From: Runners

Kunicki

They’re standing next to each other in the kitchen. Kunicki is dicing up parsley. He doesn’t really want to get into it again, but he can’t restrain himself.  He can feel the words swelling up in his throat, and he can’t quite swallow them back down. Meaning the old “Well then what did happen?” yet again.

She says in a tired voice, pointing out in a tone of I’m-reciting-this-yet-again that he’s being boring, that he’s making things difficult, “Here you go, one more time: I didn’t feel well, I think I had food poisoning, I told you.”

But he doesn’t give up so easily. “You didn’t feel sick when you went off,” he says.

“Right, but then I got sick, I got sick,” she repeats, with pleasure. “And I guess I passed out for a minute, and then the baby started crying, and that brought me to again. He was scared, and I was scared, too. We started toward the car, but just because of everything we ended up going the wrong way.”

“Which way? Into town? Toward Vis?”

“Yes, toward Vis. No, I mean, I don’t know, whether toward Vis or not, how was I supposed to know, if I had known, I would have come back, I’ve told you this a thousand times.” She raises her voice. “When I figured out I had gotten us lost, we just sat down in this little grove, and the baby fell asleep. I was still feeling weak…”

Kunicki knows she’s lying. He dices the parsley up and says in a sepulchral voice, not raising his eyes from the cutting board, “There was no grove.”

She just about screams, “Of course there was!”

“No, there wasn’t. All there was were individual olive trees and vineyards. What grove?”

There’s a silence, and then she suddenly says with deadly seriousness, “Okay. You’ve cracked it. Good job. We were carried off by a flying saucer. They did experiments on us. They implanted chips in us, here,” and she lifts up her hair to reveal the nape of her neck. Her gaze is icy.

Kunicki ignores her sarcasm. “Alright, alright, continue.”

“I found a little stone house. We fell asleep, it got dark…”

“Just like that? It got dark? What happened to the whole day? What were you doing all day?”

She presses on. “We had a nice morning. I thought that you might worry about us a little bit and actually remember that we exist. Like shock therapy. We ate grapes all the time and kept going swimming…”

“You’re telling me you didn’t eat for three days?”

“Like I say, we ate grapes all the time.”

“What did you drink?” Kunicki urges.

Here she grimaces. “Water from the sea.”

“Why don’t you just tell me the truth?”

“That is the truth.”

Kunicki severs meticulously the fleshy little stems. “Okay, and then what?”

“Nothing. We went back to the road and flagged down a car that took us to–”

“After three days!”

“So what?”

He throws the knife down into the parsley. The cutting board crashes to the floor. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you caused? There was a helicopter out looking for you! The whole island was mobilized!”

“Well they shouldn’t have been. It just happens that people disappear for a little while, you know? There was no need for anybody to panic. We can just still say that I wasn’t feeling well, and that then I got better.”

“What, goddammit, is wrong with you? What is going on? How can you explain it all?”

“There’s nothing that requires an explanation. I’m telling you the truth, you’re just not listening.”

She’s screaming, but here she lowers her voice. “Just, what do you think, you tell me, what do you think happened?”

But he doesn’t answer her now. This conversation has already repeated itself multiple times. It seems both of them have lost the strength for it.

Sometimes she leans back against the wall and glares at him and taunts him: “A bus full of pimps drove by and took me off to a brothel. They kept the baby on the balcony, on bread and water. I had sixty clients over the course of those three days.”

When she does that he slams his fist into the table to not hit her.

[…]

Kunicki has a good job. At work he’s a free man. He works as a sales representative for a big Warsaw publisher–representative, meaning he peddles books. He has several spots in town he has to stop by every so often to tout his wares; he always brings them the latest stuff and makes them special offers.

He drives up to a little store on the outskirts of town and gets the order he’s fulfilling out of the trunk of his car. The store is called Book and School Supplies Store, it’s too small to give itself such airs as a specific name, and anyway, most of what it sells is just notebooks and textbooks.

