THE WAY BACK
I retraced the footsteps I'd left years ago, surprised that my feet still fit them. It was only after I transferred to the train in Wrocław that I felt I was really going back to the city of my childhood. An express no longer ran on this route: Wałbrzych had withdrawn even further from the hurried world and the metropolitan city of Wrocław. I claimed a window seat in the ancient, private double decker car, and every once in a while, I touched the key—it seemed to radiate warmth through the wallet. I got it as gift from a man I used to sleep with one summer, though the relationship didn't last past that fall. The wallet's smooth leather reminded me of his hard athletic body, which I liked, though at the same time, I hadn't been able to stand his controlling presence in my house. When he left, I was relieved. I know what to do when someone leaves me, but I'm at a loss whenever they want to stay.
After my father's funeral, I put the key in a cheap wallet from an Indian shop, and for the next fifteen years, I moved it around, from wallet to wallet. I needed it with me always, and got into the habit of checking at every opportunity whether it was still there, that long, hard object, like the bone of an animal, or a child. I'd closed the door overlooking Książ Castle with this key, and until recently there wasn’t anything in Wałbrzych that could have convinced me to come back, even for a visit. My father’s friend and neighbor, Albert Kukułka, dealt with the home. He was a sad, lonely man, fond of leather ushankas, who smiled only when he played his violin. When I was a child, he worked as a gardener in the Wałbrzych Conservatory, and I visited him in the tropical interior of the greenhouse where he showed me banana trees, spurge, carnivorous sundews, glowing moss, and aracaria, all exuberantly reaching for the glass ceiling. He lifted me in his arms toward the trees’ lush green, where I saw my small reflection in the water drops on the leaves. He taught me their names, and enchanted, I repeated them: araucaria, zantedeschia, euphorbia. When I left after the death of my father, I sent Mr. Albert money, despite the fact that he didn’t want to accept it. I asked that from time to time he mow the grass in the garden and air the rooms, except the largest one on the ground floor which, at my request, remained closed. My father had spent the last years of life there. I inherited countless shopping lists and underground maps of Książ Castle, marking treasure that he had never managed to find. On his heavy German desk, there stood a photograph: father, mother, and two daughters in front of that famous stone structure, entombed in that forty-year-old summer afternoon like flies in amber. Only the castle and I were left. I didn't want Mr. Albert to contract the sadness that seeped from my father's walls like ectoplasm. Ectoplasm. The substance that makes up ghosts, as my sister Ewa said. "And what's ectoplasm made of?" I had asked. "Coal dust and tears!" she replied. Mr. Albert also dealt with ghosts, because he cared for the graves of my loved ones, which he probably would have done anyway, but since I asked him to, I felt less guilty about my neglect. I had not returned to Wałbrzych in those fifteen years except in my thoughts. I looked for the topography of the city in all the other places to which fate cast me, and Mr. Albert’s conservatory, meant to imitate the tropics, made the actual tropics seem like just a substitute for something irrevocably lost.
Landscapes moved beyond the train's window like once dreamed dreams at last remembered. I looked at the ghostly travelers, impressions of light and mist in the darkness beyond the glass, as the city spilled itself and lost momentum. It was as if movement and life were only islands in a sea of emptiness and shadow. New housing projects and shopping malls gave way to empty fields, crisscrossed by rows of blackthorn and hawthorn, roadside trees on which birds of prey lay in wait for the fresh carcass of a careless fox or cat. Before long, the distant outline of Mt. Ślęża appeared, and scattered at her feet, houses. Inside them, lights dim as candle flames flared to life in the gathering dusk. The train dragged forward slowly, and in the middle of the train car, plastic bags rustled, mouths chewed noisily, the crowd's clothes steamed in the heat. The cloying smell of food rose into the air.
— And I burned my Barbie in the oven — a girl's high voice sounded suddenly, but no one responded to this revelation.
