This novel is in the form of a series of letters from father to son, and son to father, in the same family over several generations, starting from 1770 and finishing in 1970. As we follow the dramatic fortunes of the successive male heirs, against the background of Polish history, we see connections and themes emerging. Three extracts follow.
The first extract is from a letter written in 1770 by Jakub Zabierski to his father. Jakub describes how he stole away from home one night with his friend Jaś Kuryłłó, to join the forces of the Bar Confederation, an association of Polish noblemen (commanded by a General Council) who fought to limit Russian influence and protect the independence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In his efforts to explain to his worried father that, contrary to reports, he has not gone mad, he tells how he was trained to be a secret agent, and worked undercover in a series of disguises, until finally he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Turkish court.
Thus as I write I am approaching my misfortune, which began in the month of June last year, when I was assigned to His Grace the Cup-Bearer Count Potocki to provide assistance on his diplomatic mission to the Grand Vizier, who was at that time with the camp of the Sultan’s army in the vicinity of Khan Tepe. Kuryłło came with me.
In the company of pashas and ministers, having listened to the requests of the General Council, the Grand Vizier raged at the Republic, saying that it had broken its treaty with the Sublime Porte, and that his supreme monarch would not be the servant of such dogs as us, and that in accordance with a holy fatwa he was giving orders for us to be treated as enemies of the Porte, and we were to eat our own shit. If we wanted him to send us troops, we were to beat our brows against the ground, lick his feet, and cry aman, aman, meaning “mercy, mercy”. Whereupon he winked at the seated pashas, who began to jabber. At this point His Grace the Cup-Bearer demeaned himself. Calling the Sultan king of kings, he surrendered himself to his protection. Which placated the Vizier; tell that dog, he said to the interpreters, that now he can be gone, and let him negotiate with my seraskier, the commander-in-chief, regarding the points on which they are to confer. Having nodded to the pashas again, he said: if the Poles would like to adopt the faith of Mohammed, in this circumstance we would be heartily willing to help them! Yes, Father, those were his literal words, and the aforementioned pashas cast glances at us. And we were escorted to a tent, where we fell asleep in the tent, wearied by the long day. When I opened my eyes, it was still night, and I could sense that I was tied and bound. Then I began to scream with all my might, that I would not renounce my faith, and Jaś Kuryłło set about shouting the same, that he would never renounce it. And so we swore loud oaths into the night, struggling and pledging never to give way. The guards ran up and stopped our mouths with rags, and in came a Turk of small height in spectacles; he bowed politely, and proclaimed in disfigured Polish speech that His Grace the Cup-Bearer had set out for Chocim, having left us here to await his orders, which would come from the road; he also said that he was a native of Podolia, from the Krywułt clan, being some forty years in the service of the Crescent Moon, which he praised highly and urged us, in order to aid our fatherland, to do this painless thing, and he spoke softly and sadly. If we would allow this thing to be done to us, we would not shed much blood but would gain sweetness beyond measure, and again he bowed, and raised his eyes again, soon to flash his earring and squawk to the guards in Turkish, who set about removing the rags stuffed in our mouths. At which, the instant I caught my breath, I shouted loud “Our Father, that art in Heaven!”, Kuryłło with me too, “Our Father”. Until the Turks sprang back in confusion, the man took fright and asked us to desist, then I cried yet louder “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done!” etcetera, so they had to be gone from the tent, for the camels, unsettled by our shouts, had raised a roaring all through the camp.
And at dawn they drove us away. They threw sacks on our faces and took us. Day and night they drove us. With gasping and jolting, I knew nothing of the journey. Later others took us, dragging us by the arms, herding us along on foot in the dark, in ignorance. At last I sensed that I was there, where I would remain, for a door was closed behind me with a rasp and I heard the withdrawing of footsteps. I tore off the sack. In darkness, I stretch forth my hands to feel for Kuryłło, who stealthily and silently evades me. Jaś, I ask, where on this earth are we? He said not a word. Where was he? He was squatting in the corner, muttering. So over to him I went, but he was no longer there. He’s lost his wits, I thought, he’s fleeing from me on all fours. I throw myself forwards, and my hands touch the bars of a cage. I call out. His call answers me. From where? From beyond the bars. Is he out there? So who is here with me? I turn around and stare, my eyes unaccustomed to the darkness. But what do I see? A human shape suspended above me, head downwards. And I can sense the keen attention of that head upon me. O Father, I quailed with fear. I ask in a whisper, who’s there? A time passes, that one goes on hanging there in silence. And then Jaś Kuryłło’s voice resounded from beyond the bars, calling me by name. Quicker than I he had observed that each of us was sitting in a cage with his own ape.
That you might not be unduly anxious, Father, I shall immediately write to assure you that my ape, Zaphira by name, was benign towards me, as towards Jaś was his Zelinda. And we were not wracked by the pain of bites from wicked beasts, only in our minds by the biting of shame and imprisonment. In the month of June alone four times we attempted to escape, but each time we were caught and driven with uproar back into our cages. Our cages stood in the Grand Vizier’s gardens, amid cypress and palm trees, we were fed on goat’s milk and dates and mutton fat, all in sufficient quantity. Thus there was neither cold nor hunger, the Turkish summer being admirably hot. Whereas to shield our nakedness we were given clothing, which included: a crimson jerkin, yellow breeches and a green cap with a little tassel. So I was seen by an English envoy, riding on horseback in the garden with the Vizier’s brothers, to whom we cried from the cage: “nobiles poloni sumus!” at which he was most amazed as he rode past.