The order fits into a plastic box: guidebooks, two copies of the sixth volume of the encyclopedia, the memoirs of a famous actor, and the latest bestseller by the unrevealing title of Constellations–a whopping three copies of this. Kunicki promises himself he’s going to read it. They serve him coffee and a slice of cake. They like him. Washing down mouthfuls of cake with the coffee, he shows them the new catalog. This sells well, he says, and this right here gets ordered all the time. Such is Kunicki’s job. As he’s leaving he purchases a calendar that’s on clearance.

In the evening in his tiny office he fills in the publisher’s corporate forms with the orders he’s gotten; he sends the forms by email. He’ll receive the books in the morning.

He takes deep, relieved breaths, inhaling the smoke from his cigarette: the work day is done. He’s been waiting for this moment since morning so he can look through the pictures in peace. He hooks up the camera to the computer.

There are 64 of them. He doesn’t delete any. They come up automatically, for 10-12 seconds each. The pictures are boring. Their one merit is that they fix instants that would otherwise have vanished completely. But would it be worth it to copy them? Although. Kunicki copies them to a CD, turns off the computer and sets off for home.

All his actions he performs automatically: he turns the key in the ignition, turns off the alarm, fastens his seatbelt, flips on the radio, puts the car in first gear. It immediately rolls along from the parking lot into the busy street, in second gear. They’re doing the weather on the radio. They’re saying it’s going to rain. And sure enough it starts to rain, as if all the drops of rain had just been waiting to be conjured up by the radio; the windshield wipers come on.

And suddenly something changes. It’s not the weather, not the rain, not the view from the car, but somehow, in a single moment, he sees everything differently. It’s as if he’s taken off his sunglasses, or as if the windshield wipers have scraped off more than their usual skimming of urban grunge. He feels hot and steps on the gas in spite of himself. People are honking at him. He pulls himself together and tries to catch up with the black Volkswagen. His hands start to sweat. He would happily pull over, but there’s nowhere to pull over to, he has to keep going.

He sees with terrible clarity that the road, so familiar to him, is suffused entirely with lurid signs. These signs are messages for him alone. The one-legged circles, the yellow triangles, the blue squares, the green and white markers, the arrows, the indicators. The lights. The lines painted on the asphalt, the highway markers, warnings, reminders. The smile on the billboard, not immaterial either. He saw them this morning, but he didn’t understand them then, this morning he could ignore them, but now, now there is no way for him to do that. Now they are all communicating with him, quietly, categorically, there are so many more of them, in fact there is no space they do not inhabit. The names of stores, the ads, the post office symbol, the drugstores, the bank, the lifted STOP paddle of the preschool teacher overseeing the children cross the crosswalk, sign goes through sign, across sign, sign indicating other sign–a little further on, sign taken up by other sign, passed further along, a conspiracy of signs, a network of signs, an understanding between signs behind his back. Nothing is innocent, and nothing is insignificant, it’s all a big endless puzzle.

In a panic he looks for a place to park, he has to shut his eyes or he’ll go crazy. What is wrong with him? He starts to shake. Relieved he finds the bus stop and pulls over. He begins to be able to control himself. It occurs to him that he might have had a stroke. He’s afraid to look around. Maybe he has discovered a way of viewing things, or another Point of View, capitalized, all of it capitalized.

His breathing returns after a little while to normal, although his hands are still shaking. He lights a cigarette, that’s it, let it pollute his lungs with a little nicotine, stupefy him with smoke, evict the demons. But he knows now that he can’t go any further, that he wouldn’t be able to handle this new knowledge that now overwhelms him. He gasps for breath with his head on the steering wheel.

He positions the car on the sidewalk, he’s sure they’ll give him a ticket, and carefully he walks away. The asphalt surface of the road seems viscous now.

[…]

When his son was still a baby, when he was an infant, Kunicki had never thought of him as a person. And that was fine, because then they were close. People are always far away. He figured out how to change his diapers as efficiently as possible, he could do it in just a couple of swift motions, almost imperceptibly, but for the sound of diaper snaps. He would submerge his little body in the bath, wash his belly, and then carry him still wrapped up in his towel into his room, where he would put him in his pajamas. That was easy. When you have a little kid, you never have to think about anything, everything is obvious and natural. Attaching child to breast, and his weight; his smell–familiar and heart-warming. But children aren’t people. Children become people when they wriggle out of your arms and say “no.”

