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Fiction

Sandvig Beach

By Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki
Translated from Polish by Jonathan Baines
A fraught parent-child relationship emerges in this excerpt from Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s novel Bornholm, Bornholm, in which a middle-aged man speaks to his comatose mother about their visits to the beach during his childhood.
A photograph of Bornholm's rocky seashore and cliff
Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash

Here I am again. They say that talking, talking about events from across one’s entire life, will make things easier. Yesterday, right after I left here, I cycled to Sandvig. I still remember how we used to go there together when I was little. A small, peaceful bay. Some sand on the one side, and on the other, toward the cliff, just flat rocks. I was always drawn to the rocks. I didn’t like the sand, it seemed so rough and scratchy. When I lay down on it, I felt like I was lying on sandpaper. But I had to lie down. For you. Sometimes you’d fall asleep, and when I was sure you were sleeping soundly, I’d move away and head for the rocks. There weren’t many people around, because the sea would throw up lots of seaweed there. First of all it would be slippery, green, and smelly. Then it would start to dry out. It would metamorphose from something slippery and pleasant in its way, into something faded, yellow, rough, and reeking to boot. You know, I think it was that smell that left the rocky half of the beach pretty much deserted. Pretty much, because from time to time I would be there, warming myself like a cat on those stones, and there would also be couples pawing at each other. Looking up at the sky and rummaging around in underwear. I watched them with interest and wasn’t yet able to understand what they were struggling with, the rummaging almost always accompanied by panting and squeezing, the whole works, Mummy, let me tell you. It was painful, watching them, and I thought that adult life must be really hard, and that when I grew up, I wouldn’t be like that. I wouldn’t put my hand in my girlfriend’s pants, breathing heavily. That’s what I promised myself. When I lay on the rocks too long, I became lost to the world, it was so hot. The sky was clear with barely a breath of wind, which happens quite often in Sandvig, even though there might be a change in the weather any moment. You woke up and came toward the rocks. For me. And, of course, you found me on some rock or other and demanded that I come back to the blanket on the rough sand. And I, of course, did as I was told. The only good thing about that side of the beach was that you could get into the sea without any difficulty. I learned to swim when I was quite young, but, you recall, my first adventure in the water was unusual and very nearly ended in tragedy. There’s some kind of jetty. It’s still there today, or maybe that’s a brand-new one, it doesn’t matter. Once, you were lying on the beach and talking to someone, and I went off along the jetty, all the way to the end, where the water’s quite deep. On that day the sea was utterly calm and looked more like an ice rink than something that might start moving in waves. There was a boy standing next to me, older and much taller. He was in a mask with a snorkel and had flippers on his feet. Then he jumped in and you could see just how much fun he was having under the water. I wanted to do it too. I wanted to jump in and talk to him. Under the water. So I did. When I got to him, I opened my mouth. And then things took a turn. He could see that I couldn’t swim, that I knew nothing about diving and that I would drown in a flash. He pulled me out of the water and onto the shore. I don’t know how he managed it. I must have been in a severe state of shock. All I remember is lying on the sand with lots of people around me, and you were there, of course, and you were crying out, “Breathe! Breathe!” Slowly, I came back to join the living, but it was really hard to breathe, because so much water was coming out of me. You automatically reined in my desires. The next time we went to the beach I had to parade around in a lurid life jacket, looking like a visitor from another planet. It was very uncomfortable and I was so hot inside it that I nearly died. But the most important thing was that you were sure I was safe.

