A deep silence settled in the loft, spreading out to fill the corners. And within the darkness stood a man, his body rigid and erect, his gaze turned towards the city. It was the silence of stagnation, bearing down upon the air; the silence of pain, of truth, of realisation, twisting his form with its whispers. Calling forth a name without a voice, as the lights were enveloped in the gloom. He tilted his head upwards past the buildings, to the starless sky above. That endless sea of black rolling clouds, shifting slowly over each other. And he sighed in the silence. A soft imperceptible sigh, barely breaking through his lips, until this too was lost in the darkness. Only the city persisted, a faint sheen of gold tinting the edges of the clouds. There was no warmth in its colour, no life, just the dim hope of continuation, breathing out its ragged breaths against the night. And he stood on in solitude as the lights slowly faded, shrouded in the silence of a man waiting to die.
They had fought again tonight, as they had the week before, and the week before that. Another inconsequential chain of banalities leading to a row. Kaja had gone to bed early to calm her spirits, a common occurrence on such nights. Come morning, he was sure they would don their false smiles and exchange forced kisses, pretending that nothing had happened. He filled a glass of water from the tap, listening to the trickle echo in the sink. They had only been together for a year, Kaja having moved in just two months ago, but they were already growing tired of each other. She devoted the majority of her time to translating Polish verse, whereas he consulted multinational corporations on their investment portfolios. Initially, they had found this career-divide to be gratifying, giving them each the opportunity to dissociate from work on their downtime, but the novelty quickly wore off. Mutual appreciation, or at least, genuine conversation, had long since abraded, and any individual success was now met with a frosty commendation and badly masked envy. No. Not envy, rather, a longing for failure. A desperate desire to bring the other down, to prove that they were not favoured by the cosmos. He gulped the water down, feeling it soothe his raspy throat. They had devolved to shouting again, neither willing to back down against the other as the argument developed. He wasn’t even sure how it had started.
He had not always dreamed of doing what he did. It paid the bills, to be sure, but the reason he remained was the lack of any other driving passion. The inability to motivate himself to find some better alternative. Kaja, on the other hand, was truly consumed by her work, finding great fulfillment in the cultural exchange she believed she was facilitating. She would oft tell him as much when they sat for dinner in the evenings, but her spark and excitement was rarely met with more than a glum nod.
In truth, he feared her passion. He feared the glint which alighted in her eyes, and the way her hands would jump and twirl to reinforce her emphatic barrages. He feared he would never attain this, and he feared it was too late. Most of all he feared that she knew. That she, and everyone else, was aware he was a drifter, a failure, lost… He placed the empty glass on the table.
She had always inquired about his work when they first started dating, hoping to draw out some snippet of interest. But her efforts only made matters worse. The sheer difference in their attitudes was so apparent that she quickly stopped trying, leading to a further deterioration in his self-confidence. By now he had built himself into a cell, a small secluded chamber which echoed with her hallowed sermons, and his hollow preaching. He took her monopoly of their conversations as a sign of recognition. A declaration that she too believed his life was no longer worth discussing.
He lay back against the couch. Being in New York didn’t help much either. A haven of anonymity, and a hell for all those who fear to be alone. Row upon row of bright yellow lights visible right outside his window, hiding lives which were far happier than his. In the beginning, he had at least looked forward to leaving the office. To taking the train back to Brooklyn every evening, walking through the red-brick streets with the gloam. He had looked forward to those evenings, to the weekends spent roaming the parks with Kaja on his arm, happily chattering away without a care in the world.
Now it was all the same. The office was a chore, and so was his home, arriving to each and instantly wishing he could leave. Only the metro retained some semblance of respite, that formless shuffle of people running and sitting and talking and shouting. And as he left the metro, briefcase firmly in hand, the sky would weep tears of red above, slowly seeping down into the city, and turning on the lights. For a few seconds he would stand there, frozen in awe at the sight, until some faceless stranger would bump into him from behind, muttering angrily as he jostled away.
He tapped the tabletop with the tips of his fingers, barely eliciting a sound. He could hear her sleeping in the room next door, her soft breaths rising and falling in tune with the clock, exhaling on every second ‘tock’. The door to the bedroom was left ajar, but he already knew how she was sleeping. Curled up in a ball on the right side of the bed, facing the wall. She would have split the bedding, taking the sheets for herself and leaving the blanket to him, a clear statement of her desire to sleep alone.
