LULLABY FOR A HANGED MAN
Dedicated to the memory of Szymon Kuran – violinist, composer and friend
Szymon says, let’s go to the beach, let’s have a swim, the weather’s so beautiful, it would be a shame to waste a day like this, let’s get going. I wondered if he was about to go round the bend again, the days were so long, the night had cleared off for a few months, appearing only residually, a bit of dusk around midnight for an hour or so. Or perhaps he’s going around the bend out of joy as he now has his beloved children for a few weeks, they appear out of the blue, like prizes in a lottery. Except that you can’t swim around here, the water temperature never gets above eight degrees, what kind of fun is that, and the beach near Perlan, they must be joking, it’s just ground sawdust mixed with seashells, and whenever it rains the sand swells up and smells like a sawmill.
But Szymon won’t let up and I already know that I’ll have to give in or else he’ll explode. OK, I say, let’s go to the beach but I’m not going to swim, I’m staying on the shore, if you get the cramps and need help, I’ll jump in and come to your rescue but I’m not getting into the water for any other reason. Szymon started to laugh, put his violin into its case and signalled that he was ready to go. You’re not taking the children, I asked. No, no, they’re staying with the girls, they don’t like these swimming trips of mine, I’ve tried it before. We drove in his old, worn-out yellow wrangler jeep. The jeep had a surname too, for everything that Szymon owned, everything he liked and used, had a name or a surname. The violin wasn’t called violin but drink, and the car’s name was Rumputowski, it said so in black letters on its rear. Rumputowski headed out of Reykjavík but did not approach the sea, quite the contrary, just after Hafnarfjörður it turned off towards the Blue Mountains.
In wintertime, during those two daytime hours when the sun shines on their snow-covered slopes, they really do change colour, their bright azure standing out against the deep indigo sky, while at other times, when the sky is the same blue as the mountains, they become completely invisible. After the Hafnarfjördður cemetery the tarmac came to an end and we continued along a stony dirt road full of potholes. We didn’t talk, I didn’t ask where the sea was, there was no point any more, I knew full well we were moving further away from the sea, he must have changed his mind and we must have been headed for the little lake that just appeared on the horizon, perhaps Szymon called it the sea, the same way he called other things by different names.
But I was wrong, we didn’t stop at the lake, we drove on. Now we were sliding along on grass, Rumputowski climbed a little hill leaving behind a strip of bumpy grey road. We found ourselves on a plateau covered in lupins, kilometres of lupins, of every possible shade of blue. Never in my life had I seen such an accumulation of blueness, such a mass of flowers blooming in the far north, such an orgy of colour and fragrance. What I saw there had nothing in common with the lupins that used to grow in narrow colonies at railway crossings and along rail embankments and by penitential crosses in Lower Silesia. This was a complete universe, an infinite world of blueness, for at some point the end of the field merged with the sky. Rumputowski came to a halt. We got out. I leaned against the bonnet and savoured the amazing view, while Szymon took out his swimming trunks and a towel, which he spread on the ground the way people do on the beach in the resort of Międzyzdroje. He undressed completely, put on a pair of blue swimming trunks, picked up his violin and the bow, tuned it and asked, so you’re not going for a swim then, right, and strode into the field of lupins carrying his violin. He moved forward slowly, holding the instrument high above his head as if to make sure it wouldn’t get wet, as if wading through waves. He kept on walking, retreating so far into the distance that he eventually ended up as a tiny, whitish dot, visible only from the waist up, as his legs were covered by lupins and his blue swimming trunks merged completely with the colour of the flowers.
At one point he stopped and the tiny dot became even tinier as Szymon lowered the violin. He stood motionless for a while, and then I heard soft music flowing from within the field. He was playing something very calm, fluid, perfectly in harmony with this place. Had his body been painted blue it would have seemed that it was the lupins playing, that the flowers themselves had strings and sound boxes. Suddenly the wind rose. The tune began to merge with it. This was a symphony inside the sea, yes, inside the sea, for only now did I realize that we had, in fact, come to the seaside, complete with waves and the wind, that everything around was music and that somewhere in the distance a man was swimming, swimming in the waves and in the music, the lupins began to sway in the breeze, which intensified their fragrance, and I realized I was witnessing a miracle, for this was the most beautiful sea I’d ever seen, without water or seaweed, without fish or boats. And the lupin waves of this most beautiful sea gently rocked a violinist who played and played and played.