There’s a large rock in Sandvig that’s been sticking out of the sea there for as long as anyone can remember. To get to it you have to know how to swim. I’ll tell you what it was like in my class—maybe you know about it, back then you didn’t, so listen up. So, in my class everyone agreed that the way you knew a boy could swim, officially, was if he could get to the rock. You touched it, you climbed up on top of it, and you waved back at everyone on the shore. For us it was a sign that you weren’t a child any longer. Swimming to the rock solo. You don’t know about this, we had to keep it from you. None of our parents knew about it, because if someone had found out, that would have been the end of our fun in the sea. When one of us was ready for it and thought he could swim, having been taught by his father or someone, then—and most often this happened in May, when the beach was deserted and the water very cold—the brave swimmer, his teeth chattering, got in the water and set off for the rock as fast as he could. Some of them didn’t manage it the first time. They thought they could swim, but they couldn’t really, so when they couldn’t touch the bottom anymore, they turned back, saying the water was too cold. But some of them made it, climbed up onto the rock and, freezing cold, gave a heroic wave to everyone on the beach, and then swam, with difficulty, back. Me, before I swam on my own to the rock, I got next to it a few times. Two or three, I don’t remember. When I had my life jacket on, you’d sleep soundly, so I’d get into the water. One day a tourist—he wasn’t from around here, he had a strange accent—he said to me, “Hey, kid, do you want to go to the rock?” Without stopping to think, I nodded and clung on to his back, and we swam there together. That’s to say, he swam, and I waggled my legs. The next time worked in a very similar way. A tourist, a piggyback, and I was next to the rock. I touched its cold, granite surface, studded with barnacles and seaweed, but I could never climb up on top of it.

You know, Mummy, I think I taught myself to swim. Wearing that life jacket. I remember that when I grew out of it, and I didn’t want you to buy me a new one, because I was embarrassed, I got in the water and simply started swimming. And what was the first thing I did, making you cry out in fear? I set off for the rock, of course, climbed up on top of it, and gave you a wave. Although you were a long way off, I could see that you’d taken leave of your senses and that if I didn’t get down right away and swim back to you, you’d come for me yourself and deny me my glory, scolding me before all the creatures of the sea. So my glory was short-lived indeed. Quick as I could, I dived in and swam back to you on the beach. And what did I hear you say? Instead of singing my praises, which is what a father would have done, you delivered a rhapsodic monologue of epic proportions on the fears of a mother, on motherly love, with a stack of prohibitions and crazy notions. But deep down inside I knew that, even so, I was great, and obviously I intended to demonstrate it to my friends. Our arrangement didn’t count during the summer holidays, so I waited until the new school year began to show them what I could do. I wasn’t the first to swim out to the rock on my own, but I wasn’t the last either. I got to the rock quite quickly, climbed on top, and looked at my classmates in the distance. Then I waved to them, and let me tell you, Mummy, although the water was already quite cold and the weather that day wasn’t great, I really didn’t want to get down from the rock because it was one of the rare moments in my life when I’ve felt important and appreciated. I stood proud and tall on that rock and I looked over at them like some kind of general, victorious in some battle or other, and I only jumped back in the water when they started waving at me and whistling because it was time to go back. And do you know what, yesterday I got in the water and swam to the rock. I stood on it, thinking to myself that sometimes it doesn’t take much for a person to be happy.

Excerpt from Bornholm, Bornholm. Copyright © 2011 by Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki. Translation copyright © 2023 by Jonathan Baines. All rights reserved.

English Polish (Original)

