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Sometimes the dreams in which we find ourselves are more vivid than the realities from which we have ...
2019-12-18 09:00:00
short story
When They Come in Our Dreams

Born in 1913 in Tarnopol (modern-day Ukraine), Kornel Filipowicz grew up in Cieszyn but spent most of his life in Kraków. He debuted before the war, but it was only later that he developed his unique style, which has been characterized by ‘metaphysical realism’ and a predilection for detailed portrayal of the everyday ‘banal’ reality of provincial towns. In his private life, Filipowicz was the long-term partner of Wisława Szymborska, and his poems and stories certainly show similarities to that of the Nobel Prize winner. Filipowicz was an enthusiastic fisherman, which is also reflected in his writing. Written probably in 1979, “When They Come in Our Dreams” is widely considered one of Filipowicz’s greatest masterpieces. More recently, the story has been described as prophetic and symbolic in the ways that it depicts the imminent migrant crisis.

Read in 19 minutes

It was frosty outside, but there was no wind. Through the window, I could see snowflakes floating lazily through the still air and settling quietly onto the ground, the roofs, and trees. It was afternoon already, time passed imperceptibly, empty and inert.

I was reading a book that rather bored me, so from time to time I’d think of something else, or doze briefly, then I’d return to the interrupted sentence, go back to the beginning, and again I’d drop off for a moment. Without losing awareness of where I was, or of a blissful (if somewhat monotonous) sense of peace and safety, I floated just beneath the surface of wakefulness, always on the shore of that stretch where everything is still real, but hazy and muted, so only half distinct. I could have fallen fast asleep at any moment, but I didn’t try to resist. I had nothing urgent to do, I could sleep or not. Sleep is a state in which we immerse ourselves with the naïve trust of a creature to whom it seems that, wherever else, at least in sleep nothing evil threatens it. And why not. What harm could we possibly come to in our own absence?

I suddenly fell, then, into a sleep so sound, so deep, that when I resurfaced, it seemed to me a more intense reality than that in which I’d lived till then. I went on sitting in the chair in my room where ostensibly nothing had changed, except that everything around seemed somehow refreshed, dusted, cleansed. My senses had sharpened as though an obstacle separating me from objects, sounds and colours had suddenly been removed. I was completely conscious and aware of everything that was happening, as if more susceptible to emotions, and also somehow rejuvenated as though I’d recovered miraculously after a long illness.

The bell rang out in the hallway, so shrill and emphatic that, opening the door, I expected, I was even sure, that I would see the person who’d been delivering letters and money to me for twenty-five years. But there was no postman in the corridor, or even a messenger with a parcel or a telegram. In front of my door stood a woman carrying a child, dressed in dirty, grey, and patched clothing of the kind you might see worn by people living in the mountainous regions of Africa, in Ethiopia, or maybe Sudan. She and the child were completely wrapped in the robe as though they formed a single body, as though the child had sprouted from her breast and shoulder. Only its small, black curly head peeped out from under the rags. Good God, how easy it is to describe wealth, plenitude, and splendour and how hard it is to speak of misfortune and poverty. I felt a choking in my throat, it was a signal we humans know well; it precedes the emotion that overwhelms us at the sight of another’s misfortune and awakens our sympathy, exhorts us to show mercy, impels us to hurry immediately to assist those who are hungry, ill, persecuted. So we give them our clothes, share our food and money, because we want them to stop being hungry, to not fall ill, to become more like us, healthy and happy. We do this, if for no other motive than simply out of fear, because we’re alarmed at the thought that we could look like them, because we fear unhappiness, and dirt and poverty disgust us. That’s how the majority of people behave, though there are also those among us who feel such disgust for these beggars, that they don’t wish them to exist at all, so they shoot at them, or kill them with sticks and stones, whatever falls to hand, and if there is nothing to hand, they kick them until the blood flows, and they cease to move, breath, moan, whimper. The woman in rags gazed at me, her cracked and crusted lips moved, and though I don’t know the language she spoke to me, I understood everything. The woman said she’d come from far away, that she was frozen, hungry, ill, and very tired. She was at the end of her tether and her child was dying, maybe had died already? No, it must be alive, because the woman felt a little warmth still from the body pressed to hers, but if the child did not get a dash of milk, it would quickly die. She, the mother, couldn’t give it milk, for there wasn’t a drop left in her dried-up breasts. The woman was not alone. Leaning against the wall, a man stood nearby, probably the father of the child. His thin body, covered in tattered rags, was like a dried beech stump, bound with a scrap of cloth which had rotted in the rain and frost. He was barefoot, his blackened heels, cracked from hot sands and burning hot rocks, rested now on the icy floor. The man watched me too, but he was silent. I saw a round, purulent wound on his cheek, circled red. I knew what it was. It wasn’t leprosy or any disease like that; I recognized it. Such wounds are the result of hunger, they open up in various places, all over the body, they poison the blood and people die. The man did not speak. I saw the white wall behind him embellished with a narrow red stripe. (My staircase had been renovated just that year.) I avoided the man’s gaze, nor did I want to see the wound on his cheek for it was not a pleasant sight, so to occupy my eyes with something, I stared mindlessly at the wall. The red stripe stood out very distinctly – almost like magic – from the wall’s whiteness; it ran parallel to the floor, a metre and a half high, and then descended at an angle down along the staircase. When I followed the line with my eyes and leaned my head out a little, I saw the staircase wasn’t empty: on the second-floor landing stood a group of wretched, ragged, scrawny barefoot people, just like the two standing at my door. There weren’t many of them waiting on the landing, a few men, two or three women, a few children. They kept their distance, appeared undecided, and watched what was happening at my doorway warily. Among the little group was a tall black man with a thin neck and a face like the skull of a corpse (if a black skull can exist). His whole figure was reminiscent of a mummy wrapped in rotting bandages, taken out of its tomb and stood upright. But he was still alive, and I saw him slowly turn his head and look out through the window into the courtyard. I thought that he surely belonged to one of those ancient aristocratic tribes apparently still living somewhere in equatorial Africa and even though he could die in a moment, he was too proud not only to ask for something, but even to look at me. I felt my heart gripped by a powerful emotion, by some very particular tenderness for the unhappiness and suffering of another, and at the same time a poignant sense of guilt and responsibility not only for the wretchedness, hunger and disregard these people had known, but for all the wrongs they’d endured, all the mistakes of which they had been the victims, for all the villainies and rotten acts which the world had inflicted upon them. Wasn’t I responsible for all of it? If I were not responsible – I wouldn’t now possess a warm, peaceful apartment, supplies in the larder, an account at the bank!