He couldn’t stand it when she did this, shutting him out and forbidding him from atoning. Sometimes he wished she would shout. He wished she would lose her temper and blame him unfairly, turning his guilt to anger, and forcing the pain of reconciliation on herself. But she did not. Once a threshold that she determined adequate was crossed, Kaja would bottle up and avoid further discussion. In her mind, arguments were not resolved but forgotten, and isolation was the best way to expedite the process.
He lifted his feet on the coffee-table and felt them knock by a book. One of Kaja’s, he thought, and lifted it to read the cover. ‘A Compendium of Polish Verse’, a huge hardback with dozens of colourful post-its sticking out of the top. Beside it lay the Polish-to-English Oxford dictionary, and a mound of scrap paper filled with scribbles and quotes. He leafed through the compendium, finding the Latin script disconcertingly incomprehensible, complete with its accents, dashes and abundance of consonants.
All the pages were in pristine condition, appearing untouched, expect one, whose title was underlined twice, both times deeply and in black. It read: ‘Ruiny Zamku W Bałakławie,’ and in the margins she had penned, ‘jeszcze nie.’ He traced the faint words with his finger. What did it mean? He flicked through the book again but they didn’t appear anywhere else. His curiosity piqued, he opened the dictionary and started searching. ‘Yet…not… Not yet.’ he muttered, the words sounding peculiar in his mouth. Did she just mean she had to finish the other pieces before translating this? But then why go to the bother of writing it? No, he decided. It was not a matter of practicality. She must have meant she was not ready… But why? Although he didn’t speak any Polish, the form and structure of the poem seemed fairly similar to the rest of the compilation, and she had often expressed a particular affinity towards the poet, Adam Mickiewicz.
He shivered inadvertently. They were only two words, hastily scribbled on a piece of paper, but right now it felt as though he was reading her most intimate confessions.. Worries and ideas that had troubled her and her alone, going as far as to require explicit warning. He needed to know what the poem said.
For just a moment, he felt a fire welling up inside of him, slowly rising from his stomach to his lungs. His eyes grew sharper, and his hearing more acute, picking up the faint hum of the central heating. He placed the book back on the table, still open on the very same page. He could not think clearly. Or rather, he would not think. There no reason to confer with himself. Suddenly the world was clear, its most eminent truths splayed open before him, right there, in those four Polish stanzas. And then the wave receded, drawing him shaken back to the loft. He rubbed his head to clear it from the momentary visions and turned back to the poem, undeterred.
The first readthrough was the most tiring, each word taking him nearly a minute to locate in the dictionary and transcribe. By the time he was finished, the city was much darker than it had been before. He stood to refill his glass, dabbing the sheen of sweat from his brow. Silence still reigned in the loft, but right beneath it, lay a small, almost imperceptible, buzz. And as the lights grew fainter and sparser in the sky, the throbbing silence strengthened.
He turned back to the poem, leaving the untouched glass on the ground. The text was incomprehensible, disjointed words and phrases with barely any form.
He read it a second time, and then a third, to no avail. Nothing stirred within him. The voice was there, hidden beneath the verbal clutter, but it was still too faint for him to discern. ‘Words are replaceable.’ That was one of Kaja’s favourite quips whenever she was stuck on a translation, but he wasn’t really sure what to make of it. He had ventured into the translation in the hopes of understanding, and what form of enlightenment could he attain, if he was the one to guide the meaning of the poem? He twirled the pen between his fingers, hesitant in taking the first step. Finally, with a frustrated huff, he circled ‘Oh ungrateful Crimea!’ Exclamations are the basis of all narratives, he decided, placing the phrase at the top of a clean sheet of paper.
Tapping his left fingers on the desk, he rearranged the rest of the phrases in the stanza, substituting words here and there to smooth out the meaning.
Oh, ungrateful Crimea! You,
Who have led noble castles to ruin
Strewing their remnants across the dirt
Housed only by rats, lizards and rotting men.
He bit the edge of his thumb, thinking. This was what had drawn him to Kaja when they had first met. Her ability to assert her presence without a care for her surroundings. The way in which she would swiftly take command of any conversation, and veer it towards her interests and occupation. Initially, he had taken solace in her oblivious attitude towards reality. In the indifference she displayed towards shocked interlocutors, who couldn’t quite decide if she was praising or condemning them. Despite the force of her character, in those first months that they were dating, he could let go of any pretense. He knew that she could read right through him, that if she ever grew tired or bored, he would be the first to find out. It gave him a sort of safety net. The knowledge that, regardless of how he acted, of how much artificial effort he would try to suffuse into his actions, Kaja would always see the truth. She knew they were different, and the fact that she still went out with him was a confirmation that she did not care.
But as time progressed, the appeal of her eccentricities faded. Bold assertions grew more tiring than impressive, and for the first time, he could just barely see small rays of insecurity, seeping out through her convictions. What had previously struck him as the epitome of authenticity, had now started to stink of falsehood. And as it often happens when one is disillusioned with absolutes, every interaction they had seemed to further undermine her in his eyes.
Perhaps inevitably, this shift in attitude was hard to hide, and Kaja eventually became aware of his increasing estrangement. Unwilling to accept that some of the faults may be her own, she took the distance only as a testament to his dwindling love, withdrawing into herself in response. Rather than discussing this deterioration, they chose instead to minimise their contact, replacing evening discussions with curt daily reports, and treating shared dinners like necessary chores. Weekends were now a time of torment, placing great pressure on both to find a sufficiently plausible excuse. Kaja would claim to be swamped with work, so as to avoid any morning ventures, whereas he would force himself into multiple social obligations every evening, thus attaining a few hours of solitude and reprieve. Come Monday, they would each be exhausted by their ventures, falling back on their weekly schedules with a sigh of relief.
He drained the glass of water and stood to grab a bottle of beer. ‘Oh ungrateful Crimea,’ he muttered, and then spoke the words out again louder, grimacing at the sound of his voice in the silence. How hollow it felt. He hadn’t always sounded like this. He can’t have, he thought, but this did nothing to still his doubts. What if he just hadn’t realised? If he had been incapable of understanding it? He parted his hair with his fingers, trying to clear his mind. Why could he hear the hollowness now? What had changed?
Nothing. Nothing had changed.
He traced the pen further down the poem, adding the next four lines.
Old crests are carved onto their stones
Faintly crying out for the feats of forgotten heroes
For the terrible wars, waged upon their lands
Hidden now, beneath the crawling vines.
He was being too harsh on himself. The hollowness was just a facade. There was more depth to his voice. There must be. Why else would Kaja choose to be with him in the first place? Sometimes only the vines are visible, he decided, trying to console himself. But the truth was, the vines he masked himself with held no hidden feats. He had taken her for granted, all these months as she supported him. As she did her best to please him. He felt a sharp shard of guilt piercing his chest. It was the gestures that came to him. The fact that she would always cook dinner when he came home late. She compensate for his overtime by going out early for the groceries, and making sure to prepare his favourite food. Instead of spending the time to relax, to visit a friend or just order takeaway, she would devise complex and time-consuming recipes, thus demonstrating her devotion.
But, rather than appreciate the symbolism he would treat her care as a personal affront. Climbing the stairs to the loft every evening, he would find himself wishing that tonight she hadn’t cooked. That somehow, miraculously, she would have forgotten, having instead spent her time watching TV, or talking on the phone. This way he could walk past silently, giving her a smile of condescension as if to say, ‘It’s alright. You sit and rest there, and I’ll provide for us.’
Some evenings, he would not even deign to thank her, dumping his bag on the floor and starting to eat before she even had time to greet him. When the table was laden with dishes, he would claim to have eaten already, and when the food was too light, he’d say he was hungry. The steaks were bland, and the salads overtly salted, and nothing was ever cooked just right. He was not conscious of what he was doing, of how much he would upset her. He only realised afterwards, instantly regretting his actions, and spending the rest of the night trying to atone. But by then it would usually be too late, the day would already be ruined.
It was not envy that led him down this path, nor regret that he could not display as much effort or care. Jealousy he could have justified - after all, its foundations could very well lie in love. No. His complaints all stemmed from fear. An irreconcilable fear that one day, when an argument ensued, Kaja would turn to him and say ‘How dare you criticise me? I sit here and cook for you after a whole day of writing, and you can’t even thank me in return.’ Those words haunted him, especially since she had not yet said them aloud. Choosing to hold on to them as her anger boiled past the brim, knowing they would cause more damage this way.
He turned the ink-stained page over, and wrote out a clean copy of the poem. The words were starting to take a concrete form.
Here, the Greeks bestowed their wrought ornamentations
He paused for a minute, and then decided to repeat the structure.
Here did the mighty Italians the Mongols enslave
And here did the travellers from Mecca station
To beg and pray and sing their holy sermons.
