In the morning I woke up fresh and rested. I jumped out of bed and did a few vaguely gymnastic exercises. The room was a bit chilly, I had an appetite, good humor and felt very young. Auntie’s canary sent off a peel of brilliant trills from his cage:
“Tru – tiu – tu …”
I echoed him:
“Tiu – tiu … Good morning, little birdie. Good morning, Cracow, good morning, sun … Good morning, good morning!”
I ran to fetch a bag with seeds and served the birdie a copious spoonful in his bowl. The wall glittered with playful sun bunnies. It was cold outside but warmer than yesterday. The thermometer was showing twenty degrees. It was 8:20 am. Phew, at last I had had a good night’s sleep. I had slept almost ten hours. Now I felt rested, strong, young and independent. Whistling, I ran to the bathroom. I would have loved a bath but unfortunately the bathtub was filled with the corpse.
I stood in front of the mirror.
“Good morning, Jurek,” I smiled. “Hello, Jerzy.”
I ran the tap and washed myself from waist up.
“Good morning, Auntie,” I turned towards the bath. “How did my love sleep in the tub?”
I was singing, crying and shaking off the cold water.
After drying myself with a thick hairy towel, I started to shave. I was a bit cold but didn’t put my shirt on, showing off instead my arms and shoulders, perhaps still rather boyish for my age. As I dressed, I did gymnastics the whole time, and hummed to myself.
I put the kettle on the stove and started preparing breakfast. Once more I considered my situation. It was not bad. I was confident, but without the easy optimism which had momentarily swept over me immediately after killing Auntie. I was aware now that disposing of the corpse would require a long effort but I believed I was up to it. Auntie’s sudden disappearance should not arouse any suspicions from the neighbors or friends. She often went away without any warning and could even be absent for several days at a time. I decided that after ten days – during which time I should certainly manage to get rid of the corpse – I would start a search. First I would write to grandma, then to friends and Auntie’s business associates in other towns, and finally I would place an ad in the press and call the police.
The food in the larder would last me only two or three days. After breakfast I searched the flat for money. In Auntie’s handbag, in the linen cupboard between the sheets and in the drawer of her night table I found bills totaling one thousand and seven hundred zlotys. That would tide me over for now. Later I might sell Auntie’s clothes and her jewelry: her wedding ring, the ruby ring and the small necklace. Apart from that, inside the corpse’s mouth I would find a gold bridge, though I should probably wait a bit before selling it. At any rate, I’d be financially secure for a few months. Then it would be summer, I could go off on a camping trip, and in my last year at university I’d find a job.
I already started thinking of finding suitable, not-tooabsorbing employment. But first things first – I had to get cracking with disposing of the corpse. I knew I couldn’t do it in one go, that the job had to be spread over several days and that I would have to be extremely careful. It crossed my mind that I could burn part of the body in the stove. Frequent trips with packages containing bits of the corpse struck me as too risky.
The lectures started in the afternoon. So I decided to get on with it now. What I could not decide on was whether to light the kitchen stove or the one in the bedroom. Eventually I settled on both. The flat was pretty cold. Although I sleep and spend most of my time in the room, recently I’d come to like sitting around the kitchen. Perhaps it was that silly power which brings the murderer to the scene of his crime, which one reads so much about in novels. Of course I did not feel like a murderer. Killing Auntie was in my case the result of so many interlocking mental states, of complexes and depression that I had analyzed and digested so many times before, that analyzing and digesting them all over again would only have been another pointless routine. In fact, my engagement with the corpse ruled out in advance any element of remorse, if I’d had any in the first place. The corpse was simply my partner in a hazardous game, in which admittedly I couldn’t win anything, but on the other hand could lose my life. I even had a kind of respect for the corpse, the way one usually does for a strong opponent.
I had a bit of stage fright before lighting the stove. It was a much more difficult task than peeling potatoes. I tried not to admit it to myself though. With a poker and a coal spade I swept out the ash, revealing the bare grate. Quite a large proportion of the ash missed the bucket and ended up on the floor. But I didn’t worry too much about it. The floor needed to be scrubbed anyway. It had small puddles of Auntie’s dried-up blood on it, as well as a few drops of mine from the unfortunate finger. I thought I would have to wash the shirt, too; its sleeves were stained with blood from when I was trying to bandage my wound. Taking bloodied linen to a laundry would be rather risky in my situation.
