Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki



(an excerpt)
Tired? Mother asked when she saw us. Caught lots of butterflies? Silence. Well, have you lost the power of speech? What’s in the sack? Tell Mum, Dad nudges me. Cicadas, I say. I know all about cicadas, Mum says. I know you went cicada hunting, and now tell me what you have in the sack. Dad says it’s cicadas, they just look like grasshoppers, I say. Aris, Aris, Aris… says Mum, sounding concerned. Hungry? Silence. Sit down, but I don’t want that sack anywhere near the table. A dirty potato sack. Here’s some bread dipped in vinegar with garlic and tomatoes, just the thing for this heat. Have a drink of water first. When evening came the sack with cicadas was hung above my parents’ bed. Mum went to the factory for her night shift so I was able to cuddle up to Father in their bed. You’ve got to shake the sack to make them chirp and when they start chirping we can go to sleep. First I gave it a shake, then Dad tried, but the cicadas wouldn’t chirp. Now I know that these weren’t ordinary grasshoppers but genuine cicadas, except that Father had forgotten that cicadas stop chirping after sunset. They stop when it gets dark. We went to sleep without the sound of cicadas and when we woke up in the morning the sack was gone. Mum couldn’t stand suffering, and as her kindness extended even to the insect world she set them free before we woke up. She just tipped the sack out onto the lawn outside our block.

But this wasn’t the end of the cicada story. It must have been homesickness that had spurred my father’s invention. I’m sure all emigrés or displaced folk feel that way. Homesick for sounds, smells, something that exists over there but is lacking here. Homesickness is even greater when you have almost nothing. Mum was able to cope with it, or at least she wouldn’t let on. Women tend to be doers rather than talkers, and when they do talk, they talk about the things on their mind. But men are different. And my Dad had got it into his head that he would find a real cicada in Poland, and that its chirping would finally allow him to have a proper sleep in the afternoon.

Five kilometers north of our town of Bielawa, in Dzierżoniów Śląski, which is a real town, unlike ours, with a proper square, a town hall, a courthouse and a prison, a man named Jelonek opened up a pet shop in close proximity to the gates of heaven, that is, St. George’s Church, and the gates to a superior form of fleeting life, that is to say PEWEX, the foreign currency shop. Father had heard about it from one of his fellow taxi drivers, who went there to buy goldfish of bizarre shapes and fabulous colours for his fishtank. Does he sell cicadas? What are they? They’re like grasshoppers, only bigger. Well, he’s got fish. He’s got hamsters. He’s got guinea pigs. He’s got canaries. So maybe he’s got your sickies too. You’ll have to go and see for yourself. And if you don’t find what you want, just ask him. So we went. Dad parked our Warszawa outside the shop that purveyed unearthly goods in spite of its rather earthbound appearance, its barred windows guarding the wonders within, obtainable only for foreign currencies. Let’s go in and have a look, he said. Inside the shop a woman with lots of make-up stood behind the counter eyeing our poverty with contempt. Yards of cigarettes lined the wall behind her, stacked in rows of stiff and shiny packets. Assorted brands of vodka, chocolates, sweets and chewing gum pointed eastward to blue jeans, shetland wool jumpers, silk dresses and scarves, tinned pineapples, peaches, halva both plain and pistachio, vanilla jelly. A cornucopia of wonders… At the far end of all these unattainable riches a lady sat behind a cash register. A sign above her head listed the currencies they accepted. American, Canadian and Australian dollars. British pounds and Cypriot pounds. German marks and Finnish marks. Danish, Swedish and Norwegian kroner. Greek drachmas were also on the list but we didn’t have a single drachma. I didn’t even know what a drachma looked like, whether it was more or less beautiful than other currencies. Whether it was stronger or weaker and if so, stronger or weaker than what. My father’s eyes fixed on the pistachio halva, then moved onto the tinned peaches and back. He examined the list of currencies and gave a sigh. Meanwhile a woman in ghastly clattering high heels and doused in perfume advanced to the register clasping a receipt as if having to elbow her way through a crowd although there was nobody in the shop except for me and my Father, the two shop assistants and the cashier lady. She must have been keen to demonstrate that she had the money, that she could afford it, that today was her day. Perhaps her only day? Paying in dollars or vouchers? the cashier asked. In francs, she replied. French or Swiss? French. And can I have the change in vouchers, please? As you wish. She paid and walked over to the shop assistant muscling her way through the air. She handed over the stamped receipt, and received a colourful bag with a Marlboro logo, full of stuff. Father sighed again. One day I’ll buy you all of this, he said.

Jelonek’s shop stood out from a row of old tenements thanks to its yellow sign and the plaster head of a stag above the entrance, a visual representation of the owner’s name. A notice stuck to the shop window informed the public that this was the place to acquire exotic animals and pets as well as food for the above. A bell by the door apprised the owner that Aris Sallas and his son, Sakis Sallas, had arrived and required his attention. Mr. Jelonek, who emerged from the back of his stuffy shop, turned out to bear no resemblance to the graceful forest creature whose name he shared, instead resembling a huge boar with bristles pushing through his sweat-drenched vest. Individual hairs penetrated the fabric on Jelonek’s stomach, his protruding belly and ribcage, which boasted bulging glands, similar to its female counterparts, except that his contained no milk. Jelonek was patchily shaved, which gave his face the appearance of a potato field just after the harvest. A cigarette smouldered in his mouth and in a cage to his left hamsters lay in a lifeless row, like British soldiers at Ypres felled by German mustard gas. Without taking the cigarette out of his mouth he asked, what can I do for you? Father poked me in the ribs to indicate that I was to ask the questions because, having never bothered to master the Polish language properly, he was self-conscious in public and preferred to speak through an interpreter, that is myself. Do you have any cicadas? Cicadas? Yes, they’re like grasshoppers, only bigger. A slightly disconcerted Jelonek scratched his head, wiped a sweaty hand on his vest and asked: What’ve you got at home? I didn’t understand his question and just stared at him. Well, what’ve you got? What animal you got that eats grasshoppers? Or do you need them for fishing? I’ve got fresh earthworms at the back. Thick as sausages they are, the bastards, I’ve just given them some manure. I’ll have white worms tomorrow. Those are good too, only more difficult to nail to the hook. You can use an earthworm more than once. Just tear it into three, four pieces, or if it’s long, into five. And off you go. No, we’re not anglers, we want the cicadas for home. For keeps. Why didn’t you say so straight away? I don’t have any pet worms right now, there’s no demand for them, but I had this customer in here last week, she came with her daughter asking for stick insects. I might have some next month, but if you are in a hurry, you might get some in Wrocław. They’ve got everything in Krakowska Street, they’ll have your cicadas too. I have no worms in stock right now. Except for fishing, I can always sell those. You’re sure you don’t need worms for fishing? We shook our heads in unison to show that we didn’t.

Sadness and concern clouded Father’s face. The prospect of acquiring a cicada had all but slipped away, but then… A mysterious force, a kind of inward power, seemed to take hold of him, for all of a sudden my diminutive Daddy straightened his back, tensing his muscles like a body-builder. His eyes, filled with sadness, their greenness all but drained from them only a minute ago, now turned an intense fresh green, like newly sprouted cress. I could feel his blood starting to pump faster, as if about to burst his veins. The blood is straining his arteries, struggling to spurt out, but it can’t get through, the dams hold it back making bluish veins bulge out so clearly you can almost pick them off his head, set them aside and wait for new ones to appear. My Daddy raises his arms, the veins on his hands as taut as those on his temples. Except there are more of them and they are more gnarled. He nudges me again to ask Jelonek another question but I don’t know what I’m supposed to be asking. I stare at the electrified Poseidon, I stare at him imploringly because I don’t know what he wants. I haven’t the faintest idea of what has got into his head. And my Father the revolutionary, the guerrilla, clutches his ear, forms it into a trumpet with his hand and aims it at a sound I am only now beginning to hear. I can hear it now, it’s a disagreeable sound, a screeching, shrill noise. Screech, screech, screech, then silence. And again, shrill, shrill, shrill, then silence. My Papa keeps listening through his trumpet. Here it comes, again and again, screech, screech, screech, from somewhere at the back of the shop. He breathes a sigh of relief, the swollen veins begin to slacken. Everything relaxes back into its original state, my Father is slowly deflating too, he is no longer a body-builder, a pumped-up muscleman, just Aris Sallas, an ordinary man. He gives me another nudge and although I still don’t know what’s going on, Jelonek comes to the rescue, asking. So you wanna buy a parrot? I’ve got one at the back, a dreadfully noisy creature it is. It starts screeching when it gets mad. Some people like birds like that, they’re lively fellas but they’re not for singing. If you like your peace and quiet and want nice music at home you wanna get a canary but if you want something that screeches and talks like a human, a parrot is the thing for you. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Oh yes, Father does want it, I get another nudge in the ribs. Father nods in affirmation and Jelonek disappears behind a dark curtain trailing a wreath of cigarette smoke. Father stiffens up again in anticipation. Some mysterious activity is taking place behind the curtain, like the hocus-pocus Greek priests perform behind the iconostasis, out of the reach of ordinary bread eaters, although they too have their magic tricks with bread. The bread and body of Christ. A mystery. A cage with silvery bars is brought before us, there is a green cicada inside, not quite as large as the screeching we’d heard might suggest. The cicada is scared, its pupils contract and dilate. It doesn’t ruffle its feathers, it’s terribly frightened of Jelonek and of Father, of me and the future. The shopkeeper holds the cage by the handle on the top like a gas lamp, dangling the lamp gently to and fro. The dangling gets more violent and the cicada goes screech, screech, screech. As he hears the sound again, tears well up in Father’s eyes and he begins to deflate. He stares and stares and can’t bring himself to stop. Originally these critters come from Australia but I get them from Głogów. There’s a chap there breeds them. They sell quite well, actually. Well, what do you think? And Father makes his first speech in a foreign tongue, voicing his rapture in three profound, heart-felt exclamations: YES. YES. YES. You want it with the cage or in a bag? Cage, cage, cage, my Daddy repeats, again three times. If you take the cage, I’ll throw in the seed trays and a water feeder for free. It’s a male. The wax above his beak is lilac. In females it’s white. You’ll want some pumice, too, they like to rub their beaks. They’ve got to. Without pumice the beak starts growing together and when that happens they can’t eat and when they can’t eat they die or you have to fork out for a vet. I had this woman come in, about six months ago it was. She didn’t want any pumice. And I’m tellin’ her that the parrot won’t last long without pumice. But she won’t listen. All right, up to you. And then three months later she brings the parrot in, it’s gone all thin and wizened, ‘cos when the beak grew together, she grabbed it and had a go at it with scissors. She did quite a job on the poor bird, it had a hole on the right side of its beak. But this is Dzierżoniów, this is no Polanica Zdrój, a spa for Warsaw ladies who come to take the waters. I look at the parrot with its hole and there’s nothing I can do, but she says she wants to swap the bird for a better one, a new one without a hole. And I’m thinking, what does she think this is, dammit, some kind of a toy you can swap or patch up? I don’t do refunds on living critters. So she says I should keep it and sell her a new parrot at half price. Fucking cow… I tell her I’m not keeping the bird and I’m not selling her a new one unless she takes some pumice this time. She just slammed the door and left without the parrot. It stayed on the counter. It wouldn’t eat, the poor thing, only a little bit. It was getting thinner and thinner so I thought to myself, let’s do a good deed, stop the poor thing wasting away. I put it in a bag and smashed it against the counter and gave it to the cat but even the cat wouldn’t touch it. That dinner was too fancy for it too… So you’d better take the pumice, keep changing the water, here’s some grain for feed, and do give it some fruit too, if you have any. They like crisp apples but without the peel.

