Kill Me If You Can

Agnieszka makes a deal with a devil in this companion story to Absolute Sunset.

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Kill Me If You Can


I.

Agnieszka is standing on a cliff. It looks like one of the ones on the Baltic sea, in Jastrzębia Góra for example. She feels like she’s level with the sky, which is great. Plus there are fighter planes flying along the line of the horizon—the pilots at one of the naval bases must be practicing. They zip along the shore and a single loud thud means a plane has crossed the sound barrier. Then the fighters disappear beyond the horizon. Agnieszka laughs. She feels good. It’s neither hot, nor cold—neither too early, nor too late. Just perfect.

And it’s when things are perfect like this that the anxiety comes. Everyone who grew up around here knows the rules. You don’t praise a bridge until you’re across. All good things must come to an end. It never rains, but it pours. Doom loves to stomp on delicate human life, and does it without hesitation, ruining everything, demolishing everything.

Her anxiousness grows. She was taught to feel this way when she was still a child. Peace and quiet means a storm is on its way. It’s always been this way and it always will be.

Suddenly the world goes dark, as if someone has drawn a curtain over the landscape, a curtain so thick that the sun can’t get through. The forest that covers the cliff goes black, and in the darkness the trees suddenly seem to reach high, so high—all the way to the sky. They reach with tense branches like fingers—the fleshless fingers of skeletal hands.

“Help me!” Agnieszka hears, a voice coming from a distance. Someone’s there, farther along, at the edge of the cliff.

She runs over because she knows that voice. She runs because she can hear the urgency in the words. She fights her way through the brush, stumbles over the heather, falls. It feels as if, instead of moving forward quickly, she’s just floundering. Something doesn’t want to let her through.

“Help me!”

But at the same time, this something wants Agnieszka to see, so eventually it lets her push her way through the thick grass, the leaves so sharp that they cut the skin on her calves. She runs, ignoring the pain. And she finally arrives at her destination, at the thing she’s supposed to see.

She’s in an open space. She could swear that it wasn’t here before, that it’s just opened now. It’s just been created or come into being somehow.

“Well, it’s a dream,” says a raven, who appears as suddenly as the clearing did. He sits on a tree that’s fallen over, walking a few steps to the left, then a few to the right.

“Help me, help!” says the familiar voice. Agnieszka looks, knowing exactly who she’ll see.

Her mother stands at the edge of the cliff. She wears a peony print dress, white with red flowers. And red bloodstains, blood blossoms amongst the peonies, weeping from her mother’s body. The blood runs down her naked arms, drips onto the ground.

“Help me, help!”

“Mom, what happened?” Agnieszka cries, running toward her mother. She has no idea what she should do. She wants to touch her, but feels repulsed.

“Help me, quick!”

“Mom!”

“Agnieszka, help me, or I’ll have to do it!”

“Mom! What should I do?”

Agnieszka hears a snapping sound and suddenly the world stops, she stops, her mother stops. The raven is still moving, though, despite the fact that he’s the one who paralyzed everything else. He walks along the tree and recites a rhyme.

 

For the rescue, not much time

Let me give you some advice

You can’t stay with him any more

That he owes you, he does know

Walk away, so far, so far

To escape the pain and hurt

Run before it is too late

Before you cannot change your fate

 

“But who? What are you talking about?” Agnieszka asks.

“About him, I am talking about him!” the raven says. “Hurry!” She hears another snap and the world lurches into motion again. Her mother is bleeding and crying again.

“Help me!” she reaches for Agnieszka with those bloody arms. There is blood under her nails.

“Mom! I don’t know how!” She turns to the raven. “How am I supposed to help her?” But the raven shakes his head.

“If you don’t know,” her mother says, “then I have to do it.” And with that she jumps, falling from the cliff and hitting the rocky ground below. Although Agnieszka doesn’t actually hear the sound her mother’s body makes when it hits the beach, she knows exactly what the sound must be like.

She wakes up screaming—but not for long. Her own hand quickly covers her mouth. She listens to see if he’s awake. No. Silence.