Everywhere, poverty has the same sound. One of its noises—the sucking of stuck food from inside cavities, tongues rooting under slapdash crowns. Suck and smack, suck and smack. A man in a thick wool sweater seated next to me rolled up his sandwich wrap paper, smacked his lips provokingly, and looked at me from under his bushy eyebrows, eyes hard as armor. I felt like a student again, riding to Wałbrzych after Friday classes. I hadn't done this often, but once every three or four months I had visited my father and Mr. Albert. Then, I constantly changed my appearance, and with my limited resources, the easiest way to do this was to color my hair. Sometimes I didn't even recognize my next incarnation, which looked reproachfully at me from the train's toilet mirror. My sister told me that I had camel-colored hair, and so she named me Caramel, and I already felt then that this would be the most beautiful word anyone would ever use to describe the mediocrity of my appearance. Regardless of whether I was just black-, blond-, or red-headed, I always felt inconspicuously like Caramel. On the train to Wałbrzych, I had often wondered whether my father would be home and whether he would set out a plate of clumsily prepared sandwiches with yellow cheese and a jug of Georgian tea for us to drink while we enjoyed the illusion of a normal family life. Most often my father was not there. Lost in despair, he hid in his room, out of which he only leaned to say "Alicja?" always with such sad amazement, as if instead of me, he expected some other, more awaited daughter to appear. I replied, "Dad?" and perhaps he, too, heard the disappointment in my voice.
Halfway there, and the landscape wavered like water in a tempest. It began to rain. The gray outside the window congealed to a thick organic mass. We sped through the land where the nights are the darkest and winter settles in November and lingers even though everywhere else crocuses and forsythia begin blooming. Opposite me sat a quiet student with notes in her lap and next to me, an older woman with an air about her, as though she smelled rot and wasn't sure if we were the culprits or her. She squeezed a plaid, plastic bag between her legs on the floor, its straps twisted-up and crawling to her thighs like a newborn's. Her leggings, too tight and shiny, were zebra-patterned. Their owner held a colorful magazine and gazed at the famous blonde singer on the cover, I would have been able to recognize. The singer thrust her artificial breasts out—they were massive. "Shocking! What will she do now?" read the headline. My neighbor licked a finger and finally turned the page. A thread of saliva glistened between her lips and her chipped pink fingernail. She sucked up the spit and smacked. As if from the depths of a Wałbrzych mine, a coal-like "ohlordylordy" puffed out of her mouth. On the next page, too, was the singer. Large font announced that she would always be herself. Her lips were inflated like two tires before an explosion sure to cover everything in a sticky substance. The quiet student, perhaps inspired by the magazine, pulled lip gloss from her pocket and not taking her gaze away from her notes, plastered her mouth in synthetic raspberry slime. "Ohlordylordy," the woman sighed again and then lifted her eyes up to me with such sureness, as if she recognized in me someone she knew. Her legs may have been zebra-patterned, but she had goat's eyes.
— Once, everything was like Irena Santor, like Boney M, it was better, you lived how you lived, no one will return those years to you.
I said nothing, but Zebra-Goat was not deterred.
— Boney M in Sopot, Irena Santor, food without artificial genes summer vacations little pickles little herring happiness joy, we're going on vacation to the green forests, pickles without genes, Irena Santor buses filled with singing children off to camp to the Polish sea or the Polish mountains, little jokes in the queue for meat for bones, oh, Gierkek Gomułka, you lived then! you wanted to, you dreamed, and now ass on the seat, misery, plain misery.— Zebragoat looked at me with a hungry gaze, as if she were choosing good bones for soup from the butcher. — You look pale and tired, like me.
I nodded to appease her, because that was probably a question.
— You see! — She looked pleased and gained vigor. — Tired! Tired to death! As if you were taken down from the cross! They want to finish us off. To exhaust the entire Polish nation. Or our hair. — She tapped a fingernail to the singer's artificial hair.
— Hair? — I repeated, surprised.
