Kunicki, Water (I)

As they walk, they talk to each other, but he can’t hear them: he hadn’t known he was supposed to be listening. Then they vanish into the olive trees. He doesn’t know how long all of this takes, but it’s not long. A quarter of an hour, maybe a little more. He loses track of time. He hadn’t looked at his watch. He hadn’t known he was supposed to keep track of the time.

In his sleep he hears drops of water trickling lazily down from the sky, about to become a violent, short-lived downpour.

Image by Josephine Livingstone
Image by Josephine Livingstone

It’s mid-morning, he doesn’t know exactly what the time is—he hasn’t looked at his watch—but he hasn’t been waiting, he doesn’t think, for longer than fifteen minutes. He leans back into his seat and shuts his eyes halfway; the silence is as piercing as a shrill relentless noise. He can’t collect his thoughts. He still hasn’t realized that what it sounds like is an alarm. He moves his seat back from the steering wheel and stretches out his legs. His head is heavy, and it drags his body down with it into the white hot air. He’s not going to move. He’ll just wait.

He must have smoked a cigarette, and maybe even two. After a few minutes he gets out of the car to go and pee into a ditch. He doesn’t think anybody else has gone by, although now he’s not sure. Then he gets back in and takes a big drink of water from a plastic bottle. He’s finally beginning to get impatient. He honks the horn, hard, and the deafening sound precipitates the flash of rage that draws him back down to earth. Deflated, he now sees everything much more clearly, and he gets back out of the car again and sets off after them, imagining absent-mindedly the words he’s about to pronounce: “What the hell have you been doing all this time? What are you thinking?”

It’s an olive grove, bone dry. The grass crunches under his feet. There are wild blackberry bushes in between the gnarled olive trees; new sprouts attempt to slip out onto the path and seize him by the leg. There is trash everywhere: Kleenexes, those disgusting pads, human excrement populated by flies. Other people also stop alongside the road to relieve themselves. They don’t bother to go any farther into the thicket; they’re in a hurry, even here.

There’s no wind. There’s no sun. The motionless white sky looks like the canopy of a tent. It’s muggy, and particles of water jostle up against one another in the air, and everywhere there is the smell of the sea—of electricity, of ozone, of fish.

Something moves, but not over there amidst the spindly trees—right here, beneath his feet. An enormous black beetle emerges onto the path; palpating the air for a moment with its antennae, it pauses, evidently aware of a human presence. The white sky is reflected in the beetle’s flawless carapace in a milky blot, and for a moment Kunicki feels as though he’s being watched by an odd eye in the ground not belonging to any body, a detached and disinterested eye. Kunicki nudges the earth slightly with the tip of his sandal. The beetle scurries across the narrow path, rustling in the desiccated grass. It disappears into the blackberries. That’s it.

She had said: “Stop the car.” When he’d stopped, she had gotten out and opened the back door. She’d unfastened their son from his car seat and then taken him by the hand and led him off. Kunicki had had no desire to get out—he’d felt sleepy, tired, although they had only come a couple of miles so far. He’d barely even glanced at them out of the corner of his eye; he hadn’t known he was supposed to be watching. Now he tries to call back up that blurred image, make it sharper, bring it up closer—keep it still. He watches them walk away from him, down the crackling path. He seems to think she’s wearing light-colored linen pants and a black t-shirt. Their son is wearing a tricot tee with an elephant on it, which he actually knows for sure because he was the one who put it on him that morning.

As they walk, they talk to each other, but he can’t hear them: he hadn’t known he was supposed to be listening. Then they vanish into the olive trees. He doesn’t know how long all of this takes, but it’s not long. A quarter of an hour, maybe a little more. He loses track of time. He hadn’t looked at his watch. He hadn’t known he was supposed to keep track of the time.

He hated when she asked him what he was thinking about. He would always answer “nothing,” but she never believed him. She said you couldn’t not think. She’d grow indignant. But he can—and here Kunicki feels something like satisfaction—not think about anything. He knows how.

But then suddenly he stops in the middle of the blackberry brush, stands still, as though his body, straining toward the blackberry rhizome, has inadvertently discovered a new equilibrium point. The quiet is accompanied by flies buzzing and by the roar of his thoughts. For a moment he can see himself from above: a man wearing ordinary cargo pants with a white T-shirt and a little bald spot on the back of his head, among the clumps of the thicket, an intruder, a guest in someone else’s home. A man under fire, dropped into the epicenter of a momentary ceasefire in a battle involving both the blazing sky and the chapped earth. He panics; he would like to hide now, run back to the car, but his body ignores him—he can’t move his foot, can’t force himself back into motion. Can’t force himself to take a step. The links have broken. His foot in its sandal is an anchor that keeps him stuck to the ground. Consciously, trying hard, surprised at himself, he does force it forward again. There is no other way out from that hot, boundless space.

