Woman 1: Utsuro-Bune, 1803

The morning feels like the inside of a mouth, hot and humid already. At first, the boy thinks he is still dreaming when he sees a mermaid sitting on a rock in the shade. On closer inspection, he sees that the mermaid has legs. There is a large, pale-silver structure bobbing in the water a few feet away from her, a sphere-like vessel that reminds the boy of a giant turtle egg. He wipes his brow and then smells his hand. He’s been waiting to become a man all summer, but his smell is still dusty-sweet, like hay.

When he walks up closer to the girl, he sees that she’s dozing, her fire hair spilling all over the shiny blue fabric of her dress. She is clutching a strange box in her lap. Her forearms are pale. She hears him and wakes up, her face breaking into a small smile, and she says something in a language he doesn’t understand, words that sound like water washing over rocks. The boy runs back to the village.

The boy comes back to the beach carrying a stick. He’s with his two older brothers and his father and uncle, and he feels braver this time, so brave that he approaches the girl—if that’s what she is—and pokes her gently with his stick. His father smacks him across the head and tells him to behave.

“Who are you?” says the boy’s uncle, but the girl just shakes her head. She says something, her words as useless as before. The strange box in her lap is emitting a white light that illuminates her already almost translucent skin. The vessel is now out of the water, and a slice of it has been removed to reveal white and silver insides that remind the boy of the meat and scales of a gutted fish.

The girl stands up. Her feet are bleeding a little, probably cut up on shell shards and rocks. But she doesn’t seem to mind or notice. She is taller than the boy’s oldest brother, and she looks a little bit like the wife of the European official who once visited the village. The girl’s eyes are large and the rusty colour of sea kelp. She speaks again, and the boy senses that she is worried, but she doesn’t gesture—she can’t, with her hands clutching the box to her chest. The boy’s father points to the box, and the girl clutches it tighter. A look passes between the father and the other men.

They come back to the beach with the boy’s mother and cousins, the women talking too much as always, giggling behind their hands and coming together and apart as they stumble over their feet, following the men. When they’re near the girl and her vessel, everyone stops. The girl is sitting back on her rock, her pale legs stretched out in front of her. She is chewing on something; looking up, she notices the crowd approaching and coughs a little. In front of her, there’s a little white tablet and, on it, some food that looks just like what the European and his wife brought with them—bread and an apple and a leathery stick of some kind of meat—but also small objects in colourful shiny containers that remind the boy of tiny jade boxes.

The group watches as the girl takes one of those objects and bites its corner with her sharp teeth, revealing a rectangle made up of seeds and nuts all clustered together. She starts chewing, watching them with her wide, calm sea eyes. At one point, she smacks her forehead and gives a short laugh and takes one of the objects, unopened, nodding at the boy. He approaches slowly, staring at the shiny thing reflecting the sun. When he touches it, it makes a noise that reminds him of the time he watched two cicadas fight to death on his cousin’s porch. Maybe it’s that memory that makes him snatch the object angrily from her. She shudders, startled, and his family yells at him; his middle brother rips the green thing out of his hand. His father smacks him across the head for the second time.

The women whisper between themselves, pointing at the girl’s unusual dress. It’s so shiny, it’s as if the thread were spun out of the moon; for years to come, the women will call it “moon dress.” And the men will talk about the vessel’s white walls that feel as smooth as a block of ice, except they’re not cold, not melting in the sun.

It is decided that the police need to be called—an officer and his small squad of men from the larger village that occupies the better part of the inland that you can farm, unlike the rocky shore of the boy’s village. The men from the boy’s village wait for the officer, who arrives in the late afternoon and brings with him the doctor and his wife and a government official.

Back on the beach, the girl is sleeping inside her vessel. The boy and his oldest brother have stayed to guard her. Earlier, they watched her place her hand next to the square opening of the white sphere and saw a small platform-like plank slide out of the opening, like a tongue. She walked onto the plank, and it started to fold onto itself, moving her silently inside.

After a short time, the boy and his oldest brother tiptoe toward the opening and see her sleeping form curled up on a long shelf. The boy thinks her closed eyelids look like two smooth seashells. She has tamed her wild hair into a strange bonnet with a slab-like protrusion that throws shade over her face, but some of the hair is still sneaking out and twirling around her ears. Behind him, the boy hears his brother hold his breath and exhale slowly. He can tell that, like himself, his brother is in love with the girl. The boy doesn’t think the girl is a demon, which is what the women whispered to each other after they watched her grab a hem of her dress and pull it all the way down, over her ankles and over her cut-up bloody feet. It was stretchy like fish intestine. The women were probably bitter that their own dresses were so harsh and stiff; you could give yourself a rash if you rubbed your face in your mother’s skirt, which is something the boy hadn’t done for a long time, not since before the summer when he noticed for the first time the small dark hairs above his upper lip.

