“What are you doing, you little brat? Think that’s funny, do you?”
The strange man wrenches your arm and shouts at you. His eyes are frightening. You see a bearded chin, spit-launching lips, the teeth of a villager. He’s holding a sharp hoe. You’ve done something terrible, broken some grown-up law, but you can’t figure out which one it was. All you were doing was hopping over cracks in the asphalt-paved square at the center of Baligród. You are five years old. This is your earliest living memory.
“Let her go! What’s the matter with you?”
Uncle has returned, a covered grocery basket in his hand. He pulls you to his side, away from the stranger. Keep your eyes down. See their feet facing off against each other. The soft leather of Uncle’s shoes, the coarse twine of the man’s sandals. See the cracks in Baligród square.
“You let her stomp on my father’s gravestone?”
“She was playing! My God! Shouting at a little girl, like that.”
“Trodding on the dead is playing, now? It’s always the same with you szlachta
. We commoners catch the bullets and you szlachta
don’t even have the decency to keep off our dead!”
“You’re raving mad! A crazed Jew!”
“I’ll show you a crazed Jew, you piece-of-shit traitor!”
The grocery basket knocks against skull, loosing jars of preserve. They smash open on the square. See broken glass in a pulpy ooze. Smell sugar, smell apricots, smell blackcurrant. Smell blood. Uncle is lying on his back, red ooze spilling from a crack in his head. His eyes and mouth are three big Os. The stranger is gone. He left his hoe on the asphalt. People have gathered. Hear them muttering.
“They’re Grzymała-Szczuka. She’s a Szczuka girl.”
Szczuka Szczuka Szczuka. Your name buzzes in the air like flies around a plate. Uncle gawks at the sky in surprise. Szczuka Szczuka.
This was the day you learned to fear strangers. It was also the day you learned you had inherited a legacy of hate.Portait by Zhang JingnaWild Woman
No. Your earliest living memory was something else.
You’re three, maybe four years old. You’ve wandered away from the dwór
, the manor, away from the eyes of your cousins. You’re lying on your back by a stooping tree. A bug is tickling your ankle, but you don’t care. Hold still. Don’t breathe. An Apollo butterfly has landed on your cheek. She slowly wafts her wings over your eyes. Wings thinner than snow flakes. Thinner than the skin on milk. Chalk white, frosted with silver. Black spots, like someone painted on her. Red spots. Even to your young eyes, the red spots look exactly like droplets of blood. They even gleam white.
Hold still. Hold still.
Something moves in the grass. The butterfly flutters away. Lift your head. Look.
A lynx, in full profile, its head turned away. See its tail float. See its ears swivel. Whiskers bristling out as if feeling at the air. There is no lynx. Now there’s a woman, crouching. Where did the lynx go? Where did the woman come from?
She stands up. She is not szlachta
. She is almost naked. Her clothes are like chamoix bags and strips of paper. Her hair is like goat pelt. She seems old like Grandma, but when she turns her face, you see she is old like Mama. So dirty! Your cousins are calling for you. The wild woman smells the air and looks straight at you.
Hold still. Don’t breathe.
She runs away. Your cousins find you and lead you back to the dwór
. They think you were lost, and they will not listen to your story about the lynx who turned into a dirty woman. They tell you never to speak to strangers.
"Strangers hate us!"Grzymała dwór
Everyone lives in the dwór
. There is nothing older than the dwór
. Even the Bieszczady mountain range from which it juts like an outcrop seems young and fresh by comparison. Tall and square, rags of gray paint clinging here and there to its rain-darkened timber. It looks like the molt-off skin some living manor left behind, like the lizard molt your brother showed you, half-eaten. Its portico is a horse skull, missing teeth.
The road winds down to Baligród, a town you never visit. Papa and Grandpa go. When they go, they bring rifles. One day you are playing Fairy Princess on the road. A brown bear lumbers by, paying you no mind. Hold still. Watch its huge rump waddle away. Go back to playing.
Another day, you are playing Queen of the Nile on the road. A man comes hiking towards the dwór
Run and hide.( ContinueCollapse )