Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
“The island’s not that big,” says Branko’s wife Djurdjica as she fills his cup with thick, strong coffee.
Everyone says this over and over like a kind of mantra. Kunicki gets the message—he wouldn’t have needed to be told, anyway, that the island is too small for anyone to disappear on it. The island is just over ten kilometers across, with only two real towns, Vis and Komiža. Every inch of it is able to be searched. It’s like rifling through a drawer. Plus everyone knows each other, in both towns. And then the nights are warm, the grapes in full flourish on the vines, the figs nearly ripe. Even if they had gotten lost somehow, they would have been fine—wouldn’t have frozen or starved to death, and they could hardly have been devoured by wild beasts, either. They would simply have spent a warm night on sunburned grass, beneath an olive tree, against a backdrop of the sea’s sleepy rumble. It can’t be more than three or four kilometers to the road from any place. Little stone buildings housing wine barrels and presses stand at intervals in the fields, some equipped with provisions, candles. For breakfast they’d have juicy grapes, or a normal meal with the tourists in the inlets.
They go down to the hotel, where a policeman is awaiting them. It’s a different one, a younger one, and for a moment, Kunicki feels hopeful of getting good news, but then he is asked for his passport. The youthful officer takes down Kunicki’s information, carefully, meticulously, telling him as he does so that they’ve decided to expand their search to the mainland, too, to Split, and to the neighboring islands.
“She could have made it to the ferry along the shore,” he explains.
“She didn’t have any money,” Kunicki says, in Polish, and then in English, “No money. Here, everything.” He displays her purse to the policeman, pulling out her red wallet, embroidered with little beads. He opens it and holds it out. The policeman shrugs and writes down their address in Poland.
“And the kid was how old?”
Kunicki says three.
They drive down the serpentine road back to the same place, the day promising to be hot and bright, everything overexposed like in a picture. By noon all images will have been drained from it. Kunicki wonders whether they couldn’t do the search from on high, from a helicopter, given that the island is almost completely bare. Then he wonders about those chips they can put in animals, migrating birds, storks and cranes, and yet here they don’t have enough for people. Everyone should have one of those chips, for their own safety; then you could track every human movement on the Internet—roads, rest stops, when people start to get lost. How many lives could be saved! He can just see the computer screen with its color-coded lines that mean people, uninterrupted traces, signs. Circles and ellipses, labyrinths. Maybe, too, incomplete figure eights, maybe unsuccessful spirals cut short suddenly.
There’s a dog, a black shepherd; they hand him her sweater from the backseat. The dog sniffs around the car and then sets off into the olive grove. Kunicki feels a rush: it’s all about to be cleared up, now. They run after the dog. It stops at a spot where they must have peed, although there’s no trace of them. It looks pleased with itself—but come on, dog, that isn’t it! Where are the people? Where did they go?
The dog doesn’t understand what they want from it, but reluctantly it sets back off again, off to one side now, down the road, away from the vineyards.
So she went down the highway, thinks Kunicki. She must have been confused. She could have kept going and waited for him a few hundred meters from here. Hadn’t she heard him honking?
And then what? Maybe someone had given them a ride, but since they hadn’t turned up yet, where could that someone have taken them? Someone. A vague, out-of-focus, broad-shouldered figure. Broad neck. A kidnapping. Would he have knocked them out and shoved them into the trunk? He would have taken them aboard the ferry, to the mainland, and now they’d be in Zagreb or Munich, or wherever. Although how would he have crossed the border with two unconscious people in his trunk?
But the dog turns now into the empty ravine running diagonally off the road, into the deep, stony breach, running down along those stones into its depths. You can see an untended little vineyard down there, and within the vineyard, a stone hut that looks like a kiosk covered in rusted corrugated steel sheets. A heap of dried grapevine stalks lies in front of its door, probably for a fire. The dog meanders around the house, circling and circling and then returning to the door.
