The action of The House Under Lyra is set in June 1949. The main character’s daughter takes her nine-year-old son away to stay with his grandfather, who was a colonel in the pre-war Polish Army, and whose name is Bronowicz. Having survived the Nazi occupation in a prisoner-of-war camp and returned to Warsaw in 1945, he could no longer communicate with his wife or settle into an office job. So he has decided to go and live on his own in Mazuria, where he has taken over a formerly German farm and is now dedicated to working on the land. His daughter’s sudden visit is to do with the arrest by the Security Service of her husband, a Home Army soldier who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. The boy’s mother is afraid that if she too is arrested by the communist apparatus of repression, her son will end up in an orphanage. At the centre of the literary drama we find a depiction of the highly complex social relations in the so-called Recovered Territories in the first few years after the war. Gradually the indigenous population is being removed from this area, in other words the Mazurians who generally have a Polish identity, but who speak German and are Evangelicals by faith. People who have been re-settled from the eastern Borderlands of the former Polish Republic are also appearing, and newcomers from central Poland too. The Mazurian land is partly under Soviet occupation, and there are officials representing the new powers-that-be who constantly bully and terrorise the defenceless population. Orłoś’s original approach involves doing his best to show human happiness, and above all human decency in defiance of unfortunate, unfair times. The most important role is played by Colonel Bronowicz, a wise and noble man, who imposes high moral standards on his environment, and becomes a friend and authority for the local people (he speaks excellent German) as well as the new settlers. A great love is born between him and a much younger local girl, Urszula, who helps him to keep house, and the colonel’s grandson forms a warm friendship not just with Urszula’s daughter Zuzi, but also with his local peers. For the boy, the year spent at his grandfather’s farm, where he is in close contact with Mazurian nature, is an almost idyllic time. But complications arise – Urszula is expecting Bronowicz’s child, although he is still in a formal relationship with the wife he left behind in Warsaw. The story concludes with a credible and not at all obvious happy ending, and The House Under Lyra deserves be called Kazimierz Orłoś’s best book to date.
Urszula and Bronowicz had made love for the first time in May, when the moon was full, a year before Joanna and her son’s arrival, and three
weeks after the Mazurian girl had moved into the colonel’s house. Since that night he had often repeated: “You could be my daughter, Lili”. To which Urszula would invariably reply: “It doesn’t matter, Mr Bronowicz. If you love someone, right?”
They were sitting in the kitchen after supper. Next door, behind a curtain Zuzi was sleeping. Wasyl wasn’t there. They could hear the dogs barking,
sometimes Dońka snorting, as she stomped, as Lili would say, by the porch, passing close to the wooden steps. Often at night she would come up to the house from the meadow.
Bronowicz was gazing at Urszula, and she was gazing over his shoulder out of the dark window. That was when he took Lili’s hands in his – he reached
across the table. Before that they had been chatting as ever: the colonel had been asking questions about life in Gałkowo during the war. About her parents and brothers (she had two, in Soviet captivity.) About her sister who had left for Germany. Urszula’s questions were usually about Bronowicz’s wife. She was interested to know how old she was, how long they had been married and where they had met. She even asked when and in what words he had proposed to his wife. And did he love Izabela very much? Her questions amused Bronowicz, but he always replied truthfully, although sometimes he used the excuse of not remembering.
Before then he had not thought about her as a woman to make love to, but more as a daughter. Or a girl wronged by life. She had a child, but no husband (he never asked about Zuzi’s father). It was true she had attracted his attention from the first moment. It gave him pleasure to look at her, at the way she moved, tall and straight. At the shape of her head and her hair tied in a short plait or with a red ribbon. He liked the scent of her blouse. It smelled of soft soap. And of her skin, as she leaned over to set the plates on the table. Before falling asleep he imagined Urszula sleeping beside him, in the room behind the kitchen. Once it had crossed his mind that this woman was like the sun, suddenly shining forth in his house. Now, in Eastern Prussia, when he was already sixty-two and feeling old.
He even thought about Lili in the evenings when he took Dońka for a gallop around the local fields and roads, when he heard the loud clatter of hoofs on the bridge, and then their soft sound on the sand as he trotted on through the forest, to the lake. He would come back after dark. Sometimes Urszula would be waiting on the porch.
Now her fingers seemed warm to Bronowicz. The tips were a little damp. Behind her fingernails she had thin, dark rims.
“My God, Lili, what beautiful hands you have.”
“Really?” She leaned forward and stretched out her arms, resting her elbows on the table top. She didn’t seem surprised by the colonel’s behaviour. “No one has ever spoken to me like that.”
“Like the Lady with an Ermine.”
“The lady? Warum?”
Bronowicz didn’t reply. He carefully placed Lili’s hands on the table. “Time for bed, child.” He stood up. He came out from behind the bench. He started to walk towards the hall. And to her, to Lili Marleen, as he called her, who was Bronowicz? Was he just a man thanks to whom she could earn a living, help her parents, buy Zuzi a dress? He knew he was as old as her father, but he looked younger. She listened to his voice from dawn to dusk, laughed at his jokes – at that “Lili Marleen”, at the way he asked, as he came back from the woodwork shed: “What are they giving us for dinner today?”, as sawdust showered onto the table from his hair and beard. When had she started to think about him differently? Was it at the moment when she was throwing the washing into the tub and had picked up the colonel’s shirt to nestle her face in it?
That evening she didn’t get up – she went on sitting at the table. She kept her elbows resting on the table top. She asked in German: “Warum?”
Bronowicz looked around, stopped, then moved away from the door. As he leaned over Lili, he shielded the wall and a bit of the window.
“Do you realise what might happen, girl?”
“Ist das schlimm?” she asked. “Is it bad?” she repeated in Polish.
Then he took hold of the woman by the arms and raised her up. Pushed away, the bench wobbled, and they both lost their balance for a moment.
The flame flickered, reflected in the black window. Holding Urszula with one hand, with the other Bronowicz moved the oil lamp closer and blew out the flame. Only then, in the dark, did he take her more firmly into his arms and kiss her. The room smelled of the extinguished wick. Lying behind the curtain, Zuzi said something in her sleep.
They made love on a wooden bed in the big room. There was a full moon that night, and its bright disc was shining above the roof of the barn. They undressed beneath an open flue. They felt a chill on their faces and arms. Maybe that was why Urszula’s breasts seemed cold to Bronowicz? They kissed, treading on the shirt he had tossed to the floor, her blouse that smelled of soft soap, his trousers made of coarse material and her darned brassiere.
Did they hear the dogs barking, or Dońka snorting near the veranda? Or stomping close to the wooden steps?
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones