Bruno Schulz, 1934
IN JULY my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears. On those luminous mornings Adela returned from the market, like Pomona emerging from the flames of day, spilling from her basket the colourful beauty of the sun-the shiny pink cherries full of juice under their transparent skins, the mysterious black morellos that smelled so much better than they tasted; apricots in whose golden pulp lay the core of long afternoons. And next to that pure poetry of fruit, she unloaded sides of meat with their keyboard of ribs swollen with energy and strength, and seaweeds of vegetables like dead octopuses and squids-the raw material of meals with a yet undefined taste, the vegetative and terrestrial ingredients of dinner, exuding a wild and rustic smell. The dark first floor apartment of the house in Market Square was shot through each day by the naked heat of summer: the silence of the shimmering streaks of air, the squares of brightness dreaming their intense dreams on the floor; the sound of a barrel-organ rising from the deepest golden vein of day; two or three bars of a chorus, played on a distant piano over and over again, melting in the sun on the white pavement, lost in the fire of high noon. After tidying up, Adela would plunge the rooms into semi-darkness by drawing down the linen blinds. All colours immediately fell an octave lower, the room filled with shadows, as if it had sunk to the bottom of the sea and the light was reflected in mirrors of green water- and the heat of the day began to breathe on the blinds as they stirred slightly in their day-dreams. On Saturday afternoons I used to go for a walk with my mother. From the dusk of the hallway, we stepped at once into the brightness of the day. The passers-by, bathed in melting gold, had their eyes half closed against the glare, as if they were drenched with honey. Upper lips were drawn back, exposing the teeth. Everyone in this golden day wore that grimace of heat-as if the sun had forced his worshippers to wear identical masks of gold. The old and the young, women and children, greeted each other with these masks, painted on their faces with thick gold paint; they smiled at each other's pagan faces-the barbaric smiles of Bacchus. Market Square was empty and white hot, swept by hot winds like a biblical desert. The thorny acacias, growing in this emptiness, looked with their bright leaves like the trees on old tapestries. Although there was no breath of wind, they rustled their foliage in a theatrical gesture, as if wanting to display the elegance of the silver lining of their leaves that resembled the fox-fur lining of a nobleman's coat. The old houses, worn smooth by the winds of innumerable days, played tricks with the reflections of the atmosphere, with echoes and memories of colours scattered in the depth of the cloudless sky. It seemed as if whole generations of summer days, like patient stonemasons cleaning the mildewed plaster from old facades, had removed the deceptive varnish, revealing more and more clearly the true face of the houses, the features that fate had given them and life had shaped for them from the inside. Now the windows, blinded by the glare of the empty square, had fallen asleep; the balconies declared their emptiness to heaven; the open doorways smelt of coolness and wine. A bunch of ragamuffins, sheltering in a corner of the square from the flaming broom of the heat, beleaguered a piece of wall, throwing buttons and coins at it over and over again, as if wishing to read in the horoscope of those metal discs the real secret written in the hieroglyphics of cracks and scratched lines. Apart from them, the square was deserted. One expected that, any minute, the Samaritan's donkey, led by the bridle, would stop in front of the wine-merchant's vaulted doorway and that two servants would carefully ease a sick man from the red-hot saddle and carry him slowly up the cool stairs to the floor above, already redolent of the Sabbath. Thus my mother and I ambled along the two sunny sides of Market Square, guiding our broken shadows along the houses as over a keyboard. Under our soft steps the squares of the paving stones slowly filed past- some the pale pink of human skin, some golden, some blue-grey, all flat, warm and velvety in the sun, like sun-dials, trodden to the point of obliteration, into blessed nothingness. And finally on the corner of Stryjska Street we passed within the shadow of the chemist's shop. A large jar of raspberry juice in the wide window symbolised the coolness of balms which can relieve all kinds of pain. After we passed a few more houses, the street ceased to maintain any pretence of urbanity like a man returning to his little village who, piece by piece, strips off his Sunday best, slowly changing back into a peasant as he gets closer to his home. The suburban houses were sinking, windows and all, into the exuberant tangle of blossom in their little gardens. Overlooked by the light of day, weeds and wild flowers of all kinds luxuriated quietly, glad of the interval for dreams beyond the margin of time on the borders of an endless day. An enormous sunflower, lifted on a powerful stem and suffering from hypertrophy, clad in the yellow mourning of the last sorrowful days of its life, bent under the weight of its monstrous girth. But the naive, suburban bluebells and unpretentious dimity flowers stood helpless in their starched pink and white shifts, indifferent to the sunflower's tragedy. II A tangled thicket of grasses, weeds and