The Priest Who Refused to Bow Before the Wind
— 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 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. He was also able to swear professionally 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 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—of the type we call “gugula,” 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.
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 tops, 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?”
“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 icy as in the blowhole. 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?”
“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, our nicest!” 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.”
“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 Baśka. “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 the dangling heart 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 bench on 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.
— 5 —
The foehn doesn’t just influence people—it affects animals, too. There was a family that lived here two years ago. They arrived from Silesia—Katowice I think. Bronclik was their name. They didn’t live here full-time, they just liked the mountains and the fresh air. From time to time they came by car, packed to the roof with stuff, to bake a potato casserole[KM2], drink some homemade alcohol, and talk loudly in a Silesian dialect. They irritated everyone, but since they lived in Laliki we had to put up with them—they were neighbors.
One day a dog wandered up to them, as big as a horse and pitch-black. I’m sure this beast had some wolf in him—they roam around the village in the winter. He had bristly hair and his eyes were hypnotic, with a golden gleam. I’m telling you, wolf—I’m sure of it. And he may have been magic or enchanted. They named him Karino.
Karino looked like he was born to kill, but he was unusually calm. He never barked, never attacked anyone, and never even glanced at the chickens that traipsed around Laliki. He fawned on everyone and loved to eat wild raspberries. He stuck around the Bronclik family so long that they decided to take him home. From then on Karino travelled back and forth with them.
One day, when they were excitedly preparing for a barbecue, the wind came up. The lowlanders looked fearfully at the sky, hurriedly collected their salads and bottles, and ran home. For a moment this left their three-year-old son alone in the courtyard with Karino, who would let the kid do whatever he wanted—stick his fingers into Karino’s eyes, grab his tail, and so on—the usual stuff little kids do to big dogs.
But not this time. As soon as the adults disappeared inside, the dog bristled as if an electric current had been sent through him. He straightened his tail, bared his fangs, and without any warning attacked the child. He tore at the boy with his teeth, shredding his clothes and mauling his tender skin. Of course the toddler shrieked, and the mother came running to help. Driven by a mother’s love, she leapt onto Karino’s back.
The dog was strong and agile. He flipped over, knocking the woman to the ground, and attacked her next, leaving the little boy alone for the moment. The kid sat down on the grass and howled as if he were being skinned. The father bolted out of the house and was greeted by an unbelievable sight.
The animal didn’t kill the woman right away, though he could have. Karino attacked as if he wanted to devour the woman alive. He would look, carefully choose the spot he was going to aim for, and dive in, jaws open, tearing meat from the woman’s shoulder or some other spot that looked tasty. He’d toss the piece into the air and gobble it down, choking on blood, gnashing his teeth and licking his lips. When the father tried to approach, Karino rushed back toward the child, threatening. I will kill him, if you come closer, he seemed to say. His eyes glowed as if they burned.
I heard the family’s screams from my office. At first I thought that it was some new raucous game of theirs, but I realized after a moment that I could hear excruciating pain in every sound. I sprang out of my chair and ran toward their house. Even from a distance I could see what was happening. I’m telling you it was a horror—blood, there was blood everywhere. Without stopping, I passed them by and ran to grandfather Pysz, who was sitting in front of his house as he always is.
“Grandfather, get your shotgun, quick!” I yelled at him—he was already a little bit deaf, and besides I was shaking with adrenaline.
Without a word, Pysz grabbed his weapon. At one time he’d been quite a hunter. By this time he was ninety-something, but he still liked to shoot something from time to time. Hoping for an opportunity to use his gun, he hobbled along behind me. As soon as we rounded the fence, the foehn wind caught Pysz’s hat and blew it off his head.
By the time we reached the Bronclik courtyard it looked like a slaughterhouse. The woman lay face down, motionless, uttering small groans. Karino sat by her. From time to time he would lower his head and tear another piece of her away. He ate the meat greedily, keeping a close watch on his little hostage. The boy cried quietly and called for help. The father was nearby, standing flat against the wall of the house, barely daring to breath because any movement brought a deep bass growl from Karino.
“Shoot him!” I ordered Pysz, and he nodded. He slowly took the weapon from his shoulder, released the safety, and took up a firing position. For a moment he stood utterly still—I never even saw him pull the trigger.
The double-barreled shotgun barked—then everything seemed to happen at once. Pysz fell into the dusty road, thrown back by the gun’s tremendous kick. Karino’s head exploded, splattering the child and both parents. The mother rolled onto her back. The child ran toward her with a shout and began pulling at her hands, begging her to get up. The father vomited violently. And I froze on the spot, deafened by the shot and filled with a sudden relief that the terrible butchery had ended. The large body of the dog slumped to the ground with a sigh.
The Bronclik family left the same day, having dressed their wounds as well as they could with some help from me. A few weeks later they sent an agent. The man cleared out the house, then sold it to some foreigner who made a hobby of collecting horrors. Fortunately this voyeur of pain and danger never actually turned up in Laliki. And we threw Karino’s body into the river. It splashed and then sank.
— 6 —
As soon as the priest finished his story, the wind came up. It seemed to arrive from nowhere, uninvited and unexpected. It thudded down from between the mountain peaks, rattled the bald branches of the apple tree, tumbled down low to the ground to pull at the late autumn flowers and scare away the bees, then rose again to soar over the village.
“The devil has come in the wind,” Buba muttered and got up. “Something will happen, you’ll see, something’s going to happen,” he said, gathering his cassock with one hand and running in the direction of the church.
Surprised, I followed him. I told myself that the story about the dog must have upset Buba and that in a moment he would regain his usual, jovial mood—but my hopes were in vain. As soon as we reached the presbytery, two people ran up to us breathlessly from the direction of the village.
“Dear priest, get in the car, we’re going to the bridge!” they said, and immediately got into the Fiat 126p, which stood in its usual place outside the presbytery. They got in the back and caught hold of the headrests, gearing up for a rough ride.
Buba jumped behind the steering wheel and I got into the passenger seat.
“What’s going on? Why are you running around shouting? Talk!” he ordered severely.
“Because Szalbot is fighting with Fajferek on the bridge!”
“What’s unusual about that? When they drink they fight.”
“But they weren’t drinking!”
“Right—I’m sure no one here has been drinking!” the priest said, irritated.
“Really, they didn’t drink!” the two of them smacked themselves on the chest, as if to insist that they were telling the truth.
“Whether they drank or not, what’s the problem? They’ll fight for a while and then stop.”
“We don’t think so.”
“Because Szalbot has a knife and he’s threatening to kill Fajferek. It’s the devil again. He’ll really kill him, as sure as the sun rises. He’s furious and won’t listen to anybody. He chased him the length of Laliki, then caught him, knocked him down, and said that he’s going to slaughter him like a pig!”
“Damn it!” Buba swore at the news and started the engine. He put the car into first gear and shot forward as the car uttered a groan of agony.
We raced off in the direction of the bridge. It joined the two sides of a deep ravine that opened just behind the village. It wasn’t far, but we’d get there faster by car, especially with the pace that Buba squeezed out of the Fiat. So within a minute later I could see the bridge, with a sizeable crowd on it and more people approaching from Laliki. But we were faster. We overtook a large group of locals and reached the spot first.
Leaving the engine running, Buba jumped out of the car. He hurried into the crowd, where everyone tried to talk to him at once.
“Priest! He went mad!” said one man.
“No, it wasn’t his fault! The wind, the wind drove him crazy!” yelled another.
“Let the priest chase away the evil! The one that’s inside Szalbot’s head!” said a woman.
Buba approached the men on the bridge. Fajferek lay on his back, as flat as he could make himself. Szlabot sat on his chest with a knife to his throat. I’m not used to this kind of thing so my knees were shaking, but the priest seemed calm.
“Let him go!” he ordered.
“No way!” the highlander replied.
“Let go, before you piss me off or you’ll be sorry!” Buba threatened.
“Son,” the priest said quietly. “Wake up! In the name of the Father and of the Son. Are you going to murder an innocent?”
“Him, innocent?” Szalbot laughed. “His cow keeps coming onto my land, eating my rye! Do I get any compensation for it? No!” Szalbot glowered with bloodshot eyes.
“Uh-huh,” Buba seemed satisfied with this explanation. “That’s true. He should pay for the damage. So kill him.”
“Yeah. You said yourself that it’s got to be done.”
“But can I?”
“You can do anything. You have free will.”
