Is time stronger than love? Some say it is not. But is love stronger than time? An answer to this less-frequently-asked latter question is offered by the story of Henryk Ochorowicz and Queen Marysieńka.
Henryk Ochorowicz’s origins alone appeared enough to foretoken his bland existence. His father was a pedantic jeweller, fairly wealthy yet unbearably lacklustre, and his mother was the long-suffering wife of a pedantic and lacklustre jeweller. Henryk remembered very little from his formative years save for solitude and silence; the period of World War I was neither easy nor silent, but it went by eventually. Anything Henryk saw, heard or felt seemed to have gone by anyway (and nothing interesting ever came of that seeing, hearing and feeling, either). He finished university with poor results. He did not attract the interest of women, nor did he take any interest in anything. Finally, after the death of his parents, which did not affect him to any particular degree, he quickly sold the business he had inherited and continued his life, loitering here and there, dressed in a well-worn coat and a wrinkled hat, his only companion in life being a ginger cat. Everything indicated that he would never appear in anyone’s recollections.
In 1935, in a small bookstore in Warsaw, this man’s life reached a mysterious yet barely discernible turning point. While he was jadedly leafing through a historical album of images of royal families, his gaze stopped on a certain pale face before quickly moving on to the next page. That pause lasted maybe two seconds, but something stirred within Ochorowicz’s soul. Those two seconds were enough to trigger a surprising mutation in his dreadfully mediocre life (or maybe we now only think that is what happened, maybe everything was already predetermined?).
Obviously, the album was purchased. In the late afternoon, when sitting at a large oak desk in his father’s study, lit by an oil lamp, Henryk found a reproduction of an already destroyed portrait of Queen Marie Casimire Sobieska, the wife of King John III Sobieski. Her porcelain skin, her black hair, and her wise, serene eyes caused Henryk to fall into a state reminiscent of a trance, from which he was awakened by the hungry cat jumping on to his lap.
The following day, undaunted by the heavy rain or the threat of lightning looming in the air, Henryk visited various booksellers and antique shops to procure countless history textbooks and chronicles, as well as albums, reproductions and drawings – anything that pertained to the period of time graced by the existence of Marie Casimire, or ‘Queen Marysieńka’, as she is affectionately known in Polish. The maps of castles he had purchased allowed him to retrace the route of the queen’s strolls in his thoughts. He would often imagine her wearing a long dress embellished with brocade and a string of pearls around her neck, sauntering slowly along the cloister of the Wawel Castle, stepping into a long corridor with purple walls, then turning and walking through a door into the dining room to sit silently in a learned, graceful manner on a pouffe at the fireplace.
Henryk read numerous historical works devoted to Europe in the latter half of the 17th century. He corresponded with scholars and the greatest authorities among professors to find out more about Marie Casimire’s biography, the court’s daily life, social habits, fashion and even diet. Henryk did so for days, weeks, months. His apartment slowly filled with files that organized the documents he had obtained and the notes he had made.
Finally, the realization sank in. He realized that he had fallen in love with the queen; fallen victim to the most unfortunate of all imaginable longings, one whose object was a person separated from him by the insurmountable wall of time. On top of this, he realized that this love was insane not only because its object was Marie Casimire – who had been dead for centuries – but also because he himself, Henryk Ochorowicz, was not of royal descent. Even if they had lived in the same period, his ambition to compete with King John III over Marysieńka’s hand in marriage or ask the Pope to divorce the royal couple would have been absurd. All these things taken together went beyond human comprehension (and judging by the behaviour of the ginger cat, which had grown extremely irritated, as if jealous, perhaps beyond animal comprehension as well).
But the longer Henryk thought about it, the more he hated the monarch. He could not stand the opinion, frequently repeated by historians, that the marriage of the Sobieskis was happy and based both on a political contract and on mutual feelings. Henryk, tormented by jealousy, made a rather peculiar and somewhat fantastic-sounding resolution to “destroy Sobieski”.
He initially employed a fairly standard method of coping with a past he so despised, one that was indeed already known to the first emperor of China, Shi Huangdi: burning books and destroying any tangible evidence of his enemy’s existence.
The funds he had at his disposal allowed him to buy and reduce to ashes several copies of Latin chronicles penned by Gaetano Platania, an Italian linked to the court of the Sobieskis. When Henryk realized that he would end up homeless if he was not more frugal with his money, he adopted more modest tactics. He would tear relevant pages out of history textbooks and albums in bookstores, public libraries, and private collections. He spent several years of his life doing little else, and in his left suit pocket he carried a framed miniature of the portrait of his beloved Marie Casimire nearly every day.
But no matter how many pages he destroyed, how many encyclopedic entries he scribbled over, Henryk finally realized that the task he had set himself exceeded the capacities of a single person. The figure of the proud monarch, bearer of the Janina coat of arms, kept emerging on endless occasions – his moustache copied by printing houses all over the country; his name living in the memory of each child.