— Perms used to last a year, the color didn’t wash away — explained Zebragoat and hurried on. — Egg shampoo, like kogel mogel until you actually wanted kogel mogel, to eat, something sweet craving cocoa or egg yolk on the hair wrapped in a scarf, walking around the house like my mom used to in her rain slicker, her cancer tormented her, pancreas riddled with holes...rain slicker. Rain slicker? — Zebragoat repeated, surprised perhaps at the sound of the word. She smacked her lips, shrugged, and turned back to the article about the singer.
The quiet student moved her shiny lips like a fish, and in her notes, there was indeed a cross-section of some fish with descriptions in Latin beneath it. The older man in the sheep's wool sweater sighed deeply, as if he had just reaped a whole field. The sound of voices in the compartment grew louder. After a meal everyone regained their strength and desire to talk. The train accelerated a bit. I smelled alcohol.
— A terrible death, terrible, driven deep into the ground — said someone behind me.
— Blood, only scraps, torn to shreds — someone else said in a senile soprano, and then the train jerked and stopped so suddenly that luggage fell from the upper shelves, a child whimpered, "ohlordylordy," moaned Zebragoat and pressed the magazine into her bulging bag, as if she were going to get up and get out of there into the good old days, for which she so seemed to long.
A tall man in a dark overcoat passing through the compartment disturbed my arm without apologizing and disappeared behind a sliding door. I noticed only his ear, pierced with a round gauge, which stretched the wafer of his skin, creating an obscene black hole. I felt as if it were sucking me in. The lights in the compartment flickered and went out. Night enveloped us, so dense that nothing living would last long in it.
— Cats in basements — someone said. — Cats in basements need to be poisoned.
Something rattled the roof of the compartment, and before it was light again, I felt a moment of irrational fear, a feeling that I had already experienced such a darkness once and hadn't come out of it unscathed.
When I arrived in Wałbrzych, I was exhausted, and for a moment, I just stood on the deserted platform, drowned in icy rain, inhaling the smell of coal dust. I looked at the people quickly disappearing into the underground tunnel, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness so poignant that I forced myself with great difficulty to move towards the station. The building in the center was closed down. On the wall, someone had graffitied, "Górnik sucks" and "Górnik = gents," maybe a passerby was supposed to decide for himself. Outside the station, like a pile of rags, a homeless man or a drunk crouched against the wall, and I clung to that trite simile as if it were a lifesaver in the face of the sadness that washed over me. I had no strength to approach and ask if the man needed help. Rain fell with such ferocity that it seemed unreal, like a film set abandoned in a panic by its actors. The outline of a massive building with arched windows and topped with a tower stood out against the steel blue sky. It had once housed the decal factory. When the factory was open, the air around it had a chemical, sweet odor, the same as that of pictures soaked in water, which my sister had used to decorate the doors in our house. Decals of violets and lilies of the valley, transparent and delicate as onion skin, Ewa with her hands immersed in water. I was struck by the strength of this image, which suddenly appeared under my eyelids like a ghost made of coal dust and tears.
A single taxi lingered at the station, a despairing old jalopy, and when I got in and gave the address, the driver looked at me over his shoulder with resentment or perhaps reproach. Maybe he'd have preferred to go elsewhere. He had the face of someone who, just before bedtime, ate refried meat and dreamt nightmares and then woke at four in the morning to smoke a cigarette in a room with the curtains drawn, full of heavy furniture and dust.
— Harder! — he growled. I slammed the door closed again.
The Virgin Mary hanging from the mirror jolted when he started the engine. In the house I was going to, there was only one Marian image, a postcard of Our Lady of Sorrows from a church in Wałbrzych under her invocation, and although we had never attended mass or catechism classes, Ewa invented rhymed prayers, which she taught me in the evenings. Their addressee was Our Lady of Sorrows, patron saint of our city. We’d kneel and my sister would say, "Repeat after me, Caramel. Mother Mary rather hairy has two pretty wings and under her feathers in all the bad weather I hope she carries us." What happened next?
