from “Dukla”

One Saturday the summer vacationers appeared. The village was slowly becoming a tourist spot. A few cabins, a woebegone hostel, a kiosk selling Wyszków beer in its special bottles. The locals were used to it, and nothing special was going on. The Tonette was playing “Seven Girls on the Albatross.” The guys hadn’t gotten into the swing of things yet. They were standing huddled in groups, smoking Start cigarettes. A few girls were milling about in pairs. In the bushes there were flashes of light from wine bottles and signet rings. No one raised their voice. Laughter would burst out and quickly die down again. The out-of-towners were bolder. They’d go out onto the cement dance floor with their loose city swagger, seemingly at ease, yet tense and conscious of the looks outsiders always attract. You could tell them by what they wore. Shorts, flip-flops, tight T-shirts, sandals, caps with visors, cretonne, cotton; beach, unconstrained boobs. But nothing much was happening. The Laskowski number would come to an end, Pra┼╝ona Kukurydza or Locomotiv GT would come on and the young bucks, starting to feel bolder, would toss their bottles and cigarette butts aside, strut over to some girl or other and sweep her up in a dance that was awkward because it was still coy. So it began. From individual sparks.

Then, out of the dark came the girl, and mingled with the dancers. She wasn’t from the village. She wasn’t with any of the out-of-towners. She danced alone, though she must have known some of the vacationers, because once in a while she’d greet someone with a raised hand or a smile. She was wearing a white thigh-length dress. Her dark curly hair tumbled down her back. She kept flicking it from her forehead with a toss of the head. The suntanned skin of her arms and legs soaked up the light and became even darker, at the same time giving off a strange glow, as if inside her some process had transformed the wan electric glimmer into a magnetic, corporeal luster. The other dancing women looked like powdered corpses. She glided amongst them dexterously and indifferently and when she found herself a little room she’d spin around once or twice, and her whirling dress would ride up. Then she’d go back to tranquilly swinging her hips and arms. Her hands rose and fell softly as if she was exploring the lines of her own body in space, or yielding to a solitary caress. A gold cross winked on her low neckline.

Before I realized what I was doing I found myself circling the dance floor in a sleepy, unthinking way, so as not to lose sight of her for a second; this wasn’t at all necessary, as she stood out from the crowd, not because of her height but in her intense, sensual mobility. Her gestures bore the deliberate inertia of matter. She resembled liquid mercury. Animals behave the same way, indifferent as to whether they’re being watched. She was dancing barefoot. I stared at her feet. My eyes naturally, inevitably climbed her visibly muscular calves and her thighs, and while I had to imagine the rest, having no paradigm to work from, I was certain my imagination was fully accurate, that it was close to perfect. The little shadows in the hollows behind her knees were almost black. Over the loud music I could hear the slap of her feet against the cement surface. I could sense the hot, soft touch, but fear and shyness led my imagination to form an in-between image of a caress between her skin and the unfeeling stone. It was the same with the air. I could see it brushing against her arms and parting like smoke, while successive layers of it retained her touch, the moistness of her perspiration, her smell, and then vanished into the darkness; more and more of them came, but she had so much of it all she could fill the entire night, the entire air and still remain the same, unscathed, animated and indifferent, as if she’d simply dried herself with a towel after taking a bath.

I tried to see her face, but the dark cloud of ringlets veiled it or concealed it in disorderly shadow. From time to time I glimpsed white teeth or lowered eyelids. These detached, split-second images created a picture in harmony with the rest of her figure. She was beautiful with the kind of animal-like allure that seems to have no awareness of itself, and even if it does, it’s conscious more of its own strength than of its beauty. She had a low forehead, sleepy almond-shaped eyes, broad cheekbones and full lips that expressed a disquieting combination of disdain and sadness. All this, though, I saw later. That evening I only knew that her face must be as exquisite as her body. Among the farmers’ daughters this barefoot vagabond looked like a child of kings. And as I crept about, with dry throat and moist palms—as I snuck behind the backs of the onlookers to catch sight of her high breasts and the moment when her white dress spun about her hips to reveal a firm thigh and the perfect oval hem of snow-white panties against a brown buttock—as I waited for her to raise her bare arm so I could glimpse the deep shadow beneath—eventually the image became so close that I felt myself entering into her body, not in the banal, sexual sense, but literally slipping into her taut brown skin; my hands filled her arms all the way to the fingertips, which I wiggled as if putting on gloves, and my face moved in the warmth of her smooth insides and became her face, and eventually my tongue became the inside of her tongue, and the same happened with everything else, with the red kingdom of tendons and muscles and the white strips of fat, and in the end she was entirely pulled over me, and I was wearing her to the furthest recesses of fingernails and hair. Her tight, languid body was the materialization of an oppressive aura that had haunted me that summer. All the scents, all the aromas, all the ethereal signs, all the emanations I’d discovered in that airy dance hall suddenly converged, clustered together, and like a genie in a bottle took refuge in her flesh, just as if she’d sucked them in through one of her crevices, drawn them inside through her belly button or her backside and in a single moment the world had become flat, distinct, and devoid of meaning.

