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Przekrój
A short story involving a hip café, heartache, and large lush plants, written by one of our regular ...
2019-11-20 09:00:00
short story
Medulla

Vitta, the owner of a fashionable café serving super healthy Bionature cocktails and lactose-free yoghurts with a mousse of alfalfa shoots, doesn’t feel too good these days. But what is this feeling that’s making him so sick? Could it have anything to do with Leda? And who is she really?

Read in 20 minutes

The pleasure is all mine... 

‘Kra, kra.’ ‘????’  ‘Kra, kra, kra.’

‘Kra, kra, kra.’ That’s what I’m hearing, though there’s no ‘k’ or ‘r’ or ‘a’ in any of what it’s saying, nor indeed any kind of sound that could emerge from my mouth, from my highly sophisticated speech apparatus. Sophisticated. I turn the word over again in my mind and, for no reason at all, I think of flowers. I make the effort, I contort my face, I torment my huge meaty tongue, but all I get is: ‘kra’ and ‘kra’.

Or nothing. 

I lie down on the grass, on a spot where there just happens to be no dog shit. It’s cold. Half-decayed leaves stick to me; they coat my clothes with a layer of slippery rust. Neither time of year nor day counts here. Always the same blue-grey light, moping grass and all that dog shit in various stages of decomposition. When the sun goes out, the street lamps go on. When it’s not raining, it’s packed with people. I hear the echoes of the city in the background; whisperings, rustlings, murmurings and sirens, gathered into one great hypnotic song. A song. It’s more than the sum of particular sounds: it’s pure resounding, resonance all in itself, a mysterious tone which no notation can capture. I’m lying here and an empty plastic bag labelled ORGANIC MARKET floats past above my head. I blink. It’s time to go. 

 

Leda was never any bother. She was never late for work. She didn’t leave early. She didn’t have bad days. She didn’t grumble when the last customers sat over empty glasses long past closing time, which meant she couldn’t enter the takings. She carried out every duty without a word of complaint, even the ones which fell beyond that call. She mopped the tiled floor, polished glasses until they shone as though cut from the finest crystal, filled sugar-bowls with low-calorie sweetener. All the same, Leda was not that popular in Green Soya. And decidedly not with Vitta, the owner. Basically, he would have been happy to get rid of her under any pretext. Leda made him anxious, even repelled him. He didn’t like coming near her and if, in the evenings after closing time, he happened to be left alone with her in the spreading semi-gloom of the empty café, he’d be overcome by a desire to flee, which he restrained thanks only to the fact that he had an unusually good rapport with his strong inner Me. With his own – he loved the unvarnished word – ego. But where did this impulse actually spring from? Was Leda ugly? No. She was even pretty in her own way, although there was something so ephemeral about her that in her absence Vitta, though he’d often tried, was unable to recall what she looked like. Was she careless about her clothes? No, she cared. Her linen tunics (the obligatory uniform of the waitress) were always immaculately white… True, sometimes there were leaves poking out of Leda’s red hair, or blades of dry grass, but the customers who came to GS for a cup of pale tea or a Bionature cocktail – the house speciality – assumed that these bits of plant matter were meant to emphasise the green ambience of the place. Was she impolite? What a thought. The clients never complained. Besides, what could they say? That her eyes weren’t quite right; that she looked at you, but it was as though she wasn’t really looking at all. That she looked in a way that you might look through air, as though that vacant gaze of hers were shining right through a person and seeing something that should not be seen, something that should stay hidden forever? That her impeccable manners, attentiveness, willingness, instant responses were all hiding...  right. No one was able to say exactly what Leda’s vacant look was hiding, what her perfectly neat and fluid gestures, her trim appearance, her meekness really meant...

Vitta often caught himself observing Leda tensely, like an enemy. Her presence – so discreet after all – made him acutely uncomfortable. He shot glances at the girl in the hope that he’d detect some flaw in her, some fissure, the tiniest crack to which he could fasten his overwhelming antipathy. He wanted to find the words which would permit him to pin down – to disarm – her odd beauty. To enable him to say: ‘Leda is like this and this’; ‘Leda, I’ve been watching you, and you’re this and this.’ But he couldn’t find anything. His aversion remained amorphous and alert like some strange extra organ in his taut body. 