— Asshole! Did you see that asshole, Miss? — Another car's horn had irritated the taxi driver. — Up yours, asshole. Shove your honks up your ass. Up your ass!— he repeated with satisfaction, burped, and then, he must he felt relieved, because he fell silent.
His face, the color of sour rye soup from the school cafeteria, reddened. He had a large round nose, so porous that it could be planted with potatoes. Our eyes met in the mirror.
— You don't look like you're from here. Visiting family?
— Families turn out the best in pictures! — The driver laughed, as if he had been the first to say this.
I thought about the pictures of our family, the few we had were generally not very good. We didn’t look our best in them. In the old car, it was stuffy with cigarette smoke and sweat, which had eaten into the upholstery and the blankets thrown over the seats. I had seen many apartments whose residents had shielded their furniture from destruction in this way, furniture which, even when it was new, had been ugly. All these sheets, covers, oilcloths, and squares cut out from old carpeting aroused in me compassion but also fear that one misstep and my life could look like that, wasted among unpretty objects and misdirected care.
I looked at the sleeping town—everything had remained unchanged—awakened by the simultaneous resentment and satisfaction of remembering the landscape of an unhappy childhood: the Apollo cinema with its dilapidated blueberry-colored facade, the Olenka sweets shop still selling donuts and seasonal cakes, the tenement houses on Pocztowa Street holding themselves up with their last remaining strength. The Virgin Mary under the driver's mirror hypnotized me with her measured movements, her face on the pilgrimage picture in its gold frame was yellowed, her eyes oddly askew. The driver belched and said simply: heartburn. Our Lady of Japan from Wałbrzych, patroness of night taxi drivers suffering from indigestion, looked at me crossly. Next to her hung something else, a piece of wood or bone tied with white and red ribbon. The driver caught my eye, again, in the mirror.
— Do you believe in miracles?
— Ha! — He was glad, as if I had given him the right answer. — I didn't believe either. But miracles, Miss, do happen. It's enough that you just believe.
— In what?
— In what you need. In a higher power, which directs us, gives us—the Poles—signs. Like the wafer that turned into flesh a few years ago in Sokolka. Did you hear about it?
— I did.
— I'll tell you. I went there on a church trip in a coach bus, you can sign up with the church, packed lunch and dinner included. The priest at Mass, he dropped the wafer, and there's a custom that if he drops it, he needs to put in a chalice, in water. And they looked after a week and it was red. The water had turned into blood. Blood. And something like a clot was swimming in it.
— A clot?
— Wait! They poured it out onto a white napkin, but there wasn't any clot, only a real piece of meat. They gave it to scientists that investigate DNA to see what the blood type was, and you know what happened?
— It was a piece of Christ's heart!
— It's really a miracle — I agreed, but the taxi driver was not interested in my opinion.
— Miracle! — He repeated. — I, for example, had a bad stomach, that whenever whatever I ate gave me such pain, just turning me over this way and that, and excuse my language, I felt really shitty. I went to the clinic in Wałbrzych, I drove to Wrocław, to a professor, took this and that pill, went on crap diets, eating only carrots like some rabbit, everything else forbidden, fucking beer, vodka, you know they make it now from powder instead of hops or grain, they pour the powder, visit the distillery and you'll see, my nephew works there and he says they use powder, they mix in such chemicals in our country, how are you supposed to stay healthy. So I went to the clinic and they said to Wrocław to the professor and under the knife, snip snip, anyone can cut you up easy, everyone says that's the first option but what next. They wheel you out feet first. I wouldn't be the first who'd let himself go under the knife, so I go to the head surgeon, but without a referral, to the head surgeon you can't go, so I say Mister Surgeon, if it's possible to arrange something without cutting...and he looked me over and said cutting, without cutting there's nothing we can do and I said to this but Mister Surgeon.
