Swallowing Mercury - Excerpt

One evening, I could hardly wait to go to the dressmaker’s, but Mum told me to first put the homemade juice in the cool hallway and then lock the front door from the inside with the bolt. With the bolt because we never used a key, since it was always getting lost somewhere. Mum waited in the yard while I stayed inside and slid the knob along the door. The smell of rust stuck to my fingers. I went behind the hallway curtain, heavy with dirt and fly droppings, and popped through the little door into the pigsty. The chickens were dozing on their ladder. The cow was licking the stone wall. I climbed up to the spiderweb-covered window and jumped out into the icy air.

Mum gave me her hand. We decided to take the shortcut through the fields. Dusk was falling slowly. The frosty grass crunched under our boots. After a fifteen-minute march, the dressmaker’s house loomed up in the distance. I knocked a few times. Nobody answered, even though we could hear footsteps in the hallway. A cat jumped out of the dovecote, carrying a nestling in its mouth.

Mum went up to the kitchen window, knocked a few times and whispered, “Hello? Please open up, it’s us. The collection for church repairs isn’t until next week, and they won’t come checking the meters till tomorrow morning. I know because Janek let it slip.”

A moment later, the door opened. We walked through the hallway, which smelled of sour rye soup, into a bright room. Women’s suits, georgette dresses and coats edged with outdated trims and fringes dangled from a broom handle suspended under the ceiling; shrunken ladies’ jackets swung like hanged men. A Singer machine stood by the window. There was a little box of pins among the crystal on a dresser shelf, a button jar next to a rucksack on the floor and a mannequin with a cracked head in the corner of the room, draped with ribbons and starched napkins and impaled on a wooden pole like a straw Marzanna effigy drowned each year to celebrate the end of winter. Thimbles, buttons, pins, hook-and-eye clasps, press studs, appliqués, pieces of Velcro, and bits of interfacing were sticking out of a cardboard box behind the lamp.

My mother laid a bundle of fabric on the table and started untying the twine. A pink stream spilled out onto the dirty surface. The dressmaker examined the material with admiration, caressing it as if it were her departed husband’s flesh.

“Stunning… And what an even hem! You didn’t buy this in Koziegłowy, did you?”

“No, my sister brought it from Katowice. Apparently she waited in line all day to buy it. So, what do you think? Will it do?” Mum asked with a note of anxiety in her voice. “Can you make a gown for the end-of-school ball out of it?”

The dressmaker sized me up with her eyes, spread out the fabric, measured it with her forearm and said after a pause, “Only down to the knees, and that’s if I do my best.”

“To the knees? No, that won’t… What would the headmistress say? For a ball, it has to be longer. But maybe…” My mother touched her handbag. “Maybe you could manage to add some other fabric?”

“God forbid! What other fabric? You can tell at a glance that you splashed out at a Pewex shop.”

After that day, I went to the dressmaker’s regularly to have fittings. I got used to the smell of her hallway and her house. She would baste the fabric, wrap me in it like a mummy, sew a little. She did everything with great concentration. She’d add things up in her head, draw the pattern on brown paper and then, at the end, she’d sweep all the scraps of fabric from the table to the floor, make some tea, offer me cake, show off her wedding portrait, which hung over the dresser, and reminisce about her husband, Stasik. Then she’d lay out the cards and tell me my fortune, repeating the same thing every time: that I would have two children, a boy and a girl, and that foreign voyages, fame, and money awaited me, and when she’d add at the end that I would not find happiness in love, I’d come up with a pretext to leave the table. She would start watching Return to Eden, and I’d play with the cat, rummage through bags of fabric scraps, explore all the nooks and crannies pleated by light and shadows. There was only one room I was forbidden to enter. Of course, I tried to disobey several times, but unfortunately the room was always locked.

At night, I often thought about Stasikowa’s room. Sometimes I imagined it as a little chapel, except instead of a picture of a saint I would envision a golden cage with parakeets. Other times, I suspected it looked like a theater dressing room, with costumes and a dressing table. In my dreams, I would enter this room and try on wigs and colorful outfits.

Then one week, I mixed up my days because there was a difficult math test at school, and I went to see the dressmaker on a Tuesday instead of a Wednesday. To my surprise, the front door was ajar. I went inside. The cat was sleeping on a cushion. The clock was ticking on top of the dresser. In the dressmaker’s absence, I decided to peek into the forbidden room. I paused in front of the heavy door, thinking, “Open, Sesame,” then pushed it and looked inside. The room was in semi-darkness. When my eyes got used to the dim light, I saw what looked like a hunter’s study. Stuffed birds, deer antlers, and a shotgun were hanging on the walls. The dressmaker was sitting on the bed, half-naked, rocking rhythmically on top of a rag-filled dummy dressed in a man’s suit.

Swallowing Mercury Cover Image
By Wioletta Greg, Eliza Marciniak (Translator)
ISBN: 9781945492044
Availability: available for order
Published: Transit Books - September 12th, 2017