The Priest Who Refused to Bow Before the Wind (part 1)

— 1 —

What’s Laliki? Well, it’s a very small village located right at the bottom of Mount Pochodzita. In the Beskidy range, in the southern part of Poland, not far from Katowice—about sixty kilometers away. That’s about all there is to say as far as geography’s concerned. Let’s dig a little deeper—let’s analyze its associations. The name sounds cheerful, like a children’s ditty, and it sounds a lot like the word for “lilac,” whose flowers smell honey-sweet. So the name suggests a happy place, full of smiling blonde girls and tall, strong highlanders. Meadows with black and white cows, wooden houses, a clear blue sky, and sparrows chasing clouds. Or clouds chasing sparrows—it’s hard to be sure.

But that isn’t Laliki at all—the name is entirely misleading. The village consists of a few old houses, inhabited by geriatric—not to say ancient, or even prehistoric—residents. The younger ones left, took off along the recently-built black highway, jumping from one mountain to the next and disappearing into tunnels the way a tongue disappears into a mouth. From time to time they come back, but only to flee again as soon as possible. To escape boredom and a species of sorrow, a longing you could say. Longing for something undefined—that’s so typical of Laliki. Sometimes tourists, attracted by the funny name—it sounds funny in Polish and probably in English as well—come here unbidden, on impulse, just like that. Let’s go to Laliki—like Waikiki. They come, and then immediately see how wrong they were to think it would be fun. Apart from those rare visits, nothing goes on here.

The village is perched atop a small hill, surrounded by larger ones that look down upon Laliki like children gazing in fascination at a worm they’ve caught. In the local dialect we call this place a “gronie,” which means a “pass.” You can get here across the bridge that leads to Koniaków, a city famous for its hand-made lace, or by using the potholed switchback from Kamesznica. In the very heart of town—exactly on the peak of a hill that resembles nothing so much as a large egg—there’s a church, white and modest aside from two huge stained glass windows on the front wall. A few steps farther along we have the presbytery, where the parish priest lives and works.

For a very long time Laliki didn’t have its own church. Church authorities had bought a piece of land in the middle of the village—along with the small house that stood upon it, which was perfect for the presbytery—and then ran out of money. So Laliki residents mostly prayed at a chapel that hung on the wall of the building. Then, on Sundays, they would go to the wooden church in Pochodzita, where a priest from Wisła would say Holy Mass for them. Finally, tired of the laborious pilgrimage, which was especially exhausting in the winter, the people of Laliki collected enough money to build their own church right in the village. It would be all theirs, with their own priest. And to have one’s own priest is, here, a very, very important thing. A demonstration of the quality of the town and something of a security policy at the same time.

In 1978, I was asked to supervise the construction of the church in Laliki. I was a newly-graduated engineer dreaming of powerful bridges and slender skyscrapers. I treated the small church in Laliki as an insult, a boring task that no one wanted to take care of. Moreover, the church was almost finished. I only had to check the few remaining floors and the counterforts of the church tower. Easy, boring, and well below my ambitions. Typical stuff for an intern.

As a novice I could grumble deep in my heart of hearts, but I didn’t make a fuss. Since I was stuck with it, I tried to find a good side to this hopeless situation. Summer had just begun, so it was a chance for a nice trip. In Katowice, where I lived, it was already hot and stuffy. I needed fresh air. A short journey to this village in Beskidy would be a perfect opportunity to wander through the forest, to tan my pale skin, to eat fresh raspberries, and perhaps to find a few mushrooms—the yellow chanterelles would be out already.

At that time the parish priest in Laliki was Michał Buba. He was only forty years old, and my workmates told me he’d arrived in the village from a previous institution in Cracow. He turned up in the new parish, in circumstances that were unclear, and zealously began work on construction of the church.

The idea that the highlanders might accept him is undoubtedly a little unbelievable—they tend to be suspicious, especially of newcomers from the lowlands who want to move in. But later I learnt that he’d come from the Tatra[1] mountains, which for the local people made him one of them rather than a “lowlander.” When the temperature was minus twenty degrees, he walked through Laliki in nothing but his cassock, and when the occasion called for it he didn’t mind a few drinks. Plus, he could swear like a sailor when necessary, so he immediately gained the respect of the entire village. Apart from that he had a medallion, a magical object that guarded and defended the entire village. I’ll talk about that in a moment.

For the entire summer I tried to set up an inspection of the construction site with the priest, but Buba thought up a new excuse every time. He went for pilgrimages, organized the visit of the image of the Częstochowa[2] Mother of God to the parish, disappeared to meetings in curia, or participated in important funerals in the district. He sent me short notes on how the work was progressing, saying that everything was fine—that’s it.