I turned my attention off. I had developed the ability to cut away from what was happening around me in childhood and used it often as an adult at boring meetings and parties. The ability never failed me if I had to reengage my attention when important information appeared. Some part of me remained vigilant, ready to attack or escape. We passed Sandy Mountain and an apartment complex on the left. My father had looked on it with contempt, but Ewa took me there once for soft serve ice cream, the first in the city. We licked at a shared cone, because, as usual, we didn't have enough money, and we walked about, admiring our reflections in the shop windows. "Imagine that we're in Paris, Caramel, on the boulevard along the Seine, on the Champs Elysees!" I remembered the vanilla sweetness and the feeling of pride lined with jealousy, that my beautiful sister attracted everyone's eyes. I didn't want to share my memories with the taxi driver, but if I had had my trusty old Toyota, which had been destroyed by punks in Warsaw just before my trip, I would have been passing the tenements by now, where the ice cream parlor used to be.
— Thieves! — the taxi driver squawked and broke my reverie. — I swear it's true, only one person knows where to find you and he's the man we've been waiting for a long time, a great man, a just man. I bought the flaxseed, put it on my stomach at night, that boiled flaxseed, but they said we had to cut anyway, fuck that. Fuck it — summed up the taxi driver and eventually fell silent.
As we approached the house, a tiredness enveloped me and I got out of the taxi in almost a trance, my ears buzzing and my head hurting. After what seemed an unnaturally long period of time, the car started and disappeared into the sleeping street. The house of my childhood stood before me, dark and deserted. I remembered a recent visit to the suburban animal shelter. My friend from the newspaper was choosing a dog and finally settled on a several year-old bitch, a melancholy mix of Rottweiler and God knows what, judging by the ears, a bat, and then I couldn't stop thinking about those unselected animals, waiting in vain behind the bars of their boxes. That old German house with its small embarrassed windows, a crushed hat of moss-covered roof tiles—I wouldn't have ever chosen it but still it belonged to me and there was nothing I could do about it. I took out the key. I dragged myself up the stairs to the room that years ago I had shared with my sister, and before I fell into a deep sleep, I could only note that Mr. Albert had made my bed. As I stood in my jacket and scarf, I put my face to the pillow smelling of freshly laundered linen, from under which the stench of mold and decay burst forth.
I dreamed about my father. I saw him clearly, but I couldn't hear his voice. I looked at his mouth formulating words, his face contorted in effort, but only silence surrounded me. My father looked the way he had in the last months of his life, gray and haggard, eyes burning with fever. He was wearing a windbreaker and trousers worn at the knees, hiking boots bought years ago in Czechoslovakia, which he often wore during his ventures into the underworld of Książ Castle in search of treasure. "Dad," I called to him, "dad, dad." My breath blew dust particles, heavy, stuffy dust, as if I were somewhere else, somewhere below, as if I were peering through a keyhole at the tiny dancing bits of dust, how small, don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, as they danced in a streak of light as if she was next to me, close, closer, (hide your face), and holding me—but not me, unseeing, (quiet quiet), unbreathing, but I didn't see who else was there, fear, as if I was about to learn where I was, who I was, around me, ma, what I did, on the other side of the darkness was the one who doesn't want us, ma—, "dad, dad," I cried, "I’m here, where are you, dad, dad!" I yelled, "dad, I can hear you!" I called out again or I wanted to call out, because the silence was interrupted by the sound of my name. I woke up sweating and terrified—that was not my father's voice.
