Crime fiction
Paweł Rzewuski
Son of the Marsh

Passion and violence are bubbling beneath the seemingly calm surface of everyday life

A piercing silence, not a bird, not an insect. Somewhere beneath the trees, from the west, from the river, or perhaps the swamp, someone was coming. Part running, part lumbering, as if trying to break free. Shivers run down the back of my neck, my hairs stand on end. My brow is laced with cold sweat.

…detoribus nostris et ne nos inducas in tentatione, sed libera nos a malo,” whispers Stefanek.

“Who’s there?!”

Silence. It’s coming. The horse kicks and whinnies again, as if it’s been poisoned with hemlock. Something is coming, ever nearer.

“Who’s there?!”

Again, nothing. As if mute, gliding faster and faster. I can see the outline of this horned thing more and more clearly, I squint in disbelief; the height of a man, and the physique, but a black body, horns protruding from its head, not like those of the devil, but those of a deer. A deer? What the hell? It can’t be an animal. A strange, unknown fear arises. The fog thickens, as if it were cream. The silence is broken only by distant sounds, shuffling, panting perhaps, broken branches, a splash of water.

I raise my Mauser to eye-level, I aim, but then I ask again, “Who’s there?”. All of a sudden, the creature makes a noise for the first time; it stops, and its spooky, animal roar tears through the fog, a roar in response. I pull the trigger, the bang of the shot disrupts the roar.

The creature falls. Something cries out – a cry both human and animal. I want to understand, but I can’t. At last, the cry dies down, silence falls again. Suddenly, like an explosion, a bustle of noises erupts: birds, animals, humans. I hear again everything I heard before. I look in disbelief at the place where I aimed my shot, at Stefanek, and finally at the sky. A moment later, the sun comes out, the fog dissipates, it even starts to get warm. But I’m shivering.

“Praise be, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!” The peasant boy crosses himself again. He’s breathing heavily. “Fata Morgana, out to deceive us…”

“What Fata Morgana? You’re talking nonsense!” says Stefanek, indignant. “Just the devil trying to hijack us.”

He’s breathing heavily too, as if he’d been suffocating. He’s gulping, gasping for air.

“A nymph or evil spirit,” replies the peasant with the air of an expert. “It’s twelve o’clock and here we are by a dead tree.” He crosses himself again.

“You didn’t look like such tough guys then.” I put the rifle on the back seat. Perhaps the peasant was drunk, but Stefanek? I don’t understand what happened here. But I go to see what I shot. Must be a deer. What else could it be? I wade thirty metres into the tall grass, my feet sinking into the soft earth. Just a bit further. Nothing there. Not a single sign of any creature. There’s a small pool of water, but it can’t have fallen in there and drowned. So it was a mirage, a Fata Morgana. But I saw quite clearly, both horns and something like talons. And it was standing on two legs. If they were talons, surely it can’t have been a deer, although anything’s possible in Polesie…

Excerpt translated by Kate Webster

Crime fiction
Paweł Rzewuski
Son of the Marsh

Passion and violence are bubbling beneath the seemingly calm surface of everyday life

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2022
Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie,

The year is 1937. Counterintelligence officer Maurycy Jakubowski is leading an investigation into a series of mysterious murders somewhere in the marshes of Polesie. Today a part of Belarus, before the war it ran along the Polish-Soviet border. These are the Borderlands of the Second Polish Republic. The Wild East, forgotten by God and people. It is here, in mysterious circumstances, that the main character’s friend, Adam Staff – also a counterintelligence officer – disappears. This is a sensitive case with political undertones, because Polesie is ruled by an unusual man. Wacław Kostek-Biernacki is treated by the locals like a tsar. They believe that he has taken care of them and will protect them from harm. The view in Warsaw is very different – there, he is seen primarily as the force behind the detention camp in Bereza Kartuska, where the pre-war authorities unlawfully imprisoned opposition politicians. As if that weren’t enough, Kostek-Biernacki is suspected of Satanism due to his literary activity.

Polesie in Rzewuski’s vision is a land full of magic and beauty, but also danger. Pagan beliefs are still alive here, the landowners hold all the power, and the peasants live as if they were in serfdom. All of this evokes associations with the literary image of the American South in the novels of William Faulkner. Dawidgródek, where the action takes place, becomes the Twin Peaks of the Borderlands. Passion and violence are bubbling beneath the seemingly calm surface of everyday life. Son of the Marsh has more to offer than an efficiently constructed criminal plot. Perhaps more important is the fact that Paweł Rzewuski, just like Marek Krajewski in his stories from Breslau, knows how to build an atmosphere. This novel is a discovery, both in terms of an author with great potential, and the forgotten region of Polesie, which has yet to amass its own literature.

Mariusz Cieślik

Translated by Kate Webster

Selected samples

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