The Fool (Głupiec, 2005) is set in contemporary Olsztyn, author Ewa Schilling’s hometown in northeastern Poland. Alina is a thirty-year-old high school teacher and the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, who taught her that ” feelings are dangerous. ” Dangerous, indeed: She falls in love— “without sense, ” ” without a chance ” —with her dynamic young student, Anka. While exceptionally mature, Anka is still months from graduation.
With precise, sometimes abrupt language nearly free of punctuation, Schilling crafts tiny, complete worlds, shifting from simple prose to stark poetry as often as from dialogue to daydream. The novel is anchored in Alina’s world, one as ordinary as schoolbooks; as walking her dog, Ragnar; as lesbian movies and their pop-culture currency. And yet, with its contradictions of faith and free will, of age and place, it is also irresistibly unique.
Alina’s favorite author is Shakespeare, and in both text and theme, Schilling flirts with parallels to Romeo and Juliet. In the following passage, we see Alina, tossed between rumor and reality, as a kind of fortune’s fool—or, more so, as the iconic Fool of the Tarot. With her eyes on Anka, Alina’s next step could be a leap of faith, or a fatal tumble into the abyss.
bell. alina sits at her desk. anka in the last row. between them only a leveled forest now. yes. a city in ruins. a leveled forest.
anka stares at her and neither moves a muscle. she has a backpack thrown over her shoulder.
are you leaving?—alina cannot stand the tension. the cipher machine hidden in her mind has started up without a hitch. has spit out a perfect translation into nonsense.
i miss you. i miss you even now when i see you. when between us is a leveled forest city in ruins. longing is like the landscape of a coal mine. closed shafts mine hoists burnt peeling skin workers’ housing streets covered in dust the wind moves the branches of sick trees oil leaks from the sky i’m moving in slow motion. maybe i’ll ride the train that cannot reach the station the endless motion of grimy fences scrawled condemnations of soccer teams rusty old train cars factories beyond gray windows.
and so i ask: are you leaving?
can i stay? anka rises. she sticks her hands into the pockets of her corduroy cargo pants. yellow boots. i salute. ask her if it’s true. she closes the door behind her silently.
alina does not take a chair and does not throw it out the window. not even at the board. who could know why.
she leaves. closes the door silently.
got time for a coffee?—bruderek leans on the windowsill next to her. the sun lights their faces.
i can’t—alina meets his eyes briefly. light gray.
ah yes. but flies are luckier than romeo. and darius than i. i’m not such a numbskull you know. and i know gałczyński . . . i’m not just a big fan of his cause of that bit about the cretin. alina shrugs her shoulders.
we have nothing to discuss—she adds as bruderek is clearly waiting for a response.
i’m not so sure. and i can’t promise you won’t regret this. but i won’t go wagging my tongue to rudnicki’s wife. you don’t have to sweat it.
alina is silent. like hell she’ll thank him.
a spy. this moment by the window pinches her for hours like a pebble in her shoe.
don’t lose your head—marta offers her a plate—have some it’ll improve your mood. fuck this bruderek guy . . .
not on your life!—alina fires back. and feels better. justyna goes to the kitchen for a beer glass.
this is with mushrooms and these two with ham and this . . . jus! what’s this last one?
you’ve got three sauces here. mexican horseradish and italian. alina takes the chicken. justyna pours a beer. light music wafts through the air. ragnar sleeps under the table. the dachschund in the armchair.
justyna pours another beer.
we slept half the day.
we stayed in bed half the day—marta corrects her with a mischievous smile.
don’t be cheeky. what happened was her cast was bothering her and she just laid and laid there. i bend over backwards for her. but it’s a super light cast and you can even shower in the thing. the cash i sprang for it and what does she do?—justyna winks and embraces marta—ungrateful—she gives me nothing but trouble. let me go break my leg too.
wait till after karolina’s party though—marta smiles. wait where’d you put those pictures from marcin’s birthday? everyone was admiring my cast. it is rather becoming isn’t it? goes with my eyes—marta raises her bright-blue leg.
you put them—justyna holds her beer glass in one hand and rummages through the drawers with the other—here they are under the ones from the mountains. they should have been on top my love . . .
she says and sits down by alina.