The days followed on, filled with sleeping, searching for fleas and teaching tricks to kill the sorrow of this time. Eunuchs with curved sabres guarded our cages, being the garden sentinels, in the local language bostancı. Who, when the Grand Vizier was hosting foreign guests, escorted us to the palace, leading us two by two on a chain, me with Zaphira and Jaś with Zelinda. And there in the dining hall we were forced to dance to a band of pipers, most merrily and jauntily, for which the courtiers threw us nuts and other sweetmeats. Truth be told, though abhorrent, it was not severe. We were treated without any cruel violence, and our only fear was of not remaining human; so at night we called our native words to each other through the bars, such as: “bread! bread! mother! mother!” – or else we sang: “on the Vistula River lies Krakow!”
So the days went by and habituation came. The power of habituation is great, Father, and you cannot conceive of its limits. For the peculiar thing was not that I was shut in a cage with an ape, but that with each day this peculiar thing seemed less peculiar. I no longer hung from the bars, watching the sun setting on the horizon, towards my country. Now both Zaphira and I clung to the bars together, watching to see if the guard was coming to throw us some dates. And I no longer cried “bread! bread!”, but muttered in ape language, as I tried to grab the dates as fast as possible and cram them into my mouth. Not because I was dying of hunger, but merely because it was feeding time. For everything had its time; there was feeding time and grooming time, a time for tricks, and a time for sleep.
And there also came a time when Jaś fell silent, and stopped talking. I shouted to him, and sang, but in vain. He sat by the bars, like a little wax figure of Lazarus, with skinny arms and legs; I was afraid for him. One day there rode up on an ass the aforementioned Turk in spectacles, who fancied himself to be a Master Krywułt from Podolia; having dismissed the guard, he eyed us at length through the bars. And then he said not too loud, that were he to see his own sons in this condition, he would rather see them dead. And he also said I was no longer human. Nonetheless, he began to renew his former persuasions, to renounce our faith and let that mildly painful thing be done to us, that he had allowed to be done to him many years ago. I gave no response. And again he said that no faith is worse than any other, for all were created by well-intentioned men, and softly added: joint and individual salvation are in order, but here on Earth, hic et nunc. After “hic” Zaphira threw a nut at him; I chirruped to her to go away. I cocked an ear, squatted by the bars in the sunlight and listened. And on he spoke: look what your God has done to you, saying that once I took the Koran for my gospel, the bars would open before me, I would have sheep and mules, I would be a bey and I would be bathed in all manner of bliss. So he said, and waited to see what I would answer.
I pressed my head between the bars of the cage and scented the air with my nostrils, for the smell of the sea was coming to me from beyond the palm trees. It was splashing in the bay, washing the pink cliffs, above which the sky rose, a strong azure blue, as if very close to its source; you will not see such a sky in Poland. Is it not all the same to you, asked Krywułt, to which one you pray, Sir? I remained silent. I turned my face to the heavens, I fixed my poor eyes on the blue, and blinking into the light, I thought of Him. For it was for His sake that I left my parental home, in His cause I had fought and shed blood, in Him I believed, and He had driven me among apes. You shall not be rid of me, my Lord God. Upon my death I wish to be summoned before Your throne, to look You in the eyes and none other, for You to account for my simian lot, I shall not release You. I shall not remain by You out of love, but out of anger and curiosity to see what further You intend to do with me.
And to Master Krywułt I replied: I wish to remain the Vizier’s ape, he is my master, his eunuchs are my commanders. So it shall be, until something else occurs. But step back from the gates, Your Lordship, for I will bite.
Here, Father, was the start of my sin of blasphemy, to which I later confessed to the Bernardine Fathers in Jampol.
For one day the eunuchs tore the robes from me, stripping me naked with the blunt edge of their sabres. “Aman, aman!” I cried. They left. That day they did not give us milk, they did not give us dates. They gave them to the apes. The apes shared the goods with us.
One moonlit night I committed that sin with Zaphira which they say herders are wont to commit with their nanny goats, and which is not held to be a weighty sin, for it does harm to no one. Cognovi eam. Which before hanging himself from the bars, Kuryłło had committed with his. Of which unseemly act I confessed at Jampol too, I beat my own chest, I confessed to my misery, to my straying from the path, how in the cage I doubted God, for having stripped me bare of everything, how I loathed Him for this my shame and captivity, and for so much evil. I was a sorrowful animal, accustomed to the lowest state, not interested in the sight of the sea and the mountains, never expecting any salvation. Jaś Kuryłło hung from the bars for five days; on the sixth day the eunuchs buried him naked beside the cage and stamped the ground flat. In nomine Patris et Filii.
And Master Krywułt arrived on an ass three more times. He brought figs in a basket, and I took them. As I ate the figs, he tried to persuade me. I refused to listen any more, I refused to understand. He bid them open the cage, but I refused to come out. “Why do you not come out?” he cries. “You have my permission!” I go on grooming. He says, “Moscow has already attacked, the Vizier has lost the battle, this may be your salvation, or your death.” Then he urged the ass on with his heels and rode away. So he left me, in a state of apathy, naked and abhorrent to myself.