They came on August 14. The ferry from Split was full of people—lots of tourists, though mostly locals. The locals carried shopping bags; everything was cheaper on the mainland. Islands spawn parsimony. It was easy to tell the tourists apart, because when the sun began its inevitable descent into the sea, they crossed over to starboard and pointed their cameras at it. The ferry slowly passed by scattered islands, and then it was as though it had emerged into open sea. A disagreeable sensation, a fleeting, frivolous moment of panic.

They had no trouble finding the guesthouse where they were staying, called “Poseidon.” It was owned by a bearded man named Branko wearing a T-shirt with a shell on it. He insisted they be on a first-name basis and patted Kunicki familiarly on the back as he led them through the narrow stone house and up the stairs to their suite, which he showed them proudly.

The guesthouse was right on the sea. Their suite had two bedrooms and a corner kitchenette with the traditional furnishings, pantries made of laminated fiberboard. Their windows looked out on the beach and then the high seas. There was an agave just blooming at one window—the flower, sitting atop its strong stem, rose triumphantly up above the water.

He pulls out a map of the islands and considers the options. She might have gotten disoriented and simply rejoined the road in a different spot. She was probably just standing somewhere else now. Maybe she would even flag down a car and go—where? According to the map, the road drew a winding line across the whole of the island, so that you could travel all the way around without ever getting down to the sea. Which was how they had gone to the town of Vis a few days earlier.

He puts the map on her seat, on her purse, and starts driving. He goes slowly, looking for them amongst the olive trees. But at some point the landscape changes: the olive grove makes way for rocky wastelands overgrown with dry grass and blackberries. White limestone is bared like giant teeth fallen from the mouth of some wild beast. He turns around after a few kilometers. Now to his right he sees stunningly green vineyards, and within them, every so often, little stone tool sheds, bleak and empty. The best-case scenario was for her to have gotten lost, but what if she had become unwell, her or their son—it’s so stuffy, so hot. Maybe they need urgent care, and instead of doing anything, he’s just driving up and down the road. What an idiot, he thinks—how had he not thought of this before? His heart starts striking sooner. What if she had sunstroke? What if she broke her leg?

He goes back and honks the horn a few times. Two German cars go by. He checks the time; it’s already been about an hour and a half, which means the ferry has gone. White, commanding, it had swallowed up the cars, shut the gate, and set off across the sea. Minute by minute, ever broader tracts of indifferent sea separate them. Kunicki has a sense of foreboding that dries his mouth out, a sense of something that has some connection to the trash by the road, the flies and the human waste. He gets it. They’re gone. They’re both gone. He knows they’re not among the olive trees, and yet he runs down the dry path and calls out for them, knowing they won’t respond.

It is the hour of postprandial siestas on the island of Vis, and the little town is almost empty. On the beach, right by the road, there are three women flying a light blue kite. He takes a good look at them once he’s parked. One of them is wearing cream-colored pants stretched skin-tight over her big buttocks.

He finds Branko sitting at a little café, sharing a table with three other men. They’re drinking wormwood liqueur with ice, like whiskey. Branko smiles in surprise when he sees him.

“Did you forget something?” he asks.

They offer him a chair, but he doesn’t sit. He wants to tell them everything in an orderly manner, and he switches over into English while at the same time wondering in some other part of his brain, as though this were a film, what one does in a situation like this. He says they’re gone—Jagoda and his son. He says when, and where. He says he looked and couldn’t find them. Then Branko asks:

“Did you have a fight?”

He says no, which is true. The other two men toss back their liqueur. He wouldn’t mind some of that himself. He can taste it, sweet and sour, on his tongue. Branko slowly takes a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the table. The others get up, as well, reluctantly, as though preparing themselves for a battle—or maybe they’d just rather stay here, in the shade of this awning. They’re all going, but Kunicki insists that they have to let the police know first. Branko hesitates. His black beard is shot through with rays of gray hairs. On his yellow T-shirt, the drawing of the shell and the inscription “Shell” begin to redden.

“Maybe she went down to the water?”

Maybe she did. They come to an agreement: Branko and Kunicki will return to that spot on the road while the other two go to the police station to call down to the town of Vis; Branko explains that Komiža itself has only one policeman. Glasses holding melting ice still stand on the table.