I told the woman and the man to come inside, and when they did I closed the door behind them. No, not straightaway – first I looked out onto the staircase again, but the people standing there were not interested in my flat. The tall proud African did not look in my direction. I saw his profile against the window. I returned to my room, sat down at the table and once again immersed myself in my book. I was calm, I knew the woman with the child and the man would go to the kitchen (I think I explained where to look for what), that they would find a bottle of milk in the fridge and bread in the larder and cereal, tinned food, even a piece of sausage, and that the woman would know what to do with them. But there’s the bell, resonating in the hall again. It sounds different this time, it rings protractedly, a long time, as though the circuits had surged. I go to the hallway, open the door, and see a dense crowd of people in the corridor. They’re standing at my doorway, the stairs are full of them, so many of them there’s no end in sight. But they’re closer to me now and I can take a better look. They’re black and white, yellow and of indeterminate race. The tall African is here too, but again he doesn’t look at me. They are all very thin and starved. I see every kind of suffering known to the world written on their faces. I recognize the ones who have recently left prison; I recognize them (as I’ve been in prison myself) by their faded eyes and grey faces, and something else – by their small bundles, the size of fists, in which they’ve hidden some trifling, sometimes completely worthless but to them very precious thing, stashed away while free or acquired in captivity. Sometimes, the bundle was merely a tiny rag lump, barely visible, hiding only a crust of dry bread or a handful of grain. I didn’t find the people standing at my door repellent, the smell they exuded reminded me of the fur of old animals, a rotting tree, decaying rags. I thought that if these people came from different parts of the world, then some time, probably not so very long ago, many of them had fought each other, the whites hunting the blacks, the yellows ambushing the whites, the blacks stalking the yellows in the bush, but then the same fate had united them all, since conquerors often become the conquered. Those who had come out of prison had no idea who had persecuted them, of what they’d been accused, why they’d been deprived of their freedom, for when they were killing their enemies, they were convinced that they were acting correctly; they’d be fed and praised for it, after all. At the front, their names were read out before the soldiers, medals were solemnly pinned on them for loyal service, courage, even heroism. They’d forgotten all that, because it was long ago – and now they stood meekly at the threshold of my home and when I opened the door wider – they began to walk inside. They came in peacefully, in silence, but they couldn’t be stopped (anyway, since I’d opened the door, I hardly wanted to stop them), just as a stream of lava cannot be stopped on the slopes of a volcano. They didn’t hurt me, they simply bulldozed me aside. I had to give way step by step, retreat, until I found myself in my own room. I sat down on a chair. I could see and hear the people as they milled around and dispersed through all the rooms. They brushed against me but didn’t look at me, as though they didn’t see me at all, as though I didn’t exist. They were busy settling into my flat, which they were managing perfectly well. I’m not quite sure what they were doing in the kitchen, bathroom and other rooms (I could only guess), but in my room their first step was to kindle a fire, over which they hung a charred cauldron. This didn’t surprise me in the least, it was what wanderers the world over do when they find water and a quiet place to bivouac. They didn’t have to hunt long for fuel, my flat abounded in it, but I noticed that they didn’t touch my books or remove the pictures from the walls. My hitherto quiet and empty house grew full of life. Every metre of space was now put to use, because someone needed it. Every appliance in my flat, even the most rarely used – long unopened doors, untouched drawers, unoiled locks and hinges, were now in constant motion. From the kitchen, I could hear the rasp of knives being sharpened on the grindstone, an axe hitting a stump, the insistent tapping of a hammer. From the big room came the scraping of furniture being moved. Previously, when I was alone, I’d run the bathroom tap twice, maybe three times a day, but now you could hear the incessant sound of flowing water. The people who’d arrived and taken up residence with me were happy to have found a source of clean water at last, pulsing abundantly from the ground in a continuous stream. Their children were no doubt playing in the bath, trying to catch the flowing water in their hands, splashing and spraying it, for I could see a stream emerging from the bathroom, spilling out, finding, as in nature, natural inclines and heading towards the door to the corridor.  To be sure, the books and pictures remained, as I said, in their places, but the carpets were pulled up from the floor and the kilims vanished from the walls. They served as bedding and curtains now, which didn’t surprise me either. The carpets and kilims had merely a decorative function for me, now they were reverting to their distant and true uses. I assume that my tenants proceeded similarly with many other objects in my flat. Evidently, I thought, my house had been earmarked for demolition by someone (such a stupid thought, I don’t know where it came from), or at best would be transformed into something else, the premises of some nonprofit institution, in connection with which the objects in my home must change their current place, and even function, and that many of them would undergo irreversible damage, but I acquiesced, at least temporarily. It wasn’t clear where all this was leading, but as I’ve said already, nothing surprised me and I made no objections. To tell the truth, I wasn’t thinking about it for the moment, since I was busy with something else: namely, I was observing my own self with amazement. Something very peculiar was happening to my clothes: the material they were made of grew strangely grey, the fibres loosened and broke, the fabric began to resemble the cloth used to make sacks for potatoes. But even worse, my arm and hand, which I could see resting on my knees (it was undoubtedly my hand, since my arm was connected to my torso and grew out of it), looked like the arm of someone very old, or gravely ill. The skin on the back of my hand was pale and thin as parchment, and blue, swollen and twisted veins shone through it. It was an appalling sight. I wanted to stand up, get up from the chair and leave my room, perhaps my house. I was undecided as to what I would do, but I knew I had to galvanize myself into some action, movement, to shift to a different place. Perhaps I should simply go out of the house, get on a tram and ride to the other end of town and then return? In the time I was absent, something would surely change. So I tried to get up from the chair but two people standing by me placed their hands upon my shoulders and pushed me down with a force of which it would have been hard to suspect their wretched bodies. I raised my head and looked at them; in my face, they could easily read the emotions overwhelming me at that moment: astonishment and impatience. Above all astonishment. But their faces were impenetrable; I saw no bad thoughts there, nor even hostile feelings. These people felt neither sympathy nor hatred towards me; they were indifferent. But why, if they didn’t wish me any harm, why did they not let me stand up and leave? How was it that these poor, wretched, persecuted people had themselves become suddenly transformed into tormentors and why was I, in particular, to be their victim? I, who had let them into my home, I who was never their enemy, who had always been their ally and advocate, who had given them my best thoughts, feelings, and actions? I tried to tell them this, but in dreams what one says rarely succeeds in convincing another. I wanted to shout: ‘People! Think what you’re doing?! I am ready to give you everything, after all, but why are you taking away my freedom, what use is my freedom to you?!’ but the words stuck in my throat and remained without an answer.

