Sunday, January 5, 2014

Chapter 8

The problem with sleeping in the barn is that it is pitch black at night. You almost lose you sense of left and right, up and down. It feels like floating in space. Only by touching the rug underneath or the hay to the side can you regain a bit of grounding in reality. We have a flashlight with us - using a kerosene lantern is a big no-no, with all the flammable hay and straw around - but we have to use it sparingly, so that the batteries don't die just as one of us needs to go pee in the middle of the night.

With no  man-made lights around, the sky is stunning. There are so many stars up there on a cloudless night, the sky appears to have more points of light than points of darkness.  As if someone took a black canvas and sprinkled it with white paint... Again, and again, and again - and then stopped, before the canvas became completely white. It is eerily quiet, except for some village dogs running a barking competition.

I know that there are a lot of spiders and other crawlies in that hay, plus probably an entire nation of mice, but I can't see or feel them, so they don't bother me as much as those pesky flies. I fall into a deep sleep, until the dawn a few hours later starts a cacophony of animal voices: roosters crowing, geese honking, cows mooing, sheep bleating, pigs oinking. It is as loud as a busy city street and gets louder every minute until the humans get up and start distributing feed. Then there is the much less noisy concerto of slurping, chewing, pecking, ripping, grinding...  By that time I'm awake enough to slide down the hay and go wait for breakfast.

Breakfast is usually hot milk with zacierki (fresh pasta dough rubbed between palms, so that small, oval pieces fall into the boiling milk), or lane kluski (liquid batter of eggs and flour poured  slowly into the milk). Sometimes it is a thick slice of bread with butter and farmer's cheese, or with thick cream and sugar, or with lard and salt.

After breakfast we take the cows to pasture. Armed with twigs we steer them toward the dirt road and some grassy patch beyond,  but these cows know the routine  and require very little guidance. I watch their backsides as they go unhurriedly, with gait of ballerina quality, on legs covered with encrusted dung, swinging their tails at the flies that follow them.

We bring them back in the afternoon to be milked. They know their  route home as well, so they do not give us any trouble, what with the big sacks of milk between their hind legs making their movements a bit more difficult than before.  We do sometimes hoot at them, or swat them with our twigs,  but it is just a childish show of "who's the boss", completely unnecessary. They are the gentlest, most stoic of animals, completely focused on the job of moving chewed grass through their multiple stomachs.

If the pasture is close to the river, we go swimming or fishing.The water is murky, with big floats of yellow foam on the surface - I have been told that the foam comes from the chemical plant upriver - but it is impossible to resist on a hot day.  We keep to the shallows, because none of us really knows how to swim, and there are dangerous whirlpools in the deeper currents, which can pull even a grownup under. We are afraid of a body of a drowned person touching our bodies; that would be freaky. Judging by  our fear of that happening, there may be more dead bodies in that river than fish.

Our fishing rod is a long stick cut out of jasmine; bobber is a wine cork with a goose feather threaded through it; fishing line is a length of plastic twine meticulously unwrapped from scouring pads bought at the hardware store in Gniewoszów. Only the hook is proper, and we put wiggly, slimy earthworms on it. Or, white maggots taken from the outhouse pit. (Those are the best, I am told, but I do not have the stomach for getting them out of the liquid shit. I much rather dig for the earthworms, although I do feel sorry for having to thread the hook through them, when they so obviously do not like it.)

The best we can hope for is a common roach or two. More often we catch the more plentiful raffe - small fish with a large, spiny sail of a top fin, which they unfurl when threatened. Those we throw back in, or give to the cats to eat, which they are usually too skittish to do. I heard there is pike to be had in this river, but I have never seen one, so I think this is just a tall tale.

One day there is a strong pull on my line. The bobber goes under and stays there as I fight what must be a monster of a fish. As always, the biggest fear is that the lousy line will snap, freeing the fish with the hook in its mouth, before I am able to see what I got.  After a minute (which feels like an hour) I pull out a strange mutant - a dark brown thing not like fish but like a wet kitten, with a big head and small whiskers on both sides of that head. I'm afraid to touch it as it thrashes wildly on the sand, but the boys around me are excited, patting me on the back and saying, "Yay, city boy, you caught ye'self a catfish!" So it is a fish, after all.

We take it home and my great-grandpa looks at me with a mixture of disbelief and pride,  muttering under his droopy mustache, "Well, well, a real catfish you got here..." This thing, less than ten inches long,  will be cleaned and fried tonight,  but I will refuse to eat it, feeling sad for that rare, almost mythical creature.  A terrible thought is gnawing at me: what if I caught the last one of its species?

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