Kunicki is unnerved now by the silence. What was the baby doing? He stands in the doorway and sees the child on the floor, surrounded by blocks. He sits down next to him and picks up one of his little plastic cars. He moves it along the painted road. He doesn’t know if he’s supposed to start off with a story: once upon a time there was a little car that got lost. He’s getting his mouth ready to speak when the boy rips the toy from his hands and gives him something else–a wooden truck carrying blocks in back.

“We’re going to build,” says the baby.

“What are we going to build?” improvises Kunicki.

“A little house.”

Alright then, a little house. They position the blocks in a square. The truck brings the materials.

“Hey, what if we build an island?” says Kunicki.

“No, a house,” says the baby as he plops the blocks down willy-nilly, one on top of the other. Kunicki delicately rearranges, so that the whole house doesn’t come crashing down.

“But do you remember the sea?” says Kunicki.

The child assents, and the truck empties out a new supply. Now Kunicki has no idea what to say or what to ask. He might point to the rug and say, this rug is the island, and we are on the island, but the boy is lost on the island, and daddy is worried, because where could his little son be? Which is what he says, but it doesn’t really work.

“No,” insists the boy. “Let’s build a little house.”

“Do you remember when you and your mommy got lost?”

“No!” screams the baby, gleefully tossing blocks onto the little house.

“Have you ever gotten lost?” Kunicki asks again.

“No,” says the child, and the truck crashes into the newly constructed house at full speed. The walls fall down. “Boom!  Boom!” laughs the boy.

Kunicki begins patiently to build it back up again.

*

When she comes home, Kunicki first sees her from the floor, just like the child. She’s large, flushed from the cold, suspiciously excited. Her lips are red. She tosses a red (or maybe mauve, maybe plum) shawl onto the arm of a chair and hugs the baby. “Are you guys hungry?” she asks. Kunicki feels as though a wind has come with her into the room, the cold, blustery wind that comes off the sea. He would like to say, “Where were you?” But he can’t afford it.

In the morning he has an erection and has to turn away from her; he has to hide these inconvenient notions the body sometimes gets, so that she won’t read them as encouragement, attempts at reconciliation, any type of attachment. He turns to face the wall and celebrates the erection, that purposeless readiness, that state of alert, that adherent, taut extremity; he has it all to himself.

The tip of his penis indicates upwards, like a vector, toward the window, toward the world.

*

Legs. Feet. Even when he stops, when he sits down, they seem to keep going, they can’t restrain themselves, they cross a given space in small, hurried steps. When he wants to restrain them, they rebel. Kunicki is afraid his legs will break out into a run, whisk him off, take him a way he would never agree to, will leap up into the air like they’re folk-dancing, against his will, or they’ll go into the gloomy courtyards of moldy old stone buildings, work their way up someone else’s stairs, pull him up through hatches and onto steep, slippery roofs and make him walk along the scaly roofing tiles, like they would a sleepwalker.

It must be because of his restless legs Kunicki can’t sleep: from the waist up he’s calm, relaxed, and sleepy; from the waist down–insuperable. He’s obviously made up of two people. His upper person wants calm and justice; his downward person is transgressive and ignores all principles. His upper person has a name, an address, a social security number; there’s not really anything his downward person can say for himself, in fact he’s had it up to here with himself.

He’d like to quiet his legs, rub a soothing ointment into them; as a matter of fact, this internal tickling sensation is painful. He finally takes a sleeping pill. He restores his legs to order.

Kunicki tries to control his own extremities. He invents a way of doing so: he lets them be in constant motion, even just his toes in his shoes, while the rest of his body is at rest. And when he sits down–he releases them then, too: let them be uneasy. He peers down at the toes of his shoes and sees the delicate movement of the leather as his feet begin their obsessive marching in place. But he also takes frequent walks around town. He thinks that this time he will have crossed all the possible bridges over the Odra and the canals. That he will not have missed a single one.

*

The third week of September is rainy and windy. They have to get their fall things out of storage, jackets and rubber boots for the baby. He picks him up from preschool; they walk quickly to the car. The boy jumps into a puddle and splashes water everywhere. Kunicki doesn’t notice, he’s thinking what to say, stringing together sentences. Such as, “I’m concerned the child may have had a kind of shock,” or, with more self-confidence, “I believe my son has experienced a shock.” Now he remembers the word “trauma.” “To experience trauma.”

They drive across the wet city, the windshield wipers working as hard as they can to clear off the water from the windshield, baring for just a second at a time the world plunged in rain, the smeared world.

It’s his day, Thursday. Thursdays he picks up his son from preschool. She’s busy because she works all afternoon, she has some workshops or something, she won’t be back until late, so Kunicki has the baby to himself.

They pull up to a big renovated brick building in the very center of the city and look for a little while for a parking place.

“Where are we going?” asks the baby, and because Kunicki doesn’t answer, the boy begins to repeat the question over and over: “Wherewegoing wherewegoing?”

“Be quiet,” says the father, but then, a moment later, he explains, “To see a lady.”

The baby doesn’t protest. He must be intrigued.

There’s no one in the waiting room; a towering woman around the age of fifty appears almost immediately and ushers them into her office. The room is bright and pleasant–in the middle of it there’s a large, soft, colorful rug with toys and blocks on top. Then there’s a couch and two armchairs, a desk and an office chair. The child sits down cautiously on the edge of the couch, but his eyes wander over to the toys. The woman smiles and offers Kunicki her hand, greeting the boy, too. She talks to the child like she wants to make it very clear she’s not paying attention to the father. So he speaks first, preempting whatever questions she might ask.

“My son has had trouble sleeping for some time,” he lies. “He’s become anxious and–”

The woman doesn’t let him finish. “First let’s play,” she says. This sounds ridiculous, and Kunicki wonders if she’s going to be playing around with him too. In his surprise he stands stock-still.

“How old are you?” the woman asks the child. The child holds up three fingers.

“He turned three in April,” says Kunicki.

She sits down on the rug, near the boy, and hands him some blocks; she says, “Your dad’s going to go sit out there for a little while and read, and we’re going to play, like this.”

“No!” says the child, jumping up and running over to the father. Kunicki gets it. He convinces the baby to stay.

“The door can stay open,” the woman assures him.

He presses gently on the door without shutting it all the way. Kunicki sits in the waiting room and listens to their voices, but they’re hard to hear, he can’t tell what they’re saying. He had been expecting a lot of questions, he had even brought the little booklet with the baby’s records, which he reads to himself now: birth at full term, spontaneous labor, Apgar score of 10, vaccinations, weight 3750 grams (8.3 pounds), length 57 centimeters (22.4 inches). We speak of grownups being “tall,” but a child is “long.” He takes a glossy magazine from the table and opens it mechanically, happening immediately upon ads for new books. He goes through the titles and compares prices. He feels a pleasant rush of adrenaline: he’s cheaper.

“Can you clarify what’s wrong, please? What you’re talking about?” says the woman.

Kunicki feels embarrassed. What’s he supposed to say, that his wife and child just up and disappeared, that they weren’t there for three days, for forty-nine hours–he knows exactly how long. And he doesn’t know where they were. He’s always known everything there was to know about them, and now the most important thing is unknown to him. And then, for a split second, he imagines he says, “Please, you have to help me. Please just hypnotize him and get access to those forty-nine hours, minute by minute. I have to know.”

And she–that towering woman, standing straight as an arrow–comes up so close to her that he can smell the antiseptic scent of her sweater–so, in his childhood, smelled nurses–and takes his hand in her big, warm hands and holds him to her breast.

It happens, however, otherwise. Kunicki lies: “He’s just been restless lately, he wakes up in the night, cries. We went on vacation in August, to Croatia, to the island of Vis. I thought maybe something had happened, something we weren’t aware of, maybe something had scared him…”

He can tell she doesn’t believe him. She picks up a ballpoint pen and plays with it. She speaks with an enchanting, warm smile. “You have here a very intelligent child with above-average social skills. Sometimes these things just mean the child is going through a normal developmental phase. Don’t let him watch too much TV. But to me there’s nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with him.”