Two weeks later there was noise and commotion from all directions, camels roaring, and eunuchs running. I was lying by the bars of my cage. Wagons drove up, with squealing the eunuchs seized hold of the cage, raised and shifted it into a wagon, with mules to pull it. On a road amid rocks a caravan of half a hundred wagons pushed its way, carrying goods, tents, and cages. At the end of the line came our wagon, bearing me in the cage with both apes, as a threesome. What clouds of dust, what gasping and shouting! The guards were on mules, on foot, and on camels, their curved sabres shining; wolves, bears and tigers howled in the cages, as the wheels clattered on the stones. They were taking us into the mountains. Master Krywułt rides out of the dust on his ass, and looks into the cage screeching: “Now Lechistan will side with the Porte! All Poles will swear on the Koran! That will be your salvation!” “Where are they taking me?” I groan through the bars. “To Istanbul!”
At night as the cage jolted, I was lying inert when I was visited by a dream, in which I saw you, Father, and my Honourable Mother, standing by a window, both dressed in white and calling me home to you. “Imprisoned!” I cried, and laughing, you twirled your moustache and shook your head. I tried to go on shouting, but the wind was whistling, yanking the door and shutters, a tree fell on the house with a great crash, be gone, I beg you, why are you smiling so? A bolt of lightning struck, and I awoke. The crash was the cage being jolted as a wheel jumped on the rocks. On my wagon sits a eunuch driving the mules, his back all but resting against the cage. I see a string around his neck; there’s a key dangling on the string. I know that key. I force my hands through the bars, and with both I press the eunuch’s neck to the bars from behind, until he goes limp. I loosen the string, I have the key. But as I jumped from the wagon in the dark, somebody seized my arms and gasped: “You shall not get away, you shall not get away!” It was Master Krywułt, lurking by the rocks, guarding me better than any foreigner. I knocked him off his ass, stifled him with a knee and felled him with his own yatagan, weeping bitterly, until he sobbed: “Jesus of Nazareth!”, stiffened, and was silent.
How was I to get away? I lunged to one side away from the road, into a dark ravine, a crevice among the cliffs. The further the faster! I wounded my bare feet against the flints, Father, running poorly, walking weakly. If there had been a chase, I would not have escaped. But then I heard it! Footsteps creeping closer, something leaping over the rocks, coming down the ravine! They are after me, they’re just behind me, I can hear the squealing of the eunuchs. I spring forward, I fall, I kneel. I feel for a sharp stone – it shall be my weapon, I am not an animal, I am a man, I shall defend myself like a man! Raising my stone, I wait.
But these were no pursuers, merely my apes. They had followed me out of the cage, and guided by my scent, had scurried here to me. I was gripped by laughter, Father, laughter mingled with sobbing, I rolled on the ground, overcome by this furious laughter, and the apes sat close by, greatly amazed.
How am I to know? Would that someone might assist me in my writing, for how am I to know in which order to place the words, that they might describe everything as it truly was, without cutting anything short. Could I do it alone? How am I to tell about the darkness, or the noises of the night? The darkness is darker in a foreign country than the very darkest in one’s homeland, and every quiver of a worm a cause to shudder, for in a foreign land you never know what is alive. There on the dry ground I lay naked in a fever, burned by the sun, I lay starving on the rocks, while the apes defended me from vultures. By day I hid in the earth, by night I walked, by day I slept, by night I stole. In mountain hamlets I would creep into the stable and suck the mare’s milk, by the light of the moon I gnawed like a mouse in the vegetable plot; at the sight of a human shadow I fled away in fear, my apes after me. How can I tell of those nights, or of those days? Even had I the gift of Vergil, you would never gain the full sense of them, Father. A travelling merchant was washing his feet in a stream, his woman beside him, and by them their wearied camel was kneeling. All of a sudden, out from behind a rock there dashed a naked, roaring monster with two apes at his side; they seized the camel and drove it into the brushwood! Dripping wet clothing was hung on sticks to dry in the sunshine, an old man was dozing with a pipe, a child was playing merrily, when a shaggy trio straight from hell appears, snatches the clothing with a scream and makes off with the sticks! Thus I captured the camel that bore me on my onward journey, and the robes, which having covered my nakedness proved to be those of a woman. How many nights I wandered, how many days terror ate away at me, I cannot say. Now pale, the sky was autumnal, when I came to a stop at the gates of Kamieniec Podolski and knocked. Many people came running to gaze upon your son, Father, as with two apes he rode into Kamieniec on a camel, dressed in woman’s attire. There they washed, shaved and sheared me for three days, after which I sank into deep slumber, and fell sick with ulcers. Having cured me of them, alarmed by my delirious ravings, the Bernardine Fathers sent me to Jampol in a wagon with cripples and a pregnant woman. But the apes were left in Kamieniec with His Grace Commander Witt; as I sadly said farewell, I warmly embraced them.
So ended my fortunes in foreign lands.
- The second extract is from a letter written in 1833 by Seweryn, son of Jakub Zabierski, to his son, Jan Nepomucen, from the family estate at Szymowizna.
