Zyta Rudzka’s A Brief Exchange of Fire Translated by Aga Gabor da Silva

(An Excerpt)

When she came back from Tokyo for the first time, she was famous, she was twelve and she didn’t recognize her own apartment.

We hadn’t changed anything, not a single object had moved, nothing had been given away or brought in. Yet, she’d stroll through the interiors with uncertainty and weary curiosity.

“Where’s my room?” she asked.

Zuzanka. My only child.

“Over there and then to the left,” said Mateusz, her father. 

He was still standing in the hallway, with a festive face. He followed her with his eyes. Like a servant.

“Wash your hands!” I raised my voice.

She passed by. Without saying any word. She entered the room she wanted. She shut the door.

Mateusz kneeled beside the suitcases and began taking out the clothes to do laundry.

I wandered about the room. Around the table. A newspaper was lying there. And another one underneath it. And another one. The one on top was missing an image. Mateusz cut it out and stuck it behind the China cabinet glass.

The photo had been taken from a bird’s eye view, from a gallery in the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. My daughter is there, with teenage bandy legs, like a tiny dung beetle, lifting the black block of the piano. She’s suffering and, at the same time, she’s embracing the instrument. 

This peculiar caress seems to be happening without any sound. It gives a false impression that the concert went in perfect silence, in an inspired stillness. Except for one detail.

The photographer Koji Fujimori captured a trace of movement of one of the pianist’s legs. In this microscopic, blurred fragment, there was some restlessness hidden, a desire to flee, an excess of something, a chord that is out-of-tune, an echo of cacophony. 

I hastily deleted this weird vision from my mind, because Zuzanka ate her dinner eagerly, albeit in silence. Her face looked tired in a child-like way, but at the same time it seemed overripe, too tense to be considered fresh.

She went to bed fast, but she didn’t sleep well. I heard her get up and wander between the bathroom and the kid’s bedroom. I heard her open the porch door, the fridge, the first-aid kit.

I rolled on to the other side of the bed. I clang to Mateusz’s back. He was fake sleeping. He flawlessly feigned the even-sleeping breathing.  He would intersect it with clear pauses. His diaphragm was a metronome. Absolute pitch. Our daughter picked it up after him.

We both kept watch. Mateusz over Mateusz. Me, Roma, over myself, Roma. Everyone kept watch over oneself.

Our little one’s insomnia was a normal thing after a tour. That evil night had its replicas. Millions of hours of vile thoughts, which could not be revoked by sleep. Hundreds of midnights without nights. Dozens of days drowned out by cheers in her honor.

After eight weeks, she came back from a tour across Japan. A series of concerts. One city after another. Standing ovations. Bows. Curtain. Off-stage. Wardrobe. Interviews. Cold buffet. One hotel after another. A hand towel with someone else’s initials. Black marine soap. Sleepless nights. A ride to the airport. Duty free. Jet lag.

Home. Stage fright went away like a high tide and revealed a dirty beach: numbness in the wrist, pre-performance puking, the clang of shiny pumps when they reach the center of the stage.

In Japan, she was worshipped. Seriously, she was an icon there for three years. They would sell knee-high socks à la Zuza. Pleated miniskirts. Cotton handkerchiefs with her monogram on them, just like the ones she used to wipe her hands with once she sat comfortably behind the piano. Ruffle trim cotton socks. They would sell anything to make money.

I still have some souvenirs from those years: hair clips similar to those she wore during performances. They look like metal toothpicks displayed on a base resembling an Oriental mat. Wrapped in cellophane and tied around with a velvet ribbon: black and red, just like the colors of the Polish flag.

Everything she ever wore would later be copied. Young pianists started imitating her. They did their hair in the same way and fixed their bangs like she did. A sharp, habitual gesture. Someone described it as “cult.”

Zuzanna stopped playing out of nowhere. On the day of her eighteenth birthday. Her decision was a childish manifestation of the “life-is-somewhere-else” dream. At least that’s what I thought for quite a while. 