In the end, after one more laconic letter from the evasive priest, I got nervous, and I told him that if he didn’t let me into the building site I would stop all work and I wouldn’t stamp the construction diary. Without the stamp, Buba couldn’t get permission to use the building. It seemed to frighten him a little bit, because he called me the following day and invited me to Laliki.

I went by intercity bus at the beginning of September. Although the school year had already begun, for me this time of year was the essence of summer, with fields baking in the a heat that they breathed in deeply, and leaves looking as if they’d been washed in bleach. The bees, drunk on the fragrance of late-blooming flowers, flew through the open windows of the bus. I caught them in my handkerchief and threw them back outside. And the air shimmered over the hot highway as if we were crossing a desert.

The bus spat me out at the foot of the hill. I started to climb without hurry. I was carrying a bag stuffed with plans and reports, so I couldn’t have gone any faster if I wanted to. Warm air fanned my shoulders and made me drowsy, a feeling that was deepened by the silence—a real silence such as you never experience in the city, where there’s always some artificial sound in the background. So I walked more and more slowly—although normally, when I was in the city, I moved at a near-run. I plodded forward, step by step, until at last I reached the top.

I found the presbytery easily—its white walls shone in the late morning sun like floodlights beckoning. Having made sure that there was no protective dog in Buba’s courtyard, I entered through the gate and took the stone footpath that led to the door. I went past a small Fiat car, as green as tinned peas. I peeked curiously inside it and saw that keys were in the ignition.

“Ridiculous,” I muttered under my breath, and shifted the weight of the bag on my shoulder.

I walked around the back of the presbytery to find the office, where the priest was supposed to be waiting. When I got to the rear of the building I noticed an orchard full of old apple trees behind it, a little bit downhill, with branches clenched like arthritic fingers laden with apples—still unripe—and even farther off was a small graveyard, with graves that looked like beds placed amidst the deep grass. Not scary at all. Behind that were the mountains, so stunning that I gaped at them with my mouth open as I walked, oblivious to anything else. Not looking where I was going, I stumbled and fell.

“Shit!”

I got up, checked to make sure nobody had seen me fall or heard me curse, then decided to focus on what I had come for. I walked to the door of the presbytery, knocked briskly, and without waiting for an invitation, entered—passing into such a surprising darkness that I had to blink for a few moments before I could see anything.

Buba sat behind a table covered with old parish documents, as yellow as butter and covered in dust. He had on a black cassock, specked here and there with yellowish egg stains. He was as bald as my knee and looked strong. With a well-rehearsed, officious movement he flipped through some paperwork. Unlike the clerks in the city office when I went in, he put them aside and came to greet me.

“Welcome! Welcome, my dear engineer!” he said in his very deep voice. Later I learned that he’d been a tenor singer, with a glass-shattering high C.

“Good day!” I answered mechanically. “Zbigniew Linert. From “Inżo-Ster.” For the construction inspection.”

“I know, I know!” the priest waved a hand. “Sit down, boy! We’ll settle one matter and then we’ll go look at my church.”

Obediently, I went to a corner and sat down on a wobbly chair. For a moment I pretended that I was searching my bag for something, and then I stopped because Buba seemed to have no interest in me, just sat muttering at his pieces of paper. I leaned my head against the wall and my feet against my bag, and had almost dozed off when I heard the squeaking of the gate. I looked out the window and noticed that an older couple were coming toward the office—the woman and man looked so similar that I was sure they must be married. A close relationship can make people look alike.

“God bless you!” they said entering the office.

“Good day!” I answered them, in a lay spirit. They took no notice, not even looking at me. Instead they sat down stiffly in front of Buba and were silent.

I shrugged my shoulders, having realized that it wasn’t my attention they wanted. I shifted my gaze to the treetops, and then to a poplar, on the peak of which sat a magpie. Meanwhile, Buba went out for a second, then returned with a purple stole draped around his neck and a book in his hand. Around here purple means death. Well, what could I say? It happens. The couple probably wanted to arrange a funeral.

“God bless you! And the eternal rest you give him,” said Buba, his voice almost inaudible. It surprised me how quickly he changed from a jovial parish priest into this solemn version of a clergyman. Without drawing anyone’s attention, I started listening.

“We came because of Janek” said the man in a trembling voice, then glanced at his wife. She was silent. After a moment she sniffled. I looked. She was crying. I started to feel a little strange, like a voyeur. I wanted to leave, but it would have been very impolite.

“Yes, Mr. Szalbot. I know,” sighed Buba.

“Our Janek. He hanged himself. In the forest,” said Szalbot.

