A Lesson in Courage

June 30, 2017

 

Hunting, somewhere at the foot of the Bieszczady Mountains on the Polish-Ukrainian border, the mid-1980s. I’m seven years old.

I’m sitting with my father and our dog on a look-out platform at the edge of the forest. We’ve just climbed up the ladder; Diana, our foxhound, reached the top first. Dad leans his rifle against the look-out’s front railing. He calls his rifle a “weapon” (even though he has never used it to defend anyone) and starts cleaning the lenses of his binoculars. Dusk is slowly falling. The oppressive heat of early August is subsiding but the look-out platform’s wooden planks are generously giving back the warmth they’ve soaked in throughout the day. There’s a meadow in front of us, and beyond it stretch fields of rapeseed, corn and wheat. We’re ready to wait in silence for a long time.

Diana dozes off; her ears twitch from time to time, and sometimes she licks herself lazily. She’s probably thirsty after running across the fields to the look-out platform, but despite this she seems content.

It’s obvious my father’s happy, too. He knows the Subcarpathian region is full of wild game, so the chances of killing something are high. If everything goes well and his shot hits its mark, he’ll be joyous. He’ll grow a few centimetres and will become proud, strong and happy.

As for me, I’m intoxicated by the intense fragrances of the meadows. Everything has a wonderful smell: the grass, the flowers, the dry pine needles scattered everywhere, the homemade raspberry syrup in the tea my mother gave us for our journey, and the air Diana’s exhaling. Ants are making pilgrimages in long columns along the platform’s wooden planks. The leaves of the nearby birch trees are shimmering, despite the lack of wind.

Dad’s hand slowly starts to move towards the rifle, which is loaded and cocked. It’s waiting. There are thick, heavy bullets in its two barrels. With a gentleness that doesn’t suit the situation, my dad rests the gun’s barrel on the look-out’s railing and places his cheek against the butt. His facial features become sharper and he squints as he focuses his gaze. He slowly places his finger on the trigger. The tip of the barrel slightly, almost invisibly, moves to the left, right, up and down. Suddenly it stops moving.

Alarmed by these movements, I finally notice a whole herd of does. They’re still oblivious to what awaits them. They don’t yet feel any fear. They move their heads around slowly, sometimes nibbling at something.

My dad pulls the trigger and there’s a domino effect. In a single second the world changes forever. First, there’s the death of silence. Immediately afterwards, the hooves of one doe collapse. Just like a house of cards. The other does bolt away in panic.

Dad fires questions and commands at me:

“What do you think, right in the aorta?”

“Let’s go.”

“Come, Diana. Diana, blood!”

“A beautiful young doe.”

“I told you to hold it! Pull the leg towards you, or the guts will spill out.”

“Take some grass and wipe the blood off the knife.”

We go to the car and place the doe’s still-warm body in the trunk (there was always rotting blood in the trunk from previous transports of game – our car reeked of this odour throughout my entire childhood, regardless of whether we were going to church, to grandmother’s house for dinner or to visit someone at the hospital; I remember blood and gunpowder both smelling sweet).

While riding in the car together, my dad begins the next part of the ritual and says, “You’re going to be a great hunter. I’ll show you everything, I’ll teach you. I’ll buy myself a new gun and give you this one, which practically shoots by itself. You’ve already got a knife. Don’t worry about the exam, just let Włodek try to fail my son!” Then he nudges me to lift my spirits because I’m not looking very courageous.

 

Ojciec i syn

 

During my childhood, we also shot at stags, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, hares, beavers, foxes, wolves, ducks, pheasants, and sometimes “wild” dogs. We went hunting in the rain, too, and all night long when the moon was full, and in boats on ponds and in sledges on cold winter days. The beauty of the surroundings always contrasted starkly with our mission and disappeared as soon as my father fired a well-aimed shot. Hundreds of animals died on group hunting trips, during which I had to scare the game out of bushes by beating a stick. After the shooting, all the carcasses were put on display – someone “decorated” them with branches torn off a tree, carefully wedging them under the dead animals’ lips or stuffing them in their ears. This was accompanied by numerous congratulations. I distinctly recall the grunting sounds that came out of my father’s companions’ throats as they poured full glasses of vodka into them. They grunted and declared: “Oh, how beautifully they fell today!”

When my father set up a butcher shop, I started working there automatically. I was eleven years old then. I watched cows being shot in the temple with a special industrial gun (which was rusty and often malfunctioned). The pigs’ heads were gripped by the butchers with pincers that had an electrical current flowing through them – this way, the throats of the stunned hogs could be slit and their blood shed while they were still alive.

I’d become well-trained in killing animals before I finished primary school. Since my early childhood my father had forced me into the traditional role of a male who kills – he couldn’t see that a son with a completely different sensitivity was growing up right in front of him. Or did he, perhaps, do this precisely because he noticed this sensitivity, because he didn’t understand it, because he was afraid of it and wanted to forcefully “straighten” me?

I’d like to tell him: “Dad, there was no reflection in your love. But I don’t hold any grudges towards you about old times. It’s all in the past. What’s happening today is all that matters. I’ve been telling you about my partner for almost three years, but you’ve never asked me any questions about him. I’ve never felt that you sincerely want to hear about him, about us. Once again you’re pretending I’m different than I really am. I’ll wait, I’ll wait patiently, but please don’t delay this gesture much longer. This is how, today, you can make amends for your old mistakes.”

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