The Hills of Ojców When I Was Small

Jan Lechoń and his lover lie side by side, like two question marks, on a bed of saffron sheets. Jan Lechoń’s lover faces the wall (faces away from Jan), head on a pillow of straight hands, knees pulled up, legs crossed at the ankles. You will come with me? Jan asks, running a finger slowly along his lover’s spine. He runs the finger in an out of each vertebra, starting between the fragile scapulae, left right left right, cervical curve, atlas, axis—a river of spine, a slow leaf slaloming stones. You will come with me, to hear him speak? Jan knows his lover is awake. He rounds a stone halfway down the run and goes back up river.

The bed is pressed into a corner of the room. Old wallpaper of abstract geometric quatrefoils like four-petaled flowers of pale gingerline covers the walls. The window, near the head of the bed, is of six large panes of glass, the kind of glass that shows the swirls and imperfections of its making. Two curtains, color of silt, can be slid along a rod. The curtains are pulled shut and carefully clipped closed with three clothespins of cottonwood. A droshky resounds softly on the cobblestones like an alliteration and disappears like the distillation of a dream. In the corner of the room, to the left of the window, stands what the French call a bureau en dos d’âne. Its flap is lowered, is neatly covered with two rectangles: one a sheet of writing paper half covered with Jan’s neat handwriting, the other a volume of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Collected Works: 1909–1919, open to a poem entitled “Sorrow.”

Jan Lechoń is turned toward his lover’s back. They are two question marks on a saffron page. There is a distance between them, the length of a forearm, so that he may run his finger down vertebrae of skin. The only light is from a candle on a nightstand next to the bed. Clothing in disarray is scattered on an old Polish rug, with a field of numerous, irregular, varicolored (white, yellow, orange, green, etc.) compartments of floral scrolls, on a ground of silver and gold.

Yes, Mayakovsky is coming. Tomorrow. And the day after, or the day after that, the poets of Warsaw will enter the dark streets, glistening beneath the streetlights, will go to rooms of smoke to hear the great man read his words of revolution.

Concave convex concave convex. One stone two stone three stone four. . . .

The stones should be flat and of intermediate size, Zygmunt said, picking one up and discarding it with a backhand flip. Here is a perfect one. He leaned low and held the stone between his index finger and thumb and let it fly spinning. Plip plip plip plop. Four splashes! they both yelled together. Jan watched expanding circles and imagined the back of some mythical giant rising to the surface. His stones would wobble and splash only once, but Zygmunt’s would fly fly fly and make beautiful monsters. Plip plip plip plip plop. Five!

They wandered together along the shore with sticks from a hornbeam tree. Zygmunt said the sticks would lead to buried treasure. Light fell from the trees and embroidered the air. Farther down this path was a limestone stack called Maczuga Herkulesa (Hercules’s Cudgel). The tower of dark and lichened rock was narrow at its base and widened at its rounded tip like a bulb. Jan had once watched the men climb with their ropes, their bodies bronzed and taut and gleaming in the Polish afternoon. He wanted to go up there and rest at its cornice, spread himself flat in the warmth next to the sun, and never leave that place. He could barely wait until he would be old enough to do these things.

Cutleaf waterparsnip, small white flowers. Creeping buttercut, golden-yellow flowers, glossy like little semaphores. Moneywort, yellow flowers like little cups, which indeed also looked like small coins. Nettle leaf, with their stinging needles. This is why some people call it stinging nettle, he said to Zygmunt, who did not want to stop and study the greenish flowers in what Jan’s botany book called “dense axillary inflorescences.” Zygmunt’s stick was pointing in a different direction. Jan picked several of the pale yellow flowers of the cabbage thistle and kept them in his hand in a small and eventually sagging bouquet to bring back to his mother.

Field mustard for example, he says, has four yellow-gold petals. Hydrangeas also have four petals. As does, very appropriately, the wallflower. The brassicas, he says, of the cabbage family were once called crucifiers, for obvious reasons. What reasons? Jan Lechoń’s lover asks drowsily and perhaps reluctantly in the demi-light. The wallpaper was cut poorly near the molding and has come loose at the seams and begun to fold out like an old book left in the rain and now drying. Thoracic curve. Lumbar curve. His finger a slaloming leaf. River of spine. Like a cross, he says. But I am tired and want to sleep now, Jan’s lover whispers in the growing darkness.

The room has grown cool. Jan reaches and pulls from the foot of the bed a loosely knit blanket the color of pewter, through which their skin shows in daubs of pale pink, pulls it up to their waists. But will you come with me? he asks.

The windows are closed and the curtains are tightly drawn, but he knows that beyond them is nothing but beautiful space. Everything seems to me enigmatic and vast, he once wrote in a poem, like the hills of Ojców when I was small 1. He touches and the muscle near the spine quivers like a horse’s withers.

