And close your ears to the suggestions of the tepid water.

Dry the brows of your desires; they are weak with sweat.
Go firstly to those on the point of swooning.
They have the air of people celebrating a wedding in a dungeon,
Or of people entering, at mid-day, a long lamp-lit avenue underground,
In festival procession they are passing
Thro' a landscape like an orphaned child­hood,
Go now to those about to die:
They move like virgins who have wandered far
In the sun, on a day of fast,
They are pale as patients who placidly listen to the rain in the gardens of the hospital;
They have the look of survivors, breaking their fast on a battle-field;
They are like prisoners who know that all their gaolers are bathing in the river,
And who hear men mowing the grass in the garden of the prison.

Translated by Bernard Miall in Poems by Maurice Maeterlinck, published 1915.


Cloche à plongeur

Ô plongeur à jamais sous sa cloche !
Toute une mer de verre éternellement chaude !
Toute une vie immobile aux lents pendules verts !
Et tant d'êtres étranges à travers les parois !
Et tout attouchement à jamais interdit !
Lorsqu'il y a tant de vie en l'eau claire au dehors !
 
Attention ! l'ombre des grands voiliers passe sur les dahlias des forêts sous-marines;
Et je suis un moment à l'ombre des baleines qui s'en vont vers le pôle !
 
En ce moment, les autres déchargent, sans doute, des vaisseaux pleins de neige dans le port !
Il y avait encore un glacier au milieu des prairies de Juillet !
Ils nagent à reculons en l'eau verte de l'anse !
Ils entrent à midi dans des grottes obscures !
Et les brises du large éventrent les terrasses !
 
Attention ! voici les langues en flamme du Gulf-Stream !
Écartez leurs baisers des parois de l'ennui !
On n'a plus mis de neige sur le front des fiévreux ;
Les malades ont allumé un feu de joie,
Et jettent à pleines mains les lys verts dans les flammes !
 
Appuyez votre front aux parois les moins chaudes,
En attendant la lune au sommet de la cloche,
Et fermez bien vos yeux aux forêts de pendules bleus et d'albumines violettes, en restant sourd aux suggestions de l'eau tiède.
 
Essuyez vos désirs affaiblis de sueurs ;
Allez d'abord à ceux qui vont s'épanouir :
Ils ont l'air de célébrer une fête nuptiale dans une cave ;
Ils ont l'air d'enterrer à midi, dans une avenue éclairée de lampes au fond d'un souterrain ;
Ils traversent, en cortège de fête, un paysage semblable à une enfance d'orphelin.
 
Allez ensuite à ceux qui vont mourir.
Ils arrivent comme des vierges qui ont fait une longue promenade au soleil, un jour de jeûne ;
Ils sont pâles comme des malades qui écoutent pleuvoir placidement sur les jardins de l'hôpital;
Ils ont l'aspect de survivants qui déjeunent sur le champ de bataille.
Ils sont pareils à des prisonniers qui n'ignorent pas que tous les geôliers se baignent dans le fleuve,
Et qui entendent faucher l'herbe dans le jardin de la prison.


For more French Decadence, sign up to be notified when Monsieur de Bougrelon releases!

And read Richard Howard’s translation of Maurice Maeterlinck.

Literature

The Port (fiction)

The Port
by Llucia Ramis
translated by Megan Berkobien

Alfred Kubin:  The Moment of Birth , 1903; Shepherd W & K Galleries

Alfred Kubin: The Moment of Birth, 1903; Shepherd W & K Galleries

 One

I remember a hedgehog devoured by ants; we found it near the house and wanted to feed it milk from the tetra-brik carton. It was dead by morning. I remember my brother wanted to see what an ant tasted like because the Chinese eat them, so he popped a live one in his mouth and spit it out because it stung. I remember my cousin pulled out a dock tire at the pier and that a crab jumped out, she got scared and let go and it crushed the crab, it pushed the guts right out through its mouth, sprtz. Afterward we hurled the body into the water and watched it float. I remember the time I grabbed a log and pinched a lizard hiding underneath; I could swear it cried out. We spent some time observing that detached tail, my cousin, brother, and I.

I don’t come here often and these memories have nothing to do with nostalgia.

