translated from the Polish by Stephanie Craft
An Introduction to What Is in a Man?
In this story Filipowicz, himself a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, builds the heat of a summer day in the Polish countryside into an attenuated metaphor for the Holocaust. Working from classic questions—is there a soul, how does a murderer differ from other men—Filipowicz lightens a tale of indifferent police work that will likely result in a wrongful hanging with images of fishing, a favorite theme in his short fiction.
But though the fishing imagery lends a touch of pastoral charm and humor to the story, evoking a sense of peace, normalcy and the joys of summer, it has a sinister underside. In deft twists, the author turns it into a symbol of random injustice inflicted in wartime and in peace on victims who only become aware of the forces massed to destroy them after all avenues of escape have been cut off.
WHAT IS IN A MAN?
Patrolman Michalik knew where to find Commandant Slaboszewski at that time of day. So first he rode his bicycle along the dirt road, then he got off and walked it over the path through the underbrush to the shorter road leading to the river. On that road he skidded a little because the blackberry brambles caught in the spokes and obstructed the wheels. As he emerged from the bushes, he saw a bicycle in the place where he expected it, leaning against a willow by the bend in the river. But the commandant was still nowhere to be seen.
Surely he was sitting down below on the old, flood-washed dike, fishing. After yesterday's shift he had the night and half the day off, but instead of relaxing peacefully at home, he preferred to brood over the water from early morning on. Michalik was thinking that this took the devil's own passion and patience, and that he would not be able to do it. He propped his bicycle against the other side of the willow and called:
"How is it?"
"Not so bad," answered Slaboszewski, not looking around.
Michalik climbed down the steep, sandy slope to the riverbank. He said:
"I've been there."
"He took the wagon and went to the gravel pile at the three hundred and twenty-seventh kilometer."
"You saw him?"
"And did you tell them not to say anything to him?"
"Very clearly. But do they know he's in trouble?"
"That way he won't make a run for it," said Slaboszewski. He took out his line, put on a fresh worm and threw it back again in the same place. Michalik looked at the white float made from a goose feather, which bobbed comically backward, then stood upright and slowly began to move downstream with the current.
"What, then? You think he didn't do it?"
"I don't know."
Slaboszewski put his rod on the ground. He took out a cigarette, put it in a wooden cigarette holder, lit it and said:
"Maybe he did. But since he was stupid enough to do it, he won't be smart enough to get away."
"Are we going after him?"
"Damn! We'll have to go," said Slaboszewski, without moving from where he was sitting. He smoked his cigarette and didn't take his eyes off the float.
"Shall we take the bicycles?"
"Bicycles, around those pits and sandpiles? We'll take the wagon, then walk up that stretch."
"It's going to be hot as hell today," said Michalik.
"And how. As I was walking this morning, there was such a dew that it gurgled in my shoes."
Slaboszewski stood up suddenly, walked a little way to his right and took out a net full of writhing, silvery fish.
"My God, look at them!" Michalik exclaimed.
Slaboszewski sprinkled the fish out of the net and onto the grass. Then he took them one at a time, beat their heads against his heel and arranged them each beside the next, in a line. The mouths of some were still open and their tails still fluttered. Patrolman Michalik squatted on the ground and looked at the gleaming bodies. He came from the city, he had never caught fish, he knew nothing about them.
"That one is still alive. Oh, how it writhes!" Michalik pointed to the fish, which jumped out of the line and did a somersault, but he did not touch it with his hands. "It would still be swimming—as if you would throw it back into the water, eh?"
Slaboszewski took the fish and struck it twice against his heel. The fish went motionless, and blood trickled from under its gills. Slaboszewski put it into the green canvas bag that always hung from the handlebars of his bicycle.
"You made a haul today," said Michalik.
"Little ones. But, brother, there's a thirty-pound catfish out there."
"Are you going home again?" asked Michalik after a moment, as they walked toward their bicycles.
"I'm going to drop in, leave the fish with my wife and put a bite of something in my briefcase, because I've had no breakfast yet."