The phone rang. Boro was panting, his voice sounded really excited. Listen, listen, I heard it from the nurse, and he heard it from the Filipino cook, the gooseberry bushes near the old power station have borne fruit. Do you understand, they have gooseberries, real gooseberries, real fruit, we have to get there quick, otherwise those slitty eyes will pick it all clean, you know how quick and greedy they are, if there’s something that’s free it disappears straight away. Get dressed and pick me up, I’ll be waiting in front of the hospital. Only in Iceland could you expect this kind of reaction to the news that somewhere a gooseberry bush has borne fruit. Something that might be considered an everyday occurrence on the continent provokes a fever, a sensation here in Iceland, like that time when tart little tennis balls appeared on a dwarf apple tree in Akureyri, and the newspapers rushed to report the appearance of the first Icelandic apples. I bet he wouldn’t have been that excited about the news that sextuplets had been born in Split.
I dressed quickly and drove over to the psychiatric hospital. Boro was waiting for me with an empty canvas shopping bag. He got into the car without so much as a word of greeting and just shouted. C’mon, faster, faster, there won’t be anything left for us. Move it, move it, don’t look at me like that, just keep going, we’ll talk later. The power station is in a little green valley covered with dwarf trees planted by human hands. They have taken root, quite a few of them actually, the locals call it a forest… In the middle of the forest stands a little white house with a brook flowing nearby, and another white building next to it houses an old water turbine, it’s the old power station, currently a museum. In front of the house there’s a little garden. And sure enough, now I see a couple of gooseberry bushes and some Asians standing next to them. Oh no, Boro shouted. I could see they were terrified, they stopped picking, paralysed with fear. Do you have permission to pick gooseberries, he asked. No, they replied in unison. And do you know that you’re trespassing on private property. No. And do you know that picking the only gooseberries on the island without permission from the authorities, that is from me, is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. No, we didn’t know that, they muttered nervously. Well, you’d better make sure I never see you here again, now clear off and leave the gooseberries you’ve picked on the lawn. Stop gawping like that. Fuck off.
Within a few seconds they had vanished without trace, and Boro triumphantly collected the full bags from the grass. We sat in the car as happy as if we’d just carried out a successful bank robbery, clutching bags full of green gooseberries instead of green bills with George Washington on the back. And now I’m going to make dumplings for you, buddy, real Dalmatian dumplings, just like my mum used to make, with gooseberry jam, you’ve got a treat in store. Let’s go to Szymon’s place, he’s got his women there, we’ll get them to make some jam, I’ll bring everything and tell them what to do and when it’s all ready, we’ll come and I’ll make the dumplings. The girls agreed to make jam according to Boro’s recipe. When it was ready they filled several jars with it. I couldn’t sleep that night, in fact I wasn’t the only one, for the phone rang. Szymon said he couldn’t resist and ate half a jar, it reminded him of his childhood, the taste, the unforgettable garden smells, Poland, gooseberries, you know what I mean. Boro couldn’t sleep either, he rang as soon as I finished talking to Szymon and had more or less the same thing to say. Mother, childhood, Croatia, gooseberries, country food. My God, such a puny, hopeless, sour weed and all those memories, emotions, excitement that it has unleashed, I thought, trying to fall asleep but I couldn’t, now I was infected too and started to recall the allotments by the football stadium and the yellow tulips I had once stolen on Mother’s Day. A whole armful of them. When I got home I stashed them under the bed but in the morning, when I took the flowers from their hiding place, it turned out they had all wilted, they had died without water.