She left a note saying: “I’m leaving. Don’t go looking for me because it’ll end badly for everyone.”

We obeyed. After all, absolute pitch was our specialty of the house.

Her agent has visited us only once. She didn’t explain anything, nor did she listen to us. She looked around, alert, as if looking for a sign to dash off. She ate a piece of moist rhubarb cake. She slurped her coffee and left. Just a moment earlier she tenderly held us in our arms. The next day she stopped taking our calls.

The professors from the Music Academy avoided us, too. Or perhaps it was me and Mateusz who hid ourselves before the world. And before one another. We loved each other more slowly, losing rhythm and kisses along the way. The memory of those nights, like a silly young goat, still runs behind me, bouncing cheerfully.

*

I’m not asleep. I’m waiting for another day. The day that lures with light and then, as always, walks side by side with the night. 

Zuzanka grew up to be a wonderful child. She held concerts. Those were some intense years. Beautiful years which didn’t leave any trace. 

Mateusz was away all the time. I’d stumble upon his suitcase in the bedroom. I married a boy who wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and become a malleus, incus, and stapes specialist majoring in tinnitus but ended up a lattermost care physician.

Disinterment. Holy rights. The interest for the dead is alive and well among us. He’d assemble human remains; he’d get hammered and then he’d nail.

“Who do you think you are. You write your silly poems and I do the dirty job. I dig out. To be more specific, yesterday twenty-five right femurs I tore out of the earth. This earth. Probably Russian bones. There had been some executions or something. Is there any salad left? I’m still swimming in dirt and they come at me with a priest. There was a cross, that’s why. The one you see here often, you know, the pine tree one. And immediately the local government. There were so many of them. I was still counting all of them when this actor showed up reciting over my head: ‘A deep wound. An oozing wound. An invisible wound’. I even cried because that was some good acting there. He spoke in a clear way. I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t listen to him without crying. If you wrote such poems, then I’d understand. ‘A wound. An insurgent wound. A wound like an underground stream. A black wound’. Jesus, seriously there’s no whiskey left? You load everything with mayo and then you say that I have a paunch. You gulped it all, didn’t you? They want me in Toulouse next week. Just say it, you gulped it all, didn’t you? We used to send out to the world composers and now we send grave diggers. Let me throw some Różewicz on you, so that you don’t think of me as a simple corpse guy. Listen to the reflections of a man who lives off hand work. Are you listening or scratching yourself? Are you listening? Good. ‘Cause you’ll need it. This is going to be good and you can use it for your own writing. Listen. Here I go. In the past, you see, it was all about etiquette and record, and now there’s just discord. Discord. That was good, wasn’t it? Record and discord.”

My Mateusz. Always on the run, absent-minded, slightly ill. He doesn’t look healthy, but who will say no to a doctor?

“Tell me,” I’d tease him, “why are you only interested in bones of human species? It’s such an ugly species.”

“What kind of question is that? Absurd. An absurd question. Non-tricky. And what about you? You’re probably pretty wasted already, aren’t you? Let’s not fool ourselves, there’s no remedy,” he’d repeat after each shot, choking with laughter. 

“If a patient wants to live, medicine is hopeless. Hopeless. What are you staring at? I know. I’m repeating myself. That’s my chant. You should’ve gotten yourself a fellow poet for procreation. He’d give you some Baktschi-Serai by Night. What? Ring-a-ring-a-rosies, a pocket full of posies. A tissue, a tissue, we all fall down! Is that how it went? Is it? Are you going to tell me anything or not?”

He asked me grimly, his head dropped to his right shoulder. He lifted it, still, ceremonially as if he was pulling a flag on a pole, and he pointed his index finger at me, as if he was threatening me, but he just swiped his finger across his Adam’s apple.

Throat slashing was a good sign—he’ll fall asleep soon. In the chair, in his clothes, in his growing nightmares, which will wake him up at the crack of dawn. He’ll get up, he’ll go pee, he’ll eat something out of the fridge and finish the night in the marital bed.