“Well—no. It’d be better to kill myself!” Szalbot jumped to his feet, ran two steps to the fence, and put the knife on his own throat.
The crowd hissed and went quiet. Horrified women covered their mouths with their hands and hid children in their skirts so they couldn’t watch. Men waited to see what Buba would do. And I waited too, fixing my eyes on Szalbot’s shivering hand.
The parish priest looked at his feet, then slowly took a rosary out of his pocket. He kissed the cross and tightened his hand on it. Then I noticed that in addition to the rosary, something else hung there—it looked like a locket. It flashed, shining gold and then disappearing between the priest’s fingers. I didn’t see it well, and I didn’t have a chance to ask what it was before Buba began to speak.
“For the sake of your Mother,” he began, “I’m telling you: give it up, son!” A breeze filled his cassock. “You don’t deserve death, neither you nor anyone else whose time hasn’t yet come. Evil is stirring up this fight. Evil is leading you. Don’t listen to it! I am telling you: disobey!” Buba shouted loudly.
This seemed to bring Szalbot around. He staggered a little, rubbed his cheeks with a free hand, and dropped the knife. Two of the bystanders immediately rushed to him. One kicked the knife away, knocking it over the edge and deep into the valley, and the second twisted the madman’s arm and pushed him against the barrier.
“Quiet down, neighbor!” he said in a calming tone. “For your own good.”
Buba breathed and wound the rosary into a ball. I noticed that he closed his hand on the locket and shook it twice, as if shaking someone’s hand in greeting. Apart from me, no one seemed to notice. The crowd watched Szalbot, astonished that he was now as calm as a lamb. A few applauded.
“Who has vodka?” asked the priest.
“I have!” answered a young man hastily, handing the bottle to the priest.
“Drink!” Buba ordered Szalbot, handing him the booze. When Szalbot put the bottle to his mouth, Buba took hold of the bottom and held it up at an angle, forcing Szalbot to drink several large gulps, so bitter that he had to shake it off.
“Kociniak!” shouted Buba to the horse-lover from Laliki. “Take him away!” he waved his hand more or less in the direction of Szalbot. “To Laliki. Tie him to the cherry tree in your backyard. Firmly. I will take the engineer to the bus stop, and when I come back I will take care of him. Let’s go!” he urged and turned to me. “Get into the car!” he said. I heard fear in his voice. I hurried to get in and in the process clumsily banged my shin with all my might. I swore under my breath.
“What’s wrong?” I asked the priest, who jumped behind the wheel. The wind battered itself against the car door, startling me, and I hurried into the passenger seat.
“He’s searching for a victim!” muttered Buba, tidying up his cassock.
“What?” I screamed terrified. “Searching for what?”
“What do you mean? What the hell’s going on here?” I gritted my teeth in irritation.
“The wind brings disasters. It wanted to the end someone’s life. Since it failed with those two, it will attack someone else.”
“I don’t think so.” The car shivered, shaken by the wind, as if it were agreeing with Buba.
“Because you’re the weakest. We have to run! We have to get out of here!” Buba put the car into first gear, turned it around virtually on the spot, and ran it down the hillside while singing a church song in his deep voice. “When in a bad hour the wind will blow straight into the house, my house on rock will be standing!”
Seeing that we were fleeing, the wind went mad. It slammed against the windscreen, tearing the wipers off. It hurled dust and gravel and burdock leaves against us. It rocked the car in every direction, trying to topple it over. But Buba remained focused, going down and down. He craned his neck like a hawk, tightening his hands on the steering wheel and somehow holding on to the road. The car slid for a moment onto the shoulder and stones rattled against the chassis. I tightened a hand on the door handle—afraid that I might accidentally open it, given the way the car was shaking and the worn-out state of the door—and held my breath. At that moment the engine stopped, the wind stopped, and it became quiet.
“Hey!” I laughed vacantly. “It gave up!” I was relieved, but Buba shook his head.
“The worst is still before us,” he said gloomily.
Unfortunately, he was right. The car, without any more resistance from the wind, sped up on the incline. The road was very steep, so in just seconds it was going at a dangerous pace. Trees whistled past. The car went faster and faster and then faster still. And then I felt something more. In a last murderous attempt, the wind had started to blow at our back, making us careen even faster.