I placed a few sheets of old newspaper on the grate, and on top of them a few dry splinters of wood. Only then I decided to place among all this flammable material some pieces of coal. The first match went out the moment I brought it near the stove. The second and the third likewise. I remembered that there was a draft inside the stove that put out small flames. I hit on the idea of lighting a piece of paper outside the stove and putting it inside only when it was properly burning. Alas, I ran out of matches. I looked on top of the stove; I found several boxes, all empty. A search of the entire flat was equally fruitless. I was delighted when on Auntie’s night table I found a box which was heavy and rattled when I picked it up. But all the matches inside were burned. There was no other way: I had to go downstairs and buy matches. I accepted it without grumbling.
I had to go out to buy cigarettes anyway, of which I had only two left; they wouldn’t last me till midday. In the kiosk on the corner I purchased two boxes of matches, – one for my pocket, the other for the household – a packet of cigarettes and today’s paper.
I could not refuse myself the pleasure of leafing through the pages before lighting the stove. I sat on the stool and checked the headlines. I always started with news reports, although the names of diplomats or international events did not interest me at all. Inside there was an article with an enticing title but the text was so long and gray I knew I would never be able to read it. Below I found a column in italics signed by a local hack, from whom I couldn’t expect anything good. Finally I reached the back page, my favorite. Among the gossip, small ads, weather forecasts and other short pieces I found the following headline:
Matricide on death row
I read on:
“The trial concluded yesterday of Edward Wąsacz, aged 19, from the village Żylin, in Dąbrowa district, accused of carrying out murder on the person of his mother, Weronika Wąsacz, aged 45. On the 27th of this month the accused returned home in a state of inebriation and when his mother remonstrated with him he punched her in the face. The woman began to scream and cry for help, in response to which her son struck her on the head with an axe, causing an open fracture of the skull. Following this, the murderer buried the victim’s body under a pile of manure in the yard. Thanks to an energetic investigation the perpetrator was arrested just 48 hours later. After a guilty verdict in the county court, the pathological killer was sentenced to death.”
I found no parallel between this piece of news and my current situation. There was absolutely no psychological similarity between me and the country bumpkin from the Dąbrowa district. Nevertheless, I read the column carefully several times. I smiled to myself, imagining the sly drunk burying his corpse in a pile of manure. I also calculated how long 48 hours was, and whether it had passed since my killing of Auntie. It turned out it had not.
“Good,” I said aloud and kneeled before the stove, matches in hand.
I lit a sheet of newspaper and threw it inside. It curled up in flames and fell on the coal in a charred, scrunched up lump. The stove was black and cold again. I lit another sheet and placed it in such a way as to direct the flames onto the dry wood, then quickly put the burning match to the papers that were already there from earlier. The flame rose clear and high. The wood began to burn. Triumphantly I closed the stove hatch. A playful bright light flickered through the long slits in the iron hatch. Alas, it started to weaken and soon the stove gaped at me with empty eye sockets. It died. I was annoyed. I stuffed in as much paper as the stove would take and went to the larder, where Auntie kept a bottle of kerosene; there was still some left at the bottom. I lit the paper and poured the kerosene on the feeble flame. The inside of the stove burst into light and everything went up in flames in a jiffy. I watched as the wood caught fire and how the flame cuddled up to the coal with little sparks and made it glow.
I loved fire. As a child I could spend hours watching the charming yet fleeting shapes of burning objects, their last slow throes before annihilation. I liked watching old newspapers and trash transmogrify in their last moments into burning craters, assuming blindingly white forms. I liked watching the miraculous transformation of frail dry flakes now crackling in scarlet opulence. A few prods with the poker inside the stove stirred up a golden blizzard. I put some more pieces of coal in and closed the hatch.