At first I didn’t know where I was, why instead of the soothing darkness and warmth of my Warsaw bedroom, I woke to light and cold. Wałbrzych, the old house where I was raised, at the foot of the Książ Castle. Tiled stoves, double glazed windows sealed with wool for the winter, and wood floors full of gaps from which I scratched out old German needles, buttons, nails, hair. I kept these treasures in matchboxes, without any idea as to why I did. Ewa would turn her face, twist her mouth. "Have you scratched up another German from the floor, Caramel?" Gaps like tombs, who talked like that? Gaps, graves, dirt—in my not yet fully conscious mind, these three words flashed and disappeared under the weight of the day when I tore myself from bed. I tripped over my shawl and ran down the stairs to open the door. I couldn't believe I had fallen asleep with my clothes still on, and without showering.
— Alicja — said Mr. Albert. I saw an wizened man instead of the mighty one whose image I held in my memory.
How is it possible that these arms had once lifted me to the canopies of exotic trees? Mr. Albert had shrunk. He was now shorter than me. His face full of grooves and gouges looked eaten at from the inside by a voracious parasite. His eyebrows had gone wild. Only his old military cap was the same. Darkened with sweat, clumsily patched with scraps of mismatched materials, it looked fused with the skin of his head. I'd never seen Mr. Albert without this cap, and when I was little, I thought that this was how he was born, that the hat had grown with him. He stood in the mist that hovered over the garden, so that the trees seemed to float, without roots, in the milky sea behind him. It had stopped raining, but the air was permeated with an icy moisture.
— You're back.
It was not a question, but I decided to respond.
— I came for work. I told you on the phone. I have to write an article about the missing children. Then I go back to Warsaw.
Mr. Albert looked at me and under his bushy Miłosz eyebrows, his eyes were still like I remembered. Sad basset hound eyes.
— You've grown.
— I've had plenty of time to grow.
— You came alone.
I confirmed his statement.
— I travel alone everywhere.
— I've read all your articles.
I felt the same pride as when I had flawlessly recited the names of the plants in the Conservatory, and Mr. Albert had praised me, "Clever girl."
— Araucaria, zantedeschia, euphorbia — I had said then, and my words were absorbed into cold air. Araucaria, Zantedeschia, Euphorbia, like the names of Italian operas, have always aroused in me a gentle sadness from knowing that no name, not even the most beautiful one, can do justice to the essence of the thing.
— Apples from your garden — Mr. Albert said and handed me a foil bag. The smell was so strong and fresh, my head began to spin. — I gathered two boxes. The old apple tree at the well blossomed. Do you remember which one? — I nodded. — It has to be pruned for the spring. I'll help you. It's a good tree.
— I won’t be here in the spring.
— You never know.
— I prefer to know.
Mr. Albert righted his cap and smiled, and I thought that I so insisted because I was afraid. This house of November and heavy dreams connected me to the past.
The tree, the fruits of which Mr. Albert had brought me, planted by the German owners, was where I had hid as a child, and through its branches, I watched the world. The mossy old woman gave birth to small apples, red-veined inside but so juicy that the first bite caused a burst of sweetness. The red veins reminded me of the spider on my sister's cheek, and I felt regret lined with pleasure in knowing that such luscious beauty always disappears. "Alicja!" my father had cried. "Alicja, where are you?" and I, clinging to the trunk of the apple tree, answered him later than I should have, and this little insubordination had filled me with guilt and satisfaction. That year, when my sister died, the apple tree stopped growing and father wanted to chop it down, but Mr. Albert had persuaded him to give her a chance. Now, he looked as he had then, as if he wanted to convince me of something. I invited him to tea, but he was in a hurry to get to the parking garage, where he moonlighted as a security guard since he had been sent off into retirement.
— You have to visit me there. — He smiled a sad smile, which after years still brightened his eyes.
It was hard for him. He lived alone in a house identical to ours, the last of the family Kukułka. He had never married and had no children, and when I had left, there was no one for whom he could play the violin. Like me, Mr. Albert was a survivor.