Here I am again. They say that talking, talking about events from across one’s entire life, will make things easier. Yesterday, right after I left here, I cycled to Sandvig. I still remember how we used to go there together when I was little. A small, peaceful bay. Some sand on the one side, and on the other, toward the cliff, just flat rocks. I was always drawn to the rocks. I didn’t like the sand, it seemed so rough and scratchy. When I lay down on it, I felt like I was lying on sandpaper. But I had to lie down. For you. Sometimes you’d fall asleep, and when I was sure you were sleeping soundly, I’d move away and head for the rocks. There weren’t many people around, because the sea would throw up lots of seaweed there. First of all it would be slippery, green, and smelly. Then it would start to dry out. It would metamorphose from something slippery and pleasant in its way, into something faded, yellow, rough, and reeking to boot. You know, I think it was that smell that left the rocky half of the beach pretty much deserted. Pretty much, because from time to time I would be there, warming myself like a cat on those stones, and there would also be couples pawing at each other. Looking up at the sky and rummaging around in underwear. I watched them with interest and wasn’t yet able to understand what they were struggling with, the rummaging almost always accompanied by panting and squeezing, the whole works, Mummy, let me tell you. It was painful, watching them, and I thought that adult life must be really hard, and that when I grew up, I wouldn’t be like that. I wouldn’t put my hand in my girlfriend’s pants, breathing heavily. That’s what I promised myself. When I lay on the rocks too long, I became lost to the world, it was so hot. The sky was clear with barely a breath of wind, which happens quite often in Sandvig, even though there might be a change in the weather any moment. You woke up and came toward the rocks. For me. And, of course, you found me on some rock or other and demanded that I come back to the blanket on the rough sand. And I, of course, did as I was told. The only good thing about that side of the beach was that you could get into the sea without any difficulty. I learned to swim when I was quite young, but, you recall, my first adventure in the water was unusual and very nearly ended in tragedy. There’s some kind of jetty. It’s still there today, or maybe that’s a brand-new one, it doesn’t matter. Once, you were lying on the beach and talking to someone, and I went off along the jetty, all the way to the end, where the water’s quite deep. On that day the sea was utterly calm and looked more like an ice rink than something that might start moving in waves. There was a boy standing next to me, older and much taller. He was in a mask with a snorkel and had flippers on his feet. Then he jumped in and you could see just how much fun he was having under the water. I wanted to do it too. I wanted to jump in and talk to him. Under the water. So I did. When I got to him, I opened my mouth. And then things took a turn. He could see that I couldn’t swim, that I knew nothing about diving and that I would drown in a flash. He pulled me out of the water and onto the shore. I don’t know how he managed it. I must have been in a severe state of shock. All I remember is lying on the sand with lots of people around me, and you were there, of course, and you were crying out, “Breathe! Breathe!” Slowly, I came back to join the living, but it was really hard to breathe, because so much water was coming out of me. You automatically reined in my desires. The next time we went to the beach I had to parade around in a lurid life jacket, looking like a visitor from another planet. It was very uncomfortable and I was so hot inside it that I nearly died. But the most important thing was that you were sure I was safe.

There’s a large rock in Sandvig that’s been sticking out of the sea there for as long as anyone can remember. To get to it you have to know how to swim. I’ll tell you what it was like in my class—maybe you know about it, back then you didn’t, so listen up. So, in my class everyone agreed that the way you knew a boy could swim, officially, was if he could get to the rock. You touched it, you climbed up on top of it, and you waved back at everyone on the shore. For us it was a sign that you weren’t a child any longer. Swimming to the rock solo. You don’t know about this, we had to keep it from you. None of our parents knew about it, because if someone had found out, that would have been the end of our fun in the sea. When one of us was ready for it and thought he could swim, having been taught by his father or someone, then—and most often this happened in May, when the beach was deserted and the water very cold—the brave swimmer, his teeth chattering, got in the water and set off for the rock as fast as he could. Some of them didn’t manage it the first time. They thought they could swim, but they couldn’t really, so when they couldn’t touch the bottom anymore, they turned back, saying the water was too cold. But some of them made it, climbed up onto the rock and, freezing cold, gave a heroic wave to everyone on the beach, and then swam, with difficulty, back. Me, before I swam on my own to the rock, I got next to it a few times. Two or three, I don’t remember. When I had my life jacket on, you’d sleep soundly, so I’d get into the water. One day a tourist—he wasn’t from around here, he had a strange accent—he said to me, “Hey, kid, do you want to go to the rock?” Without stopping to think, I nodded and clung on to his back, and we swam there together. That’s to say, he swam, and I waggled my legs. The next time worked in a very similar way. A tourist, a piggyback, and I was next to the rock. I touched its cold, granite surface, studded with barnacles and seaweed, but I could never climb up on top of it.

