He was woken at six. Outside the window the sun was shining and the birds were singing. The early morning was warm; it was going to be a hot day.
When he opened his eyes, the thought that the long-awaited moment was here made him shut them again abruptly. He was afraid that after all it was just a dream. Then he leaped out of bed and pattered barefoot across the shining, waxed parquet floor. He washed quickly; suddenly every second had become precious. He looked in the mirror over the washstand and was surprised by his own pallor. Large hazel eyes, shaded by thick lashes, gazed out at him. He had a rather high forehead topped by a thick, dark shock of hair. When he was younger he had liked to tangle his ink-stained fingers in it.
In the bathroom a slender brick-colored water heater, encircled by a metal band, stood on the floor on two bear’s-feet. The surface of the stove was smooth and cold. The boy pressed his cheek against it.
Then the family had breakfast together.
His father ate in silence, occupied as usual with his slices of bread, which he spread carefully with butter, decorated with cold meat, chives, and sometimes even cress, and then consumed heartily, using a knife and fork, which was wont to induce an embarrassed admiration in the boy. His mother was, as always, on edge, with difficulty forcing herself to be patient and calm, atremble with an inner energy that she was never able to apply; she drank her tea reluctantly and pecked at crumbs of bread roll and jam, at which time her tongue, pink and narrow, would appear suddenly on her lips, filling the boy with dread.
Everything in the dining room glistened and seemed broken up by the light. He may have had this impression because they had never before eaten breakfast at such an early hour and he wasn’t used to this avalanche of sunlight flooding through the window. The sun lay across the floor and the carpet, irradiating the cut glass on the dresser; and when he placed his hand on the tablecloth, he felt the unfamiliar warmth of its early rays.
At seven his father stood up from the table, wiped his lips on his napkin, lit a cigar and, holding it between his teeth, went up to the slim grandfather clock in the corner of the room. He opened the door and began to wind up the works. The chain creaked and the golden weights rose upward. Seven chimes rang out. The boy’s father puffed on his cigar, and his head was wreathed in bluish smoke. At this point the boy’s mother, as if moved by a desperate premonition, jumped up from her chair, stroked the boy’s mop of hair, and ran from the dining room. He heard the tapping of her heels far away in the apartment, then her high, birdlike voice speaking to the maid and demanding her hat and her bottle of eau de cologne.
They left home at a quarter after seven. The sun was already hot. In front of the gateway to the building two horse-drawn cabs were waiting, because they had a lot of luggage. The asphalt of the roadway, heated by the previous day’s sunshine and then cooled during the night, was dappled with the marks of hooves and automobile tires. There was a smell of tar, dry weather, and warmed stone.
The boy’s parents took their seats in the first cab, while the boy sat in the second with the maid and the luggage. The concierge, a thickset old man, bid them farewell with a bow and a tip of the cap.
The horses’ hooves clattered on the asphalt; the cabs moved along swiftly, since there was not much traffic. They crossed a bridge, under which flowed the river, yellowish, broad, and shallow because of the long hot spell. In the middle of the river there extended a sandbar connected to the riverside by a stone dike, on which the boy noticed the figures of anglers.
They reached the station on time and were able unhurriedly to find seats in a compartment of the train as it waited to depart. There was a smell of dust and leave-taking. The boy’s mother declared:
“These carriages are filthy.”
“I’d say rather that they’re sad,” responded his father. He sat down by the window and carefully lit a cigar. Suddenly, on the platform there appeared an elegant officer. His spurs rattled as he walked. He was looking into each compartment, his head tipped back. When he saw the boy’s father he stopped and saluted. The boy’s father lowered the window; his mother gave a delighted cry, leaned out the window, and gave the officer her hand to kiss. Behind the officer an orderly appeared, laden with suitcases. Later, that orderly stood in the corridor for the entire duration of the journey …
“Hello there, young sir,” called the officer to the boy when he entered the compartment. Then he added to his parents:
“How time flies. Krzys has turned into a young man, he’s changed beyond recognition. How old are you, Krzys?”
“Fifteen,” replied the boy. He didn’t remember the officer. So many people passed through his parents’ home.