Later they entered the water and held hands. There were several points along the way when they would stop and the water would sting with its coldness: First the ankle, at the small hairless bones. Then the knee. Then the private part. Then the navel. Then the nipples. Do not let go of each other, his mother yelled from the shore, looking up from a book of poetry.
Of course, she did not know. No one knew, not even he.

Limestone cliffs rose from oak, beech, and fir forests and settled around them like quiet spectators as they took careful steps deeper. Hold each other tight! The stones were sharp and hurt his feet. As the water deepened he held Zygmunt against the gentle current and Zygmunt held him and Jan could feel his breath against his cheek and smell tree bark and oakmoss. The water stung like nettle leaf. Slow striations of clouds doubled and held still even as the water passed their bodies, and he wondered what trick of perception could create this great paradox of feeling and sight, this convergence of movement and stillness. Do not let go! she yelled from the shore, looking up from Mickiewicz.

A cave not far from here is called Łokietek’s Cave and is said to have sheltered King Władysław I Łokietek. The king, so the story goes, escaped the Bohemian invaders by finding a secret passage into the cave. A spider concealed the entrance with a thick web. Jan wanted desperately to enter the cave, but some said it was too dangerous, and Zygmunt, his best friend, was afraid of both spiders and the dark. One cannot enter this cave alone, he knew.

The heat was leaving their bodies so they held each other closely, enshrouded in the glowing clouds. Dissolve us like the seas, he would later write. Blend us with the air in blue infinities 2. A flower of the water forget-me-not came slowly floating past, blue petals, yellow center with white honey guides, and Jan reached out and plucked it from the liquid and placed it behind his own right ear.

When they got too cold they turned and left the water. Bitter dock, with its small greenish flowers already changing to red, grew along the edge of the river. The flower of the St. Benedict’s herb has five bright yellow petals. The name ground elder comes from the superficial similarity of its leaves and flowers to those of the elder (Sambucus), an unrelated plant, so let us call it bishop’s weed, he wanted to say to him, with small white flowers in umbels, little parasols for the beetles and flies. Some other boys came down from the main path with a badger they had killed with rocks. Two black stripes over its eyes. Its tongue lolled. Jan and Zygmunt stepped to the shore, Zygmunt laughing, rivulets of water like something melting, molten and illuminated, falling onto St. Benedict’s herb, bishop’s weed (beetles, flies, scurrying). Their skin was covered with small leaves and a gossamer of tree pollen.

Concave convex concave convex. A leaf slaloming stones. Skin smooth and hairless. Jan’s lover sighs and moves slightly closer to the wall. The leaves of the golden-saxifrage are hairy on the lower parts of the plant but smooth and hairless above. Why did they kill it? Jan’s lover asks, just as Jan had once asked his mother. If she answered he cannot remember. Why must he leave? he later asked his mother, after Zygmunt went home with his father, disappearing down the horse track in a cloud of dust. He had tears in his eyes. She looked up from her poetry. This is how things go, she said, with no poetry at all in her voice. He had let the forget-me-not fall falteringly from behind his ear and settle among the colored rocks at the shore. He imagined running into the darkness of the caves, imagined climbing limestone stacks like the men with ropes. This is how things go, he says to his lover, and then he whispers:
Tell the firemen:
on burning hearts you climb with caresses.
I’ll do it.
From tear-ridden eyes barrelsful pump.
Let me escape from my ribs for a start.
I jump! I jump! I jump! I jump!
I crashed back. You can’t jump out of your heart! 3

There was a first love once, long ago, but he did not know it then, and it was only after he left, only after he felt his gut open up, with nothing at all to fill it, that he knew it, and really it was a long time after that, as he sat alone under one kind of tree or another thinking of Zygmunt’s leaving, that he understood, that he could put a word to it: Miłość. Love.

Nowhere near sleep he counts vertebrae like sheep. Left right left right. Five stone six stone seven stone more. The shape of the spine starting at the neck is concave convex concave convex. Lumbar curve, sacral curve, coccyx. The candle gutters. His finger runs a circle and hesitates. He whispers the words and then he asks again, Will you? Will you come with me? But Jan Lechoń’s lover has gone to sleep, his shadow flickering and dying on the wall, his breath slow and even like passing clouds.

 

  1. Jan Lechoń, “OJCOW,” trans. Clark Mills, “Five Poems by Jan Lechoń,” The Polish Review, Vol. 1, No. 2/3 (Spring-Summer 1956), 3.
  2. Jan Lechoń, “Prayer” in Introduction to Modern Polish Literature, ed. Adam Gillon and Ludwik Krzyżanowski (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1982), 427.
  3. Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Cloud in Trousers” (1913–14). See Mayakovsky, trans. Herbert Marshall (London: Dennis Dobson, 1965), 104.
Erik Harper Klass has published stories in Europe and North America. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including The New England Review (Summer 2019) and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and he has been nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize. He writes in Los Angeles, CA.