A story of love and adventure in an imaginary Slavic nation on the brink of historic change—the debut of a ribald and raucous new literary voice
Set in the quaint (though admittedly backward) fictional nation of Scalvusia in 1939, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel follows the exploits of a young swineherd with romantic delusions of grandeur. Desperate to attract the voluptuous Roosha, the Gypsy concubine of the local boot-and-shoe magnate, Barnabas and his short-legged steed Wilhelm get embroiled in a series of scandals and misadventures, as every attempt at wooing ends in catastrophe. After the mysterious death of an important figure in the community, a witch-hunt ensues, and a stranger falls from the sky. Barnabas begins to see the terrible tide of history turning in his beloved hometown. The wonderfully eccentric supporting cast includes a priest driven mad by a fig tree, a gang of louts who taunt our reluctant hero at every turn, and a dim-witted vagabond with a goat for a wife. Even as her characters brush up against one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century, Magdalena Zyzak's humor and prose delight in the absurdities of the human animal.
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The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel
By Magdalena Zyzak
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2014 Magdalena Zyzak
All rights reserved.
In which our hero self-admires
Barnabas Pierkiel held his breath so as not to distort his reflection in a pan of water he had carried from his grandmother's kitchen and laid on a more or less level stump. He murmured at his facial regularity and symmetry, a handsomeness, he felt, that was by no means superficial. So much mystery he witnessed in his own eyes that, at length, he conceded defeat. Let astronomers decipher it. He scanned the rest of his reflection and concluded he was graceful in his new and only suit, procured by way of skillful haggling at a discounted price from Kowalchyk the tailor. The jacket was a perfect fit (for whomever it had been made), "modified" to create a large torso and squared shoulders, as was the latest fashion. Above the lapels flared the wide collar of Barnabas' cerulean shirt, which contrasted with the biscuit color of his hair, treated daily with an egg yolk shine-sustaining ointment.
Yes, what better entry to a man's character than to observe him in a moment of acute self-contemplation. Do we dare charge Barnabas with empty vanity? Do we scold an avid art student for resting his admiring eye on Helen's bust by Canova?
Barnabas' favorite aspects of himself included his shins (long and straight), his lobes (of minimal flap), his nostrils (petite, shaped like pearls), and the singular springiness of his step. Barnabas was right to venerate Barnabas. This had not always been possible ...
Unlike many of us, who are born either ugly or lovely and live and die thus, bearing through the decades our crooked shins, warty fingers, our odalisque figures and whatever else genetic fate has determined, Barnabas, in his early teenage years, had lost his beauty utterly. He'd only recently escaped what he considered his "tragic era," in which so much suet had oozed from his pores he'd been convinced he'd contracted cloven hoof disease or dissaffected pig disease or some other countryside ailment.
At fourteen, his faunlike childhood body had turned disproportionate, his limbs in constant competition to outgrow each other. Then, at approximately fifteen and a half, like an overnight fungus, his head had become so large (relative to the rest) that he had gone to school with his grandmother's shard of mirror tied to his brow to remind potential head-critics of their own hideousness. It was not long before a History of the Decline of Serfdom thrown by Burthold the bully shattered the family shard, which, due to economic factors in our young parliamentary democracy, was never to be replaced, thus Barnabas' pan of water.
The "tragic era," at its lowest point, encouraged Barnabas to try his luck at suicide. One postschool afternoon, young Barnabas inserted his enormous head into the oven, but there, instead of the dark void of eternity, in a swirl of smoky odors he at first mistook for the vapors of Hell, he found a roasted chicken. Looking at the lifeless bird, Barnabas experienced an unpleasant vision of his own body plucked of all hairs and displayed with its many disgraceful imperfections in an open coffin. Instead of lighting the coals, he sadly devoured a leg and went upstairs to brood.
A few weeks later, he turned seventeen and lovely. This is where my chronicle begins, with Barnabas staring at his bacon-greased reflection in the pan, recalling with embarrassment the years he'd spent in odious form; and yet, these had not been entirely without dividend, for they had bestowed a certain melancholy sensitivity of soul.
It's true that when a young Scalvusian is sensitive and melancholy, he requires a certain quantity of drink. Among beer, mead, vodka, schnapps, and moonshine, who can say of which Barnabas had become most fond? This is not to say his introduction to liquor hadn't happened in the cradle, where, as for most Scalvusian lads, a vodka-soaked twist of cloth substituted for a pacifier.