As you are aware, Jan Nepomucen, I returned home from the war of 1812 a cripple. Since childhood you have seen your father with a wooden leg, and you were nurtured on a family tale depicting a very bloody battle, in which your parent fell from his horse in a charge against Semionov’s cavalry. Struck by a shell that cut his leg open, he was rewarded on the battlefield by a talk with the Emperor himself, who was said to have quipped to Marshal Davout: “A Pole without a leg is worth more to me than a kingdom!”
This story is not entirely true, yet it is not the result of falsehood. Though it is true that I was wounded in battle, the wound did not at once seem deep. And it was not I who fell from my horse, but Colonel Sułgird, and I was not sought out by a bullet during a charge against the enemy, but while standing by my horse beneath a young spruce tree, at the least fanciful moment. But never mind all that – it does not get to the point. The important fact that marked the start of the infernal incident took place in the village of Niegoryeloye, at the hand of Quartermaster Bertoldy, who cut off my ailing leg, while I was tied to a plank with a leather strap, having my mouth blocked with a ball of rags to prevent me from screaming at the moment of being revived with snow.
One would need to fill several reams of paper to itemize things, in the sequence of all the circumstances, tracing in turn and in detail every single exercise of thought and will, in order to set them out precisely as they happened at the time. They do not stay in the memory. The historical facts, initiated by caesarian madness, found their start in a universal loosening of the bowels. Deprived of logical order, not merely the army rushed to its own doom, but also the spirit in each individual man ceased to be the whole of which it had formerly consisted; hence ever the force of evil. We walked in madness, our eyes glazed with the sleep of illusions. All I remember is that I could go no further, and I prayed for Russian captivity; all that happened to me thereafter I ascribe to weakening as a result of blood loss and delirium induced by hunger. How many hours passed between the amputation of my leg and my return to consciousness, I cannot count. For now I saw nobody living by my side. Believing me to have lost all hope of life, they had left me lying under a small church cupola, by a still glowing bonfire, having covered me with a sheet before departing, like a corpse. Not only do I bear no resentment for that, but I boldly print that I see a Christian deed in it. With no faith in my revival, and having legitimate certainty of my death, they did not however delay to leave wooden laths by my body, arranged in the shape of the letters: ZABIERSKI SEWERYN, with a small cross at the top. Laths that I soon disarranged and threw on the embers with all speed.
At this point, before the description of later hours follows, my thought inclines towards the sacred secrets of spiritual matter. Could I ever formerly have imagined that in such physical mutilation, without a crumb of strength and stripped of all a man’s natural gifts – could I have believed, I ask, that in this beggar’s lair I would experience a blissful state of joy, such as I had never felt in all the days of my, nota bene, steadily fortunate life? I ascribe the brilliant lightness that pervaded me on regaining consciousness to the Divine mysteries. And this remarkable affection for the surrounding world, the calm and quiet merriment in my heart, could only be compared to the relief in the intestines upon ridding oneself of a tapeworm. I knew by now that I was alive. Not that I would live, but that I was alive. The oddity of this distinction seems inconceivable! But at the time it was as vividly plain to me as my tongue to my palate. Uncommonly new thoughts began to squirm inside me as a contribution to this awakening of the soul, which was closer to a resurrection, and through eyes misted with tears I saw myself united with the supernatural sphere. You could not put it into words. For what are words, what are letters, formed of little tails, sticks and bulges? A real idea is more like a star, shining with inner light in all the corridors and pantries of the organism. And therefore, I thought in amazement, could it be that my whole life has passed in nothing more than tremulous straining between yesterday and tomorrow? Is that what I had been – a small chink between the perfect and the future, a dark, narrow crevice, not admitting any light, stuffed with the sawdust of stupid, superficial cares? Thus lived Seweryn Zabierski, without the love of God, for so what if he fulfilled His commandments when he only served Him out of fear, like a tyrant, calling him Lord and kneeling before His throne. But God was within and waiting. Within, I say, He was inside me, in my body, id est in my head and in my fingers, in my hair and skin. And only with the most patient waiting had He endured this blindness of mine, which drove me in haste from day to day, oblivious to the fact that I was pregnant with God, I was carrying His brilliance within me, though incapable of perceiving it.
And as I lay there, I wept tears of joy. The wind raged, shaking the battered little church, which had the boards torn from its walls for firewood; the spaces left after them were blocked by the corpses of Prince Jérôme’s frozen Westphalians, who came here before us and had gone no further. There were plenty of laths scattered on the ground, and also charred benches, icons and other pieces of wood which our chasseurs had lugged here from the burning cottages. The entire village had gone up in smoke, the population had fled, and may have been lurking somewhere in the woods, but there was nothing to be heard or seen. All that I could do was to add to the burning fire, which I did not neglect, despite the child-like weakness and uncomfortable position of my body, lying supine. I had not enough strength to turn over or to sit up. Yet I did not feel despair. Though I had fallen so low in circumstance, in mind I had not fallen at all, still being drunk on that unearthly joy, without a scrap of anxiety or dark forebodings. And whether God was in me, or feverish delirium, that I am now unable to say. The sublime is perhaps bound to be incomprehensible. Of one thing I am certain, that in those hours I was a hundredfold alive, and everything became accessible to my understanding; I felt such a power within me that if wolves had surrounded me there I would have mollified them with a glance. In this sacredly sublime state of spirit several times I was enveloped in mist, awoke, and went into the mist again.
