True Pain For My False Friends
by Matt Dojny
Back then, Agata and I lived twenty-five miles outside of Brziszcze, in a jerrybuilt shack of timber-scrap and tar-paper that sat in the middle of a desiccated flax field—perpetually gray with hoarfrost—which was adjacent to the insignificant and little-frequented train depot that I was the sole employee of. These environs contained as much bleakness and drear as any etching of Chemaski’s, and yet I would venture to say that, in retrospect, I was happier there than anywhere else I’ve ever been.
In the evenings, as Agata and I sat at our table after supper, we could hear the sound of the night-train hauling itself through the starry darkness, along with the sound of the wind pushing and pulling against the thin walls of our home, and the attendant creak of the nails being slowly extracted from the eaves by this same wind; and we would sit, Agata and I, heads cocked, listening raptly to these night-events as though listening to an intricately-plotted detective program on a wireless. When we grew tired of this listening, we’d drink morilka and play szraczke and speak lightly of inconsequential things, until the oil in the lamp fell below a certain pre-determined level (demarcated by a graphite line drawn one-third from the bottom of the lamp’s base), at which point we knew it was time to retire to bed.
This bed was by far our most outstanding piece of furniture—a wedding gift, built by Agata’s cousin Fryderyk out of fine hard cherrywood he’d stolen from the orchard of his neighbor, the landowner Trzebuniak. Agata and I screwed one another in that bed each night to stay warm, and screwed to be companionable, and screwed because we were, at the time, hoping to conceive a child; and, surely, we both experienced an illicit thrill knowing that, when we screwed, we screwed on stolen cherry.
We were newlyweds, and so, despite our isolation and the starkness of our surroundings, we believed ourselves to be immeasurably happy and comfortable, and not wanting for much of anything, including human company. The stationmaster, Sobczak, would come to our home on the second Sunday of every month to deliver my salary and join us for a cup of sherbata, and he was the only living soul we’d regularly see, apart from glimpsing blurry faces of gentlemen and ladies in the windows of passing trains.
Because we were so unaccustomed to visitations from the outside world, it was all the more shocking to us when, one evening as we were finishing our bowls of broth-and-turnip-greens, a rap-rap-rap sounded on our door. Agata and I each stared curiously at the other, wondering if we’d imagined it. Then there came another knock, and I slowly rose to my feet, went over to the bureau, and took out the slazcher that I kept in the topmost drawer. Agata opened her mouth as if to speak, but said nothing; and, holding the knife against my leg, I approached the door and asked who was there.
There was a pause, and I could hear nothing but the wind screaming in the trees and the creaking complaints of our wall-boards. Then a voice—a voice I shall never forget, a voice like a cazancka playing far away on a summer afternoon—said, “Oh, oh, it is I… Little Natasza! Please let me in, it’s frightfully cold out here!”
My wife leapt to her feet. “Could it be?” she cried. “Little Natasza, here?” She pushed me aside and flung the door open, and there stood a vision of a small, green-eyed woman dressed head-to-toe in black. Agata gasped and enveloped the tiny stranger with her arms, weeping.
I watched this scene dumbstruck, then found my tongue and asked who our visitor might be.
“It is Little Natasza!” said Agata. “The wife of my father’s brother, Augustyn Petrovich!”
Agata’s Uncle Augustyn was a brewer who lived near Lvoz—a “black sheep,” long estranged from the family due to his affiliation with the cult of the Swedenborgians known in the papers as The New Church. I had never set eyes upon the man myself, though I had heard tales of his great physical strength, and his uxoriousness, and of his clever wife who had once trained a whooper swan to fetch her sewing-basket.
Little Natasza sobbed, saying, “Oh, dearest Agata, have you not heard? My Augustyn has died! He contracted the kworczka and has ascended to join the Holy Everlasting Love of Our One True Lord Christ!”
As the two women both began to wail and gnash their teeth as though they were a pair of gray wolf bitches, I sat down at the table and poured myself a drink, observing them. Little Natasza, despite her maturity—she had perhaps 40 years—was a striking woman, with an angular, dark face, a smart figure, and delicate hands like a bird’s. The mourning attire she wore was fashionably cut, and her kapelusz was trimmed with mink and black zasznurowa. Though her cheeks shone with tears, there was something strange and merry in her eyes that made me watch her closely.
After the crying had subsided, and our floor was soaked with the salty eye-water of aunt and niece alike, Little Natasza lowered her bottom onto a stool and removed her hat and long black gloves. She explained that she was en route to visit her mother and father in Gliwice, and had heard from Cousin Fryderyk that Agata and I were living in this God-forsaken locale, and so had decided to stop off and pay us a visit. “And I have a wedding gift for you,” she said, opening her satchel and producing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut.
I now wish that I never laid eyes upon that accursed bottle, destroyer of my life’s true joy.
Agata and I stared agog at the Champagne, then effusively thanked the little woman for her generosity. I picked up the bottle, which was still cold from the night air, and said, “We shall drink this tonight!”
“Oh, no,” said Little Natasza. “You should wait until there is a just cause for celebration before you imbibe it.”
“I can think of no better occasion than the company of a long-lost relative,” I proclaimed. “Do you not agree, Agata?”
Agata simpered and petted her aunt on the shoulder. “Absolutely. We must celebrate this visit from my dear Auntie, whom I have not seen since I was a girl of nine!”