Then she looks at him with concern, or so he thinks.

As they’re walking out, as the baby finishes up his bye-byes to the lady, Kunicki begins to consider her a bitch. Her smile strikes him as insincere. She’s hiding something, too. She hasn’t told him everything. He now realizes he should never have gone to a woman. Don’t they have men child psychologists in this city? Or have women established some kind of monopoly on children? Women are never really clear; you can never tell upon first inspection if they’re weak or strong, how they’re going to behave, what they want; you have to stay on your guard. He thinks of the pen she was holding in her hand  A yellow Bic, just like the one in the picture he got out of her purse.

*

It’s Tuesday, she has the day off. He’s been agitated since early, he can’t sleep, he pretends he’s not watching her morning meandering, from the bedroom to the bathroom, from the kitchen to the entryway and then back to the bathroom. The child emits a quick, impatient cry, probably when she’s tying his shoes. The sound of her spraying on her deodorant. The whistle of the kettle.

When they finally go out, he stands at the door and listens to see whether the elevator has come yet. He counts to sixty–the time it will take them to make it downstairs. Fast as he can he slips on his boots and rips the bag off the jacket he’s bought used so she won’t spot him. He shuts the door quietly behind him. As long as he doesn’t have to wait too long for the elevator.

Yep, things couldn’t be going smoother. He darts after her, at a safe distance, in a jacket she couldn’t recognize. He fixes on her back, he wonders if she feels somehow uncomfortable, probably not, because she’s walking quickly, briskly, you might even say joyfully. She and the child both leap over puddles, rather than bypassing them, they leap–why? Where did she get all that energy on a drizzly fall day like today? Had the coffee kicked in already? The rest of the world seemed slow and sleepy, and she’s more vibrant than usual, her frenetic pink scarf a blot of brilliance against a background of that day; Kunicki hangs on to it like to a straw.

They finally make it to preschool. He is witness to her leave-taking with the baby, but it doesn’t move him in the least.  She might be whispering something to him as she embraces him so tenderly, some word, exactly the word Kunicki has been searching for so frantically. If he knew what it was, he could type it into Wikipedia, and that cosmic search engine would in the blink of an eye give him a simple, straightforward answer.

Now he sees her as she pauses before the crosswalk, awaiting the green light, pulling out her cell phone and typing in a number. For a moment Kunicki has some hope that his own cell phone will begin to ring in his pocket, she has her own ringtone–a cicada, yes, he had assigned her the song of the cicada, the tropical insect.

But his pocket is silent. She crosses the road while she has a brief conversation with someone; she hangs up. Now he has to wait for the light to change, which is dangerous, because she’s actually going around the corner and out of sight, so he immediately, as soon as he can, speeds up his pace, already fearing he’s lost her, already beginning to be angry with himself and with those lights. Oh, to lose her only two hundred meters from home!

But there she is; her scarf is floating into the revolving doors of the store. It’s a big store, a shopping center, really, they’ve just opened it, it’s practically empty, so that Kunicki hesitates, whether to go in after her or not, whether or not he will actually be able to hide in between the different displays. But he has to, because the store has another exit, onto another street, so he puts his hood on–which is perfectly reasonable, it is raining, after all–and enters the store. He sees her–she’s walking around slowly, as if something were holding her back, and she looks at makeup, at perfume, she stops at a shelf and reaches for something. She holds a bottle of something in her hand. Kunicki rummages through the sale socks.

When she moves, lost in thought, to the purses display, Kunicki picks up the bottle. Carolina Herrera, he reads. Should this name be retained or discarded from memory? Something tells him he should retain it. Everything means something, we just don’t know what, he repeats to himself.