Do you know what person stood by me at that time? Who appeared to me from the abysmal depths of my unconsciousness? My late lamented brother Michał, R.I.P.
His unfortunate history is known to you, from his youthful flight to wander abroad with the freemasons, whence he returned after twenty-two years, when you were a boy. Indeed you remember him smiling at people and ever stepping aside for them in the eccentric reverie from which he was never able to awaken. In this state he came back from his troubled travels, and nobody ever saw him otherwise. Over the years I strained my mind to think how to restore him to life, what act to perform, or what word to say in order to overcome his pensive state, so that he would say something to me and rid himself of the poisoned liquid he had been made to drink. Tell me, brother, I asked him, what is eating at your heart? Lay it open before me, in memory of our Father, I implore you! It was in vain. Michał would smile, and fix his patient gaze on the window, staring into the green shady garden or into a cloud. And I always had the impression that he who was waiting for the moment when I would comprehend, while indeed I was waiting for him to produce a logical thought or word. And yet this word was never spoken. And whether it was a word, who knows? Maybe it was a mystical sign, maybe some prayers, or maybe a grain of Italian medicament? I fetched doctors from Warsaw, in doing which, I swear to God, I had no evil intention. Did they not say that my brother was unwell, and that his abiding there might threaten the house with an accident? At night he rustled about in the attics, he might start a fire, they said. He lives in a state of blindness, which, when a phantom of the imagination appears to him, could induce him in terrified frenzy to seize anything at all, an axe for instance. And they advised sending him to Warsaw for treatment, to the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John, where many cases of cerebral dementia had been cured with the most favourable outcome.
How many nights I sat up on the porch until the rosy dawn before consenting, with the persuasion of the doctors and your Mother, to send my brother away to Warsaw! The day before, soon after luncheon, I set off to look for him, and found him sitting by the pond with a book. Though he was not reading, but staring into the water. Having sat down beside him and put an arm around him in a brotherly manner, I told him cordially that a journey lay ahead of him, that he would rest in a quiet home, where everyone would be good to him. So I spoke, as if to a child. And I was certain that he would hear me out, and agree to everything, smiling in a child-like way. But this time that was not the case. He heard me out, in silence, but somehow something was warning me, I sensed an inexpressible fear at the touch of my brother’s gaze, as he stared at me rather attentively. Barely had I opened my mouth to ask the reasons for his intent scrutiny of me, when I heard a voice, his first words in years, and how surprising they were! So my peace is such a hindrance to you, he said, that you want me to go away from you? How can you say that, I whispered in confusion, nobody whatsoever wishes you to go away from here, Michał, I myself will take you in the carriage… Then he turned his gaze away from me to the lilies on the pond, and stared into the water. What are you punishing yourself for, Seweryn? he asked. At which I bridled, offended by the incongruous nature of this remark. But leafing the pages of the book with his thin fingers, he was no longer listening, his gaze magnetically fixed on the water again. And then he said the strangest thing that I shall hear for the rest of my life. You see, brother Seweryn, he said, I have been waiting a long time for you. I believed you would understand my waiting. I was waiting in peace, in silence. But you cast me the stubs of words. Only once did you speak to me with love, but that was long ago. When? I asked, choked by anxiety, what are you talking about, little brother? And as if reaching into his memories, he threw back that finely wearied head of his, and with his eyes closed he said in a whisper: Then, do you remember? I was lying on a soaring rock, caressing my eagle. And you called to me from the North. Your wistful thought came running to me, I saw you in the snows, in blood… Do you remember? Tell me, brother, why do you continue to devour yourself?
And it seemed to me that as he uttered these final words he glanced at my oaken leg. Which affected me so acutely that I lost my mind, and for desperate lack of it I struck him a backhand blow across the face like a farm boy.
Not everything that I am recording here is in the proper order, but I beg your patience, for the structure of my writing is as yet unsteady, not supported by foundation stones. The first important fact is that ten years before the day of my conversation with my brother, in other words when I was lying with my amputated leg in the church (of which I wrote above), my brother, whose whereabouts were totally unknown for several years, and searches for whom in Dresden, in Milan and elsewhere had proved futile, this younger brother of mine, beloved Michał, appeared to me in that same church, as really as can be. I saw his face most undeniably, and I heard his voice most undeniably. For he communed with me, as if live in the flesh, in bodily form, having first stepped out of a church icon. And the words he spoke to me at the time were exceptional; for he assured me that in my resignation to pain I was the true Lord God, none other than He who embodied suffering, and who had entered into me. Which fact with untimely joy I at once believed. Later, however, whether when my fever subsided, or hunger and the septentrional cold aroused me from my curative sleep, I soon awoke from my delusions; feeling my earthly mortality once again, with all speed I tossed the icon gifted with transforming itself into Michał onto the fire. But what I have never been able to understand were the dozen words that Michał uttered to me by the pond many years on, when he reminded me of his apparition beside me, mutilated, bloodied and in pain. From what rock had he caught sight of me? And by what journey had he come? And so was it really the truth?
