Nightfall in Elblag

They were three archangels.
None of them knew.
They never had an idea this had happened.
It was impossible for them to know.

The first archangel arrived in a small wooden boat. He was Ärkeängler Mikü. A steady wind, that people of the north experience as pleasant, had made the passage easy for them. Ärkeängler Mikü was travelling with his father. The father was ninety-one years old. He was dressed in a loin cloth, nothing else. “When I was young,” he would shout against the wind, “we ran around naked in Winter.” He would also shout to his son the archangel, that he was a lousy chess player, and always had been one. Mikü’s face had become dark with thoughts. All day they had played chess, while his father told him stories of the great past of his country, when thousands of young vikings sailed the Baltic, wearing nothing but a loin cloth and a sword, and sometimes even less. “They erected houses everywhere,” he shouted, and tried to stand up to point his finger to the horizon. “Not!” Mikü said and grabbed his hand. “They burnt those houses down again, if they had to. They were brave young man.” And so on, while pawns fell, bishops advanced and kings stood firm.

They saw a man on the coast. He stood on top of a house and he was waving with something. Makü dragged the boat on the beach, and helped his father. The man on the roof held a stockfish in his hand. “There is nothing else to eat these days,” he said. The father looked at the house. It was made of different pieces of wood, without a clear plan. “You won’t have any house left after the next storm.” The man said that he wouldn’t wait so long. As soon as it was safe to travel again, he would go west. He had heard stories of a new world. Makü looked for a place to climb the dunes. His father walked to the hut and told the man to come down. A couple of minutes later the two of them were playing chess. They never saw the archangel follow a path, that went to the other side of the dunes.

The second archangel arrived from the east. Someone had told him, there were mountains. Archanioł Mila looked at the sea and the grey waves. He turned around and looked at the land. Black smoke hung over a small village at the far end of the horizon. “Not a good day for travelling,” his father said. Mila sat down and rolled a cigarette. He lighted it and watched the sea again. He had carried his father on his back for four days now.

On the fifth day Mila stopped within a stone’s throw of a big house. “That’s an inn, let’s go there.” “It’s not an inn.” Mila didn’t look up and continued rolling his cigarette.

On the sixth day they met a young man. He was on his way to Braunsberg, a market town on the river further south-east. “We are going in the same direction, ” the father said. He overheard his son saying, that they were not. The young man, who had merely grown out of his years as a boy, accepted the offer with enthusiasm. He shared a piece of sausage with them and offered a cup of beer. His stories were manifold and hardly told unto the end. When he spoke about the bell of the big church in Braunsberg, that he would help to repair, because his father-in-law had a pain in his back, the archangel was about to disappear behind a bend in the road.

The third archangel came from the south. He was Archanioł Maba. He walked with slow, thoughtful passes. Dressed in a heavy black cape, his face was hidden under the cap of a big hood. “You always look at the shadow of things.” His father played a lute and sang songs of fertility and youth. He sat in a small dog-cart. The archangel had pulled the cart, since they had left the royal city two weeks ago. He was getting tired of the continuous flow of cheerful accounts. He wished it would rain, and that night would fall on earth. None of this happened. They walked through deserted cities and met hardly anyone on the way. “Look how the fields bloom.” “They should be fucking harvesting by now. There’s no-one.”

When night came, they could witness little fires in the desolate landscape around them. All, but one of them, were on a day’s walk distance. Archanioł Maba pulled the dog-cart and his father to the nearby campfire. He tried to ignore the poems that his father recited. They were bad stupid sentimental poems on top of that. Maba needed a drink.

The man introduced himself as Admiral Harington, commander in the English Navy. “Bloody imposter.” “What was that?” Maba sneezed. He said he had to go outside to smoke a cigarette. The asshole smelled like rotten fish. Probably he hadn’t changed his uniform for the last two years. “So, I could work as a plumber on your ship?” The archangel looked around. It was a moonless night. He heard explosions in the distance, so soft and delicate was the noise, that he thought of a pillow exploding with the gentlest of gestures, like a toadstool that set free its seeds. “No time for poetry,” he said. He threw his stub away and started walking towards the darkest end of the night.