Boro bought a bag of potatoes, raisins, soured cream, butter, flour, cinnamon and told the girls to do the cooking under his supervision, for cooking was a ladies’ job, it wasn’t something he could do, he would just provide the know-how. When the potatoes had cooled off, the girls peeled and mashed them, and mixed them with the flour and eggs. Boro gave the orders, he was in his element, transported back to Dalmatia, to its tranquillity and his memories, he felt very important and the girls obediently carried out his instructions because, if truth be told, none of us could wait to try those dumplings of his and nobody protested, everyone followed the instructions of the great chef Borivoj Kapor. They kneaded the dough, adding a pinch of salt and once it reached the right consistency, they formed it into a roll and sprinkled it with flour so it wouldn’t stick. Szymon put a pot of cold water on the stove and my job was to melt some butter and mix it with raisins, breadcrumbs and cinnamon. The girls cut the dough into little circles, spooned the gooseberry miracle onto them and closed them up, forming little balls which they sprinkled with flour, and when the table was groaning under a mountain of little balls and the water in the pot came to a boil, the great Croatian chef gave a signal that the moment had arrived when they could be dropped into the water. He stirred them himself, this was the last stage in which only the most experienced person, the one with the knowledge, could participate. Once the dumplings floated to the surface, Boro removed them gently and passed them on to me to drop into the frying pan, into the sizzling butter, raisins and cinnamon. When the dumplings turned golden, he removed them and placed them in a bowl, repeating this procedure many times until all the little balls disappeared from the pot and filled three large bowls to the brim. The great chef ordered Szymon to dust them with sugar and I had to pour cream over them. There was something mystical about this experience, about these gooseberries wrested from the hands of yellow barbarians, Boro’s dumplings were like holy communion and Boro consumed more than anyone else, he couldn’t control himself. When we finished, when we could feel heaven not just on our palates but also in our stomachs, Szymon took out his violin and played L’amour en heritage as requested by the Croatian chef of chefs.
Boro decided to walk home with me, to get a little exercise, and then catch a bus home from the stop by my house. As we walked downhill, crossing a little bridge connecting a larger pond with a smaller one, he suddenly quickened his pace and said he had to go. We were just coming to the cemetery and I asked if he could hold it in until we got to my place, but he just said no. When he reached a green rubbish container at the cemetery, Boro jumped inside it and disappeared, and soon I heard groans and was horrified to see a grave-digger approaching on his little tractor with a trailer filled with mowed grass. There was no escape… The grave-digger started tossing grass into the container and when he emptied the trailer and left, when the purring of the engine was no longer audible and we both knew he had left the cemetery, a resurrected Boro rose up from the container, looking like a human lawn, grass growing on his head instead of hair. Perhaps this was the day his delusions turned into reality, when that green obsession of his issued from his brain, materializing at the old cemetery in Reykjavík. I admired him as a work of art while he zipped up his trousers in shock and disbelief.
I got a call from the owner of the pub where my picture was hanging, he said he wanted to buy it, he’d pay me in three instalments. When Boro learned the picture was almost sold he stopped calling me, he must have been totally crushed by the review of his current exhibition, the critic said you could find this kind of picture in every kindergarden, that a five-year-old could produce a prettier picture, that Europe and its established art schools churned out losers and folk artists. I received the first instalment. I dragged a sulking Boro out of his room and we went to the fish shop to get a bucket of herrings, it was a present for Plamen, his pet killer whale. Tossing fat silvery pieces of the marinated delicacy into Plamen’s mouth he told me he’d had enough. Enough of living in the lunatic asylum, enough of this kind of life, of life in general. When he finished feeding we went to Szymon’s for a cup of coffee.
Szymon seemed strange that day, he kept walking around drumming his fingers on the table while the St. Bernard nuzzled its big head against his legs, whining softly, and as the dog nuzzled its head, making soft noises, Szymon suddenly shouted, I’ve got it, and locked himself in the kitchen. Since the only way out of the room was through the kitchen, we had to wait, this went on for about an hour, maybe longer, we sat almost motionless looking out of the window at the rhubarb leaves fluttering in the wind that had started to pick up. The sound of the violin, the repetitions and returns, Szymon was still searching, he had yet to find harmony in his world of black dots, little flags, crosses and other mysterious symbols scattered on the stave that only he could write down and read. When he finished playing the whole piece to the end without stopping, he walked back into the room looking radiant and saying, gentlemen, I’ve finished this piece, it’s finally done, gentlemen, let’s do something crazy, something cool, I’m bursting to do something. This was just what Boro had been waiting for, I knew he’d long been dreaming of covering the statue of a poet in the thicket near the pond with green paint. Boro constantly carried this greenness inside him, he couldn’t get rid of it, and an act of vandalism like this might have helped him. It would have been like letting blood, releasing an overabundance of greenness.
