The Sweet Flag

By Marian Pankowski
Translation by Beatrice Smigasiewicz

After St. John’s Eve, the summer is flat and white over the land of Matuga and there is no air left to breathe. Only women venturing out after the morning laud to pick mushrooms witness the dew before the parch resumes with the sunrise. Columns of burnt air hover over the pastures where instead of stout, succulent grass made jubilant by white clover, the shoe kicks up sand time and again, startling a gawking mouse.

It was on a day like this in August, not at the beginning but rather towards the middle of the month, that Vladi Matuga moved along the wooded hillside as quick as he could. He walked from the thinning forest that stood like green clay under the copper discus of a sun.

Instead of the sun-washed path he turned towards the gorge. It was lower and cooler, though even there the sap stuck to the hands. The thyme that covered the path huddled as if trampled down by someone heavily shoed. A somnolence pervaded, but at the bottom of this humid pasture a dark mane of grass signaled a deep-laying stream.

An oriole sparked in the hemlock and as he walked, the trees grew smaller until they disappeared and Matuga suddenly found himself in a dry meadow infused with the heated aroma of the juniper trees. Past them, where the trees abandoned their guard of the woodland kingdom, stood barley in a copper berm and, behind it, an open field where idle cows signaled a change of landscape, of thought and breath.

With his gaze fixed ahead, Matuga walked straight on and it’s only by a miracle that he didn’t fall into a ditch, but only startled a crouching girl who sprung up, then froze as if to let him see the blood rush to her face more and more amply. She faced him in the sun, squinting her tiny eyes like a pair of still-budding violets as her long lips swam across her flat face towards a still distant smile, but stopped halfway to collect into a ring so thick it was tumescent.

He assumed she had been sitting, but when she jumped out of the ditch and without looking back ran in the direction of the cows, he noticed a wet mark in the sand. He looked around to see if anyone might see him then dove in. The ditch was no larger than two wain of a peasant’s wagon, but deeper. In the spring, the thaw, and in summer, torrential rain drained there from the field, but it was dry now. Two identical conjoined juniper trees even threw an ounce of shade – enough to feel the edges on your back.

He sat down and undid the shirt buttons across his chest. The navy-blue canvas shorts burned his thighs. Dull granular pieces of sand rolled under his big toe in the right sandal. The sky over the woods, without a single cloud, without a single lark, nearly turned gray from being so blue, while his heartbeat picked up to a race. For a time, pretending he didn’t understand why, he tried counting the tops of the juniper trees in the distance, but the pounding of his blood had already transformed him into a chiming bell and finally, he looked. The spot was still marked in the sand, and next to it, a deep impression of her footprint.

From those three things he constructed an image of a body more glorious than anything you could verify with the touch of a hand. Still, the memory of the girl’s thick lips burned through everything. He rose and again, looked carefully out at the pasture, the cows grazed by the alder forest, but the girl was not in sight and without thinking, he hiked his pant leg up to his groin and doused the spot.

When he went inside the church the next day, he noticed that the cool air seemed to live there, tucked away from the dog days of the summer. The priest murmured in a gray Latin, dragging out the mass and gilding only the ends of his sentences for the benefit of the sheered-to-the-skin altar boys.

Matuga leaned his head against the cool oak bench to settle his thoughts, but it was useless. The litany of the blessed virgin stretched out into infinity, and from behind the holy words, from behind the ivory and the protective walls, a face appeared and again and again rushed towards him with her thick parted lips. Nothing but the face, coming at him from all directions, ripping though the drapes of holy words that he tried to hang up around him until the church’s final doxology and the shuffling of shoes which he welcomed with relief.

He left the house barely finishing his meal. The first town folk were already approaching: women covered with the blooms of parasols, men with naked heads at which a handkerchief tied at the corners replaced the black hats they now toted in the left hand. They walked into the woods, they walked into a shade fragrant with the invisible boletus mushrooms, leaving their pens at the edge of the inkwell and lowering the shades in the dry goods store. Tomorrow the ranger will walk along the clearing, kick a ball of silver along Piasecki’s milk-white sign, and a rabbit will hop towards the acre of cabbage, passing by an oily sign for EXPRESS. And again for the next six days town folk will go back to selling socks and shirts, go back to shop drudgery and their order forms, and to the contorted cigarette butts at the bottom of the ashtray as the woods will regain their even rustle and the streams will rush in the direction of the valleys, un-muddled.

He slammed the gate and ran down the bank. The wheat buzzed with hornets. If he’d raised his head he would have seen the first cloud, perhaps, scouting the way for tomorrow’s oncoming storm. He searched the ground, looking for the nonexistent footprints that could lead him back to the spot, but the paths all lead elsewhere. One led in the direction of the potato fields separated from the woods by a strip of oats, and the other to the pine grove. He headed for the gorge, on purpose losing the path to the low pines. He paid no attention to the grains, but walked across through the thinning barley, and only then, reflected in the sandy fields, the summer hit hard against him in ascending torrents as he felt the awakened blood rush through him, racing though the frontiers of the body until it ran itself into a knot so hard it hurt. Just a few more junipers and he would stand facing the ditch.

The bottom of the ditch was strewn with sweet flag just like during Semik— to cool it. At the edge of the shade the girl lay with her back turned. The white tips of the sweet flag lined the bottom of the ditch. He stood hot in the sun. The sweet flag steamed and dried so quickly the fibers cracked, curling up as if burnt. He squatted and quietly slid into the ditch.

Awakened by the rustle of the trampled stems she rose to her feet, wanted to jump out, but stopped and only tucked her shirt into her skirt. She stood flushed from sleep and the summer heat. All the greenery of the earth was next to her, the aroma of the marshy dampness centered around her body as she stood there, more sunken, more bold. He wanted to get up but she wouldn’t let him. She grabbed him by the shoulders and straddling him, as he lay breathing in her dampness, she smacked him about the face and head with her sun-cracked lips, blinding him with the dull blows of her tightly coiled lips. Her breathing silenced the awareness of his being Matuga that with each of her blows lit the red junipers that ran though the abyss of his blood with a cry. Her dampening lips, not lips, but two ropes, taut like cords slid over his face in a wet ring. Her head without eyes rose and fell, lower and lower—until it suddenly slid down and drowned his eyes and lips before looping a few unfurled, flowing lips around his neck.

Then, she fell on the sweet flag alone as the valley spread out wide and hit against the walls of the mountain with more and more balmy rings.
Marian Pankowski (1919-2011) was a Polish fiction writer, poet and dramatist who wrote in French and Polish. He’s regarded as one of the most innovative Polish prose writers for his use of language, but even more so for his approach towards morality and open depiction of sexuality. He spent most of his life in Belgium. This piece is taken from his book, Matuga idzie [Here Comes Matuga].
Beatrice Smigasiewicz is a writer and translator living in Iowa City.