Two

At night I would imagine I lived in a boarding house. I’d pretend my parents had just died and I was the new girl. Covered snugly by the comforter, in a room I didn’t share, not even with my brother, I’d invent other beds nearby with girls breathing softly in them. It made me sad when they misbehaved, and the teachers were awful, too. So I plotted my escape. Night after night I fantasized about being a poor orphan who fantasized about escaping. Afterward mamà would come give me a kiss goodnight, she smelled like night cream, and I’d fall asleep. In the morning she’d whistle to us from the hallway as if we were birds. She’d come into my room and pull up the blinds then go into my brother’s to do the same.

Three

She caught me peeing standing up, with one leg on either side of the toilet. She asked: what are you doing? I answered: I’m in training. She wanted to know what for. I told her since I’d be a boy when I got older that I needed to prepare myself. My mom, mumare, didn’t understand anything. I had to explain that when you’re born a girl, you turn into a boy at fourteen; just like if you’re born a boy, your sex changes then, too. She said no, her eyes as wide as saucers. What do you mean no? It isn’t like that, she insisted. I thought she was just treating me like I was stupid and I reminded her that my older cousin had been a boy before growing up. Mumare denied it; your cousin has always been a woman. I got mad, how could she say otherwise with evidence like that, I remembered perfectly well that my older cousin had been a boy and that his name was Joan. Mumare, astonished, laughed under her breath, but I noticed and demanded to know why she was laughing, what was so funny, why did she want to trick me about something like this, what did she think, that I didn’t remember, or maybe she thought I was an idiot. She told me I couldn’t say that word. Idiot, idiot, idiot, I repeated. And afterward I ran away so she couldn’t spank me with a slipper.

Four

I stopped feeling at age eleven, one day while coming home from school with Begoñita. We called her that because she only stood five feet from the ground. Really, she wasn’t my friend at all, but we were in the same class and she lived close to my bus stop, that’s why we went to school together. Sometimes I ditched her because her stories were boring and she always insisted we eat our afternoon snack at her house. Begoñita was really poor, or at least I thought so. She lived in an awful apartment with her sisters, a dog, four cats, six fish, two canaries, and a chameleon. That house smelled, everything was covered in hair and the blinds were always closed. I only saw her mother once, and now I realize she was drunk. My head always itched when I left her house. When I got home I would take a bath right away. I’d tell my parents that there had been an extra gym class; if I tell the truth, they’ll punish me for being prissy.

Five

We’d play superheroes at recess. We’d tie our school smocks around our necks like capes and pretend we were sixteen because then we could have boyfriends. We invented our own Prince Charmings, usually movie stars like Superman. Paula was really tall and clumsy, just hideous. She had a patch glued to one of the thick lenses of her glasses. Her hair was frizzy and grey, and she had long fingernails. Her teeth small with gaps in-between. She had a lisp. We called her “the witch” behind her back, but she was our friend. If she turned into a creature, she’d easily be a snake. One day she said she’d be the boy.

Six

The man hit her accidentally; afterward, he kept running without even acknowledging us. “Shit!” Begoñita cried out, which embarrassed me a little because we couldn’t use that word at home. She suddenly realized that her hand was bleeding. I didn’t know what to do; it grossed me out. She was crying from shock. To me it was the dirty blood of dogs, of cats or fish, of fur, chameleon or canary blood. It made me sick. A woman came over to see what had happened. She asked where Begoñita’s parents were, what insurance she had, things Begoñita didn’t know. She said she’d take her to the emergency room. Begoñita kept asking me not to leave her all alone. At eleven, I answered, very seriously, “No, Begoñita, I’ve got to go, my parents will get worried if I miss the bus. This woman’ll take care of you.” And I left her like that, with a stranger.

Seven

Do you want to get married? Wrapped up in my legs, both of us lying on a bed of white sheets, sweaty and naked—it was summer—he uses those words that so overwhelm me. I respond that the time for stupid questions is from six to six fifteen in the morning and now he has to take me home. I remember his name, but I won’t write it down just in case. Just in case his written presence is still as resounding as it is in my memory of that night.

I knew one day I would tell him yes. We’ll never meet again.

Eight

Yellow crates for hauling glass bottles. Our checkered butts sitting on those crates, Would you like some more coffee? We’d play house and I was always the guest. Yes, per favor. My knees, fully bent; the hammocks, our fort. Sometimes, the dolls too, but we didn’t usually play with dolls. And grandmother’s biscuits.


