In Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury, translated by Eliza Marciniak and out now from Transit Books, Wiola looks back on her youth in a close-knit, agricultural community in 1980s Poland. Swallowing Mercury was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.
The Belated Feeding of Bees
On Sunday right after lunch, my father began preparing muskrat skins and cut his finger on a dirty penknife. An orange erythema appeared around the wound. When he got a fever, his lymph nodes swelled up, and purple spots spread over his back, my mother called the ambulance from the village mayor’s house. It came two hours later and took him away to the hospital, sirens blaring, with a suspected case of blood poisoning. My mother said they replaced all his blood and pumped medicines into his stomach with a special pump.
Miraculously, he managed to turn the corner after three weeks, but when he came home I hardly recognized him: he had lost more than twenty pounds and had gone almost completely deaf. His eyes had lost their brightness, and his formerly swarthy face had turned the color of a horseradish root. He was given sick leave and for the time being stopped going to the paper mill. He would get up at seven, throw his camouflage jacket over his shoulders, and look out of the dining-room window at the pond and the beehives, which stood scattered among bare currant bushes. At nine, he would wash, put on his loafers, and change into a shirt and his favorite, slightly too-tight jumper with a black-and-white diamond pattern. After swallowing two raw eggs, he’d look through old illustrated books about birds and fish which he’d brought home from the recycling center at the mill, or he’d take out an old hunting knife with a deer-hoof handle from his taxidermy box and would sit opening and closing it as if he were playing some sort of game. That’s how it was almost every day: he didn’t stuff animals anymore, he didn’t play poker, he didn’t go fishing and, increasingly, he hardly ever said a word to anyone.
He perked up only when he read in Beekeeping magazine that over the course of the harsh winter the frost had destroyed numerous apiaries in southern Poland. He jumped up from the sofa, fetched a blackened saucepan from the dresser, poured in two bags of sugar, added hot water from the kettle, and put the pan on the stove. About ten minutes later, the thick golden liquid began to boil, with bubbles of air escaping from the saucepan and touching my father’s swollen fingers. The pleasant smell of caramel filled the smoky room. My father ran outside in his slippers, skidding on the icy path, and began installing feeders made from cut plastic bottles at the entrances to the hives, then filling them halfway with cooled syrup.
He returned an hour later and sat down resignedly on the sofa, which wobbled on its birch pegs.
“Damn it, I was too late,” he whispered miserably and shook the snow off his slipper onto the floor. “I forgot to feed them in the autumn and all the colonies have died.”
For the first time in a long while, I had a chance to take a close look at him, and I noticed just how much he had aged in the past few weeks. He didn’t blacken his mustache with the soot from the bottom of the kettle anymore, and he looked as if he’d glued a rotten leaf under his nose. He had also stopped putting on a tie, and his snow-white shirts had started turning musty in the wardrobe. My searching gaze must have embarrassed him because he turned his face away toward the window.
I didn’t know how to cheer him up. I felt sorry both for my father and for the bees, but I didn’t let on. In those days, my teenage head was teeming with so many different thoughts at once that I preferred to keep quiet or, in secret from my mother, sneak up to the medicine cabinet and swallow more and more drops of Milocardin, which smelled of hops and mint. I took a Gdańsk Match Producers label out of my shoebox—“Bees are your ally, 48 matches for 30 groszy”—and handed it to my father. Then I put on a jacket, moved to the unheated dining room, and began studying German vocabulary for a test, taking advantage of my grandfather’s absence, since the harsh jabber always irritated him.
An hour later, like twin comets, the tungsten filaments inside the bulb turned red, flickered, and went out, but nobody in the house paid any attention. We were used to living in constant semidarkness because of the fuses blowing, or the power station introducing energy-saving measures, or gale-force winds bringing down power lines. That evening, we sat in the glow of the stove like prehistoric insects frozen in amber: my father submerged in his new world of muffled sounds, and me stupefied by Milocardin and irregular forms of German verbs. The air shimmered over the hot stovepipe. Sparks shot out of the ash pan and vanished on the marbled lino like meteors falling into a dark, dense ocean.
My father looked pensively at the bee inscribed within a symmetrical sunflower on the matchbox label I’d given him, then he picked a leaf off the English ivy that was climbing along a fishing line between the lamp and the doorframe and began playing such a piercing melody that shivers ran down my spine. Under the influence of my father’s music, to which I was listening with pleasure for the first time, something woke up inside me and shook me out of my apathy. I smelled burning juniper branches, saw Gypsy caravans and people in colorful costumes jumping through flaming hoops in a forest clearing. My father stopped playing; he curled up on the sofa like a child and lay motionless. The shadow of a queen bee flickered in the window.
© 2017 Wioletta Greg. Translation © 2017 Eliza Marciniak. Excerpt by agreement with Transit Books.