Piotr Szewc’s writing is an unusual event, a rarity in Polish fiction. For almost twenty years, in three successive novels he has told the story of a single day in a single place. Always lasting from dawn to dusk, and always in the middle of a very hot summer, the day covers about sixteen hours in the life of pre-war, Polish-Jewish Zamość and the immediate neighbourhood, the administrative area called the powiat, equivalent to a county or district. Paradoxically, this singled-out day is special purely because nothing special happens; instead, everything is in its usual place and makes perfect sense. In Storks Over the County he seems to go even deeper into the tiniest elements of reality, mulling over every last scrap of it, and so the whole flavour of this prose is in the detail, the nuances and the elegant dialogues that take place between successive versions of this unprecedented work. The main characters are ordinary people (small tradesmen and shopkeepers, a dressmaker and a girl who works as a cleaner at the local inn), occupied with ordinary affairs. Each of them is in his or her place, at one with the world and with themselves. Now and then the child hero of the book, Lolek, appears, and gradually discovers the less pleasant aspects of life – its fragility, impermanence and transience. Like Szewc’s two earlier novels, Storks Over the County is a work of great linguistic beauty, honed and polished by a real craftsman every inch of the way. He invites us on a tour of a small-town arcadia, and wants us to delight in the somnolence and solidity of a city and county that no longer exist, but only live on in his stories.
The pathways, fence boards and stones all stood silently to attention, as if waiting for something that was sure to happen and that they knew would change their existence. A horseshoe and a broken roof-tile lay silent too, making no request and no complaint. So too lay the rutted roads through the fields. But the morning was making noises. Unsure of the next few moments, droplets were ringing on the leaves. Birds were chirping and whistling. The hill, which every morning listened intently to this curious, not altogether rhythmical music, recognised the instruments making it. They weren’t visible, because even the birds, with which the suburb was teeming, were still hiding in the chill of the morning. They were only just waking up, being roused by the sun as it came ever nearer – any moment now it would roll into Młyńska Street. As soon as one bird called out, another answered him, announcing that happily he too had lived to see the dawn. Apparently here too, where Krasnobrodzka Street met Młyńska Street, the river Łabuńka’s sighing was audible. Perhaps it was exhausted by the rapid current at night and now, as the sun rolled down the ruts and stumbled over the furrows it wanted to say it was tired. But not all the hill could hear it: its murmurs and sighs sank into the mist, becoming only half real, and half invented by anyone hearing them. And the leaves seemed to be rustling with joy at the touch of the sun. They knew its touch: without waiting for the dew to evaporate, they were rising, tensing and yielding to the light, tensing on the trees and under the leaky fence boards, all along the pathways and across the pastures, tensing and yielding to the light all at once, against the will of every single one of them to do each in turn. For now, as they too were being stirred into life, they were happier than at any other hour of the day, and they refused to share this happiness. They refused to share the light in the future too, and so, with the diligence that envy is wont to dictate, they wouldn’t abandon the sun for a moment: by turning, they strove after it as it came opposite the church of the Holy Cross, then opposite Unterrecht’s bakery and Morand Street. Their movements, which could rightly be seen as an expression of worship, were like a sign of fidelity typical of those who are in love.
Although the hill was a long way from the upstairs flat at the house on Wierzbowa Street, Emilia Kuczyńska, the dressmaker, was already awake and could hear the birds singing there. But here too, on Wierzbowa Street, so narrow that the crowns of the walnut trees on either side closed above its ruts, and wagons driving along in opposite directions had trouble passing each other, plenty of other birds had their place, their home. They too were singing, chattering, outshouting one another and making their announcements, as throughout the county. Emilia Kuczyńska set the window ajar. Past the trees, on the other side of Hrubieszowska Street, somewhere over the meadows behind Nadrzeczna Street the morning light was vibrating. From behind the fields, trees and roofs it was permeating Wierzbowa Street, flooding the gardens, gateways and courtyards, folding back the petals of pelargoniums on the windowsills, moving forwards like a living creature. Cool, damp air flowed in through the open window; Emilia did not defend herself against it. The air left its trace on her arms like the impatient breath of the farrier and farmer Adam Ostrowski. In moments when she was alone it flattered her. Let him brush, lick and caress her with his breath, and don’t let him stop – she preferred to have something that could be said to be anything, than not to have it at all. Emilia had slept briefly and badly, as usual, and it happened more and more often when she had no one to cuddle up to, no one’s breathing and sleeping to listen to as she fell asleep. As gently as she could, she touched the pillow. Her fingers moved in various directions, but failed to find what they were seeking: they suffered a disappointment, so she withdrew them. The tips of her fingers felt devoid of sensation. Emilia tucked her legs up under her; she couldn’t remember ever having been as lonely as now. But she was wrong: any of the moments when loneliness had made itself felt in a similar way might have seemed the most painful, or certainly more painful than the last one. But this didn’t occur to her, because each new experience of loneliness always hurt more than the one before. Maybe as it grew bigger from day to day, like ivy, her loneliness was leading a life of its own, which, despite wanting and trying to, Emilia could not influence or shrug off her shoulders, breast or back, or prevent from being her constant companion.
Odours came wafting over the slopes of the hill, along its pathways, roads and tracts, as far as the meadows on its southern side and Młyńska Street to its west. It was a composite of odours, heavy with excess and embroiled in mist. The earth was giving off a smell, so were the corn crops on it, and the flowers too – impatiently, because they would have liked to scatter their seeds today already, cornflowers, corn-cockles and thistles. From the river came the smell of silt, and from the meadows the smell of shallow overflow pools, where as the mist gave way, the sun spent long hours wading, blurring the image of the city. Odours came seeping out of the gardens behind the fence boards and hedges left to grow at will, from stables, sheds and barns, from buckwheat and clover patches, through clefts and channels from inside the earth. They moved away and came back again, quivering, perhaps wondering where to go, which way to head. Just like the light, they were on the move; some were promising to make themselves more fully felt, while others were nothing more than a deliberate or unconscious allusion to their own existence. At their instance the mist-embroiled composite was no longer a lasting phenomenon: tomorrow’s dawn would put it to a new test. The same thing was happening to the light too; while seeming to reveal the same shapes and colours every day, it was never subject to any routine – whatever looked like the trace of a new outline or shade, the light would cast its watchful gaze over it. And in this gaze, every day the acacia tree outside Pesach Forem’s house leaned over more and more, but the light had not yet exposed its crown, which spread out over Węgierska Street. The acacia was still in bloom and if it could, in a few weeks it would cover itself in white again. In the slanting rays of sunlight falling from the hilltop the willow-green of the meadows and dew-strewn pastures by the river was changing, turning pale and then regaining definition. The colours and shapes were only just settling down. The tiniest change, or something that merely hinted at it, were recording themselves in this meticulous register. The light was completing its task as if it were more than just a duty; instead it was a solemn ritual, its significance best evidenced by the fact that it happened every day. And the light was changing itself into a high priest, not subject to any routine.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones