Angelika Kuźniak

Literary reportage about preparing for death and attempts at planning it

For his coffin, many years before, I weaved him a sorochka. Or shirt, we say. Some say it’s for the wedding. Others – that it’s for dying. Sorochka from sorok: forty jobs to be done about it. Not that you sow flax, uproot it, dry it, scutch it, heckle it. Flax’s always been a lot of work. Good thing that flax isn’t afraid of frost and you can sow early. Pests won’t get at it. We had good soil, so the flax grew tall. When I was little, I would swing on a flax plait, because grandpa dried ropes on a kitchen beam. In Belarus we used to say: “no flax, no life”. Though flax itself doesn’t have much of a life, a hundred days, if that.

On long autumn evenings neighbours would come to my mother to spin. My mother sat at the spinning wheel too. The spindles whirred and tapped against the floor. You had to have nimble fingers, and a feel in them. My mother was old, but she could spin so thin, I’m telling you, thread like a spiderweb, like a ghost. So even, not even the tiniest knot. And when she made linen, the neighbours would go, ‘What linen, incredible, such linen out of flax’. Thick and soft-soft, like silk. They wrapped it around themselves, wondered what to sew. The thinnest was for shirts. For tablecloths, skirts; women embroidered wall hangings. The thicker kind was for runners, sheets. Coarse linen, the worst, rough and scratchy, was for potato sacks. Grandma sewed drawers out of it, but they itched something awful. She often dyed them dark blue, the white ones soon got dirty. You wrapped linen around candles and put them into the hands of a dying person. Old biddies would sit by kerosene lamps hanging from the beams, pale light flickered on the ceiling, and they spun and told stories. Long evenings, nothing to do, at least you had something to listen to. About ghosts, witches. There used to be plenty in the countryside. About the devils that gathered in the old abandoned mill. About the birdlike nocnitsas that prowl about at night. Or strigas with huge claws. If they suspected the dead person will be a striga, they poured sand into the coffin or put in a little bag of poppyseeds, so that he kept busy with counting the seeds, not tormenting people. Are you afraid of ghosts? Eh, you don’t want to admit.

Well, and then – it’s late, time to go home. If a woman lived nearby, that wasn’t too bad. Mother or father took a lamp out front, shone a light, stood there until the door squeaked in the next house. But the ones that lived far away, Antoś and Ignaś – he grew up as tall as a tree – had to walk them.

But… Into the coffin? A rosary! A holy picture! I put it on the sheet! And a handkerchief. A prayer book is a must. I don’t have black shoes, but some others will do. Not in colours. Not in white either. And a shawl, a shawl too. So they put it on my head. It looks so beautiful when it hugs the face. Ah! Saint Helena, my patron! There she is! I’ve prayed to her so much all my life. Even for better crops, she does that too. Maybe that’s why our potatoes were always huge, like cobblestones.

Excerpt translated by Marta Dziurosz

Angelika Kuźniak

Literary reportage about preparing for death and attempts at planning it

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2020
Translation rights: Wydawnictwo Literackie,
Foreign language translations: Kuzniak’s works have been published in Italy, Slovakia and Lithuania

According to Polish folk tradition, the community of family and neighbours would gather in a dead person’s house during the night before the funeral. It was called the empty night. The participants would stand around white-covered tables with a crucifix and candles, say the rosary and loudly sing the many stanzas of long mourning songs. There are areas where this tradition is still maintained, and it became Angelika Kuźniak’s point of departure for writing the book: affecting literary reportage about preparing for death and attempts at planning it. The author gives space mainly to voices of women from rural communities, who talk about how they want to leave this world. Kuźniak chose a theme which, in our fun-focused civilisation, might seem shocking.

‘When Antosiowa told me you wanted to come, I really thought you’re an odd bird: what young person wants to talk about death now, and look at burial clothes?’ This is how they react, but they gladly speak about how they buried their loved ones and how they want to be buried themselves, who will come to the funeral, what they will bring, how they imagine the event. The women show the clothes they have prepared, talk about how they’ve selected them; they bring up anecdotes and funeral customs (knocking the coffin against the door three times when it’s being carried out), speak about their life, their family and friends. All this serves to reveal beliefs, superstitions (if a body remains unburied on a Sunday, someone else in the family will die soon), dreams, folk notions about death: a mixture of Catholic teachings and a plethora of traditional beliefs.

The author preserves the original style of the speakers’ dialectal expression, and her interlocutors unveil an extraordinary, obscure part of Polish rural culture. The material, gathered over the space of more than ten years, accustoms the reader to death, shows how alien our culture of origin is to us today, and how difficult to understand we find it.