“What happened?” whispers Agnieszka’s grandmother, who’s sleeping with her in her room. She’s come for a brief visit, to bring some sausages and eggs. She’ll leave tomorrow and she’ll be glad to go. She knows what kind of a man he is.

“The raven,” answers Agniszka. “It was here.”

II.

“Don’t cry!” her grandmother says.

“I can’t help it!” Agnieszka says the words through the hand that covers her mouth.

Her grandmother pushes the duvet aside. She gets up with an effort—her left foot is stiff after an accident she had at the farm. She gets up and sits on Agnieszka’s bed, puts one hand on her forehead and the other on her heart.

“Be gone!” she says in a hushed tone, then repeats it again and again, until at the end her voice drifts away, the same way it does when she says her beads. She makes the sign of the cross on Agnieszka’s body and puts her hands on her again.

Agnieszka sighs. Very deeply, very powerfully, and in that moment the wind pulls at the branches of the rowan tree that grows outside the window. Agnieszka’s grandmother believes that her breathe moved them. A breath so full of sorrow that in can rustle the leaves.

“Don’t talk to him!” says the grandmother. “Don’t you ever talk to the raven again! Haven’t I told you?”

“Yes, grandma”

“I’ve told you not to talk to him!”

Her grandmother starts to whisper again. She looks out of the window once more. She sighs.

Agnieszka has been dreaming of the raven since she was three. At the beginning he didn’t come very often, and it seemed like just a recurring nightmare. One, and then another. Nothing special, the grandmother had hoped, clinging to the illusion. But the older Agnieszka got, the more often she dreamed the dream. Unfortunately.

The grandmother sighs. At her place in the countryside she’s met people like Agnieszka. People who walk in their sleep, talk in their sleep, have visions. The grandmother sighs again. Nothing good has ever come of it. It’s better to chase the evil away. And he is evil, this raven—Agnieszka’s grandmother can sense that very clearly. He is malicious. He isn’t beyond morality, he isn’t an indifferent prophet. He’s a devil. “Cursed are those who listen to him and cursed is the raven himself.” This is what the priest had said, that it’s a devil who visits people in their sleep.

She makes the sign of the cross again and begins to calm down. The power of the cross reassures her.

“The bird talked about him,” Agnieszka says.

“About whom?”

“About dad.”

“Nonsense!” says her grandmother.

Not only does Agnieszka talk about the raven, but also about her father. She says the same things that Ewa says. That she’s having problems with him. That he likes to drink, to batter. That things are not the way they were supposed to be. Ewa feels cheated and she’s bitter.

“Come on,” Agnieszka’s grandmother says to her daughter. “There are hard times in every marriage. You have to get through it!” She sighs. She knows it’s hard sometimes. She used to feel the same—it’s a woman’s fate. And to her granddaughter she says the same thing—“Come on, Agnieszka,” like an echo—when the granddaughter complained that her father was abusive, that he drank too much. That no one came to help Agnieszka, even when her mother sometimes cried out loud for help, and Agnieszka cries, too. That the teachers at school pretend they don’t see the bruises. That the school psychologist doesn’t help her, pretends he doesn’t hear what she says. “You know who your father is,” her grandmother explains. “You have to hold on. After a storm comes the calm. And you should forget about the raven. Look at the sun in the morning.”

III.

Ewa’s husband is a very important person in the city, and even more important within Tysiąclecie, a new housing complex that was recently built to celebrate the millennium of Poland. There was a meadow here before. Now there are blocks of flats of several different heights, like uneven teeth. They divide the space, get in the way of the wind—no wonder it’s even windier here now. The air is squeezed between the buildings, speeds up, and then rushes quickly down the length of the complex. It overturns trash containers and tears leaves off the few, small trees. The complex is new and the trees are too—they’re still weak and they can’t withstand the force of it. The lawns are bald and the whole complex smells of cement and sand. The wind throws the sand up into peoples’ eyes. It smells of heat and desert, although Ewa doesn’t know that—she was born in the countryside and she’s never been to a desert. For that matter, nobody can leave communist Poland to visit the desert even if they want to—not even her husband, an important officer, who has even more important friends.