                                                              *

I was thirteen years old and it all went to my head. The sun never set that summer. It stood permanently at its zenith, and our shadows were so paltry they called reality itself into question. Everything about shriveled up in the merciless light. The landscape flaked like old paint, things appeared from beneath other things and were no more realistic. I wandered among all the places I might find her. The painted plywood cabins became discolored in the swelter. It was a poor man’s resort. Blue, yellow, red huts with two bunks and a communal toilet, in the middle of a dusty field where the true maniacs did their best to play volleyball, tying wet cloths around their heads. I tried to track her down. I would sit under the tin awning of the cafeteria and drink greenish orangeade. The bottles bore no labels. The orangeade was over-carbonated, and sometimes it would explode. One day I spotted her going into a red cabin and closing the door behind her. I lingered for five more minutes, finishing off the warm pisswater as if it were chilled champagne, then I went there. The place was quiet. On the minuscule porch there was an empty Mistella bottle and nothing else. A thick curtain blocked the window. My legs trembled. Inside there was only darkness. Not a sound. I imagined a thousand things. I went up to the window, then lost my courage. I bought another orangeade and waited, but nothing happened.

July hung over the village like a sheet of blue metal. The river stank of silt. I hunted for where she was like a purblind cat. Every scrap of moving white brought the blood rushing to my head. I was sweaty, unclean, sticky from endless lemonades.

One day I was on the landing stage where boats and canoes were moored. I was spitting into the water. The white islets of spittle floated downstream. I watched them go. Then she appeared behind where I was sitting. She passed the landing stage and walked on. With her was a skinny female in a bathing suit. They trudged across the dull-colored beach. The skinny one’s feet sank in up to the ankles, but the other girl strayed closer to the water, and at one point she left a clear footprint in the smooth wet sand. A moment later they turned toward the steps leading up to the hostel. I watched her climb higher and higher, her brown thighs moving beneath the parasol of her dress. Finally she paused at the very top, completely black against the blue sky, then disappeared. The whole thing lasted no more than half a minute, but I had awoken from an interminably long sleep. A boat with an outboard motor was coming up the river. The waves it made passed beneath the landing stage, lapped against the shore and almost reached the footprint. My heart stopped. But the tongue of water was too short and the print remained untouched. I wanted to go there, but I wasn’t alone. A kid from the village was sitting next to me; he was smoking a cigarette wrapped in his closed palm, and from time to time he’d offer me a drag. He was talking, but I didn’t hear a thing. I was staring at the indentation in the sand. She was still present there. I knew her heat had remained in that place, her scent had remained, that the weight of her body had condensed there, filling the fragile shape, and only a few steps were needed for me to possess that solidified presence. The footprint was distinct. I could see the heel and the oval depressions of the toes. I cursed my buddy. He was sitting there prattling on in a singsong accent that was as languorous as the heat-benumbed river.

Then a noisy family came along with an inflatable mattress, blankets, and a host of children in red polka-dot bathing suits. They spread out across the spot and lay down, exposing their white bellies to the sun.

When we left there half an hour later, I held back for a moment and picked up a handful of sand from the trampled place. My eyes hurt. The whole time I kept staring at the nonexistent, desecrated footprint, so as not to lose it. I poured a little sand into my pocket. We went off in search of shade.

 

From Dukla. Forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.