"Marriage" consists of two related stories. The first one is the fictionalised biography of Antoni Malczewski (1793-1826), a romantic poet who published one work in his lifetime, a novel in verse called “Maria” (1825), and who was the first Pole to climb Mont Blanc (1818). Liskowacki focuses on the last five years of Malczewski’s life, a stormy period marked by a public scandal (the poet’s relationship with a married, mentally ill woman, which shocked contemporary society). The second story is about the holiday adventure of a boy called Muszka. It is set in the present at a summer resort. At the narrative level it is about an encounter between an emotionally neglected child and a Stranger, who is somewhere between a fugitive and a bandit, for whom the boy provides food and clothing. Although each story could stand on its own, Liskowacki has decided to put them together. What is his justification? Certainly the card metaphor of the title (there was once a card game called “marriage”, and it is also the name for a pair of cards, a king and queen in the same suit). So we have a card-game image: Malczewski’s life story is told from the end (the first chord struck is the writer’s death in May 1826), while the story of Muszka and the Stranger is told the traditional way, as a sequence of cause and effect. Both stories feature not just the motif of card-playing, but also game-playing in various senses. Malczewski is playing a game of acceptance and recognition with his milieu, a game of overcoming social infamy, and a two-way psychological game links the boy and the dangerous man.
Artur Daniel Liskowacki (born 1956) is a novelist, poet, essayist, theatre critic and journalist. He has written several books of sketches on the German and Polish history of Szczecin.
Muszka walked to the red square, believing that was where the Stranger had left the things he’d brought for himself. If not, he would never find them, and then they’d ask him about them. He’d shrug, or make something up, but she’d listen in silence, reach for a cigarette and start to crush it slowly, while staring out of the window.
If the Stranger spent the night here, it was behind the half-timbered wall.
A simple idea, as long as he didn’t startle it. Here it was, sticking out warily, like a worm coming out of the ground. You grab it and hold onto it until it goes limp in your fingers and lets itself be pulled out; you tug and it breaks off. That’s how it defends itself. And later it grows back. He used to go worm hunting with his father. But not fishing. The dark spines of the roach in a small bucket, Mrs Surmaczowa’s exaggerated delight, “how well you’ve done today!” A festive fry-up. The smell of oil pervading every corner. Bones between your teeth. Grab the worm, Muszka. You can see it. The Stranger hadn’t said he would stay the night. All he had said was that Muszka could only come here after noon. Maybe he preferred not to say. Not to say more. Or maybe he couldn’t say more. Or he really didn’t know anything. And that might also mean he was there now, inside.
Muszka was already thinking about it as he approached the place. After all, it was likely. But it stopped being, because the Stranger didn’t show up. He didn’t come out to meet him. He didn’t jump out of a hiding place. This one, for example.
And why should he hide there from Muszka? And sit hidden the whole time while Muszka traipsed around.
The whole time. Muszka glanced at his watch. Twenty to twelve. A funny time. He went inside. In a corner, under a bit of roof, lay a dark blue waistcoat. He picked it up; it wasn’t wet, just heavy with dampness. He sniffed it, like a tracker dog. It was suggestive, rather than actually smelling of potato stalks, carrot tops, seedpods, chicken manure, and a decaying, stifling odour of jasmine water. He inhaled a deeper breath of air, but couldn’t find any new, acrid smell of tobacco. That seemed strange to him – after all, rain and smoke smell similar.
All because of this pong. You could cut the air with a knife, Mrs Surmaczowa had said as she opened the window. He had once imagined it, a big, white blade flashing across the room. The suffocating, sickly smell clung to all four walls, though they had no door or windows. And you could see the sky above them now, shining with a rinsed-out sun.
He looked round for the net, but couldn’t see it anywhere. He went out to check around the fruit trees.
He didn’t immediately realise he was lying down. The push was strong and quick. All he knew was that he was lying on the ground, on his right arm. I fell over, he thought. I must have done something to myself.
Only then did he feel scared. And saw the Stranger standing over him, against the light high above, dark and motionless.