He drinks to make those friendships even closer. It was the friendships that attracted Ewa in the first place. They deceived her, like a devil, and she married him and moved to the city. Everyone was jealous of her luck. “They wouldn’t be jealous now,” she thinks.

She can always tell exactly what his mood will be. She looks out of the window and watches him parking his Trabant. Red. She watches if he immediately gets out or if he drinks something. If he gets out right away, it means he’ll be mad, and before he gets completely drunk there’ll be a row. If he stays in the car then he’ll come upstairs drunk, which is good.

Ewa’s husband doesnt care that the neighbors are watching as he walks, reeling from side to side, as he tries to find the door handle, as he falls in the sand that’s everywhere in the complex. He rolls, trying to separate up from down, picks up the papers that fell out of his wallet, crawls. He doesn’t care that the people are exchanging glances. He can do whatever he wants—drink, roll in the sand, throw up under the rowan, shout. He is in the party[1]. Very often the neighbors solicitously help him get home.

But they never, ever interfere or comment on the issues in his home. No matter the shouting, the begging. No matter. No matter the breaking glass, the slamming doors. Nobody has ever said anything about it. Never knocked at their door. Never called the police. Even when Agnieszka ran up and down the stairs and the corridors looking for help. Nobody opened the door.

Now Agnieszka doesn’t run any more.

Now Ewa no longer complains to her mother.

She doesn’t say a word, just puts on makeup.

Nobody helps her.

But she can help Agnieszka. If her husband focuses on Ewa, Agnieszka will have peace.

IV.

And again, and again. And again here he is. The dream, the raven. With a different rhyme. Agnieszka doesn’t understand what the bird is talking about. She repeats his words to herself—they’re so stupid, she wonders if she’s missed something.

 

When the fire comes with hate

Human lives it wants to take

Pick the most important stuff

Go where it is cold and dark

 

Agnieszka knows from her grandmother that these are supposed to be clues. That there are people who hear and walk in their sleep, then bring back information about the future, but the information is always deceptive because the raven is evil. Agnieszka thinks this is all nonsense. She’s eleven and she doesn’t believe in fairy tales any more.

But once again she dreams about her mother, standing on the cliff and bleeding. Peonies and red blood stains dance behind Agnieszka’s lids for a long time after awakening. And she can still hear the raven’s voice.

“You have to guess!” he says. “You have to guess!”

“You have to show me more!” she says. But the raven doesn’t want to dhow more, refuses to say more.

“I am telling you: run. Isn’t it obvious what you need to do?” he caws.

Agnieszka doesn’t want to believe him, she wants to forget. She looks at the sun for so long that she feels pain behind her eyes. It doesn’t help, so she goes down to the basement. She opens their storage compartment and finds a bag of potatoes in the corner. Her grandmother brought them for winter. The potatoes are pretty old and they’ve started to put out roots. The roots make their way through the bag, penetrate the cellar, looking for the way out, like roundworms.

Before she lets herself think about what she’s going to do, she cleans some potatoes and eats them. Raw, including the peel and roots, which are disgusting. Then she eats a more. They taste of earth. Good.

She eats about a kilogram. At the end she can barely swallow.

An hour later she feels terrible. She throws up. She has fever. Her mother’s worried, but even so she waits for Agnieszka’s father to come home from the office to make the decision about whether go to the hospital or not. She walks from one window to another, checking to see if he’s back. She calls his office.

“He’s already left,” she tells Agnieszka.

“Mom, please, take me to the doctor!” Agnieszka pleads. She feels the fever burning her, so intense she is almost deafened by it. Her mouth is parched. “Mom, mom,” she mumbles.

Eventually they go to hospital—it isn’t far. Her mother half carries, half drags Agnieszka behind her. Agnieszka is reeling, but no one stops to help them. This is normal—here nobody helps. It seems as if no one’s paying attention, but they’re all watching. They talk to each other about it, but they don’t dare ask if Agnieszka is all right.

Agnieszka spends three days in the hospital. When she comes back home, the apartment is a disaster.