At last, with anguish, Barnabas looked away from his reflection. He considered the landscape. Odolechka was a cheerless little place. Deep in the secluded parts of Eastern Europe, the land about the village offered nothing more than fields and trees and tonnage of manure that seemed disproportionate to the rather scant number of scrawny cows. The scent became especially intense in spring, when the western wind blew from the pastures, a scent to which Barnabas, with his delicate senses, had, unlike his contemporaries, never become immune. He felt faint every spring, sometimes staying in bed for days with a vodka-soaked rag on his nose. He had developed an almost superstitious fear of feces. Indeed, he had once attempted to resist the tyranny of this very basic physiological obligation and, as leader and sole member of his protest movement, had avoided the outhouse for six days and nights. On the seventh day, the result had been so daunting that Barnabas had pushed this memory to the very corner of his nether unconscious, where it would remain alongside his failed suicide. He kept his pigpen very clean.
At this moment, probably for the first time in his life, Barnabas was not bothered by the Odolechkan stench. In fact, he was so nervous, his sense of smell had ceased to operate. He was, however, cognizant of an oily wetness harassing him from head to foot. With indignation, Barnabas realized this wasn't dew, but that, simply and gracelessly, he was covered in sweat, not only due to nervousness (for he was about to do a thing requiring the total of his courage), but also as a direct consequence of the fact that his suit was wool, unsuitable for summer, and the only fabric Kowalchyk had agreed to spare at such a price.
Still, removing the jacket was out of the question—the way the lapels harmonized with the shirt's collar, the manner in which the six buttons more or less aligned down his front, the grace with which the pads sat on his shoulders—this refined arrangement could not be forsaken. So Barnabas targeted a patch of dry grass and carefully lay on his back, attempting to reduce his bodily functions to a minimum.
Daydreaming Barnabas did often and well. Some in the village claimed dreaming was what he did best, but I consider such opinions regular slander. Lazy Barnabas was not. On the contrary, he was eager to help, whether to carry buckets of water for some local maiden, to guard someone's flock, even to labor at the mill. It happened that work disliked Barnabas, though. Inevitably, the water spilled, a sheep eloped with man or wolf, the flour contained more dust than grain. This again was not due to ineptness, but that Barnabas was overwhelmed by lofty thoughts and thus unable to stay focused on mundanities.
* * *
An affinity for the extraordinary, an air about the boy of having been designed for more than peasant toils, went as far back as infancy. One harvest afternoon, his mother (who, sadly, not long after that harvest, had perished, it was said, of acute incomprehension after being shown into the private back room of the tavern to identify the corpse of Barnabas' father, who had stripped nude with his drinking partners to play what later were reported as "men's games," which, harmlessly enough, began with Olek the carpenter drinking a liter of vodka from Boleswav Pierkiel's boot, but then escalated into Kazhimiezh the shepherd cutting off his own big toe with Olek's hand-cranked spinning saw. At this point, the archived police report maintains, Boleswav, not to be bested, grabbed the still-spinning saw, and shouting, "Watch this, then!" swung it at himself, to the detriment of the connection between head and neck. "It's funny," says the testimony of Kazhimiezh in the report, "when he was young, he once put on his sister's underwear. But he died like a man.") had left the cottage door ajar, and Barnabas had crawled into the fields.
The boy settled himself in the wheat, where he lay for hours without a sound. The field was reaped that day, but he, by some miracle, remained unscathed. Later that night, a magpie warped and quorked until Barnabas' mother, frenzied with worry, rushed out to scream at it and there, in a patch of skipped-over wheat, found her child placidly eating a clod of soil. The incident was puzzling, as no other patch had survived the scythes and, besides, the Pierkiel clan had always been afflicted by ill luck, the details of which will be gruelingly unveiled in the pages ahead.
After Barnabas' orphaning, his care devolved upon his grandmother, one of the few Pierkiels in the last six hundred years to achieve old age. She belonged to that strain of ox-strong women, nearly gone from our modern world, known for carrying anything from hefty men to blocks of plaster. As if in compensation for this unusual vigor, Grandmother Pierkiel was endowed with negligible imagination and no tolerance for daydreaming or other ascensions of the soul. Indeed, her soul was so prosaic that, regardless of whether or not it existed, it neither ever rose nor even snored.
* * *
Now on this summer day in 1939, our hero watched the clouds. He gained no insight. He sat up, spat, and said, "For her, I would invade Siberia, or at the very least the northern part of Bukovina. I would publicly admit that I and Yurek are first cousins. I would give up beer, mead, vodka, schnapps, and moonshine, or, at the very least, beer, mead, vodka, and schnapps." For her? He certainly was not referring to his grandmother.