God did not grant my brother’s secrets to be known. For here I must now come to an end and tell all as it was on that day of divine retribution. I walked away from the pond in anger, not feeling the smarting of the hand that had struck Michał’s face. Without looking back, not wishing to know how he fared and what he did, I went into the house, and until supper I sat locked in my office, alone with my angry resentment towards him. Only when everyone was sitting at table did I ask the servants whether my brother had returned from the garden, and whether he had been served his food upstairs in his little chamber. But before I had managed to utter the question, a great boom shook the house, causing the clock to fall from the cupboard and smash against the floor. At which moment the dreadful occurrence was immediately known to me, as if I had been told of it, and it crossed my mind that Michał had killed himself. Which turned out to be true in less time than the telling of three Our Fathers.
My brother killed himself in the old edifice built by my Father to house both people and animals, though later, as you remember, assigned to be a junk store, where useless lumber was kept and furniture. There was a rusted gun, which in days of yore my grandfather had fired to greet the King Augustus III, when he graced our abode with the honour of his presence in the year of Our Lord 1759. My brother had loaded it with a ball of marble, chipped off the balustrade, which was meant to adorn my late Father’s never completed shrine, yet so it served my brother. For there I found him. With the hands that you have kissed so many times in filial manner, I gathered up his head, which spattered the walls and ground.
The truth was concealed from you, my Son, by profiting from the fact of your being at school at the time; and so not until coming home for the holidays did you hear the false news of your uncle Michał’s death, allegedly the victim of pulmonary fever. Put the lie down to parental fears for the tenderness of a soul as yet so defenceless; the truth seemed too bitter to be fed you in the springtime of your life.
But this is not yet the whole truth. Prepare yourself for one a hundredfold worse, summon up your goodness and mercy, and strength of mind, that you might have the power to judge the wretched dust that is man, and in pitiful understanding bow down to the misery of sin. I can guess your thought, I can see you reading with a question whispered on your lips. And could this question be any other, but just one alone? I shall drive out this one question: for you seek an explanation, why after those words of my brother’s did anger bid me to abuse him with my hand? Is that not your question?
Here is the final point, the most painful station of my Golgothan torment. I now stand before it.
Did my brother Michał understand what he said? Were his glance and his words random, or did they have a more secret meaning? That I shall never know. Those words were terrible for me, and the look in his eyes as he gazed at my wooden crutch, my infamy and my shame, dragged with the greatest difficulty through life. And to understand more clearly the fact that is still a mystery to you, you must return with your father’s memory to the severe winter of 1812, ergo to the very reason from which the subsequent effect of devilish elements emerged. Of which you shall read in what follows.
All the evil that is in man I call devilry. When the cords of comradeship snap and break (for example in times of war or when rivers are in flood) evil takes revenge for former unkind hindrance and transforms societal relationships into a dance so wildly dissolute as to be entirely unlike human habit. A dance of this kind overcame France forty years ago. Unbridled by sexual urges, did not the mob of sans culottes desecrate the headless body of the Princesse de Lamballe, and did not another horde of this same mob carry the severed head beneath the windows of Marie Antoinette to show her the cadaverous countenance of her friend, stuck on a pike? Did not this same mob parade the street harlot Théroigne de Méricourt about the Catholic temples, and give orders to worship Divine Reason in her vulgar person? Thereafter she too was possessed by madness, for one day she took to speaking with the bleat of a goat, and thus for the rest of her life she was kept behind bars in Salpêtrière, where she ate her own dung for four and twenty years. All these are exemplary facts, which explain how the human foundation stands on marshy ground, and how underworld bouleversements open up dark and abysmal vales in human nature.
I care not about idle names, and not for wanting to acquit myself am I prompted to find these words, but merely to start by tuning the string of your cerebral imagination for my deed, so that it shall not instantly dumbfound you. I beg you not to judge me in haste. Consider this monstrosity not in isolation from nature in general, but together with the laws of gentis humanae, while also being aware of the temporal circumstances, which are: freezing cold, imminent death and bestial hunger. This I implore you. Only then shall you judge me.
For truly bestial hunger awoke me at the break of day, and the first thing I felt was hunger. While the second was a paralytic stiffening of the limbs, so acutely agonizing that I did not need move my neck to know that the fire had gone out. My blissful joy had evaporated – not a ray of it was left in me. Instead of inner elation I felt the shrivelling of my stomach, the emptiness of my spirit, ice-cold shivers and terror. Terror of such an extreme degree that on hearing the chattering of my own teeth I was certain it was the sound of Death, rattling his scythe at me. What was I to do? I took hold of the straps that bound me to the board, and tugged at them with my solidified fingers to free myself at the soonest from those sepulchral apparitions. And yet in vain, for my frozen digits were of less use than wooden pegs, the knot kept slipping, and my fingers lacked feeling. Weeping was futile, and so were prayers! Then I turned onto my belly, and crawling, board and all, like a snail, I dragged myself to the hearth. I stretched out my livid hands, and with the Pater Noster on my lips I raked through the cold coals, I dipped my face in them, I blew, and prayed to breathe a spark into those remains. For one thing I knew: that my life lay in a tiny spark, and here God would be my fire.