It was much nicer in the kitchen now. Of course, the freshly kindled fire could not yet give much warmth but I knew it would soon be warm. I put a saucepan of water on the range and got busy with lunch. I fortified my tea with the Hungarian wine and checked the stove. Most of the coal was now glowing red. I took some of the glowing embers on the pan and carried them to the stove in the bedroom. Then I stoked both stoves with more coal. I felt like a prince in my modest castle. I looked into the pantry to compose a menu for the lunch. First of all the cutlets, which had been lying on the shelf for two days. I would fry them with potatoes. Fried eggs would make an excellent side dish too. Some sort of soup crossed my mind but I dismissed it as too complicated. I put on a big kettle of water. I checked for sugar in the sugar bowl and it turned out there was plenty. I spread the newspaper on the floor, brought in the basket, took out the knife and began peeling potatoes. It wasn’t difficult at all. I worked slowly, unhurriedly, calmly. Just as I finished the third potato, I felt a pang of anxiety. I felt vaguely as if I had committed a kind of desertion. It was all too pretty, too pastoral. After all, with all this calm and confidence one must not forget that there was a corpse nearby. And it could cause trouble. One silly accident and the crime would be out. I checked the stove. The heat was wonderful. I pushed the potatoes aside and went over to the bathroom.
When I stood over the corpse, I had to reprimand myself again for being absentminded and impulsive. I had brought no tools with me. I returned to the kitchen to fetch the axe. But with the axe I stood over the corpse just as helpless as before. The corpse was lying on the bottom of the tub, which precluded any sensible chop. I could of course hack at its face, open up the stomach or cut the chest, but that would not advance the job in any real way. My eyes alighted on the feet, sticking up above the edge of the bath. Why not start with the legs? I took a good swing and struck, aiming more or less in the middle of the tibia between the foot and the knee, at the point where the leg was resting on the rim of the bath. I struck and the bathroom was filled with a deep metallic boom. The bath rang out like a bell. I’d missed. I’d only scratched the calf, tearing up the stocking and the skin, and making a dent in the bath. The boom seemed interminable. I heard it out patiently, feeling terribly guilty. When the boom died out I tapped myself on the forehead.
“Think, man. Think. Chopping off legs with an axe makes no sense whatsoever,” I explained to myself. “And it’s equally pointless chopping them off here. Rather, you should try for smaller pieces, ready to be put in the stove. And finally, there’s no point in chopping at legs that are still dressed in stockings and shoes.”
So I unlaced the shoes, pulled them off the dead feet and stood them at attention in front of Auntie’s bed. Then I pulled up the skirt and unclasped the stockings. I rolled them up into a ball and threw them in the stove. From the larder I fetched a small and rather blunt saw. I positioned myself and had a first go. It wasn’t too bad. I realized that resting my hand just above the corpse’s knee I could saw the leg into pieces any size I liked, just like they do it in the country when they saw birch branches that go straight in the stove. So first, I had to disconnect the foot. I cleared my throat to emphasize the gravity of the work, and began:
“Shrrt-Shrrt … shrrt-shrrt … shrrt-shrrrt …”
On the whole, I was making good progress. Several times the saw jumped out of the groove and scratched the skin, but that is to be expected during sawing.
“Shrrt-Shrrt … shrrt-shrrt … shrrt-shrrrt …”
I got to the bone, which proved tougher, but then it started to give way, too. Then the saw blade got stuck in some sticky muck. I wiped it off with a finger and flicked the gunge into the loo, then got on with the sawing again. Muscles, tendons, bones – everything gave way. My confidence grew. It turns out I am not all thumbs, as Auntie used to tell me. I smiled at the joke, which came to my mind unbidden. When the foot was nearly cut through I put away the saw and reached for the axe. With a few brisk chops I finally severed it from the leg. Stupidly though, I wasn’t holding it, and the foot plopped into the toilet bowl. I cursed and delicately fished it out with two fingers. For a moment I hesitated whether I should wipe it dry so as not put a wet item in the stove, and even made a movement towards the towel, but laughed aloud at myself. I put the foot on the hot range in the kitchen and returned to sawing off another piece of leg. This time I was careful to avoid the embarrassment with the toilet bowl. At long last the foot and the other piece lay in front of the stove.
