Gorzko, Gorzko (Bitter, bitter)
Earlier this fall, I bought a hundred-year-old house in a mountain village in Lower Silesia. The house came with a dog with a wolfish snout and the body of a dingy polar bear. One of his ears is black, the other white; both are pointed and alert. The previous owners also left behind some furniture, including a kitchen pantry, a four-poster bed, and a massive oak table with a top marred by cuts, a strange sort of writing I attempt each day to decipher.
Before the war, this village was called Görbersdorf, and it was famous for having the world’s first sanatorium devoted to tuberculosis patients, where they were treated by Dr. Hermann Brehmer and his successors with jaunts in the cool climate and a proper diet. Now it is named Sokołowsko, in honor of the Polish physiatrist who was for several years Dr. Brehmer’s favorite, though critical, assistant and who insisted that cold showers and long walks did not help the most advanced cases. The village I’ve decided to call home is so small, it’s easily overlooked. It looks like a thin scar slowly being overtaken by forest. The old sanatorium is in ruins, most of the smaller recreation centers and hotels have been shuttered for years, and the pre-war homes are either derelict or abandoned. It’s the smallest town I’ve ever lived in. The dog, on the other hand, is enormous, and overgrown with thick fur I finally managed to tame with a curry comb meant for horses. Beneath it, his skin is pink and scarred, as delicate as a child’s. His undercoat, soft enough to be spun into yarn, smells like warm maple syrup and peat. The dog appeared three days after I moved in and simply sat down beside his doghouse, unreal in his majesty. His breath was visible in the cold predawn air. When I opened the door, he looked right at me but lingered a little while before coming inside.
In the village shop, I was told that he’d previously belonged to Bazyl Ochęduszko, a clairvoyant and healer, who, plagued by troubles and overcome with despair, sold the house to a businessman from Wrocław, then dissolved into the mist hanging over the valley. Supposedly he’s dead, drowned, though his body was never found. The township took the dog away, not once but twice, and still he found his way back to stalk the house in circles, baring his fangs. The new owner resigned himself to his presence out of fear rather than sympathy and tried unsuccessfully to use him to win over the natives by pretending to settle down. Somehow, he lured the dog and chained him to the doghouse he’d had built by a local carpenter who people called Maciej the Zupa, zupa meaning soup. He’d promised his wife he wouldn’t swear, and so he used the word soup instead. To soup with these walls! he yelled as he mounted bookshelves on my crooked walls, but the end result was beautiful; Maciej the Zupa was a real craftsman. The businessman people simply referred to as Somesuch. Despite building the kennel and being nice to the mean dog, everyone felt from the very start that he didn’t deserve to be called by his real name. Towns such as Sokołowsko are merciless and fickle, governed by inscrutable logic, either receiving guests like royalty or spitting them out like pits.
After a few months, the dog disappeared, and Somesuch walked around the village asking who’d set him loose—his chain had been cut, he claimed. Somesuch also complained of frequent electrical and water pipe failures, which were all the more frustrating because they always seemed to resolve themselves before the service technicians arrived, and return with force just after they left. Finally, he put the house up for sale, but the dog returned only after Somesuch was gone. Wherever he’d been, he was fed well. I’d been told that before he escaped, he was malnourished.
Translated from the Polish into English by Maggie Zebracka
Joanna Bator: Gorzko, Gorzko (Bitter, bitter)