And then I saw, there it was! a salutary speck of coal was glowing! Oh, how gentle my breath as I warmed it, how tender my whisper as I begged it: do not die out! And when I finally kindled it, when I felt the warmth of a smouldering little flame beneath my lips, I gained such inner strength that the knotted strap no longer resisted me, and I untied myself from the board. And then I began to carve it with my claws, to gnaw at it with my teeth, panting and sobbing as I did so, until I had ripped a small handful of shavings from it, enough to feed the fire. And I laughed thankfully, knowing nothing of the fact that within the next hour I would commit that act, neither human nor animal, following which what and who I would be, my own phantom or an ulcer on society, no man in all the world will answer me. I grow pale at the memory of that deed, after which in old age such grief has burdened me, as if I carried a pit full of rotting tibias and serpents in my chest. And now, my Son, heed me, and be my judge.
I, Seweryn Zabierski, devoured my own leg.
Such is the upper surface of the facts. And no other words shall you find to describe such perverse monstrosity but autophagy.
I did it out of hunger. Not in the delirium of starvation, but out of intestinal hunger, being of sound mind, but in a state of terror. Terror is worse than hunger itself. For one can withstand the most excruciating emptiness, but one cannot bear the terrifying thought of the fatal results of emptiness, one cannot, and bristling with fear one seeks about for anything to consume: an earthworm, a rat, another man’s phlegm! Anything is better than that empty pit in the belly, where terror groans. Thus in such fear of starvation I looked about me for something of this kind to eat. And I saw my leg.
It was lying in a corner, bootless, cut off at the knee. In their haste to leave they must have tossed it there, without taking care of due burial. And there is nothing surprising in that, for as I say not only were there corpses lying strewn about the place, but they had even been used to plug holes in the walls; all of them were naked, every last shoe or warmer rag had reliably been torn from them in advance. Thus at the sight of my unshod leg, lying in a corner of the church, I was not greatly amazed. And I recognised it at once, to wit by the lack of toenails. For in sickness, first my leg had started to go pink, then to swell, and finally the toenails had fallen from it.
Thus it was not grief that overcame me, not horror at the sight of my own natural support lying apart in a dark corner, when I, id est my living body, was in quite another place, some ten ells away. Not grief, I say, not horror, but a wolf-like appetite. That leg, which Quartermaster Bertoldy had cut off with a saw, while two chasseurs had me nailed to the ground with arms crossed, that leg now looked fatty, and its imminent, desirable taste wrung tart saliva from my gums. Leaning on my hands, on the same snail-like trail, I crawled, reached hold of it and embraced it. Then dragging it with me, I slithered back to the bonfire.
The third extract is a complete letter written in June 1867 by Hubert Zabierski (son of Jan Nepomucen) in reply to an unexpected letter from his long estranged father, who is now living in Worspbrede, near Hamburg. The letter is sent from Chensk in the Russian province of Tavginsk – deepest Siberia, where Hubert is in exile following the 1863 Uprising, when the Polish insurgents were crushed by the Russian imperial army.
Having received the letter that you deigned to send me, without troubling for several decades previously to show the faintest sign indicative of an interest in my person and fate, my first thought was not to reply. And if I later altered this initial intention, the reason for my change of mind is not as yet apparent to me.
You address yourself to me from the centre of civilized Europe, and that is surely an honour, for which I have cause to be grateful. However, having no fondness for flower gardens, allow me to take the liberty of declaring that I see no affinity between our two worlds. You live in yours, and I in mine – that is a fact. Whereas the ideas fostering these two worlds, as you will admit, Sir, are more remote from each other than their climatic conditions and landscape, or the number of miles dividing them on the geographic map. Further to this, you will gather that as a result of so many years’ deferment our relationship would be inopportune, and too disjointed to be characterized by simplicity, which is however indispensable to the bond of family affections. Please be wont to explain by this rationale the limitation of my answer to nothing more than words that are essential.
You ask, Sir, whether I have progeny. Indeed my wife, who has been granted official leave to share my life in exile, one year ago gave birth to a son, on a boat of my own construction, as we were sailing from Turukhansk along the Yenisei River. He is a ruddy child, christened with the name Stanisław, and he is keeping well. Of the death of my mother, R.I.P., all that I can report is that she died in a melancholic trance, having resided for her final years at Węgrowiec, in the care of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. After her demise I was taken in by my aunt, Mrs Klara Tylman, née Zabierska, your own sister. It is to her good heart that I owe my boyhood years, spent at Szymowizna with her and my uncle, who after the death of their only child transferred their parental love to me. After completing the Real-gymnasium in Białystok and two years of agricultural studies in Kiev, I enrolled in the medical faculty at the Warsaw Main School. In the autumn of 1864 I was exiled by imperial decree to the depths of Russia, to wit in the vicinity of Turukhansk on the Yenisei River, whence I was later deported here, to the place where I now reside. That is all that I can tell you on matters relating to own person.
I beg you with categorical insistence to cast from your mind the intention of coming here, which you were good enough to mention in your letter to me. I am fully aware in every regard and can tell you with utter certainty that it would be the least judicious act possible, as fatal as it would be futile in its consequences. We live our lives here, a handful of exiled Crusoes, forced to dwell in a polar climate, far removed from civilized society and the intellectual currents of Europe, amid half-savage, nomadic customs. By good fortune, however, the manner in which the indigenous inhabitants, known as Samoyeds, are wont to relate to us is friendly. Living in a primitive state breeds beliefs and instincts in these beings that are unsullied by modern emulation, and age-old dependence on the elements of nature has taught them to treat any living creature in a manner similar to the community of insects or wildfowl. Any person arriving from the sphere of socially advanced contrivances would here, you may trust me, Sir, be a most eccentric and worthless guest, like a poodle amid a flock of penguins. Hence it is my duty to dissuade you from such a caprice, in the hope that your projects are nothing more than merely a passing fancy.