The Fiat dashed downhill at more than eighty miles per hour. The landscape on both sides merged into a single, smeared stain. For a moment I actually considered jumping out, but it seemed like certain death. I dug my fingers into the seat. The body of the car creaked as it shook. I started to scream and Buba sang in a raw voice:
“Oh, please protect us, Father in the sky, we, your children entrust to you our fate. You will bless us, save us from trouble and protect us from evil, when a blow is threatening! Whether the water is calm, whether waves are booming out, you care for your children. We offer you our prayers, today to your glory, because you are our shield, God our Father!”
The speedometer was tilting toward its upper limit. The car approached the bottom like a rocket. Buba still more or less managed to steer it, heading toward the little square for intercity buses. I stopped screaming for a moment. Then, on the right-hand side, a tractor-trailer loomed up from a dirty road.
The semi was carrying a load of logs, which gleamed like oiled skin. Under them there was maybe two meters of space—we might just manage to get through. The priest put his weight on the brake, but the car didn’t even slow down and we rushed directly at the truck. Buba never stopped singing, while changing gears to try to control the car. I went quiet and waited for merciful death, staring at the approaching semi. A shout from the priest shook me out of my stupor.
“Head down!” Buba yelled. Without a thought I bent to the floor. The priest forced himself down low in his seat. I heard a short, deafening grating sound when Buba pulled as hard as possible on the handbrake. The car spun twice, revolving on its own axis, and stopped. We had passed under the load of wood without harm.
I got out of the car feeling as if my legs were made of jelly. I barely managed to slam the door shut.
“What was that?” I asked with a whisper.
“The wind? What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded.
“The wind—it’s always been like this with the wind here.” Buba shrugged his shoulders and also got out. “The wind hates Laliki. Why, no one knows. Evil isn’t always logical. Anyway, if it doesn’t cause a catastrophe here from time to time, it goes crazy. If it plans a fire or a downpour, a fire will burn and the rain will pour down. If it wants to kidnap somebody, it’ll lead them astray so they walk off into the wild. It won’t rest until it destroys crops. When it decides to kill someone, it has to kill someone,” Buba threw a furious glare upward, “But not this time!” The wind howled contemptuously and then went quiet, as if acknowledging that it had lost the skirmish.
“And what about Szalbot?” I stammered out hoarsely
“What does it mean? Nothing.”
“Isn’t he the one whose son hanged himself?” I asked, recalling the man from my first stay in Laliki.
“The same. He misses Janek, he’s just overwrought. He goes crazy from time to time, and each time I have a hard time telling if it’s from grief or from the wind. Every couple of days I have trouble with him.” Buba rubbed his forehead. “Well, this is his fate—to suffer.”
“What about an exorcism?” I suggested. The priest waved a hand.
“Useless. He’ll stay tied to the tree for a while. The devil can’t stand boredom. Kociniak isn’t going to untie him. By tomorrow people will forget the whole thing. See you!” he said suddenly, jumping into his car and driving away.
I stood looking after him and wondered whether I would ever come here again. It didn’t feel likely.
— 7 —
What I felt didn’t matter—I had to go to Laliki. The construction project required a summary report and the completion of thousands of forms. Buba couldn’t do it alone, so I packed about ten kilograms of papers and took the bus back to Laliki.
When I arrived, the bell swayed in the wind. But the breeze was gentle for the moment. The malicious wind was gathering its strength, waiting to blow people from the treetops. It lurked amongst the passes and waited for a strategic moment, temporarily teasing the cows in meadows.
I sat down with Buba in his office and we went through the documents. We had just checked the entries in the calendar when a deep silence fell: the birds went quiet, the insects stopped buzzing, the grass stopped shushing.
“What’s going on?” Buba muttered. He was already on his way to the window to have a look when the wind came up.
It exploded suddenly, attacking the village without warning, blowing down trees and tossing branches at people. The citizens of Laliki, shielding their heads with arms, rushed to their houses as if to hide from an air raid. The wind roared like a mad tiger. Personal belongings flew everywhere: clothes, garden furniture, tools. Blowdowns, brooms, buckets, plants and flowerpots, fences and shingles—literally everything what wasn’t firmly attached to the ground.
“This is going to be really bad!” Buba prophesied. But contrary to his fears, as suddenly as it had started, the wind stopped blowing.