For this whole wading waist-deep in mass graves, my husband was given atonement.  A younger one picked him up. Uglier than me but with an excess of diminutives, terms of endearment, and home-made Sunday pies. Always eager, always sticking out her bum toward Mateusz and her little hand for his credit cards.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Manuela. An exotic name stalled in an every-day hustle and bustle. Thrifty. That’s the right word, I think—not hurtful or disdainful. Indeed.

A cool order of reason moved Mateusz out of our crooked house. It gave him enough strength to take out his harakiri sword, exchange it for four sticks and stick them in the ground, outlining the rectangular foundations of his house in the classy town of Milanówek.

That’s where Manuela is going to clean, bake, pickle, wait on the porch, wrestle with the ever-stuck gate. That’s where she’s going to spread her legs and retrieve the desired genetic material.

The end of my marriage was set in the one thousand-and-eight hundred-thirty-second episode of Manuela’s Soap Opera.

I stumbled upon them by accident. In town. My husband and her. They were walking briskly and impatiently, their steps still swinging from fresh caresses.

Mateusz dumped me and forgot to tell me about it. I was being cheated on. With a younger one. Such an emotional schlock. The one that hurts the most, but why am I still surprised?

I went home, I poured myself one, I waited in the living room.

Mateusz was supposed to come home later, after  another allegedly medical visit to the dissecting room. I was certain that he was in the hotel with that whore, playing doctor.

I poured myself good, oh I did.

Finally, he shows up. Up the stairs, short of breath. He peeks into the apartment. He looks for me and picks me out from the darkness. He comes up to me and, still in his coat, he kisses me on the side of my head. Once and for all. Cold lips. Like a gun barrel pressed against my temple.

A gun barrel against the temple. Well, I guess I’ve collapsed not only into myself but also into the clichés of romantic literature. What else can you do with unhappiness if not use Kitsch to try to belittle it. 

“I saw you together,” I hissed.

As if he didn’t hear me. He sat on the sofa and sighed. He loosened up his collar.

“I saw you together,” I repeated.

“Where?”

“Holding hands.”

He wiped his cuff with a fist.

“She said that if you find out about our affair, I’ll come to her studio apartment with two suitcases.”

“You wish. You’ll leave with nothing but a plastic bag.”

“Anything else?” He chuckled while examining his fingernails. 

“Who is she?”

“Manuela?”

“Manuela. Jesus! Manuela. Who is she?”

“Well… she’s sort of… She is. She’s everything to me. If you want to know.”

“Who is she?”

“Compared to you, she’s nobody.”

“Who?”

“She’s an expert in infinite possibilities of Excel. I mean, she works as an accountant at our institute. How banal, you’ll say.”

“A banality in your hands is not a banality anymore, doctor.”

He didn’t say anything. He was sitting with a fierce, stubborn face. He got up and left. But only out to the porch.

I howled:

“Oh doctor, please don’t leave me.”

That night we kissed, intensely, deeply, as a backup. It didn’t last for long.

*

Old, short, with a bulging forehead that looks like a spoon—I’m staring at myself in the car window.

The road is straight, and I have no idea where it goes.

Not a sign of trees, not even whirling bushes sprinkled with coal-black dust. No ivy in ravines, no sun-beat grass, no sharp reed pipes that cut your lips. No hollows out of which rain evaporates, rising like threads of smoke announcing house chimneys. No people selling wild mushrooms, no wild blueberry or blackberry pickers, no children counting the passing cars.

Dusk is not to be seen, still—this day, which doesn’t want to end. One day multiplied, vividly bright, making your eyes squint and your thighs squeeze, blistering your feet and pressing down on your throat, ready to yell.

The driver rolls down the window. My scent flies away. I can shower or perfume myself as much as I can and I still reek of the one who has almost swapped nylon tights for compression socks, panties for loose bikini, sanitary pads for diapers, high heels for loafers, teeth for pearls wedged between the pressure ulcer and gums. 