“Your father got home while we were at the hospital. He was angry. Because he was worried about you,” her mother says. Agnieszka tries not to look at her split lip, at the star-shaped bruise on her chin.

What did she do wrong? 

V.

He came back angry—again. Some say it’s better to know when life goes according to some scheme, when you can somehow foresee the future, even if the future isn’t very bright. They say it’s good to know your enemies—better the devil you know.

Ewa doesn’t care about this kind of local wisdom. Today she’s especially fed up with that approach. Somewhere inside her, deep in the pit of her stomach, something is coming together, rising, some kind of feeling she knows. But it’s never been so strong. This is anger. This is resistance. This is revolt.

The feelings are strong and Ewa can’t just toss them aside, as she tosses the bed linen into the washing machine to clean it. They’re not within her control. They rise, they grow, they inflate. They become powerful. They become independent. They take control. Ewa has the impression that everything is happening without her involvement, that she’s just an observer. And she likes what she sees—at least at the start.

“Leave me alone!” she hisses at her husband, like a viper who’s been poked with a stick. He doesn’t answer. Is he afraid? No, he’s surprised—then he gets his voice back.

“You slut!” Grabs her wrist and twists it. Raises his fist.

“Hit me, I don’t care. I don’t care! I’m used to it!” Ewa screams. Agnieszka comes from her room. She knows what’s going to happen. She looks on with big eyes, so big that Ewa almost laughs. “You fucker, wife-beater!” she spits. He hits her. Something explodes in her head, but Ewa’s laughing. “Fucker!” she says again.

Agnieszka can see that Ewa isn’t going to run or beg for mercy. She just won’t—enough is enough. This makes him even angrier—angrier than he’s ever been. But Ewa isn’t afraid. She’s not afraid because she has a plan. She laughs out loud, despite the fact that Agnieszka has started crying. He beats her more cruelly than he’s ever beaten her before. Red bloodstains blossom on her peony-printed dress. He hits her in her face. The skin above her eyebrow splits, and blood pours into Ewa’s eyes. She swipes them with her hand. She sees that the blood has got under her nails, and her hand is red with it—she’s bleeding a lot.

Then Agnieszka rushes in. She pushes her father, but he shoves her away. But Agnieszka doesn’t give up. She pushes him again, hard. He falls, hits his head against the wash basin. Loses consciousness for a moment.

When he comes around again, Ewa knows what to say.

“I am leaving you, you sucker. I am taking Agnieszka and I am leaving.” This is her plan. Great plan.

“Go, I will find you no matter where you go and destroy you. You and her. Go, you are free to go, if you like. But remember—there is no escape”

Ewa approaches the door. Puts her hand on the door handle. She sees that the bottom of her dress is soaked in blood, and blood drips from her hand.

She takes her hand back.

She’d better think it through again.

VI.

A few days later Agnieszka gets home from school. She’s afraid to come home, but she knows that the fear will eventually pass. It will pass—she can deal with it. She used to be very afraid, but over time she got used to the fear. It’s like getting into cold water: at the beginning you feel a shocking, sudden chill, but then it gets better—not great, but better.

She comes home, even though she doesn’t want to, and opens the door. Or she tries to open it, but it’s locked. This is rare—her mother doesn’t work and usually stays at home. But not today. She probably left to do some shopping, or go to dry cleaner. The hairdresser? There are lots of possibilities, but Agnieszka feels fear growing, despite all the sensible explanations. This closed door isn’t just a closed door—it represents the end of something.

She’ll have to go in if she’s going to find out.

She goes in—she has a key, she just doesn’t usually need it. She takes her shoes off and calls.

“Mom?”

Nobody answers.

She walks around the flat, checks every room. In the end she enters the kitchen. Her mother isn’t here. But there’s a piece of paper. In the middle of the table is a piece of paper, folded in half, with “Agnieszka” written on it. She reaches for it, unfolds it slowly. Her hands are shaking.

She reads it. Quickly, once—another time. The paper falls from her hand. Glides towards the floor, slowly, like a leaf.

In the evening, when she goes to bed, the raven comes. He comes and laughs.