Nine

Is that a hand over there? It was my cousin who found it. We ran over to the rocks in flip-flops. The man reeked of fish and flies swarmed around his neck. His head was gone. I don’t remember us screaming or running away, or how we wanted to touch him with a stick. I don’t remember who we went to tell about it or when. I only know that the police came because they told me so afterward, and that I wet the bed that night. I was a big girl by then, already nine.

Now it’s my body that floats.


Llucia Ramis (1977) was born in Majorca, and moved to Barcelona when she was eighteen to study journalism at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Since then she has worked in radio, as editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Quimera, and at the newspaper Diario de Mallorca. She also directed and presented Això no és Islàndia (This isn’t Iceland), a television program about books. She has shared an apartment with fourteen people—not all at once, but almost. Ramis is a columnist for El Mundo and El Periódico. She has published three novels, the first of which, Things that Happen to You in Barcelona When You’re Thirty (2008), is now available as an e-book in English. Her second novel, Egosurfing, won the Josep Pla Award in 2010. Her latest project, Tot allò que una tarda morí amb les bicicletes (2013), traces her own journey home and has received wide critical acclaim. Follow her on twitter @lluciaramis

Megan Berkobien is pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Words without Borders, and Palabras Errantes, to name a few. When she isn't translating or teaching, she's trying to complete her dissertation on modernist periodicals and museums in late nineteenth-century Catalonia. She recently founded the Emerging Translators Collective.

Literature

The Book of Friends (aphorisms)

From The Book of Friends

by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

translated by Douglas Robertson

Of all the passions, the one we are most ignorant of is indolence: although its violence is imperceptible, it is the most ardent and the most cunning of all of them. — La Rochefoucauld*

There are not two people on earth who could not be rendered mortal enemies through a devilishly contrived indiscretion.

The consoler brags lightly.

The problem of family life consists in this: that the legal presence of people of diverse characters and ages is bound to become essentially a collective presence thanks to their shared mode of living.

Beloved people are sketches of possible paintings.

There is nothing more uncommon in the world than will, and yet the meager quantum of will allotted to human beings suffices to overturn all their judgments.

All fashionable vices pass for virtues. — Molière

The social world can and may be understood only allegorically. In this way the entire social world of the modern age (from La Bruyère and Madame Sévigné onwards) may be comprehended as a single great mythology.

There are as many individuals as there are encounters.

The renunciation of a mistress bespeaks a flagging imagination.

Every significant new acquaintance takes us apart and puts us back together. It is of the greatest significance, so we undergo a regeneration.

Visitors to Athens, after a few days spent in familiar conversation with Plato, ask him to lead them to his namesake, the famous philosopher.

The greatest things need only be spoken simply: they are spoiled by emphasis. The most trivial must be spoken nobly: they endure only by means of expression, tone, and manner. — La Bruyère

Children are amusing because they are easy to amuse.

In superior human beings there are a productive and an unproductive form of indolence, and they flow together into a region that eludes the eye, a region seemingly without clear borders.

What love stimulates in fits and starts is plastic energy. Hence in love as in art are there so many abandoned rough drafts that lack the energy needed for their completion.

What one does simply is simple to do. — Wladimir Ghika

Vocal music is miraculous because it consists in domesticating what is by default an organ of unbridled egoism: the human voice.

[…]

Depth must be concealed. Where? On the surface.

The world tolerates scoundrels, but only extraordinary people satisfy it.
The in-between are in a difficult position and bear a bad conscience easily.

Simple characters, not complex ones, are hard to understand.

The most dangerous of our prejudices prevail within ourselves against ourselves. Their dissolution is the creative act.

Reality is unchangingly near.

The most dangerous adversary of strength is weakness.

It takes a whole life to perceive how thingishly, objectively, things behave; and how humanly, subjectively, human beings do.

It was not through the categorical imperative, which is always on everybody’s lips, that Kant exerted such a powerful influence on generation after generation, but rather through his criticism, in which the shyness, the worldlessness, of the Germans found its abstract expression.

Forms enliven and kill.

Even this is an element of inner freedom; the youth in us must be swept away by the grown man, the grown man by the old one, the maiden by the woman of middle age: there is only one priest at the shrine.

All that is living is fluid, but fluidity is not the form of life. — Rudolf Pannwitz

Even the perception of differences between ourselves and others requires a moment of elevation.