Henryk realized that he could not destroy the memory of his enemy. For some time, he seriously considered blowing up St. Leonard’s Crypt under Wawel Cathedral, the place of Sobieski’s eternal burial. To this end, he bought additional, newer maps – with the intent of breaking into the Wawel catacombs – and some gunpowder, just enough to destroy the sarcophagus and the rotten wood of the coffin. However, poor Henryk realized that this would only make the name of the desecrated tomb’s occupant even more famous, and the explosion might also damage the queen’s tomb.
One can imagine the problem that Henryk was forced to consider by the unhappy circumstances of the present. He spent long, sleepless nights sitting at his oak desk, dressed in long-unwashed pyjamas, looking his beloved Marysieńka in the eye. He started asking himself if time travel was a possibility. He engaged in hectic studies of writings on contemporary physics recommended to him by his famous cousin Julian Ochorowicz, as well as those on occultism. He ordered subscriptions to such esoteric magazines as Kuryer Metapsychiczny “Dziwy życia” [Metaphysical Courier], Lotos [Lotus], Nowoczesny Ruch Spirytualistyczny [Modern Spiritual Movement], and Świat Wiedzy Tajemnej [The World of Arcane Knowledge]. He frantically read short stories by Jadwiga Cichocka and H. G. Wells, looking for a way to wrest open the gates to the past, to get to the other side of the Styx.
Ultimately, the easily predictable failures that ensued – with him being after all but an amateur in such highly complex matters – brought him to the loud, sobby depths of despair, which some time later turned into quiet grief, idleness and sleepy torpor, drifting absent-mindedly through the labyrinth of daily tasks. However, he mostly spent his days on a couch, staring at the white wall, at the window, at the tree outside the window, at the moon outside the window… Truth be told, there is not much point listing all of these objects, because though he looked at them, he never actually saw anything.
One day, something strange happened. When he was lying in his bed, woken up by the ruckus that the crazy cat had made in the kitchen, he noticed with astonishment that he was wearing a nightcap sewn by hand. His head was aching. He stretched out his hand – not yet conscious or fully awake – to take some aspirin, and instead grabbed a handful of dry ginkgo leaves. He did not understand any of it, but he had already reached a point where he did not care to.
On the following day, he woke up with back pain. When he finally got up, he noticed that someone had replaced his bed with a primitive bunk in the night. Who might have done it? He suspected that the herbs he had brewed the day before had sedated him so much that thieves had easily lifted him without waking him up, put the old-fashioned piece of furniture under him, and fled. He reported this to the Main Inspectorate of the National Police Headquarters, but the officers brushed him off. When he was finishing his conversation with a policeman, he noticed out of the corner of his eye the presence of a Sarmatian noble, vigorously walking down the corridors of the police station with a sabre at his side. Henryk began to fear that he was going mad.
Some time later, when it appeared that things had calmed down and Henryk decided to take a stroll in downtown Warsaw, he noticed that there were no automobiles or trams parked or driving along the street. Instead, he could see horses, snorting anxiously, with saddles that had not been in use for centuries. In those saddles sat unshaven men who were dressed in tattered gray rags, in żupan garments nobody had worn for a very long time, holding goatskins filled with invigorating beverages. Against the backdrop of Warsaw’s interwar architecture, it created a picture that offered some food for thought.
Henryk felt as if someone had whacked him with a stick, as it finally dawned on him: some elements of reality were regressing. Time was peeling away, albeit slowly and not everywhere. Painkillers had turned into herbs (their counterparts from centuries ago), and automobiles into horses. Henryk realized that this was caused by the depth of his feeling, which had permeated the fabric of the world so greatly that it modified its temporal dimension. The mutation had reached every particle of reality, whether animate or inanimate. Matter was slowly reverting to its earlier forms.
He calmly waited for further transformations. On every consecutive day, he would wake up and notice something new – something that was in fact something older; some particular fragment of reality that had become different, more like its former self. One day, when he woke up and shoved the cat off the sheets, he felt that the animal’s fur had become wilder; coarser. He put on his trousers and took out an 18th-century coin from his pocket. He realized that something was about to happen; something that had to happen.
When the memorable day finally came, he got up from his bunk in a spacious chamber and stretched. He put on a shirt with wide cuffs and a cotton cape. Then he walked through the brass door, and down a long corridor with purple walls. He was old, his hair had turned grey, but he was elegant and therefore felt confident. Feeling his heart beating, he walked towards an oak door. The powerful voice of intuition told him that behind that door was the bedroom of Queen Marie Casimire, who had been waiting for him for a very, very long time.
This text is an excerpt from a book that will be published in 2019 by the Przekrój Foundation.
Translated by Daniel J. Sax