Dr. Josef's Little Beauty


Photo: Kuba Celej

Dr. Josef's Little Beauty

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Zyta Rudzka

Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones


They all feared the summer, but no one spoke of it.
And now it was setting in. Gradually. Unhurriedly. Relentlessly. First there was a short, cool shower, but the grass soon shook off the dew. Then the sun flared more and more fiercely. Streams of bright light proliferated, conquering each shady area of the garden in turn.
The rodents moved out into the fields. The pungent smell of mouse urine wasn’t so easily expelled from the dining room. The whitewashed tables were put outside. That was where they ate their meals now, lay down to rest, and waited for family visits. The terrace was paved with flagstones. Chipped. Weather-beaten. The odd blade of grass protruded from under them.
Helena took her first step. She moved cautiously, as if entirely shattered inside. Her head bounced dangerously, it didn’t fit her body, but looked as if forcibly planted onto her limp neck. As she walked, she watched the other residents. Sitting on the terrace. Staring into space. Basking in the sunshine like lizards, static among stones. Presenting themselves to be bathed in warmth. Skulls thinly coated in sparse, dry hair. Faces like several pieces of skin sewn together. Cheeks marked with bruises, wounds and suppurating scratches. Tissue-paper eyelids. Bellies swollen by disease. Furrowed hands. Gnarled fingers. Ruffled thighs. Hanging loose. Wobbling with every motion of the body. Feet liberated from bootees and slippers. Large, misshapen toes. Growths. Lumps. Watery tumors.
It looked as if they were waiting for something. They stared at the entrance gate for hours on end. By noon it was hard to see, dissolving in the blazing heat of the sun, blurring amid the rusty railings. The tarnished wicket seemed eternally shut. As if it were a stage prop through which no one ever exited. Beyond which nothing existed.
Helena stopped. She groped for a jug of warm liquid. Her fingers wound around a glass. She gripped it the way someone whose head is spinning leans against a wall. She narrowed her rheumy eyes.
The flower boxes were filled with annuals. Rubber plants trapped in clay pots had been brought into the fresh air. Their fleshy, meaty leaves towered over the lawn. Old vine shoots gave way to young green ones, quickly covering the high fence that bordered the property.
Last year’s sun umbrellas had been dusted off. Deckchairs, plastic armchairs and little camping tables had been set out on the terrace.
Ah, so here comes another June, she said quietly, to herself.
She sat down for a moment. Took out her powder puff. Tidied a curl above her ear. Took a long look at herself in a small oval mirror. She was proud of her smooth complexion. If she’d chosen to wear glasses, she’d have noticed a dense network of fine incisions on her cheeks, like paper cuts. She looked like a doll with a porcelain face from an antique shop.
I forgot to tell you, folks, said her twin sister, Leokadia. She had a childlike voice.
Listen, yesterday a ladybug sat on my skirt. A wonderful little ladybug . . . And on the radio they said there are meadows with thirty-eight varieties of wild orchid and twenty species of bee. Isn’t that wonderful?
She smiled, showing her brown gums.
After a long pause she spoke again:
Can you feel it? It’s summer, isn’t it? Time to be off to the allotment garden. Everything that’s alive is buzzing, bustling, blooming. Dear Mother Nature is dressing herself up for us. As if in a day or two she were due to celebrate an important occasion. A wonderful event. Just look, isn’t it lovely here? . . . You see, Helena? You’re glad, aren’t you? Yesterday it was two years since we came here, we had a cry, but today we’re managing to be happy again. How wonderful . . . Spring is over, but it’s still so beautiful here.
She looked all around. Her chin was quivering.
I couldn’t agree with you more, Leokadia. We are most fortunate, said Henryk, nodding.
He was almost eighty. Puffy, bloated, with an egg-shaped skull covered in the remains of hair, and liver spots showing through.
We can enjoy some recreation. Get some fresh air. Be on holiday to our heart’s content, he gushed.
He glanced at the caretaker standing by the garden toolshed. His figure looked heavy, motionless as an obelisk. Then he glanced at Helena. Showing off her slender legs in a wine-red pantsuit.
The first time she stood before Dr. Josef, she was twelve years old and naked, and could sense his delight.
Powerful, attentive gaze. Hand clenched in a white glove. Steady strokes of the riding crop against his polished boots.
He had spotted her at once. Bony. Veinous. Sinewy. Face veiled in thick curls. Abdomen frost-coated. Calves crooked. Thighs a small bubble of winter air could squeeze between.
Standing in a group of hunchbacks, cripples, dwarves, and twins. Among children with deformed limbs that would be on display in a biology museum in just a few weeks’ time. Next to them wailed some bonny babies, still warm from their mothers’ arms. They showed him some Gypsy babies too, with lovely teeth and perfectly dome-shaped skulls that would adorn many a desktop after boiling. They would suit the silence of Berlin offices and libraries.
But he was looking only at her. They pushed her twin sister forward to join her. He flashed a glance at her. Different. He barely nodded and returned his gaze to her. He pointed his index finger to the right, anointing her as research material.
Again he examined her alone. He spared her no word or touch. His admiration was mute. He fondled with his gaze. He injured in his thoughts. Slid his eyes over her breasts. The breasts of a child. Cringing. With tiny nipples. Teats like early summer pale pink strawberries.
Suddenly he came near. One step. Two. He stood close. Stretched out a hand. Touched her with the crop. Her body buckled. The skin sagged into a small hollow. He pushed. It hurt. She didn’t move. Ja, gut. He liked her.
He lowered the crop. She was different. She didn’t cry. As if she couldn’t feel the cold. Smell the odor. The stench of burning human flesh. She remained bored. Shifted from foot to foot. With her face grim. Tense. She carried out his orders. Knelt. Rose on tiptoes. Raised her arms. Turned around. Stood side on. Back facing. Leaned over. Straightened up. Chest forward. Looked him right in the eyes. That surprised him, but also amused him. Some hair was stuck to her lips, so she idly brushed it aside. As she did, she put her finger to her lips, as if bidding him be silent.