But the door is padlocked. It takes them a moment to take this in. The wind has scattered sticks across the threshold. There’s obviously no way anyone could have gotten in there. The police officer looks in through the grime on the windows and then starts to beat at it, harder and harder, until he finally batters it down. Everyone looks in then, struck in unison by the all-encompassing smell of must and sea. The walkie-talkie crackles, they give the dog something to drink, and then they have him smell the sweater again. Now he circles the hut three times, goes back to the road, and then, after some hesitation, continues in the same direction toward rocks only occasionally grown over by dry grass, otherwise bare. The sea is visible from the cliffs. The searchers stand together, facing the water. The dog loses the trail, turns around, lies down in the middle of the path.
“To je zato jer je po noči padala kiša,” somebody says, and Kunicki, parsing the Croatian through his own Polish, understands that they’re discussing the fact that it rained last night. Branko comes and takes him for a late lunch. The police stay there while Branko and Kunicki go down to Komiža. They hardly speak. Kunicki thinks Branko must not know what to say to him, and besides, in English. So fine, let him not talk. They order fried fish at a restaurant right on the water; it’s not even a restaurant, but some friends of Branko’s place. He knows everyone here. They’re all sort of similar looking, too, with sharp features, sort of windblown, a tribe of sea wolves. Branko pours him some wine and talks him into drinking it all. He downs his own, too. Then he doesn’t let him pay for anything.
He gets a call. “They manage to got a helicopter, an airplane,” Branko explains afterward. “Police.”
They work out a plan of attack, deciding to take Branko’s boat along the island’s shores. Kunicki calls his parents back in Poland. He hears his father’s familiar raspy voice. He tells him they have to stay another three days. He will not tell him the truth. Everything’s fine, they just need to stay. And he calls in to work, says he’s run into this minor issue, asks if he can have three more days of vacation. He doesn’t know why he says three days.
He awaits Branko at the dock. Branko shows up wearing that same T-shirt with the red shell symbol, but then Kunicki sees it’s a different one, fresh, clean—he must have a bunch of them. They find the little fishing boat among the many moored vessels. Blue letters written ineptly across its side proclaim its name: Neptune. Suddenly Kunicki remembers that the ferry they’d taken to get here had been called Poseidon. And a lot of things, a lot of bars, a lot of stores, a lot of boats, are called Poseidon. Or Neptune. The sea must spit these two names out like outgrown shells. How do you get a copyright from a god? Kunicki wonders. What would you have to pay for it? They settle into the fishing boat, small, cramped, actually a motorboat with a little cabin cobbled together out of wood planks. Here Branko keeps a store of water bottles, both empty and full. Some of them contain wine from his vineyard—white, good, strong. Everyone here has their own vineyard and their own wine. The boat’s motor is kept in the cabin, too, but now Branko hoists it out and attaches it to the stern. It starts on the third try. Now in order to talk they have to scream at each other. The motor’s roar is deafening, and yet after just a moment the brain grows accustomed, as it does at the dawn of winter with the thick layers of clothing that isolate the body from the rest of the world. Slowly the view of the diminishing inlet and the port sinks into that noise. Kunicki sees the house where they were living, and even the kitchen window with its agave flower desperately shooting off into the sky like a frozen firework, a triumphant ejaculation.
He sees everything shrink and blend: the houses into a dark, irregular line; the port into a white blot traversed by the little marks of masts; meanwhile, above the town the towering hills, bare, gray, mottled with the green of the vineyards. They increase in size until they become enormous. From within, from the road, the island seemed small, but now its power is made manifest: solid rock shaped into a kind of monumental cone, a fist hurled out of the water.
When they turn left, leaving the bay for the open sea, the island’s shore seems vertiginous, dangerous. They are carried along by the white crests of the waves that strike the rocks and the birds disturbed by the presence of the boat. When they turn the engine on again, the birds take fright and take wing. There is also the vertical line of the jet that tears the sky into two sheets. The plane is flying south. They are moving. Branko lights two cigarettes and gives one to Kunicki. It’s hard to smoke: tiny little droplets of water splash up from beneath the bow and land on everything.
“Look at the water,” shouts Branko. “At everything swimming.”
As they near a bay with a cave, they see a helicopter—flying the other way. Branko stands up in the center of the boat and waves. Kunicki looks at the chopper, practically happy. The island isn’t big, he thinks for the hundredth time; from above there isn’t anything that can be hidden from the sight of that great mechanical dragonfly, it would all be as obvious as the nose on your face.
“Let’s go to Poseidon,” he shouts to Branko, but Branko seems unconvinced.