Commandant Slaboszewski took off his policeman's tunic and wiped his face and neck with a handkerchief. Then he sat down at a table and set to work opening a drawer with a key that never worked properly because the lock was broken. He had to get into the drawer, since, in addition to papers, he kept salt in a little round box there. Because of this Cudzinski he had not even managed to eat breakfast, and already it was time for lunch.
Finally he succeeded in opening the drawer and took out the salt. Then he could munch in peace on two hard-boiled eggs and a piece of sausage that his wife had packed in his briefcase. He salted the eggs heavily as he ate them, he chewed hard on the sausage and bread, all the while reading the old newspaper in which everything was wrapped. From time to time he raised his head and looked out the window. Its panes were covered with a grating, and flies buzzed around the glass. Through the window Slaboszewski could see an expanse of grass, one goal post for soccer, and, a little farther away, a row of willows growing by a stream. The grass and the leaves of the willows were gray with dust from the road. But the road was not visible from inside the room; in order to see it, Slaboszewski had to lean his head out the window and crane his neck.
Then he saw the wagon that had been carrying the two of them and Cudzinski a while ago. The driver stood talking with Michalik, who had gone out to pay him for the ride and get a receipt. Slaboszewski went back to reading the newspaper; he was interested in the soccer match and the swimming contests, which had taken place days ago, since the newspaper was a week old. When Michalik came back, Slaboszewski looked at him for a moment in silence, his teeth working heavily because some of them were missing. When he had chewed up the hunk of dry sausage, he said:
"You locked it tight?"
"Yes, I locked it," Michalik answered, adding after a moment: "But he looks as if nothing makes any difference at all to him."
Michalik took off his tunic and unbuttoned his shirt, which was sticking to his body.
"It's hot as hell!"
"You could go over and get some beer," said Slaboszewski.
"I went. There isn't any. They're just about to get some."
There's none at Klosinski's, either?"
"There's none at the co-op or at Klosinski's."
Michalik took a dry, slightly rumpled shirt from the cabinet, put it on, unbuckled his belt and tucked the shirt into his pants. Then he set about combing his hair, looking into a small mirror that he had propped against the typewriter. He asked:
"Will you interrogate him?'
"Once, twice we will interrogate him and today we will hand him over. I don't want to hold him here."
Michalik finished with his hair, smoothed it down with the palm of his hand and put the mirror in his pocket. He said.
"Nothing gets through to that bastard."
"What did he say?"
"Nothing. He only asked when he would get something to eat and drink."
"Oh, drink! Drink!"
"Before we start in with him, I'll have another look-in at Klosinski's," said Michalik.
Michalik went out. Slaboszewski got up from the table, went over to the window and lit a cigarette. The wagon was still standing in the road; the driver sat in the box, chatting with two men. Then it started up, raising a cloud of dust on the road. The driver glanced around, then settled back in his seat. The wagon moved farther away, turned on the grass and rolled toward the forest.
Slaboszewski went back to the table and took his briefcase out of the drawer. In it were two announcements, one informing the patrol that the remains of an unknown person had been discovered in the forest. The second, dated three days later, added that a wallet with money and documents in the name of Jan Leszczynski had been found. The body had been identified because of the wallet, which was the property of the murdered man. It had been found at the bottom of a wagon, in the straw, by the owner of the vehicle. The owner himself had given the wallet to the militia, but he had not been able to say how it had gotten into his wagon. He said only that he had rented the wagon and horses to someone named Cudzinski.
The owner of the wagon was well known and respected in the village, and could hardly have had a better alibi. From dawn until sunset on the day in question he had been at work building his new house. He had been working quickly because he wanted to get it up before the harvest. The house stood beside the road in plain view, and many people had seen him –people from the village, people going to the fair and returning.
Apprehending Cudzinski had not been a very troublesome business. Slaboszewski and Michalik had left the wagon in the village, walked half a kilometer toward the gravel pile and sat in the bushes on either side of the road, at the place where it bent sharply toward the dike by the river.