There is an enthusiasm arising from weakness and another arising from strength; the first is akin to sentimentality, the second is opposite from it.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. — William Blake

* Hugo von Hofmannsthal quoted the French aphorisms in their original language.


Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), an Austrian writer of the late empire and the first republic, began his literary career as an accomplished lyric poet much influenced by French symbolism and Jugendstil (the German name for art nouveau). In English-speaking countries he is best known for his later activity as the librettist of six of Richard Strauss’s operas and the author of The Lord Chandos Letter (1902), an anti-poetics of modernism in the form of a fictional letter to the founder of modern empirical science, Francis Bacon. Like The Lord Chandos Letter, The Book of Friends takes the early modern period as its starting point: its title is a literal translation of album amicorum, the name for a kind of scrapbook in which young gentlemen of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries would collect signatures, witticisms, and other mementos from people they met on their travels. The friends in Hofmannsthal’s album amicorum are writers that he has come to know in his years as a reader; in terms of geographical and historical distance they range from Confucius and Plato to his fellow-Austrian Franz Grillparzer and his contemporary André Gide. He intersperses quotations from their works with his own typically cagey but often insinuatingly incisive aphorisms. The juxtaposition of such a diverse collection of thinkers under the conceptual auspices of friendship can be either encouraging or disquieting, depending on whether one views Hofmannsthal’s inescapable implication that the human world has always been a highly bewildering place in a positive or a negative light.

Douglas Robertson is a writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland.  His translations of other texts, including many of the works of Thomas Bernhard, may be read at his blog, The Philosophical Worldview Artist. His complete translation of The Book of Friends can be found here.

Literature

Don’t Burn Stairs (Non-Fiction)

DON’T BURN STAIRS

by WOJCIECH TOCHMAN

translated by FRANK GARRETT

1

Mr. and Mrs. R. were farmers. They lived quietly, farming the land, raising poultry, cattle, and pigs—all little by little according to their own needs. Their small, healthy baby was already running in the yard when a second arrived in their world.

The midwife cried out in horror. The newborn in her hands didn’t look human. The villagers were to talk about it for years to come though nobody outside the family (except the midwife) ever saw the baby. Even the mother (hereafter we shall refer to her as “the biological mother”) did not examine him carefully. (We know nothing of the father’s reaction.) Right away an ambulance drove into the yard, and the doctor carried the boy away to Krakow.

But trouble has not left this mountain village; on the contrary, things have grown worse. People have whispered across their fences, “He had a huge, wrinkled head. Bulging eyes without lids. Frog fingers. And scales over his entire body like a fish.”

They knew that such ugliness could not come from God.

They grew alarmed when their cows stopped giving milk.

 

2

It’s been six years already since the boy was born. The doctors are still unable to say why he’s so ugly, but the consensus is that he is both blind and mute. That he will never be able to sit up or walk. One day he is sure to fall asleep and never wake up again.

They sent the boy to a children’s home. All the workers there came running to look: the janitor came from the furnace and supposedly fainted, the head governess felt a sharp pain in her chest, and the others had nightmares for a week. The women at the orphanage feared the boy, especially when they had to touch him. They drew lots to determine who would feed and bathe him.

The boy looked like he didn’t have ears at all: they were little and hairy. And he had a huge mouth, and what he couldn’t manage to swallow would spill out of it. Because he lacked eyelids, his eyes threatened to dry out—it was necessary to put drops in them every two hours. Though he didn’t have either frog fingers or fish scales, he still looked like a monster. That’s how they talked about him at the orphanage: monster or just freak. “I was scared that he would bite my throat in two,” relates the governess in charge of infants. Bathing another child, she says, “This child here isn’t missing out on anything; he’s pink and sweet smelling, but his mother still rejected him. Women have reasons for dropping their kids here: that girl’s mom ate a hole in the door, that boy’s mom is still in school, and the mother of that one lying under the window—she wanted to go out and see the world. The ugly boy probably thinks these kids have it just fine. Nobody’s scared of them. Someday they’ll find a new family and be loved.”

But the boy was still too small to understand what was happening to him. He didn’t ever sit up, didn’t speak, didn’t react to anything. He was closed, distrustful, quiet, as if he didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. He lay peacefully like that when his biological mother came to visit. (It appears the father never came.) The woman stood weeping over the cot for a long time. Although the orphanage workers didn’t like the parents who had cast off their own children, they were forgiving of this woman: “It’s good that she put him here,” they said. “Here you have the city and its doctors.”