Yet Muszka made a move; his arm hurt, so he tried to shift the weight of his body onto his back. He did it, and the Stranger said nothing. But as he lay on his back, on the waistcoat which had ridden up and was poking something into his shoulder blade, Muszka thought he’d be better off turning over onto his stomach. To avoid seeing. An insect lies on its back. It plays dead. But even so you can push it along the sand with a stick, towards an ant hill, bonfire or puddle. So it really will be dead.
Unswallowed saliva flooded his throat. He began choking, until he was out of breath.
What’s the bloody point of having a watch if you don’t know what the time is, said the Stranger.
Muszka didn’t answer. He wanted to squeeze his eyelids shut, but he didn’t have the courage. He had to look. That’s what the Stranger wanted. And why he was standing over him.
If you can’t read an ordinary watch, you can learn to use the sun. Do I cast a shadow? No. That means something.
That you’re a vampire, said Muszka.
He snorted, almost barked. A good sign, because it wasn’t laughter.
It means it’s noon, you little snot. The Stranger finally moved, put his hands in his pockets. He nudged Muszka with his foot. You shouldn’t be here before noon. You don’t have to be here at all. Muszka felt fairly safe. But the abruptness of the attack and the stifled stress Muszka could hear in his voice meant more than his words.
An answer was required, any answer, even though no questions had been asked.
I came for Mrs Surmaczowa’s waistcoat. She was looking for it everywhere, so I had to.
Why are you lying?
The interrogation of a wounded prisoner, thought Muszka. He’s standing and I’m lying down. It should be “You’re lying like a dog”. Maybe everything’s like this. It isn’t.
How do you know I’m lying and how can you see what I’m thinking.
The kick wasn’t too hard and rather constrained, but it hurt. The Stranger hissed, as if it had hurt him too.
I’ve already told you, fuck it, you’ve got to answer my questions and not play the wise guy. Haven’t you got that? Are you that dumb, or what?
Muszka automatically coiled up, expecting more blows. He was afraid again. The Stranger was afraid again. And Muszka was afraid of this fear. He knew he mustn’t shout now, or cry. Or beg. Shit yourself or cry, get a fist in your eye. At school the ones who got beaten up most were the snotty kids who clung to the bully’s knees and begged. They’d keep hitting that sort until they stopped blubbing. Then they stopped hitting too. I’m not playing the wise guy, you didn’t ask me any questions. About anything.
The Stranger said nothing, as if examining what he had heard. Who joined you here, he finally said; Muszka could tell he was keeping his voice in check now.
No one. I’m alone.
You play the saxophone alone.
Muszka looked at him uncertainly. I wanted to come alone, he repeated and touched his leg where it should have hurt from the kick. He sought the spot with his fingers, along his calf. He couldn’t find it.
Alone, alone. The great Alone. I know no one came with you. But back there, who have you told about me?
Now. He had to say it now.
No one. I came because I wanted to. I hoped you’d be here.
The Stranger took his hands out of his pockets. He wasn’t holding a knife. He wiped his hands on his trousers, then knelt down and stared at the boy for a while in silence. Closely, not in a friendly way, but without any hatred either. Muszka took this look to be a chance. The kind that makes it even harder.
I’m giving you an advantage, take spades. His father only played cards with him on holiday. Muszka couldn’t bear the unwritten agreement which meant that right at the start, before the bidding began, he got the king and queen of spades. Even so they were useless to him, because his father always managed to come out with a higher trump before the spades got onto the table, or, whistling something that had no tune, with his strong left hand he’d take away his queen or king before he had a chance to play them.
The Stranger stretched out his hand and Muszka tensed, expecting to be hit. But all he felt was a touch.
You’ve cut yourself.
No. I don’t know.
Must have been while shaving.
Now Muszka could smell that odour. The bitter smell of cigarettes, pervaded with damp, and the sour stink of cold sweat. His light jacket was soiled on the sleeves and along the buttons. Mud and grass stains, like the spots on old people’s skin.
He tried to touch his cheek too, but just moved his fingers.
Just there. From a branch.
The Stranger got up and looked around unhurriedly. As if merely looking for confirmation of what he already knew. Finally he beckoned.
Come on then. Get up.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones