Little Alicja

Liliana Hermetz
Little Alicja
  • Nisza
    Warszawa 2014
    192 pages
    ISBN: 9788362795161

Little Alicja, the first novel by Liliana Hermetz, winner of the Conrad Award for finest literary debut of 2015, is subtitled “A novel or perhaps a play.” A novel or a play? One would like to respond – both. And this would be no exaggeration, for this book of modest size contains everything that prose and drama have to offer. Yet Hermetz's debut is is more than formal virtuosity – it is, above all, a piece about a relationship between a mother and a daughter, about family memories, individual identity, and the forming of intimacy, which by no means evolves naturally.

And everything began thus: the daughter recalls how once she was sitting with her mother in an orchard, on a blanket. And suddenly her mother is interrupted by a problem with her leg prosthesis. The daughter is fuzzy on the details, but she does recall the sense of helplessness and fear – that her mother needed help, that she was now dependent on them, the small children. After this striking prose image, this ironic family idyll, the protagonist of Little Alicja casts back her memory. Family images, fragments of recollections in the second half appear as arguments in a discussion between the Narrator (the daughter) and the Ghost (the mother). It is a strange discussion, which might make us expect a coming-to-terms, in which the daughter settles the score with her mother and the suffering she has experienced. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hermetz surpasses the grudges and pain, unveiling the illusory nature of the whole conversation with the Ghost. The painful recognition of motherly love, of the insincere family communication with all its pat phrases, of the closeness between mother and daughter that was indeed far from “natural,” is rendered in childlike rhymes, and furnished with the grotesque scaffolding of absurdity and irony. She introduces a mocking chorus and uses generous doses of black humor. All of this creates a clashing effect – the language of colloquial rhymes and vulgar comebacks seems a poor match for the sublimity of difficult experiences. The Ghost and the Narrator communicate through literary cliches, stock phrases, and cultural stereotypes, but this lends an odd credibility of their conversations. Hermetz shows that the truth of pain is always a question of language and its customary rules of expression, and family (mother/daughter) suffering is a highly linguistic experience.

Little Alicja demonstrates how far motherly love is mythologized in culture, and the difficulty both mothers and daughters have in enduring the burden of the myth. But the aim here is not to create an anti-myth, or to show the pain, oppression, and difficulties of motherhood. This would have involved merely inverting value systems. Hermetz does not invert myths, anti-myths, and stereotypes; she turns them upside-down, flips them on their head. This is not in order to ultimately restore a normalcy to mother-daughter relationships. During the conversation between the Narrator and the Ghost it turns out that “normalcy” is a spontaneous and negotiated concept. Restoring normalcy would only mean initiating a mutual agreement to return to a previously-defined state. This is why Little Alicja is not a book that demythologizes maternal love. It shows something far more important and challenging: that only in the course of a conversation, albeit the most trying, can one try to understand how one is entangled in both “myth” and “truth.” “And I loved… as far as I could,” the mother confesses to her daughter. Is this normal? But what does “normal” really mean?

- Katarzyna Trzeciak

Translated by Soren Gauger

Picture 1

In the Orchard

We're sitting on a blanket, absolutely no idea what kind. Zet is there. That's for sure. And Jacek. Probably. The straps on Mama's prosthesis tore off. Her prosthesis is the kind you used to get in those days. It is held on by leather straps that stick out and wrap around her hips. I don't know exactly, I suppose I didn't get to see too often how they were attached.

It is summer, not sure if it is too warm. We are small children. Is it possible we don't know how to get home by ourselves, though it's not far away? Perhaps. Mama is unable to walk. She manages to get up and hop a few times on one leg, but there is a great deal of grass in the orchard, it is full of sticky and tangled weeds. Mama is unable to make headway.

I recall total helplessness. And terror at what will happen next. But not Mama's. Ours. We have a mother who cannot return home with us. We cannot help her. We are stuck in the orchard forever!

Was it then that I thought that I would no longer be able to demand anything from her? That I had no right? Because it was she who needed my help?

Mama begins to shout:

“Mieeeeeteeek! Mieeeeeteeek!”