He was pleased. It was concentrated pleasure to be brought something like this.
He wanted to hurl her. Watch her fly. Onto the gravel. He gave her a mighty shove. She fell. Lay there. Arms spread wide. Legs apart. Pressed into the grit. But not dead yet. She shuddered. Moved. Stood up. Tensed. Wiped her face clean of the mucus secreted as she fell.
The heatwave softened the world, making it smudged and sticky.
Time seemed extendible, still and heavy. The high temperature sealed every second like wax.
Leokadia liked to talk about her husband. She only did it in the sole presence of Mr. Krawiecki. Deaf. Taciturn. He basked in the warmth of other people’s words, without even knowing it. He’d sit with her on a bench beside the rose bushes. He’d offer his gnarled, swollen hands to the sunshine and hide his face in a scarf.
Leokadia always began with the slipper. In her soft, childish voice she’d say she was preparing a name-day party when she found her husband’s slipper in the freezer compartment, lying between a frost-coated duck and the ice cubes.
But two years later she started finding his reading glasses in the fridge. A burned-out lightbulb. A bundle of rubber bands for jam-jar tops, which for some unknown reason he’d started to collect. At this point a comb was no longer a comb for him, it had lost its name, it was “that thing for your hair.” Had she seen that thing for . . . You know—for doing your hair, for combing, he’d keep asking, stroking the back of his head with an open palm. He was drifting away from her, drifting away from himself too.
One day, looking out of the kitchen window, she noticed her husband circling their building several times. Slowly. Reverently. He revealed his nervous state by constantly throwing back his fine, thinning hair. He examined the texture of the façade, the window frames on the ground floor and the metal carpet-beating frame. He’d go closer, stop, take a good look, stare, and feel with his hand. With the curiosity of first sight.
It took her a while to realize that he wasn’t out for a walk, he wasn’t exploring, studying or inspecting, but trying to go home, to get inside, but he’d forgotten where the entrance was.
She went downstairs. He was calm, submissive, suddenly mindless. He let himself be led by the hand, straight to the door of their apartment; now and then he smiled and turned his head to look into her face. She was sure he didn’t know who she was.
In time she stopped talking to him. She only said what was necessary, essential, practical. Later on she said nothing.
But his body had started to desire her again, like long ago, when he’d spotted her in the tram one summer afternoon. She was in a bright yellow shirtdress and a Basque beret, slightly covering an eye. She was standing by the middle entrance, holding the overhead rail. The inky number was protruding from under her sleeve. Then, she was sure, he gained courage, and liked her brown hair more and more. Locks the color of dark chocolate. Curled into thick cords. Falling onto her breast, onto the spheres lifted by her bra, and which fitted so easily in his open palms.
He followed her down one of those small streets in Żoliborz, a woman as slender as the saplings planted along the sidewalk by the local community.
She could feel his presence too, coming closer and closer.
Forty-six years on, he didn’t know what the vacuum cleaner was for, and the shower terrified him. She wrote instructions in block letters on every object in the apartment, its name and what it was for.
It’s on the tip of my tongue, he kept saying, in search of words. Scratched. Bruised. He kept falling over. He kept forgetting the layout of the apartment. He’d crash into the furniture. The walls. At night he wanted to go to church, to the store, he’d dress for bed in gloves and scarf.
He went on hitting her. And she gave it back. More and more often, but more feebly, with less of a swing, the way some people scold a naughty child, but even so he was frightened, fearful. Like a dog you chase off by throwing a slipper. He’d toddle forward, then go round and round in circles until he found his bedroom. He’d put his legs into the sleeves of his shirt as if it were a pair of pants. Or sit in an armchair. Run his fingers along those rubber bands, for hours on end.
When he died, she sat down in that armchair of his; the fabric was soiled, worn through, it smelled of urine. She hadn’t the strength to weep, or to move from the armchair, for several days.
After the funeral she went down into the cellar. They used to come here together. At one time, in the past, when he was in his prime, when he liked the bottle. He’d make her sit on a lumpy couch amid dusty jars, bottles, and chipped flower pots. He’d kneel down before a demijohn and drink sour, failed apple wine through a tube. Now and then he’d get up, chortle, rub his hands, kneel down again, and form his lips into a spout. She would watch him, her mind on something else. She’d sit opposite, he wanted her to be there. Once he was drunk, he’d move around on all fours, groping for the cardboard suitcase in which he kept his striped uniform from the camp. He’d put the worn-out, ragged garment on her. He’d order her to stand to attention. To count. Ein, zwei, drei. In various voices. As if she weren’t standing alone before him, but as if there were lots and lots of her. He’d bark instructions. Prod her. Order her to report what had happened to her today. It was never good enough. Either she was slouching. Talking too softly. Out of step. He’d hit her. Push her. Out of anger. Out of fear. He’d come up from behind and pinch her neck. Pull her hair. Stick his fingers between her buttocks.
Despite the pain she willingly submitted to these drills. She had never seen him as happy as in those threadbare striped pajamas. She understood him, he wasn’t longing for the camp, he was missing childhood, even one spent amid lice, nits, and on all fours.
He’d keep saying: A child is like a dog, it can get used to anything.
Finally, when he’d finished his performance, he’d cry. He’d lie on the concrete, on his back, not moving. He’d drift away. Mired in memories.
Toward the end of his life he’d stopped drinking. He’d stand in the window and smoke. Hour after hour. Staring at who knows what. He’d light one cigarette off the last.
He’d never had it easy. He was eleven when the war ended. He’d found an aunt. For several years he’d helped her husband to sell herring at the market. But when he married, they didn’t give him a single chair to call his own. Not even a hug for the start of his new life. They had nothing to offer him. As if he were a stranger. Not theirs.