I went numb. Buba looked as if he were in shock, although I was sure that he’d known in advance what the matter was. But no one could have heard this report without feeling a deep pity. He wiped his forehead with the scrap of stole, rested his hands on the desktop, and breathed deeply. He looked as if he wanted to burst out crying. I felt sorrow for him and for Janek’s parents. Just as I was about to break the silence, the priest finally spoke again.

“I know,” he paused momentarily. “Terrible story. I can do the funeral this Sunday. Will you be all right?”

“Yes, father. But he’s a suicide. Where will you bury him?”

“With us, behind the presbytery. In our graveyard,” Buba answered calmly. He held the book he’d brought a moment before and found the entry for the Szalbot family. Holding his finger on the relevant line, he looked at his guests.

“Thank you, parish priest,” whispered the woman. No more words were needed. The couple simply left, disappearing around the corner.

I sat in my spot, and Buba wrote something in the book. Curiosity burned in me with a real fire. I knew that it wasn’t polite to question Buba about his guests, but I couldn’t resist.

“What are you writing?” I asked, barely keeping myself from getting up and peeking over his shoulder.

“That it was a manslaughter.”

“What manslaughter?” I asked, surprised. After all, I had heard perfectly clearly that it was a suicide. Just as I was about to mention this, Buba explained.

“Janek would still live if there were no wind. He is not the only one killed by the gale. Whenever it arrives, bad things happen. Some evil, some spirit, is angry with Laliki. But enough about that!” He closed the book with such a crack that I jumped in my seat. “Let’s go have a look!” He got up and, throwing the stole over the back of his chair, he left. What was I supposed to do? I wanted to learn what this evil spirit was that he was talking about, and what was up with this wind, so I followed him.

We went quickly toward the construction site. I ran a few strides behind Buba—slowed down by the heavy bag, I couldn’t keep pace with him. He, meanwhile, didn’t even look my way. He rushed along, hurrying without seeming to tire, though I could barely catch my breath.

Finally, as exhausted as a horse at the end of a cowboy movie, I reached the church walls, which seemed to be in the midst of climbing up the scaffolding next to them. They were as even as glass and perfectly straight. I nodded, acknowledging a level of quality I hadn’t seen in a long time.

“You have good bricklayers,” I said.

“Good,” answered Buba, a little absent-mindedly, or perhaps he just wasn’t inclined to chat.

“The bricks are exactly aligned, straight as an arrow,” I added.

“Quite even,” muttered the priest.

“And fairly good plaster. What did they add to it to make it sparkle like that?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Where can I find the construction manager?”

“Well…” Buba didn’t seem to be really listening to me.

“When can I meet him?”

“Next time.”

“A reliable truss!” I said, insistently trying to draw the priest into a conversation, but he ignored me.

“Oh, yes,” he replied, shaking his head, as if trying to come out of a stupor. “We’re done!” he decided. “We’re going.” He turned on his heel. His cassock billowed behind him like a giant tulip. Off he went like a shot, and before I could even move he was already almost at the door of the presbytery. “Are you coming or not?” he cried out, impatient, stopping for a moment. “I’m hungry!” He opened the door and disappeared inside.

I understood that it was pointless to simply stand where I was, and that the parish priest wasn’t going to let me say anything about it, ask anything about it, even touch it—the church was the most important thing in his life. He guarded it like the griffin guarding Apollo’s treasure. I shrugged my shoulders. Sooner or later he would have to cooperate with me if he wanted to be able to use the building. Comforted by the thought, I moved to the presbytery.

I found Buba in the kitchen. He was cooking. Drops of water leaped from a pot that sat on the gas and fell into flames with a hiss. The priest, meanwhile, cut a roll of dough into rhombi with a large butcher’s knife.

“Potato dumplings. Cottage cheese dumplings,” he said briefly, gesturing with his chin in the direction of a jug standing on the table. Then he went back to focusing on his work.

I sat down and poured myself some cherry compote. Sipping it, I watched Buba. When he’d finished cutting, he threw the dumplings into the boiling water, then gently stirred it with a colander. He was as attentive as a sorcerer over an alembic. In the pot his potion bubbled, and I could smell starch. Steam wafted up to the ceiling and escaped through a window vent to the backyard, already hot from the sun. I smiled at the view—the steam was somehow pretty.

The soft bubbling and the warmth started putting me to sleep again. A lot of this day had been about sleepiness, probably due to huge doses of fresh air. I slid down in the seat of the chair and let my hands hang down. My head lolled from one side to the other. I struggled not to fall asleep.

