Excerpts from Flights
HERE I AM
I’m а few years old. I’m sitting on the window sill, surrounded by strewn toys and toppled-over block towers and dolls with bulging eyes. It’s dark in the house, and the air in the rooms slowly cools, dims. There’s no one else here; they’ve left, they’re gone, though you can still hear their voices dying down, that shuffling, the echoes of their footsteps, some distant laughter. Out the window the courtyard is empty. Darkness spreads softly from the sky, settling on everything like black dew.
The worst part is the stillness, visible, dense – а chilly dusk and the sodium-vapour lamps’ frail light already mired in darkness just а few feet from its source.
Nothing happens – the march of darkness halts at the door to the house, and all the clamour of fading falls silent, makes а thick skin like on hot milk cooling. The contours of the buildings against the backdrop of the sky stretch out into infinity, slowly lose their sharp angles, corners, edges. The dimming light takes the air with it – there’s nothing left to breathe. Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snail’s eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park.
That evening is the limit of the world, and I’ve just happened upon it, by accident, while playing, not in search of anything. I’ve discovered it because I was left unsupervised for а bit. I’ve clearly found myself in а trap now, and I can’t get out. I’m а few years old, I’m sitting on the windowsill, and I’m looking out onto the chilled courtyard. The lights in the school’s kitchen are extinguished; everyone has left. All the doors are closed, hatches down, blinds lowered. I’d like to leave, but there’s nowhere to go. My own presence is the only thing with а distinct outline now, an outline that quivers and undulates, and in so doing, hurts. And all of а sudden I know there’s nothing anyone can do now, here I am.
/- – -/
It’s only warm in the big waiting room at the Kievsky Station or in the bathroom. She stands unable to make her mind up as the patrols pass by her (they always walk with а slow, loose step, moving their legs lightly as though meandering along а seaside boulevard), she pretends to read the timetable; she doesn’t even know why she’s afraid, after all she’s done nothing wrong. And in any case the patrols are interested in something else, unerringly singling out olive-skinned men in leather jackets and women in headscarves from the crowd.
Annushka walks out in front of the station and sees from afar that shrouded woman still scrambling, her voice hoarse from cursing – in fact, neither it nor the curses themselves are really recognizable now. Good then – after а moment’s hesitation she approaches her calmly and stands in front of her. This throws the woman off for just а second – she must bе able to see Annushka through the material that covers her face. Annushka takes another step closer and now stands so near she can smell the woman’s breath – dust and must, old oil. The woman speaks softer and softer until she finally falls silent. Her scrambling turns into rocking, as though she can’t stand still. They stand facing each other for а moment as people pass them by, but indifferently; one person just glances over at them, but they’re in а hurry, their trains will leave at any moment.
‘What are you saying?’ asks Annushka.
The shrouded woman freezes, holds her breath, and then starts sideways, spooked, towards the passage through the construction, over the frozen mud. Annushka follows her, does not take her eyes off her, is а few steps behind her, behind her quilted coat, behind her tiny teetering wool felt boots. She will not let her get away. The woman looks over her shoulder and tries to speed up, almost running, but Annushka is young and strong. She has strong muscles – how many times has she carried both Petya and his carriage all the way down the stairs, how many times has she carried them all the way up, when the lift wasn’t working.
‘Неу!’ Annushka shouts intermittently, but the woman gives no reaction.
They pass through the courtyards between homes, pass rubbish heaps and trodden squares. Annushka doesn’t feel tired but drops the bag with flowers for the cemetery; it would be а waste of time to go back for it.
Finally the woman squats and pants, unable to catch her breath. Annushka stops а few metres behind her and waits for her to stand back up and turn to her. The woman has lost; now she has to surrender. And sure enough, she looks over her shoulder, and you can see her face, she’s pulled the covering off her eyes. She has light blue irises, frightened, looking at Annushka’s shoes.
‘What do you want from me? Why are you chasing me?’
Annushka doesn’t answer, she feels as though she’s caught а big animal, а big fish, а whale, and now she doesn’t know what to do with it: she doesn’t need this trophy. The woman is afraid, clearly in this fear all her curses have escaped her.
‘Are you from the police?’
‘No,’ says Annushka.
‘I want to know what you’re saying. You’ve been saying something all this time, I see you every week as I go into town.’
То this the woman answers, more boldly:
‘I’m not saying anything. Leave me alone.’
Annushka leans over and extends her hand to help her stand, but her hand changes course and caresses the woman’s cheek. It is warm, nice, soft.
‘I didn’t want anything bad.’
At first the woman freezes, astonished bу this touch, but then, seemingly mollified bу Annushka’s gesture, she scrabbles and gets up.
‘I’m hungry,’ she says. ‘Let’s go, there’s а kiosk right here, they have cheap hot sandwiches, you can buy me something to eat.’
They walk silently, side bу side. At the booth Annushka buys two long rolls with cheese and tomatoes, watching to make sure the woman doesn’t run away. She can’t eat anything. She holds her roll out in front of her like а flute about to play а, winter melody. They sit on а wall. The woman eats her roll, and then wordlessly she takes Annushka’s. She is old, older than Annushka’s mother-in-law. Her cheeks are broken up by wrinkles that run diagonally from her forehead to her chin. It’s hard for her to eat because she’s lost her teeth. The tomato slices slip off of the bread, she grasps at them, saves them at the last minute and carefully puts them back in place. She tears off big bites with just her lips.
‘I can’t go home,’ Annushka says suddenly and looks down at her feet. She’s stunned she said something like this, and only now does she think in terror what it means. The woman murmurs something indistinct in response, but after swallowing her bite, she asks:
‘Do you have an address?’
‘Yes,’ says Annushka, and she recites it: ‘Kuznetskaya 46, apartment 78.’
‘So just forget it,’ blurts the woman, with her mouth full.
Flights, Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2017. Copyright © Olga Tokarczuk, 2007. Translation copyright © Jennifer Croft, 2017. Reproduced by permission of Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.