In your letter you chose to touch upon matters concerning our family which are close to my heart as well. Allow me to familiarize you with certain facts which I acquired from one of the Poles with whom I formed a friendship during my time in Vologda. He was a man who had travelled widely in life, was fond of hunting whales on distant seas and pearls in the Indian Ocean, and was married to an Irishwoman. I would converse with him at the barracks, where he was allowed to visit us; as he was a rich man, he was able to arrange for me to be unshackled for the night. Note well that on one of his sea voyages my acquaintance had sailed across the Pacific to the western shores of America; there, advancing overland at the foot of the Coastal Mountains and partly by way of the San Joaquin River, he travelled onward to the south, to the desert by the name of Mojave. He described to me a lifeless landscape, separated from the ocean by a chain of red cliffs and desiccated by scorching heat above 130 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. The most terrible place in this desert is the vale known as Death Valley, which appears to be utterly deserted, with vultures and eagles that nest in the cliffs hovering above.
You may wonder why I should amuse you with a crude landscape painting, yet please deign to read on. For my acquaintance recalled that the people living in settlements on the San Joaquin River were in the habit of calling this Death Valley “Zabersky Valley”, too. Struck by the Slavonic sound of this name, so uncommon in those parts, he set about questioning the older citizens in search of an explanation. The intelligence which he obtained from them is as follows. More than fifty years ago, and thus in about 1810, there undoubtedly lived in this valley a small group of foreigners from Europe, several dozen persons in all, both men and women. They lived in canvas tents, making expeditions on foot to the riverside settlements for food, and they were also to be seen with nets by the sea on the other side of the mountains. By local accounts, the wild birds were entirely at home with them, often flying down from the cliffs to settle on their shoulders, or circling around their tents. My acquaintance maintained that this was most probably a mystical sect of the same type as the later Fourierists or the disciples of de Saint-Martin, additionally imbued with the tenets of Buddhism, to which their somewhat peculiar rituals bore testimony, practised in a motionless state lasting for several hours, similar to hypnosis, with their arms raised to the heavens. The holy man of this confraternity was as yet young, and went by the name of Michael. Nobody knew when his surname, so uncannily consonant with our own, had become familiar to the local population, yet it is certain that the customary name for the valley came from him. My acquaintance told me there were people still living who remember him praying on the cliffs, as the vultures settled around him, while he stood motionless in a petrified state. Nobody knows how many years this desert brotherhood spent living in poverty there. According to hearsay, one night the Indians attacked them. After slaughtering the people and sending their tents up in smoke, they took several young women away with them. Yet to this day the local tales tell that the Indians did not kill the “holy man”; fearing that his spirit would take vengeance after his death, they spared his life, and my acquaintance had heard that for a long time afterwards this man, his wits befuddled, would wander the riverside settlements, until at last all trace of him had vanished.
This is what I heard from my acquaintance in Vologda. You will no doubt realize that I am not telling you these facts for your entertainment, but that by taking advantage of your connections in the world, you might deign to make enquiries, and to gather intelligence capable of casting stronger light on the person of this man named Michael, whose surname prompts one to speculate whether or not some kinship connected him with our family. And perhaps you might come upon someone who is aware of his later fortunes, or who knows someone else in possession of additional details or suppositions on this matter. However you may regard the anecdote related here, I felt it my duty to inform you of it, since in the unhappy circumstances which have been our Polish compatriots’ fate for centuries, to us any news of a countryman lost in a foreign world, which to an Englishman or a German would be merely an ounce of dust, carries the weight of gold. As for me, please forget me. Please abandon any plan to visit me here, for once and for all. These are my only requests. My dear Sir, your remembrance of me, though so delayed and belatedly revived, I shall preserve like the dried leaf of the oak tree cut down in my childhood, depriving me of the fortune to enjoy its shade.
Your most devoted servant,
Hubert Zabierski (‘Splinter’)
Post scriptum, 23 June.
If it were in your powers to send me a pair of white, silk-lined leather gloves, size three, also a top hat with a matt, black coating and a cravat for more solemn occasions, I would reciprocate with some trinket of the kind that is so skilfully carved here from bone or horn. If you regard such needs as eccentric, please know that your assumption is false. I am outwearing a frock coat inherited from a compatriot exiled to these parts by decree of the Tsar in the year 1832. On the more ceremonial days we gather at table in a festive group, to fortify ourselves with victuals and song. Please note, Sir, that on these occasions this costume is as indispensable as armour, not only providing protection from arrows, but also keeping the spine straight. For in our condition the most lethal illness is not cold or hunger, but an ailment one hundred times worse – dropsy of the spirit, the first symptoms of which manifest themselves in outer neglect and apathy towards dates in the calendar, in other words holy days, anniversaries and the like. At the next stage it is indicated by swinishness and idleness so far advanced that I have seen men take apart their own cottages for firewood. I do not know if medicine in civilized countries is aware of this debility, which here we call “mongolization”. But if my request is too burdensome, please dismiss it from your mind – I shall not take offence.
Translation © Antonia Lloyd-Jones