Our bus arrived in Elblag via Gdańsk in the west. It was a fine clear day. The air was fresh, a bit cold, but pleasant. We were in the north, and the local bus stopped right in front of our hotel. It took some time to go out on the streets again. The big church in the middle of town caught the last glows of daylight. We walked on mud in peripheral darkness and somehow managed to arrive at the old Prussian building, a church that still had to recover from the wounds of world war two. Normally churches had a graveyard in their garden. This was not the case. Probably the death had risen from the graves to follow their offspring to the homeland.

I spoke to JGr the next day. A friendly soundworker, he and his wife had moved to Estonia fifteen years ago, where they had set up an art center. Here in Elblag, he had walked around town with a group of people. He hadn’t conducted any blind-folded golden goose walks this time; he had brought them to some places and made them listen. Rather than to stand in silence I listened to his stories, how the big NATO had changed Estonia into a virtual war zone, with troops invading cities and changing front lines. One of those front lines was right in his back garden. Kids grouped around soldiers in their tanks to ask for sweets, while Russian jets flew low over the land to find out what was going on. He told about spy stories, kidnapping in the middle of the night by secret service men and spy exchange like in the good old cold war days. He had recordings of the NATO jets as well, roaring voices from the sky that made you shiver. I had always imagined his art center as an ex-school that was built in a barren Soviet style, somewhere a bit outside the village. But the image was different. The owners had restored the houses around his place. And now the art center didn’t fit in anymore. There was a risk, that he would lose their home. With a six-year-old child, future looked a bit uncertain.

The following day we met shortly. The main street of the town was completely overtaken by the army. Tents, snipers, men in camouflage, a big panzer car with a structure on the roof, that looked like the wings of a dragonfly, a tank, it was all there, a friendly occupation without any signs of war. They might as well have handed out ice-cream to the children, in the camouflage colors pistachio and hazelnut. John looked amused and confused at the same time. In Estonia the war talks had been going on ever since Russia had invaded Ukraine. And now this. I always thought of John, that when the world said boo, he would just smile back at it. And so he did now, while he walked out of the street at the other end of which a tank pointed its cannon to his back.

It was hard to take things seriously in Elblag. Somewhere at the end of the twentieth century, an enlightened politician had decided to decorate the new apartments with a reconstruction of the facades from the old hanseatic houses. The result looked like an image from a children’s book. They had bright shiny colors, they looked neat and clean, but above all they looked very fake. Maybe they were the perfect setting for an annual fest, where the old skills would be demonstrated, and where people walked around in costumes of those days. But now the absence of any sign of history on those houses struck me. It was closer to IKEA than to the Hanseatic League. But then again, most of the people who lived in Elblag had come from other cities. The families that once were part of the east-Prussian Elbing had all been sent over the border to West Germany, taking history with them. For the new citizens the bright and new houses were an everyday reality that, who knows, corresponded very well with the bright and intense nordic light.

So, the fish we ate, was not cooked in a traditional way, and the caverns where we went to have a drink or two, were poor replica’s of the olden days. But the big Prussian house, that once served as a church, towered over the neighbourhood as it had done many generations before. In daytime its bricks were red as the cheeks of a girl and the breeze, that arrived from the Baltic sea, sharpened its appearance. At night the massive building withdrew to its lonely hours and became a silhouette for thoughts. In we went, through the main door, only to notice that we were not in a church. We had entered the artificial lounge with its flyers, CDs and T-shirts on a table, a reception desk and a cupboard filled with mugs and books, a staircase to our right. On the left, a few steps down we spotted another table; two young ladies handed out soup or a warm dish, a bottle of beer in return for small change. They stood in the corner of what once might have been a separate chapel. Now a screen showed images of nature. There were more chairs than devotees. The stones and statues, the plaques and niches, the ceiling and the floor, it all tasted of church. It was cold and the pumpkin soup couldn’t feed me.

The evening was for our friends. The interior of the building showed how much it was crippled by the war and the following years of neglect. Steel frames rose as high as the ceiling to support the edifice. In the middle of the church stood a big table, completely filled with cables and electronic sound devices. A couple of flood lights accentuated its prominence. Many a years ago the table might have served in a painter’s studio, when he was working on the last supper. The floodlights did not only accentuate the central scene, they also added a desolate character to the rest of the interior. It felt like visiting a building site. Martin Küchen had decided to play in the far end of the apse, a space stripped bare to its essence; it was just an old stone floor with high white walls, a ceiling that bounced back every sound and a giant window.

