There was something beautiful about that child—that’s what everyone said. Marek Marek had white-blonde hair and the face of an angel. His older sisters adored him. They used to push him along the mountain paths in an old German pram and play with him as if he were a doll. His mother didn’t want to stop breastfeeding him; as he sucked at her, she dreamed of turning into pure milk for him and flowing out of herself through her own nipple—that would have been better than her entire future as Mrs Marek. But Marek Marek grew up and stopped seeking her breasts. Old Marek found them instead, though, and made her several more babies.
But despite being so lovely, little Marek Marek was a poor eater and cried at night. Maybe that was why his father didn’t like him. Whenever he came home drunk he would start beating Marek Marek. If his mother came to his defence, his father would lay into her too, until they’d all escape upstairs, leaving old Marek the rest of the house to fill with his snoring. Marek’s sisters felt sorry for their little brother, so they taught him to hide at an agreed signal and from the fifth year of his life Marek Marek sat out most of his evenings in the cellar. There he would cry silently, without any tears.
There he realized that his pain did not come from the outside, but from inside, and had nothing to do with his drunken father or his mother’s breast. It hurt for no particular reason, just as the sun rises each morning and the stars come out each night. It just hurt. He didn’t know what it was yet, but sometimes he had a vague memory of a sort of warm, hot light drowning and dissolving the entire world. Where it came from, he didn’t know. All he could remember of his childhood was eternal twilight, a darkened sky, the world plunged into gloom, the chill and misery of evenings without beginning or end. He also remembered the day electricity was brought to the village. He thought the pylons that came marching over the hills from the neighbouring village were like the pillars of a vast church.
Marek Marek was the first and only person from his village to subscribe to the district library in Nowa Ruda. Then he took to hiding from his father with a book, which gave him a lot of time for reading.
The library in Nowa Ruda was housed in the old brewery building and it still smelled of hops and beer; the walls, floors and ceilings all gave off the same pungent odour—even the pages of the books reeked as if beer had been poured over them. Marek Marek liked this smell. At fifteen he got drunk for the first time. It felt good. He completely forgot about the gloom, he could no longer see the difference between dark and light. His body went slack and wouldn’t obey him. He liked that, too. It was as if he could come out of his body and live alongside himself, without thinking or feeling anything.
His older sisters got married and left home. One younger brother was killed by an unexploded bomb. The other was in a special school in Klodzko, so old Marek just had Marek Marek left to beat—for not shutting in the hens, for not mowing the grass short enough, for breaking the pivot off the threshing machine. But when Marek Marek was about twenty he hit his father back for the first time and from then on they beat each other up on a regular basis. Meanwhile, whenever Marek Marek had a little time and no money for drink, he read Stachura, the beat poet. The library ladies bought the collected works especially for him, covered in blue fabric that looked like jeans.
Marek Marek was still as handsome as ever. He had fair, shoulder-length hair and a smooth, girlish face. And he had very pale eyes, faded even, as if they had lost their colour through straining for light in dark cellars, as if they were worn out from reading all those blue covered volumes. But women were afraid of him. Once, during a disco, he went outside with one, dragged her into an elder bush and ripped off her blouse. It’s a good thing she yelled, because some other boys ran out and punched him. But she liked him; maybe he just didn’t know how to talk to women. Another time he got drunk and knifed a guy who was friendly with a girl he knew, as if he had exclusive rights over her. Afterwards, at home, he cried.
He continued to drink, and he liked the way it felt when his legs made their own way across the hills while everything inside—and thus all the pain—was turned off, as if a switch had been snapped off and darkness had suddenly fallen. He liked to sit in the Lido pub amid the din and smoke and then suddenly to find himself, God knows how, in a field of flowering flax and to lie there until morning. To die. Or to drink at the Jubilatka and then suddenly to be snaking his way along the highway towards the village with a bloody face and a broken tooth. To be only partly alive, only partly conscious, slowly and gently ceasing to be. To get up in the morning and feel his head aching—at least he knew what hurt. To feel a thirst, and to be able to quench it.
Finally Marek Marek caught up with his father. He gave the old man such a battering against a stone bench that he broke his ribs and lost consciousness. When the police came they took Marek Marek away to sober up, then kept him in custody, where there was nothing to drink.
Between the waves of pain in his head, in his drowsy, hung-over state Marek Marek remembered that once, at the very beginning, he had fallen; that once he had been high up, and now he was low down. He remembered the downward motion and the terror—worse than terror, there was no word for it. Marek Marek’s stupid body mindlessly accepted his fear and began to tremble; his heart thumped fit to burst. But his body didn’t know what it was taking upon itself—only an immortal soul could bear such fear. His body was choked by it, shrank into itself and struck against the walls of his tiny cell, foaming at the mouth. ‘Damn you, Marek!’ shouted the warders. They pinned him to the ground, tied him up and gave him an injection.
He ended up in the detox ward, where with other figures in faded pyjamas he shuffled along the wide hospital corridors and winding staircases. He stood obediently in line for his medicine and swallowed it down as if taking communion. As he stared out of the window it occurred to him for the first time that his aim was to die as soon as possible, to free himself from this rotten country, from this red-grey earth, from this overheated hospital, from these washed-out pyjamas, from this drugged-up body. From then on he devoted every single thought to contriving a way to die.
One night he slashed his veins in the shower. The white skin on his forearm split open and Marek Marek’s inside appeared. It was red and meaty like fresh beef. Before losing consciousness he felt surprised because, God knows why, he thought he saw a light in there.
Naturally he was locked up in isolation, a fuss was made and his stay in hospital was extended. He spent the whole winter there, and when he got back home he discovered that his parents had moved to their daughter’s place in town and now he was alone. They had left him the horse, and he used it to bring down wood from the forest, which he chopped up and sold. He had money, so he could drink again.