Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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watches her granddaughter, Lalka. No matter what else she does — digs in the garden, pulls weeds in the greenhouse, peels the potatoes — always she watches her granddaughter, who has a reddish-purple birthmark over her neck and jaw and part of her cheek. Her husband, Zbigniew, watches Lalka too. Basia sees how he narrows his eyes at the birthmark, and she can’t stop thinking about the time he called their granddaughter by the name of their dead daughter — who drowned in the stream years before Lalka’s mother was born.
“Blueberries!” Zbigniew calls. “We should take the girl to pick blueberries.”
Basia pretends not to hear him. Zbigniew is weak and can’t walk far without her support. Decades ago he used to hunch on the moped and buzz through the woods to the bar in town, always without a helmet. “Crazy fool!” she’d call after him. “Go ahead, finish yourself off. The sooner the better.” But Basia no longer has to chase after him as she once did, when her children were young, and embarrass him in front of the neighbors. They are both too old for that now.
Basia’s hair has gone completely white, but she won’t wear a scarf over her head and tied under her chin the way the other grandmothers do. Her legs are bowed and getting weaker, with arthritis in the knees and ankles. When she waddles to church, or goes to the woods to gather mushrooms, or carries flowers to the stream in which her daughter drowned, she walks at half her former pace.
When Lalka wants to go to the stream, Basia takes her. The child scampers ahead, and Basia calls for her to come back, not to stray from sight. The girl returns, pouting for a moment. She has her moods and throws her tantrums, but mostly she is a sweet child, well-behaved, instinctively kind, curious.
Recently Zbigniew has begun to snap at the girl — always after he’s begged Basia for a shot of vodka and she’s refused — after which Lalka will crawl under the kitchen table and play with her dolls in silence. Basia will crouch by the table legs, even though it is almost impossible for her to get back up, and try to console her granddaughter. “Ah, child,” she’ll say, “it has nothing to do with you. Never you mind.” And then she’ll lure the girl out of her cave by setting fresh apple cake or plum tart on the table. But for a while now Basia hasn’t been sure if she believes her own words.
Even before Zbigniew’s surgery, when he could still walk without help, Basia never let him take Lalka into the woods. “Stay home and suck on your bottle,” she said. There was a time when he would have knocked her in the mouth for that. But since the surgeon in Katowice removed a quarter of his intestines and told him he had to stop drinking, he just mutters and grunts. He rarely leaves the couch or his wheelchair on the back porch, but still Basia watches him. Of course, she can’t be sure if he’s guilty of negligence, or worse. It’s just a hunch. She didn’t have that hunch before their first daughter died. As Zbigniew carried her body in his arms, walking, maybe running, through the woods, she stood at the sink and washed the lunch dishes, humming.
Maybe she can’t trust a hunch — its presence or its absence — but still she doesn’t like the way Zbigniew looks at the girl, or sometimes snaps at her, or holds her chin and turns her head this way and that, trying to get a look at her birthmark. Earlier this morning Basia tucked a blanket snugly under his withered thighs. “Too tight,” he complained. “I can’t move my legs.”
“Then don’t try,” she said, and she led Lalka away from him, down the back steps.
Now Zbigniew calls, “Come here, Lalka, darling. We’ll go pick blueberries.” Basia wonders for a moment if she was too harsh with him earlier, with the blanket. He seems to adore the girl. Until he stopped drinking, he was always calling her over to give her a shiny coin or to tell her a story he’d made up. And always he wanted to take her for blueberries, because she loved them.
“Grandpa,” Lalka says, “look!” She digs up a pebble marbled with quartz and scrambles to her feet. Basia puts her thick-knuckled hand on the girl’s shoulder and draws her back. Dirt mars Lalka’s T-shirt where Basia touched it, and Basia imagines what Lalka’s mother, Magdalena, will say when she picks Lalka up that afternoon: Mamo, she gets so dirty over here, always digging with you. Why don’t you read to her or play those math games I brought you? She’ll be behind everyone else when she starts school in the fall. But Basia is certain Lalka will be smarter than any other child in the class.
Basia hands Lalka a trowel. “Let’s go into the greenhouse. We’ll plant your own tomato seedlings.”
“Really?” The girl laughs, delighted.
Zbigniew calls out again, “Blueberries! We should take the girl to pick blueberries. While they’re in season.”