The biological mother came several more times to the children’s home. During her last visit (when she went through the remaining paperwork), she already didn’t want to see her son. She stopped coming before the little guy began to comprehend what was going on.

Everyone at the orphanage was convinced that the ugly boy would never find a new family. When he gets a little bigger, he’ll go to the asylum. And that’s what began worrying the workers at the children’s home. Because they had started to love the boy. They called him Matthew.

 

3

Doctors often wanted to check out Matthew when he went to the hospital. They observed him thoughtfully: they measured him, they weighed him, and they stared into his eyes. It appeared as though he saw with difficulty because he had a nystagmus. They made lots of notes and took photographs. Although they could already diagnose his illness—Ablepharon macrostomia syndrome, or AMS, a condition characterized by a lack of eyelids and a huge mouth—they were unable to say anything more.

There is almost no professional literature on the subject.

We know that medicine has recorded only fifty such cases throughout its entire history. Surely more such children have been born, but none of them made it to a doctor. Specific descriptions of the disease exist: first from 1883, then from 1920, 1922, 1950, 1962, 1977, and 1985, among others. The disease takes its name from the surname of one of the authors from the McCarthy Group. These children lack eyelids, have large mouths and vestigial earlobes. Moreover, medical students have also documented these common characteristics among them: lack of hair, or thin and straggly hair; both eyes are congenitally crossed, no eyebrows; irregular frontal nostrils; small, underdeveloped teeth; cleft palates; expressionless face; rough, dry skin which appears bunched up, especially in the areas of the nape of the neck, buttocks, and feet; flat body or a diminished body near the navel; at times lacking a navel altogether; lacking nipples or having vestigial nipples; indefinite genitals with a small penis located in the posterior of the crotch, lacking a scrotum; indefinite and incomprehensible nasal speech; and mentally handicapped. Everything a result of genetic damage. But what kind of damage and why this boy—regrettably, medicine does not yet know.

All documented children had been rejected by their biological parents; none had found new families. But medical students registering these cases generally do not tell what became of these orphans: did they reach maturity? how long did they live?

Medicine knows nothing more.

 

4

In a small house not too far away from the orphanage live identical twins Renata and Dorota. They were settled into a life that, although it didn’t contain husbands, was full of children: Renata has Evelyn, and Dorota has Tommy and Claudia. Although the twins are just past thirty-four, the youngest of their children has just finished elementary school. In a year Evelyn will come of age. She is tall and pretty; she studies at the lyceum and is training in track and field. In two years she wants to take the entrance exam to the Physical Education Academy.

The twin Dorota is a sister of the Polish Red Cross, and every morning she takes care of the elderly who are alone. She says, “I work with those who are leaving the world, and Renata with those who are coming into the world.”

Renata is a nurse at the orphanage. More than once she brought children from there on a Sunday: there was little Chris with the giant head (who in the end, together with his twin brother, found a new family in Sweden); there was Jackie with the nystagmus, who got scared when something moved by him too fast (his grandmother took pity on him and took him in herself); there was Dominic—the next boy with a head like a balloon (he died in the hospital while Renata held his hand); and there was Matthew—the really ugly boy whom at first she feared like all the other women at the orphanage. “But Matthew grew,” they say today. “He began to move, to turn over on his stomach. Once I saw indentions on his motionless cheeks. He was smiling.”

Doctors didn’t know how to treat Matthew further. But so that he could eat normally, they stitched together a mouth for him from flaps of skin from his left and right cheeks. They sewed him upper and lower eyelids so he wouldn’t have to sleep wearing swimming goggles filled with gauze soaked in a physiological saline solution.

Then a young rehabilitation therapist came to the orphanage—Thomas Koloch. It was his first job: “In school I saw children burned from their feet to their head, and that was a terrible sight. So, when I saw Matthew, I was surprised, but not disgusted. It was a great deal more difficult to accept a different child who couldn’t hold his stool.”

The rehabilitation therapist decided to straighten Matthew’s contractural fingers: after several hours that turned into several days, Matthew was able to open and close his palms. The therapist then decided that Matthew should crawl. Then that he should sit. Then that he should stand and walk. Finally, that he should stop shuffling his feet and begin to raise his feet and walk like other people.