You know, Mummy, I think I taught myself to swim. Wearing that life jacket. I remember that when I grew out of it, and I didn’t want you to buy me a new one, because I was embarrassed, I got in the water and simply started swimming. And what was the first thing I did, making you cry out in fear? I set off for the rock, of course, climbed up on top of it, and gave you a wave. Although you were a long way off, I could see that you’d taken leave of your senses and that if I didn’t get down right away and swim back to you, you’d come for me yourself and deny me my glory, scolding me before all the creatures of the sea. So my glory was short-lived indeed. Quick as I could, I dived in and swam back to you on the beach. And what did I hear you say? Instead of singing my praises, which is what a father would have done, you delivered a rhapsodic monologue of epic proportions on the fears of a mother, on motherly love, with a stack of prohibitions and crazy notions. But deep down inside I knew that, even so, I was great, and obviously I intended to demonstrate it to my friends. Our arrangement didn’t count during the summer holidays, so I waited until the new school year began to show them what I could do. I wasn’t the first to swim out to the rock on my own, but I wasn’t the last either. I got to the rock quite quickly, climbed on top, and looked at my classmates in the distance. Then I waved to them, and let me tell you, Mummy, although the water was already quite cold and the weather that day wasn’t great, I really didn’t want to get down from the rock because it was one of the rare moments in my life when I’ve felt important and appreciated. I stood proud and tall on that rock and I looked over at them like some kind of general, victorious in some battle or other, and I only jumped back in the water when they started waving at me and whistling because it was time to go back. And do you know what, yesterday I got in the water and swam to the rock. I stood on it, thinking to myself that sometimes it doesn’t take much for a person to be happy.

