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Jagielski's Ark
"What a hangout!" the university lecturer exclaimed.

"And you'll see Zeus-a strange god," adds the other lecturer.

A reportage about a god! That grabbed me.

Whenever they have a couple of bucks, they scuttle over to that hangout on Saturdays. They started their pilgrimages in May already. It might be a bit cool, but that's nothing: since it's cool, it's empty! University classes end at noon. They snatch up their briefcases, hop onto the streetcar, off to the station, and plop themselves on the train. The train to Dzialdowo, a transfer for Brodnica. The road runs alongside the tracks in spots. Cars, motorcycles, scooters roll along. The two look on. Of course they don't feel so great: they teach literature, an honest enough profession, but there's no money in it.

The railway car rocks; they read.

From the Brodzka Dam station, they go by foot through the forest to the water stand. A nest of huts settled on the flat slope of the hill is called Bachotek. The lecturers straighten their shoulders, do a few deep knee bends, and at last stand still.

"Is it ringing?" asks one. They listen intently.

"It's ringing!" whispers the other.

"What's ringing?" I ask. (I see I've made a fool of myself.) They're dismayed.

"Come on, man. Silence. Silence is ringing!"

They prepare to eat. You can get lunch at the inn, but they turn their noses up at it. They solemnly set up their portable stove and cook the powdered oxtail soup. The water boils, flows over into the fire, scalds their hands. They eat in turns using the same spoon. They're hungry; they persuade themselves that they've never been so full.

And now they're skimming across the lake in their kayak. I can barely keep up. They spot a swan. An argument breaks out as to whether the swan flies high or not. "Of course it flies high!" "Townie, you're mistaken!" They argue, they search for proof in literature. Who could have written about it? Zeromski, Konopnicka? Give me a break with Konopnicka. That's not great poetry. The frightened birds tear themselves from the water and settle amongst the rushes. They negotiate a compromise: right, they'll check in the encyclopaedia.

A heron is wading in the distance. They paddle furiously in its direction. Soon they see it from up close. But the bird hears the noise, lifts itself up in the air and flies off. Disappointed, they reproach themselves: we paddled too slowly. In reproof, one shows the other his palms, which are covered in blisters.

They set aside their paddles. "We'll drift," says one. "How, there's no current here," protests the other. The kayak shifts a few metres. They look at their watches, gauge the speed with which the wave carries them.

In the distance, against the forest, a silhouette is moving by the shore. "It's him!" one of the lecturers cries. They strain their eyes ("they're scholars, ah, but they see perfectly well," says the saved one later). "Nah, that can't be him," his colleague is sceptical. "Why not? There's no one else here besides him," insists the first. "But you remember, that one was straining himself, and this one isn't straining himself at all, this one is ambling along," reasons his debater. The discussion drags on; the uncertainty torments them.

As they paddle closer, the silhouette grows and takes on a clear shape. Victory! Of course it's him. Leaning against his pole, the solitary raftsman is conveying his boom across the lake.

"Good day, Mr. Jagielski!" they say.

The raftsman looks at us; his eyes shine funnily.

"Good day," he responds.

"Can we come aboard? It won't be too heavy?"

"What's heavy? What can that weigh?"

That (i.e., we three) doesn't weigh more than two hundred kilograms. Facing Jagielski, we balance without qualm on the logs. The lecturers examine the raftsman's hand. ("Incredible," one of them tells me later. "I thought that he would have heavy, cloddish, iron-hard palms. But his skin is soft, delicate, I'd say he has baby-skin!")

Joseph Jagielski looks us over; we him. He's a bit of a boy, with slender bones and tiny muscles. The slim face with its sparse growth of beard was hidden by the shade of his broad visor. He looks some thirty years old, but he's actually twenty-five. He's done his military service, but hasn't taken a wife yet (why hurry, misters?). The army has significance in his life because he rode the rails then. He may not have ridden far, but he rode. Now there's no possibility to do so.

"And were you in town?" asked the lecturer.

"Of course I was. I was in Brodnica, Jablonowa, and also in Torun."

"And the seashore?"

"No. The seashore? That's too far..."

I look around the raft. It's huge. Dried out pine logs, nailed together by the dozen, make up one segment. The segments are lashed together with wire. There were over twenty in all. The raft is long, the catch-hold stretching for 200 metres. They mount it in the Ilawski forests and from there they float it by lakes and canals to the sawmill in Drweca-some 120 kilometres. Jagielski is only one of the raftsmen in this relay: he has his distance to cover. He tows the load across the lake and his work is done. So one raft gives a living to a few people. These joint earnings totalled are the object of Jagielski's desires.

"And what do you dream about?" probes one of the lecturers.

"Oh, nothing much," the raftsman evades the question.

"Come on," insists the assistant.

"To have all the cash from one month's worth of everybody's work on all these rafts."

"Which is?"

"I'm afraid to even say, misters."

"Don't be afraid."

Jagielski straightens up, takes off his hat.

"That would be 3,000. Maybe even 4,000."

He goes furiously to work so as not to overindulge this fantasy. He earns 800-900 zlotys. The earnings are calculated in this way: for each cubic metre of timber transported a distance of one kilometre he gets twenty-two groszy. One cigarette. He may be a worker but he works like a peasant in the field. He lives in the village, at his brother's; he hands over his salary for food and a corner in the room. He rises with the chickens, eats noodle soup, takes a bottle of tea, and bikes to the spot where the raft is waiting. He cuts down a pine tree, strips the bark, sands it-and he has a pole, a tool of the trade.