The heat inside the stove was wonderful. I threw in more pieces of paper and wood to build up the fire and chucked the foot into the shimmering void. It sizzled. I heard a hollow thump of the falling weight. The flames began to lick the new item. The skin began to blush and stretch. I smelled the odor of burning tallow. I was very tempted to watch the struggle of the flames with the corpse’s foot a bit longer, but overcame the temptation and closed the hatch. It could have led to some kind of unhealthy sadism, which so far had been absent in my relationship with the corpse. Anyway, the fire burned better with the hatch shut.
Somehow I lost interest in preparing the cutlets now. There was still time, I told myself. And went to the room and lay on the bed. Like an old sybarite I took time to arrange the pillows under my head and shoulders, and to wrap myself in the blanket. I wanted to make my bed as soft and comfortable as possible. I reached out for a book. Oddly, it happened to be Dante’s Inferno. I was irked by this theatricality, which from time to time emerged against my will and against – I was very much aware of that – my actual situation. But then, what was I to do if this was the only book within the range of my hand? I didn’t have much of a choice anyway. The few miserable books lying on my shelf were all so thumbed through I had long lost any interest in them.
I immersed myself in reading but as I read I was becoming more and more aware that my eyes were running through Dante’s stanzas mechanically, without taking in any meaning. I felt sleepy. It was eleven o’clock. Perfect time for a midmorning nap. And then, when the foot had burned, I’d cook myself lunch. I unclasped my watchstrap and unbuckled my trouser belt. The room was cold. The fire, left unattended in favor of the kitchen stove, had died out. I wrapped myself tight in the blanket and closed my eyes. Sleep came soon after.
I woke up with a headache. My head was still full of images from my oppressive, suffocating dreams. I had dreamed a nightmare. I threw off the blanket and sat on the bed. Across the room hung a thin gray mist. And a smell of burning. I opened the window and leaned out into the frosty air of the street. My head swam. I turned back into the room and only then realized how it stank inside. Before I guessed the cause I was in the kitchen. It was dark. Thick, black smoke and that sweet, sickly stench permeated the entire room. The stove looked like a volcano. Through the gaps in the range and the hatch door spewed heavy, lazy swirls.
I retreated and shut the door. The hall too was filling with smoke. I shut myself in my room and opened the window wide. Yuk, what an awful, sticky stink … I felt that stickiness everywhere: in my nose, on my hands, inside my mouth. I felt sick. I positioned myself by the window and, taking deep breaths, began to think through different ways of getting rid of the smoke. Alas there was only one thing to do: air the flat. A dangerous way, attracting attention but … the only possibility. I held my breath and burst into the kitchen. I flung the window wide open and quickly ran back into my room, where the air was by now quite breathable. I wrapped myself in the blanket and covered my feet with a duvet. With my hands clasped over my chest, eyes fixed on the ceiling, I waited for the kitchen to clear. It was a method of an ostrich, perhaps, but who said I was to be constantly in a heroic mode of action? After all, so far the more energetic activity had always landed me in trouble.
But it was not granted that I should enjoy my peace for long. I heard banging on the kitchen door. A dilemma: should I open it or not open it? Of course – open it. I could not afford the risk of having someone break down the door and poke around my flat in search of the cause of fire. Behind the door rose a clamor of female voices. Someone started pummeling the door with a fist. I called out:
“I’m coming! I’m coming …” and turned the key.
I came face to face with a small group of frightened women. The poor ladies had abandoned their saucepans and hurried to my rescue. The corpulent Malinowska was holding a knife with which she was presumably cutting meat when she heard her close neighbor was in danger. Skinny, jumpy Benderowa dragged in her toddler; the look of terror in her irregular pale eyes made me want to laugh. But I stopped myself. The women swept me aside and ran in. They kept throwing questions at me, which fortunately I didn’t have to answer as they were just as quickly answering them themselves, shouting over each other.
So I stood mumbling something, spreading my hands, smiling apologetically and thanking them. The women treated me with tender concern, putting into their words all their motherly affection they felt for those different twenty-year-old men – their lovers, husbands and sons – who were driving them to their graves. The energetic Piekarzowa knelt in front of the stove and began to poke about inside it with a poker. I offered my help and tried to take the poker out of her hands but was brusquely led away from the stove. It’s not a job for boys. So I leaned against the sideboard and, talking to the ladies, waited for the half-burned foot to fall out of the stove. Piekarzowa put the bucket to the hatch and with a few well-practiced movements swept out a mound of ash. In a gray, acrid cloud of ash I saw the foot. It fell into the bucket. With a thud. Now Piekarzowa would look into the bucket and … I didn’t want to imagine any more.