thistles crackled in the fire of the afternoon. The sleeping garden was resonant with flies. The golden field of stubble shouted in the sun like a tawny cloud of locusts; in the thick rain of fire the crickets screamed; seed pods exploded softly like grasshoppers. And over by the fence the sheepskin of grass lifted in a hump, as if the garden had turned over in its sleep, its broad, peasant back rising and falling as it breathed on the stillness of the earth. There the untidy, feminine ripeness of August had expanded into enormous, impenetrable, clumps of burdocks spreading their sheets of leafy tin, their luxuriant tongues of fleshy greenery. There, those protuberant bur clumps spread themselves, like resting peasant women, half enveloped in their own swirling skirts. There, the garden offered free of charge the cheapest fruits of wild lilac, the heady aquavit of mint and all kinds of August trash. But on the other side of the fence, behind that jungle of summer in which the stupidity of weeds reigned unchecked, there was a rubbish heap on which thistles grew in wild profusion. No one knew that there, on that refuse dump, the month of August had chosen to hold that year its pagan orgies. There, pushed against the fence and hidden by the elders, stood the bed of the halfwit girl, Touya, as we all called her. On a heap of discarded junk of old saucepans, abandoned single shoes and chunks of plaster, stood a bed, painted green, propped up on two bricks where one leg was missing. The air over that midden, wild with the heat, cut through by the lightning of shiny horseflies, driven mad by the sun, crackled, as if filled with invisible rattles, exciting one to frenzy. Touya sits hunched up among the yellow bedding and odd rags, her large head covered by a mop of tangled black hair. Her face works like the bellows of an accordion. Every now and then a sorrowful grimace folds it into a thousand vertical pleats, but astonishment soons straightens it out again, ironing out the folds, revealing the chinks of small eyes and damp guns with yellow teeth under snout-like, fleshy lips. Hours pass, filled with heat and boredom; Touya chatters in a monotone, dozes, mumbles softly and coughs. Her immobile frame is covered by a thick cloak of flies. But suddenly the whole heap of dirty rags begins to move, as if stirred by the scratching of a litter of newlyborn rats. The flies wake up in fright and rise in a huge, furiously buzzing cloud, filled with coloured light reflected from the sun. And while the rags slip to the ground and spread out over the rubbish heap, like frightened rats, a form emerges and reveals itself: the dark halfnaked idiot girl rises slowly to her feet and stands like a pagan idol, on short childish legs; her neck swells with anger, and from her face, red with fury, on which the arabesques of bulging veins stand out as in a primitive painting, comes forth a hoarse animal scream, originating deep in the lungs hidden in that half-animal, half-divine breast. The sun-dried thistles shout, the plantains swell and boast their shameless flesh, the weeds salivate with glistening poison, and the half-wit girl, hoarse with shouting, convulsed with madness, presses her fleshy belly in an excess of lust against the trunk of an elder which groans softly under the insistent pressure of that libidinous passion, incited by the whole ghastly chorus to hideous unnatural fertility. Touya's mother Maria hired herself to housewives to scrub floors. She was a small saffron-yellow woman, and it was with saffron that she wiped the floors, the deal tables, the benches and the bannisters which she scrubbed in the homes of the poor. Once Adela took me to the old woman's house. It was early in the morning when we entered the small blue-walled room, with its mud floor, lying in a patch of bright yellow sunlight in the still of the morning broken only by the frighteningly loud ticking of a cottage clock on the wall. In a straw-filled chest lay the foolish Maria, white as a wafer and motionless like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn. And, as if taking advantage of her sleep, the silence talked, the yellow, bright evil silence delivered its monologue, argued, and loudly spoke its vulgar maniacal soliloquy. Maria's time the time imprisoned in her soul-had left her and-terribly real-filled the room, vociferous and hellish in the bright silence of the morning, rising from the noisy mill of the clock like a cloud of bad flour, powdery flour, the stupid flour of madmen. III In one of those cottages, surrounded by brown railings and submerged in the lush green of its garden, lived Aunt Agatha. Coming through the garden to visit her, we passed numerous coloured glass balls stuck on flimsy poles. In these pink, green and violet balls were enclosed bright shining worlds like the ideally happy pictures contained in the peerless perfection of soap bubbles. In the gloom of the hall, with its old lithographs, rotten with mildew and blind with age, we rediscovered a well-known smell. In that old familiar smell was contained a marvellously simple synthesis of the life of those people, the distillation of their race, the quality of their blood and the secret of their fate, imperceptibly mixed day by day with the passage of their own, private, time. The old, wise door, the silent witness of the entries and exits of mother, daughters, sons, whose dark sighs accompanied the comings and goings of those people, now opened noiselessly like the door of a wardrobe and we stepped into their