“The eyes have one language everywhere.”
In the corner, the tile stove chewed through a bundle of poplar and several bricks of coal. Night fell cold and starless. On the verge of sleep, I lay cocooned in blankets and quilts, listening to an owl hooting from somewhere in the barn rafters. Wind drafts shushed its low questioning and shook the eaves outside my window. After each gust passed, the owl, in its soft, throaty voice, called out a response to the night fallen silent as stone.
The next morning, I woke to dim sunlight. The room was cold, my fire long since burned out. It even smelled cold, metallic somehow, like the copper scent of snowfall. Above the bed was a window—a huge stretch of glass puzzled into asymmetric panes. Some opened horizontally, some vertically, and others not at all, their latches having been corroded shut. Each pane of glass framed a different portrait of the courtyard below: the rust-red tractor parked outside the woodshed, three Bernese mountain dogs standing at the gate, puddles dimpled with rain.
Opening the soot door at the base of the stove, I scraped the grey ash into a tin pail. The pail, already half-full from previous fires, smoked faintly as I layered on another night’s cinders. Above the cast-iron door, the stove’s beige ceramic wore its use like the dark spots under sleepless eyes. The tiles felt cool, and I shuddered with my palm resting flat against their grooved surface.
Down in the courtyard, something slammed. Pulling on a thermal shirt, I looked through one of the window’s larger tableaux. A door had been thrown open on the westward-facing barn. Krzysztof appeared in the doorway, a huge bundle of straw slung over his shoulder. Chickens, ducks, and turkeys followed in his footsteps, pecking at the bits of straw that fell from his bundle. He crossed and re-crossed the courtyard until the cows, goats, and horse were fed. It was like watching a clock’s pendulum swing back and forth, carrying the bits and pieces that pass the day.
I thought about the day I met Krzysztof. Wind and rain lashed the bus on its route from Wroclaw to Jelenia Gora. Securing the bus ticket at the Wroclaw station had been quite the affair: The bus driver launched into a Polish monologue as I stood at the front of his coach, mouth agape and offering him what I hoped was an appropriate amount of Zloty. The Polish language sounded like brick, thick and guttural, something sturdy used for construction. It could stand in stalwart masonry or spread itself out in garbled rubble. And yet, with softer inflection—what I heard issue from the line of travelers behind me—it sounded like leather soles on a gravel road.
When the driver had built a thick wall of confusion between us, I climbed up on my side and called down.
I just need one ticket to Jelenia Gora, please.
The driver laid a fresh row of pavers.
Uh, je voudrais un aller-simple à Jelenia Gora, s’il vous plaît, I tried, thinking French might break through the language barrier.
Nothing. My words splattered against the driver like rain on the bus’s windshield. He sighed, switched on the wipers, and gave me a ticket. It was paralyzing; never had my languages failed me like this. Certainly I had struggled to make simple purchases in France and even in parts of Ireland and Louisiana where English brogues and drawls itself into a foreign dialect, but at least in those scenarios I had had a fighting chance. Indeed, I owned a pair of both English and French boxing gloves; I knew how to take punches and return them; I knew when to jab, when to hook and how to get myself off the ropes. In Polish, I couldn’t even form a fist.
Two hours into increasingly mountainous terrain, we stopped in what I hoped was Jelenia Gora. Outside, the rain had turned to mist. A service garage had been converted into a café. Smoke rose from its chimney; however, no one appeared to be inside. A man in a torn parka smoked under an awning and muttered to himself. I hoped he wasn’t Krzysztof. The bus station itself was a narrow, wooden structure that in another lifetime could have been a shotgun house in Chattanooga. Its red paint peeled and curled like rose petals in a heat wave. Above the front door, small black letters spelled out Jelenia Gora.
Krzysztof was supposed to pick me up from this bus station. I crossed the parking lot, peering into the rain-speckled windows of several cars. All empty—no one around except the muttering man. I wondered what the hell I was doing in Poland.