And then:

“Staaaaaaszkaaa! Staaaaaaszkaaa! Maryyyyyśkaa!”

And finally one of the Mieteks, our next-door neighbor, though the other one lives closer to the orchard, hears her and comes running. He goes back for his hammer and nails and fixes the prosthesis. I guess that's how it went.

I don't remember any other dramatic scenes with the prosthesis. Well, there was one more, but I know it only from Mama's telling it, explaining why she got mad at Burdzicha, the neighbor from across the way. The neighbor's legs are both in fine working order. And they're probably strong, because she's quite tall and hefty. Once, before I was born, Mama had a prosthesis breakdown. Or perhaps she had yet to get a prosthesis, and she was walking on crutches. She fell. She couldn't get up. She got wedged in between the household appliances. She called out for help and Burdzicha came running. She picked my mother up, plopped her down somewhere, maybe dressed her injuries. And she brought her famous borscht with potatoes, so that Mama could have a bite to eat.

It was only several hours later that Father and Grandma K. returned from the fields. Or from town. In those days the two of them rode in a carriage with rubber wheels to sell calves or pigs, or to get fertilizer.

Some time later Mama and Burdzicha quarreled about something, and Burdzicha chided her:

“If I hadn't picked you up back then, you'd still be lying there, and you'd have starved to death! If I hadn't brought you borscht and potatoes!”

[…]

Picture VI

Scrambled Eggs, or: First It Was Him

Mama's often gone. She leaves for the shop in the morning – she has to open up so people from the village can buy their bread. Sometimes she makes me breakfast, but not too often. Grandma K. does that, and I don't think it makes her happy. So much work to do, and here's another chore. She complains of a headache and has the long face of a woman who lives a hard life.

“Oh sure, sure! I suppose I'll get to rest in the afterlife.”

I would comfort Grandma K., if only it were possible. I want to throw myself around her neck and say something sweet, but she brushes me off.

“Ah, go on, what are you going to do, kiss me? Go eat! And drink your milk!”

She goes out to the stable, to tend the cows or the pigs. So I eat what she's cooked me alone. Bread and milk, maybe milk toast. Sometimes I get to eat butter made by Grandma K. in a wooden churn and lumped on a plate. Grandma K. always makes little drawings in the butter, little frowning faces. She does this with a teaspoon, less for decoration than by habit. The butter smells wonderful.

I like to watch her make butter. That is, I like to watch Grandma K. make it, because “nothing gets done by itself.” I keep peeking into the churn, oblivious to how my face gets splattered with greasy droplets. I ask: “Now? Is it ready now? Show me, Grandma?” And I am always astonished by Grandma K.'s patience in making those monotonous strokes of the plunger. First the milk becomes thicker and thicker, then a crust forms on the sides of the churn. More and more. And although it always seems impossible that the fluid white cream should turn into a solid, and though again I get the feeling I missed that crucial magical moment of transformation, it occurs nonetheless. Grandma K. scoops it out into a large bowl or deep dish with a wooden spoon, because drops of buttermilk will flow from the butter mound for some time yet. Grandma K. pours the buttermilk into a clay pot, and we greedily drink it up. Butter is made in the afternoon. Then each of us gets a hunk of fresh bread from a round loaf, the kind you seldom see nowadays. We smear this fresh bread with freshly-made butter and washed down with buttermilk. The taste is unforgettable.

But for breakfast there's generally bread with no butter. Father gets eggs cooked different ways. For us scrambled eggs is a special breakfast that Mama cooks us on Sunday or when we are sick, or when Grandma K. has managed to squirrel away lots of eggs and not all of them have been sent to town in bag lunches or to sell. No one will ever know how to do scrambled eggs like that again. All I know is that Mama beat the eggs well, added flour at a certain (which?) moment, and added something (what? Maybe milk?) else. There was always a lot of scrambled eggs, it tasted different from fried eggs, and the color was far brighter. Then there was bread. And ersatz coffee with milk. When Mama made us scrambled eggs she became less pensive, she even brightened up. And perhaps that was the whole secret to the success of her scrambled eggs.     