Achievements came with difficulty, but each was rewarded with joy from all the workers at the orphanage. And Matthew was surely glad because Renata was nearby the entire time: she stayed after hours (while she readied herself, the child listened, tapping out the rhythm of the music from the radio) or carried him off to her home. There for the first time everyone could understand his mumbled words. Yes, perhaps sometimes they were inconvenienced, but they always had time for him; they would patiently ask the boy how things were going.

When Renata wasn’t able to take him out, her daughter Evelyn would look in on him at the orphanage. She gladly played with Matthew: “It’s not important how he is on the outside because inside there’s something very good that I don’t know how to describe. There are paralyzed children or children with Down syndrome who don’t have it. I don’t know if I could get attached to them.”

Sometimes Dorota would come around to the orphanage as well. She’d take Matthew for walks. They’d go far into the grassy field, farther and farther from the home for orphans, the place the boy didn’t like. He already knew that there were other homes in the world even if it wasn’t the home where “Renacha and Dorocha” lived. That’s how he referred to the twins.

It was at their place that he saw a whole loaf of bread for the first time.

He decorated a Christmas tree for the first time (in the orphanage the staff was in charge of decorating the tree), and he was able to pick off his own candy canes; one, two, ten (in the orphanage the Christmas tree was so tall that no child could reach the candy).

Here he could go out in front of the house in the evening with Renata and between the trees see the moon for the first time. He was amazed.

And he was amazed with the cars at night. “They have eyes,” he said merrily.

At Renata’s house he stopped wearing diapers.

But these visits couldn’t last long. Renata wasn’t a relative, so he was with her illegally.

 

5

Last summer Matthew left with Renata on a completely authorized vacation. They spent nearly two months together in Żmiąca, a village in the Tatra Mountains near Limanowa. There atop a high mountain stands a large house where a swarm of small children from several Krakow orphanages spend the summer. When some kid got injured, Renata would tend to the wounds since she was still on the clock.

Evelyn also went to Żmiąca, and when her mom was busy in the office, she would entertain Matthew. But on the days she went to Krakow, she was too tired. After a week she would return again from the city.

“Mama came to her decision behind the office doors.”

Dorota also came for a visit to that high mountaintop on Matthew’s fifth birthday. She brought cake and candles. She observed her sister carefully, how she thoughtfully took care of the boy. She answered Renata’s question that had remained entirely unspoken (illustrating the fact that twins can understand one another without words): “He must be ours.”

At that moment Renata was thankful. She thought, “My sister will support me. Because when I take Matthew for good, the orphanage can no longer help out.”

Renata asked her sister, “What do you think?”

Evelyn had her doubts. “Do you know what risks you’re taking on? He won’t always be so small and so sweet. And what happens when you die?”

To this Renata replied, “I think about it as well. But would you have the conscience to leave him this way? He’ll wind up in the poorhouse.”

On such a set matter Evelyn could only say, “As you wish.”

Matthew didn’t return to the orphanage. In the offices everything was settled in a flash: Renata would be his foster family.

The twins have an older sister (by profession she cares for the elderly). She says, “I wouldn’t take him. I’d be afraid that I couldn’t manage and would have to give him back. So I discouraged them.”

Renata admits, “The thought never occurred to me.”

People who knew Renata asked, “What is she doing this for?”

She replied, “I don’t know.”

People commented on the side, “Maybe she wants to pay God back for her beautiful daughter.”

Or, “Maybe she’s crazy.”

Or more intelligently, “Emotionally immature.”

Or altogether stupidly, “She already doesn’t have money for bread, and she’s taken such a monster under her roof?”

Renata admits, “The government pays me a thousand złoty a month. Half goes toward medicine and ointments.”

Someone asked her, “You get so tired, and do you know how long he’ll live?”

To that Renata furiously demanded, “Do you know how long you’ll live?”

She doesn’t want to say another word about her own fears. She talks about what she’s afraid of to her sister. “She sees that Matthew understands more and more. Maybe someday he’ll rebel against his being different. Maybe he’ll stop talking for good and shut himself up like a clam.”

Something else people say, “He’ll blame her for his ugliness. She’ll be crying yet.”

And Dorota has her own fears. “What’s going to happen?”

Acquaintances who work in healthcare, sympathetic to Renata, wonder, “Maybe he won’t be able to live with such a face. Children are often disfigured by burns. They grow up and commit suicide.”

Dr. Tadeusz Łyczakowski (he operated on Matthew) confesses, “Everything can be disguised, every defect can be hidden, even a hump. But not faces. The face is a person’s calling card. A person talks with another person face to face.”

Renata wants Matthew to be just a bit more attractive. And Dr. Łyczakowski tries to make that happen. His American colleagues who have already seen Matthew are arriving soon at the Institute in Prokocim. Together they’ll make new ears for the boy, and from his hair they’ll create eyebrows. And they’ll tidy up the eyelids because they’re ugly. But the doctor warns Renata, “This is how God made him. You can help him a little, improve him a little. But don’t expect a miracle.”

 

6

After a year Evelyn tells it like this: “Mom was always just for me. I never shared her with another child or another man. Then I grew up, and I had less and less time for her because of my studies, girlfriends, and training. And she didn’t have any time for herself: always bustling about, restless, zero time to relax. That all changed. Matthew has given her strength, calm. Mom has time to go to Krakow and visit Wawel Castle with him. Today nobody except Matthew exists for her. I have to accept that. In the end, there’s no explanation for what goes on between people. I know that her love for him is enormous. And reciprocated. And I still love Matthew, though I don’t treat him like a brother. The word brother has significance, its own kind of weight. But I’m glad when I see how he’s growing, he laughs, he speaks better and better, he counts, he can say what he likes and doesn’t. So I can’t blame Mom when her decision bears such fruit. I’m even proud of her. Maybe I have some regret because I’m by myself. I detached myself completely. It’s hard for me to live in this fairy tale that is happening in our home nowadays. Everyone there looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, or no further than tomorrow.”

 

7

Renata wants to make up to Matthew for the years spent at the orphanage (as does her sister Dorota, and Dorota’s children, who devote countless hours to him). They draw various strange shapes with him and build tall staircases with blocks. But Matthew doesn’t see eye to eye with every felt marker or with every block: “Only yellow,” he shouts in his own way.

For days on end Evelyn isn’t at home (because of school, training, etc.), so she rarely plays with Matthew. “I don’t have to constantly prove that I love him.”

Renata sleeps with Matthew, never yells at him and lets him get away with everything. At the supermarket when he ordered her to buy him an entire basket of underwear, she did. When he wanted a cap from a good company (with a well-recognized logo), she bought it, even though they don’t live in luxury. When they were in the village of Żmiąca (they were there that summer on vacation for the second time), he wanted to go play on the swing at midnight; she went out to push. And she said to him, “My most beautiful little boy.”

She admits that to her own daughter she would’ve said, “Go to sleep.”

When Matthew saw a fire burning in the fireplace in Żmiąca, he burned everything made of paper. And when he ran out of paper, Renata filled up all the glasses with juice and gave the empty carton to the boy. After, she dumped out cookies on the table and gave him the package made of corrugated cardboard. “No!” he cried out. And he went on loudly as Renata realized in no time, “They’re stairs; you don’t burn stairs.”

And then Renata found a misplaced newspaper under the armchair. Matthew tore page after page. He tossed each into the fire and watched it burn. He laughed out loud until he saw an ad for wood paint. In the photo: a staircase. He tucked it in his pocket.

With a smile Renata quizzes, “Tell me, sonny boy, what are you going to do when you’re grown?”

“I’ll build staircases,” he said, and Renata translated.

“Yes, you’ll be an engineer.”

There was one thing she had to refuse him. When they once walked into a church together, Matthew glanced up at the large crucifix. “Pull it down!” he shouted in his own way. “We’ll take him home!”

He cried because Renata said, “I can’t.”

Renata explains all over that her boy isn’t handicapped like other such children described by medicine. He’s slow like any child after the orphanage, but already he’s catching up. “He’s handicapped,” says Dr. Łyczakowski, who’s going to make the boy’s face prettier. “Though Matthew is making progress. When I met him, nothing but futzing with two plastic bowls. Back and forth.”

Renata convinces everyone that Matthew is getting better looking. “Bullshit,” responds Ela, a colleague from the orphanage. Renata wants everyone to understand his words because after all he speaks better and better, in complete sentences, and practices with a speech therapist. “I don’t understand Matthew,” Ela says so as to bring Renata back to reality. Renata respects Ela (a woman of about fifty) because all the kids at the orphanage adore her.