“That’s it!” It was a bit stupid of me to rejoice so prematurely. Buba looked at me as he might at a foolish child, shaking his head.
“I don’t think so. Look at the road.” he nodded toward the window.
I looked. I was speechless. The road into Laliki—and out of it—was entirely covered by rubbish that had been blown there by the gale.
“Yeah, you’re not going home today.” Buba shrugged. “Our old friend is probably planning a show for this evening and he wants you in the audience!” he laughed. “Well, don’t worry, we will clean up a bit and then you’ll have a nap at my place. There’s no other way.”
Working with the rest of the townspeople, we managed to finish clearing the village of rubble just as it was getting dark. Then, after a supper with Buba, I went to his guest room. It was on the first floor, above his office—a modest room equipped with a narrow bed and a bedside table. A Bible lay on the cupboard. In the corner I found a bowl and jug, which I filled with water from the well. I splashed myself a little bit, then lay on the bed, which smelled of hay. Pleased, I half-closed my eyes and watched the light of the moon as it crawled along the grey walls. The night was completely quiet. The rays of light wavered soothingly. I closed my eyes and sighed deeply. I was exhausted from clearing wood and other debris from the road and I needed a good dose of sleep.
And of course just then it started blowing again. At first gently, seductively, as if evil wanted to apologize to me for the events of the afternoon and was trying to help me to sleep. “Nice” I thought, covering my back more completely with the duvet. But after a moment the foehn wind began to get angry. First it scraped through the courtyard with steel bucket, then howled between the poplars. Seeing that I was ignoring it, it slammed the shutters—once, then again. I covered my head. It lifted a large piece of corrugated iron from the construction site and hurled it against the wall so firmly that that the building shivered.
This was way too much. I jumped out from under the duvet and opened the window, where earlier the wind had come knocking.
“What? What do you want? Go away! Night is for sleeping for Christ’s sake!” I screamed, but the wind of course didn’t listen. It blew and blew, howling mercilessly. Helpless, I rushed back to the bed. There was no chance I would fall asleep. I was still angry, tossing and turning, when amongst groans and hisses of the wind I heard a distinct call. The voice came from the chapel. I could hear it, but I wasn’t able to distinguish words. I sat up in the bed. The voice cried out again.
“Come here, come here!” it said. What’s happening? I thought. A trap? But the voice called again, more and more insistently. After a moment of hesitation, I got up and decided to force my way to the church.
I put on my jeans and cautiously opened the door of the room. Soot suddenly puffed from the vents in clouds that looked like dancing devils. I shouted in surprise, but I didn’t back down. These were cheap theatrics, not real threats. I slowly went toward the stairs.
I slipped down noiselessly and put my ear to the door. Outside, the wind raged. I sighed.
I have to go, I told myself and hurried out into the courtyard.
The wind immediately swept me off my feet. I fell onto my back, then turned onto my belly and grabbed the grass in order not to fly away. I pulled my knees up, and on all fours I moved through the courtyard.
“Help, help!” another cry reached me.
I was sure that it was Buba, whom I hadn’t seen since leaving the guest room. I waded arduously through the storm, the cool earth sticking to my knees. The wind attacked from every side, but I didn’t stop. In the end—I couldn’t say how much later—I reached the church. I grasped the door and pulled myself up until I was standing. I pressed the door handle and almost fell inside, shoved by the wind. Behind me the solid door slammed shut, as if yanked into place like a marionette, and a deathly hush fell.
I reeled a little, making my way into the new chapel, which I had helped to build. From the stained glass, the faces of the saints watched me. Pleasant by day, the figures now seemed to be laughing at me.
“Parish priest!” I cried out. My voice echoed. The silence became even deeper. The saints in the windows looked at me as if I had told a foolish joke.
Just as I was about to begin laughing at myself for my own stupidity, a wall of air with the strength of a tornado struck from the south. It smashed a fist through the stained glass, which shattered into hundreds of pieces and showered me with a brocade of dust. I instinctively closed my eyes or I would have been blinded. It ached. It baked. I felt that blood was pouring from all the areas of my skin that hadn’t been shielded by clothing. Chips of glass jingled upon the floor and then their sound died away. I looked reluctantly at my arms.
“Shit!” I looked like a hedgehog. I had covered my face with my arms, so they had been hit hardest by the hail of glass shards.