And the Chorus says:

You give him all the eggs. And for the children? This is serious. How are they supposed to grow up? Their mother has to get that into her head. Children need pampering too.

[…]

Picture VIII

I've Died, or: Save Me

You had your death. Sometimes, when we were nearby and were playing something, though mainly we were gravitating toward you, you died. You flopped down on the bed, the lawn chair, the couch, you closed your eyes and you said: “I'm dead.” We knew it was a joke. At the start. And we said: “Stop it, no fooling around, we know you're only kidding.” But you didn't react.

“Stop it, Mama! Open your eyes! This minute! We don't believe you anyway!”

“Mama, this is stuuupid. Open your eyes. We're not afraid, so come on.”

We tried to tickle you. No good. Then for a minute we pretended it didn't matter to us, though I could see from Zet's face that he was about to cry. He was generally the first to cry, because he believed it was true. But I cried too. Only when we'd cried for a bit, louder and louder, and then began kissing you on the mouth, the eye, the forehead, wherever we could, you opened your eyes and laughed at us with the kind of laugh that ought not to exist, because it is dreadful and unbearable for a child. We were ashamed of our spontaneous compassion, and you laughed at us. You played that cruel game with us for many years, and we let ourselves be tricked time and again.  

Maybe you really were in fact cruel? And you were a great actress? In the end you were able to create a mood of horror and mystery when you said: “The crime has gone to plan, a woman's killed a man, then she buried him in nook, of the meadow by the brook... In a garden safe and sound, lilies grow upon the ground, grow, oh flower, grow straight and tall, as our man lies deep withall.” As you spoke this your facial expression changed entirely, your eyes went wide as saucers – who knows how you did it – and you modulated your voice just so.

“Then in blood from head to shoe, this husband-killing shrew, runs through meadows through the woods...”

“Go to the inn, for something in me feels there's someone on our heels...”

That theater of yours was plenty macabre, but I rather liked it, in a way, because it made you seem more independent. You showed that you could focus on something other than your husband. You could stop wondering where he was, if he was cheating on you. For a moment you could focus on us.

Because apart from that, all you did was shout at us. That we forgot to do something, that we were arguing, or fighting, that we should stop complaining. But Jacek really hadn't shared the pudding fair and square! He'd taken the biggest helping on a big plate, and Zet and I just got small ones.Sometimes I told you:

“If you're going to shout at us like that we'll go to Staszka Majchrowska and ask her if she'll be our mama.”

“She's already got her own children, she's got Malina and Zdziś. Why should she want you?” you answered.

“She doesn't shout at her children the way you do!”

“Because they're not as naughty as you are. She doesn't have to shout.”

But you felt a bit bad. So we'd got what we wanted.

But in fact we always knew that we couldn't demand anything from Mama, that nothing could be expected from her. She was always either busy, or sad, or at least moody, and had no interest in playing with us. We could see she was worried, that she was anxious. We knew what she was thinking about (what time he would return, and the state he would be in). We were thinking about that too. We had a silent community, waiting for our misfortune.

And the chorus says:

Sad be the children, sad be the times. Is he already on his way? Don't look out for him, go sit together with your children. Play with them.

[…]

Mama.

The Great Absence.

The Phantom Mother.

In beautiful French dresses.

If today she could speak, what would she say about those days? What would she remember?

Perhaps she can speak honestly in the place where she now resides.

There would be so much to talk about.

Motherhood, for instance. A big topic.

So, Mama – shall we begin?

[…]

Scene 1

The narrator is sitting by her computer, but she could also be sitting at her desk with a quill pen, or at a normal table. She could also be sitting in an armchair, or even on a red faux-leather couch.

GHOST:

What do you want from me? Why have you always wanted something from me?! It gets on my nerves.

NARRATOR:

Praise the Spirits of the Lord! Who could this be?

GHOST:

Praising the Lord won't make me come. But the “spirit” part is right.

NARRATOR:

Mama!

GHOST:

So what do you want? Speak! What have you always wanted from me?

