Translated from the Polish by Mark Tardi
He can only see half of the image through the rain, but it’s her. He’s always recognized her from afar by the line of her exposed neck and now, too, the willowing of her head in the direction of the oncoming bus cuts through all five years. He stands on the porch in just a bathrobe, still warm from his shower. Between them is an interior street, a fence and a row of acacias, behind him his house, behind her the yellowish Oncology Center. He won’t run to her; if it were possible today, it would’ve been possible then, and perhaps they wouldn’t be separated now by these lifeless screens—time, acacias, and everything else. She’ll wait a moment longer at the bus stop and leave.
The sight of her caught him checking to see if summer was over. He’d woken up, heard the rain, and thought that if it was today, he wanted to be fresh and ready, so he headed for the shower.
He felt it from the threshold as the wind ripped the handle from his hands and banged the door against the siding. The sweltering summer was breaking in half. He’d been waiting for this for six months when he finished making this year’s miso paste. Now that summer was over, he was due one spoonful. He had a whole stock of paste from previous years, but this new one was something unexplored: it contained the fermented last half of the year, different from previous years after all.
A gust of wind sweeps over his stomach, reminding him of how he’s grown fat since the last time they saw each other. She gets on the 179 bus heading for Kabaty. Only then does he retreat inside and get down to his miso. With two hands, he picks up the stone lying on the lid of the ceramic pot and lifts it. He wishes he could focus, but he can’t.
The sight of her, a small figure in the clearance between the trees. It seems her hair was shorter than ever.
The miso, on the other hand, is covered in mold, as if it’s grown fur. It must have acquired it in the last three months, the top was still clean in June. It’s not a good sign, but it’s not the first time either; you have to carefully remove the mold and sample the light brown mass underneath. So he scoops it up and puts it in his mouth. The flavor’s intense, tawny. Time has done it no harm.
And her? What was she doing here? Hardly anyone showed up by chance in the vicinity of the Oncology Center.
The echo of her head movement recurs. He forgets himself and instead of holding the awaited spoonful of paste in his mouth and rubbing it against his palate, he swallows it.
All he’s left with is the aftertaste.
It’s strange, knowing each other from a therapy group, almost like a nudist beach. To know a form of “everything” about each other, to know someone else’s pile of memories and the patterns of constantly stepping in the same shit. Not to know any other “everything”—the layers that shroud what’s supposedly most real on a daily basis. What you smell like, when your alarm clock goes off, whether you like to eat eggs for breakfast, and whether you have a well-organized closet.
To never drink coffee together other than the mushroom-flavored sludge from the vending machine at the facility on ul. Dolna.
He went there two years after graduation. The work he was doing seemed unimportant to him—he was proofreading books for an unpopular publishing house. He could work on his computer, at home. So he continued living at home with his parents, in an upstairs room overlooking the Oncology Center. It was built in 1984 and the radiotherapy department was moved there from ul. Wawelska. First off, he couldn’t stop thinking that he was living in a little Chernobyl—and secondly, that there must be some kind of black hole in the building that made him unable to move out of the house. To live next to a radioactive building named after Marie Skłodowska-Curie, a block from ul. Indira Ghandi, and with his mother—such as he had—that could explain a lot. “In the clutches of strong women,” he thought, as well as the fact that if he didn’t do something about himself, sooner or later, while going for bread, he would throw himself under a car.
Group was available faster than individual therapy, but he quickly regretted going there. He never liked groups. If he were to think more deeply, he never liked people.
He said little there. He considered what he had to say useless.
“You let everything ferment,” an annoying fuck once told him, mawkish, drinking too much and feeling sorry for himself.
“Indeed,” he replied.
He told them how he came back from Auchan and found the kitchen covered in bloody splashes and glass. In the moment, he thought that someone had shot his cat through the window, and he even knew who (the neighbor under him, apt. 3). It turned out that a jar of beet starter had exploded. The cat was alive, but terrified, and he had to clean up the entire kitchen and hallway. The glass shards had stuck into the beets and everything had to be thrown away.
“Well, you know. Fermentation. Leavening. You cracked me.”
No one laughed.
They accused him of being “out of touch with his feelings” and reminding them of their mocking or silent, absentee parents. They felt, therefore, that they had a right to bash him for all the things they had spared their folks. The story about the beets was the longest he spoke for a year. The therapist commented that maybe he felt like shooting them all, which was accurate, but he didn’t admit it.
