Joanna Bator trans. by Maggie Zebracka
They came again, she says. All night they kept waking me, pulling at me. One jerked the comforter and screamed give it, mine, mine. Me this way, him that way. Mine, mine! Minemine, she repeats and I don’t know if she’s quoting the one who came and pulled or responding to him, because minemine is, for certain, not an invocation meant for me. She’s forgetting me more often. Olga picks up and says, it’s your daughter for you, and she says daughter? with a question mark so hard and stark I could hang myself on it. Do you remember our comforter? I remember not to remember. I left to remember not to remember. She stayed, nailed to that German floor. I was afraid that if my attention faltered, she would nail me there, too.
Over half a century passed, and my mother traverses the years even faster now, against the current of time and tongue. They came to take the comforter, she cries. Her parents feared that the Germans would return to reclaim their allocated apartment. They always had one suitcase packed and waiting under the bed. Sometimes they took something out of it, or put something in. They had already been exiled from one home, so this one, having belonged to someone else, never felt permanent. They fed her this fear as if it were creamy semolina pudding. She was raised in this apartment full of fear and German furniture. She went to university in Wrocław and returned a doctor but left her mother tongue there, preserved in a jar of formalin. They tore it out of her, sewed up the wound. She brought back a watchman in her mind who guarded against anyone trying to penetrate her new life as a doctor. My grandparents, carriers of a contagious disease of the tongue, died quickly along with it. Making a lot of space for the two of us. My mother the doctor spoke slowly and carefully. She turned each sentence over first in her mouth, checking its shape. Biting and swallowing the protruding threads, thorns, sharp shards. I entered her stomach without the right to vote on my place of residence or the matter of my paternity and language.
She raised me here herself. Three large rooms and a service room in which someone now lives for the first time since the German occupation. Ukrainian Olga sleeps on the bed left by those who come for my mother’s comforter. She has new bedding from Ikea. My mother, the former doctor, just turned eighty-five and her vaccine against fear has stopped working just like everything else. Eyes, ears, sphincters. The daughter’s words lurk under the retired doctor’s tongue, stewed for years in a jar of formalin. Like old Gothic inscriptions that emerge on the walls of the houses in a once-respectable neighborhood. Like layers of paint in the neglected service room unable to hide the calculations and dates written in someone’s non-dominant hand, a maid, probably, who had once wanted to buy shoes and a hat. When I was a child, we kept a long-disused toilet in this dark little room along with supplies, vintage magazines, and my skis, for a rainy day. Supplies and magazines, but only the serious ones, were useful and therefore desirable. The skis were tolerated under certain circumstances. People enrich themselves through study and work. The early bird and so on. Skis are a waste of time for working women, one of whom is the daughter of a peasant, the other of a doctor. We can use them as a last resort. A sound body makes a sound mind, after all. So my mother thought. Now the peasant’s daughter remembers the comforter, the comforter rends sleep from her eyelids, though she sometimes forgets who I am and who she was. Surely the comforter is older than her, than me. It’ll survive us both. I don’t know if it’ll survive my daughter, who is a nuclear physicist and understands infinity better than me, a writer. I can only hope she’ll have a son. Sons don’t concern themselves with material things.
I’d tried to pull my mother out of here. From beneath this comforter. From this apartment, this city, this life. And where will I go from here, she waved dismissively. “Where” was an abyss, hence nothing, because she was from somewhere else, where she couldn’t remember but didn’t completely forget. Her somewhere else was evening stock, a pond, poverty, a comforter. She stayed, as if nailed to the German floor. I’m silent but my mother speaks. You remember the comforter? Real duck down. I remember and don’t remember the light weight overwhelmed by the stench of age. A comforter for generations. During communism, people paid a fortune, but we had one. It had come from the baggage of an exile. Older than her. She was probably conceived eighty-five years and nine months ago under that comforter in a cottage as big as the kitchen in my house. I’m calling because today is her birthday. Where I was conceived, I don’t know.
The doctor reproduced by budding, it was said. Dad had gotten lost somewhere, gone out for lemons. The mother and daughter were so similar. A spitting image of mom, though usually you inherit more from your dad. I don’t maintain that a male element was involved in my creation and certainly not under that comforter. The light terrible weight was my inheritance. The sweat soaked into the feathers, the human secretions of two generations. The smell of the cottage. That you can’t wash. At best, you can air it out. No balcony, use a windowsill. Hang the comforter like a white-coated tongue. As the representative of the third generation, I was supposed to be grateful for the comforter. Buried beneath it, I remember the heat and the strange cold, the ticking of the standing clock that was left after those who come now. I don’t understand why they don’t want their beautiful clock, working still, indifferent to the change in ownership and nationality, or the armoire, the elegant étagère. They insisted on only the comforter.
This is an excerpt. The full text of Joanna Bator's "The Comforter" can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 4.
Joanna Bator is the author of six novels, most recently Purezento (2017) as well as three nonfiction books. Her 2012 novel Dark, Almost Night won the Nike Award, Poland’s highest literary honor. Dark, Almost Night, in the German translation, was shortlisted for the 2016 House of World Cultures Award for Translated Contemporary Literatures. In 2017, Bator received the Usedomer International Literary Award and the Stefan Heym International Literary Award, given to authors of socially and politically engaged fiction.
Maggie Zebracka is a writer and translator from Chicago. A graduate of Wellesley College and Vanderbilt University, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Masters Review, Anomaly (formerly Drunken Boat), and elsewhere. She is currently translating Joanna Bator’s novel, Dark, Almost Night.