Inside the station, two old men sat hunched on wooden benches, their arms folded across round stomachs. Neither one moved as the door shut behind me. Shaking the rain from my hair, I moved forward with hesitant steps. No one else was in the small station. The men eyed me without moving. They appeared to be sculpted, carved out of some coarse stone that hardened the topography of lines and creases on their faces. In English, I asked if they were or knew of Krzysztof. Nothing but silent, stony eyes.
Desperate now, I threw open the station doors, tore down its front steps, and hurried across the lot to where the muttering man stood. At least he would talk to me, I thought. I thought wrong. As I approached, the chatty smoker fell silent, shook his head at the question still forming at my lips, and walked away. I was at a loss. Did I try talking to the old stones again? Was there a hotel nearby? I leaned against the café-garage, muttering in confusion.
Then, a red car caked in mud at the bumpers and around the wheel wells pulled into the parking lot. It stopped in front of me. The engine continued running as the door opened. If this wasn’t Krzysztof, I decided, I would hijack the mud-covered car and drive back to France. A thin bearded man with long black hair and a hooked nose stepped out of the car. He addressed me.
Lacing my boots, I heard a stampede of paws and eager barks tear through the front door: Śniadanie, breakfast.
Kaffee, Joseph? The way she said it, I knew it was spelled with a “k.”
Yes, please. Thank you, Marie, I replied, more with my eyes and a nod than with words.
I sat at the dining room table stirring my coffee. Marie made it with the grounds directly in the cup. I had learned that stirring up the grounds and then waiting for them to settle assured that they would be packed down tightly in the mug, like the gritty bottom of a peat bog. I looked around the dining room: Wood sat next to a now fireless stove; tomato seedlings grew in glass jars of dirt on the window sills; batteries, tax papers, murder-mystery novels, and drying cheese wheels claimed the desktops and corner tables.
Marie came and went from the kitchen to the table until a spread of bread, smoked meat, cheeses, butter, goat cream, and chives formed. Finally, she sat down at the table and sliced the bread. I watched her work, the knife and loaf extensions of her small, strong hands. Mid-slice, she looked up at me.
I smiled and ate. Marie dug the laptop out from a pile of maps on the corner table. She sat back down and started typing. I spread blackberry jam on a slice of bread and watched her lips move silently as she wrote. When she had finished typing, she turned the laptop around and set it in front of me. On the screen, Google Translate had converted Marie’s Polish sentence into rough English: “You are comfortable there with us?” Marie mimed for me to type a response and translate it back to Polish. I said that I was very comfortable, was enjoying my time on their farm, and I thanked her for being so hospitable. I turned the laptop back to Marie.
O matka! she laughed, stupid translator.
We amused ourselves with god-awful translations until Krzysztof and their daughter, Anya, came in from the courtyard. Krzysztof, who spoke the best English, asked what was funny.
The language changed tone once our plates were cleared. Krzysztof turned to look at me. He had a way of holding my gaze before speaking, as if he had to mine his words from some deep shaft in my eyes.
Jo-seph? Starting the sentence with my name, prolonging the syllables and raising his voice meant that Krzysztof had a job for me.
Maybe now you will go help Marie with goats?
Sure, how can I help?
We, uhh, do something with goats…them need medicine. You, uhh, must put on goat’s head with soap for teeth.
We’re going to brush the goats’ teeth?
No, no! We must…ahh, you will see.
Krzysztof led me to the goat pen as Marie fetched the toothpaste from the bathroom. I wondered what sort of circus act we were about to perform with thirty-odd goats and a tube of Crest. Marie arrived, gave me the toothpaste, and snagged a white goat by the horns. Then, she led the goat to where I stood perplexed, backed up against a concrete feeding trough, wondering what would come next. Marie put the goat’s horns in my hands. The white nanny-goat ground a mouthful of hay between her molars. She looked up at me with swollen rectangular irises.
Then, Marie pulled an eye-dropper-topped bottle from her coat pocket and winked. She traced the goat’s spine with the eye-dropper, leaving a thin trail of clear, gelatinous liquid. Next, she took the toothpaste from my hand, squeezed a dollop between the goat’s horns and rubbed a quarter-sized blue dot into its coarse hair. Marie then motioned for me to let go of the goat and the animal trotted off with a minty new hair-do. It was then that I understood the process and its purpose: We were marking the goats as they were vaccinated to avoid giving any one goat two doses of meds. Soon, I was rounding up the goats like a bona fide cowboy, or goat-boy, ushering the baying nannies to where Marie stood, eye-dropper drawn and toothpaste at the ready. Painting and medicating the last of the goats, I laughed, remembering the farm’s name: Zielona Kora, Green Goats. Perhaps a name change was in order.
Hands smelling of fresh mint and livestock, I left Marie and went to find Krzysztof and my next job. I found him in the tool barn, spot-welding a colossal hot water tank. Sparks danced across the stone floor as I approached. Finishing a weld, Krzysztof cut the flame and lifted his protective mask. Looking at me, he excavated his words slowly.
It is very complicated job, Joseph.
Can I help? I asked, knowing I probably couldn’t unless the tank needed a toothpaste mural drawn on it.
Maybe you help to pick up and put in house?
Yes, that sounds great.
But later. Neighbors will come to help, ah, in afternoon.
Ok, I can chop wood until then.
Krzysztof then disappeared behind his welder’s mask and a spray of sparks. Chopping wood had become my specialty on the farm. I found the maul and ten-pound hammer hanging on the woodshed wall. I got to work. Righting a poplar log on the chopping block, I read its grain, deciphered the language of its timber. As with any language, there is a grammar to follow: You start with the hazel cloud at the log’s center, and if you find a definitive slit in it, like the black slash through a cat’s eye, you can stop reading and drive your maul straight into that slit. The log will split cleanly, like crisp apples under a sharp knife.
However, not all logs speak with such clean phraseology. No, some chunks of wood are written in garbled code, no rhyme scheme or reason; their vague metaphors clutter into grainy knots that end in question marks. You have to read and reread this wood, knowing that there is no one way that it will split.
These logs troubled me in my first few days of lumberjacking. I remembered one episode in particular. I rolled a log onto the chopping block and drove the maul down into it with all my force. The knotted log responded with an unimpressed thud, the maul sinking no more than half an inch into the wood. But this was just the beginning of my folly. Brandishing the hammer, I assaulted the maul head repeatedly, sending its blade a few pitiful millimeters into the stubborn poplar. Each blow echoed a shrill ping of metal on metal. Seeing the futility of my strongman strategy, I tried to pry the maul out of the log. No luck. My frenzied hammering had lodged it securely against the wood’s grain. As hot sweat ran down my temples, I picked up the hammer and started to deploy a second, more desperate assault. Finally, mid-swing, the ten-pound hammer gave up; its head became dislodged and crashed into a sheet of scrap metal leaning against the woodshed wall. The collision sent a peal of thunder across the courtyard.
Before long, though, I started to understand the patterns in the logs. I dropped the maul through their grain and sent lightning strikes across the exposed growth rings, relishing the crack of thunder that ensued. A handsome stack of split poplar soon formed against the woodshed wall as the sun climbed higher and higher in the sky.
When the afternoon seemed to be at its warmest, Marie called from the front door: Obiad, lunch. I put down my tools and crossed the courtyard. In the house, something groaned, cracked, and crashed; it sounded like a wall had caved in. Stepping past Marie and through the threshold, I saw that a plywood wall had indeed fallen, had been cut into a big jagged puzzle piece and sent tumbling down the staircase. Krzysztof stood with a jig saw and a grin at the top of the steps.
Water heater will be too big. I must cut wall to make bigger room.
Traipsing over the fallen wall, the three of us went into the dining room and sat down at the table. Five plates had been set with generous servings of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Thick white gravy covered everything. Suddenly I was back at my sister’s house in South Carolina, mashing down on a Bojangles’ summer special and listening to Johnny Cash. In the middle of the table, a huge earthenware bowl of kapuszka insisted that we were still in Poland.
I heard the front door open and shut. The dogs, lying below the table, tensed their muscles and inhaled quickly, preparing to bark. A tall man came into the room. His name was Paul, or at least I called him Paul. Everyone else knew him as Pawel. He was one of Krzysztof’s friends and was redoing the cement walls of the new goat pen. Paul’s coarse hair was drawn into a loose black braid; his tanned-leather face grew grey stubble over a sharp jaw. Dry cement was spattered all over his skin and clothes.
Paul sat down across from me at the table.
Cześć, he said, leaning forward to shake my hand.
I put my hand in his enormous paw and shook it. Funny enough, on Paul’s right hand, just below the knuckles of his middle and ring fingers, was a black tattooed paw print. Thick veins ran up Paul’s forearms, connecting the paw to other tattoos that poked out from under his rolled sleeves. Yet Paul spooned sugar into his tea with as much delicacy and precision as Krzysztof. Finished, he set the spoon lightly on the table as if it were a hummingbird with a broken wing.
I lost myself in the Bojangle’s-Polish fare until I noticed that the whole table had grown silent, their gazes converged toward me. Krzysztof spoke, saying Paul wanted to know why I had a Polish last name, Dziedziak, but couldn’t speak a word of Polish. Fair enough, I thought. The obvious answer: My family had been in the States long enough that their Polish had been slowly strained out of each passing generation. Yet, that didn’t seem like a reason; it felt like an excuse.
Dziedziak, he pronounced in a slow, deep tone. The raspy whispers he inflected on those two familiar syllables transformed them into something foreign. For the first time, my name didn’t refer to who I was. No, in Paul’s mouth, it stood for what I wasn’t, everything I didn’t know about myself.
Next, Anya wanted to know what exactly I was doing in Europe. Again with Krzysztof as my translator, I explained my study abroad program, that I had lived in Nice during autumn and was now staying in Paris until summer. I started listing the countries I had traveled to during my year abroad. Krzysztof told me that the four of them had never left Poland. I stopped talking. Sipping my tea, I thought of my friends sitting in the program’s student center on rue de Fleurus, exchanging travel stories like battle scars, as if posing for a picture with Big Ben or smoking a joint in Amsterdam made us cultured.
I want to be a writer, I blurted out, surprised by my honesty. I love to travel, I continued, but I hate being a tourist. I can’t stand guided tours; museums make my feet and head hurt, and every time I see one of those huge Greyhound-style tour buses, I want to slash each and every one of its tires. That’s why I came to Poland to work on this farm; that’s why I’m studying in France. I want to live culture, not look at it dried and dead in a display case. I want dirt under my fingertips, wind against my face…
I could tell I had lost my audience; even the dogs had stopped moving and stared at me quietly.
What do you write, Joseph? Krzysztof broke the silence.
Timidly, I tried explaining my writing style, the general themes of my poetry and my ideas for a memoir. I realized that what I was saying didn’t make a lot of sense, and if it didn’t make sense to me, it sure as hell didn’t make sense to my non-Anglophone audience. I don’t really like to discuss my work, perhaps because I’m not very good at it. Instead, I prefer to just put my nose to the grindstone and write. Falling silent, I looked up and saw four pairs of furrowed brows.
Later, as I walked into the bedroom, I thought about why I was in Poland. I looked out the window. Krzysztof was walking toward the neighbor’s farm; he moved with an unhurried gait, head bent toward the earth. The cows had been let out into the courtyard to harass the chickens and amuse the dogs. Paul lounged on my morning’s yield of split poplar in the cool of the woodshed, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.
What do you write, Joseph? Krzysztof asked again in my head.