Sometimes, when Leda was carrying a tray full of tall glasses, he tried to concentrate all that hostile energy into his glance and direct it like a strong beam of light at Leda. An evil eye. He imagined Leda tripping over something, anything: the leg of a chair, a rolled-up yoga mat thrown on the floor; with the eye of his imagination, he saw the fear sharpening her delicate features, and a moment later the girl is sprawled flat on the ground, spilling the multi-coloured cocktails, breaking glass, ruining the expensive hipster outfits of the dining vegans. No chance – Leda’s eyes, vague and absent, never met his. Concentrating on who knows what, the girl remained completely oblivious to his pathetic black magic; the glasses reached their destination without incident, and Leda retreated noiselessly to the rear of the café to prepare the next orders: a cappuccino with a huge foaming hood of skimmed milk, freshly squeezed juices, lactose-free yoghurt with a mousse of alfalfa shoots. 

 

For a seed, time flowed so slowly that if someone wished to measure it with a watch, the hands would have to spin like madmen. For whole months, sometimes years, seeds would wait for the right moment, feeding only on what was stored within, to all appearances dead and still as small stones. But all it took was a touch of damp and warmth and they began to absorb the water and swell. First, the roots would break through the husk and pierce the ground like microscopic earthworms. Then shoots appeared, pale and naked, with a huge appetite for sun. The roots would produce offshoots and, sinking ever deeper, head for the planet’s warm interior. On the surface, the shoots grew green and sprouted leaves, a tissue factory set in motion, photosynthesis. 

If the plant were a tree, it would grow for many years. Its stalk would harden and coat itself in bark, while inside a constant transportation of goods proceeded. The roots became so strong, they could rip concrete apart. And they did.

 

It was hot. Sunlight slowly drenched the city, the air thickened slowly, sounds grew slowly heavier and substantial. Leda stands at the bar. She’s decanting wine into a carafe, its GS logo intricate as a snake. The touch of the cold glass feels pleasant to Leda. She likes the wine’s deep red, the dark fleshy voice of the liquid which slowly fills the empty vessel and transforms it into a precious jewel. A ruby, Leda thinks. The setting sun. Fresh blood. She smiles, completely absorbed in her task. Vitta’s glance tries to fasten onto her face, her body – to no avail. Vitta’s glance slides over Leda’s smiling lips, her neck, her whiter-than-white tunic. Vitta’s glance slides over Leda to the ground and spreads like a puddle of murky water. A single eye swims in the middle of the puddle; it glowers in all directions, like a defused grenade.

 

‘What do you mean, it’s not dirt? Your nails – sacred earth is it? Sacred earth behind your nails? Been digging in the soil? But but but. My dear girl. You can’t work here with filthy paws.’

 

Every year, more soil arrived. Rich compost, compositum. The leaves of young ferns looked like tightly wound balls of bright green yarn, like small, unformed creatures. When had those willow-green snails uncoiled and straightened? No one had caught them at it, no one had taken a photo, or made a film which, speeded up, would have revealed the slow movement of green bodies to impatient eyes. Plumes. When did the brown patches appear on undersides of leaves, hidden from the sun? They grew and swelled and, at the right moment, burst. Energetic spores poured from the dark sporangium. Drive, growth, transformation of energy into matter. The heart-shaped prothalli, hairy and wet, thrust hard into the ground. In their sticky dampness, the sperm reached the eggs. Growth, proliferation, a turmoil of green life. More and more leaves.

Meanwhile, ivy was clambering over the young pine saplings, biting into the concrete and escaping outside.

 

Vitta sat at the bar. He felt pretty rough. He had absolutely no desire to smile at the customers, no desire to look over the chef’s shoulder and check if the salad was fresh, the strawberries unblemished, or the mint sufficiently aromatic. He had no desire to do anything at all. In the mirror, he spied fragments of his face between the rows of glasses. His skin had broken out again. His forehead was full of bumps, ugly red irritations around his nose and chin. Nerves, nerves – so bad for the complexion. Shadows round his eyes. Lack of sleep. A total disaster area. 