“There’s no way through there,” he shouts back.
But the boat turns and slows. They enter the cove between the rocks with the engine off. This part of the island should also be called Poseidon, thinks Kunicki, just like everything else. The god had built himself cathedrals here: naves, caves, columns, and choirs. Their forms were unpredictable, their rhythm false and uneven. Black igneous rocks sparkle damply as though coated in some rare dark metal. Now, at dusk, the structures are all devastatingly sad—this was quintessential abandonment: no one ever prayed here. Kunicki suddenly has the sense that he is seeing the prototypes of manmade churches, that all the tours should be brought here before they’re taken to Reims or to Chartres. He wants to share this discovery with Branko, but the ruckus from the engine is too much for them to talk. He sees another, larger boat with the words “Police, Split” written on it. It’s traveling down the steep coastline. The boats convene, and Branko talks with the policemen. There are no signs of them, nothing. Or so Kunicki judges, at least, because the mechanical cacophony drowns out their conversation. They must be reading each other’s lips, and interpreting the gentle, helpless raising of their shoulders, which doesn’t suit their white police shirts with their epaulets. They indicate they ought to head back, because it will be dark soon. That’s all Kunicki can hear: “Go back.” Branko steps on the gas, and it sounds like an explosion. The water stiffens; little waves like goose bumps spread across the sea. Hitting the island now is completely different than it is by day. The first thing they see is glittering lights that become increasingly distinct from one another by the second, forming rows. They increase in the gathering darkness, becoming separate, different—the lights of yachts arriving at the waterfront are not the same as those in people’s windows; the illumination of signs and storefronts are not the same as shifting headlights. A safe view of a tamed world. Finally Branko turns the engine off, and the boat sidles up to the shore. Suddenly they scrape along stone—they’ve come up onto the little town beach, right by the hotel, a long way away from the marina. Now Kunicki sees why. By the ramp, right at the beach, there is a police car, and there are two men in white shirts who have clearly been waiting for them.
“They must want to talk to you,” says Branko, tying up the boat. Kunicki’s forces fail him—he is scared of what he may be about to hear. That they found the bodies. That’s what he’s scared of. He walks up to them with his knees weak.
But thank God, it’s just an ordinary interrogation. No, there’s nothing new. But so much time has passed now that the matter has become serious. They take him down the same—the only—road to Vis, to the police station. It’s completely dark now, but they obviously know the road well because they don’t even slow down at the bends. They quickly pass that place where he lost them.
There are new men now at the station, awaiting his arrival. A translator, a tall, handsome man who speaks—why beat around the bush—poor Polish, though he was brought in special from Split, and an officer. They ask some routine questions, almost involuntarily, and he gradually becomes aware that he has become a suspect.
They give him a lift right up to the hotel. He gets out and makes as if to enter. But he only pretends to go in. He waits in the dark little passageway until they drive off, till the rumble of the car’s engine dies out, and then he walks out into the street. He walks toward the largest concentration of lights, toward the boulevard by the marina where all the cafés and restaurants are. But it’s late now, and although it’s Friday, there isn’t much of a crowd there anymore; it must be one or two in the morning by now. He looks around for Branko among the few customers seated at the tables, but he doesn’t find him there, doesn’t see that seashell T-shirt. There are some Italians, a whole family, who are finishing up their meal, and he also sees two older people, who are drinking something out of a straw and staring at the noisy Italian family. These are two women with fair hair, intimately turned toward each other, shoulders touching, absorbed in their conversation. Local men, fishermen, this couple. What a relief that no one pays him any mind. He walks along the edge of a shadow, right on the waterfront, and he can smell fish and feel the warm, salty breeze off the sea. He feels like turning and going up along one of the little backstreets that goes toward Branko’s house, but he can’t bring himself to really do it—they must be asleep. So he sits down at a little table at the edge of the patio. The waiter ignores him. He looks at the men who converge at the table next to his. They sit down and bring over an extra chair—there are five of them. Even before the waiter comes, before they’ve ordered anything to drink, they are already linked by an invisible intimacy. They are different ages, two of them