“You have a nice home,” I mumbled with an effort, trying to stay awake and be polite. Then I went to sleep for real.

I had almost slipped to the floor and come to rest under the table when Buba banged his spoon against the edge of the pot. I woke abruptly and looked around with bleary eyes.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Done!” Buba answered, putting two plates full of dumplings on the table. “And the roux!” he said and quickly stir-fried a fistful of sugar and breadcrumbs in butter. He put the hot frying pan on the table and sat down. “Help yourself!” he said, raising his fork.

I poured roux over the dumplings. It smelt like a freshly unwrapped lollipop. Buba helped himself, too, scraping the remains of the sugar out of the frying pan, and we began to eat. The flavor of the dish reminded me of afternoons at my grandmother’s, in Żywiec. She’d made dumplings just like this. Everyone here knows the recipe. Simple and tasty.

Buba ate quickly, and after a moment his plate was empty. Aware that I was lingering, distracted by old memories, I swallowed the last mouthfuls and drank the compote. The priest put the plates in the sink.

“Nice weather today,” he said. “Shall we take a walk? We can discuss the construction.”

“Great!” I answered, surprised. I had thought that the new church would be a taboo subject.

“I’ll show you around,” he said.

“Excellent!” I was really glad. “I’ll leave my bag here, okay?” I threw it the under the table.

“Sure. Done.” Buba wiped his hands. On his cassock, of course. “Let’s go!”

By this time I had gotten used to the fact that Buba would immediately start doing whatever he was talking about doing. Now he said “let’s walk,” and simply left. He marched with long steps, so that by the time I ran up to the gate he was already quite a ways away. He was headed toward Pochodzita.

Now that I wasn’t being slowed down by the bag, I caught up with Buba easily and we walked on together, in silence, through a coniferous forest. The trees swayed in unison, like people listening to music. The warm forest cover smelled of Christmas dumplings, along with mushrooms and sand—neither of the latter being related to Christmas, of course. From time to time, somewhere a jay cried out, or a woodpecker tapped.

After a short march along a fairly flat road, we began climbing an incline on stones slippery with moss. The top of the mountain was getting closer. It was quite steep, so I focused on carefully choosing the places where I would put my feet.

Eventually I raised my eyes and saw a pile of rocks in front of us. I was surprised, since I’d expected a flat area, maybe covered with dwarf mountain pine or low bushes. Rocks like these were an anomaly here. We went around them. When I leaned to look around the last rock, I saw a small lake. It was the light blue of the Mediterranean Sea on a postcard—the color suggested that it must be unusually deep.

“Twelve meters,” Buba confirmed, and pulled his clothes off. Embarrassed, I turned in the direction of the village. The priest entered water as if nothing had happened. “Don’t stand like that! Cool off!” he shouted to me, and swam away snorting like an elephant seal.

I thought that he’d probably gone mad. A bit angry, I sat down on the grass and waited for him to be done with his swimming. Buba, meanwhile, dove and surfaced, spitting water, and then started humming sea shanties. The songs somehow chased away my bad mood. Enchanted by the priest’s huge voice, I took off my clothes and jumped into the water. It was as frigid as an ice fishing hole. I began to struggle like a fish on a line, moving my hands and legs in a desperate attempt to warm up, and Buba laughed.

“A lowlander. Not very fond of the cold, yeah?” he said, and dove again.

I came back to the shallows and sat on a stone that was just under the surface. The water was here a little bit warmer and I finally stopped shaking. I fixed my eyes on the light blue depths while Buba frolicked like a young seal. Eventually he got tired and swam up to me. He sat down beside me and shook water from his hair. He was drenched and his eyelashes were glued together.

“And—what? Did you see it, at the bottom?”

“What?” I asked surprised.”

“Couldn’t you see?”

“No.”

“I’ll tell you everything.”

Buba lay down on his back in the shallow water and started talking.

— 2 —

At one time a married couple by the name of Kopyciok lived in Laliki. Władek and Basia. His parents came from here—that is, from Laliki—but hers were from Radziechowy. They got to know each other at a party at the firehouse one summer and quickly got married. She wore a white dress embroidered here and there with peonies, while he wore the obligatory black. I administered the sacrament myself.

They lived in a house on the border of the village, a nice peasant cottage, which Basia took care of—she was a good housewife. She also broidered napkins, which she sold as folk art, making a little money out of it. Władek, meanwhile, did what he had always done—he was a woodcutter.

I must say, he was suited to his work. He was big and strong, like an ox. He had a wide chest, shoulders like stumps, and always seemed to have needles—which fell from the pines—in his auburn hair. At one time some director had wanted him to star in a film he was making about Ondraszek, a kind of local Zorro if you don’t know, who robbed the rich and helped the poor. Wanted him to play the main character. But Kopyciok didn’t want to—he preferred his forests.