. . . and this is kamil with maciek. what a cute couple they make no? kamil always plays dj he’s got great music.
alina stares at maciek snuggled up to kamil.
wait they might go to your school do you know?
i even heard maciek has a girlfriend—alina quickly drinks half her glass of beer. the shadows outside the window and in the back of the room pitch like the sea. the light fractures into rainbow particles into strange twisted gold planes. a bottle of beer with a message from god. snow covers the courtyard like a fresh bandage over a hideous wound. it wants to be this sleepy little courtyard. a parking lot and big apartment buildings and the wind above them. it’s one big hideous wound. but alive.
says who. he’s really friendly with this one girl anka. but she’s gay. maybe someone thought that though. saw them at the movies together and there you go.
laughing. they didn’t see the world. but flies are luckier than romeo.
that’s not the whole story though—adds marta. anka was actually pretending to be someone’s girlfriend. kamil’s though. kamil’s parents are just hopeless. the kind that’d make lunch meat out of the gays. some cousin of his came out and the old man made it so the son had nothing to do with him. convinced that if the two got together kamil might catch something from him. then they started fretting that there was no girlfriend yet even searched his stuff but kamil is a careful guy and keeps everything with maciek. or with maciek’s sister rather. she’s much older has her own place and she knows everything. basically maciek asked anka if she would to go to kamil’s a few times say they’re going to a party and hold his hand on the way out. the old man is happy and kamil has peace of mind. he goes out with maciek with the sister. and after graduation they go to university in warsaw. we already got the message to our friends. they want to rent one room but together you know the two of them in a single . . .
common sense. common sense making up for appearances like a bulimic downing food. oh the long and painful bouts of vomiting. and slender gray-eyed intuition looks on with merciful indulgence.
i fear the offering even if it’s true.
i fear myself.
i’m running to the store for beer—justyna jangles her keys. puts on a red jacket. eight enough? what am i saying nine.
stay the night with us—marta points out the space under the window. we’ll pull out the mattress for you. we have a really warm quilt. the dog’s already claimed it.
she will stay. as if in another world.
alina looks down at her feet. potholes in the road. monstrosities of mouths with knocked-out teeth. full of water and ice. a colorful carton at the bottom of the stairs. alina picks it up involuntarily. like coins colorful pieces of glass strange stones chestnut leaves. most she tosses but she always bends down for the next. once she found a small card from some unknown game. with a drawing of two strange islands with sharp peaks. she didn’t toss it kept it in the drawer with the postcards. with anka’s letters.
tarot she remembers. the fool.
maybe she should put it up by the computer. head in the clouds. flash in the pan. a lack of discipline. laziness. intuition.
the spontaneity of optimism . . . he stands at the edge of the abyss but the dog grabs him by the leg.
she sticks the card to the monitor. grinning face whimsical clothes bundle on a broomstick pleated hat.
eyes to the sky.
admittedly there is no female form for “fool” in polish. but who can penetrate the spirit of grammar? this fool this human this star this poetry this love.
the phone rings. fucking mistake. her heart slides down into its place.
composition II b. coffee.
she exits the store into a freezing wind. hospital window. the blue glow of ultraviolet lights. laundry is waiting at home. the day is dying. the clouds cover its face with black film.
she sees anka. again she sees anka. suddenly like a bus around the bend. she puts icy fingers to her temples. of course she forgot gloves. the world stops a few meters ahead. she has no strength to imagine it. maybe there’s a bus stop. trees. the university building. as alien as the inside of another’s mind. with anka she would build something better . . . what crap. she puts her hands to her temples again. interrupts the circuit.
she stops at the crossing. someone is beside her. anka. no. it’s enough to think of her and they meet. last week five times. the pharmacy at plac bema. a bakery in the city center. rossman. empik. anka didn’t go after her. it was alina who fell.
