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
Literary reportage about preparing for death and attempts at planning it
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.
Translated by Marta Dziurosz
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