Grzegorz Filip

Translated by Marta Dziurosz

Selected samples

Julita Deluga
Wojtek Wawszczyk, Tomasz Leśniak
Anna Kańtoch
Andrzej Bobkowski
Wisława Szymborska
Zdzisław Kranodębski
Andrzej Nowak
Wiesław Myśliwski
Jarosław Jakubowski
Anna Piwkowska
Roman Honet
Miłosz Biedrzycki
Wojciech Chmielewski
Aleksandra Majdzińska
Tomasz Różycki
Maciej Hen
Jakub Nowak
Elżbieta Cherezińska
歐菈·沃丹斯卡-波欽斯卡(Ola Woldańska-Płocińska)
作者:沃伊切赫·維德瓦克(Wojciech Widłak), 插圖:亞歷珊德拉·克珊諾夫斯卡(Aleksandra Krzanowska)
文字:莫妮卡·烏特尼-斯特魯加瓦(Monika Utnik-Strugała), 概念和插圖:皮歐特·索哈(Piotr Socha)
作者:亞格涅絲卡·斯特爾馬什克(Agnieszka Stelmaszyk)
尤安娜·日斯卡(Joanna Rzyska)、阿嘉妲·杜德克(Agata Dudek)、瑪格熱妲·諾瓦克(Małgorzata Nowak) Druganoga出版社,華沙2021
艾麗莎·皮歐特夫斯卡(Eliza Piotrowska)
米科瓦伊·帕辛斯基(Mikołaj Pasiński)、瑪格熱妲·赫爾巴(Gosia Herba)
歐菈·沃丹斯卡-波欽斯卡(Ola Woldańska-Płocińska)
瑪麗安娜·奧克雷亞克(Marianna Oklejak)
拉法爾·科希克(Rafał Kosik)
亞歷珊德拉·沃丹斯卡-波欽斯卡(Aleksandra Woldańska-Płocińska)
巴托米耶·伊格納邱克(Bartłomiej Ignaciuk), 阿嘉塔·洛特-伊格納邱克(Agata Loth-Ignaciuk)
文字和插圖:皮歐特·卡爾斯基(Piotr Karski)
文字和插圖:皮歐特·卡爾斯基(Piotr Karski)
羅珊娜·延澤耶夫斯卡-弗魯貝爾 (Roksana Jędrzejewska-Wróbel)
作者:普舎米斯瓦夫·維赫特洛維奇(Przemysław Wechterowicz) 插圖:艾米莉·吉烏巴克(Emilia Dziubak)
尤斯提娜·貝納雷(Justyna Bednarek) 插圖:丹尼爾·德拉圖爾(Daniel De Latour)
尤安娜·巴托西克(Joanna Bartosik)
瑪格熱妲·斯文多夫斯卡(Małgorzata Swędrowska)、尤安娜·巴托西克(Joanna Bartosik)
Jan Kochanowski
Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz
Olga Tokarczuk
Władysław Stanisław Reymont
An Ancient Tale
Stanisław Rembek
Elżbieta Cherezińska
Henryk Sienkiewicz
Maria Dąbrowska
Stefan Żeromski
Bronisław Wildstein
Zbigniew Herbert / Wisława Szymborska
Karol Wojtyła
Wiesław Myśliwski
Czesław Miłosz
Anna Świrszczyńska / Melchior Wańkowicz
Tadeusz Borowski / Gustaw Herling-Grudziński
Wiesław Helak
Góra Tabor
Adriana Szymańska
Paweł Rzewuski
Mariusz Staniszewski
Radek Rak
Urszula Honek
Kazimierz Orłoś
Rafał Wojasiński
Antonina Grzegorzewska
Józef Mackiewicz
Tobiasz Piątkowski, Marek Oleksicki
Daniel Odija
Bronisław Wildstein
Józef Mackiewicz
Józef Mackiewicz
Witold Szabłowski
Andrzej Muszyński
Wiesław Helak
Bartosz Jastrzębski
Dariusz Sośnicki
Łukasz Orbitowski
Jakub Małecki
אנדז'יי ספקובסקי
Elżbieta Cherezińska
Wiesław Myśliwski
Jakub Małecki
Aleksandra Lipczak
Jacek Dukaj
Wit Szostak
Bartosz Biedrzycki
Zyta Rudzka
Maciej Płaza
Wojciech Chmielewski
Paweł Huelle
Przemysław "Trust" Truściński
Angelika Kuźniak
Wojciech Kudyba
Michał Protasiuk
Stanisław Rembek
Krzysztof Karasek
Elżbieta Isakiewicz
Artur Daniel Liskowacki
Jarosław Jakubowski
Zbigniew Stawrowski
Szczepan Twardoch
Wojciech Chmielarz
Robert Małecki
Zygmunt Miłoszewski
Anna Piwkowska
Dominika Słowik
Wojciech Chmielewski
Barbara Banaś
Rafał Mikołajczyk
Jerzy Szymik
Waldemar Bawołek
Julia Fiedorczuk
Jakub Szamałek
Witold Szabłowski
Jacek Dukaj
Grzegorz Górny, Janusz Rosikoń
Paweł Piechnik
Andrzej Strumiłło


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Piotr Mitzner
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Wacław Holewiński
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Wiesław Helak
Urszula Zajączkowska
Marek Stokowski
Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki
Jakub Małecki
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Małgorzata Rejmer
Rafał Wojasiński
Wojciech Kudyba
Włodzimierz Bolecki
Jerzy Liebert
Wojciech Zembaty
Wojciech Chmielarz
Bogdan Musiał
Joanna Siedlecka
Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski
Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz
Marek Bieńczyk
Leszek Elektorowicz
Adrian Sinkowski
Szymon Babuchowski
Lech Majewski
Weronika Murek
Agnieszka Świętek
Stanisław Szukalski
Barbara Klicka
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Jakub Małecki
Szczepan Twardoch
Wiesław Helak
Maria Wilczek-Krupa
Anna Kańtoch
Rafał Kosik
Paweł Sołtys
Dorota Masłowska
Wiesław Myśliwski
Martyna Bunda
Olga Tokarczuk
Various authors
Mariola Kruszewska
Waldemar Bawołek
Marek Oleksicki, Tobiasz Piątkowski
Wojciech Tomczyk
Urszula Zajączkowska
Marzanna Bogumiła Kielar
Ks. Robert Skrzypczak
Bronisław Wildstein
Anna Bikont
Magdalena Grzebałkowska
Wojciech Orliński
Klementyna Suchanow
Andrzej Franaszek
Natalia Budzyńska
Marian Sworzeń
Aleksandra Wójcik, Maciej Zdziarski
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Wacław Holewiński
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