Although you can meet really nasty creatures in the backwoods, including the devil himself, Kopyciok wasn’t afraid of anything.

“I’m not scared of black, horned beasts. I’m not afraid of ghosts or goblins. They’ve never attacked me and I’m certain they won’t, so what’s the problem? I don’t do them any harm, I don’t annoy them, I don’t steal their treasure. They’ll leave me alone and I’ll always return to Basia alive and well,” he said.

I asked him not to say this, not so loud. He was right. Of course he was, because he was fair with the wood and with nature, unlike other woodcutters. He never tried to take more than was necessary, he wasn’t greedy. He didn’t step on animals and plants, he didn’t try to catch birds or squirrels. So he’d never been hit by a branch or a falling tree, didn’t cut his hands or legs, and never fell down a hill, even though he was sometimes under the influence, if you know what I mean. But he teased the evil, he challenged it. And eventually the evil decided to show him who rules the wood.

One day, at the end of autumn when you could smell burnt grass and leaves in the air, Władek went to a felling on the southern side of the wood. Since he had quite a bit of work to do he didn’t check the time and didn’t notice that afternoon had come, which at that time of the year usually brought a sudden chill. The abrupt cold reminded him that it was time to go. So Władek looked around, checked the sky to see if it foretold rain or wind, since it isn’t safe to walk through the wood during storms, and started walking down to the place where he had left the tractor. A valuable piece of equipment—we only had one in the whole village. But despite the fact that he knew the woods as well as the back of his own hand, he got lost.

He was dreadfully angry with himself over this. Swearing furiously, he walked amidst the goldenrods, looking for the road. Night began to fall, and if he missed the sign that he was getting near to the tractor he’d have to stay overnight under a tree. But he had absolutely no clue where he was and where the tractor was. No clue at all.

Władek slowly began to accept the fact that he’d have to sleep on the ground, but he was still cursing full-blast when, between the trees, he glimpsed human profiles.

“Hi! Good evening! Hi!” cried a delighted Władek, running in their direction. He heard laughter, and then whitish skin flashed again between the branches. “Hi! Who’s there?” he asked, speeding up, and after a moment he came to a little forest clearing.

In its centre there was a bonfire, burning high, throwing sparks up to the peaks of the tall spruces. Around it danced four women, completely naked. They had large breasts and buttocks and nicely rounded thighs, Władek told me. They swept the green turf with their hair, spun around like tops, and laughed. When they saw their guest, they immediately surrounded him.

“Welcome, welcome, beloved!” they said. “Come to us, come, sit down in the warmth. Eat with us, drink!” they whispered, kissing him and stripping his clothes off. “You won’t regret it, we will play with you all the way to morning!” they promised, fawning over him like kittens.

Władek, stunned and anxious, wasn’t going to let them seduce him. At home Basia was waiting for him, and he loved her more than life itself. So although women writhed sensuously and stroked him where they shouldn’t touch him at all, he freed himself from their embraces and escaped. He fought his way through forest for half a night, only to knock at my door and confess the sexual urges he’d felt. He begged for forgiveness and prayed that God would never expose him to such a temptation again, because wouldn’t be able refuse these seductive women the next time.

“Hey, it wasn’t God who beguiled you with young girls!” I told him. “Not God.”

“Who then?” he asked.

“The fiend. He prepared this orgy for you.”

“What for?”

“You’d have found out if they’d been able to use you, but you escaped. And that’s the problem.”

“But why? What do you mean? I’m here, they’re there!” said an irritated Władek.

“Because now the evil won’t rest until he gets the best of you. Beware! Watch Basia!” I warned him.

But Władek wouldn’t listen. He shrugged his shoulders, snorted, and went home. He didn’t tell Basia what had happened, nor did he warn her that something evil was sniffing around their house. I told him at least three times that the devil would want to take his wife away from him—probably to change her into a naked nymph. But Władek still didn’t tell Basia anything, probably because he was afraid she’d be jealous. He pretended that he’d just been late, as sometimes happened, and that was that.

He didn’t have to wait long to see what an angry devil can do. Basia, who’d always been healthy and strong before, became weak. When the weather was normal, she worked as she always had. But when it began to blow she endured absolute agonies. The moment the foehn wind started battering the door of the barn and pulling at the laundry drying on the line, she would suffer an unbearable migraine. She would lie on the sofa or on the bed and literally howl with pain. Her voice rang out balefully, like the crying of a wolf caught in a snare, and could be heard all the way to Laliki. I visited her more than once to try to remedy these pains, but neither holy water nor incense helped. Władek might have been able to do something about it if he’d been willing to appease the fiend, but he didn’t want to hear about it, so each time Basia suffered and slithered as if she were afflicted with a stroke or some inexplicable palsy until the wind would finally cease.