“Ja, ja, pick your own blueberries,” Basia says. “See if you can still find them down there, old man.” Lately she’s had trouble keeping her mouth shut around him. Maybe it’s the magazines her daughter brings when she picks Lalka up. There was a time when Zbigniew wouldn’t have let those magazines in the house — the ones that interviewed happily divorced women and gave advice on how to color your hair at home, how to keep your money separate from your husband’s. Now his eyesight has diminished to the point where he can hardly read, and he doesn’t even know what sits on the stack by the couch. She reads to him from the Bible. When he gets bored and says, “Read something else,” she cocks her head and says, “Eh? What? I don’t hear so well anymore.”
Basia knows he gets bored when she parks him on the back porch and makes him watch her dig in the narrow vegetable garden behind the house, but she doesn’t care. In the winter she works in the greenhouse Zbigniew built years ago so they could have fresh tomatoes into early autumn and, though Basia didn’t tell him, so she could have flowers to carry to the stream. In the depths of winter, when she had to trudge outside in heavy boots and a thick coat, and there were no flowers to be picked, not a single living thing, it seemed, on the face of the earth — nothing could survive the bitter cold of a Polish winter — she went with empty hands. She still goes every morning, before Magdalena arrives with Lalka and helps her transfer Zbigniew from bed to chair. Every morning she looks across the stream, into the trees, for any sign of movement, for a familiar figure. She knows there is no point. She knows where her dead daughter lies. But she looks anyway.
Beyond the garden the birch-and-alder forest used to be thicker and deeper, but now over the treetops the buildings rise, tall and concrete and ugly, laundry hanging off balcony railings, TV antennas, walls of tiny windows, one-room apartments housing entire families. Basia’s children used to walk through this forest to get ice creams in town. Now Magdalena lives in one of those buildings and walks back to visit after church on Sundays. But when Magdalena brings Lalka in the mornings, she does not take the shortcut through the woods; she pulls up in her car in front of the house on Borowska Street. Sometimes Basia walks the girl home through the woods to save Magdalena the drive. She holds Lalka’s hand tightly when they come to the stream.
Magdalena works as a chemist, and sometimes Basia scolds her, saying that if she’d picked a different job — a teacher or a secretary or even a shopgirl — maybe Lalka wouldn’t have this stain. Magdalena works with chemicals all day: breathes them, spills them. She’d always been a clumsy child. And then there was Chernobyl. When they heard about the milk, Magdalena was only two months pregnant. She stopped drinking it immediately. Then the baby was born with the stain, and Zbigniew said no man would ever marry her. But Magdalena was not upset. “She’s beautiful,” she said. “Perfect.”
Basia said, “It could have been much worse. Other children were born without kidneys.”
“Oh, Mamo,” Magdalena said, “the birthmark has nothing to do with Chernobyl.” She drew a diagram for Basia, explained to her how sometimes in a fetus some patches of skin don’t get enough nerve fibers, and instead the capillaries keep expanding, letting more and more blood spill under the skin, until the red mark appears. Basia nodded and said she understood, but secretly she did not believe it.
Lalka is smart and stunningly beautiful, with yellow hair, blue eyes, and a wind-chime laugh. A child like a doll. That’s what they called her — doll, lalka.
Basia’s first daughter had been a quiet child with a flat, droopy face and eyes that rarely blinked. They were narrow and angled so that she looked as though she were always laughing. But she never laughed and never spoke, even by the age other children did.
As their first daughter grew, Zbigniew remarked more and more often that she looked like a Chinese girl and would probably talk like one too, if she weren’t so dumb, and where in Lower Silesia had Basia found a Chinaman to fuck? He said this usually when he was drunk, and he thought it wildly funny and laughed until he nearly choked. Basia kept her mouth shut as she moved around the kitchen, rearranging pots and pans. More than once she was so angry that, at dusk, she yanked the curtains with such force that they tore. Then she stayed up late mending them.
She kept the child close to her side, putting herself between Zbigniew and the girl because she saw the way he looked at her eyes, her slack, silent mouth — as if she were one of the mangy stray dogs that wandered down Borowska Street and sniffed around the yard before lifting their legs to piss on the side of the porch. Before Basia climbed into bed with Zbigniew, she knelt on the floor, leaned her elbows on the edge of the mattress, and whispered a prayer for patience, so she might feel sorry for him that he drank the devil and the devil spoke through him.
Now, her trowel deep in dirt and the tomato seedlings lined up in a row beside her knees, she laughs — a short, bitter laugh — when she thinks of how she kept her mouth shut. If he insulted her now as he once did, she wouldn’t stay quiet. She doesn’t know what she would say, but she would certainly say something.