Martin was the shadow figure of himself. Slightly leaning forward, he carefully blew air through the mouthpiece of his tenor sax. It could have been the young Max von Sydow, dressed in existentialist black, who played a jazz musician in a movie set in Stockholm’s 1950s. Not that Von Sydow came to mind for one single moment. I was grasped by Martin’s appearance and his little theatrical set-up, that further consisted of a glass vase on the floor and a miniature antique record player on a tiny pillar next to him. Cold came creeping over the floors. The shadow moved slowly while the immensity of the chapel reverberated his sounds. I thought of the distance during his walks, somewhere in a village not to far north of Malmö. I imagined him on a strip of land, low herbs, a view on the Baltic sea. On a clear day he could see the coastline of Poland. I imagined him walking, lost in thoughts, at the same time listening to far away screams, a church bell, the sounds of music torn apart by the wind, and while he listened he thought of playing his saxophone. And then he eventually did, dressed in black, with one single light behind him.

That light, and all the other lights, came back at the end of the evening, and, together with the awakening of the interior, also the sounds from little speakers were heard; it was loud and alive again. People walked in, searched for chairs, friends or a mattress, and when all were silent and attentive, all of them together looked like they were posing for a group picture; the one on which during a later generation the figures would be reduced to a blank field with a number in it. I hardly knew a soul. Michal was ready to read his instructions. He stood behind a cathedra. Too bad the pulpit was not ready yet, because what would follow, could easily be understood as the very last residue of the darkest of preaches ever heard. And yet the words and actions were so simple. Somewhere in the half-light Marcin waited for the commands. He wore no shoes; his steps remained unheard. He had to do a lot of walking. I knew the score. Michal would read from a paper which electric device needed to be switched off. He used a walkie-talkie for communication. Marcin answered with the same phrase after each action. The sounds disappeared and the lights went out. I heard my tinnitus and looked at the big window in the back of the church and the yellow light behind it. Michal said the last sentence in polish, but I understood ‘blackout’ and shortly after that the main light went on.

I have seen the Sanctuary of Loyola in the immediate vicinity of the Basque village Azpeita. It was on an autumn day, the trees were still heavy with their green leaves, and the humidity in the valley, on the path along the river Urola, lay as a cold hand on my face. I cannot remember that I have entered the building. Already then, some ten years ago, I didn’t like churches and any form of religious art. I could only think of a little fragile man, his fanaticism, that religious people call devotion, the diseases of that time, the humidity and what a miserable life it must have been to dedicate your entire existence to a vision. Wordly powers may be what they are, but the kingdom of heaven is the most overwhelming, that exists in the feverish brain of a future saint. Loyola helped to build an empire, an empire so big that it occupied worldly places, but also time itself and everything that happened in that time and space. At night the pilgrim and the scholar could go for a walk outside, look up at the stars and think they were in an enormous cathedral. And the only lights to be seen were the stars above and the only sounds to be heard were hidden in the surrounding darkness.

It was cold outside when we sang to Martin’s fiftieth birthday. A little bottle of cold vodka went from hand to hand. Martin welcomed every newcomer with a modest ceremony in which he handed over the bottle. We didn’t need to walk very far, ten steps in fact, to reach the nearest bar. It was another cavern, bricks and vaults and wooden tables, and folkish things everywhere. Martin ordered a vodka and another one. I knew this danger, and stopped halfway mine. Little groups formed, polish and english spoken, laughter, glowing faces, beaming eyes and yet another round of vodka, until it was time for a smoke and the entire gang went upstairs. I was halfway freezing to death, didnot join the vodka cure and had difficulties to understand why everyone was laughing so hard. The next day I heard that Martin on his way to the airport had thrown up three times, and on the airport itself he was attacked by an exploding toilet.

The story ends months later when Michal and Marcin go for a pilgrimage to the north of Spain. The composer of ‘Blackout,’ a young man in his fifties, had died soon after the performance in Elblag. They both knew that he was terminal. He lived in a small village in Catalonia. Marcin had called him after the performancse, outside, even before lightning his cigarette. He had answered the call with a question. “Do you see a full Moon too?”


This entry was posted in From The Book of Doom, Poland. Bookmark the permalink.