It is 1939; the Nazis have occupied Poland. A young doctor disturbed by the fate of Poland joins the staff of an insane asylum only to find a world of pain and absurdity to match that outside. Translated by William Brand. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.33(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.54(d)|
About the Author
Stanislaw Lem is the most widely translated and best known science fiction author writing outside of the English language. Winner of the Kafka Prize, he is a contributor to many magazines, including the New Yorker, and he is the author of numerous works, including Solaris.
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A Country Funeral
The train stopped briefly in Nieczawy. Stefan had barely pushed through the crowd to the doors and jumped off when the locomotive wheezed and the wheels began to drum behind him. For an hour he had been worrying that he would miss his stop; that problem had overshadowed all others, even the goal of the journey itself. Now, breathing the sharp outdoor air after the stuffiness of the train, he walked uncertainly, squinting in the sun, at once liberated and helpless, as if he had been jolted out of a deep sleep.
It was one of the last days of February and the sky was streaked with light clouds pale at their edges. The snow had been partly melted by the thaw and sat heavily in the hollows and gorges, exposing clumps of brush and bushes, blackening the road with mud and baring the clay hillsides. Chaos, harbinger of change, had appeared in a landscape once uniformly white.
This thought cost Stefan a careless step and water seeped into his shoe. He shuddered with disgust. The snorting of the locomotive was fading behind the Bierzyniec hills; Stefan could hear what sounded like an elusive chirping of crickets thatseemed to come from all over: the unvarying sound of melting. In his woolly raglan, soft felt hat, and low city shoes, he knew that he cut an incongruous figure against the background of rolling hills. Dazzling streams danced and flashed along the road up to the village. Hopping from stone to stone, he finally made it to the crossroads and glanced at his watch. It was almost one. No specific time had been set for the funeral, but he felt he ought to hurry. The body had left Kielce in its coffin yesterday. So it should already be at the church, since the telegram had contained that vague mention of a Mass. Or was it exequies? He couldn't remember, and it annoyed him to be pondering a liturgical question. It was a ten-minute walk to his uncle's house, and just as far to the cemetery, but what if the procession went the long way to stop at the church? Stefan moved toward the bend in the road, stopped, took a few steps back, and stopped again. He saw an old peasant coming along a path between the fields, shouldering the kind of cross usually carried at the head of a funeral procession. Stefan wanted to call out to him, but didn't dare. Clenching his teeth, he strode toward the cemetery. The peasant reached the cemetery wall and disappeared. Stefan could not tell whether he had gone on toward the village; in desperation he gathered up the folds of his coat like an old woman and charged through the puddles. The road to the cemetery skirted a small hill overgrown with hazel. Ignoring the way his feet sank into the snow and the twigs lashed his face, Stefan ran to the top. The thicket ended abruptly. He came back down onto the road just in front of the cemetery. It was quiet and empty, with no trace of the peasant. Stefan's haste evaporated at once. He looked mournfully at his muddy trouser cuffs and, gasping for breath, peered over the gate. There was no one in the cemetery. When he pushed it open, the gate's dreadful shriek subsided into a sad groan. Dirty, crusted snow covered the graves in billows that left mounds at the foot of the crosses, whose wooden ranks ended at a wild lilac bush. Beyond stood the stone monument of the Princes of Nieczawy and the larger, separate crypt of the Trzyniecki family, black with names and dates in gold letters, three birches standing at the granite headstone. In an empty strip that separated the mausoleum from the rest of the cemetery like a no-man's-land gaped a freshly dug grave whose clay blotted the surrounding white. Stefan stopped dead, shocked. Apparently the mausoleum was full, and with no time or way to enlarge it, a Trzyniecki would have to go into the ground like anyone else. Stefan imagined how Uncle Anzelm must have felt about this, but there was no real choice: since Nieczawy had once belonged to the Trzynieckis, all the dead were buried here, and although only Uncle Ksawery's house now remained, the custom endured. At each death family representatives came to the funeral from all over Poland.
Crystal icicles hung from the arms of the crosses and the wild lilac branches, and the quietly dripping water made holes in the snow. Stefan stood for a moment before the open grave. He should have gone to the house, but he found that idea so unappealing that instead he paced between the crosses of the country cemetery. The names, burned with wire into the boards, had turned into black stains. Many had disappeared entirely, leaving smooth wood. Floundering in the snow that chilled his feet, Stefan walked around the cemetery until he stopped suddenly at a grave marked by a large birch cross with a piece of metal nailed to it. The inscription was done with flourishes:
Traveller, Tell Poland Her Sons Lie Beneath Faithful To Her Until The Hour Of Their Death.
Below was a list of names and ranks. An unknown soldier came last. There was also a September 1939 date.