The long-gone smooth oval is now covered by a rough bristle of the chin. I shave with tweezers. I touch myself as if I was touching a man’s face.

Where are my curious, nosy fingers? I can’t see them anymore. All that is left is my hands.

Hard, heavy, almost black, as if they were filled with soil.

When did that happen? No idea. I don’t recall this transformation, as it happened in a dream, in a state of some oneiric nightmare I can’t snap out of.

For years my gesture has been detaching me from myself. I’m disappearing more abruptly than fingerprints on the hot faience cup, faster than a scratch on a leather suitcase when you rub your saliva on it.

My glasses slid down my nose, my eyes filled with sticky goo. I’m sure that my lips remained moving, but only on one side. That’s how I remember myself from the mirror.

I talked to the driver as if I was silent. Soundlessly, working hard to thrust my words in-between the next gulps of air.

I smile at him.

He doesn’t grin back. His face fills with milk. After some time, he glances at me. His look is not attached to any place or time in which we are.

I’m certain that I continued invisible. In his thoughts he’s with the other one. They are running on the snow-dusted grass. They are sliding on the turf, on the dirt. She can’t stop laughing and finally she lies down, unfolding her frosty belly. She lets him undress her in slow motion, with grace and adoration and soon after quickly, greedily, not minding the cold or the passerby.

That’s the story I extract from him.

His absence is sticky with that woman. But he’s still here. He starts telling me about the blind spot, which you can’t really see in any mirror. That’s why he had a car crash. He barely made it alive.

The masculine scent resists the draught. I can sense him. I breathe him in like air. He smells like a man who has just washed off his semen. His sideburns are neatly trimmed. He has rings in his eyebrows and a tuft of hair-sprayed, sticky hair on his head.

He looks ahead, obliviously and dreamily. He’s not curious of the road—it doesn’t require that. The road resembles a coal-black gunk. It confines us, leads wherever it wants to, it doesn’t split, doesn’t go off to the side, doesn’t lift or descend, doesn’t surprise us with bumps or rocks in the middle, doesn’t know of any animals that have been run over, tossed bags and cigarette butts.

I turn my head. I prefer looking at the veiny male hands. They don’t squeeze the wheel. Deprived of vigilance, they rest on it hooked by their thumbs.

Suddenly I want to feel the pressure of his fingers, the friction of his fingertips. I’ve never written about male bodies. Now I feel like writing about the power of that wrist, the hair on his forearms: rough and thick.

We’ve arrived.

Stranger hands help me out of the car.

There’s also the journalist who signs off with initials. I recognize him. He’s the one I told, panting, that writing to me is like hacking into the trunk of an ancestral lime tree. I like to see the splinters fly. It’s okay if every now and then there flies a finger, too.

A boy runs toward me. Slim and pale like a communion wafer.

“I’m the culture manager,” he introduces himself.

“The great hit lady hasn’t showed up, so I moved you to the big stage. We have the power, don’t we?!” He shakes his head. “Let’s snap a photo for Facebook and Instagram.”

He puts his arms around me. I hate it.

“Oh yes, come closer,” he wheezes. “Closer.”

A gloomy welcoming committee leads me inside.

The acting deputy administration director comes up to me, he bows and shakes his hand and then lifts it rapidly. I feel my shoulder tendon tear. Facebook photo.

Someone takes off my coat. My tartan plaid is hanging now on a decorative hanger. The sleeves have taken the form of arms. They hang swollen, blighting the cashmere and the style. As if I was dangling there myself. Turned inside out. With my face pressed against the wall.

They’re putting make-up on me. I look more and more like a veneer-coated leg of a walnut table.

A final look in the mirror and I touch my new hairdo. I note that the skin on my wrists stays in place solely thanks to tangles of tiny blueish veins resembling a marble tabletop.