She was different. Unpretentious, she wasn’t afraid of him. Pretty, that was important too. Gloomy and petite, she was woven with sadness. It seemed to him that it didn’t take too many words to make things clear to her—but that also her mere presence opened him up inside, as if that nightmarish weight lacing his lips had eased. But she also ended up in this group for her own reasons. Two months before the end, she broke.
“And I just know I’ll never find anyone because I’m broken.”
She talked about the abuse. The usual stuff like that—the shame, dirtiness, parents who acted like they didn’t know. She was more stunning than ever, her short hair exposing her neck, her skinny shoulders shaking from crying. He wanted so badly to tell her that she was perfect, but he thought it was nasty, to feel so attracted to her the moment she said someone had taken advantage of her.
So before he could get anything out, three other people did.
A few sessions later, it turned out that she and the annoying dude had gotten involved and were kicked out of the group. They got permission to say goodbye and acted as if it was just them in the room, struggling not to hold hands.
That was the last time he saw her.
The end of summer, he feels deserted now. The rain, which started falling the day he saw her, hasn’t stopped, flushing out his strength and sense of verticality. It pisses him off—the heat was exhausting, the rain makes him lethargic, he can’t seem to find his place. He knows it. Days like this come and go, you just have to get through it, swallow the stream of thoughts about what isn’t happening in his life, the arcades of kisses, small children, evenings under one blanket. He struggles to pull himself together—it’s just one of those weeks that build up over months and years, maybe, and it has a jittery feel to it, but it will eventually blur among the others in the fermentation process.
He goes shopping, the first pumpkins should be in the vegetable store by now. It’s pouring rain, sliding under his sweater through his unbuttoned collar. The view is awful, too—lines of cars, the Oncology Center, which is even more ghastly in rainy weather, blocky concrete pavilions neighboring the the ’90s-style Rimini pizzeria, a wig salon and a medical store with the sign “Accessories for Amazons.”
When he passes by the bus stop, he sees her for the second time. Underneath a small black cap, her short hair sticks out, like a mole’s fur. She’s visibly cold, cowering under her green coat and wrapping her arms around herself. She recognizes him, her face lights up.
“What are you doing here?” she asks him.
“I live here,” he says, wanting to make a joke about the picturesque surroundings, but she’s quicker.
“Really? I have a stupid request. Could I use the bathroom at your place? I have a long ride ahead of me and…”
“Of course,” he replies and suddenly something he’s been dreaming about for years is happening right in front of his eyes, just because she needs to pee.
But this is very much her style—to surprise him with something mundane. Once in a meeting, she wanted to give him her sandwich when he complained that he was hungry. He didn’t take it, of course, but it felt nice.
As they walk, some part of his mind mulls over the fact that it’s forbidden to meet outside the group, and he’s not sure if five years after the fact nullifies the ban. Then he thinks that adhering to rules has never benefited him. And then that she’s about to see the limescale at the bottom of the toilet bowl and smell his house, to which he’s already become immune—a mixture of wood paneling, fermentation and fried grease, and perhaps in this situation it would be better to play by the rules. But it’s too late now.
“The toilet is on the left,” he says, opening the window. She runs up to the bathroom without taking off her shoes. She doesn’t close the door, he hears more than he would like. She wasn’t lying, she really needed to go.
“Thank you very much,” she says, walking out, her hand on the bathroom door handle. He stands like that for a moment, in a half-step.
It gives him time to snap out of it.
“Would you like some coffee?”
During those five years he hadn’t moved out of the house, but his parents had moved away from him, to Milanowek, to his grandmother’s house. His mother pressured him to move too, where there was “better air,” and of course, since it was his mother, he did not want to anger her—but he decided it was his only option to live separately.
He had the whole house to himself.
But ever since his parents moved out, he started having diarrhea and red, scaly patches on his skin.
He had his own explanation for this. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but it was crystallizing in his mind that the radiation from the Oncology Center, previously dispersed among the three of them, was now focused on him.
On the one hand, he knew it was an absurd idea; on the other hand, the history of the Radiotherapy Department—he edited a brochure about it for his flimsy publishing house—indicated that it was possible. Director Łukaszczyk handled radium during the war like a squirrel handled nuts. He carried it in a rucksack on the train from Warsaw to Krakow, hid it in ventilation ducts and in an old shed in Poronin, and then he died while the radium continued to radiate toward unsuspecting people.