After their first daughter was born, Basia had not wanted any more children. She wanted to give all her love to the girl, who would need it, who would need the love of a million mothers and more. And she especially did not want any more children after Zbigniew carried their daughter back from the stream that day, both of them sopping wet, Zbigniew breathing hard, the child already blue in his arms. He was drunk, the drunkest she’d ever seen him. He told her they’d gone to pick blueberries, and the girl had walked too close to the stream and fallen in. He said he couldn’t save her. He didn’t look Basia in the eyes when he said it.
After the funeral and the many nights that followed, Basia could hardly speak to him, let alone climb into bed with him. She slept on the sofa in the living room for two months. But Zbigniew wanted his wife, which was his right. He reminded her there were two ways she could get into bed: willingly or unwillingly. Which did she want?
Basia had four more children after her first daughter’s death, and Zbigniew spoiled them all. Now only Magdalena lives close, and Basia’s sons call from Poznań and Gdańsk and Warsaw and lament that their children must go to day care with strangers. They say Magdalena is lucky and smart to have stayed so close.
Magdalena has told her mother she’d like to be closer still. She wanted to buy a house nearby when she married Piotr, but he insisted they keep his apartment in town. When the house next door to Basia and Zbigniew’s went up for sale, Magdalena said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Mamo?” Basia did not answer.
In the fall Lalka would begin preschool and would come less often, only on weekends with Magdalena and Piotr. Then Basia could relax. If she could just make it until fall, everything would be all right.
“The blueberries will be gone soon,” Zbigniew calls again. “We have to take her, before it’s too late.” He seems to be trying to stand up.
“Ja, I should take you to pick berries,” Basia mutters, then laughs. “I should bury you is what I should do.” What happened to her? When did she become this woman who talks back, albeit quietly? It must have been gradual. In the middle years she let the memory of her deceased daughter dull. And sometimes, when she saw how good he was with their other children, her suspicions eased: how could someone who was so kind and patient with his sons and daughter have done such a thing? She wondered if her fear and distrust had been some kind of craziness she’d gone through in her grief. She’d needed to blame someone, and her husband had been the easy target. Had she been wrong? She had allowed herself to consider it. Only now, in these recent years with Lalka, did her suspicions return. And with them, her anger.
When Basia drinks her morning coffee at the kitchen window, she looks at the mended curtains, so old now they are almost transparent. Magdalena is always telling her to sew new ones; these are so shabby. But Basia does not want new curtains. She wants to be reminded of what once happened, so that it won’t happen again.
She remembers the grief. Somehow she bore it, so it must not have been unbearable. That was its particular cruelty: somehow her body, her mind, moved on. Most nights she begged God to kill her — in a car accident, a fire. She knew the worst sin was to take her own life, and she cursed God that she was not allowed to join her daughter wherever she was.
She could not remember the anger, but she must have been angry. The magazines said so. Anger was what Magdalena’s generation went to therapists for. Basia laughed and shook her head at that. Little problems once ignored or endured have become big enough to take to doctors. Doctors! My husband doesn’t help with the children. My husband drinks too much. My husband doesn’t listen. Magdalena said married couples in Warsaw went to counseling together, so they could have a stronger marriage. Basia was puzzled and wondered if Magdalena was hiding something about her own marriage. Was her husband beating her? Basia asked. Magdalena was shocked. Of course not, she said. She wouldn’t be with him if he were. And Basia thought, So that’s how it is now.
On occasion Magdalena urged her to leave Zbigniew. “Just for a while,” Magdalena said. “He doesn’t appreciate you.”
Basia said, “Never mind. It doesn’t bother me.”
Once, Magdalena asked, “Why did you marry him?”
“Oh, child,” Basia said. “It was so long ago.”
Had she loved him back then, when they walked out on the church steps as husband and wife and his parents kissed her cheeks and her parents kissed his? Perhaps. Who knew anymore what was love and what was just a lifetime? And had he loved her? She could remember expecting his love would come eventually, but she never felt it. She knew he loved Magdalena and the boys. That should be enough, by the standards of her day. Divorce was rare, not only because the Church wouldn’t allow it, but also because women simply didn’t consider it. They knew marriage was a gamble or, at most, an educated guess. If you got a bad husband, you complained to your friends and secretly hoped he’d die in the mines or get run over by a tractor. If your husband hit you or drank, or both, you went to the priest, and he told you to pray harder. “Pray for forgiveness,” the priest told you, “his and yours.” Why mine? Basia thought. What have I done wrong, other than choose poorly?
