During storms, I used to hide in the hallway and play at being Jonah. The shutters up in the attic would open with a bang. The faded curtain would billow out like the belly of a whale. The spirit level was one of its crossed eyes, and the chisels, saws and planes which hung on the unplastered walls were its fins. Water dripped from the ceiling and ran down the stone wall. I could sail to wherever I wanted, in a boat made from lime-tree wood shavings, but I preferred to stay put on a sack of oats under the ladder, somewhere between the rocking horse that had lost its rockers, the rickety cheese press and the duck sitting on its eggs in an old wooden washtub. Chaff fell like glitter onto spiderwebs. Above me, the electricity meter, with its porcelain fuses, ticked rhythmically. An old slug iron lay on the floor, showing its teeth. Just as I believed in bebok, the Jurassic Uplands monster which, according to grown-ups, would come after dark to kidnap naughty children, so I also believed that this iron, true to its name, contained some sort of supernatural slug.
My mother was terrified of storms. As soon as it began to thunder, she’d cross herself, take down the laundry from the lines strung between our two apple trees, bolt shut all the doors and windows, pull plugs out of sockets, hide metal objects and cover the top of the washing machine with a blanket, so that it wouldn’t draw lightning. Finally, she would sit on the bed, cover herself with a feather duvet and call me over.
‘Be straight with me, have you killed a spider again? You know well enough that it brings thunderstorms.’
‘This time it really wasn’t me, Mum. I swear, it was Mr Kuzior.’
‘Mr Kuzior?’ she asked, intrigued.
‘In biology class, we were putting cross spiders to sleep with ether, and I think mine breathed in too much, because it never made it out of its matchbox again.’
‘Spiders are sacred creatures and it’s forbidden to kill them. They saved Our Lady. When the Holy Family was fleeing from Jerusalem, spiders wove such a thick web around the road that the swords of Herod’s soldiers couldn’t pierce it.’
She would tell me story after story, about how Jesus brought twelve clay birds to life when he was a child, how he hung a pitcher of water on a sunbeam and how he walked on water, how he revived a dried fish and calmed a storm. Eventually she would fall asleep under her duvet, clutching a blessed medallion in her left hand.
Once during a storm, Natka Roszenko came to visit us. We didn’t know her well; we just knew that she was one of Cynga’s tarts. Cynga had come to the village in the mid-1980s, from who knew where. He had opened the Baboon nightclub in the basement of the forest amphitheatre by the road, and he spent a lot of time at the inn, with the Director and the village mayor. Knowing all this, Mum would still invite Natka over to our house, because the girl sold Hungarian tops and golden-thread shawls at a good price. Besides, how could you not let a person into your home during a storm?
As I sat under the table, playing house, different smells mingled in the stuffy August air: rotting mattress straw, laundry starch, mildew and cat piss. I stuck out my head. The flypaper swayed hypnotically under the ceiling lamp. On the wall, next to the memento of my First Holy Communion, hung a portrait of my grandmother Sabina Szydło. A beautiful, olive-skinned woman in a blue-grey georgette dress with a white lace collar was peeking at me from the picture. Her raven-black plait undulated behind the glass. I missed her, even though I had never met her.
When Mum fell asleep, Natka finished her coffee, crawled under the table and sat down next to me, smiling peculiarly.
‘Hey, you, I’ll tell you a story. No? Maybe we can play tickles?’
When I didn’t reply, Natka brushed aside her dark hair and put a slim arm around me. She smelled of musky perfume. She unbuttoned her blouse and bared her breasts. I shuddered with disgust, but she seemed to interpret this differently. She slipped a hand inside her knickers and half-closed her eyes. Luckily, the storm ended. Someone knocked on the door. My mother turned on the light.
I fled from under the table, shouting, ‘Mum, Mum, there are spiders from Jerusalem under there!’
This is an excerpt from Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, published by Portobello Books.