I wasn’t wrong. Gentlemen, Boro announced solemnly, I’ve got an idea. Let’s cover the statue of the poet in the square with green paint. Szymon’s eyes boggled but after a while he said, fine, let’s do it. Boro was in seventh heaven, finally someone had agreed without asking unnecessary questions. We agreed to do it on Monday, on Monday night, as at this time of year the nights are still exceptionally clear. Boro explained that Mondays were best, the police would be slow after a busy weekend and the streets would be empty, he assured us. The bronze statue portrayed an Icelander who had died a tragic death, an alcoholic who had lived and written in Denmark until he fell down the stairs one night never to wake up again, leaving behind a pile of poems and much sorrow. A statue had been erected to him here, in his homeland, and Boro was about to desecrate it, or rather, as he put it, resurrect it. Boro said the poet had to be freshened up, he didn’t like the patina which, although a kind of green, struck him as deathly, the poet was to be brought back to life and that was all there was to it. We left Szymon’s house equipped with paintbrushes and two cans of paint, the weather was excellent, the skies were clear. I kept a lookout while Boro and Szymon got down to work.
The city was asleep, the statue was taking on a lively colour and when the boys finished dressing the poet in his new green uniform Boro climbed off the pedestal and opened the other can that contained pink paint. He climbed back onto the plinth and gave the poet enormous pink eyes. As we stood looking at the statue of the green poet with pink eyes, Boro proudly explained that this was exactly how he had viewed life, that his eyes had been exactly like this. The next evening Szymon phoned, he was amused and happy, he said our statue was on the news and that students from a nearby Lycee were now scrubbing the paint off it, but that wasn’t the funniest thing, Szymon said the perpetrator of the act of vandalism had been caught. It was the reporter who took pictures of the repainted poet, the police had found traces of pink paint on his hands and clothes, and he claimed he had been painting his little daughter’s room the previous day.
* * *
Agnieszka says I’m kind of calmer after the trip to Lofoten, I seem more tranquil and serene than before. I guess I look like that and I suppose I feel that way too. I’m making some headway learning to play the cello, I’m beginning to master simple pieces and Szymon smiles as he listens to me play, applauding when I finish and stand up and bow, holding the instrument by my side like the professionals from the philharmonic orchestra. Szymon isn’t looking well though. He has dark rings under the eyes, he is chain-smoking and says he can’t sleep. He misses his children, they’re in Denmark now, he hasn’t seen them for a long time. I think he was genuinely pleased when our son Jaś was born, but it also came as a real blow to him, because every time he sees us he’s reminded of his own children. I know he loves them very much. I know he does. And I don’t care what other people say. He’s a sensitive man, he’s full of love, all he can do is love, he wouldn’t hurt a fly, but life is testing him so sorely. Yet in spite of everything he manages to keep going.
We moved to a new, larger flat in the centre, like we had planned. Our home is growing and getting stronger, our child is growing too. Our life carries on without major upheavals. I was under the impression that all was well with Szymon too, that a new attack wasn’t imminent. One day I phoned him and found him very excited. Perhaps it was the prospect of having his children for a few weeks that lent his voice a note of optimism and joy. It may also have been the second-hand red Jaguar, he’d been dreaming of one ever since he was a little boy, and now he’d bought one on the cheap as Rumputowski, his old car, had bitten the dust, and the Russian jeep he got in exchange for the corpse of the wrangler didn’t last very long either. The red 1970 Jaguar with its huge tyres, round headlights and silver grating like a wild cat’s muzzle was the car of his dreams. And now it had come true. Children, Jaguar, I wasn’t worried about him.
I bundled Jaś into the car and we went for an outing. Nothing special, just to the end of the world. Just to sit down for a while, look at the lighthouse, watch the tide come in, remember Szymon gliding through the waves carrying casts of Agnieszka’s hands in bronze. I’d arranged to meet Agnieszka in front of the hospital at four o’clock, I was to pick her up after her shift ended. I parked on the corner next to the obstetrics hospital, where one street goes downhill, merging with the ring road, and another goes uphill, turning off near the villa that belongs to a rich man who had a wooden treehouse built for his children. I wanted to show this wonder to Jaś. I had long dreamt of a house and a garden with a tree like this, a tree with a little treehouse.
As I stood by the fence holding Jaś in my arms, talking to him and explaining, I spotted Szymon walking towards us, as he lived nearby. He was walking with his head hanging down, shuffling along the pavement, looking like a broomstick sweeping dry leaves aside. He passed us without raising his head, as if I were some obstacle blocking his way. Szymon, Szymon, I said to him, it’s us, Szymek. He stopped for a moment, raised his head and looked at me as if I were a complete stranger, as if he didn’t know me, the way you look at someone rushing to embrace an unknown person at the station. He didn’t recognize me, this was the other Szymon, the Szymon he hated, the one who kept ruining his life, driving him to the hospital ward. This was the sick Szymon, sad and troubled, and I felt there was nothing I could do, it had come over him again. I repeated one more time, Szymon, it’s us, but he just hung his head low and went off towards his house, his heavy feet shuffling along the pavement.