After planting the seedlings, Basia groans and rises stiffly from her knees. A light rain has been falling on the yard, and the top layer of soil has turned to mud. Basia urges Lalka to go in the house. She can set up a school for dolls at the kitchen table while Basia cleans out the refrigerator.
Magdalena arrives just after five, as always. Grazena, a neighbor from two houses down, arrives at the same moment. She wants Basia to help her with a pattern she’s cut out for the dress she’ll wear to her grandson’s christening. “You’re so good at those things,” Grazena says. She stands on the front porch, elbows on the windowsill, and speaks through the screen.
“I’ll come tomorrow,” Basia says. “Don’t you see my daughter’s here now?”
“Mamo,” Magdalena says, chiding, “why don’t you go? Lalka and I will be gone in a few minutes anyway. Go!”
Lalka looks up from the table. “Shh. The students are taking a test.”
Basia pats her head. “Aren’t you a good teacher,” she says. Magdalena opens the refrigerator and pulls out a bottle of milk. Basia can see through the living room to the back porch: Zbigniew seems to be struggling with his chair, as if trying to stand up, but his arms are so weak he can’t lift himself. His walker is well out of reach: Basia has made sure of that.
“Keep an eye on your father. Don’t let him get out of his chair,” she says to Magdalena. “He could fall.”
“He’ll be fine. He always is. Go, Mamo! Don’t worry.” Magdalena pours milk into a glass and sets it in front of Lalka at the kitchen table. “Drink, honey.”
Basia walks to Grazena’s to inspect the pattern and help her cut it. Grazena is good to her; she comes over every night to help Basia lift Zbigniew from his chair to bed. Often she stays for a cup of tea.
Basia is gone twenty minutes, maybe more. When she returns, she steps inside her house and stands with one hand on the door frame, listening to the bones of the home, to its caves and coves. After forty years she knows by sound whether someone is in the house or not — even when that someone is asleep or hiding. Once, she found a neighbor’s runaway child in her chest of linens.
“Magdalena! Lalka!” she calls out, but she knows she’ll get no reply. She waddles out the back door and into the garden. No one is there either, just the morning’s overturned dirt and, on the bottom porch step, a row of treasures Lalka dug up: a rock, a shard of glass, a snail shell. Basia regrets having gone to Grazena’s. She had a bad feeling, and she should have listened to it.
She pauses on the damp garden path. The rain has stopped, but the patter of droplets continues. “After-rain,” Lalka calls it. “Grandma, the trees are crying!” she likes to say. Beyond her own breathing Basia hears faint sounds: wind in the birches, water coursing over stones, maybe voices. She walks as quickly as she can with her bowed legs.
Through the trees she sees Zbigniew at the edge of the stream. He rests on a stump, leaning forward on his cane. The stream gurgles at his feet. The wheelchair sits nearby.
Basia hears Lalka’s high, lilting voice reciting the tongue twister she learned last week. Then Basia hears a lower, richer tone: Magdalena, her words unintelligible. Basia presses her palm to her breastbone. The child is safe. They are probably picking blueberries, just as Zbigniew hoped.
Zbigniew’s back is to Basia, but if she moves to the side, she can glimpse his face, his grizzled beard. It’s up to her to shave him these days, so she’ll let the hair grow for a week or more until she can’t stand it anymore. His head nods forward, lifts up, then nods again, as if he’s falling asleep. A man nodding like that could fall forward into a shallow stream, she thinks. A man who could hardly get himself out of a chair might not be able to lift his head from the water. Certainly it has happened somewhere, to someone. A terrible accident. A tragedy. And yet the neighbors might say to each other, in private, that since he was old and weak and missing part of his bowels, it was merciful for God to take him now, swiftly, before the rot spread.
It wouldn’t take much. Not even a push. A brush so light it could be a leaf, a bird’s wing, a tap on the back, hardly enough to startle. Who knows how long it will be before Lalka and Magdalena return, crossing the stream, their palms stained blue? Basia could be back in the kitchen by then, rinsing Lalka’s milk glass in hot, soapy water.
Basia stands behind Zbigniew, her arms crossed over her chest. Does he even remember their dead daughter? The way she touched her fingertips to your knee or lap when she came up to you?