“Then it’s decided,” said I, and I proceeded to remove the wire-and-foil top from the bottle, as I’d once seen a fine gentleman do in an engraving by Czyk. Because I was inexpert, however, the cork slipped right through my trembling fingers, shooting across the room with such force that it smashed a small round cork-shaped hole in the window-pane. Agata and Natasza shrieked with laughter and terror at the sound of the breaking glass, and a tentacle of wind slithered into the room and whipped at our faces until I plugged up the hole with a dishrag. For this act of quick-thinking, I received a good-humored smattering of applause from the women.
We had but two wooden cups in our cupboard, so Agata and Little Natasza shared one, and I drank from the other. The Champagne tasted like nothing I’d ever experienced before: it was as though my tongue were the arid tundra of the Homincka Forest, showered with glittering sleet. Very rapidly, the three of us grew inebriated, and the memory of the untimely death of Uncle Augustyn was momentarily forgotten, replaced with general hilarity and inanity.
We spoke of many silly things, and I found myself spewing a great deal of nonsense, all of which seemed to delight the women. After a time, Little Natasza wiped a tear of laughter from her pretty black eyelash and began, “Once, in Gdorsk, I met an Englishman—”
“An Englishman!” exclaimed Agata. “Do you mean, a true Englishman?”
“Indeed. He drank tea with milk and sugar, rather than lemon and mriód, and wore a splendidly tall hat made of felt, and was the handsomest gentleman I’ve ever laid my eyes upon—aside from my departed husband (may the Holy Love of Our One True Lord Christ accept his soul)…” Little Natasza paused here, frowning with feigned-seeming sadness, then sniggered, making it clear that she’d had no love for her deceased husband, and suggesting that she had, in all likelihood, frigged the Englishman.
“…and this Englishman,” she continued, “whose name was Winterbottom, told me an uproarious quip regarding Champagne. In London, they raise a glass at the dining-table and say: ‘Champagne for my true friends, and true pain for my false friends!’ Ha ha ha! Of course,” added Little Natasza, “the pun is more sensible in English.”
“Do you know what I like to say?” I raised my glass and shouted, “Zlolabym hie kutelkz przid mob, nei czołowagi lobotomii!”
Agata clapped her hands together like a child, and Little Natasza cried, “How clever you are, Mateusza Dojnia!” Truthfully, my quip was one that I’d often heard repeated at the tavern, but I allowed the women to believe that its source was my own cleverness—for I had not been made to feel clever for many months—and the three of us had a rollicking laugh.
I was in my cups now, the Champagne almost gone, and, sitting across from the niece and the aunt, I could not help but compare my wife to her kin. Agata has a plainness about her features that dissipates only when she is laughing or crying, whereas Little Natasza’s dark beauty was undeniable, and seemed to be blooming in the flickering lamplight with each passing moment—increasing in luster as my Agata grew duller—until, finally, my wife hardly produced any impression upon my consciousness whatsoever, and all of my attention was directed towards Natasza, Natasza, Natasza. God help me.
“I don’t know how you stand it out here in the boon-docks!” said the little woman, laughing cruelly. “Miles from civilized society, without a wireless to entertain you—I should think you’d go mad!”
“I think perhaps I have already gone mad,” said I, reaching across the table and placing my large, calloused hands over Little Natasza’s, feeling the quivering life in her fingers as if I were holding a small animal that I’d found curled up on the forest floor. My hands remained atop Natasza’s until Agata’s white-hot stare made the side of my face burn, forcing me to sit back. Oh, I thought, to touch you again, Natasza, if even just for a moment—I could die happy!
“We… are content,” said Agata carefully. “We hope to raise a family here. We have simple needs.”
“Yes, we are simple,” said I, getting to my feet. “We are simple block-heads, sitting in our simple cottage, sucking down our simple gruel for breakfast and supper, staring at one another’s simple face all day and all night, until one day, hopefully soon, we shall be buried simply in the frosty earth, our eyeballs eaten by the simple worm, and our skin melting from our simple, leering skulls—” and I snatched up the empty bottle of Champagne and raised it above my head, my eyes burning with cold fire as I smashed it on the floor.
Agata let out a choked sob and crumpled into a heap, weeping horribly, and Little Natasza began to laugh, her white teeth flashing in the lamp-light, until she grew more and more hysterical, crazed-seeming, and the room was spinning as she collapsed, falling towards the floor. I arrested her fall with my arms, and pressed her bosom to my own.
The events that occurred over the minutes and hours and days thereafter sped past me like a ciné-film played at high speed—an ecstatic nightmare in which I experienced greater physical pleasures than I have ever known, and also more withering sorrows. And now, it is as if I have awoken from a terrible, wonderful dream, and both women are gone (one in the ground, the other God knows where), and I am alone here in my shit-colored shack by the side of the train tracks, listening to the cry of the train-whistle in the night, and the cries of the wolves in the hills, and the cry of the terrible, insistent wind.
Matt Dojny‘s first novel, The Festival of Earthly Delights, was published by Dzanc Books in June 2012. It was called “a perfect summer read, armchair travel in a higher key” by the L.A. Times, and was named one of the “5 Best 2012 Debuts By Brooklyn Novelists (So Far)” by The L Magazine. Visit him at www.mattdojny.com.