good evening. i’m coming from a friend’s. watch out it’s slippery here. like usual. she might as well have sewed her lips together. silent. anka walks in step with her. they turn toward the field. alina’s hand brushes a double birch tree. she looks up involuntarily. at the dark window. her latest obsession. to see the light at her window. once it was left on. shame. anka and the light at the window. if the earth would turn the other way. if there were answers. or if she knew the right questions. confidence like orion approaching beneath her window. if it were possible to step over the brink. if she were a fool.
you live here?—they stand at the bottom of the stairs. anka cocks her head.
on the sixth floor—alina looks at her.
they have so many questions for each other. life can go on around them. enjoying their standing. their seeking answers. in their eyes. their breath. their silence. the silence is hardest to stand.
and the thought that entering into the naked truth would mean freezing in the cold.
she leaves her there. goes down without a word to the terrace. no good-bye even. where is this land where what one feels thinks says and does are not three or four different things. where is this alina.
the big dipper over the city.
key to the intercom.
elevator with confessions of eternal love for the local soccer team.
her own inherited from her alcoholic uncle apartment.
good thing he didn’t hang himself in here.
cold. alina pulls as many blankets around her as possible. fights the temptation to cling to renata’s warm back. once again. they met up in a movie house café. so one more chance. a moment of satisfaction in touching a woman’s body. so—the sentence starts as stubbornly as studies have shown there is no sugar in sugar. sex in sex. sense in sense.
she would have to seriously consider whether what she took for the washing machine was in fact a hippopotamus.
she wakes from a short sleep. the digits on the chive-green clock. 01:17.
every now and then she raises her head. 01:27. 01:52. 02:10. 03:03. warm calm comfortable. awful.
she gets up. takes a sweatshirt and jeans from the chair. strange bathroom. strange smell of shower gel or shampoo that smells something of renata. an envelope stuck in the back pocket is lightly crumpled. she flattens out the paper tenderly. sits on the washing machine / hippopotamus.
trust your heart if the seas catch fire / and live by love if the stars walk backward . . .
surely she knows the poem already. surely she’s reading it for the first time in her life. written in anka’s fountain pen. just like the whole story with maciek and kamil. anka had described it in the first letter which she had never read. you know so little about me i’m writing to you about this because you must hear the talk. and i hate unclear understated situations.
we nailed our theses to the gates of reality. against the background of burning mounds. against the background of nothingness.
for god likes girls / and tomorrow / and the earth.
someone upstairs is draining water. she can do that too. and howl. moan. burst into tears. take drugs. sleep with some girl from the internet. sleep with some guy from the internet. write a book about that.
she puts the page in the envelope. the envelope in the pocket. goes back to bed. lies down on her back.
doesn’t try to sleep.
. . . the godfather—says bashka.
the pizzeria is full and noisy. dark beams large tables wine bottles wrapped in straw on the shelves.
alina shakes herself. wandered off somewhere far away. when will she finally think up read or write something inspired.
she knows how to fall into a different state of consciousness. maybe start meditating.
they’re showing my favorite part of the movie—bashka explains sympathetically. they’ve known each other for a long time.
pizza. they eat. the godfather silent. tracy chapman’s voice. as though it were not recorded. as though it were calling to her.
any place is better . . .
to bashka it might as well be elton john.
look don’t take offense—she lights a cigarette but as a nearly thirty-year-old woman your dilemma is simply absurd. if you don’t learn how to control your emotions you’re going to run into some problems. put frankly your behavior is a little . . .
you said it yourself. that’s what it looks like from the outside at least—bashka takes a deep drag. dark red hair shining in the smoke like a campfire left burning.
alina looks at the pizza coming out of the oven. crushes a cigarette into powder.
from the outside to some it could look sick or even perverse.
alina i know it’s hard to win an argument with you. i’d like to see you in some televised debate. but i’m not some right-wing nut. and i don’t think a relationship with a man would solve your problems either. so please forgive me.
i’m sorry. the issue is not so obvious bashka. you can’t measure it in meters. anka is not a typical teenager. and i . . . maybe i’m not typical either.
From Głupiec. Published 2005 by Ha!art. Copyright 2005 by Ewa Schilling. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Lauren Dubowski. All rights reserved.