Lunchtime – the toughest few hours. The organic contents of the sterile skyscrapers break free straight into big-city sunshine, big-city smog, defiant neon light.They disperse among local cafes, gyms, parks full of dog shit, wearing flip-flops all year round. They come to GS in caps and slides. They order egg-white omelettes, but laid only by hens from farms where there are no more than eighteen hens per square metre. Or was it sixteen; Vitta, shame to say, had forgotten. They study the salad ingredients, and then demand modifications, each according to their faith, allergy, life-style.  ‘No cheese for me.’ ‘No red onion.’ ‘I’m allergic to spinach.’ ‘Can I have the sprouts separately, please, on another plate.’ Anything else? Vitta felt a sudden surge of irritation and turned to face the room. The waiters wound through as best they could, but since he’d sacked Leda, the lunch hour had become a grotesque nightmare. GS staff were constantly running behind with something; they got the orders wrong, or dropped cutlery. ‘Hallo, I ordered Laguna Beach, this is not a Laguna Beach – please bring me my sandwich,’ a woman with tattoos in place of eyebrows said with annoyance. Evil bitch, thought Vitta, though he didn’t like to think ill of people, particularly his own customers: such thoughts released negative energy, and negative energy, as everyone knows, causes cancer.

The problem was that ever since Leda had left, ever since he’d chucked her out, he thought ill of people more and more often. The clientele annoyed him, the useless waiters got on his nerves; in fact the whole shitty joint pissed him off. He so longed to start everything again, without Leda, without her quiet, disturbing presence, without those strange, level, expressionless eyes; start afresh, quit drinking coffee, sign up for pilates, train in positive thinking. Fuck it all. Nothing doing. It’s true, after he’d dismissed little Leda, he didn’t drink coffee for three whole days, but on the fourth day, after he’d closed GS, he drank a whole bottle of organic wine. Sure, he’d bought a new gym membership, but he’d only been twice when he got a sore throat (and though he wouldn’t admit it to himself, a week after Leda’s departure, Vitta found a pack of stale cigarettes in a drawer and and and...). Yes, for whole days at a stretch he’d repeat the health-giving mantras he’d read in a handbook for achieving long life, entitled You Have the Right!, but his unruly mind kept giving his will the slip...

Tattooed eyebrows – what a nerve – came up to the bar.

‘Two Bionatures please, but no beetroot.’

‘We don’t adjust the recipes,’ barked Vitta and felt fifteen million free radicals surge through his bloodstream. 

 

‘Flowers are the metamorphosed sections of shoots, with proportionately modified leaves, which enable a plant to multiply. The most important parts of the flower are the stamen and anthers – the male organs, and the carpels and ovules – the female organs.’ Leda closed the book and got up from the table. She bustled about for a moment, packing various items into a sizeable canvas bag. Her apartment, inasmuch as we can assume that it’s her apartment, consisted of an average-sized room, a windowless kitchen, and a microscopic bathroom, which is where she’s heading right now: Leda is standing in front of the mirror and fixing her hair. She reaches into the cupboard, takes out a toothbrush and toothpaste, and then (you’ve guessed, right?) she brushes her teeth meticulously. She puts everything back, leaves the bathroom, takes down a khaki jacket from a hanger and puts it on. The jacket is a little too big, but that doesn’t bother Leda. Finally, she picks up the canvas bag and goes out.

Underground, in the metro (because in the meantime Leda’s covered the distance between house and metro, punched her ticket, boarded a train etc. etc.), Leda thinks about flowers again. The sound of the train reminds her of wind: she should buy a windmill, lots of windmills, because where she’s going, she won’t be able to open the windows.

 