with thick beards, and yet all of their differences are about to disappear into the circle they’re already unknowingly setting up. They talk, but it doesn’t matter what they say—it might look as though they are preparing for a song they will sing together, trying out their voices. Their laughter fills up the space inside the circle—jokes, even hackneyed ones, are completely appropriate, even called for. It’s a low, vibrating laughter that conquers the space and makes the tourists at the next table over be quiet—middle-aged women suddenly startled. It attracts curious gazes. They’re preparing their audience. The appearance of the waiter with a tray of drinks becomes an overture, while the waiter, just a kid, becomes the MC without realizing it, announcing the dance, the opera. They come alive when they see him; someone’s hand goes up and shows him where to put things—here. There is a moment of silence, and then glass rims are raised to lips. Some of them—especially the impatient ones—were unable to resist shutting their eyes, exactly like in church when the priest solemnly places the white wafer on the outstretched tongue. The world is ready for the dump truck—it’s only a convention that the floor is beneath our feet, while the ceiling is overhead, the body is no longer its own, but is instead a part of a living chain, a piece of a live circle. Now, too, glasses rise to lips, the moment of their emptying practically invisible, taking place in rapid-fire focus, with momentary gravity. From here on out the men will hold onto them—the glasses. The bodies seated around the table will begin to describe their rings, tops of heads indicating circles in the air, first smaller ones, then larger ones. They will overlap, tracing new chords. In the end, hands will come up, first testing their own strength on the air, in gestures to illustrate their words, and then they will roam to companions’ arms, to their backs and shoulders, patting and encouraging them. These will in fact be gestures of love. This fraternizing by way of hands and backs is not intrusive; it’s a kind of dance. Kunicki looks on with envy. He’d like to leave the shadows and join in with them. He’s never experienced that intensity. He is more familiar with the north, where masculine society is shyer. But here in the south, where wine and sunshine open bodies up faster and more shamelessly, this dance becomes really real. After only an hour the first body pushes back from the table and holds on to the armrests on the chair. Kunicki’s back is slapped by the warm paw of the nighttime breeze, which pushes him toward the tables as though urging him on: “Come on, come on now.” He would like to join in, wherever it is they are going. He would like them to take him with them.
He goes back down the unlit side of the boulevard to his little hotel, making sure not to cross the line of darkness. Before entering the stuffy, narrow stairwell, he takes in some air and stands still for a moment. Then he climbs the stairs, feeling out for each step in the darkness, and he falls instantly into bed with all his clothes on, on his stomach, with his arms thrown out to either side, as though someone had shot him in the back, and for a moment he had contemplated that bullet, and then died.
He gets up after a few hours—two, three, because it’s still dark, and blindly he goes back down to the car. The alarm whoops, and the car flashes understandingly, like it’s been lonely. Kunicki removes their bags from it, all of them in no order. He carries their suitcases up the stairs and tosses them onto the floor in the kitchen and the bedroom. Two suitcases and a ton of packages, bags, baskets, including the one with their food for the road, a set of flippers in a plastic sack, masks, an umbrella, beach mats, and a box with the wines they had bought on the island, and ajvar, that spread made of red pepper they’d liked so much, and then some jars of olive oil. He turns on all the lights and sits now in this mess. Then he takes her purse and delicately empties out its contents onto the kitchen table. He sits there and takes in that pile of pathetic things as though this were a complicated game of pick-up sticks and his was the next move—extracting one stick without moving any of the others. After a moment’s hesitation, he picks up a lipstick and removes its cap. Dark red, almost new. She hadn’t used it often. He smells it. It has a nice aroma, hard to say of what exactly. He becomes bolder, taking every single object and putting it aside. Her passport, old, with the blue cover, and she’s much younger in the picture, with long hair, loose, and bangs. Her signature on the last page is blurry—they often get held at borders. A little black notebook, shut with a rubber band. He opens it and flips through—notes, a drawing of a jacket, a column of numbers, the card for a bistro in Polanica, in the back a phone number, a lock of hair, of dark hair, not even a lock, just a few dozen individual hairs. He puts it aside. Then he examines it all more