“Did you think your mother would take you with her?” he asks.

“Yes!” Agnieszka is crying. “And she’s gone. By herself. Left me a short note. That she can’t stand it anymore and she’s sorry!”

“What did you expect? She went crazy, that’s all there is to it.”

“Maybe she’ll come back?” Agnieszka tries not to let go of hope—hope as weak as a flower stem.

“She won’t.”

“She will. Or maybe she’s dead?” Agnieszka asks.

“I can’t tell you—I don’t know”

“Is she dead? Did she kill herself?”

“I don’t know. Maybe—maybe not.”

“Then she’ll come back.”

“No. As long as he’s here, she won’t.”

“I don’t understand.”

“So think.”

“What would I have to do to make her come back?”

“Think,” caws the raven.

“I have to do something with him. With him—with father” 

VII.

Late in the spring, six months after Agnieszka’s mother left—she never contacted the family once, as if the ground had opened under her feet and she had fallen into in the abyss—Agnieszka’s father invited Lidka to come. He said she was coming for the evening for a drink. Agnieszka shrugged—she didn’t care.

At the beginning at least, she didn’t care—because later, when Lidka started to come more often, and to stay overnight, Agnieszka started to hate her. Lidka took a place that didn’t belong to her. It wasn’t her own seat that she took on the sofa in the living room, one leg over another, her hair loose, a glass in her hand. With a cocktail in the glass—Lidka doesn’t drink straight vodka, only cocktails. Her friends aren’t so sophisticated, though—they drink vodka, even warm. There are more and more of them. They sit in the living room, sometimes traipsing around the flat and coming to Agnieszka’s room. She has to lock the door.

Sometimes she drinks, too, but she’s careful about it, hides it. Father marks the level on the bottles with a marker. Agnieszka’s afraid to wipe a line off and draw another one—father caught her doing this once and hit her. Now she drinks small quantities and fills the bottles up to the line again with water or tea. Sometimes she spits inside—it makes her feel better.

Or she goes out. Goes out and stays out as long as possible. Sometimes she doesn’t come back at all and stays with a friend. Or in the basement. It’s quite warm there in the winter, though it stinks of potatoes. Sometimes she lies in the potato-smelling darkness and thinks that she’ll never go back home. She’ll run. Forever. Steal some money from her father, take some clothes and go. Maybe she’ll find her mother? Maybe. Maybe.

“I’ve got to get rid of Lidka—that’s the priority. Then we’ll see,” she says.

“Right,” replies the raven, who accompanies her almost all the time now.

“Can you show me how to do it?” asks Agnieszka.

“Sure!” says the raven. “Let’s fly!”

They fly for a long time, so long that Agnieszka gets cold. She doesn’t complain—the raven knows what to do. They’ve been on trips like this before, and all of them ended with some awful vision of violence and pain. Death and fire. Suffering, with no way out. Agnieszka doesn’t like those dreams. She has no idea why the raven shows her such nightmares, but it does.

“You have to guess!” he answers.

But not tonight. Tonight Agnieszka doesn’t need to guess. Tonight they land in an old factory warehouse. Lidka is in the middle of the hall, tied by her hands to one of the steel beams that supports the ceiling. Naked. Her body is sweaty, but in a disgusting way—the way people sweat on busses in the summer. Agnieszka catches her scent. Lidka smells of fear and Agnieszka likes it.

“These are your assistants!” the raven says, and from the dark corners come creatures—grey, with red, flaming eyes. They’re hairy and slimy at the same time. They have long claws and teeth. “They will do whatever you say,” the raven tells her.

Agnieszka nods in almost imperceptibly. She points to Lidka. They attack her and rip off her skin, then rip the flesh off her bones. Lidka is screaming, right to the very end—she’s crying, and it feels good. Agnieszka feels so good about it. She feels a tickling in her belly.

“Can you really kill her?” she asks the raven.

“Maybe,” he says.

“And him?”

“Your father?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe, with a little help from you.”

“You got it. Can you show me mom?” When she asks, it makes her want to cry. She misses her mother more than she hates her for leaving. Missing her makes Agnieszka think she might be able to bring her back. “Can you bring her back?” she asks.