One day in October, when Władek went to the forest and Basia was collecting sunflowers in front of the house, she felt the first breeze. She knew very well what was coming and that she had only a few minutes before the headache seized her. She threw the heavy flowers to the ground. Seeds sprinkled from them into grass, and Basia raced off home. Not bothering to take off her clothes, she got into bed in their bedroom and began to cry into the pillow as the pain grew from hour to hour.

In the end, evening came. The sun drowned in the pass and dusk fell. Branches, winging in the wind, scratched the windowpanes, and the foehn wind raged. In spite of the noise, amidst the booming and thrashing, Basia clearly heard a knocking at the door. She was going to ignore it—her head ached so badly—but it came again. Once and once more. Like it or not, convinced that it was a neighbor, Basia managed to get up and open the door. But instead of a neighbor or a woodcutter, a stranger stood on the doorstep. He was attired in a black coat and a shabby hat with a cock’s feather. Green. He was, of course, a devil. At last, he had come personally to get his victim.

“Good evening!” he said and bowed slightly. “May I come in and stay the night in the barn? Such weather.”

“Certainly,” Basia replied, barely able to stand in the open door. She invited the stranger to stay in the barn, mindful of highland hospitality. But she didn’t want to let the guest into her home—she’d also been taught highland wariness as a child. “Behind the house you go right. You may draw some water from the well,” she said, concealing her suffering with an effort.

“Are you ill?” asked the stranger. He had dark skin and penetrating eyes as black as coal.

“Yes—every—foehn,” answered Basia.

“Perhaps I can help?” suggested the stranger. There was something strange in his voice. A spell of sorts, or such a generous promise that Basia, wracked with pain, hesitated for only a moment.

“Please, come in,” she said in the end and opened the door.

The stranger went straight to the kitchen. There he took off his hat and removed the feather from his hatband. He turned it in his fingers and then put it on the table.

“A glass of water,” he asked. Basia immediately filled one and gave it to the devil.

“You won’t hurt me?” she asked.

“Don’t worry. It will get better!” he answered.

“You know what? Just go! I’ll be fine!” Basia said.

“No, no, darling. Those who let me in are never sorry. Now—look.”

The man snapped his fingers and suddenly, from nowhere, a candle appeared. Another snap summoned a faint flame to it. The fiend raised the feather and, having breathed on it, put it into the fire. The flame leaped immediately to the soft down and in a blink of an eye the feather was consumed and black ash fell onto the table. The healer murmured something to himself, collected the black scraps into his cupped hand, and put them into the glass.

“Drink!” he ordered Basia, and she obeyed.

When she had swallowed the last drops, she felt the pain decreasing. As she put the glass away the old agony still smoldered a little behind her eyes, but in another moment it had blown over. Basia was cured. Forgetting her earlier anxiety, she rushed to thank the man in a highland manner by offering food, but he turned it down.

“Time to go,” he said, and left.

As soon as the wind closed the door behind him, Basia felt a strange weakness in her belly. Something whirled in her head, and she leaned against the wardrobe. The entrance hall seemed to dance a lively Polish dance. Clinging to walls, Basia approached the door to follow the healer and ask for help, but he had already disappeared and she was getting worse. And worse still. She felt a fire inside her. Down in her belly there was a strange, powerful heat.

She decided to go and find her husband. Władek should still be in the area where he’d been working that day so that he could wait for an end to the gale. She knew the spot. So, stumbling and reeling, she walked through Laliki toward Pochodzita. She would probably have gone through the village unnoticed, if not for old Pysz. This old grandfather is strange and likes the wind, so he sat in front of his house and exposed his old bones to the warm drafts. Seeing Basia, he grabbed her by the skirt and pulled her toward his bench.

“Where are you going, my dear? Are you sick?” he asked, seeing that she was shaking as if with a fever.

“I have to find my husband in the forest!” whispered Basia. “I feel so bad! This heat! Something is eating me from the inside!” She began to cry. “Some terrible desire is boiling inside me! I must find Władek, let me go! I need his help!” she tightened her fists on the edge of her sweater.

“Now? It’s blowing! The wind will kill you out there! A widowmaker branch will get you, or a toppling tree!” replied Pysz.

“But I have to!” Basia said, struggling.

“But what happened?” asked the grandfather, alarmed by her restless eyes.