He stands on the raft.

"The rest, misters, is a gift from god."

The wind is against him; he can't push off even one metre.

Wind from the left, and the raft hurtles toward the shore, becoming entangled in the rushes.

Wind from the right, and the raft pulls toward the middle of the lake, the deep. He can't push off with the pole; he waits for salvation.

No wind, and the entire effort of moving this mass rests on his shoulders.

A terrible drudgery.

Fair winds visit him rarely; most often the wind is his enemy. How far does he sail to evening? When the going's good, six kilometres. (He's managed to do eight, he says with pride.) He must sail opportunistically-far enough from the shore so as not to get stuck, and close enough to have some ground.

What delights the lecturers is that Jagielski too sometimes doesn't have ground. They haven't had ground for quite some time. The world has witnessed a crisis of values, they say, a compromising of the traditional institutions, morality has lost meaning, acknowledged truths are questioned. They don't even trust the facts they are teaching. In those times, were not the textbooks also falsified? Man acts under the terror of circumstances, like the raft that stays a course according to the direction of the wind. Man has lost his ground. The lecturer, balancing precariously on the trunks, invokes the witness of Pascal. (I found this quote: "Man knows not what place he is to occupy; clearly he has strayed and has lost his true place, and is left without the capacity of discovering it. He searches for it everywhere, anxiously and without result, in the impenetrable shadows.") Tracking Jagielski, they observe the phenomenon of the loss of ground not in the abstract, but in the concrete. The raftsman's pole penetrates the water, plunges down: there's no bottom. They wait anxiously-what will he do?

Jagielski lays his pole aside.

He sits down, stretches his legs.

"We have to wait," he announces.

They acknowledge this statement as brilliant. "A philosopher," says one. "A real philosopher," the second affirms. "He doesn't get hysterical, doesn't get down in the dumps, doesn't fidget, doesn't get exacerbated. Though every resistance from nature decreases his earnings, the raftsman keeps his calm. Wait, and the ground will come. The ground evades him, and then it's there. The ground must be!"

Does he like his work? Of course he does. He worked in the sawmill once but quit. Too many supervisors. And here Jagielski is his own supervisor. He can sail by day or by night, as he himself so arranges it. In the day it's good and at night pleasant. ("When it's dark, it's so quiet that it gets a man in the throat.") Just so long as the weather cooperates. When the weather's bad, he tires himself out. He can struggle until he's on the verge of fainting. Sometimes he keels over on these logs, which become saturated with water, and then it's all the same to him. Then there's no difference. He recalls, last New Year's he leaned forward on the pole so much that he lost his balance and fell into the water. He managed to get out of the icy body and, dripping wet, returned home in the frosty night-ten kilometres. ("This is how I welcomed in the New Year: in soaking underwear.")

"So he wasn't at some party!" figure the lecturers. Parties, fun. They pose the question: does the raftsman ever do anything cultural? Well, no. He's never been to the theatre. As for the cinema, the last time was a year ago. He's never watched television, doesn't listen to the radio, hasn't happened to read a book, doesn't even look at the papers.

And he talks very little with people.

So the wide world doesn't reach Jagielski by any route. By no news. By neither hope nor disturbance. By neither sensation nor boredom. By no way ever. The raftsman knows nothing of earthquakes, palace revolts, the fate of the U-2, the fiasco of the Paris Conference, the Olympics in Rome. He doesn't even seem surprised as he listens to the lecturers' news.

"Yes, misters, that all can be."

He doesn't ask for details, doesn't ask for more. He turns his attention to the pole because he's caught the ground.

The lecturers' enchantment: you see, he didn't let himself be pulled in. For him our world is a shoal which he bypasses. Bypasses unconsciously, but effectively. Maybe instinct whispers to him that if he were to get stuck on this sand, he wouldn't be able to get off. It's horrible that man gets ever more settled on some shoal. The shoal of home, work, habits. A barren, empty place. And there's no wind that would drive him into the rough current. Or such a wind comes up that he's forced to lay down prone: he's afraid it might knock him over. But look at Jagielski, he waits for winds and currents. He lives with them and he lives off them.

He didn't let himself get pulled in, they repeat enviously. He's independent. In the opinion of these excitable two, the Olympian doesn't have to be pretentious. The current times don't tolerate facades. They exaggerate, they seek the divine element (and so something that is inaccessible to people) in independence. This raftsman is independent. They call him Zeus. That he has burlap a shirt and gum boots full of holes? It makes no difference. They bow low to him, examine his hand, recite his sentences as if they were aphorisms.

"Mr. Jagielski, and will the weather be nice?" they ask.

The raftsman looks up at the sky (they say he reads the sky) and, pushing off against the pole until it bends into a tight arc, he says:

"Clouds-so many, but maybe they'll pass."

"Optimist!" the lecturers marvelled. 

Translated by Diana Kuprel & Marek Kusiba.

Ryszard Kapuscinski's selected poems from Notes (Notebook, 1986) and reportage from Busz po polsku (Bush in Polish, 1962) are published here with the author's permission. Translation copyright retained by D. Kuprel & M. Kusiba.


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