He stood in silence and studied my face, wanting to read from the history of these past fifteen years. When I closed the door behind him, I slammed it too hard and the horseshoe that hung on the inside for luck fell off. It was not the last thing that fell, crumbled, or was broken beyond repair that day. The house was dying, theatrically, ostentatiously, as if it wanted to take revenge for the fact that I had left it for so long. In the light of the day, I could see patches of peeling paint on the ceiling, bloated blobs of moisture under the wallpaper, warped floors and carpets eaten away by moths so that in some places there was only white padding. Decals with violets on the door of the bathroom had lost their color and the once lilac petals and green leaves looked now like the wings of dead insects. I stood in the bathtub covered with rust, waiting for the ancient boiler to spark so I could take a bath, but when hot water finally began to flow, the shower hose couldn't stand it and broke in two. "We'll do tiles and terracotta," my father had promised, "or maybe instead of banal terracotta floors, how about cedar? And a jacuzzi. You'll paddle around like the baby seals from the Wrocław Zoo. What do you think? Or maybe we’ll import a brass tub with lion feet from France?” He wondered and generously counted his imaginary money. The current repairs compared to such wonderful plans did not seem worthwhile to him. I filled the terrible tub with water and slipped under, head and all, as I had as a child, while my sister sat next to me and made sure I didn't drown. I was fascinated by underwater sounds: knocks, scrape of metal on stone, calls in different languages, hoots, and groans. This was the world into which our father descended and for which he ultimately paid with his life. Regardless of where we were, he'd pointed his finger down under our feet, and say in the tone of someone who truly believes, "It's here somewhere. The treasure. Is. Here. Somewhere. When I find it, and now that I have an exceptional map, verifiably real, our lives will change beyond recognition. It'll make us so happy that we'll have to get to know each other as if for the first time." Somewhere below the old bathtub, which resounded with the sounds of the underground city, there was the treasure our father was looking for in his worn Czechoslovakian shoes, illuminating his way with his miner's headlamp. I tried to understand why he would rather be there than here with me and Eve. "Ladies and gentlemen," joked my sister, "This is Alicja Tabor, aquatic Caramel, a researcher of the seas and oceans, which she visits when she tires of the desert! The unique Caramel, webbed and gilled. A rare species. Under strict protection. Today, she will tell you what she saw and heard in the underwater kingdom of our bathtub." The game went like this: I spoke truthfully about what I'd heard, several knocks, a countdown in German and in a language similar to German, where ein was eins, and the sound of glasses dropped on a stone floor. Ewa provided the rest. She invented the story because she could tell it best. I knew how to listen.
I thought that maybe I was wrong in imagining that I was strong enough for this house full of death and ghosts not to hurt me. I knew that I couldn't succumb to fear, and that is why I stayed here and not in a hotel booked by my magazine, where no one would know that I was the owner of an old house in Wałbrzych. Reluctantly, I talked about the past and rarely interacted with people who might become close enough to expect me to confide in them. "I have no family," I answered, when asked about my parents and siblings. My friends liked these questions very much. They could argue for hours about the wrongs they'd suffered, the traumas, and how they managed, or rather how they managed by going to therapy for years. My entire adult life was spent gathering strength as if preparing supplies for a long winter, and it seemed to me that I was well-prepared for this journey. When children in Wałbrzych began to disappear, I knew the time had come, and that I, whom my colleagues dubbed Armadillo Alicja, would need to write about them. Now here I was, and the house to which I always carried a key snapped at me like a German’s rotted jaw.