“In a few years I’ll have you in my regiment!” exclaimed the officer.
“Fortunately, he’s not fitted for the army,” said the boy’s mother. “He’s so frail.”
“He’s strong and healthy,” said his father.
“What nonsense,” said his mother.
The compartment was stuffy even though the windows were open. Nevertheless, they made themselves comfortable, the boy and his father by the window, his mother and the officer in the middle. The maid sat silently by the door, while outside the door the orderly stood and sweated.
At last the train moved off. Ugly suburban landscapes passed by the windows: shacks, allotments, soot-blackened houses, ramshackle huts. Carts harnessed to thin, shaggy ponies rolled along the dirt roads between the buildings, while dogs lazed in the shade of lilac and acacia bushes that were no longer in bloom. Then the city disappeared and the train sped across lowland meadows, flat as a tabletop, flooded with summer sunlight, devoid of shade.
The boy’s father and the officer were speaking about the international situation. His father said:
“And yet I can’t shake off a nagging sense of unease … ”
“Trust me, doctor,” replied the officer. “There really is no cause for concern. Hitler is encircled.”
“I don’t trust the French,” said the boy’s father. “They’re so self-seeking.”
“We have a treaty with England.”
“True,” said the boy’s father. “We have a treaty with England.”
Exhaustion sounded in his voice. The boy’s mother was rubbing her temples with eau de cologne.
“I beg you, gentlemen, let’s not talk of war,” she said. “We’ve already lived through two; that should be sufficient for our generation.”
All of a sudden, she looked anxiously and tenderly at the boy.
“Krzys,” she said, “you’ve gotten hot, darling.”
“No, I haven’t,” answered the boy.
The officer irritated him. Perhaps because he had never, even in his earliest youth, wanted to be an officer. Such an existence seemed to him something incomplete. In his child hood games he had sometimes been a commander in chief, sometimes a rank-and-file soldier in the trenches, but never an officer, a character that he was quite simply unable to situate on the battlefield. For him an officer was a person without a role.
The train rumbled over a viaduct then once more ran across meadows. The boy was dreadfully thirsty. The grown-ups were talking. Again there was an argument about war–whether it was possible or completely out of the question. The boy dozed. He dreamed of a pond, a boat, him in the boat, completely alone, at dusk, in the moment after sunset. He dreamed that he was happy, but he knew it was only a dream. Because in his waking hours he never experienced complete happiness. Except maybe in the darkness, after the light had been turned off, just before he fell asleep, when his thoughts froze in total isolation from the outside world, when he felt truly on his own, alone on the whole planet. Then he would say to himself the following words, with profound conviction:
“I love you, God. I love you, Mama. I love you, Papa. I love you, Berta.”
Berta had been a bitch who had died of old age not long ago, the companion of his childhood. Then he would add:
“I love you, Grandmother. I love you, Krzys …”
And he felt slightly embarrassed that he loved himself. And it was just at that time that he experienced great happiness. Then he fell asleep. At peace, as never in the course of the day.
The train slowed; the dull thud of the ties could be heard, and at last the cars pulled up at a station platform. Cries rang out from the merchants selling candy, soda water, ice cream, and pretzels.
The boy was silent. He knew they wouldn’t allow him to drink water from a station vendor. The boy’s mother believed in microbes. He believed in nothing except God and love.
The adults’ conversation died down; the oppressive heat gagged them. The compartment became quiet; the train continued on its way, and once again there was the regular clatter of the ties, and every so often the piercing whistle of the locomotive rang out…
Most of all he liked Sunday afternoons, which, for as long as he could remember, he had spent at his grandmother’s. Sometimes he wondered, in a lazy sort of way, why he was so fond of those quiet, solitary after-dinner hours. He had no need of the presence of his grandmother. He even felt a certain delight when she retired to the other end of the dark, somewhat run-down apartment, where she immersed herself in handiwork that was partly amusing and partly touching. On white linen cloth she embroidered flowers and fantastic birds that shimmered with extraordinary colors.
At such times he would sit alone in the spacious dining room.