Znowu przyszedłem. Mówią, żeby mówić, żeby się wygadać z całego życia, to będzie lżej. Wczoraj, zaraz po tym, jak opuściłem to miejsce, pojechałem na rowerze do Sandvigu. Pamiętam jeszcze z dzieciństwa, jak przyjeżdżaliśmy tam razem na plażę. Mała, cicha, w zatoce. Trochę piasku z jednej strony, a z drugiej, idąc w stronę klifu, same płaskie głazy. Mnie zawsze ciągnęło na te głazy, nie lubiłem tego piasku, bo wydawał mi się szorstki, taki gruboziarnisty. Kiedy się na nim kładłem, wydawało mi się, że leżę na papierze ściernym. Ale swoje musiałem odleżeć. Dla ciebie. Czasami zasypiałaś i kiedy byłem pewny, że smacznie śpisz, oddalałem się i szedłem w stronę kamieni. Tam nie było wielu ludzi, bo w tamtym miejscu morze wyrzucało kupę glonów, które najpierw były śliskie, zielone i  pachniały, lecz kiedy zaczęły wysychać, przechodziły metamorfozę z  czegoś śliskiego i  na swój sposób przyjemnego w  coś wypłowiałego, żółtawego i szorstkiego, a na dodatek bardzo cuchnącego. Wiesz, myślę, że to ten zapach czynił tamtą kamienistą część plaży prawie bezludną. Mówię prawie, bo od czasu do czasu byłem ja i wygrzewałem się jak kot na tych ciepłych kamieniach, i były też macające się parki. Patrzące w niebo i grzebiące sobie w majtkach i biustonoszach. Patrzyłem na nie z zaciekawieniem i nie mogłem jeszcze wtedy pojąć, o co chodzi i dlaczego się tak męczą, bo tej grzebaninie prawie zawsze towarzyszyło stękanie, naprężanie, no, istny cyrk, mówię ci, mamo. Patrzyłem na nich z ubolewaniem i myślałem, że życie dorosłego musi być bardzo ciężkie i że jak dorosnę, to będę inny. Nie będę wkładał rąk w majtki swojej koleżanki i nie będę stękał. Tak sobie obiecałem. Kiedy za długo leżałem na tych kamieniach i zapominałem o bożym świecie, bo było tak ciepło, a niebo było tak przejrzyste i prawie nie wiał wiatr, co zdarzało się dość często w Sandvigu, choć zaraz za rogiem była już inna pogoda, ty się budziłaś i szłaś w stronę kamieni. Po mnie. I oczywiście znajdowałaś mnie na którymś głazie i kazałaś zbierać się i wracać na koc, na ten gruboziarnisty piasek. No i oczywiście posłusznie wracałem. Jedyną dobrą stroną tamtej części plaży było to, że bez trudu można było wchodzić do morza. Ja się dosyć wcześnie nauczyłem pływać, ale, pamiętasz, moje pierwsze przygody z wodą były dziwne i o mało nie skończyły się tragicznie. Tam jest taki pomost, stoi do dzisiaj, a może to jest całkiem nowy, wymieniony, nieważne. Kiedyś leżałaś na plaży i z kimś gawędziłaś, a ja wszedłem na ten pomost i doszedłem do końca, gdzie woda była już dosyć głęboka. Tamtego dnia morze było całkiem płaskie i przypominało bardziej taflę lodowiska niż coś, co może zacząć falować. Obok mnie stał chłopak, starszy i dużo wyższy. Miał na głowie okulary do nurkowania z przyczepioną obok rurką i zakładał na stopy płetwy. A potem wskoczył i  tyle go było widać, to znaczy, było go dobrze widać, jak igra pod wodą. I ja też tak chciałem, chciałem wskoczyć i porozmawiać z nim. Porozmawiać pod wodą. Zrobiłem to. Dopadłem go i otworzyłem usta. Wtedy zaczęła się tragedia. On zobaczył, że nie potrafię pływać, że nie mam pojęcia o nurkowaniu i  że za chwilę się utopię. Bez dwóch zdań. Wyciągnął mnie z  tej wody na brzeg. Nie pamiętam, jak to zrobił, bo byłem pewnie w silnym szoku. Pamiętam tylko tyle, że leżałem na piasku i że wokół mnie było pełno ludzi, i ty oczywiście, i krzyczałaś „oddychaj! oddychaj!”. A ja wracałem powoli do żywych, choć ciężko się wtedy oddychało, pamiętam, bo woda wylewała się z moich wnętrzności. Ty ukróciłaś automatycznie moją samowolę. Zrobiłaś to oczywiście z miłości i dla mojego bezpieczeństwa. Przy każdej następnej wizycie na plaży paradowałem jak przybysz z innej planety w jaskrawym kapoku, w którym było mi bardzo niewygodnie i wprost umierałem w nim z gorąca. Ale najważniejsze, że miałaś pewność.