Not six months had passed since that September, but the inscription would not have endured the foul weather and frost had it not been retouched by some evocative hand. A similar care showed in the fir branches that covered the grave, which was so small that it was hard to believe that several people were buried in it. Stefan lingered a moment, moved but also uncertain, for he was not sure whether he should take off his hat. Unable to decide, he moved on. The cold of the snow was getting to him; he kicked his shoes together and looked at his watch again. It was twenty past one. He had to hurry if he wanted to get to the house in time, but it occurred to him that he could simplify his ceremonial participation in this funeral by waiting for the procession at the cemetery, so he turned back and stood again at the excavation that would receive Uncle Leszek's body.
Looking into the hole, Stefan realized how deep it was. He knew enough of the gravedigger's mysterious technique to understand that the grave had purposely been dug deep enough to contain a future coffin — that of Aunt Aniela, Leszek's widow. The realization made him feel like an inadvertent witness to some impropriety; he forced himself to pull away and found himself looking down rows of lopsided crosses. His mind had been sensitized by loneliness, and the thought that differences in living standards persisted even among the dead struck him as absurd and pitiful. He breathed deeply for a moment. It was absolutely quiet. Not the slightest sound came from the nearby village, and even the crows, whose cawing had accompanied him as he walked, had fallen silent. The foreshortened shadows of the crosses lay on the snow and the chill rose from his feet up through his body to his heart. He crouched, burying his hands in his pockets, and in the right one found a small bundle — bread his mother had tucked there before he left home. Suddenly hungry, he took out the bread and unwrapped the thin paper. Ham shined pink between the slices. He brought the bread to his mouth but could not bring himself to eat standing at the freshly dug grave. He told himself this was going too far — what was it, really, but a hole dug in clay? — but he could not help it. A piece of bread in his hand, he waded through the snow toward the cemetery gate. As he passed the nameless crosses he searched in vain for some individual trait, some evidence of the dead, in their ungainly forms. He thought that efforts to maintain graves expressed a belief that reached back to times immemorial. Regardless of the precepts of religion, in spite of the obvious fact of decay, and contrary to the evidence of their senses, people still acted as though the dead led some sort of existence deep in the earth — uncomfortable perhaps, maybe even dreadful, but an existence just the same, one that lasted as long as some identifying mark on the surface remained.
He reached the gate, looked once more at the distant rows of crosses sunk in the snow and at the yellowish stain of the open grave, then walked out onto the muddy road. As he mulled over his last thoughts again, the absurdity of funeral rites struck him as obvious and his own participation in the day's ceremony seemed embarrassing. For a moment he was even angry at his parents for persuading him to come all this way, but that was stranger still, since he was representing not himself, but his father, who was ill.
He ate the bread and ham slowly, moistening each mouthful with his saliva and swallowing with some effort, for his throat was dry. His mind kept working. Yes, he thought, the people who paid the least heed to the arguments of this world believed somewhere within themselves in the "continued existence of the dead." If concern for the grave were a mere expression of love and sorrow for the departed, then taking care of the visible, above-ground part of the grave would suffice. But if that were the only motive of human funeral ceremonies, it could not account for the pains taken over the appearance of the corpse, the dressing of the deceased, the pillow placed under the head, the box as resistant as possible to the forces of nature. No, such actions betrayed a dark and uncomprehending faith that the dead endured, a faith in that gruesome, horrifying living existence in the narrow confines of the coffin, apparently preferable, in people's instinctive opinion, to complete annihilation and union with the earth.
Not knowing the answer himself, he began walking toward the village and the church spire that glistened in the sunlight. Suddenly he glimpsed some movement at the bend in the road and quickly shoved the bread back into his pocket before he realized what he was doing.
The dark blot of the procession appeared around the little hill, where the road curved and ran below a steep clay wall. The people were too far away for him to make out their faces. He could see only the cross swaying at the head, the white spots of the priests' surplices just behind it, the roof of a truck, and in the background tiny figures moving so slowly that they seemed to be marching in place, rocking with a certain majesty, the motion made almost grotesque by the diminishing effects of distance. It was hard to take this miniature funeral seriously and wait for it with the proper gravity, but it was no easier to go forward to meet it. It looked like a randomly scattered collection of dolls bouncing at the foot of a great clay landslide, from which the wind carried snatches of incomprehensible lamentations. Stefan wanted to get there as quickly as possible, but he dared not move. Instead, taking off his hat, he stood motionless at the edge of the road, the wind now blowing his hair into disarray. An onlooker would have been hard put to tell whether he was a belated participant in the solemnities or just a chance passerby. The walking figures grew in size as they came nearer, and imperceptibly got close enough to erase the peculiar effect the distance had had on Stefan. Now, finally, he was able to make out the old peasant leading the way with the cross, the two priests, the truck from the nearby sawmill inching along behind them, and finally all the scattered members of his family. The discordant singing of the village women droned on endlessly; when the procession was a few dozen paces away, Stefan heard a ringing, first a few uneven sounds, and then a full, strong tolling that echoed with dignity throughout the countryside. When the bell sounded, Stefan thought that the Szymczaks' little Wicek must have been pulling the cord, only to be supplanted by the more proficient, redheaded Tomek, but he suddenly remembered that "little" Wicek would be a man of his own age by now, and that nothing had been heard of Tomek since his departure for the city. But the battle over the right to ring the bell apparently persisted among the younger generation of Nieczawy.