life. They were sitting as if in the shadow of their own destiny and did not fight against it; with their first, clumsy gestures they revealed their secret to us. Besides, were we not related to them by blood and by fate? The room was dark and velvety from the royal blue wallpaper with its gold pattern, but even here the echo of the flaming day shimmered brassily on the picture frames, on door knobs and gilded borders, although it came through the filter of the dense greenery of the garden. From her chair against the wall, Aunt Agatha rose to greet us, tall and ample, her round white flesh blotchy with the rust of freckles. We sat down beside them, as on the verge of their lives, rather embarrassed by their defenseless surrender to us, and we drank water with rose syrup, a wonderful drink in which I found the deepest essence of that hot Saturday. My aunt was complaining. It was the principal burden of her conversation, the voice of that white and fertile flesh, floating as it were outside the boundaries of her person, held only loosely in the fetters of individual form, and, despite those fetters, ready to multiply, to scatter, branch out, and divide into a family. It was an almost selfpropagating fertility, a femininity without rein, morbidly expansive. It seemed as if the very whiff of masculinity, the smell of tobacco smoke, or a bachelor's joke, would spark off this feverish femininity and entice it to a lascivious virgin-birth. And in fact, all her complaints about her husband or her servants, all her worries about the children were only the caprices of her incompletely satisfied fertility, a logical extension of the rude, angry, lachrymose coquetry with which, to no purpose, she plagued her husband. Uncle Mark, small and hunched, with a face fallow of sex, sat in his grey bankruptcy, reconciled to his fate, in the shadow of a limitless contempt in which he seemed only to relax. His grey eyes reflected the distant glow of the garden, spreading in the window. Sometimes he tried with a feeble gesture to raise an objection, to resist, but the wave of self-sufficient femininity hurled aside that unimportant gesture, triumphantly passed him by, and drowned the feeble stirrings of male assertiveness under its broad flood. There was something tragic in that immoderate fertility; the misery of a creature fighting on the borders of nothingness and death, the heroism of womanhood triumphing by fertility over the shortcomings of nature, over the insufficiency of the male. But their offspring showed justification for that panic of maternity, of a passion for child bearing which became exhausted in ill-starred pregnancies, in an ephemereal generation of phantoms without blood or face. Lucy, the second eldest, now entered the room, her head overdeveloped for her child-like, plump body, her flesh white and delicate. She stretched out to me a small doll-like hand, a hand in bud, and blushed all over her face like a peony. Unhappy because of her blushes, which shamelessly revealed the secrets of menstruation, she closed her eyes and reddened even more deeply under the touch of the most indifferent question, for she saw in each a secret allusion to her most sensitive maidenhood. Emil, the eldest of the cousins, with a fair moustache in a face from which life seemed to have washed away all expression, was walking up and down the room, his hands in the pockets of his voluminous trousers. His elegant expensive clothes bore the imprint of the exotic countries he had visited. His pale, flabby face, seemed from day to day to lose its outline, to become a white blank wall with a pale network of veins, like lines on an old map occasionally stirred by the fading memories of a stormy and wasted life. He was a master of card tricks, he smoked long, noble pipes and smelled strangely of distant lands. With his gaze wandering over old memories, he told curious stories, which at some point would suddenly stop, disintegrate, and blow away. My eyes followed him nostalgically, and I wished he would notice me and liberate me from the tortures of boredom. And indeed, it seemed as if he gave me a wink before going into an adjoining room and I followed him there. He was sitting on a small low sofa, his crossed knees almost level with his head, which was bald like a billiard ball. It seemed as if it were only his clothes that had been thrown, crumpled and empty, over a chair. His face seemed like the breath of a face-a smudge which an unknown passer-by had left in the air. In his white, blue-enamelled hands he was holding a wallet and looking at something in it. From the mist of his face, the protruding white of a pale eye emerged with difficulty, enticing me with a wink. I felt an irresistable sympathy for Emil. He took me between his knees and, shuffling some photographs in front of my eyes as if they were a pack of cards, he showed me naked women and boys in strange positions. I stood leaning against him looking at those delicate human bodies with distant, unseeing eyes, when all of a sudden the fluid of an obscure excitement with which the air seemed charged, reached me and pierced me with a shiver of uneasiness, a wave of sudden comprehension. But meanwhile that ghost of a smile which had appeared under Emil's soft and beautiful moustache, the seed of desire which had shown in a pulsating vein on his temple, the tenseness which for a moment had kept his features concentrated, all fell away again and his face receded into indifference and became absent and finally faded away altogether.