But Ela thinks, “Matthew will never be normal. And she has to be prepared for it, to shake free from this euphoria. She’s normal, but quirky. The love that she’s carried in herself she could have distributed to not only Evelyn but also to some man. After all, she was a young woman. I doubt whether at some time anyone will still make an appearance in her life. So far, no. She made such a decision and you have to respect her for it. Well, but let’s not exaggerate! It must be tougher for Matthew. Without a firm hand there’s no way. I know, I raised two on my own. But she just leaps to her feet: ‘son, sonny boy.’ When he cut his lip on vacation, you had to rescue her, not him.”

Other colleagues say, “Without him Renata wouldn’t last another day. Dorota too.”

Their older sister lets slip, “They’re possessive of him. It seems to each of them that she takes better care of the child than the other. They’re jealous.”

 

8

Dorota only ever takes care of the elderly before noon. Renata goes to the orphanage either until two or for the night. After work she always rushes home in order to quickly hug her son and take him to kindergarten.

The kindergarten close to home, though integrated (for healthy and disabled children), didn’t accept Matthew. “The parents are against it,” explained the director, “although those parents never saw Matthew.”

Now Matthew goes to kindergarten at a convent on the other side of town. Every day Renata takes him there by tram. She doesn’t like trams because the passengers stare terribly. According to her, the cruelest tend to be old people. They point at him.

When Renata talks about this, she cries.

And she smiles. “They say children are cruel because they’re candid. Some are, but in his kindergarten they often quarrel about who’s going to hold his hand. And with teenagers it’s normal. Evelyn’s—and Claudia and Tommy’s—friends visit us at home and they don’t have any problem with Matthew. They’re super.”

 

9

That summer Renata went to Warsaw to appear on the program Usual/Unusual. It’s a program about courageous and selfless people. In the TV studio Renata was greeted with applause. They showed a video of their home and Matthew: he danced in Evelyn’s arms. (“I squeezed out a fairy tale for them,” says Evelyn. “What was I supposed to do?”) The camera filmed Matthew from the back or from a distance. So that his ugly face couldn’t be clearly seen.

Then there was a discussion. As usual Renata said, “My Matthew’s the most beautiful.”

The interviewer didn’t hide his tears.

The next day, or maybe three days later, the governesses went out walking with a column of children past the orphanage fence. People, both young as well as quite old, approached them. “They said on TV that this monster was with you.”

To this the governesses replied, “Well, he was. Didn’t you see him before?”

Someone who had anxiety in his voice said, “That nurse lives around here.”

The governesses confirmed, “On the next street over.”

The people (now the entire group) agreed. “Well, exactly. Close.”

Someone said, “So now he’s under control.”

“But what’s going to happen when he grows up?” they asked.

Someone summed up, “You should put up a wall around the house. And hide the grandkids.”

 

10

Matthew says (whoever is with him for a few days will already understand him) that he has two mommies: “Renacha and Dorocha.” He knows that a completely different woman gave birth to him. They say that the biological mother cried when she heard about Renata.


Wojciech Tochman was born in 1969 in Krakow, Poland. Between 1990-2004 he wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza, and he still collaborates with its weekly reportage supplement. From 1996-2002 he hosted the TV program Whoever Saw, Whoever Knows. In 2009 Tochman cofounded the Polish Institute of Reportage in Warsaw. Tochman’s books include Don’t Burn Stairs (2000), Like Eating a Stone (2002), Beloved Daughter (2005), Mad Dog (2007), Today We’ll Draw Death (2010), God Bless (2010), Eli, Eli (2013), and The Container (coauthored with Katarzyna Boni; 2014). Though he is one of the most widely translated Polish authors of nonfiction today, only his Like Eating a Stone has been translated into English. Tochman has been a finalist of the Nike Literary Award twice. “Don't Burn Stairs” was originally published in 1998 and is included in his book by the same name.

Frank Garrett is an independent philosopher, writer, and translator. His work has been published most recently by 3:AM Magazine, Black Sun Lit, and Transitions Online. He is currently translating Robert Rient’s Witness, which will be published by Outpost19 in 2016, and Wojciech Tochman’s Don’t Burn Stairs. He blogs at My Crash Course and lives in Dallas.