Just make sure you hold the cage upright so it doesn’t tip over, Father said as I climbed onto the back seat of the Warszawa. We should have covered the cage with paper, Dad, like Jelonek said. He wanted to give us some paper, it’s less scary for the bird. We’ll manage, we’re not going that far. Getting a bit scared will do it good. Dad started the car and we set off, past the synagogue, then another turn and down to the main road along bumpy dirt roads. As the car bounced up and down, making the parrot screech piteously, Father stopped the Warszawa, went into reverse and the shrilling got louder; he went back and forth and kept doing it until I turned pale and felt sick. Listen, my boy, this is exactly what genuine, healthy, Greek cicadas do. Ones exactly like ours. This is a first class cicada. I’ve been waiting so many years and I’ve finally got one, I’ll be able to have a proper afternoon nap at last. Seeing the parrot, Mum clutched her head. What are we going to do with this bird, Aris? Isn’t there trouble enough in this world? And you’re bringing more trouble home. It’ll not be of any use, only trouble. This is not a parrot, Poseidon replied with pride. So what is it? This is a cicada, an absolutely genuine Greek cicada, it just looks like a parrot. You’ll get used to it. Father told me to put the cage on the table and move aside, then he gave it a gentle shake. After the third time the bird started screeching pitifully. So? He looked at Mummy. Doesn’t it sound just like a cicada? Well, it does a bit, Mum said. But real cicadas don’t need shaking. Stop grumbling. Maybe in time it will learn to do so of its own accord. It’s a new cicada, it has to get used to us. But what shall we call it? What? The parrot, asked Mummy with a smile. What do you mean, what shall we call it? It will have the name it deserves, it’s obvious. The parrot’s name will be Cicada, and that’s it.

Mum went off for her night shift at the factory. Father told me to place Cicada on their bedside table. He undressed and lay down on his back, looking at the slightly sooty ceiling and the chandelier left behind by the Germans, with sockets for four lightbulbs, of which we used only one. Cicada, its head turned back onto its green and shiny back and its feathers ruffled so that it resembled a small head of cabbage, was trying to go to sleep. Give the cage a shake, my son, Father whispered. After a few shakes the frightened bird started shrieking. Don’t stop, don’t stop, my boy. I kept shaking the cage and the parrot screeched with all its might until I heard the sound of snoring, much louder than the noise our Cicada made. Father was back in Greece at last.
HUBERT-KLIMKO DOBRZANIECKI (b. 1967) Polish writer and poet, author of several collections of short stories and short novels as well as two volumes of poetry and a children’s book. After studying theology and philosophy and travelling around Europe, he spent 10 years living in Reykjavík, studying Icelandic language and literature. Before turning to full-time writing, he has tried is hand at a variety of jobs, from short order cook, strawberry picker, clown and orderly in an old-people’s home. He is currently lives in Vienna with his family. Apart from fiction he regularly publishes essays in Polish journals such as Polityka, Przekrój, Odra and Zwierciadło.

In March 2013, Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s novel Lullaby for a Hanged Man was published in a Slovak translation by Julia Sherwood, who has also translated the novel into English.


About the Translators:

JULIA SHERWOOD (née Kalinová) was born in Bratislava, Slovakia. She has worked as a translator from English, Czech, Slovak, German, Polish and Russian into Slovak and English and is Chair of the NGO Rights in Russia. Her translations include Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová, Freshta by Petra Procházková, and My Life with Hviezdoslav by Jana Juráňová due to be published by Calypso Editions in 2014. She has also translated work by writers such as Uršuľa Kovalyk, Michal Hvorecký and Leopold Lahola among many others. She is Asymptote’s Editor-at-large for Slovakia.
PETER SHERWOOD is the first László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has translated the novels The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos and The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi as well as stories by Dezső Kosztolányi, Zsigmond Móricz and others, along with works of poetry, drama and philosophy.

Read more work by Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki:

The author’s page at the Polish Book Institute site
Selected Essays:
Krakowska, krakowska, krakowska
Svätopluk’s Horse
Waiting for Jesus
An interview at Authors & Translators