I tilted my head and listened closely. I was sure this wasn’t the end of it, and I wasn’t wrong. The wind came quietly, on its toes, rounding the church and hitting it from the north, crashing into the stained glass window that portrayed the Holy Family. Shattering glass exploded and sprayed in all directions. I fell to the floor and crawled toward the altar, searching for shelter—a board, a scrap of cardboard, anything I could use to cover myself. But there was nothing like that in the empty chapel. The wind, meanwhile, headed to the east, to the next row of windows. It would bury me alive under glass. Or maybe wait until I died of blood loss. I was afraid. “God—God, help me!” I began to pray deep in my heart. And then I heard Buba’s voice.
“Who the care of God accepts, and with all his heart frankly trusts him, may say with courage: I have a defender, no terrible terror will come to me!” The priest waded with crunching footsteps through the broken stained glass of the windows. He dragged a sack full of cartons and boards. “Get up boy! Let’s save the front section!” he cried out. I felt I had no choice but to fight the foehn wind—if I sat moaning it would surely kill me.
We rescued just two stained glass windows, covering them with cartons and boards. The wind attacked, trying to destroy them, but in the end they were safe. Nor could it do anything to us. Tired and dirty, we spent the entire night singing church songs, over and over again, while the wind raged, shrieked, and fulminated, finally leaving at dawn.
— 8 —
We slept till the noon. Then Buba pulled me out of bed and fed me fried eggs with burnt butter. It tasted great, though it stank a little.
After breakfast we dressed our wounds while the locals began to clean up the village, which looked like the battlefield, and the chapel. I filled out the reports I’d come to complete, signed my name to the last one, and started collecting my things to go home.
Buba accompanied me to border of Laliki.
“Goodbye Zbyszek!” he said, embracing me. “Thank you for your help. You have a great gift, boy. The wind respects you now. Earlier it attacked you, thinking you weak, but today it’s willing to get rid of you and your power. And not everyone can chase it away. One way or another you must eventually take this—responsibility,” he concluded. I didn’t know what to answer—I had no idea what he meant.
I waved to Buba and started down a route covered with pine needles, jumping over tree trunks. I looked at the treetops. They looked innocent, those fluffy pines and soft beeches. What lives there? What does the wind want? I asked myself as I went down.
— 9 —
I returned to Laliki a month later. The first frost covered the grass, crunching underfoot. The very air coagulated, as if it to wrap up the mountains. On the trees, the leaves had gone missing, and in front of the church the mallows were already gone. And there was no car. Undeterred by the possibility that Buba might be out, I headed straight to the office. I will wait, I decided.
I entered with a “Good morning” and stopped, surprised. A strange priest sat at the table. He looked like a tired stick insect.
“Where’s Buba?” I asked him, not very politely I’m afraid.
“He left. Now I’m here. Stanisław Kukiełka.” He introduced himself without getting up. He’d probably decided that if I was going to be rude, he would be too. I was reminded of the importance of good manners.
“Zbigniew Linert. I’m an engineer. Supervising construction.” I introduced myself hastily. “I arrived for the receipt.” I explained.
“Well,” answered Kukiełka. “Let’s get it over with.” He sighed and took me outside.
“And where is Buba?” I repeated.
“He prayed too little and played games too much.” said Kukiełka, and pulled the belt of his cassock more firmly shut.
He wasn’t very forthcoming—I’d never find out from him where the other priest had gone, so I walked over to find talkative old Pysz.
“Ah, well!” said the old grandfather. “They sent him abroad. They said he had a mistress. I don’t believe it—the one they say was his mistress, she’s as ugly as sin. But they told Buba to leave. He left in a flash and that was it.”
I was surprised. I couldn’t see Buba with a girl. He didn’t seem interested in anybody, didn’t even have a housekeeper. I ignored Pysz’s explanation, but nobody was able to tell me anything more believable. People had invented all kinds of bizarre grounds for his dismissal.
So I went to the curia. They ordered me to leave the matter alone and to mind my own business.
“Matters of the church aren’t secular matters!” said the priest whom I asked about the circumstances of Buba’s disappearance from Laliki. “Mind your own business or you’ll be in trouble!” He threatened me so fiercely, I was actually afraid.