He had a feeling that something similar was going on in the Oncology Center—the elements were being used to treat cancer, but the radiation experts were not able to keep track of them. For 1600 zlotys he bought a Soeks Quantum Geiger counter “with two Geiger tubes SBM 20-1, for professional use certified in the Russian Federation.” The device did not confirm his suspicions.
Then he felt like a real nutcase.
But it didn’t calm him down at all.
Relative balance was restored to him only with fermentation—it occupied his hands and head. At that time his interest in fermentation deepened and he read a lot of Bill Mollison, Keith H. Steinkraus, and Sandor Ellix Katz. He liked the concept of peaceful coexistence with the bacteria that make food and those that live in his gut and protect him from disease.
It’s always some company, less troublesome than that of humans.
And the silage was delicious, too. They tasted like the essence of life. And there were so many things you could ferment—he couldn’t learn everything in a lifetime, especially one shortened by radiation exposure.
As he was reading about fermentation, he came across an article about the Uragami Daiichi Hospital in Nagasaki fell into his hands. Although it was only 1.4 kilometers from the atomic bomb, no one contracted radiation sickness there. This was explained by the fact that every day staff and patients ate miso soup, consisting mainly of a paste made from fermented soybeans.
In the scientific database Pubmed, he found articles showing that the soup really does neutralize radiation and in the process cures colon, lung and stomach cancers.
It seemed that miso was able to neutralize and replace the Oncology Center.
He then bought miso paste at an eco-store and made a test soup. It tasted like swimming in a warm sea. The calm waves spilled over his body and formed a thin protective membrane just under his skin. He imagined that the radiation glided over it like the sun over the surface of water and allowed only harmless streaks of light to penetrate it.
After eating the soup, his skin began to clear up and he stopped having diarrhea.
Absorbed in this problem and its miraculous solution, he did not notice that the physical distance from his mother, in whom he saw the source of his unhappiness, had actually changed nothing in his life.
“I remember you talking about fermentation. Marek and I always wondered if you were joking.”
“You’re together?” he asks.
He wonders how he didn’t choke on these words..
“No way. Classic me—throwing myself into an affair instead of getting better. It was over after three weeks, and then I slogged through three years in individual therapy. I’m on my own now.
“I’ll show you something,” he says, standing up.
He needs to walk off these high spirits lest they blow him up.
When he was in high school, they went on a school trip to Berlin—the farthest he’d ever gone. They were visiting the Museum of Natural History and he saw the wet collection, a display of jars of snakes and fish preserved in ethanol there. The animals’ bodies were pale, leached of color, suspended in a murky golden liquid. They formed entire floors and corridors of life, protected from decay. It looked a little like old postcards and a little like a butcher store, but it was mainly the beauty of the animals’ shapes and the harmony, symmetry and peace of the room that appealed to him.
Since his parents moved out, he began filling the house with jars of fermenting food and started something like a wet collection in the basement—lining up pickled foods on shelves with lights. A little cosmos of kale in yogurt, cucumbers in a milky brine, flamboyant chard. He thought he could show it to people, too. Except that people didn’t come to visit him.
He takes her there first.
“Impressive. You did all this yourself?”
He wishes the room smelled different, less carnal. So she doesn’t think he didn’t wash himself.
“And everything’s edible?”
She takes a stroll along one of the shelves—the one where he’s arranged such inventions as sprigged broccoli, wild garlic and red pine mushrooms. He sees her interest and it puffs up delightfully until it can barely fit in the basement.
“And do you have any gherkins here?” she asks suddenly. “I like gherkins a lot.”
Pssst!—the needle pierces his delight.
“Gherkins are pasteurized. Dead.” He’s miffed.
“Well, like me inside,” she answers lightly.
And then her head tilts to her shoulder in a familiar, wonderful movement. She dives deep into herself and emerges already smiling.
“I’ll visit you tomorrow and bring you some home-made gherkins from my folks. You heard about them five years back, but I won’t deny them this: they can make gherkins. The therapist would be proud that I found at least one positive.”
He laughs like he’s inhaled helium.
“Okay, so tomorrow it’s silage versus gherkins.”
“Sounds great,” she laughs. “You’re sure to lose.”
They go back upstairs and she gets ready to leave. Then he watches from behind the curtains as she makes a loop down ul. Czapli and on to ul. Roentgena to meet her bus.