NARRATOR:

Finding her tongue.

Me?! What have I always wanted from you? Unfortunately, I haven't wanted anything at all. I've never forced myself on you. I've always left you alone.

GHOST:

Alone? I was never alone! Not with those constant expectant looks of yours! That sorrow!

NARRATOR:

Sorrow? I was never sorrowful. I never wanted anything. I never even crawled up onto your lap like other children.

GHOST:

It would have been better if you had. I might have hugged you...

NARRATOR:

What did you want, for me to ask you? To plead? To weep?

GHOST:

Well, I guess that's what children do.

NARRATOR:

Maybe I never was a child.

GHOST:

Oh right! You were so; and a terrible, difficult, and ghastly one at that. […] Ever since you were born. You screamed through the nights, you kept us awake. How many sleepless nights I spent!

NARRATOR:

I suppose that's normal when you've got a newborn.

(To herself: My daughter began sleeping through the night fairly quickly. But I won't mention that to her.)

GHOST:

Except you wouldn't sleep in the day or in the night.

NARRATOR:

I don't really think that's possible. You're exaggerating.

GHOST:

Unfortunately it is possible. And it's true. I rocked you for hours, I crept out on tiptoe, and five minutes later I'd hear your “wah, wah, wah.” My energy was drained. Daddy took you in his arms and rocked you for the next half hour. Everyone in the house walked on tiptoe. Then again, a few minutes later: “wah, wah, wah.” Then grandma did the same. It was enough to drive you mad.

NARRATOR:

That's why you once pushed me so hard in my buggy that I flew through the room, the kitchen, and the vestibule? It's only by accident I'm still alive, you might say.

GHOST:

Oh, I didn't push you so hard, don't get carried away. Can you even imagine the torture I went through?! We were exhausted.

[…]

NARRATOR:

Interrupts.

And what happened next, Mama?

GHOST:

What next, what next... I started to feel happy it was a girl. I had always wanted a girl. While I was pregnant I thought about how I would dress her and comb her hair. As I fell asleep I imagined how lovely she would be. Things got worse when they brought her to feed. She pulled and tugged at me. My breasts were sore. I was sore all over, I couldn't hold myself up straight. That was torture. The nurses started giving her – I mean, you – the bottle.

NARRATOR:

Now everyone wants to breastfeed, because it's better for the child. There's lots of talk about that.

(She thinks out loud: But you know, Mama, my daughter had no problem taking to the breast, right from the start. Except that at the beginning there was nothing in those breasts. I abused her with a breast pump – I gave the little one my breast, and at the same time Żipi surreptitiously slipped the bottle with siphoned milk into her mouth. That was our first parental fraud.)

GHOST:

Your dad was happy to have a daughter. He laughed a great deal when he came into the hospital. I looked a bit better. He kissed me: “Haneczka, Haneczka.” He reeked of vodka.

NARRATOR:

Oh no, you could have spared me that! Vodka right off the bat. Have mercy, Mama!

(She thinks: My heart is going to break, and she'll hear it crack.)

I imagined he had come to see you with a bouquet of tulips. He was happy. Outside the hospital window winter was letting up, it was gray from the dirty snow, but in the afternoon the sun shone like it was almost spring. He brought a blouse as a present. A white one, very pretty. It was nylon, in a drawstring bag. You wore it for ages. I thought you had wonderful memories from that hospital.

GHOST:

I'm afraid that was just the story you made up.

[...]

NARRATOR:

Wait! You can't just go off like that! Why are you always running away from me? You can't do that!

(to the audience: She looks at me triumphantly and with a gesture she reminds me that she is a Ghost, that I can't catch her. I can't do anything to her.)

Mama, wait! Just tell me at least... if you loved me.

(to the audience: I myself can't believe that I really said that. I would have taken back that question, but it was too late. It dropped and rang out like a bell, vibrating long after it was struck. In a parish church.

No, that's pointless, why am I asking her, why am I even talking to her. I'm no more than an overgrown little girl, dammit. I have my own daughter and it's her I should be minding, it's her I should be loving.