The child drowned, and he was there. Maybe it was an accident, as he said. Maybe he didn’t hold her head under the coursing water because she was ugly, because she didn’t “look human,” as he sometimes slurred in his drunken rages. But maybe he waited just a second too long before trying to save her. Maybe he considered not saving her before he sprang toward her. More than an accident but less than murder — wasn’t it still a crime? She’ll never know, of course, but Basia thinks that if she could see some hint that he has suffered because the girl died, whatever the reason, then she could empty his shit bag, when it came to that, and if he grew weaker, she’d feed him his puréed peas and mashed potatoes by spoon. She’d care for him as she would a child.
She steps up beside him, and he turns his head. He doesn’t look surprised. He looks cranky, as if he’s been expecting her and she has kept him waiting.
“It’s you,” he says.
“Yes.” She stands beside him, her arms still crossed over her flattened, drooping breasts. “Look,” she says. “The stream is changing course. Do you remember how it used to turn by that boulder long ago? And now it turns here.” She points upstream.
He says nothing.
“You remember?” she presses.
How can she get the truth out of him? She needs to hear it.
“Do you think about her?” she asks. He does not respond. She looks at him. He makes a chewing motion, as if grinding his teeth.
She hears the girls’ voices, faint but certain. She must hurry.
“Do you think about her? Tell me!”
“And when you think about her, what do you think?”
“How beautiful she is,” he says. “Look.” Basia looks where he’s looking, into the birches across the stream. She looks for her dead daughter among the trees, even though she knows the dead don’t rise. Magdalena and Lalka come toward them now. Lalka is almost dancing as she skips through the trees. She’s singing, her blond hair illuminated, electrified almost, by the slanted afternoon light.
Did he think he was going to evade her question? “How beautiful who is? Tell me, old man.” She stands behind him. Her hand squeezes his shoulder. He won’t look up. He watches the girl dance toward the stream, and Basia watches him watch her.
“You know who,” he says. “Our girl there, our granddaughter.”
Here comes Lalka, at the bank of the stream now, Magdalena far behind her. Here comes Lalka, stepping into the water, slipping on the rocks, splashing up to her ankles and laughing. Lalka calls across the stream to Basia, “Come, carry me, Grandma!”
© Richard Koenig
“Be careful!” Basia shouts. “Wait for your mother.” Zbigniew presses his palms into the flat of the stump beside his thighs, struggling to stand up. Basia, hand still on his shoulder, looks at him. “You’re going to carry her now?”
He shrugs under her hand, a squirming twist that propels his torso forward and to the right. He tries to catch himself but fails, and falls onto his side, into the mud between her feet and the stream.
On the far side of the stream Lalka steps back onto the bank, watching wide-eyed, fingers in her mouth. Magdalena runs, berry pails swinging, pant legs rolled to the knee.
“What happened, Mamo?” she calls.
Basia stoops and wedges one arm under Zbigniew’s armpit. He’s crying, and Lalka sees and begins crying, too. “Mamo,” she wails, “why is Grandpa crying?”
“Because he fell and hurt himself,” Magdalena replies. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine.” Magdalena speaks with maternal confidence, meant to instill calm. Basia remembers using that tone with her children long ago, when Zbigniew staggered and slurred through the house, looking to bully her.
Magdalena tells Lalka, “Take a pail, and hold my hand. We’ll cross together.”
Basia hoists Zbigniew into a sitting position. His sobs reverberate through her body. Magdalena will help her lift him, ease him into the wheelchair. It will be all right. They will call the doctor, who’ll come check the bones. If they can’t get him into the chair, if he protests, they’ll bring the doctor out to the stream. A broken hip, maybe. Still, it will be all right.
Basia, crouching there at Zbigniew’s side, doesn’t know what happened first: if her arms encircled him from behind and so he cried, or if he cried and so her arms encircled him. All she knows is that her body, bent and bowed as it is, has responded instinctively to weeping. How many times has she embraced a crying Lalka after falls and scrapes, just as she comforted her own children when they cried? Except the one who never cried. Nothing would make that child cry. Maybe she saw beyond them all, Basia thinks, beyond all reasons for tears. Maybe she sees them even now. Basia looks into the trees, past Magdalena and Lalka splashing through the stream. She sees shadows and shifting leaves. In the sky, only clouds.
At Basia’s side, Magdalena lets go of Lalka’s hand and says, “Quick, talk to your grandfather. Comfort him.”
He’s sobbing harder now, almost choking. Magdalena squats and prepares to help lift.
“On the count of three,” she says to Basia. “One, two, three — lift!”
Lalka then leans toward Zbigniew and says, so softly Basia almost can’t hear it, “Don’t be afraid, Grandpa.” And she presses her blue-stained fingers to his cheeks, leaving faint smudges.