The apartment house in which his grandmother lived was old, damp, and gloomy. She occupied an apartment on the second floor of an outbuilding separated from the main building by a dark courtyard full of cooing pigeons. The street was in the center of the city but was quiet; pedestrians appeared there infrequently, and vehicles even less often.
The dining room, unlike in his parents’ home, always seemed dark, cold, and thus immense. On the walls, hung with cherry-colored wallpaper, were paintings in heavy gilt frames. The canvases were blackened with age; he was unable to make out any of the pictures except one, which depicted a boat on a stormy sea. Beneath a cloudy, almost navy-blue sky surged rolling waves, on the crest of which rode the boat with swelling sails. He could discern the outlines of the people on board, but could not see their faces. This filled him with dread and a pious concentration of his thoughts. He had no wish to be one of those poor souls, at the mercy of the elements; and he was often touched to think of their unknown fate. Did they reach the shore, where their families anxiously awaited them? Or did they sink to the bottom, all trace of them lost?
The other pictures in the dining room didn’t capture his attention so. Yet he liked to gaze at the painting of a lovely young lady with fair hair and rosy cheeks, in a crimson gown and a hat that threw her face into shadow. He knew that it was a girlhood portrait of an aunt of his by the name of Magdalena, a nice lady whom he was fond of, a plump and rather too talkative person who, when she visited his home, always showered him with kisses and candies. He was amused by the expression in his aunt’s eyes in the portrait: childlike and at the same time rapt, an expression he had never observed in the eyes of that good, corpulent lady.
And yet if the truth be known, what he most liked to do was to sit without moving on a chair at the great oak table, rest his chin on his hands, and abandon himself to outlandish thoughts. He was always pleasantly surprised by this, enchanted even. For, throughout the whole week his mind had been taken up with various matters concerning school, his classmates, his games and pastimes; and now, suddenly, on Sunday afternoon, in his grandmother’s dining room, he became a completely different boy. And yet he waited for these moments, which he regarded as his secret …
Oh, how delicious it was to be thinking at the great oak table! Everywhere there reigned a silence that rang in his ears, broken only from time to time by the clatter of horses’ hooves from the street, the cooing of pigeons outside the window, or the abrupt chiming of the clock striking every quarter of an hour. Then he was alone. And that feeling of solitude seemed to him something beautiful and precious, though he also sensed a certain dread. He would look at the cherry-colored walls, the heavy, motionless pieces of furniture, which seemed to him like sleeping animals, at the inscrutable canvases in their gilt frames. He would pick up old postcards, a multitude of which lay on the dresser, and pore over the curious landscapes–unknown mountains and beaches, railway stations or hotels on green hillsides, where a carefully drawn arrow indicated the window of a room where the sender of the card had once stayed. He wondered what they had looked like, those people from the time when his grandmother still received messages from the outside world. Without difficulty he found pictures of them. Amongst the bric-a-brac that had accumulated in the drawers of the dresser he would come upon pasteboard photographs of slender ladies in huge hats decorated with feathers, and gentleman in the tight-fitting uniforms of armies that no longer existed. He also found photos of funny, rectangular-shaped automobiles, which he didn’t think could run. Next to these odd machines he could see gentlemen in caps and great leather gauntlets that reached up to their elbows, mustachioed, standing stiffly upright or with one knee bent, resting a foot on the wide running board of the car.
He was extremely fond of those apparently vacant moments, when he communed with a distant, incomprehensible past, with an unknown world that existed without him and outside of him. At such times he experienced a certain sweet feeling, and he knew that it was precisely the thought of things passing that was so dear to him. At these moments–and only in the dining room, in the darkness and silence of an empty summer’s day–he also thought about God. He thought he sensed His presence around him, though he was not certain of it. He was troubled by the thought of what had been even earlier, before the gentlemen in leggings and spats, before the ladies with slender silhouettes forever shading their faces with parasols to shield themselves from the sun. And what was even before that, on the other side of the dark surface of the pictures that no one could make out anymore. Then he was troubled by the thought of what would come afterward, in a hundred years, two hundred, two hundred thousand. Yet when he tried to penetrate that abyss of time, his head spun, he was beset with dread, and he would open his eyes and wish not to think any longer.