Bark and Butterflies

Prose Poem –suitcase. July, August 1941

Taiga – By Jan Palka

The taiga. Magnificent, unbounded, mighty. Through the shade of your cedars and birches, you remind me, taiga, of our forest, the same forest in which I played as a child, our forest full of sunlight and birdsong, the smell of Polish grass and Polish air. Here everything is different. Even the sun shines differently, taking delight in burning my palate and tongue. Here no birds sing, there are too few, for the taiga in winter is white death, it won’t feed them, and the air is different too, filled with gnats and midges, which don’t leave the poor deportees alone. There have been times when I lay under the broad cedar and wept, complained to this thousand-year-old giant of my black, wanderer’s fate. I asked the taiga: how have we offended you, that you have pulled us in with the roots of your birches and firs, the tentacles of your bogs and quagmires, pulled us in, and twisted the exit tight shut. Despite the horror, I like you, taiga. You are terrible, pitiless in your vastness, give me an answer, taiga. Through the murmuring of its trees and the murmuring of its ferns, the taiga answered, that this is its fate, its destiny. Seeing our pain and our longing for home, it wanted to be reconciled with us, to comfort us.

Recesses of the forest, where no human foot had walked, opened up to us. Purple bushes of raspberries smiled to us coquettishly, yielding to us their ripe fruit. Mushrooms just asked to be picked. The taiga wanted to ease our pain and bitterness with whatever it had that was best and sweetest. In some measure it apologised to us, asked for our forgiveness. Not a few of us, when he lost faith in tomorrow, ran in to the wild thickets, to tell the taiga of his pain and despair. And the taiga listened willingly, it learnt the Polish tongue, transforming the words with its echo. The taiga understood. It absorbed within itself so many tears and accusations, it knew them by heart. It folded the dying and the hungry wanderer to its soft bosom, and the trees played for him, and the world became beautiful. The beggar forgot about today, he fell into sleep and dreamt of yesterday, dreamt of tomorrow, of freedom. The taiga understood. The trees and birds fell silent. Quiet suffused the taiga, even the grasses stopped their chatter so as not to wake the sleeping wanderer. And the wanderer dreamt on …

Occasionally it happened that the taiga was angry, it stormed and thundered. Then woe betide the man who fell crushed by the withered arms of the trees and their mighty roots. Cliffs splintered and crashed down shrieking into the abyss. Withered trees toppled with a thud, blocking roads and paths.

It was terrible then in the taiga. It seemed that the taiga was angry. The trees repelled one with their uncanny screeching, there was no shelter. Streams overflowed, even shifting bears from their comfortable beds. The taiga raged. Maybe because so many curses had fallen on her august head, so many lamentations, so many tears. Bereft of expression and motion, it flung thunderbolts of trees and boulders, and then woe to man. He fled, hid as far as he could away from her, her fury and her frenzy. When the sun smiled out from behind the clouds, the taiga calmed down, quietened, murmuring from time to time. The falling streams of rain carried the last memory of evil and anger further and further away, till it disappeared in the distance. The taiga smoothed her forehead, the sun began to shine as before, the birds started their music. In this taiga, man walked as if reborn. He felt that just such a storm would come and free him from captivity. The taiga looked at her reflection in the last drop of rain, laughed and was as happy as always, but even more beautiful and fresh – and this gave man courage. She seemed to say to the passing man: smile, look with confidence into tomorrow! O taiga! House of my long captivity, long will you live in my memory!