In the evening, the boy’s family and the officer and the doctor and the government official come to the beach and ask the girl to let them inspect the vessel. She understands their request and doesn’t seem to mind; she politely moves aside and sits on her rock, her food table empty now, tossed to the side. The government official takes notes as the officer yells out descriptions of the things he finds inside. “Foreign, flattened mineral with a glass surface and a grid of foreign alphabet.”

Inside, they find more food, some of it in the strange jewellery paper. There is no water or any other liquid, although there are what seem to be containers for it. They are made out of the same ice-smooth material as the vessel and you can see through them like they’re glass, but they don’t break, even when you drop them.

The girl sits on the rock, her eyes fixed on the horizon, willfully unseeing the commotion in front of her. At one point, she looks back where the boy and his oldest brother are sitting watching her, and she smiles a sad little smile, which is directed at the oldest brother. In that moment, the boy wants to pinch his brother, but instead he bites on his lip until the thought passes.

The men are finally done, and they leave the vessel, speaking to each other quietly before approaching the girl. They are carrying a few objects from the inside, and the girl frowns but says nothing. When the officer asks her to pass him her flat white box, she shakes her head and grips it tighter. She sucks her lips in so hard that they look like a slit in the bottom of her face.

The officer makes an attempt to grab the box, but she swings around and her hair escapes the bonnet so violently, it’s as if someone set her head and back on fire.

The officer steps back and says, “Bitch.”

The girl turns away from him, her face crumpling. She points to the empty liquid container in the doctor’s hands and then to her mouth. The doctor and the officer confer with the government official, and it is decided that she will not be given fresh water—not yet. Nobody knows how dangerous any of this is and that the girl doesn’t have a way of turning water into a weapon. This strikes the boy as stupid. But the girl is stupid too. He says to his brother that he wishes she would just give them the box.

The boy watches as the girl slumps over herself, the fire hair like a warning against coming closer.

At night, the boy and the brother sneak out of their hut and walk to the beach. The girl is inside the vessel, and its top glows in the darkness like a moon jelly. They have brought her fresh water in a clay jug, which they place in front of the entrance.

The girl steps out of the vessel, and she tilts the jug to her lips. The boy and the brother watch her white throat undulate like a jellyfish tentacle as she drinks. The boy bends his head down to discreetly smell his armpit, aware of a new scent, a faint sour odour of fermented soybeans.

The next day, the girl is guarded in shifts by groups of three or two. It is reported she mostly naps or sits on the rock, staring into the sea, the evil box always in her lap. Sometimes she pokes at the box, and when she does, the box glows, turning her face a glowing blue as she bends over it, frowning. It is observed that she eliminates just like anyone and, just like anyone, she hides while doing so, behind a larger rock that obscures her from her watchers.

The boy and both of his brothers come in the evening, after supper. When the middle brother is not looking, the boy nods at the girl and then nods in the direction of a small bush where he has left a fresh jug of water.

The middle brother plays a mean game: he tells the girl crude things he would never say to a girl in the village, and he laughs when she smiles at him without understanding the meaning of his words. The oldest brother tells him to stop, and when he doesn’t stop, he punches him in the chest so hard, the middle brother doubles over. After that, he is mostly quiet. When their shift changes, he utters the same ugly word as the officer did.

It is decided that the girl and the vessel need to be examined further. Her reluctance to release the box is concerning, and her strange ability to thrive despite the lack of water alarms the men, especially the doctor who talks about human survival. With the government official, he composes a telegram to be sent to the city to alert them about the situation. The city replies to bring the girl in, along with the vessel. A transport truck will arrive the next morning. Somebody makes a joke about the girl’s body hair, and the men laugh. They are excited, as excited as if they were going to war.

The boy tells the oldest brother what he’s overheard. Tonight they must lose their middle brother. After the supper, the oldest brother reaches for the secret stash under his side of the bed and pulls out a small satchel. He counts the money and hands it over to the boy; he squeezes his fingers around the boy’s fist.

The boy sneaks out of the hut after the middle brother leaves for the tavern. The steaming, sweaty stones underneath the boy’s feet feel like a living, breathing creature as he slinks in the shadows against the wet walls of huts until he reaches the end of the village. He enters a small hut that stands right outside of the village, and he speaks to a girl there who has kind eyes and straight black hair, a blade in the night. He opens his fist, and she counts the money before giving him a peck on the cheek. When he thinks she’s not looking, he grabs his crotch, but she catches him and laughs behind a fanned-out hand and ruffles his hair once. (An hour later, at the tavern, she plops her ass on the lap of the middle brother, who drunkenly but playfully tries to push her away until she bends down and whispers in his ear.)