But nothing of the sort happened. The woman swept the stove clean and shut the hatch.
“Well, Mr. Jurek,” she said, “it won’t smoke no more. And in the future – be careful.”
Nodding my head meekly, I listened to warnings and indulgent rebukes. The kitchen was emptying. The women were returning to their kitchens. Only Piekarzowa stayed for a chat, asking me about Auntie and my dead parents. At length, she commiserated over my orphaned state and Auntie’s toil – “after all, an old person.”
At long last I managed to get rid of the ghastly woman. I sat down in the middle of the kitchen totally crushed. In front of the stove I noticed a piece of Auntie’s leg still lying there. It was incomprehensible how they could not have seen it. I poked around the bucket and found the foot, charred but still retaining its natural shape. The good housewife missed that too. No doubt I was incredibly lucky, but somehow it didn’t make me jump for joy. My lunch, which I prepared all by myself – the cutlets, so keenly anticipated by my taste buds – all went down the tube. And now the flat was cold as a doghouse. My first response was to take the foot with the ash and dispose of it in the rubbish bin outside. I knew it was risky but then it was already the second day and I still hadn’t got rid of one piece of my deceased.
However, I refrained from that desperate step. Resigned, I picked up the foot and the piece of leg and carried them to the bathroom where I placed them on both sides of the corpse. Then, from the sheets, I selected the biggest one and covered the corpse as neatly as I could. Only one leg and the shorter stump were sticking out from under this improvised shroud.
The time for my university lectures approached. Having checked that the flat was more or less free of smoke, I closed the windows and went out. I had my lunch in the corner bar. I chewed the bits of the overseasoned stew but they only grew bigger in my mouth. I washed them down with a beer. It was flat and sour. I quickly paid the bill and went out onto the street. I checked my watch. It turned out I was about fifteen minutes early. These fifteen minutes would have to be killed loitering and windowshopping, or reading film posters hanging outside the cinema on my way. I was not interested in the merchandise on display and I’d read the film posters several times before, but I stopped both before the shops and before the cinema. I didn’t want to arrive too early.
The lecture was just like all the others I had attended so far. The cold barrenness of the walls and the ritual inventory hanging behind a framed showcase were exactly as they were before. I noted down some of the professor’s words absentmindedly, though not more absentmindedly than usual. His bony, shortsighted assistant was noting the professor’s every word, turning his head in a funny way like a blind sparrow hawk. After forty-five minutes the professor put his coat on and went out for a fifteenminute break. Then he returned and got on with his lecture for another three quarters of an hour. The assistant knew well when his moment would come, and when the old man pulled out his watch he put his pen aside and waited in readiness. Then he jumped up, took the professor’s coat off the coat hanger and before the old man managed even to put it on properly, he was offering him hat and walking stick. It always went like this so I was not surprised by today’s ceremony.
I nipped out for a smoke. In the corridor by the window stood Alina, a girl with very bad legs, and vulgar Eva, talking in a conspiratorial way, totally absorbed in each other. A few smoking boys gathered in a small noisy group. I caught fragments of some old crass joke, which had ceased to amuse me when I was sixteen. Luckily, Mazan was not there. Instead, another student came up to me and asked if I had managed to sort out something I was supposed to arrange for the party. I replied that I had not, yet, but that I would for sure. Because I was not inclined to keep up the conversation he soon left me in peace.
Nothing had changed here. My act, punishable by the gallows, appeared pointless and unimportant. That very same lecture hall, the dark corridor and the loneliness that accompanied me I was among these people, whom I didn’t need, who couldn’t help me or even harm me. After the lectures I quickly sneaked outside. Yet, walking down the street I regretted my rashness. It was too early again. I couldn’t think what to do with the evening. The flat was cold and I had no strength left to do any more burning. I slowed down, and then turned back towards the center. Something was nagging me about the corpse at home, and the need to get back and do something about it. I ran through in my mind a short list of friends I could visit. Somehow I didn’t feel like talking to any of them. But still, I kept walking.