Let’s be blunt: Vitta was ill. He was losing weight, his looks, and his strength. When he found out at the therapist’s that he loved Leda, he gave up even pretending that everything was fine. At work, it was increasingly difficult for him to maintain a professional calm. He had explosions of temper and waves of great depression. He drank wine round the back, smoked cigarettes, and chewed his nails. Every day, he closed GS just a little earlier, until one day, he entrusted the task to one of the waitresses. He spent less and less time at the café and finally stopped showing up at all. Numb with longing, he spent whole days sitting about in his flat, which had gradually become transformed from elegant apartment into squalid lair. Sometimes he didn’t even leave the bedroom. He lay on the bed among the tousled sheets and dreamt of Leda. For hours on end, he’d strain to recreate the delicate features of her fair-skinned face in his memory. He longed to kiss the toes of her tiny feet, her small rosy nails, her slim calves, her knees... he dreamt of her breasts, hot and heavy, as she leaned, naked, over his haggard body. Of course, he’d never seen Leda’s breasts. Hidden under her loose linen tunic, they could have been big or small, or in fact there might have been no breasts at all; no stomach, no knees, no thighs, in fact there might have been no woman at all... but in that case, to whom was he stretching out his yearning arms? Whose breasts was he cupping in his famished hands? Who was this brazen nudist wandering around his flat, hips swaying? Who was lying down on the bed and whose lips were wandering over his skin, whose strong thighs were entwining his hips?

Vitta fell breathless onto his sweaty pillow. When his breathing had returned to normal, he wiped himself with the sheet and reached for the phone. For the hundredth time, he tapped out Leda’s number. For the hundredth time, he heard the same message: ‘Sorry, we have been unable to connect you. Sorry, we have been unable to connect you. Sorry, we have been unable to connect you.’

 

The electric windmills were going at full tilt. Leda was assiduously splitting open great plastic sacks full of peat; she spread the earth between shrubs and clumps of herbs; she levelled, raked, patted, sowed, watered. When she’d finished, she surveyed her kingdom with satisfaction. The little willow-green pines were just beginning to flower. The bushes were sprouting leaves in all possible shapes and shades of green. On the floor, all manner of grasses and grains grew lush and lusher. She’d need to get in some bees at some point, Leda thought. She stowed her things into the big canvas bag and slung it across her shoulders, then among the spruces she found a thick line hanging down from the beam which supported the glass ceiling; she grabbed hold of the line and began the painstaking climb towards the sun.

 

‘Money is no object. Please find her.’

Vitta was squirming nervously on the carved, leather-padded chair. On the other side of the heavy desk sat Mr Kos, the best private detective in town. Vitta gave the impression of a man desperately trying to maintain his last shred of dignity. He was wearing a clean, but heavily creased shirt, and in his blond, obviously washed hair you could see a centimetre’s worth of dark roots.

‘I’ve got the money,’ he assured him again. ‘Please, just find her.’

Mr Kos gave Vitta a long look. How many desperate young men had sat in that chair and made that same plea, nervously twisting their fingers, with the same desperate expression in their dark-circled eyes? And yet, when he saw another victim of desire, another patient tormented by that incomprehensible, incurable disease, he was unable to refuse. He sighed deeply, opened a little laptop and drummed silently at the keys for a moment, peering intently at the screen.

‘Description of the missing party?’ he asked at last.

‘The most beautiful woman in the world.’

 

The apartment building at 11 Park Street is a ten-storey block in the shape of a huge brick. Day and night, the regular rows of windows reflect the grey light of the city. The creaky lift carries human bodies up so that they can sleep and brings them down so that they can go to work.

The building also has stairs, of course. Step by step, turning by turning, they climb up to the tenth storey, make one final turn and then suddenly stop halfway to the eleventh floor. Except that the block at 11 Park Street has no eleventh floor. And no attic. The stairs suddenly meet a wall. And that’s it. As though the architect had simply changed his mind halfway through completing some project known only to him... or desired, in this way, to express some existential thought, such as: ‘Observe how the road leads nowhere.’ But wait, wait. There’s a window in the wall, a little window, a grey eye looking out onto the great wide world.

 

The woman stood on the last step and looked out through the open vent. ‘There’s a ladder!’ she called to the man waiting a few steps lower down. She leaned out even further, grasped the first rung firmly, squeezed through the window and found herself outside, ten-and-a-half storeys up. From below, she looked like some overgrown insect. That is, she would have done had anyone looked. But no one was looking; they were all rushing somewhere, their eyes fixed on the ground. From above, they looked – they would have looked – like overgrown insects. But the woman was not looking down; instead, step by step, she was climbing up. The man reached the window, took hold of the ladder, squeezed through with difficulty, and made after the woman. Soon, they’d clambered to the very top, onto the roof. They stood silent, stupefied, speechless – the roof was made of glass.