Kunicki has no trouble recognizing the place where they’d pulled off, where he had been parked before. It feels like ages ago. Time is passing differently, thick and acrid, sequenced. The sun appears from behind the white clouds, and suddenly it is hot.

“Honk,” says Branko, and Kunicki applies pressure to the horn.

The sound is long, mournful, like the voice of an animal. Then it stops, shattered into cicadas’ small echoes.

They move through the olive brush, bellowing out from time to time. They don’t run into one another again until the vineyard, and then after a brief talk they decide to inspect that entire area. They scour rows half in shadow, calling out for the missing woman: “Jagoda, Jagoda!” It occurs to Kunicki that his wife’s name means “berry” in their native Polish. It is such a common name that he had forgotten about that until now. Suddenly it seems to him that he is taking part in some sort of ancient ritual, blurry, grotesque. From the bushes there hang grapes in swollen, deep violet bunches, perverse, multiplied nipples, and he wanders the leafy labyrinths, shouting, “Jagoda, Jagoda.” Who is he saying that to? Who is he looking for?

He has to stop for a second. He has a stitch in his side. He doubles over between the rows of plants. He buries his head in the shadowy cool, Branko’s voice muffled by the foliage till finally falling silent, and now Kunicki can hear the flies buzzing—quiet’s familiar warp.

Past the vineyard there’s another, separated from this one by just a narrow path. They stop, and Branko calls someone on his cell phone. He repeats the words “wife” and “child” in Croatian—those are the only words that sound enough like Polish for Kunicki to be able to understand. The sun grows orange; great, swollen, it weakens before their eyes. Soon they’ll be able to look at it directly. The vineyards, meanwhile, take on an intensely dark green color. Two small human figures stand helplessly in that green-striped sea.

By dusk, there are already some cars and a small cluster of men on the road. Kunicki is sitting in a car that has “Police” written on it, and with Branko’s help, he responds to the haphazard—it seems to him—questions he is being asked by a big sweaty cop. He tries to speak simple English: “We stopped. She went out with child. They went right, here”—he points—“and then I waited, we can say, fifteen minutes. Then I decide go and look for them. I can’t find them. I don’t know what have happen.” He is given lukewarm mineral water, which he drinks in desperate gulps. “They are lost.” And then he adds again: “lost.” The officer dials somebody on his cell phone. “It is impossible to be lost here, my friend,” he tells him while he waits for them to pick up. Kunicki is struck by that “my friend.” The officer’s walkie-talkie says something. It is another hour before that uneven pedestrian brigade sets out for island’s heart.

In that time, the puffy sun sinks down around the vineyards, and by the time they’ve gotten all the way to the top, it’s already reached the sea. They are unwitting witnesses to the operatic drawing out of its setting. In the end, people switch on their flashlights. In the dark, now, they climb down the island’s steep shore, which is full of little inlets, two of which they check, each having little stone houses inhabited by the more eccentric tourists who don’t like hotels and prefer to pay more to not have running water or electricity. People use stone stoves to cook or bring gas tanks with them. They catch fish, which travel straight from the sea to the grill. No, no one has seen a woman with a child. They’re about to eat dinner—making their way to the table are bread, cheeses, olives, and the poor fish who only this afternoon had been fully absorbed in their mindless exercises in the sea. Every so often Branko calls the hotel in Komiža—at Kunicki’s request, since he figures perhaps she got lost but ended up getting back by a different route. But Branko just pats him on the back after each call.

Around midnight the pack of men disbands. Among them are the two Kunicki had seen at Branko’s table in Komiža. Now, as they take their leave, they introduce themselves: Drago and Roman. They walk together to the car. Kunicki is grateful to them for the help, he doesn’t know how to show it, he’s forgotten how to say “thank you” in Croatian; it must be similar to the Polish “dziękuję,” something like “dyakuyu” or “dyakuye,” but he doesn’t know. With just a little bit of effort they ought to actually be able to work up some sort of Slavic koiné, a set of similar Slavic words that would come in handy and that you could use on their own, without grammar, instead of falling back into that stiff, simplified English they always used instead.

That night a boat comes up by his house. They have to evacuate—there’s a flood. The water has already reached the second stories of some buildings. In the kitchen it forces its way in through the joints between the tiles on the floor, flowing out in warm streams from the electrical outlets. Books bulge with moisture. He opens up one and sees that the letters run off like makeup, leaving empty, blurry pages. Then he realizes that everyone else has gone already, taken by an earlier boat, and that he is the only one left.

In his sleep he hears drops of water trickling lazily down from the sky, about to become a violent, short-lived downpour.

— translated by Jennifer Croft

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