He sets the soybeans to make a new miso, he’ll have something to keep him busy in the morning. He feels an unsealing inside him, like a jar that has just been opened and gas is hissing from it. After a sleepless night, he boils the beans, purees them through a sieve and adds koji, which is rice coated with Aspergillus oryzae mold, mixed with salt. He slowly pours in the water left over from cooking the soybeans and stirs, sticking the ball together. What else could he do with hands that want to knead the hours separating him from his reunion?
Well, yes, you know what. Maybe it would do him some good, release some tension. It might happen, if all went well, that he would touch her short hair and the nape of her neck. And other places where the hair transitions into something else, smooth.
He’s afraid his body will let him down then, not used to being close to other bodies.
He takes the ball out of the bowl and drops it on the cutting board. The ball breaks, not enough water in it. He adds it, forms the ball again, drops it again, this time the ball takes the hit well. He crushes it into smaller balls and piles them in a clay bowl, sprinkles them thickly with salt and covers them with a lid. On it he places a stone.
Let this day be recorded.
When he finishes doing this, his hands hurt. It’s a good pain. He rests for a while and then prepares little tasting sets for her: pickled tomatoes, carbonated cucumbers in Kołobrzeg brine, crispy radishes, all pink. There’s also weird stuff—kale, Jerusalem artichokes, kimchi with beetroot.
He cleaned and aired the whole house. He also cooked miso soup for her. If they ever live together, she’ll be exposed to radiation, so she should get used to eating this soup every day.
She’s a moment late, but not so late that he starts to get nervous. She’s dressed in a black dress, ordinary, casual—yet different from yesterday. He wonders if it’s appropriate to think she looks “more feminine.”And what does that actually mean? He’s wearing a pair of jeans that are too tight, which he dug out of his closet—he typically wears tracksuits every day.
“So whaddya think? Ready for a duel?” she asks him taking off her shoes.
“Of course,” he answers and leads her into the kitchen.
She’s excited and a little flustered, you can see that she’s just as stressed about this meeting as he is, because it’s no longer a coincidence. She pulls three jars of gherkins out of her backpack, asks him for plates, and he pours the soup. He tells her how miso paste is made, shows her the clay pots where he keeps it, picks up a stone off the latest paste and scrapes off the top layer of salt crystals to show her how the color undergoes changes over time.
Then he pours her some soup.
“It smells so good,” she says. “Like sushi broth.”
She takes the spoon in her hand and stirs, stirs for a long time. White tofu cubes and dark green shreds of seaweed float in the murky, warm liquid.
“Try it then,” he replies, somewhat impatiently.
The soup tastes best warm and he couldn’t heat it up to a boil because then it would lose its beneficial properties. With every moment of her dawdling the temperature is no longer ideal.
She takes a big spoonful into her mouth. She swallows. Quickly and loudly. She immediately washes it down with water.
He has always liked how expressive her face is, but now it doesn’t thrill him.
“It’s interesting. Really,” she says.
“So eat up.”
She’s silent for a moment and ponders. She weighs the spoon in her hand and slowly puts it down on the table.
“You know, no offense, but I don’t think it’s my sort of thing,” she says cautiously. “It’s sort of oceanic, a little yeasty… I can’t have too much of it. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s too bad,” he replies, trying to be casual. “Maybe you can try the pickles.”
She smiles at him, reaching for a strip of cucumber and nibbles on the tip with her teeth. She eats another piece, but not much.
“Look, we have different taste buds,” she smiles faintly. “Why don’t you try some gherkins?”
“No, I don’t want to, actually. I’m full.”
Up close and in this light she seems less pretty to him than in the group. Maybe not ugly, but kind of worn out.
“Are you mad?”
“Nah,” he replies.
He doesn’t even know what’s happening to him. At first it’s a kind of creeping sadness that she won’t be enjoying the taste of something that’s delicious to him. But then something else happens. He looks at the table—on the plates lie pieces of himself. His sliced, pickled heart, his skin thirsty for touch, thoughts that he’s shared with no one. And she tries and just spits it out in disgust. He’s dizzy and his stomach hurts, as if he’s been punched in the gut.
Suddenly he has the urge to ask her the question that’s been keeping him up at night. As long as she seemed nice to him, he didn’t dare.
“How did it happen that you got involved with this Marek? Help me understand. I hated the guy.”
“He was warm,” she answered.
“Somehow I don’t think so.”
“But you ask me, or do you know better?”
“No, no. Never mind. Anyway, you’re not together anymore. So, do you leave these guys a lot?”