I allow myself to be led. I go down the stairs, carefully, fearfully, as if I was treading on stubbles. Stage fright is dripping down my throat. Suddenly a cough jerks me. This gurgling in my throat has traces of a loud and sad laughter. Tangible. Like hand bones squeezed so tightly during a handshake that it’s impossible to loosen them up without pain. 

I’m in the spotlight. I’m wearing a yellow sweater with a clover print. I tastefully paired it with long pants whose wide legs create the illusion of a skirt flare. Facebook photo. I cut out holes in my canvas ballerinas. Now my toes don’t hurt, and my gait is still bouncy.

I’m joking. I’m well dressed, which effectively drives away those who want to take care of you. Not as much of me but of their own hard ego. 

I sit down in the center of the stage, on a chair, and before I even have a chance to look for it, someone brings me a glass of water.

I look ahead. The distance invalidates the details.

A critic talks for a long time about someone whom she takes for me.

“A poet. A peeper of existence. Perfect in the anatomy of objects, the autopsy of things, the unearthing of beings. She blows at the ash. Captures a fragment. A hidden outline. An unimportant detail. A hidden item. A shy trace. A blurred circumstantial evidence. A forgotten lead.”

Jesus, I’d give anything for a drug. Or at least a cancer stick to take a drag. Already lit, stuck right in-between my lips.

I hear that my phrase is not afraid of mechanisms. That it recognizes moods. Petty collocations. Secret relationships. The structure of the tendon. The coldness of a cobblestone. The hairy leg of a spider. It doesn’t skip anything. It fixes everything like natural resin stained with the sea. It gropes machines. Crawls through the maze. Tightens arteries. Crushes the porous atom. Polices the lifeless light. Teases with oakum that pads fruits in chests. Monitors time on the protruding bellies of girls. Aphids on the geranium. Wet chunks of wood during logging. A rabbit in the snow with a bloody coat. A little picture of St. Theresa dropped in the nave. A gardener’s apron heavy with cracked snow pears. A street mutt’s frozen ear. My phrase watches the annihilation of a pewter bowl. It has the gift of recognition. It gets the mechanics of disappearance. An intruder. A sweaty midwife. A guarding angel. An unfaithful chronicler. An armed watchmaker. A lusty watch-glass. Latex for the heart. A protective eyepiece.

What a load of crap. I’ve always nurtured ordinariness in writing. I’ve chased whatever I was lacking and what for others came easily.

Time for questions. They bring me the microphone. It’s taking so long. I’m so short that I’ve always done blowjobs standing. Facebook photo.

I speak awkwardly. They like it. A woman who writes poems cannot be normal. I create a legend and I don’t crack. Although the incision goes as far as from here all the way to childhood.

“Why don’t you say anything about your personal life? You’re not on TV, you don’t give interviews. Is that the essence of being a poet for you?”

But this doesn’t stem from how I see writing but from being caught up in life.

A question from a female reader:

“How do you find grappling with reality in a country that is no country for old women?”

I’m sixty-nine years old. So what?

Then I’m supposed to explain myself from my emotional indispositions:

“You don’t write about the love for your nation.” I feel that soon they will take away from me the right to exercise the profession of a poet. 

Someone wants to know if I had really seen that landslide, that woman crushed by a white ash. Facebook photo. The bridge breaking in the middle. Blind kittens drowned in rainwater in a hurry to make it before the kids get back from school.

I whimper in a modest and ugly way. I struggle with putting together words, softened by my voice. I can’t speak any more. Everything has been replaced by writing. 

I stop. I take a breath—and that’s when they take a picture of me. A different one. With flesh. Like boiling water in my eyes.

On my way out of the theater the driver helps me sit next to him. He fastens his seatbelt. I smell cigarettes.

We drive away in silence.

My hands are sticking out of wristbands. I squeeze my purse with one, while the other one rests on the coat with the fingers spread. I stare at it—a bloodless, cold little fish thrown on shore.