Life entails situations unforeseen by handbooks of etiquette, situations so difficult and delicate that they require great tact and self-confidence. Lacking these virtues, Stefan had no idea how to go about joining the procession; he stood indecisively with a distinct feeling that he was being watched, which only compounded his confusion. Fortunately, the cortege halted just before the church. One of the priests walked over to the truck and asked the driver a question; the driver nodded, and some peasants Stefan didn't know climbed out of the truck and began to remove the coffin. There was some confusion during which Stefan managed to slip into the group standing around the truck. He had just noticed the thickset, short-necked figure and graying head of Uncle Ksawery, who was supporting Aunt Aniela, dressed all in black, when a muffled call went out that more people were needed to carry the coffin into the church. Stefan stepped forward, but as always when everyone was watching and some ever so slightly responsible action was required, he made a mess of it and his eagerness produced no more than a nervous stumble in the truck's direction. In the end the coffin was lifted over the heads of those assembled without his help, and he was left to carry the fur coat that Uncle Anzelm, his father's oldest brother, had taken off and handed to him at the last moment.
Stefan carried the coat into the church. He was among the last to enter but was deeply convinced that by carrying the enormous bearskin he too was contributing to the ceremony. The bell stuttered to the end of its monotonous song, both priests disappeared for a moment and emerged again when the family had settled into the pews, and the first words of the Latin exequy were pronounced from the altar.
Stefan could have sat down, since there were plenty of seats and his uncle's fur coat was not exactly light, but he preferred to stand in the depths of the nave bearing his burden which, perhaps just because it was so heavy, seemed to atone for his earlier awkwardness. The coffin lay at the altar and Uncle Anzelm, after lighting the candles around it, walked straight toward Stefan, who felt slightly unnerved by this attention, for he had hoped the darkness at the foot of the pillar where he was standing would preserve his anonymity.
His uncle squeezed his shoulder and whispered under the priest's melodic voice, "Is your father ill?"
"Yes, Uncle. He had an attack yesterday."
"Those stones again?" asked Uncle Anzelm in a piercing whisper, trying to take the fur from Stefan.
But Stefan did not want to let go and mumbled, "No, please don't, I'll ..."
"Come on, give me the fur, you fool, it's cold as hell in here," his uncle said with good humor, but too loudly. Anzelm took the fur, threw it over his shoulders, and walked to the pew where the widow sat, leaving Stefan embarrassed; the young man could feel himself turning red.
This incident, trivial as it was, ruined his whole stay in the church. He recovered only when he spotted Uncle Ksawery sitting at the far corner of the last pew. He took comfort in imagining how out of place Ksawery must have felt, an atheist so militant he tried to convert each new parish priest. Uncle Ksawery was an old bachelor, hot-tempered and outspoken, an enthusiastic subscriber to Boy's library of French classics, a proponent of birth control, and the only doctor in a twelve-kilometer radius to boot. The Kielce relatives had long tried to evict him from the old house, battling for years in the township and district courts, but Ksawery had won every round, cheating them so cunningly — as they put it — that they finally gave up. Now he sat with his big hands resting heavily on the rail, separated from his conquered relatives by a pew.
The organ's deep voice sounded, and Stefan shuddered as he recalled the humble saintliness that had fired his soul as a small boy; he had always held organ music in deep respect. The exequies unfolded properly. One of the priests lighted incense in a small censer and circled the coffin, surrounding it with a cloud of fragrant though acrid smoke. Stefan looked for the widow. She was sitting in the second pew, bent, patient, strangely indifferent to the words of the priest who, in florid Latin, kept singing the last name of the deceased, which was also her last name, repeating it with exultation and insistence. But he was not addressing any of the living, only Providence, requesting, begging, almost commanding Its benevolence toward that which was no more.
The organ fell silent, and again it was necessary to shoulder the coffin that now rested on the catafalque before the altar, but this time Stefan did not even try to help. Everyone stood up and, clearing their throats, prepared for the way ahead. When the gently swaying coffin left the shadowed nave and reached the church steps, there was some jostling — the elongated, heavy box pitched forward threateningly, but a forest of upraised hands rebalanced it and it emerged into the afternoon sun with no more than a brisk bobbing, as if excited by the close call.
Excerpted from "Hospital of the Transfiguration"
Copyright © 1982 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Country Funeral,
Woch the Substation Operator,
Father and Son,