When he died, Leokadia covered him with a quilt. With just his small, birdlike head protruding. A look of astonishment—as if his own death had surprised him, come at the wrong time. 


This is an excerpt from Dr. Josef's Little Beauty by Zyta Rudzka, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which will be  published soon by Seven Stories Press and Seven Stories Press UK. This book can be ordered here.

Zyta Rudzka (the author) (born 1964) is a masterful writer whose terse and forceful style is rapidly gaining her a place among Poland’s best contemporary novelists. Her first novel, Dr. Josef’s Little Beauty, was revised and reissued in 2021 as one of a trilogy of novels that explore old age and the final stage of life. Despite shared themes, each book stands on its own and has other central themes as well. Rudzka’s other two novels are  A Brief Exchange of Fire (2018, winner of the Gdynia Literary Award, shortlisted for the Nike Literary Award) and Soft Tissues (2020, winner of the City of Warsaw Literary Award). Her latest novel, Only Those with Teeth Can Smile, moves away from the old-age theme, but is just as hard-hitting as its predecessors, and is nominated for the 2023 Nike Literary Award, Poland's top literary prize. Her novels are now appearing in foreign translations. Dr. Josef’s Little Beauty is her first to appear in English translation. Rudzka is also an award-winning playwright and poet. In 2022 she won the Poznań Literary Award for her entire oeuvre to date.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones (the translator) has translated works by many of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists and reportage authors, as well as crime fiction, poetry, and children’s books. Her translation of  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead  by 2018 Nobel Prize laureate Olga Tokarczuk was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International prize. For ten years she was a mentor for the Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme, and is a former co-chair of the UK Translators Association.


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