Olga Tokarczuk is one of Poland’s most celebrated and beloved authors, a winner of the Man Booker International Prize, as well as her country’s highest literary honor, the Nike. She is the author of eight novels and two short story collections, as well as numerous essays, and she has been translated into more than thirty languages.
The last message they heard on the radio was to inform them that they should cover the windows completely. Then the radio went quiet. Although he still brought it into the kitchen, extended the antenna fully, and turned the dial now and then, hopeful. Sometimes he managed to pick up that same distant station. The voice, which came to them through the stripy speaker in spite of the static and the dull hum—this voice spoke in some foreign language, which they couldn’t understand at all. Then it would die away, only to unexpectedly come back—weaker and weaker, less and less certain.
“Like during martial law,” he whispered.
“Leave the radio alone, you idiot!” she said. “We’ve got to get the windows sealed, did you not hear that? Even at a time like this, you’re useless. Flapping around the apartment like a poisoned fly. The only thing you know how to do is cause me problems.”
She got up on the armchair and stuffed the edges of an old blanket into the balcony doorframe. The blanket slid down, letting in some brown light from outside. A grimy light, like dishwater.
“Give me the hammer! What are you standing there staring at me for, can’t you see my hands are getting tired?”
“Just shut up already,” he muttered under his breath and went into the entryway to dig out the hammer from the toolbox in the cabinet underneath the phone.
“Hurry up, can’t you see I can’t just keep on standing here?”
He tapped her with the end of the hammer as though she were a large and disobedient animal. He told her to get out of the way. She watched him as he clumsily nailed the blanket to the doorframe. He was conscious of that critical, cold gaze.
“I couldn’t quite catch what they were saying. Something about shelters. That’s about it,” he said, a nail in his mouth, trying to deflect her attention from his hands.
“Yes, that much I gathered, too. But what shelters? Shelters. They’ve all gone insane.”
“In Switzerland they have shelters under every building. If something were to happen, only the Swiss would survive. Noah’s going to be Swiss. Imagine: a whole new world with only Swiss. Just banks and cheese and watches. Every now and then a Toblerone.”
He chuckled and got off the chair. She looked at him disdainfully.
“You are so stupid,” she said. “Absolutely hopeless. You got stunted somewhere along the line. Like all men.”
He ignored her. He went over to the cupboard where the phone was and picked up the receiver.
“It doesn’t work.”
He said that, but really it seemed to him that he could hear something. A plethora of voices jumbled together like the noise in an enormous waiting room. Some voices impatient, some sleepy, like they were telling a story in a monotone, from beginning to end. There was even a baby crying, and a dog barking off in the distance. He looked at the receiver in surprise, as if he were expecting to find some clarification there. A television picture. Television in telephones. He chuckled again. She must have intercepted his look of surprise, because she came up, snatched the receiver out of his hand, and put it up to her own ear.
“Static,” she said.
They sat in their vinyl armchairs, and he started to be scared she would return to weeping, that she would remember their daughter, who had gone the day before—before all this happened—to Warsaw, just as calm as calm could be. Before the sky had turned brown, before people had run home, warning each other, citing the alert. Running with their collars raised like it was raining.
“Like during martial law,” he murmured to himself, very quietly. He regretted never experiencing any wars during his lifetime (he remembered nothing of World War II, when he had been a child), any cataclysms (well, there was a flood once, but that didn’t really count). Martial law was the closest thing to war, or disaster, that he could truly imagine.
“What are you going on about?”
“I just heard you going on about something.”
“Just that it’s similar to martial law. I was just thinking it’s too bad there were never any wars during my lifetime. Maybe I’d be stronger now.”
She looked up at the ceiling, and he saw her throat—white, fat, lined with moist creases like the thinnest necklaces. He knew the gesture well. Next she would say, “My God, it’s as though they want me to laugh at them.”
“My God, it’s as though they want me to laugh at them,” she said. “You would have liked a war? I mean, I would certainly say I’ve been right, you are immature—infantile, even. You really never did grow up. Men never grow up. In old age they just get Alzheimer’s, and that’s the end of that. A real sad caricature of humanity.”
For a moment she savored a silent satisfaction. Fulfilled like after intercourse. He felt a surge of disgust.
Then she resumed. She was on the verge of tears—her voice sounded like it was coming out of a well.
“How come you’re not thinking about our child? Why, why did she have to go right then? How could we have let her? She could be lying in a ditch somewhere, hurt or even…”
“She isn’t a child…” he said in a half-hearted attempt to head off that first wave of hysteria he could see swelling now.
He thought of her as a dangerous yet stupid animal, and he knew what he had to do now. He lit a cigarette.
“Must you?” she said. “Can’t you see we’re running out of air in here anyway? You’re a real idiot, aren’t you?” she shrieked.
He put out the cigarette and went to his room. There he lit it again. He sat down on the bed, straightened the blanket in the window, and then he looked at both his aquariums—one with angelfish, the other full of guppies. All the fish were dead. The pale, lackluster angelfish suspended there, motionless, at the surface of the water. The guppies were floating belly up.
“A holocaust,” he murmured.
He took a drag off his cigarette. He decided not to tell her about the fish, and this decision brought him a certain satisfaction.
She was still talking in the other room.
“If this all happened around noon—all this darkness—and she left early in the morning, then, well, maybe she made it to safety. Maybe they got them off the bus, supposedly there’re shelters at the bus stations. Supposedly they have big shelters underneath the station in Wrocław. Are you listening? Oh God, God, how are we to bear it. God, oh God, we’ll die. If it’s radiation, then we’re not going to make it—then no one will survive.”
He could hear her voice shifting seamlessly into a sob.
“Quit it,” he shouted, then put out his cigarette.
He leaned over so he could see her. She had regained control over herself. She covered her mouth with her hand. A single tear landed on that hand and soaked into her skin. She wiped her eyes with one finger, furtively. He found this gesture touching. He liked it when she would suddenly weaken. He took yesterday’s Times and sat down in the armchair next to hers. He cast a glance at the headings as if looking for something that would have predicted the catastrophe. All he found was interest rates and exit polls.
“How can you read the paper at a time like this?” she asked. “Do you not have feelings?”
Hysteria had crept back into her voice.
"Dress Rehearsal" coming soon from Tin House