On Sunday I was at home, Agnieszka was on the morning shift. The phone rang, it was her voice. She didn’t seem to know how to begin. After a little hesitation she said, I’ve got bad news for you, Szymon has died… What do you mean died, I asked in disbelief, I met him in the street just this Friday, he was weird but alive. I’ve got today’s Morgunbladid in front of me, she said, it has a picture of him and a brief notice saying he’s gone, he died at home.
Why does a person take their own life? What do they do it for? Bloody hell, he still had so much to live for. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe he knew it was the end, that this world wasn’t for him any more. I’ll never know. I used to believe that people who commit suicide were cowards, that this desperate act was an escape from life, its problems and responsibilities. Or perhaps that suicides were people who had beaten God in a game of Sorry!, that they’d thrown the dice and when He wasn’t looking they’d done a runner until He in His mercy allowed them to die of natural causes or in an accident. Now I know that suicides are people who are totally free, and therefore unruly, courageous madmen who prefer to choose their own time and place, people who beat God at his own game, defeating him one-nil. And illness, what’s illness got to do with it? Maybe a lot, maybe nothing. Which one of us is sick and which one healthy? Who knows, maybe it was Szymon who was the healthier one as he tightened the noose…
There were just a few people in the cemetery chapel, his closest friends, a pastor, a Catholic priest and us. This was an intimate farewell as opposed to the big event that was due to take place in the Catholic cathedral a few days later, for after Szymon took his life many people suddenly remembered that he had lived here, that he had existed, walked the streets, played the violin. We were able to say farewell to him quietly. A closed white coffin lay in the middle of the room. The pastor, a rather stout woman in a black toga and white collar that only emphasized her bulk, began to pray. She couldn’t pronounce Szymon’s name and kept saying Simon, Simon, Simon, which reminded me of a silly children’s song.
It went something like this, two little doggies wanted to cross a river, they didn’t know how, they found a little footbridge, the little footbridge something something, then a rhyme that I forget and the rhyme was followed by a chorus, si bon si bon, boom tarara, boom si bon, si bon boom, then some more about the footbridge and so on. And this was how, with a French stress as in the si bon of the song, the pastor pronounced his name and in this solemn moment I found myself humming a silly tune, but maybe this was what Szymon would have wanted, maybe he heard me and was amused, maybe we had made contact again. And when she was done with her Simon and took her seat, an acquaintance of Szymon’s, a violinist, stood up and performed the most horrible piece of violin music one could possibly play to the deceased, some dreadful caterwauling, it made our ears bleed but he kept sawing away, crushing and ruining the moment. If Szymon was lying on his back I’m sure this music would have made him turn onto his stomach, and then onto his side, it wouldn’t have let him sleep. The violinist stopped at last, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, the Catholic priest used his stole to wipe the sweat of fear from his brow. The modest farewell ceremony was coming to an end, and as customary in Iceland, people leaving the chapel stopped by the coffin to make a sweeping sign of the cross. We couldn’t bring ourselves to do that and just patted the lid the way one pats a good friend. Take care, Szymuś, I said in the end.
On the day he was cremated I loaded the cello into the car and drove to the seaside, to our sea of lupins. The flowers had wilted, they’d lost their blossoms, they were weeping for him, they remembered very well the man with a violin in blue swimming trunks. His earthly remains, turned to ashes, were on their way to Poland, his native country, in a jar. It’s just as well, Szymuś, that they’ve taken you away, for this is not your land, you’d be too cold here. But now let me play for you, let me play you a lullaby on the cello, listen, I’ve learned how to play, I’ve written this lullaby for you, Szymuś, and if you hear a flat note, please put it right up there, wherever you are now. I’m down here playing for you, I’m playing you this lullaby, and you just go to sleep, sleep and rest in peace.
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:
Greeks Go Home to Die in B O D Y
The author’s page at the Polish Book Institute site
Krakowska, krakowska, krakowska
Waiting for Jesus
An interview at Authors & Translators