He vigorously scratched his chest and brushed his shoulders. How much longer could he postpone the encounter? A coward, was he? His great contempt for the unromantic, for his dreary village and livelihood, demanded he indulge in paperback legends. Would Rudolf Vasilenko sit and wait for destiny to yank him off his quaking glutes? Wouldn't Vasilenko confidently stride forth and punch Fortune in the kidney? (For those who have not heard of Vasilenko, and I would not be surprised if that includes everyone who's not Scalvusian, he was a prewar agitator, a corporeal human, also the protagonist of six or seven sixth-rate novels, something of a bolshevik, famous for robbing banks, escaping capture, and dispensing money to Scalvusia's poor.)
Barnabas reached into his trouser pocket, felt the lacy keepsake, and his heart waltzed. He had found the dear item a few days ago dangling from a rosebush behind her house. Initially, he thought she'd left it there for him to find. Alas, he had been forced to remind himself that, as of yet, she didn't know of his existence.
He groped the brassiere from his pocket and pressed it to his face. What a seraglio of whiffs and emanations enveloped his senses—mystifying molasses, hints of hidden coves and pirate ports and cloves and peppers—a gaseous ambrosia so omnipotent that he became disoriented, also mildly nauseated.
Despite appearances, Barnabas' fascination with the garment was not chiefly prurient. He affixed to it a soaring, spiritual significance. During the day, it traveled in his pocket or, sometimes, when he was alone, wrapped around his wrist. At night, he wore it as a sleeping mask, its cup capacious enough to obscure his face. Two nights ago, his grandmother, discovering him in this intimate disguise, had shrieked, "Dirty!" fled back to her cot, and, the next morning, denied having entered his vestibule at all.
He stroked the brassiere once more, returned it to his trousers, patted his pocket, and set off down the path between the fields. He might have gone on horseback, but he wasn't yet committed to an audible approach. What if, for some unforeseeable reason, it turned out best he not be seen or heard? He walked and whistled and, in the minutes it took him to cross Duzhashvina Creek, a wheat field, then a cabbage field, his cheerfulness increased tenfold. In mere minutes, she would know his worth, his plans, his adoration.
The most direct route to her house was not the route an older man might choose. A gully full of stinging nettles halted Barnabas. He dimly remembered, or thought he remembered, his feebleminded cousin Yurek looming over his cradle with nettles in hand ... Barnabas banished early sorrows with a haughty stomp. He hurtled through the nettles like a Draguvite to battle. Little did he know the scale of the events these minor wounds inaugurated. For how can we ever foresee the outcomes of our exploits? Unfortunate feasters, unable to peep at the bottom of the broth cup clasped in our own hands! Poor Barnabas.CHAPTER 2
In which Barnabas serenades his beloved and finds consolation in an albino peacock
Her house had an undeniable splendor. No cabbage was cooked in the kitchen, and no hens pecked crumbs on the floor. Barnabas suspected no hen had ever been inside, unless plucked, boiled, and placed on a plate and topped with potato purée.
Barnabas had observed the house from various covert locations, for instance, behind the dog rose bush by the fence, also up in the inky boughs of a black locust, and once atop the neighboring house's shed. The house's walls were unstained by the countryside's jaundice. In the manner of an oversized meringue, the house appeared ready to topple beneath its own opulence. Two Greek columns supported this volatile excess. On the triangular tympanum, a coat of arms (obtained by the landlord in a suspicious transaction under a bridge) displayed a bear's paw frozen in a honey-scooping gesture quartered with a talbot eyeing a trefoil. Peonies, like beads of wine, dripped from the baroque balcony.
"What an ugly bulb. You shall have to be killed." A sonorous, accented voice drifted from the garden's recesses, and Barnabas dove to the ground with such ardor he nearly impaled himself on a beanpole. Then came the trumpeting whonk of a blown nose, of such force as is only performed by most damsels strictly in solitude. Far from discouraging him, this thunder merely sharpened her allure. Barnabas relished it like a voyager hearing the land-ho horn. He lay in drowsy recollection ... of her fingers picking dry grass from her braid, the flaming inside of her mouth, a glimpse as she laughed, eating a koroovka bonbon, her slightly awkward high-heeled gait across the town square.
He lifted himself to his elbows, eye to the gap between fence posts. Here was a sight he had not expected: his beloved's buttocks glared at him through a cloche of heaped skirts. She seemed to be on hands and knees? No luscious pear, no ripe citrus equaled this bursting rotundity!