In the absence of a conversation—I fantasize. How the driver undresses for me, quickly and impatiently. I think that I’m smiling at these thoughts. I want to see my reflection immediately. I wriggle, I lean out, I look for that spot where I could capture myself in the side mirror. There I am, I can see myself. I don’t have the strength to take out my glasses. But this pretty picture, I know by heart.

Sticky eyes split the swollen face. Fermented skin. A thick mesh of thin incisions on the cheeks, like the ones you get after a paper cut. In place of hair—plumage. And the look—eternal and proud. Deprived of fear and gender. Deprived of joy. I look like a demiurge witnessing the destruction of the world.

With difficulty, I reach into my pocket for a piece of bread smuggled from the banquet put together in my honor.

Translator’s Note 

Zyta Rudzka’s novel, A Brief Exchange of Fire, provides an intense reading experience and is a remarkable feast of language. Short and concise sentences, like gunshots, bombard the reader with unexpected metaphors and quirky juxtapositions, producing powerful images. Different registers throw us in distinct realities and histories, the past is mixed with the present, and snippets of information leave the readers with a strange taste in their mouth, albeit hungry to know more. As a translator, my main concern was to reproduce the writer’s style characterized by her gun-fired sentences resulting in fragmentary, ascetic prose, yet abundant in hard-hitting comments, peculiar observations, and bold fantasies. I struggled to preserve the pain surfacing especially in Roma’s descriptions of herself, her failed marriage and her daughter who disappeared without a trace: “Where are my curious, nosy fingers? I can’t see them anymore. All that is left is my hands. Hard, heavy, almost black, as if they were filled with soil”; “That night we kissed, intensely, deeply, as a backup. It didn’t last for long”; “Zuzanka grew up to be a wonderful child. She held concerts. Those were some intense years. Beautiful years which didn’t leave any trace.” And yet, apart from the emotional load present in Rudzka’s sentences, many phrases contain plenty of humor and irony and transmitting both constituted another challenge I faced when translating her work: “I speak awkwardly. They like it. A woman who writes poems cannot be normal.” Finally, A Brief Exchange is replete in cultural references, such as Pope John Paul II’s famous speech given during his pilgrimage in 1979, when Poland was under the Communist regime (“Let your spirit descend and renew the face of the earth. This earth”) or Tadeusz Różewicz’s famous play Kartoteka, whose title can be translated into English as “card-index” or “records” and it was used by Rudzka to create an alliteration “kartoteka i kakofonia,” which I rendered as “record and discord.” All those examples, which often add to the grotesque aspect of the novel, need not be overlooked. Translating Rudzka’s novel is like dealing with an open and “oozing wound,” because the language is vivid and fleshy. Her writing style is flamboyant, heterogenous, dynamic and fascinating and I made every effort to recreate her esthetics to evoke similar feelings in the reader.

About the Author 

Zyta Rudzka, born in 1964 in Warsaw, is a poet, novelist, playwright and author of screenplays for art movies. A graduate in Psychology of the Academy of Catholic Theology, she has lectured at universities in Rome and Praetoria. She debuted in 1989 with a poetry book Ruchoma rzeczywistość (Moving Reality). Her first novel, Białe klisze (White Negatives), published in 1993, was awarded the Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Stanisław Piętak prizes. Her novel, Krótka wymiana ognia (A Brief Exchange of Fire), published in 2018 by Wydawnictwo W.A.B., received the Gdynia Literary Award in 2019 and was nominated in the same year for the prestigious Nike Literary Award. 

About the Translator 

Agnieszka (Aga) Gabor da Silva graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she studied Lusophone Literatures and Cultures. Aga also holds a Master of Arts in English from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Her first translation from Polish into English—two poems “Tights” and “Buttons” written by Bronka Nowicka—was published in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of Lunch Ticket. Her second translation—a few poems from the collection Animalia written by the Polish poet Anna Adamowicz appeared in ANMLY. Aga currently lives in sunny New Mexico with her family. When she’s not busy chasing after her three-year old, she translates literature. Her preferred social media handle is Facebook.

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