She went away, hobbling on a cane, thumping her prosthesis as she went. She didn't just evaporate like a ghost – not at all. She didn't even turn around. Well, I won't be chasing her. I couldn't catch her in real life, and I won't be able to now.

She opened the door. Where did it lead? What's there?)

VOICE:

Is your name Alicja?

NARRATOR:

No.

VOICE:

Go back to where you came from.

NARRATOR:

Wishes she could retreat, but she remains.

And who are you to give me orders?

VOICE:

You always listened to me.

NARRATOR:

And I suppose that wasn't the best decision.

I don't even know if she loved me.

VOICE:

Forget it. You don't have to know. You can live without knowing.

NARRATOR: 

Maybe I can. But I don't want to.

VOICE:
She had it hard. Remember that.

NARRATOR:

Maybe I don't give a shit, huh? I can't be justifying her forever. After all, she was responsible for me.

VOICE:

Stop it. It's all in the past. I'm cold, Mama. And other things. Cut it out, before you start wallowing in regrets. Give in. I'm giving you good advice. There's a door behind you. Go through it.

NARRATOR:

No! That's the kitchen door to a room in our old home. It is held shut with a grass-green belt from Mama's old dress. Because there was no one to fix the lock. I don't want to go through there. I won't be able to close it behind me.

VOICE:

I'll take care of that. Don't worry. Go!

NARRATOR:

Oh no! Not you! I've had enough of you watching over me! Scram! Get out of here! Beat it!

The lights go out.

[…]

Scene 3

GHOST:

Stop it. All in all, not everything was so bad. And anyway, can you really know who you're marrying. The choice... who knows how much it was really up to me... I wanted to be free... Sometimes I dreamed he was gone. That you kids were gone.

NARRATOR:

What?! And where would have had us go?! To live with Grandma K.?

GHOST:

No. I mean that you had never been there in the first place. I have both my legs. I'm a paramedic in a field hospital...

NARRATOR:

Stop it, Mama! I'm not writing about the uprising. That stuff doesn't concern me at all. If you want, I'll put you in touch with the right people.

GHOST:

What's with you and the uprising?! I was too young, anyway. But when I was sixteen I took a course to be a paramedic. I dreamed of working somewhere during wartime. Getting away. With other girls. With doctors. Only once did I dare to tell Mama that I had such dreams. And she said: “Sit at home on your ass! And don't you dare come talking to me with this stuff again! Feh! No more of that! Have you got two arms and two legs? Are you sick of having them?!”

NARRATOR:

(To the audience: Her face changes. I now see a woman with solid, masculine features. Gentle, yet determined eyes. Her hair is like in a black-and-white photograph, and Mama and two other girls are posing in the snow. They are wearing skirts, jackets, and paramedic bags. Their mouths are painted. And on their heads are white side caps with crosses on them. Their arm bands have the same sign. That photograph stands in my living room. I've always adored it. Only now do I understand why. I can see the woman she might have been, but wasn't. Or she was. In her dreams.)

Mama!

(To one side: My voice is trembling. Again, I wish I could hold her. And she goes blurry again. The cigarette smoke returns.)

GHOST:

Yeees. Those were pretty dreams. I bore no grudge against Mama for forbidding me. You would have let your daughter, if you had one, go somewhere far away, on a “mission,” as they say nowadays?

NARRATOR:  

(To the audience: Brrrr, I don't even want to...)

Mama, I've got goosebumps. I didn't know you had dreams like that.

[…]

Scene 8

NARRATOR: 

I dreamed about you recently.

GHOST:

The usual dream?

NARRATOR: 

No, this was a pretty one.

GHOST:

So maybe it isn't too late for us?

NARRATOR: 

You've sucked me in with your decorations. The old truths I once knew have vanished.

Why is there so much reluctance in us, Mama? Even in words...

Only rhyme tempts me... I no longer know how to be spontaneous.

GHOST:

Well, let's try. I'll behave honorably, I give my word.

NARRATOR: 

???

GHOST:

I'll be endearing. And I won't go disappearing.