In the first instant Cudzinski had thrown away his reins and made as if to escape into the brush, but Slaboszewski told him not to do anything stupid. When Michalik fastened the handcuffs on him, he jerked at them a little and cried: "What's this? What's this?" But in a moment he calmed down. Under the sooty hair on his head and cheeks, his face went pale. His lips looked as if he had been eating blueberries. He sat passively in the wagon, sniffed without speaking and spat on the ground a few times. He smelled of vodka. Once it even seemed to Slaboszewski that he was weeping a little, but perhaps Slaboszewski was mistaken. A few minutes later, as they rode through the village, he looked alertly at people. A man who was standing beside the co-op with his hands in his pockets called:
"Jozek! What's up with you?"
"Oh, nothing. Give me a bottle of beer!" yelled Cudzinski.
"Oh, you son of a—!" The fellow burst out laughing and leaped up the steps to the shop.
"We're going on," said Slaboszewski.
"I want something to drink!" shrieked Cudzinski, rising from his seat.
"So do we. Move on!"
Cudzinski quieted down and gave no more trouble. While they were riding through the fields, nothing interested him. He sat moping, looking straight ahead, holding his handcuffed palms between his knees. In a few days the harvest would begin; on both sides of the road ripe wheat and rye stood in the breathless, scorching heat.
Cudzinski only showed signs of life when the wagon slowed down and moved onto the highway where the road crew was at work. He turned his head once to the right and once to the left, and watched the roller as it slowly moved along and crushed the stone, its engine backfiring noisily. The machine that laid the asphalt, belching black smoke as it went, also seemed to interest him very much, and still later, as they rode between the meadows, his attention was riveted by two gliders, slender as swallows, that rested on the grass with their wings lowered toward the earth. Not far from the gliders stood large green tents, and men in swimming trunks lay on blankets, sunbathing. One stood up and looked at the sky through binoculars. Patrolman Michalik, who sat beside Cudzinski and felt his every movement with his arm, thought: "Why the devil does this bastard fidget so? Why does he still have so much to look at in the world?"
As soon as they drove into the forest, Cudzinski stopped looking around. Again he sat with his head lowered, looking at his dusty boots. It was cool in the forest, and there was a little shade. No voices or birdsongs could be heard. On both sides of the road black water stood in ditches with green rushes beside them. The horses slowed down and dragged one foot after another, driving the flies away with their tails. Slaboszewski and Michalik lighted cigarettes and treated the driver to one. They rode through the forest in silence, all of them relieved that on such a hot day they had found a little shade and coolness. When the wagon passed a narrow, overgrown byway on their right that led deeper into the woods, Slaboszewski asked:
"Was that Leszczynski somewhere around here?"
Cudzinski said nothing. Slaboszewski repeated the question and looked at him.
"I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?" said Michalik, surprised.
"I don't know."
No one said any more about the dead man. The wagon moved along a straight concrete road lined with young trees that gave no shade. On both sides of the road lay fields of wheat, the product of the state farm. Heat burst from them as from a stove. The village could be seen on the horizon, a scattering of buildings veiled by trees.
Again Slaboszewski skimmed the notes he had made the evening before. Cudzinski was not a farmer, he had no land. He worked at seasonal jobs. He lived in a rented room in the old manor house. He drank—a great deal, apparently. The former village administrator, the head teacher at the school and the priest had known him longer than anyone else, and it was clear from what they had said that they remembered nothing special about him.
The village administrator, a man now seventy years old, had recalled only that someone had said Cudzinski ran a business. Who had said it, he could not be certain. The teacher had said that he had had pupils far worse than Cudzinski: for example, Krys, who was now president of the community cooperative. The priest had nothing against Cudzinski, but the priest never said anything bad about anybody.
But had even one person said anything good about Cudzinski? Not one. Perhaps it was because no one knew him intimately, though he had lived in these parts since he was born. Everyone knew him, so to speak, but nobody really knew him.
The world, Slaboszewski thought, is full of people like Cudzinski. They live, they die, they are carried to the cemetery, and no one remembers them. Slaboszewski put his papers back into his briefcase. He thought it would be best if they sent a car from headquarters; then there would be no need for a journey by train and a stay overnight in the city. This evening he would still be able to take his place under the willow and wait for that big catfish, which already had a couple of other people's hooks in its mouth. The weather, the warm nights, were good for fishing.