An explanation of what was happening to me was not to come until some time later, when after many vain attempts, reconciled to my fate (although perhaps not yet completely resigned), I decided – to sleep. Simply to go to sleep, to wait it out, perhaps something would change, something would happen, someone would come to my rescue, something would shift like the scenery in a theatre, other people would appear on stage and begin to play other roles? Besides, I was tired. But presently it transpired that those standing nearby were enjoined not only to guard that I did not leave, but also that I didn’t fall asleep! Why? Was this meant to be some kind of torture? Maybe they wanted to coerce something out of me? Money? Valuables that I didn’t have? My thoughts returned persistently to the question: how could it have happened that my human emotions, good will, noble reactions, had turned against me? How could it have come to this, that from being the ally of the poor and disadvantaged, I had become their victim, a prisoner, or perhaps, to some unknown purpose, even their hostage? Was I the victim of a terrible mistake or was I the object of some set-up, the perfidious game of someone whose evil intentions were aimed not only towards me, but these unfortunate people too? Or perhaps it had nothing to do with good and evil, wealth and poverty, and to comprehend it one need only be a deeply devout person? But I am not a deeply devout person, I must satisfy myself only with what I see and what I know. Nor am I a philosopher who is able to understand everything, but is prepared to suffer because he knows he can change nothing. I’m a simple person, I cannot step beyond what life comprises, and I cannot grasp why liberty and freedom of movement were taken from me by precisely those people whose right to freedom I had never denied! This I could not understand and I could not come to terms with it.