“Devil! There was a devil after us! He poisoned me! I have to go!” said Basia. And then, by pulling away when he didn’t expect it, she managed to break free and escape.

Of course the grandfather rushed after her, but his legs were old and clumsy. He fell over after a few strides, rolling into a ditch and losing consciousness. And he lay there still, under the burdocks, when Władek finally made it back to Laliki. Through the entire night, chased by the wind, he had driven his tractor through a forest full of uprooted trees, trying to save the equipment. In the end, having hidden his stuff under some large beech trees, he went on foot to Laliki. He should have stayed, but he went back—strange, but true. You should always try to hide when it’s windy, but he didn’t.

The wind went quiet, and the weather actually became nice. Władek thought that soon he would doze off, probably the moment he had something to eat. But disappointment waited for him at home—nobody was there. Of course Władek immediately came running to the presbytery.

“Parish priest, Basia isn’t there! Is she here?” he asked in a single, hurried breath.

“No, I haven’t seen her since yesterday” I replied, and we raced back to search the house.

We didn’t find Władek’s wife, but we found old Pysz. He clambered out of the ditch, sprinkled with foliage and pasted all over with ooze, and confessed that he’d seen Basia running in the direction of the forest.

“She said that she was running to find you,” said Pysz.

It wasn’t hard to put two and two together: the wife and the husband had missed each other in a forest thrashed by the wind. In the hail of sharp twigs and bark that had been sheared from the trees, Basia—unused to getting around in the backwoods—could easily go the wrong way, even though the place where Władek had been working wasn’t far away. Where was she now? God only knew.

I started ringing the bells. They swung furiously, calling the residents to come and help. The weight of one clapper, the dangling heart of a large bell, tore the rope out of my hands, but I didn’t care. I rose off the ground, hanging loosely from the thick rope, and hammered the bell. After a moment, people began to pour from their cottages. Everyone rushed to the church to answer my call.

I divided the residents into four teams. Alone, having exchanged my cassock for trousers, I went with one of them, with the one who mattered, with Władek. We moved as soon as possible into the woods. We climbed, going along the slope of Mount Pochodzita, searching thick brushwood and calling “Basia! Basia!” Our words died somewhere in the bushes, unanswered, but we kept going.

We wandered around for three days, eating anything we could and sleeping almost not at all. Is seemed as though Basia had sunk into the earth. I was tired—I, and the rest of the team—but we didn’t give up. Sometimes even in midwinter someone from Laliki would get lost, and then would be found, just like that, when he or she is deserving of the protection of some of the good spirits that also live here. So we looked behind every tree, under every branch, in hollows and caves. Nobody allowed themselves to think that Basia was dead.

In the end, we reached the lake, this one that we’re bathing in right now.

“Go by the water and have a look around,” we told one of the younger men. We sat down on a tree that had blown down and started talking in hushed tones about nothing: me, Władek, Heniek, and two other men from the village. We had just laughed—inappropriately, given the serious situation—at Heniek’s problems with his leg ever since his horse stepped on it, when a scream came over the water. We looked at each other and raced off to the lake.

In the middle of the bright blue water—from the smooth, slippery depths—a body came to the surface. Small, a woman’s. The figure was face down, as if she were examining the bottom of the lake. Her hair waved in the delicate eddies. Her sweater swelled outward like a ray. Basia. She had plunged into the icy depths, trying to extinguish the flames that had infected her.

Władek went pale, and I thought he would pass out. I came up to him, rested my hands on his shoulders, but he pushed me away roughly.

“No, no, no, no, no!” Władek cried, clutching his head. “I have to save her!” he screamed like a madman, and rushed between trees. We caught him, but he broke free easily, pushing us to the rocks. We fell like blades cut down with a scythe. He was strong, this Władek. “Basia! I’m coming for you!” he called out, and leapt into the forest.

We got to our feet and returned to the stump on which we’d been sitting. We didn’t chase Władek, thinking that he would come back when he’d cooled down and rethought the situation. We sat, upset and tired. Silent, nothing to talk about. Even prayer seemed pointless. None of us wanted to go to the water.

After half of an hour or so we heard the tractor. We could tell by the sound that it was going fast. The engine raged, forcing the steel mastodon up a hill. We got up to see who was coming.

The red tractor literally leaped from between the trees, dragging a trailer full of wood. In the cab was Władek, not quite sitting, not entirely standing, partly hanging from the steering wheel. He headed toward the lake. We dodged to either side and he went by, ignoring us completely.

“I’ll help you!” he screamed over and over again.