He looked out the window and spied Michalik at a distance, riding his bicycle through the center of the empty patch of grass from the direction of the co-op. A second later he could see, much to his satisfaction, that Michalik was carrying four bottles of beer in a string bag hanging from his handlebars. In a minute, he thought, he would be drinking beer. If only it were cold!
Michalik came in and and set the beer on the table. Slaboszewski took a bottle opener from his pocket, pried the cap off and put the bottle to his lips. He drank, panting heavily, and looked at Michalik.
"Good! It's cold," he said, putting down the empty bottle. "Damn, how a fellow needs that wetness!"
"Like a body burned up in the crematorium. It becomes a lump of ash. The rest is water and smoke. You were in the camp. You know."
"Yes. But what's this, you're not drinking? Surely you'll knock back a couple of bottles?"
"No, I'd regret it..."
Michalik wanted to say something more, but just then the telephone rang. Since he was near it, he picked up the receiver.
"For you," he said, handing it to Slaboszewski.
Slaboszewski listened a moment, then said:
"That's right, good, goodbye." He hung up and rubbed his hands.
"What's so good?"
"They're sending a car from headquarters. It will be here in half an hour. I hear you like to ride in a car."
"Yes. Especially when I have to..."
"Well, bring him in! You do the writing."
Slaboszewski was not good at writing; to form one sentence was an uphill piece of business for him. He looked out the window at the grassy common, where a girl in a red dress was herding geese. She whirled and jumped as if she were dancing. The geese waddled lazily along, rolling from one foot to another. Now and then one of them lowered its head, stretched its neck, spread its wings and pounced on an insect.
He thought how long it had been since anything like this had happened in the district to disturb the peace of his patrol. Someone's cow had been reported stolen, but was found in a clump of willows by the river. Two sons of one of the local farmers had come to the village on holiday and gone fishing with a landing net; Slaboszewski caught them at it and confiscated the net. A man had beaten another man up in a bar. The medical officer had cut the victim's hair, dressed a deep abrasion on his head, and said that the ooze had dried on his hair like blood on an injured dog. But that would not become a matter for the patrol until the man who was beaten requested that a warrant be put out for his assailant. It would not happen until after the harvest, for people did not have time for such things now. So Slaboszewski had hoped that nothing would spoil his fishing—and now look!
The door opened and Cudzinski walked into the room. Michalik closed the door behind him.
"Sit here, on this chair," Slaboszewski said.
Michalik bent over to unfasten Cudzinski's handcuffs. Cudzinski watched this action attentively, then raised his head, took off his cap and said:
"Commandant, sir, the patrolman refused me a drink of water."
Cudzinski's face was red and glistening with sweat. His lips were parched and sticky. Slaboszewski looked at him—looked at his bony face and bald head—and thought, as he often thought when he had to deal with such people: "Here is a fellow who may have killed another man. If he killed him, the noose is waiting for him, or a few good years at best. And if he did not, he will come back here, he will haul gravel peacefully and drink vodka in the bar in Ruszcza. But one can't tell by looking at him whether he killed the man, or whether he is innocent. Both kinds, the murderer and the innocent man, have sunken eyes like that. Their faces perspire. They don't know what to do with their hands. They both say the same thing: 'No.'"
"He didn't give you water?" Slaboszewski asked. From his seat at the typewriter farther back in the room, Michalik made desperate signs behind Cudzinski's back, as if to say: "Don't give him a drink or you won't learn a thing."
"He didn't give you water?" Slaboszewski repeated.
"Every man deserves a drink of water, yes or no, Commandant, sir?" Cudzinski said loudly, almost shouting.
"Yes. But there is no water. Anyway it's not healthy to drink water in such heat. You might catch typhoid."
He bent down and took a bottle of beer from under the table. He opened it and gave it to Cudzinski. Michalik made a terrible face and waved as if to say, "Idiot."
He took two sheets of paper out of the drawer, put carbon paper between them and inserted them into the typewriter. Cudzinski drank the beer without moving the bottle from his lips. His protruding Adam's apple moved under his skin and its scraggly growth of black hair. As he drank he looked at Slaboszewski for a long time, then out the window, then at the ceiling. He wiped his mouth meticulously with his sleeve, set the bottle on the floor and buried his gaze in Commandant Slaboszewski's face.