All these strange thoughts milled through my mind – yet the truth was amazingly simple. It came to me unexpectedly and blinded me with its obviousness. To think it hadn’t occurred to me sooner! It was like this: I seemed to be their victim and my fate to be in their hands, but these were only appearances, because in fact – they were the ones who were dependent on me! If I were to fall asleep – they would cease to exist! Maybe not completely, but in any case, they would have to leave, find some other place or return to their own countries, to injustice, poverty, hunger, disease. But they didn’t wish to return to their own countries, because they knew that nothing good was waiting for them there. That was why whenever my head dropped to my chest and I closed my eyes, immediately someone’s hand would lift my chin, obliging me to stay awake.

Now I knew for sure that only through sleep could I return to my house, my peaceful life, rid myself of my tormentors, regain freedom and solitude. But in order to wake up in my quiet, peaceful house, I had, first of all, to fall asleep. It was obvious to me. Oh, how I longed to fall asleep! But those who were guarding me were very vigilant. When I tried merely to close my eyes, without even lowering my head, I immediately felt a blow to my cheek, soft, but strong or rather forceful enough to compel me to open my eyes. Time passed, or no, time didn’t pass at all, it was just something thickening around me, the torments dragged on along with the humiliation of being stuck in a place and situation from which there seemed to be no escape. For who could set me free, who could liberate me?

Obviously, it’s very hard to fall asleep with your eyes open. It would even appear to be completely impossible. I began to try however, and succeeded a few times in reaching a state on the very threshold, so to speak, of sleep. That moment of indifference, stupor, obliteration of consciousness and a kind of drifting away from the self. But they must have been observing me very attentively; they immediately spotted that my eyelids had drooped for a second, or perhaps they realized from the expression of my eyes that a moment more and I could absent myself and elude them – for they immediately prodded me, and even shook me, and returned me to consciousness. I had to come back, and subsequent returns become increasingly unpleasant, and even painful. I felt like an old man who is dying a natural death and has to die, and even wants to, but someone is always obstructing his path and forcing him back to a life for which he has neither strength nor inclination. This recurred several, maybe a dozen times more – until eventually, taking advantage of some fraction of a moment’s inattention, in some indiscernible way, without closing my eyes, without changing my expression or the rhythm of my breathing, I succeeded in falling into a sleep so deep that the people who surrounded me lost power over me. It was the blink of an eye, a snatch of a second as brief as the flick of a camera’s shutter. I escaped them, my tormentors, I slipped from their hands, I sank into what seemed very deep water and rebounding from the bottom – I swam up to the surface. My absurd dream dissolved without a trace. Despite the haste in which the paupers must have left my house, nothing was left behind them – not a scrap of a rag, not a drop of spilt water, nor trace of a smell. Nothing was missing from my room. The rugs and kilims had returned to their places. I was alone in my warm, quiet room. I sat at the table, an open book in front of me. Beyond the window, in the still air, snow fell from a dark sky and settled soundlessly on the ground.


Translated by Anna Zaranko


You can read our interview with Anna Zaranko here.

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Kornel Filipowicz

was a poet and novelist, often considered the master of the short literary form. In private life, he was the long-term partner of Wisława Szymborska, as well as being a passionate fisherman. His work has only recently started to be translated into English; his short novel “The Memoir of an Anti-Hero” (translated by Anna Zaranko) was published by Penguin in 2019.