“No. I will not do that.”

VIII.

Agnieszka’s grandmother comes for a visit. She rarely comes now that Ewa has gone. She says she has no idea where her daughter is. She swears to God.

“I don’t know—she’s not at our place,” she says to Agnieszka.

“Did she write to you?”

“No.”

Agnieszka’s disappointed. But she understands that if her mother went to grandmother, her father would have found her there. She has to hide better, farther, deeper. Crouch. Wait. So he doesn’t find her. And he can’t find her if he’s gone. If he just dies. It’s logical. The raven confirms it—as long as her father is here, her mother won’t be. And Lidka, whom Agnieszka hates, will be.

Her grandmother comes even more rarely, now. Mostly when she knows her father won’t be at home. She just needs to check if there are any festivals or celebrations in the area—if there are, then he’s guaranteed to be absent for a few days.

“Come with me,” she says to Agnieszka. “You can stay with us.”

“No.”

“Why?”

Agnieszka doesn’t answer. What is she supposed to say? That she’s thinking about the raven’s promise, that it might actually kill her father and his bitch? She’s obsessed with the idea. And with the logical conclusion—they disappear, her mother comes back. Her grandmother isn’t going to understand. Agnieszka remembers that she got angry at the fact that she’d even spoken to the raven.

“Because,” she replies. “If mom comes back, I’ll be here for her,” she explains. 

IX.

The sky is full of dandelions puffs. Full, covered with them, as if it’s been scratched. The puffs fall, drift down, slowly land on the meadow. Agnieszka lies on the grass, her face to the sky. Dandelion puffs sit on her eyelashes, arms, and legs. Agnieszka laughs—they’re tickling her.

“Don’t laugh, this isn’t what it seems!” says the raven. Right—he’s here, this is a dream. The raven is right beside her. He brought her here. “I brought you here, so you can read the prophecy!” he caws.

His ominous voice makes Agnieszka see. These aren’t dandelion puffs, they’re parachutes. Parachutes that the planes have spit out, planes circulating high in the sky. Agnieszka sits up and she can see that she’s not the only one watching them. There are a lot of people around her, all looking up. They squint, looking into the sun.

Suddenly, the sun explodes. Fire rains down from the sky, falling on the spectators, falling on Agnieszka too. She can feel the burning. She begins to scream as fire burns through her body. It leaves black holes, like bullet holes. Agnieszka runs, but there’s no place to hide—a hail of fire everywhere.

“Help! Help!” she calls to the raven.

The sky disappears, and suddenly Agnieszka is back in her room again. She’s in her bed, breathing quickly.

“I saved you, since you made a wise choice,” the raven says. “You didn’t leave with your grandma—you stayed. Good girl.”

“And the dream? What was it about?”

“A rain of fire.”

“Is it related to Lidka and my father?”

“It’s supposed to be.”

“How? Where? When”

 

A thousand years, a lot it is

Don’t you think my dear?

For the millennium’s sake

The ground hits the plane.

 

And that’s all he says. 

X.

Agnieszka eats dinner with her father. They hardly talk, just eat. She tries not to bang her plate with her fork. She knows she has to ask him if she’s going to figure out what the dream was about. The dream with the dandelions puffs, which will tell her how to get rid of him.

“How is your work?” she asks to begin the conversation.

“Good,” her father replies.

“Well… are you travelling somewhere just now?”

“No,” he says. Gets up. Agnieszka gets it—no more talking. She gets up too. “I’m not going anywhere. We have the Polish millennium in a week”

“Oh, good,” Agnieszka says as calmly as she can, but inside she’s singing.

“I’m going to an air show”

“May I go with you?”

“Maybe. I don’t know if I’ll stay long. It’s going to be hot”

“Please, let’s go! Take me with you! Please! I really want to see it!” Agnieszka pleads. Her father looks at her, stunned. She’s never behaved like this, never asked for anything, never begged. But now she has to.