closely. A cosmetics bag made of exotic Indian fabric, containing a dark green pencil, a compact almost out of powder, waterproof green mascara, a plastic pencil sharpener, lip gloss, tweezers, a blackened little torn-off chain. He also comes upon a ticket to a museum in Trogir, and on the back of it a foreign word; he brings the little piece of paper up to his eyes and manages to make out:καιρóς, which he thinks is K-A-I-R-O-S, although he’s not sure, and he doesn’t know what that would be. It’s full of sand at the bottom. There’s her cell phone, which is almost dead. He checks her recent call log—his own number comes up, mostly, but there are others, too, he doesn’t know who they would be, two or three. There’s only one text in her inbox—from him, from when they’d gotten lost in Trogir. I’m by the fountain on the main square. Her sent messages folder is empty. He returns to the main menu, and a kind of pattern lights up for a moment on the screen and then goes out. There’s an open pack of sanitary napkins. A pencil, two pens, one a yellow Bic and the other with Hotel Mercure written on the side. Pocket change, Polish and Euro cents. Her wallet, with Croatian bills in it—not many—and ten Polish zlotys. Her visa card. A little orange notepad, dirtied at the edges. A copper pin with some antique-looking pattern, seemingly broken. Two Kopiko candies. A camera, digital, with a black case. A peg. A white paper clip. A golden gum wrapper. Crumbs. Sand. He lays it all neatly on the black matte countertop, every thing equidistant from every other thing. He goes up to the sink and drinks some water. He goes back to the table and lights a cigarette. Then he starts taking pictures with her camera, each object on its own. He photographs slowly, solemnly, zooming in as much as possible, with flash. His only regret is that the little camera can’t take a picture of itself. It is also evidence, after all. Then he moves into the hallway where the bags and suitcases are standing, and he snaps one image of each of them. But he doesn’t stop there, he unpacks the suitcases and starts photographing every article of clothing, every pair of shoes, every lotion and book. The kid’s toys. He even empties out the dirty clothes from their plastic bag and takes a picture of that shapeless pile as well. He comes across a small bottle of rakija and drinks it down in a single gulp, with the camera in his hand still, and then he takes a picture of the empty bottle.
It’s already light out when he sets off in his car for Vis. He has the dried-out sandwiches she’d made for the road. The butter had all melted in the heat, soaking into the bread, leaving a glistening layer of oil, and the cheese was now hard and half-transparent like plastic. He eats two as he leaves Komiža; he wipes his hands off on his pants. He goes slowly, carefully, keeping track of either side of the road, of everything he drives by, keeping in mind he has alcohol in his blood. But he feels dependable as a machine, strong as an engine. He doesn’t look back, although he knows that behind him the ocean is growing, meter by meter. The air is so pure that you can probably see all the way to Italy from the highest point on the island. For now he stops in the coves and scans their surroundings, every scrap of paper, every piece of trash. He also has Branko’s binoculars—that way he surveys the slopes. He sees rocky rises covered in scorched mulch, faded grass; he sees immortal blackberry bushes, darkened by the sun, clinging onto the rocks with their long shoots. Wild spent olive trees with twisted-up trunks, little stone walls from before the vineyards had been abandoned. After an hour or so he heads up into Vis like a kind of police patrol. He passes the little supermarket where they’d gotten their groceries—mostly wine—and then he’s in town.
The ferry has already docked at the quay. It’s huge, as big as a building, a floating block. It’s called Poseidon. Its great gates are agape already, and a line of cars and half-asleep people has formed and is about to begin to advance. Kunicki stands by the rail and checks out the people buying tickets. Some of them are backpackers, including a pretty girl in a brightly colored turban; he looks at her because he can’t look away. Standing next to her there is a tall guy with Scandinavian handsomeness. There are women with children, probably locals, no luggage; a guy in a suit with a briefcase. There’s a couple—she is nestled up into his chest, eyes closed, like she’s trying to top off a cut-off night’s sleep. And several cars—one of them loaded up to the gills, with German plates, and two Italian ones. And the island’s vans, going off for bread, vegetables, mail. The island must live somehow. Kunicki peeks discreetly into the cars. The line begins to move, the ferry swallowing up people and cars, no one protesting, like they’re calves. A group of French people on motorcycles pulls up, five of them, and they’re the last on, disappearing with the same submissiveness into the jaws of the Poseidon.