Slaboszewski leafed through his papers and asked after a moment:
"Your name is Cudzinski?"
"Cudzinski. Jozef," the suspect supplied willingly, shifting in his chair.
"July 7th, 1919, in Potok Stary."
"That's near here, by Ruszcza?"
"Your father's name, mother's name, mother's maiden name?"
"Franciszek. Stefania. Stefania Kuclo."
Michalik pecked on the typewriter with two fingers. He finished writing, raised his head and looked at Slaboszewski.
"You are a widower, yes?"
"A son. Franciszek. He's in Szczecin, he works in the shipyard."
Slaboszewski scratched his nose with one finger, thought about something for a moment, and then said:
"You were seen, Cudzinski, on July second of this year, sitting in a public house in Ruszcza in the company of one Jan Leszczynski. What time would that have been?"
Cudzinski frowned, then looked at Slaboszewski.
A big black fly was buzzing on the window; the honking of the geese could be heard from the green. Michalik strained to hear what Cudzinski would say. It was shameless, the question that was being put to this yokel. Sometimes Slaboszewski came up with wonderful gambits. July second had been a Tuesday, the very day of the fair in Ruszcza, and, as usual on such days, the bar had been full of people. No one could recall for certain if they had seen Cudzinski, neither the manager nor the waitresses nor the barmaid. They said that he had certainly been there, because he was there almost every day. On the other hand, it was a stranger who had attracted their attention that Tuesday—a man who drank first at a table and then bought drinks at the buffet for anyone who would raise a glass with him. This stranger was that very Leszczynski; they recognized him from a photograph.
"I don't remember," Cudzinski answered.
"Was it before noon or after?"
"Since you know, Commandant, sir, why are you asking?" said Cudzinski, licking his lips.
"Some say one thing, some another. I don't know what to write in the report, so I'm asking."
"I was in the bar around five in the afternoon. I dropped in for beer. But I don't see the point. I don't know any Leszczynski."
Slaboszewski thought, "You're not clever. If that catfish of mine from under the willow were as stupid as you, I'd have had him long ago." He turned over two pages of notes. There before him lay Leszczynski's identification papers and a big, glossy photograph taken by the police reporter. In the picture Leszczynski was lying on the ground with blades of grass, pinecones and branches around him; even individual pine needles were articulated in the striking clarity of the photograph.
The man on the ground had white, wide-open eyes. His mouth was open, his teeth were bared, and he had almost no lips, as if someone had cut them out with scissors. His jacket and vest were unbuttoned; he was wearing a flimsy tie, and his shirt was still inside his belt. One foot had no shoe, but the shoe lay beside it with the sole upward. Between his pants leg and his sock a patch of white, hairy calf was exposed.
According to the medical examiner's first verdict, his death could have resulted from suffocation, but other causes were not ruled out: heart failure, for example. Further, more detailed examinations would have been necessary in order to settle the question. Slaboszewski turned the picture over and reviewed the notations about Leszczynski. Since the war he had lived in Bialystok; he worked in a furniture factory. After many years he had come here, probably to visit some distant relatives who lived on the other side of the river.
Slaboszewski thought it was a good thing that he had not allowed the game warden to spread the news about the discovery of the corpse. Only he and the game warden and a couple of officers from headquarters had driven in the patrol car to the place where it had been found. Ruszcza was in Poland, it was true, not in the middle of the Sahara, but perhaps the word had not leaked out. During the week before harvest, people have other things on their minds. Without raising his eyes from the papers he said:
"Citizen Jan Leszczynski, residing at Number Eighteen Czestochowska Street, Apartment Seven, Bialystok, charges that you, Cudzinski, on July second of this year made an attempt on his life for the purpose of appropriating to yourself his wallet with documents and cash in the amount of one thousand seven hundred and twenty zlotys. What do you say to this?"
For a moment Slaboszewski did not raise his eyes. When he did, he saw that Cudzinski had a very stupid expression on his face.