(I would like to point out that Barnabas would never have gone on peeking at a lady's behind had it not been hypnotically perfect.)
Barnabas composed himself and inferred from the unabashedness of the pose that his beloved did not, in fact, know of his presence ... but then, how could she? This taxed Barnabas' thinking apparatus for a moment. Arms swooping, hair trailing, she emitted wet whispers, sugary rebukes to what looked like a patch of clover. He was used to women addressing rabbits and chickens (he himself engaged in an occasional debate with his pigs), but this long-winded tête-à-tête sent a nervous prickle through his shoulders. Perhaps it was the rumors he had heard about her garden from a gossip or two in town.
Beyond common marjoram, dark thyme, and chamomile, this garden yielded herbs that cured warts, gallstones, scoliosis. A pellet she made from powdered twigs, people said, had the power to turn an honest man into a liar and a liar into a mute. Beneath the shrubbery grew chorluk, that famous root that restored male potency. Everyone in Odolechka talked about its efficacy. Terrible chorluk had held a certain Yanko in such a solidifying grip that his wife's odes and ululations kept the whole village awake for three nights in the autumn of 1938.
She crushed a petal cluster in her palm and stood and turned, a skein of yellow pollen drifting down her dress front. She swung her basket, ambling toward him through the weigela. For one unnerving moment, he lost her in the petals. He moved his eye to the next gap in the fence ...
* * *
Barnabas was not the only man in Odolechka who had fallen to a state of stupor over this young gypsy, Roosha Papusha. Her house was the property of her lover, the wealthiest, most ostentatious man in town, Karol von Grushka. The origins of the Papusha–von Grushka affair were unclear.
Excerpted from The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel by Magdalena Zyzak. Copyright © 2014 Magdalena Zyzak. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and 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
CHAPTER I In which our hero self-admires,
CHAPTER II In which Barnabas serenades his beloved and finds consolation in an albino peacock,
CHAPTER III In which Barnabas, unbeknownst to Barnabas, is being watched,
CHAPTER IV In which Kumashko the priest imbibes too much and officiates a ruckus,
CHAPTER V In which Barnabas ogles groshkikrazny melons and more,
CHAPTER VI In which Odolechka is introduced to the automobile, a technology hitherto largely in the domain of rumor,
CHAPTER VII In which the Pierkiels consent to sell a duchess to a gypsy,
CHAPTER VIII In which no man who hath his stones broken shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the Lord,
CHAPTER IX In which Barnabas receives a lesson on the subject of the will,
CHAPTER X In which Barnabas discovers an arboreal abomination,
CHAPTER XI In which the Police Chief must perform a duty of some importance,
CHAPTER XII In which Apollonia wrestles with her soul and with Nanushka's husband,
CHAPTER XIII In which Barnabas discusses politics and economics with a theorist and a peddler,
CHAPTER XIV In which Apollonia dispenses tutelage and witnesses a thing unmentionable in a chapter title,
CHAPTER XV In which Barnabas reports a theft to every law enforcement officer in Odolechka,
CHAPTER XVI In which Apollonia divulges her "secret",
CHAPTER XVII In which Barnabas considers pigskin, thallers, rafts, love, and cavalry,
CHAPTER XVIII In which too much transpires to be summed up,
CHAPTER XIX In which two friends become friendlier in a shed,
CHAPTER XX In which the People are heard,
CHAPTER XXI To the previous chapter, a slender adjunct, in which our volunteers, having been volunteered, return to the tavern semi-involuntarily,
CHAPTER XXII In which Barnabas returns to Odolechka and sees (and feels) a thing or two (or three) he's never seen (or felt) before,
CHAPTER XXIII In which the first drop of the storm of History descends on Odolechka,
CHAPTER XXIV In which Anechka attempts to sell her chastity to start an animal hospital,
CHAPTER XXV In which one rider on two horses is two riders on one horse,
CHAPTER XXVI In which Boguswav the spy wins one skirmish and loses two,
CHAPTER XXVII In which Grunvald the impoverished schoolteacher is charged with corrupting the youth,
CHAPTER XXVIII In which Barnabas pays homage to the queen within the thicket,
CHAPTER XXIX What happened after midnight at Umarlu Grove,
CHAPTER XXX In which Barnabas encounters Satan,
CHAPTER XXXI In which Barnabas unintentionally instigates a confrontation between the local advocates of planned and free market economics, who, arguably, are also Barnabas' father figures,
CHAPTER XXXII In which the will is tested,
CHAPTER XXXIII The Battle of Odolechka,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,