He sees her from a distance–she’s standing in front of a mirror with a red purse on her arm, gazing at her reflection from one and then another angle. Then she goes to the checkout, right to Kunicki. He retreats in panic behind the socks shelf, bowing down his head. She passes by him. Like a ghost. But then suddenly she turns around like she’s forgotten something, and she looks right at him, hunched over, with his hood pulled down to his forehead. He sees that her eyes are wide with astonishment, he feels her gaze, feels it physically: it works its way over his body, it gropes him.

“What are you doing here?” she says. “Do you have any idea what you look like?”

Then her eyes soften, a moment later, a kind of haze comes over them, and she blinks. “Jesus,” she says, “what is going on with you? What is wrong?”

This is weird, this isn’t what Kunicki had expected. He had expected a fight. And then she wraps her arms around him and holds him to her, nestling her face into his bizarre second-hand jacket. A sigh works its way out of Kunicki, a little round “oh,” he’s not sure whether from surprise at her unexpected behavior or because all of a sudden he can see himself bursting into tears into her fragrant down jacket.

She calls a cab from her cell phone, and they wait in silence. It’s only when they’re in the elevator that she says, “Are you okay?”

Kunicki says he’s fine, but he knows that they’re headed toward the final confrontation now.  Their kitchen will serve as battlefield, and they’ll both take up attack positions–he by the table, she with her back to the window, as always. And he knows he shouldn’t underestimate this important moment, that this is perhaps the last and only possible moment to find out what happened. What the truth is. But he knows, too, that he is treading upon a minefield. Every question will be like a bomb. He’s not a coward, and he will not back down in the face of establishing the facts. As the elevator rises, he feels like a terrorist with a bomb under his clothes that will explode the second they open the door to their apartment and scatter everything to dust.

*

He props the door open with his leg so that he can slide in his shopping bags first, and then he squeezes in past them. In fact he doesn’t really notice anything out of the ordinary, he turns on the lights and sets out the groceries on the kitchen counter. He pours some water into a glass and sticks a fading bunch of parsley into it. This will bring him to, he thinks, parsley.

He passes through his own apartment like a ghost, he feels like he could walk through the walls. The rooms are empty.  Kunicki is an eye that is figuring out one of those “Spot the differences between Picture A and Picture B” puzzles. And Kunicki looks. There’s no doubt they’re different, the apartment now and the apartment from before. This puzzle would only work for the extremely unobservant. Her coat is gone from the coat rack, and her shawl, and the baby’s jacket, the parade of boots (all that remains are his lone flip-flops), and the umbrella.

The child’s room seems totally deserted; in fact all that’s left is furniture. A single little toy car lies on the rug, like the bits and pieces leftover after an unimaginable cosmic crash. But Kunicki has to know for sure–and so with his hand held out before him he steals into the bedroom, to the wardrobe with the glass in the doors, which he pulls open; they are heavy, and they open begrudgingly, with a sad grumbling. All that’s left is a silk blouse, too fancy to wear. It looks lonely there by itself in the wardrobe. The motion of the doors . Kunicki looks over the empty shelves in the bathroom. His shaving appliances are still there, in the very corner. And his battery-powered toothbrush.

He requires a lot of time to understand what he is seeing.  All evening, all night, and even the next morning.

At around nine he brews himself some potent coffee and then gathers up some of his shaving things, a few shirts from the wardrobe, some pants, and puts them in a bag. Before he leaves, right when he gets to the door, he checks his wallet: ID, credit cards. Then he runs down to his car. Snow has fallen in the night, so he has to scrape off the windshield. He does so sloppily, by hand. He’s counting on being able to get to Zagreb by nightful, and to Split by the following day. Meaning tomorrow he sees the sea.

He heads south, straight as an arrow, toward the Czech border.

Bios

Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s leading writers. “Kunicki” is taken from her 2008 novel, Runners, which was awarded Poland’s highest literary prize, the NIKE. Her 1996 novel, Primeval and Other Times, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, has just been published in English by Twisted Spoon Press.

Jennifer Croft

Jennifer Croft is a PhD Candidate at Northwestern University. She translates primarily from Polish and Spanish. She can be reached at                                    jennifer-croft@northwestern.edu.

"Kunicki" (from Runners). Copyright (c) Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2008. English translation copyright (c) Jennifer Croft, 2010.