He drove onto one of the flat rocks by the water—just about there, look, on that one. The tractor leapt into the air. It flew along with the trailer for a few meters, then tumbled down into the water, dropping as quickly as a stone. For a moment we could see Władek silently shouting something under the surface—then the water flooded his mouth. He drowned with the machine. After a moment the surface calmed down and the body of the woman sank to the bottom and settled on the tractor, snuggling up to the body of the man.

I swear that then, among the trees, something croaked. Frightened, we scattered about the forest like quail chased by a kestrel. One by one we made our way back to the village. I arrived last. For many hours I walked around the lake, fulminating against fate and wondering how I could have been so reckless—how I could have failed to prevent a tragedy that I fully expected to come.

Eventually the bodies of Władek and Basia rose to the surface. I buried them behind the presbytery. A few months later another wind blew their cottage away and dropped the pieces on the peaks and passes. The basement vanished into the ground. The field became overgrown with weeds. And so this terrible history ended.

— 3 —

I jumped out of the water like a crayfish leaping from boiling water. Trembling more from terror than from chills, I wiped myself with clumps of dry grass and got dressed. Buba lazily turned over by the water’s edge. I didn’t understand—how could he take a bath in this cursed place? Callous! I fulminated deep in my heart.

“Let’s walk! I have to get back!” I said in the end, having found my shoes.

“But why are you in such a hurry?” Buba rose from the water in a leisurely way.

“The bus is coming soon.”

“Calm down. We’ll be in time. I have to get dried off.”

He flung his cassock on, lay down on the grass, and closed his eyes. I thought he was sleeping. A pair of ants marched across his belly. I walked from the bank of the lake to the trees and back a few times, then finally sat down beside him. I didn’t know the way home too well, and besides that damn Buba had scared me and I was afraid to go alone. I had to wait until he got up, calling him the worst names in my thoughts.

Eventually he decided it was time for us to go back. He got up, put his feet into his running shoes, and smiled at me—and I winced. I don’t think he noticed it, because he said something to me and we slowly moved back down the way we had come. It was very late, with the sun almost down behind the mountains, and I froze in the coolness of the evening.

In the presbytery I quickly filled in the construction diary, not caring about the details. I closed it as soon as possible and dashed off to the bus stop.

The bus arrived, puffing out black smoke, a little bit late. I have never been so pleased at the sight of it. I got on, happy, and the vehicle moved on—and in that moment I felt the wind. It pulled fiercely at the grass. It bent the trunks of the trees to the earth, and then suddenly attacked the bus. It slapped at the panes, rattling them and hurling sand at the sides of the bus.

“Damn it!” the driver swore loudly. “I’m not going to stop now or it’ll knock us down the hillside!” He stepped on the gas in order to get out of the pass.

The wind caught up with us easily. It hit the intercity bus straight in the windscreen, then tore the left mirror away. It flew underneath and banged against the chassis, lifting the bus onto two wheels. I caught the seat and prayed to be rescued. Then the driver stepped on the gas again, rushing lower and lower as quickly as he could.

That turned out to be a good decision. We half drove, half slipped down the hill. At this the foehn wind finally gave up. It got quiet. This wind will get me someday! I thought. It waited for me—bloody hell! Goddammit! And all the way to Katowice I sat up straight with tension.

When I finally saw the familiar blocks and streets, I cooled down. The city calmed me, and I began to mock myself. How could Buba know about some devilish charm? After all, he hadn’t been at the Kopyciok house when the devil supposedly visited them! How would he know so many details? Come on! He lied! I came to regard the entire story as a highland fairy tale. Buba probably wanted to scare me so badly that I wouldn’t come back to his building site. Oh, over my dead body! I thought, angry with myself for having had such a panic attack. I decided that I’d go back.

— 4 —

About a month later I had to go back to the building site. I arrived very early on an autumn morning, as lazy fogs came up from the meadows. They drifted into the sky, smoking the sun out. The mountains looked like a mirage—a mirage in strange colours: yellow, red, brown. I had the feeling that this view would disappear in a moment—it was so delicate and ephemeral.

I met Buba in the orchard behind the presbytery. He padded amongst rennet apples that had been knocked down from trees. Lying side by side, the apples resembled cobblestones. Buba collected them and threw them into baskets.

“The wind blew,” he explained briefly when I approached, then sighed, straightening up with effort. “Everything in the orchard smashed. Shall we sit down?”

I agreed, and we sat down on the warm grass. Under my thigh I found a ripe rennet apple. I bit it lustily—it tasted sweet. I delighted in the crunching of the fruit and Buba, being Buba, started talking…

[1] The highest cordilliera in Poland.

[2] The largest monastery in Poland.

You can read part two here or download the entire story here.

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