I remembered it was a Saturday. I was definitely too young to spend a Saturday night moping around at home. Even a home shared with a corpse. I checked several cinemas but all of them had long lines. Dejected, I stood on the curb and stared stupidly at the yellow splashes of electric light from the lampposts reflected on the street and frozen puddles. Across the street I noticed two people I knew. They were students at the Academy of Fine Arts. Nice guys. I used to go to school with one of them; we even became friends. At first I wanted to turn and walk away. But then remembered I had nowhere to walk to. I quickly crossed the street and accosted them. We greeted each other in a noisy, friendly fashion. My friends were burdened with bottles of vodka and invited me enthusiastically to help them lighten their load.
I accepted. Immediately, the mood turned light and warm. The conversation became noisy, punctuated with loud bursts of laughter. In Jacek’s flat we found waiting for us two other boys and Hilda, a medical student. Hilda was wonderfully ugly, skinny as a pole and gracelessly tall. But she wore a funny little pigtail and could out-drink any boy. Without wasting time on spurious conversations we got down to it. It’s hard to imagine a better place for drinking large amounts of plain vodka than Jacek’s room. It was very small yet oddly bleak. It had something of a train station waiting room about it. The space between the wall and the wardrobe was crammed with rolls of canvas.
“Eat, take a bite,” Jacek invited us to rolls and sausage served on grease paper.
So we ate and took bites. But most of all we drank. There were no glasses. We drank from heavy clay cups. Bottoms up. By the third round a great discussion broke out about art, politics, philosophy and ethics. We spoke all at once, with great wit and passion. One of the boys, Janek … yes, Janek – picked up a guitar and started strumming it. We broke into a song. Soon I had drunk my fill, but the vodka had to be finished. The cups clacked again. One of the boys disappeared down the hallway and returned after a while rather pale and with wet hair. I felt I would soon follow suit. I was seeing drifting black clouds and felt a sweet acerbic taste in my mouth. Now people regularly disappeared behind the door, returned and drank on. Only Hilda didn’t move, sitting ramrod straight throughout, though she drank the most.
We reached the point of soul-searching and confessions. Jacek put his arm around me and poured out his heart. He swore his undying friendship, pledged his life to creating great art and threatened to show someone what’s what. Before long we were embracing and kissing as true friends. In the process we knocked the table and one of the cups fell on the floor. Next I was in someone else’s arms. Again we hugged and opened our hearts. I had had about enough. I was burning with the fire of impatience. I got up and, swaying, headed for the coat rack.
“Jurek, where are you going?” someone grabbed my arm.
“I’m going,” I mumbled. “I must …”
Now more hands grabbed me and threw me on the bed. Everyone talked at me. A new cup of vodka was put under my nose. I leaped to my feet and turned over the table.
“Fools!” I screamed, “I have a corpse at home! I’m a murderer! A murderer!…”
With outstretched arms I tried to reach the door. Somewhere on the way I tripped over a stool and crashed to the floor. My head was booming just like a bathtub struck with an axe.
“I’m a murderer, ha ha ha …” I cried, picking myself up off the floor.
“What are you doing?!” shouted Jacek. “Be quiet …! Peasant …”
“Leave him alone,” said Hilda soberly. “He’s completely drunk.”
ANDRZEJ BURSA was born in 1932 in Krakow, Poland, and died twenty-five years later of a heart attack. In his brief lifetime he composed some of the most original Polish writing of the 20th century. Killing Auntie is his only novel. His brilliant career and tragic early death established him as a cult figure among restless and disenchanted youth.
Killing Auntie is being published by New Vessel Press in August 2015
About the Translator:
WIESIEK POWAGA was born in Poland and after the imposition of martial law of 1981 settled in London. He is a translator and author. Among his translations are letters of Bruno Schulz and Witold Gombrowicz, an anthology of Polish fantasy writing, poetry, drama and a novel by Andrzej Stasiuk. He has written for television and trained as a make-up artist and a wig-maker at the Warsaw Opera House. He currently divides his time between London and Warsaw, where he looks after his elderly mother and favorite auntie.