After the bath and an underground concert, I decided to walk around all the rooms to find out how much of this ramshackle house I, Armadillo Alicja, could handle. There were two bedrooms on the first floor. One had once belonged to me and Eve, and here on the old double bed with the aged oak frame and mattress, I intended to continue sleeping during my stay. There was the table where we'd once had our lessons, two chairs, an empty wardrobe, a rug made of rags, and nothing else. The second bedroom had been empty for years. It contained only a metal bed frame without a mattress, as sad as a wrecked ship abandoned in shallow water. Once, during a time I don't remember, it was shared by my parents, but then my father moved downstairs, and since then the office functioned as his bedroom, dining room, and hide-away from the world. I went there next, on creaking stairs that I was afraid would collapse even under my small weight. The banality of the decay irked me, maybe because I had secretly been expecting that the house would be dying in a less predictable way. When I opened the door to my father's room, the thickened time hit me like a wave. Outside the window, Książ Castle rose from the beech forest. When my father had worked at his desk, littered with dusty stacks of papers and books, raising his eyes from his historical studies, maps, and plans, he saw this building. Now I, his youngest daughter, looked at Książ Castle, at the churning fog beneath its walls. It was one of the few things that still seemed to me as big and beautiful now as it had as a child. I set into motion an old wall clock and when its pendulum began rocking, I felt how time moves here, imprisoned. Something clicked, as if the time of this house and mine had just now intertwined. The couch, upholstered in tan leather, that I had sat on as a child in those rare moments when my father wasn't busy searching for treasure and instead felt ready to face fatherhood, released something like a sigh under my weight. For a moment, I was motionless, trying not even to breathe, but I felt nothing but sorrow. The leather of the couch was rough and cracked like the heel of an old man. I stroked it in greeting. Then I looked into the kitchen drowning in a gray glow, as if it were filled with water. The water actually dripped from the tap, flowed into the sink from a small stalactite, which had formed over the years. There was a draft coming from the door leading to the garden, fog pressed against the glass. The table and four chairs looked like skeletons of long-extinct animals, which no one liked or had had the time to name.
In front of me was only the cellar. When I opened the door under the stairs, a musty stench belched into my face. The air trapped there was like ectoplasm under pressure. Ectoplasm, how my sister liked that word! "If you breathe in the cold, Caramel, a special kind of breath comes out of your mouth that doesn't disappear but gathers in mouse holes, cat ears, and the abandoned nests of crows. In the snowberries, in milk with a gold cap, and in white chocolate Milka bars." "Why?" "What do you mean why! It forms the ectoplasm, "she said. "Just mix in a little bit of tears, sprinkle some coal dust, and it's ready." When the forest near our house was drowning in fog, which approached the walls of Książ Castle, like today, she had said in a stage whisper: "Look, Caramel, be afraid, dummy. The ectoplasm boils, ghosts are born." Everywhere Ewa felt the presence of something beyond the ordinary world in which most mortals lived. Without hesitation, she'd descend with me to the basement, in front of which I stood now a little unbalanced, because the light was not working, and for a moment it seemed to me that once again I heard a knock underground. On the stairs leading into the darkness, I asked, "Is anybody here?" as if I were acting in a bad movie about a haunted house and a timid woman. I took a step forward, and a second one, shining the flashlight. Piles of papers were pushed into a compact brown mass at the basement's walls: vintage magazines that my father had subscribed to, useless notes, maps leading nowhere, letters he had exchanged with other seekers of treasure hidden under the castle. My gaze fished out of the darkness abandoned appliances, some of which had been left by the German owners of the house who had fled the city in a hurry after the war. A Singer sewing machine with a metal frame stamped with the word "Waldenburg," the painting of a guardian angel leading children across a footbridge over an abyss, ugly porcelain figurines of shepherdesses and hunters covered in oily dust. Our things settled on these earlier abandoned items like another layer left by a melting glacier that destroyed anything in its path. A portable washing machine filled with shoes, a child's metal bath, an old car battery, a few suitcases swollen with moisture, a lamp with a shade made of rope the color of ash, and a big wooden box painted in faded dragons and flowers, which incited in me an almost physical aversion. Beside it stood a vanity so ruined and dirty that I didn't recognize my reflection in it, and this pale face with large eyes, totally unlike me, would have frightened me, if in the corner of my eye I hadn't seen something more frightening. Big head, arms and legs spread. Please let it not be a child, I asked I didn't know who. I tore myself through the coagulated air. A teddy bear. A stuffed teddy bear. I crouched and shone in its glass eyes.