The people were irrelevant. It was the repetition that mattered. Each ‘here’ gaining even more force. The place was the same. It has always been the same, but it gained value from its history. It was its history. And as the times changed, and the rocks crumbled to dust, and the graves of the dead soldiers were forgotten, the land would still remember their lives. He thought of the wind still howling over the abandoned plains, and all the castles and towers which had shaped its course. Its voice came from people whose tales it carried. The words ‘wrought ornamentations’ were now extended to include the works the Greeks had bestowed there, in Balaklava.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had been happy. The last time he had risen from his bed excited to face the day before him. Or even the last time he had laid his head to rest, content with what he had achieved. He drank a swig of beer.
Sometimes, in the first waking moments of the morning, before he had fully regained his senses, he would feel free. His old voice would break through the mire that consumed his mind, and genuine thoughts would finally start flowing. He would feel alive. The light seeping through the blinds was a blessing, and the early sirens of the city a rousing call, forcing him to action. But then he would awake. Truly awake, and feel his leaden legs beneath the sweaty blankets. Feel his lids sting against the shining sun and the first thoughts of failure swirl into his sluggish mind. He would awake with a sigh, mapping out the daily schedule. Useless chores and preoccupations, designed to pass the time and leave him spent and broken, to climb back into the same sweaty bed, and succumb to the peace of slumber.
He had not lost his purpose. It was much worse than that. He had finally realised that he had never found one. That his voice was condemned to fade away into eternity, without leaving a single dent in that ever-howling wind. Condemned to spend his life alongside people with convictions, dreams and aspirations, whose strength gave them the capacity to succeed. People like her. People like Kaja. He felt a tear roll down his cheek, and wiped it away in surprise. How had this happened? How had he let his life reach this stage? He stretched back into the couch, smoothing his hair back with both hands.
Streaks of purple were breaking through the sky, casting thin rays across the loft. He followed the light in surprise. The clock on the wall read five. Kaja would be waking up soon. He stood from the couch, his joints aching in protest. Only four lines remained, but he didn’t have the energy to write them. Instead, he walked to the bedroom door, and stood by the crack. The light hadn’t crept inside, her sleeping body a barely discernible mass. She must have turned during the night, because now he could swear she was facing him. He slowly shut the door, unnerved by her resting face. Her eyes were closed in the darkness, but he could still feel their gaze piercing through his. He shivered again, although this time partly from exhaustion. There was no point in resting now. He might as well wait for her to rise.
Putting a pot of coffee on to boil, he sat back on the couch, and started playing with the final stanza.
Now, only the vultures remain
Circling the fading tombstones
He wrote, crossing it out and then rewriting it again just underneath.
Now, only the vultures remain
Circling the fading tombstones
Above these lands, plagued by the toils of time
Condemned to wave their flag of mourning for eternity.
He sat there for the better part of an hour, hunched over his knees, still gripping the uncapped pen in his fist, as the purple dawn slowly turned to navy, and then to light blue, seeping through the room. A siren rang outside - an ambulance - and he smiled in response. The first sign that the city was truly rising. As the wail faded in the distance he heard Kaja shift in the bedroom, letting out a rousing yawn.
Without a second thought, he turned the poem over, and putting pen to paper wrote:
A god once stood upon the hill and said
‘Do not mistake it for the truth’
But his words were soon forgotten
Fading in the mists of barren lands.
Many years had passed since that day
And the empty valley grew into a city
Ravaging the people in its grasp
Until a lone man, ragged and dishevelled
Stood upon the hill and said
‘Our life is our own
And no god can command it’
And the people took it for the truth
Condemned for eternity
To lives of splendour and joy.
A deep silence settled in the loft, spreading out to fill the corners. And within the dawning light stood a man, his body rigid and erect, his gaze turned towards the city. It was the silence of daybreak, stirring the skies in its grasp; the silence of unformed clouds, extending wispy tendrils to the sun. The silence of pain, of truth, of realisation, twisting his form with its whispers. Calling forth a man searching for his voice, as the city turned itself to motion. He tilted his head upwards past the buildings, to the clear sky above. That endless sea of turquoise, whose impermanence is its only imperfection. And he sighed in the silence. A soft imperceptible sigh, barely breaking through his lips, until this too was blinded by the sun. Only the city persisted, a faint sheen of gold tinting the edges of the clouds. There was no warmth in its colour, no life, just the dim hope of continuation, breathing out its ragged breaths against the light. And he stood on in solitude, watching the dark shadow looming ever-larger from his feet, shrouded in the silence.