Kunicki waits until the gates shut with that mechanical groan. The man selling tickets slams down his window and steps outside to smoke a cigarette. Both men are witnesses to the ferry’s sudden fuss and distancing from the shore. He says he’s looking for a woman and a child, takes her passport out and sticks it in his face. The ticket seller squints down at the picture in the passport. He says something in Croatian along the lines of: “The police already asked us about her. Nobody saw her here.” He takes a drag off his cigarette and adds, “It’s not a big island, we’d remember.”
Suddenly he claps Kunicki on the shoulder as though they were old pals.
“Coffee?” and he nods at the little café that’s just opened by the port. Sure, coffee. Why not?
Kunicki sits at the little table, and in a moment the ticket seller comes up again with a double espresso. They drink in silence.
“Don’t worry,” says the ticket seller. “There’s no way to lose somebody here. We all stand out like sore thumbs.” He says that and holds his hand out, fingers splayed, palm furrowed with thick lines. Then he brings him a roll with a cutlet and some lettuce. He walks off, leaving Kunicki alone with his unfinished coffee. Once he’s gone, a short sob escapes Kunicki; it’s like a bite of bread, and he swallows it. It tastes like nothing. The image of the sore thumb lingers in his mind. To whom? Who is it that’s supposed to be looking at them, at this island in the sea, following the threads of paved roads from port to port, at the couple thousand people, locals and tourists, melting in the heat, staying in motion? Satellite images flash through his mind—they say you can make out the writing on a matchbox with them. Is that possible? Then you must also be able to tell from there that he’s beginning to go bald. The great cool sky filled with the movable eyes of restless satellites. He goes back to the car via the small cemetery near the church. All the graves face the sea, like in an amphitheater, so the dead observe the slow, repetitive rhythm of the port. Perhaps the white ferry cheers them, perhaps they even take it for an archangel escorting souls in that passage through the air. Kunicki notices a few names that repeat. The people here must be like those cats, keeping to themselves, circulating amongst a couple of families and rarely leaving that circle. He only stops once—he sees a small gravestone with just two rows of letters:
Zorka 9 II 21 – 17 II 54
Srečan 29 I 54 – 17 VII 54
For a moment he searches these dates for an algebraic order, they look like a cipher. A mother and a son. A tragedy captured in dates, written out in stages. A relay. And here is the end of the city already. He is tired, the heat has reached its zenith, and now sweat floods his eyes. As he climbs back up into the heart of the island in the car, he sees how the sharp sun transforms it into the most inhospitable place on earth. The heat ticks like a time bomb. At the police station he is offered beer, as though the officers hope to hide their helplessness beneath that white foam. “No one’s seen them,” says a massive man, politely turning the fan in Kunicki’s direction.
“What do we do now?” Kunicki asks, standing in the doorway.
“You ought to get some rest,” says the officer.
But Kunicki remains at the station and eavesdrops on all their phone calls, on all the crackling of their walkie-talkies, so full of hidden meanings, until finally Branko comes for him and takes him to lunch. They barely speak. Then he asks to be dropped off at the hotel, he’s weak and lies down in bed fully dressed. He smells his own sweat, the hideous scent of fear. He lies there in his clothes amongst the things dumped out of her purse, on his back. His eyes attentively probe their constellations, positionings, the directions they point in, the shapes they make. It could all be an omen. There’s a letter to him, in regard to his wife and child, but above all in regard to him. He doesn’t recognize the writing, doesn’t recognize these symbols—it was not a human hand that wrote them, of that he is certain. Their connection to him is obvious, the very fact that he is looking at them important, the fact that he sees them a great mystery: the mystery that he can look, and see—the mystery that he exists.
Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.
Jennifer Croft is a Founding Editor of The Buenos Aires Review. She was awarded a 2015 Translation Grant from the NEA for her work on Olga Tokarczuk’s Runners. Her translations have been published in the New York Times, n+1, The Brooklyn Rail, The New Republic, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, and elsewhere.
—Many consider Olga Tokarczuk, author of eleven popular and critically acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, to be the most important Polish writer of her generation. Runners, excerpted here, was awarded Poland’s biggest literary prize (the Nike) in 2008. It has appeared or is being slated to appear in translation in Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Latvia, Macedonia, Norway, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Sweden, Turkey, and the Ukraine.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.