Tam w  Sandvigu jest taki głaz, sterczy z  morza od niepamiętnych czasów. Trzeba umieć pływać, żeby się do niego dostać. U mnie w klasie było tak – chyba o tym nie wiesz, nie wiedziałaś, to posłuchaj. Więc u mnie w klasie było tak przyjęte, że uznawało się oficjalnie, że chłopak potrafi pływać, jeśli samodzielnie dostanie się na głaz. Dotknie go, a potem wdrapie się na niego i pomacha wszystkim innym stojącym na brzegu. Dla nas to była taka oznaka zerwania z wiekiem dziecięcym. Samotne dopłynięcie do głazu. Ty nie wiesz, bo nie mogłaś wiedzieć. Żaden z naszych rodziców o tym nie wiedział, bo gdyby się dowiedział, to byłby koniec naszych zaślubin z morzem. Kiedy któryś z nas był gotowy i uważał, że potrafi już pływać, bo go ojciec czy ktoś tam nauczył albo nauczył się sam, wtedy – a było to najczęściej w maju, kiedy plaża była kompletnie pusta, a woda bardzo zimna – taki śmiałek, szczękając zębami, wchodził do wody i najszybciej, jak potrafił, sunął w stronę głazu. Niektórym się nie udawało za pierwszym razem, bo wymyślili sobie, że już potrafią pływać, a w rzeczywistości nie potrafili, więc kiedy płycizna się kończyła i tracili grunt pod nogami, zawracali, mówiąc, że woda za zimna. Ale niektórzy dopływali, wdrapywali się na głaz i zziębnięci, ale jak bohaterowie machali tym, którzy stali na plaży, a potem z trudem wracali. Ja, zanim sam dopłynąłem do tego głazu, kilka razy byłem przy nim. Dwa albo trzy, nie pamiętam dokładnie. Jak miałem ten kapok na sobie, to spokojniej spałaś, więc wchodziłem do wody. Kiedyś jakiś turysta – nie był od nas, to wiem, dziwny miał akcent – powiedział: „Hej, mały, łapiesz się na kamień?”. To ja bez zastanowienia pokiwałem głową, uczepiłem się jego barków i tak razem dopłynęliśmy. To znaczy, on płynął, a  ja tylko majtałem nogami. Następnym razem było bardzo podobnie. Jakiś turysta, jego plecy i już byłem przy kamieniu. Dotykałem jego granitowego zimna upstrzonego naroślami i małżami, ale nigdy nie wszedłem na wierzchołek.

Wiesz, mamo, ja to się chyba sam nauczyłem pływać. I to w tym kapoku. Bo pamiętam, że kiedy z niego wyrosłem i już nie chciałem, żebyś mi kupowała nowy, bo się wstydziłem, to wszedłem do wody i po prostu zacząłem pływać. I co zrobiłem najpierw ku twojej wielkiej trwodze i okrzykom? Oczywiście popłynąłem w stronę głazu, wszedłem na niego i ci pomachałem. Choć byłaś daleko, widziałem, że odchodzisz od zmysłów i  że jeśli za chwilę nie zejdę i  natychmiast nie przypłynę do ciebie, to pofatygujesz się po mnie sama i  mi na tym kamieniu odbierzesz glorię, opieprzając mnie przy tych wszystkich głuchawych żyjątkach morskich. Więc moja gloria trwała bardzo krótko, bo pospiesznie wskoczyłem do wody i jak najszybciej znalazłem się na plaży, przy tobie. I co usłyszałem? Zamiast pochwały, takiej, jaką się dostaje od ojca, ja usłyszałem drżącym głosem wypowiedziany poemat o matczynym strachu i miłości, kupę zakazów i dziwactw. Ale w duszy wiedziałem, że i tak jestem wielki, co oczywiście miałem zamiar zaprezentować kumplom. Ponieważ były wtedy wakacje i nasza umowa w ich trakcie nie działała, poczekałem do rozpoczęcia roku szkolnego i pokazałem, co potrafię. Nie byłem pierwszym z  nas, który samodzielnie dopłynął do głazu, ale nie byłem też ostatnim. Kiedy dosyć szybko znalazłem się przy nim, wszedłem na niego i popatrzyłem na grupkę kolegów z klasy z oddali, a potem im pomachałem, to powiem ci, mamo, że choć wtedy woda była już trochę zimna i pogoda tego dnia nie była najlepsza, nie chciało mi się wcale z tego kamola schodzić, bo to był jeden z niewielu momentów w moim życiu, kiedy poczułem się ważny i doceniony. Stałem na tym kamieniu dumny i wyprostowany, patrzyłem na nich jak jakiś generał, zwycięzca bitwy pod czymś tam, i skoczyłem do wody dopiero wtedy, kiedy zaczęli do mnie machać i gwizdać, że już pora wracać. A wiesz, wczoraj też wszedłem do wody i dopłynąłem do głazu, i stanąłem na nim, myśląc, że człowiekowi do szczęścia czasami tak niewiele potrzeba.

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