"Is that Leszczynski alive?" Cudzinski asked.
"As he accuses you, it would appear that he is," Slaboszewski answered cryptically. There was silence, then Slaboszewski repeated:
"Well, what do you say?"
"I?" Cudzinski asked, pointing to himself.
Cudzinski rested his hands on his knees and looked at the window. The black fly was still bumping against the pane. Slaboszewski turned his head toward the window as well. He heard Cudzinski's voice:
"It's not true."
"What's not true?"
"I didn't steal any wallet from him. Obviously he lost it..."
Behind Cudzinski's back Michalik waved a hand and grimaced as if to say: "Well, Cudzinski, you're done for."
For a moment all was quiet. Slaboszewski folded his notes and put them into the drawer. He locked the drawer and asked in an altered tone, quiet and gentle:
"Tell me, Cudzinski, maybe you quarreled about something with that Leszczynski?"
"With what Leszczynski?"
"Well, with the man you were drinking with?"
Cudzinski answered without delay, but with a note of hesitancy:
"About what? Not at all. What would we have been quarreling about?"
"Wasn't there—wasn't there any row between you?" Slaboszewski asked in a voice that was now loud and insinuating.
"Not at all."
Cudzinski shifted in his chair again and made a face like one who feels a little offended. Michalik beat away on the typewriter. Slaboszewski did not want to know any more. He was even a little sorry for this foolish fellow who had so little ability to defend himself. He thought: "From here on, let the people at headquarters bother themselves with you. The devil knows what may still come out when you begin to speak up, or when other tongues start to wag. There they have everything, they will conduct examinations, take fingerprints, analyze the evidence. You will sit in jail and you will wise up, you will learn a few things. The report will have to be shortened. After all, I cannot put those leading questions of mine into the protocol. And there will still be a load of work relating to this matter. This is only the beginning."
He said: "Well, enough for now. Michalik, you may take Citizen Cudzinski out."
Slaboszewski looked once again at Cudzinski. It seemed to him that his face was calm, that he even wore a look of something like satisfaction. Michalik put the handcuffs on him and led him out to the lockup, a small room with one barred window on the other side of the corridor. When Michalik returned, he found Slaboszewski reading what he had typed and crossing things out. He said:
"Well, look here, the bastard did that Leszczynski in just for a couple of zlotys, because he didn't even find the wallet. It must have dropped into the straw as they scuffled."
"He killed him or he didn't kill him. It's a toss-up," Slaboszewski said.
"It's clear to me that he killed him. Only, you know, I can't understand him. And in general, I can't understand people who kill."
"That, my brother, even a philosopher cannot understand, because there are no clues on the surface. I think that a man who kills is like other people, only empty in the center, like a gutted fish."
"And what is he supposed to have in his center?"
"Do I know what is supposed to be inside a man, in the center? Perhaps a soul..."
Michalik wanted to say, "It's nonsense about the soul, the shit's in the center and that's it." But it was not fitting to speak that way to an older man, a man of thirty, anyway, who had been in a German concentration camp, and in another year was going to retire from the militia. He said:
"He'll get the rope, won't he?"
"They'll have to make a case against him."
"They'll make it."
Slaboszewski thought: "If he killed the man in order to rob him, he'll get the noose. But if he killed him for no reason, then, to my way of thinking, he is sick in his mind. If he is sick, he is innocent, the sickness is guilty. Only the Germans shot the mentally ill. And perhaps he didn't kill him after all. God only knows!"
He said: "I wouldn't be so sure."
He was standing at the window then, looking out over the forest, which was misty at the horizon. It seemed to him that he heard the hum of an automobile from that direction, far off and still very low. He was glad that very soon he would be rid of this Cudzinski; he would have him out of the station and off his hands.
Michalik opened the cabinet and rifled through it for a tie. He finally found one and knotted it, looking in the mirror. He was enjoying the prospect of a ride to the city; perhaps he would have a chance to stroll through the shops and take a look at the automotive store. He said:
"They will hang him, he will writhe like those fish of yours—and that will be the end of it."
"Some people are like those fish: there is life in them, but the soul is not there. The car is coming," said Slaboszewski.