I opened my leather-bound journal. In my small slanted handwriting I read everything from observations in the Paris metro to hand-drawn maps of downtown Copenhagen, poems in various states of deconstruction, phone numbers and addresses and unfinished thoughts.
I write because otherwise some things would never be said, because some things won’t make sense unless they’re spelled out on a page. It’s like trying to explain what the taste of a cherry looks like. How can you account for something that is both beyond your abilities of perception and unbearably palpable. There’s just no medium for it. Or is there?
I struck a match and lit the newspaper, staring as the flames grew. Outside, it had gotten dark. I thought of finishing some of my poems. I pictured the old apartment in Nice and how its dining room reminded me of the one here in Bystrzyca. Yet again, the two rooms looked nothing alike.
The car’s high beams shook through the trees as we rattled down the cobble driveway. Around several bends and up and over hills that tickled my stomach, we arrived fifteen minutes later at Paul’s house. Smoke rose from the stone chimney. Several windows burned orange against the dark wood siding. The house and its barn stood alone in a clearing, halfway up a small hillside.
Krzysztof parked the car next to a tall pine. I opened the back door and was shocked to hear the barking of presumably every dog in Poland. Paul and his wife, Agatka, greeted us at the front door. Cradled in Agatka’s arms, a Siberian husky pup yelped. Its coat was cream and chestnut. Krzysztof put his hand on my shoulder.
You want to see dogs? Them got many dogs here.
After showing us the dozens of huskies in the barn, Paul cut off the overhead light. Leaving the barn, Agatka let out one cage of dogs to roam a fenced-off pasture next to the house. The barking faded as we stepped inside the house. In the sitting room, a fire burned in the large stone hearth. Thick blankets and fur throws covered the couch and rocking chairs. In the corner, lying on a bed of sheets and cardboard, a husky nursed six three-week-old puppies.
You want dog? It’s free! Agatka laughed. She pointed to the pups and flashed a wild grin.
Before I could answer, she turned and led us to another room at the end of a narrow hallway. Ducking my head through the low doorframe, I stepped into a different world. Chinese lanterns in every color zigzagged across the walls. In the middle of the room stood a guy more or less my age dressed in sweat pants, a baggy t-shirt and a backwards cap. His name was Dominik. He played an enormous pair of djembes that had been made in Africa. Next to the drums, Paul picked up his electric bass and plugged it into an amp. Above the two musicians, a wolf’s head had been carved into the wooden wall. It stared down at us from a lacquered pair of mahogany eyes.
I sat down on the couch, eyes wide. Agatka laid a twelve-string acoustic guitar in my lap. When Krzysztof had picked me up the first day in Jelenia Gora, I had mentioned that I played guitar. Now, Dominik spoke up; his English was thickly accented but by far the best I had heard in Poland.
Play us some good American song! We will play with you!
He dug in his shirt pocket and pulled out a joint. Lighting it, he inhaled deeply, passed it to Paul, and rolled thunder out of the larger drum.
You want some gandza? Weed? Dominik asked through a cloud of smoke.
I began to strum chords randomly, thinking of “some good American song” to play. I thought of my dad. It was from his family that I got my Polish name. It was also from my father and his family that I had learned an almost sacred appreciation for the Rolling Stones. And although Mick Jagger and his crew weren’t Polish (or even American for that matter), it somehow seemed right to play a Stones song. It was my Polish heritage. I started playing.
Paul quickly picked up the bass line, and Dominik laid down a smooth deep beat on his gigantic drums. When I broke into the first verse, Paul cocked his head and stared at me. A smile formed on his face.
“Wild Horses,” he whispered.
We played through the song as the room clouded with smoke. Krzysztof, Anya, Marie, and Agatka sat on the floor, backs against the wall. They kept time with their heads, humming softly where they could pick out the melody.
Childhood living is easy to do…
I breathed deeply between lines.
You know I can’t let you slide through my hands…
My eyes were watering. The wolf carving gazed at me from the wall. Paul’s house was a den; his life was a wolf’s life. I closed my eyes; a salty tear slid to my lips.
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away…
I opened my eyes and looked around the room. No longer aware of the instrument in my hands, I looked at Krzysztof, Marie, and Anya sitting on the floor. I thought about how suddenly our lives had been thrown together. How could I be in this room, getting high off of some Polish drummer’s gandza, singing and playing guitar in a Polish mason’s hippie hideout? How could I love, yes, love, these people I barely knew and couldn’t even converse with? How? I tried to remember what I had thought this trip would be like.
An hour or so later, we headed home. Saying goodbye at the front door, Paul shook my hand with more vigor than ever. Again, Agatka suggested that I leave with a puppy. Waving, we got into the car and drove off into the darkness. As we left, a chorus of huskies howled in farewell.
Back at the farm, the three Bernese mountain dogs sniffed us excitedly. Marie brought out four beers from the kitchen. We cracked the cans open and sipped at them lazily. Krzysztof was sitting across from me. He stared hard, holding my gaze longer than usual. Marie said something soft in Polish. Krzysztof translated:
Marie want to see your hands. Your hands don’t…ah…hurt from chopping?
No, I said, they don’t hurt. I don’t even have blisters.
Turning to Marie, I placed my hands palm-up on the table. She took my right hand in both of hers and examined it. I thought she was going to read the lines in my palm, tell me my future. In all honesty, I wish she had. Instead, she spoke to Krzysztof.
Marie say you have farmer’s hands. There was pride in his smile. You want to be farmer one day? He laughed.
I laughed, too, and thought about his question. Maybe? I kept my left hand palm-up on the table, still hoping Marie might see some sign of fate in it.
Jo-seph? Krzysztof said, with the same inflection he used to start discussing a job with me. It was going on midnight; there was no work to be done.
Krzys-ztof? I matched his tone.
Marie and me and Anya want thank you for working hard. You chop a lot of wood and work hard on our farm. You know, Jo-seph, I getting old and there is a lot of work on farm; you chopping so much wood help us a lot…when we make fire in winter, we will say “yeah, Joseph!” He smiled, his eyes reddened. He said nothing for a minute. Jo-seph, you know, I never have any son…
His voice trailed off but I knew what he meant. Nothing could have been more of a compliment, and nothing I said could have expressed that. There just wasn’t a medium for it. So I smiled. I smiled the way you do when you’re between laughing and crying, eyes watering all the same. We stayed at the table until the fire burned itself to ashes and then went to bed.
The next morning, I decided to hike through the fields and up the hilltop at the farm’s limit. Leaving the courtyard, I walked along the tractor road, passing rusted farm equipment, the names and functions of which I would never know. I passed my first pile of chopped wood, passed the well that leaked a small stream from its cracking foundation, and went through the wooden gate that opened onto the potato fields and beyond the scraggly woods that held onto the edge of a small cliff. I came to the hilltop.
There at the hill’s crest stood a sweet cherry tree; its branches were beginning to bloom in tufts of white petals. I sat down in the shade, leaning against its trunk. Petals fell like broad flat snowflakes; they landed in my hair but didn’t melt. From the cherry tree you could see far: You could make out how the farm sat in a shallow valley which the road cut through like a black snake.
Very soon I would leave Poland, and it would take some time, I imagined, to find my way back. I held my hands up and saw, underneath my fingernails, Polish dirt clouding the cuticles. Turning my hands over, I noticed that two weeks of farm work had added several small cuts and two rows of calluses to the lines of my palm, after all.
It’s not the future, then, that can be read in your palms, I thought; it’s the past. One cut in particular had passed through a birthmark on my left palm, forming a red and brown cross. I hoped that it would leave a scar.
Closing my eyes, I listened to the breeze rustling through the young leaves overhead. My hands felt along the tree’s roots, stopping where they continued into the ground. I wondered if I could read the language of this sweet cherry’s wood and what its grain would say, but I knew that to do so I’d have to cut it down.
I opened my eyes. The petals falling were so white.