NARRATOR: 

Oh look, the rhymes are back. Nursery-rhymes, even.

GHOST:

Ponders this, then tries in all seriousness.

Listen, I got married to a man because I loved him. Everything happened so quickly. And then I was knocked up.

NARRATOR: 

You felt like a broken chair that nobody wanted... That's what Grandma K. said.

GHOST:

Falls into a curious silence.

NARRATOR: 

You said when that terrible accident happened he tore his hair out. That he knelt beside you and swore he'd never leave you.

GHOST:

Still silent, her face impossible to read.

NARRATOR: 

Was that the price you set?

GHOST:

Staring at an invisible point:

I still loved him. Time flew. Children were born.

Later you don't stop to wonder if you're in love or not. Life goes on. You have to earn money. Work the fields. Build things. Argue. Cry. Forgive. Monday. The workers come along. You watch the walls go up. You wait for the roof, the rafters, the purlins, the tiles. The seasons change. The children grow up. Happily they study hard, they don't cause problems. Then Jacek goes to technical college. I worry if he'll get by, who will look after him in the dorms. They set up the water supply and central heating in the new house. There will be running water, a bathroom. One dreams. And again he stays out all night. He was at Florka's house. I know that for a fact. A pain in the temples. Anxious thoughts. They pass with a bit of wine.

NARRATOR: 

Cutting in decisively

I know all that!

GHOST:

Changing her tone and facial expression.

I was so jealous... of you.

NARRATOR: 

What?

GHOST:

Yes, like all mothers.

NARRATOR: 

Of what, for God's sake?

GHOST:

Of all kinds of things. I don't know if I can explain it to you. Such things happen between mothers and daughters... Admiration and envy. Rivalry...

NARRATOR: 

Listens, fascinated.

GHOST:

Lots of malicious things go on between women. All it takes is for you to make the bed a bit differently, or to forget to rinse a plate on both sides. Or you do something else your own way. You stand out. Women don't like that.

NARRATOR: 

That's so cruel!

GHOST:

Don't mock. I was being serious.

NARRATOR: 

That's not what I mean. I was a child. You were supposed to love me. That's all.

GHOST:

And I did love you... as best I could.

NARRATOR: 

You did a lousy job.

GHOST:

I never felt like we were the same.

NARRATOR: 

What?

GHOST:

You were so... asexual.

NARRATOR: 

Pardon?

GHOST:

Oh, don't play dumb.

NARRATOR: 

Stop it, Mama. That's no subject for this play.

GHOST:

Oh it is. This is just the right one.

What are you afraid of? You're not a little girl.

That was hugely important for me. Passion. Frenzy and excitement.

NARRATOR: 

You had all that?

GHOST:

Sure. The trouble only came when I didn't have it.

NARRATOR: 

That's what you were thinking about while you were endlessly stewing away? No! I can't believe it!

GHOST:

What? You find it shameful? And so what if it was? It's pretty hard, you know, to control...

She casts a strange look at the Narrator.

You're a woman. Let it show.

NARRATOR: 

Really, Mama, give it up.

GHOST:
What am I supposed to give up? You deserve it.

Wouldn't you say, my dear? Whisper in my ear if you'll finally come to accept yourself.

NARRATOR: 

What an actress you are, Mama!

GHOST:

Florka the actress.

A little joking around doesn't hurt. It even cushions the blow.

NARRATOR: 

Looking askance.

I loved you terribly.

GHOST:

Who?

NARRATOR: 

You.

GHOST:

You went mad!

NARRATOR: 

That's what I thought too... You didn't understand.

Why are you goggling those green eyes of yours!

GHOST:

It really is peculiar. Extremely peculiar.

NARRATOR: 

Let's give it a rest! I won't ask you to stay anymore. Your ugly duckling has finally wised up.

GHOST:

Stares provocatively.

NARRATOR: 

Are you going to keep staring like that till the cows come home? Go to your executioner!

(To the viewer: But she's still standing there. Staring hard. Then she suddenly changes. Is it her? Or not her?)

I'm going. I'll leave you. I'm tired.

Translated by Soren Gauger