They stepped gingerly onto this vast ice rink, this mirror in which the dark grey sky gazed at itself… beneath their feet, beneath the glass, beneath the slate-blue reflection of the clouds, they saw green, a sea of green leaves, they saw, beneath the glass, a garden planted where no garden was supposed to be, where nothing was supposed to be, since there shouldn’t even be a space at all. The woman and the man pressed their faces to the panes. Herbs, shrubs, flowers, ivy… willow-green pines in full gynandrous bloom.

 

Vitta is sitting on the floor of the space he used to call – still calls – the living room. His eyes, dark and beautiful, shine in his gaunt face like two feverish stars. He hasn’t shaved for at least a week, his hair is dishevelled, he hasn’t visited Mark’s for several months (the latter, concerned at the prolonged absence of his favourite client, has tried to call him several times, without success). He sits on the floor, haggard, overgrown, and naked unless you count the indeterminately coloured towel slung around his hips. In the kitchen, empty bottles are knocking about, cigarette packets, paracetamol strips, half-eaten chicken legs, apple cores, peelings, some kind of seeds, disposable cutlery, grease-smudged paper bags. The skimpily dressed Vitta is surrounded by teetering stacks of paper: books, notes, newspaper cuttings. Vitta is looking for words. He’s looking for some encoded news, a message in a bottle, just a single sentence meant for him alone, in which he might hear the voice of Leda, smuggled from another world. Sometimes he thinks he’s found it. He memorises the stream of words, their melody, even the look of the letters on the page. He turns the words over in his mind, carries them about inside, probes them with his fingers and his tongue until in the end they spill like a fistful of dry sand and lose their meaning.

 

They lie side by side, among the pines, beneath the sky of glass. The woman places the man’s hand on her thigh.The man’s hands, warm and rough as birch bark on her thighs and buttocks. The man kisses her inner thigh, searches for her lips with his, and with his tongue he finds the small wet centre of the world, the hub of dreams. She feels a blast of warmth, almost unbearable at first, but it’s quickly transformed into a delicious drift. Now she can swim underwater, she hardly needs to breath, she lives thanks to the light, thanks to bubbles of concentrated energy, which soon explode and hurl her onto the shore.

 

Vitta takes a place in the row of homeless beggars. Each one holds a sign with a message.

I NEED TO PAY FOR MEDICINE says one. NOWHERE TO LIVE says another. You don’t say – Vitta is getting quietly pissed off. Like someone might think he’s got a room waiting at the Ritz. Irritated, he borrows a marker pen from one of the homeless guys and writes on his bit of card: AVOID EYE CONTACT. Then he gets in line and stands stock-still. He looks straight ahead. At nothing in particular. He doesn’t need to see anything anymore. Nothing is of interest to him. Nothing, except the rattle of coins as they land from time to time in the plastic bowl at his feet, nothing beyond the eclectic music of the living city. 

 

Mr Kos sits in his office over a pile of newspapers. No trace of the girl. No trace of the client either. The world is ending and they’re creating merry hell. The dull, predictable power of physical stupefaction. How long, he wonders. How much longer is this going to last? How many victims will this fire consume which, in return, gives… Mr Kos doesn’t want to think about it. He begins to look through the newspapers stacked up on his desk. PLANTS ON THE ATTACK, one headline announces. ‘An illegal garden has been discovered at 11 Park Street. The roots of the plants have managed to penetrate the building’s ceilings, posing a hazard to the residents.  An evacuation has taken place. Anti-terrorist squads are preparing to enter the danger-zone.’

 

Shoooooo, sang the train. Leda stood with her back to the direction of travel, her hands in her pockets. A large canvas bag lay next to her. What was in the bag? No one knows. A change of underwear? A bomb? A few books? A tape recording of birdsong? Shoooo, sang Leda. The train clocked up consecutive empty underground stations. The city was left behind; it disappeared, melted into the fog. Eventually, the train slowed down. Leda wobbled, but quickly regained her balance. Stop. The train came to a halt in the middle of a field. The doors opened with a creak like the badly oiled machinery of a dream. 

 

“Medulla” was originally published in Julia Fiedorczuk’s book of short stories  “Bliskie kraje” (2016), translated from the Polish by Anna Zaranko.

 

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