In all these things there was nothing really terrible or sickly. It all happened so naturally and peacefully as story-telling at mealtimes.
One day when we were eating our dinner out of the large, stoneware plates, and I was eager to discover the secret of their cracked structure as children tend to do, because everything around them is so much more interesting than the actual food – suddenly my grandma said: “You see, and this plate was full of blood”. This caught my attention immediately and I started searching right a way, wondering whether I would find traces of blood under my potatoes. It did not scare me, and neither was it meant to. My grandma often told curious anecdotes, which today seem too awful and inappropriate at mealtime, but back then, in the distant past of my childhood, they appeared quite ordinary. I would probably be surprised if someone told me that other children do not get to hear such stories.
In the world and the home where I was lucky to spend at least a part of my childhood and which was my escape afterwards, this sort of thing happened quite naturally. And now among so many memories, these return with perhaps the greatest frequency, not as something traumatic, but as a consolation and an encouragement.
“So one day my mother had a dream,” said grandma “that father returned – because he was out at war. We knew nothing of him, we did not know if he was still alive, or whether he had been captured. And my mother says: tomorrow your father will come, I have dreamt it, and I believe it. In the morning we set out to meet him all the way to the railway station in Hlinsk. And father really came, but he was completely exhausted, and sick, that’s why they released him, although the war had not yet finished. He somehow managed to walk home, but when he crossed the threshold, he fell down, and he could not get up again. We put him to bed and my mother brought this woman who was healing people in the area. The woman shaved his head and she put leeches upon it. Whenever one started sucking, she would immediately pull it away, squeeze out the blood to a plate just like this one, and she would put it on again. And so she kept doing until the plate was full of blood. So you see, it was just as I told you.”
“And what did you do with the blood?” I was curious.
“What was there to do, we poured it onto the dung heap”.
Onto the dung heap, and to the dung, and from the dung to the field, and from the field, further on. I was not surprised, after all this is what you do, and things return to the place they came from. Who could be surprised, or frightened, by this?
I still have a few of these clumsily large and somehow warped, yet pretty plates, and I still use them. I heard the whole story several times again yet, as this was the sort of conversation my grandma most willingly led at the peaceful Sunday table.
Also part of the ritual was the yeast cake and heavily sweetened coffee bean mixed with cereal grain roast. We called it “blackness” and it crowned the holiday mellow. Thus food, sweets, and blissful lethargy. Sometimes grandma would reach into the old sideboard to take out a death notice, parte, as they would call it, she read it allowed and acquainted us with the family genealogy, degrees of kinship, diseases and mysterious demises which happened in the neighbourhood. “You see,” grandma said, “this is the death notice of a boy just like you, and that one was kicked by a horse and then he died. Never approach cattle from behind. Remember that!” All was included therein and these papers often expressed more with their quality and ornaments than with the words themselves. Long before I learned to read, I was keenly looking through these testimonies of grief and liberation from the agony of pain. And, in fact, also of important warnings.
Already back then I realised how different these death notices were from each other. Among them there were parte of beautiful high-grade paper with a broad black margin, with the writing printed so clearly as in some royal privilege. These came from those olden days when my grandmother was born. There were also meagre paper scraps with a plain, faint black edge and blurry letters, testifying to the terrible decline of the era to which I myself was born.
Beauty in general from my earliest childhood was bound to death. Just as the plate and the blood upon it.
It sometimes happened when logs were brought to the kitchen from the large shed where wood was kept and where chicken’s heads were chopped off upon a large tree stump, the freshly hewn, light wood was thinly sprinkled with light blood. It looked so subtle, this combination of the fine drops of animal blood with freshly chopped wood.
It was not terrifying, if anything, it was strange.
That aesthetics of red was familiar to me also from many other circumstances. From that of pig slaughter, when the piglet’s blood mixed with snow in endless shades of pink. Or rowan berries, abandoned and pecked at by fieldfares, falling into the first, moist snow, in which they would freeze and end up shining with the blaze of the bloodiest rubies.
But there was yet another shade of red, another blood, another death.
My grandma and I used visit relatives in the village where she came from; we would walk there up the path leading across a steep slope with a roadside chapel. This was quite a feat for a small child, so on one dry and hot summer day, when I was again climbing up that hill and complaining that I couldn’t go on, grandma told me: “Look: Virgin Mary also walked this way, and she cried tears of blood”. She pointed to the purple flowers by the road side. “These are the tears of Virgin Mary. When she walked behind Jesus while he carried his cross, she cried the tears of blood, and these flowers grew upon them”. I forgot about the agony of walking, because I instantly transplanted to that place everything I knew of the Way of the Cross.
Yes, it was here, it was upon that hill over there that they crucified him, of course. I bent down and I saw in the dust of the road a deeply carved furrow made by the tortuously lugged beam of the crucifix. It was there, I think, that I first felt the weight of death, and not until many years later, that I understood the feeling of longing, which accompanied me on that hot summer day. I picked some of the flowers and looked at them closely. Hidden inside the unreal intensity of the old purple velvets of corolla petals, there were a few small, pearly tears.
When death, came it did not seem terrible either, on the contrary, sometimes it was bedazzling in its beauty.
When my great grandmother died, the room where she was laid in an open casket was decorated ceiling to the floor with black wallpaper decorated with a silver tinsel. Velvet, silver, and sparkling tassels were the kind of luxury I had not seen in the house until then. To be sure, in the church everything was obviously the most beautiful and golden, but it was also quite out of reach. This beauty on the other hand was something created here and indeed for us, and the more enchanting for it. It did not seem to me something awful to die, after I heard about it so many times out there. It was beautiful precisely in comparison with the world out there, behind the wall.
And the tombstone was beautiful as well. It was then that I first saw it open. “Wait, you will see that inside it looks just like a little room,” my grandma promised. Indeed, when the headstone was pushed aside, a sort of little chamber was revealed, and there were even pictures on the walls just like the ones we had at home – the Holy Trinity and the Coronation of Virgin Mary against blue background, shining with golden stars.
Upon the dry, sandy hill, where the cemetery rested, everything preserved perfectly.
Yet there were different cemeteries. The one on the gently sunny Polabian Lowland, whence my mother came, and another, in the cold and harsh Czechomoravian Highland, the land of my father. Between them, as if in a no-man’s land between light and darkness, I came to understand so much.
True, there were more cemeteries than that. I cannot forget the tiny cemetery of Saint Cunigunde in Polom, so pleasant, soothing, and sleepy, with a belfry through which you enter the burial ground and in whose gate stood two biers, the larger and the smaller one – for a grown-up coffin, and for a child’s. I used to lie down on the smaller bier and tried to imagine what it would be like to be carried in a coffin amidst the crying and so many flowers, just like in the funerals I had seen. I was disappointed when once I glimpsed inside a grave, freshly dug. It wasn’t a chamber with pictures, but a damp and miserable pit, and even the clay, or rather a sort of a stony aggregate, looked heavy and coarse. The church was also built of the same material, sharp stones gathered in the surrounding fields protruding from the old mortar.
The holy Mass was only held on the occasion of pilgrimages or church holidays, but the few sermons I heard here provided material for my childhood play. In fact by now they have all blended into one theme – the fame of the Crusades and their brave knights.
It’s here that I first heard the name of Godfrey who, when he was made King of Jerusalem, refused to wear a golden crown in the place where his Lord wore one of thorns. But above all, two bloody heraldic tales: the one of an ancestor of the House of Hapsburg, who slashed so many pagans that his white robe turned red all but for the place where he was wearing a broad belt fastened around his waist – from which it follows that a red shield with a white bar became his coat of arms; and the one about the wounded count of Barcelona in whose blood Saint Louis dipped his hand and marked the man’s hitherto empty shield with five bloody pallets.
Notwithstanding all these tales, I would not want to be buried there in that stone.
When I visited the nearby Jewish cemetery though, I was quite enchanted. An abandoned burial ground in the woods, overgrown with sparse yet tall grass, seemed to me no less than Paradise. It was one of those warm autumn days. Tombstones glistened with the rust of moss, a few sulphur-yellow mushrooms shone like little torch lights in the shade of the memorials, and everything was so distant, so far removed from the world. When I later told at home that this was the place I would like to be buried in, they told me it was not possible as I wasn’t Jewish. Okay, so I’ll become Jewish. “Then for sure you could not be a Crusader,” said grandma, and I found that too high a price to pay. I then abandoned that yearning.
No, really, in all that there is nothing terrible or fearsome: it had all already happened, and whenever I eat off the old stoneware plate, I hear a voice saying: “this plate was full of blood.”
But all the same. I visited the ossuary, the famous one in Sedlec by Kutná Hora, it was for umpteenth time, I don’t know which – all perfectly familiar artefacts. Pyramids of skulls, chandeliers of bones, ropes of vertebrae. A dazzling triumph of death, as it always was, but then, I noticed something which hitherto always escaped me. In the Schwarzenberg coat of arms, in one field, there’s a burning tree trunk, and the flame, this warm, bright, living flame is made of an old, dry, tailbone. How strange all that is…
Translated from Polish by Dorota Wąsik