She laughs for a moment, then her eyebrows curl into a ball in the middle of her forehead.
“Maybe I’ll ask you like in group—and why do you ask?”
Then he hesitates. He looks at her delicate neck and short hair and knows it’s her, the delicate creature he remembers from group. But her ironically-raised black eyebrows remind him of Indira Gandhi, and her lips, pressed together, of Marie Curie. He remembers from group that they were all told to check what they were feeling, how they were feeling and generally to feel all the time. So he’s checking now. He feels bad. They were also told to react.
“No reason. I just heard that women who’ve been molested tend to be… loose.”
She’s not sure at first if she heard right. She gets really quiet, as if now she’s wondering how she feels, and which feelings to trust and which not, and who should be nice here and who should leave.
“I’m going to go, you know?” she finally tells him. She takes the gherkin jar from the table, throws it into her backpack, and starts to put on her coat. She doesn’t put on her hat. Her ears are still exposed to words that would turn her back to the kitchen table.
But he doesn’t say anything.
He stands over her while she puts on her shoes. Once he knows all is lost, he opens up to the idea that this prospect actually reminds him of porn, of looking down, of obstructing a portion of the view with his own belly. He puts his hands on it, tries to press it into his spine. It’s always a touch of some kind, so what if it’s not hers. He looks again to where she was—but she’s no longer there, replaced by a cold breeze from outside.
As he closes the door behind her, he sees the familiar red splotches on his hands, and feels a twisting in the pit of his stomach that heralds diarrhea.
He begins to think that he’s hurt her, and actually purposefully, and he would need to apologize. This thought is followed by an image. He sees himself from the perspective of the window of his own room, as he makes a loop down ul. Czapli and runs down ul. Roentgena, hoping that her bus hasn’t pulled up yet, and that on the way he’ll find the words to stop her. As he watches, he seems comical to himself—as thick as a jar of pickles, as red and rushed as a bus, but slower, without the slightest chance.
And then a second thought occurs to him. She didn’t show up in his neighborhood by accident. She’s being treated at the Oncology Center. They’ve implanted a radioactive isotope in her body—he read about it in a brochure he edited, it’s called “low-dose-rate brachytherapy.” It’s supposed to destroy only the tumor, but you know—he felt as nasty as before. So it had to have gone through all her layers—flesh and skin—right to him. It’s hard to get your hopes up for someone like that. Plus, since she’s sick, she probably has various parts cut out, such as her breasts, and will die soon, so it doesn’t make much sense to humiliate yourself for her.
It’s just a thought, an absurd one, but it’s spreading under his skin with a familiar, soothing film.
He’ll just have to eat more miso, finish her portion and the rest that’s left in the pot. He goes to the toilet, then returns to the kitchen, where he eats the vegetables which have dulled from standing for so long on the small plates. They’re wildly delicious, salty-sour, burbling and gurgling in his mouth. His cheeks shrink with pleasure.
Lost in thought, he stares out the window at the bus stop. She’s already gone.
The sky’s heavy with rain, squashing the pink glow of the sunset into the horizon. A red light pulses from the top of the Oncology Center.
Like a beacon, it calls him home.
Katarzyna Szaulińska was born in Kołobrzeg in 1987. Her debut collection Druga Osoba (Second Person) was winner of Biuro Literackie’s first-book award and published in 2020. She has published work in respected literary journals in Poland, such as Mały Format, Helikopter, Kontent, Fabularie, Wakat, and Kultura Liberalna. In English translation, her work has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, La Piccioletta Barca, Jet Fuel Review, and in the chapbook, Faith in Strangers (Toad Press/Veliz Books, 2021). She is also the author of a comic book about depression entitled Czarne Fale/Murky Waves and the one-woman show Córcia (Baby girl), which was staged at the WARSaw Theatre. She lives in Warsaw, where she works as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist.
Mark Tardi is a writer, translator, and lecturer on faculty at the University of Łódź. He is the author of three books, most recently, The Circus of Trust (Dalkey Archive, 2017). Recent work and translations have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Circumference, La Piccioletta Barca, Jet Fuel Review, Armstrong Literary, Berlin Quarterly, Notre Dame Review and elsewhere. His translations of The Squatters’ Gift by Robert Rybicki (Dalkey Archive) and Faith in Strangers by Katarzyna Szaulińska (Toad Press/Veliz Books) were published in 2021.