 

On the day of the show she irons his shirt. Of course Lidka wasn’t about to do it. She just dolls herself up in the hall and makes comments. Drinks her drinks, gets pretty drunk. Agnieszka’s father too.

For the first time, Agnieszka doesn’t care. The raven visited her early in this morning and showed her the dandelions again. Repeated his rhyme. Agnieszka is sure she knows what will happen.

She helps her father put his shirt on. Ties his tie. When he goes to the bathroom to do his hair, she cleans his shoes.

She sticks her tongue out at Lidka—things can’t be too different, she mustn’t suspect anything.

She dresses up. She’s ready.

XI.

Summer, 1965, in Katowice. A huge air show celebrates the fact that exactly a millennium before, Poland converted to Christianity and became a sovereign country. All the officials from the area have gathered at Muchowiec airport, as have many ordinary people. The event is enormously expensive—some people say absurdly so.

Agnieszka’s father sits in a special section. He’d planned to stay in the shade under the trees that grow around the runway rather than stay in the hot sun, but Agnieszka has convinced him to go to the platform. He agreed, surprised by her stubbornness. And he agreed because the platform was actually pretty comfortable. Plus, he can see everything from there and be seen by his subordinates. Lidka sits by his side. A bit farther along, and lower, in the kids’ section, sits Agnieszka. She stays as far from her father as possible. She looks at him and at the preparations, checking over and over to be sure that he’s still in the right spot. He can’t move! It’s the perfect position, just where he’s meant to be.

The planes take off on time. First there’s an air acrobatics show. The planes release trails of colorful smoke, like carnival streamers, diving and somersaulting. People applaud, but the applause is drowned out by the roaring of the jets engines. Agnieszka claps too, though she feels some stiffness in her neck. Something seems to be whirling inside her head because of constantly looking up at the sky. Faster and faster. She can’t recognize the words the people beside here are saying. She applauds louder.

Then it’s time for the parachutes to begin. Big planes, with huge, pregnant bellies, take the skydivers up. They manage to take off—they’re so heavy that Agnieszka wasn’t sure they’d be able to, but they do, going so high she can hardly see them anymore.

People started to jump out of the planes. Dressed in colorful uniforms, easily visible against the whitish sky of summer. They hold hands, forming patterns, like stars.

Agnieszka’s father is the first one to see that something’s wrong. One of the planes starts to smoke, releasing a black cloud behind it. It tries to turn, to get away from the others, but the giant machine won’t respond to the pilot’s commands.

The pilot of one of the other planes doesn’t see what’s going on. They crash. Thud. The fuel tanks explode. Fragments of outer skin of the plane fall off, hot from the explosion, glaring red. Bigger parts of the airframe, too.

People try to run. They stumble over each other, some falling, and those still on their feet trample on the ones on the ground. All of them screaming. The smell of fuel and burnt human flesh rises over the airport. And the noise of the screams.

Agnieszka doesn’t move, even though she’s bumped and shoved by people as they flee. She moves just a few steps, from one spot to another to see better. Looks at the sky, knows what’s coming.

One of the largest pieces hits the officials’ section. Her section. She sees a flash. And nothing more, only light. And a feeling much like the one she had when she saw the fireworks for the first time. Ecstasy, joy, a love of life. A sense that the world is a good place. That she can find her place in it. The brightness flashes again, more fireworks, and Agnieszka feels like clapping her hands.

XII.

She opens her eyes. In place of the light and eternity, she sees a room. Ceiling, yellow—walls, colorful. Bed, metal. Window, blacked out.

“Where am I?”

Legs, not working. Hands, connected to drips. Pain. Pain, so bright. So strong.

“What happened?” she asks. Tongue, stiff. Pain.

“You got what you wanted, congratulations on guessing!” answers the raven. He bows.

“What about him? My father?” Skin, burning.

“Dead.”

“And what about me?” Agnieszka asks hurriedly. Small drops of her saliva fall on the raven’s feathers.

The raven shakes himself off and opens his wings.

“Don’t worry. I will take care of you,” he promises. “I will take care. You will die—die tonight.”

[1] The PZPR. The Communist Party of Poland, the most important political party—the only political party—during the communist era.