This is an excerpt of a novel narrated by a woman in her mid-60s, who lives in a cottage in a very remote village in south-western Poland. She’s reclusive, preferring the company of animals to people, she’s unconventional, believing in the stars, and she is very fond of the poetry of William Blake, from whose work the title of the book is taken.
I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of an ambulance having to take me away in the Night.
Had I examined the Ephemerides that evening to see what was happening in the heavens, I wouldn’t have gone to bed at all. Meanwhile I fell very fast asleep; I helped myself with an infusion of hops, on top of which I took two valerian pills. So when in the middle of the Night I was woken by hammering on the door – violent, immoderate and by that token boding ill – I couldn’t come to. I sprang up and stood by the bed, unsteadily, because my sleepy, shaky body couldn’t make the leap from the innocence of sleep into wakefulness. I felt weak and began to reel, as if I were on the point of losing consciousness. Unfortunately it happens to me lately, and is to do with my Ailments. I had to sit down and repeat to myself several times: I am at home, it is Night, someone’s banging on the door, and only then did I manage to get a grip on my nerves. As I searched for my slippers in the dark, I could hear that whoever had been banging was now walking around the house, muttering to himself. Downstairs, in the cubbyhole for the electrical meters, I’ve got the disabling gas Dizzy gave me because of the poachers, and that was what I was now thinking about. I managed in the darkness to seek out the familiar cold aerosol shape, and thus armed, I switched on the outside light, then looked at the porch through a small side window. There was a crunch of snow, and into my field of vision came the neighbour, whom I call Maladroit. He was pulling around him the tails of the old sheepskin coat I sometimes saw him wearing as he worked by the house. From under the coat his legs protruded in striped pyjamas and heavy hiking boots.
‘Open up,’ he said.
With undisguised astonishment he cast an eye at my linen suit (I sleep in something Mr & Mrs Professor wanted to throw away last summer, which reminds me of a fashion from long ago and the days of my youth – thus I combine the Practical and the Sentimental), and without a by-your-leave he came inside.
‘Please get dressed. Big Foot is dead.’
For a while I was struck dumb with shock; without a word I pulled on my tall snow boots and threw on the first fleece to hand off the nearest hanger. Outside, in the stream of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Maladroit stood beside me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved snow fell from him like icing sugar from angel wings.
‘What do you mean, dead?’ I finally asked, my throat constricted, as I opened the door, but Maladroit didn’t answer.
He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a silent sign, I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square or maybe in opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde – that produces reserve.
We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air which reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Man, and for at least half a year it shows us how very hostile it is to us. The frost brutally assailed our cheeks, and white clouds of steam came streaming from our mouths. The porch light went out automatically and we walked across the crunching snow in total darkness, except for Maladroit’s headlamp, which pierced the pitch dark in one shifting spot, just ahead, as I toddled along in the Murk behind him.
‘Haven’t you got a torch?’ he asked.
Of course I had one, but I wouldn’t be able to find it until morning, by the light of day. It’s always true of torches that you can only see them in the daytime.
Big Foot’s cottage stood slightly out of the way, higher up than the other houses. It was one of three inhabited all year round. Only he, Maladroit and I lived here without fear of the winter; all the other inhabitants had sealed their houses shut in October, drained the water from the pipes and gone back to the city.
Now we turned off the partly-cleared road that runs across our settlement and splits off into paths leading to each of the houses. A path trodden in deep snow led to Big Foot’s house, so narrow that you had to set one foot behind the other while constantly trying to keep your balance.
‘It won’t be a pretty sight,’ warned Maladroit, turning round and briefly blinding me.
I wasn’t expecting anything different. For a while he was silent, and then, as if to excuse himself, said: ‘I was bothered by the light in his kitchen and the bitch barking so plaintively. Didn’t you hear it?’
No, I didn’t. I was asleep, stupefied by hops and valerian.
‘Where is she now, the Bitch?’
‘I took her away from here, I took her to my place, I fed her and she seemed to calm down.’
Another moment of silence.
‘He always went to bed early and put out the light, he economised, but this time it went on and on burning. A bright streak against the snow. Visible from my bedroom window. So I went over there, thinking maybe he’d got drunk or done something to the dog, for it to be howling like that.’
We passed a tumbledown barn, and moments later Maladroit’s torch fetched two pairs of shining eyes, greenish and fluorescent, out of the darkness.
‘Look, Deer,’ I said in a raised whisper and grabbed him by the coat sleeve. ‘They’ve come so near to the house. Aren’t they afraid?’
The deer were standing in snow that came almost up to their bellies. They gazed at us calmly, as if we had caught them in the middle of performing some ritual whose meaning we could not fathom. It was dark, so I couldn’t tell if they were the same Young Ladies who had come here from the Czech Republic in the autumn, or some new ones? And in fact why only two? There were at least four of the old ones.
‘Go home,’ I said to them, and started waving my arms. They twitched, but didn’t move. They calmly followed us with their gaze, right to the very door. A shiver ran through me.
Meanwhile Maladroit was stamping his feet to shake the snow off his boots outside the neglected cottage. The small windows were sealed with plastic and old documents, and the wooden door was covered in black tar paper.
The walls in the hall were stacked with firewood for the stove, logs of uneven size. It was an unpleasant interior, there’s no question – dirty and neglected. Throughout there was a smell of damp, wood and earth – moist and voracious. The stink of smoke, years old, had settled on the walls in a thick layer.
The door into the kitchen was ajar, and at once I saw Big Foot’s body lying on the floor. Almost as soon as my eyes landed on him, they leaped away. It was a while before I could look over there again. It was a dreadful sight.
He was lying twisted in a weird position, with his hands to his neck, as if struggling to pull off a collar that was pinching him. Gradually I went closer, as if hypnotised. I saw his open eyes fixed on some point under the table. His dirty vest was ripped at the throat. It looked as if the body had been fighting against itself, been defeated and killed. It made me feel cold with Horror, the blood froze in my veins and I felt as if it had withdrawn deep inside me. Only yesterday I had seen this body alive.
‘My God,’ I mumbled, ‘what happened?’
The above is an excerpt from Olga Tokarczuk’s novel of the same name, Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead (Prowadż swój pług przez kości umarłych).