I shook my head and forgot about Laliki. I had finished the construction, after all. I signed the technical approval documents and left Laliki as the first snow started to cover the mountains.
— 10 —
December came. On Christmas Eve, full of my mother’s carp and vegetable salad, I walked back home through snowdrifts that looked like meringues. The snow came down thick, and the air was so freezing cold that my fingers and toes went numb despite gloves and knee-high boots. I was relieved to reach my own block.
When I opened the door downstairs I almost couldn’t feel my nose. I stopped in the vestibule, and the warm air of the corridor seemed to burn my cheeks. It smelt of cabbage and sparklers.
I glanced at the post-box, forgetting for a moment that it was Christmas Eve and the postman wouldn’t have come. But a letter lay in my section. I reached for it, curious as to how it had come to be there and who had written it. In one move I opened the creased envelope. Inside there was a postcard. A typical Christmas picture was printed on the front, with a Christmas tree and carolers singing. A Christmas mummer disguised as a barnyard animal had a brocade star in his clutches. After glancing momentarily at the art on the front, I quickly turned the postcard over to see who had sent it. “Michał Buba,” I read out, then looked at the text.
“Dear Zbyszek!” the priest wrote. “I’ve left Laliki to go to Lithuania. My superior sent me. He couldn’t bear this matter of the foehn wind—it isn’t worth writing about” Buba said of his conflict with curia. “Laliki is cursed,” he continued. “The wind wants to destroy it—to scour the hill, leaving no trace of the village. My job was to defend the place, but they wouldn’t let me because it wasn’t being done in a Christian manner. They don’t understand that this is essential. Anyway, after I left I didn’t reach my intended destination. Where am I? Not important. I’m looking for some help that’s stronger than what I have now. I will come back to complete the matter with the wind once I figure out what to do. Meanwhile, do my work. Defend Laliki. I am leaving you the medallion. Carry it—it will protect you. Without it, you will die—both you and the village. Yours truly, Michał Buba.”
I read the message three times before I more or less understood what he was saying. “A talisman!” I grasped meaning of the medallion on Buba’s rosary. I shook the envelope. A small medallion fell out of it, on a thin chain. There was a Mother of God on it. Beautiful, surrounded by stars, and above her head were a moon and a sun. She resembled the image of the Tarot card “The World,” which I’d seen in my grandmother’s deck.
I went to my apartment and made some tea with lemon. I sat in the armchair and decided to think this through carefully for at least an hour. But there wasn’t that much to think about.
Well, what am I supposed to do? I asked myself after three minutes. Go there? Live there? Give everything here up for some bizarre story? I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. Not happening!
I put the postcard between two books and the medallion in a large jar of buttons. After a few months, I forgot. About Laliki. About Buba and his strange stories. And about the wind.
— 11 —
In Beskidy I built a dozen or so churches. The success of Laliki motivated nearby parishes, so I went from the village to the village, checking, measuring, and verifying the compliance of each building site with its plans. I heard many stories about the wind and the ominous creatures that ride it. With time I got used to the highlanders’ fantasy, and during the foehn wind I started treating reports of two-headed calves and trout raining from the sky as harmless chatter. In Beskidy the wind blows almost all the time, and in the end I barely noticed it. And then, what an irony, the foehn wind got me.
Two years after first meeting Buba, I began construction of the church in Łąka, near Laliki. It was a large-scale project, which would produce a church similar to Jasna Góra in Częstochowa. I was responsible for calculating the carrying capacity of the structure and supervising compliance with legal requirements. Proud of having such a prestigious task, I moved to Łąka in order to track the progress of the work on the spot.
Before the diggers—as slow as crabs—got down to gnawing holes into the ground, to later be filled with concrete, I made some calculations regarding the structure. I was supposed to assign a thickness that would support any load that might be required—bearing walls and ceilings that would stand even the bitterest wind and the weight of mighty pipe organs. We couldn’t have the church collapsing, after all.
As always, I was careful, going over everything twice. I wrote all the steps in my calculations—using my precious thin pencil—on scrolls, which I call support sheets. If there’s any problem on the site, the support sheets let me check my chain of reasoning and, if necessary, return to my calculations.
As I sat looking at my sheets, I heard the wind. It lashed at the window and I got up to close it, looking outside as I did. In the distance, the tips of the spruces were almost combing the grass. That’s a strong wind—any moment now it’ll be in the village! I thought, then went back to my work. It was going slowly and laboriously, but I persisted. About midnight, I went to bed. The foehn wind hammered at the door, but I ignored it.
In the morning, on the basis of my support sheets, I filled in the main sheet, and a few weeks later we went forward with the structure. The walls climbed higher and higher at a crazy pace. I’d never seen an army of builders like these. They worked so fast! They slammed down brick after brick as they constructed walls, all the while pouring concrete on the ground beams. I was proud—the pride of the creator.
When the uppermost, final floor was complete, I proudly stuck a bouquet on it to celebrate the end of construction. The only thing that was left was the roof, on which the wooden bell tower would stand. Excellent! I was happy, so happy.
I carefully climbed down the ladder and glanced back up. Fast-moving clouds disappeared behind the building. I began to feel anxious. At a higher altitude a wind was blowing. Down on the earth I felt nothing, but the fleeing clouds showed that something was going on with the wind above our heads.
I decided to say something inspirational to my team. I turned to them and smiled. I hadn’t even opened my mouth to speak when I heard a dull grinding noise, then another. I whirled around to look at the building and saw exactly the terrible thing that those sounds had led me to fear: two huge cracks now ran along the main wall.
They wouldn’t have been a big problem if they had only affected the plaster, but I could see clearly that they reached much deeper. It’s going to collapse, I thought, and exactly that happened. Cracks started to open slowly in the top floor, crushed under the weight of the ceiling. It was beautiful and terrible, all at the same time.
“Prop it up! Prop it up!” I screamed, although I knew that it was already too late.
The bricklayers, instead of trying to rescue the construction, hurried away, and I stood and stared open-mouthed, watching for the inevitable climax. It came in a fraction of second. With a huge booming noise, cracks broke open as if they wanted to swallow me. The building moaned like a tired strongman who’s reached his limit. The structure rocked, and for a last moment tried to keep its balance. Then it tumbled down, throwing a shower of concrete chips into the sky and smashing the walls to pieces. Miraculously, I managed to get far enough away not to be killed.
I stood amidst the debris for a long time, coated with white dust, simply staring at the rubble. It seemed unreal, like a nightmare. Local people walked around the building site, the priest came and went, and still I stood there, silent and disbelieving. I finally shook off my shock that evening.
“I am going to recheck my work,” I announced to the faithful audience of gawkers, and on stiff legs I walked away.
I went to my flat and took my calculations out of the cupboard. I went to the bathroom, washed my face with cold water, and commanded myself to concentrate. I sat at the table and began checking, from the very beginning, line by line. I examined every step, but everything looked right. Every digit fit perfectly with the previous one. I inspected the work more than once. If there’s a mistake somewhere, it must be in the support calculations! I realized.
I found the additional sheets where I had put them, rolled up in a rubber band in a drawer. I unrolled them and straightened them with my hand. I exclaimed wordlessly. My calculations had been erased, as if someone had poured milk over the digits and, in their place, written new ones. Incorrect ones, idiotic ones. I hadn’t done it. I had only corrected a few mistakes and then built the church.
Everything whirled in my head. Half conscious, I entered the bathroom and vomited. I rinsed out my mouth with cold water and looked at myself in the mirror. I was a dreadful sight.
“Just be glad you’re alive and not crushed beneath your bloody church!” I said to myself and began to pack up.
— 12 —
The foehn wind may have brought shame to me, but it didn’t manage to kill me. I was immune to it, like Buba. After the incident in Łąka I knew that I could no longer ignore his postcard, the medallion, the wind. It had challenged me, and I accepted its challenge.
I gave up my job in Katowice. I packed my things, hung Buba’s medallion on its chain around my neck, and moved to Laliki.
 The highest cordilliera in Poland.
 The largest monastery in Poland.
 It’s a Polish custom, when a building is finished, to mark the occasion by putting flowers or fresh tree branches at the top.
The Will To Power
The question is not whether Miran will succeed, but who will be left alive when he does.
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I Can Hear You
Who’s that woman in the Armani jeans? Is she a junkie? An alcoholic? Or just another crazy chick, come here to Hell to get cured? Coming in 2017.
Long Dream of Falling
Follow the lives of extraordinary people who think they are worthless. Coming in 2018.