Back at their hut, the boy and the oldest brother set out on their mission.

The fire-haired girl is agitated, her words fast, like rain beating against the rocks, her shoulders shaking as the boy touches her gently, urging her to get up from her spot on the beach. The oldest brother is at the opening of the vessel, his eyebrows knitted together, his eyes narrowed, his knuckles white as he grips the handle of a long butcher knife, his other hand steadying him against the smooth wall of the sphere.

The boy wants to cry. For himself, for the girl, for his brother. But he doesn’t cry. He firmly taps the girl’s shoulder, the fabric under his fingers feeling slippery but gummy, not quite like silk. “Please,” he says. “Please. Go.” There isn’t that much time.

The girl stares at the brother, and they talk with their eyes. He tells her about the village and its men, he tells her about the city and the truck that’s coming, he tells her about the women who have been whispering about demons, who have been holding their children tighter at night, who have been snapping at their husbands. He tells her about the tavern that’s been filling with the husbands and brothers—more and more men, meaner and meaner—before the night breaks into day. He tells her about his middle brother, and then he doesn’t need to tell her anything anymore because she understands it all; she closes her eyes and nods and stands up. The boy’s fingers slide against her arm, feeling her hot skin under the strange fabric, his fingers reluctant to part with this touch.

The girl walks toward the vessel. She holds her hand next to the opening, and the flat tongue of a footbridge slides outside. She looks at the blade and then back at the oldest brother, and she reaches and opens his fingers so that the knife falls down to the ground, a hollow thunk as it hits the sand.

As she enters the vessel, the evil box under her armpit pulsates with white, illuminating parts of her blue dress, the delicate contour of a nipple, her long throat, the fire of her hair, one eye like sun-struck amber. She slowly turns around to face the brother, and she reaches for his face, her melancholy fingers softly stroking his cheek, gathering at his chin before she lets go. The brother says nothing because now there’s nothing to say.

Before she disappears inside the vessel, she turns to wave at the boy, and he waves back, the heady smell of himself making him dizzy; his groin is painfully tight.

After the vessel closes, the brothers push it back into the water, their thick impervious soles and strong calves straining only for a brief moment before the sphere starts bobbing on the water. And once it does, they push it harder, and further and further away from the shore, till it finally catches the tide that takes it away, its jellyfish top flashing softly like a resigned SOS.

Woman 2: Żydóweczka, 1942

A t first, the boy thinks it is just a pile of rags. Occasionally, they find things near the train tracks: rags, shoes, other human things, and once a puppy with floppy ears. The puppy wasn’t hurt, but he was subdued as if someone had yelled at him and shaken him too hard. The boy took him and hid him in a barn where his father kept a Luger and his mother a pearl bridal set. He waited for three nights—his heart a sparrow trapped in a net—for the Germans to come, but no one came and the puppy stayed. His father grumbled about the puppy, and that was the first time the boy stood up to him, reminding him of the Luger. His father smacked the boy but it was a weak smack, more of an obligation than a punishment.

That was in the winter, and now the puppy is all grown. The boy watches as the dog runs toward the pile, the way he always does when the new things show up, his ears flapping behind him. The boy wonders if the dog can smell something that reminds him of his puppyhood in those objects they find.

The sun is buzzing in the dry grass, a heat wave approaching, coughing in on the dust.

The pile of rags moves. And as it does, it is like a puzzle finally coming together—the boy makes out an arm and a torso and a bushel of dark golden curls: a whole human, a girl. He clamps a hand over his mouth. The dog starts barking and backing away, and the boy looks around wildly, grabbing the dog’s collar as the dog looks at him and wags his tail. Then he barks again in the girl’s direction.

The girl props herself on her elbow and looks over. She is young but older than the boy.

Her clothes are the colour of dirt, her once-white shirt is stained and threadbare, almost see-through. The boy thinks that’s a good thing considering the weather. The thought is absurd; the girl is not a puppy, and she cannot be hidden in a barn. Nor does he want to hide her. He hates the girl and the trouble she brings with her by falling out of the wagon.

“Może ty przyjć? Tu?” she says then, her words misaligned, wrong.

“Przyjść,” the boy corrects her and shakes his head no.

The girl smiles a sad smile and shrugs as if to apologize on his behalf and then lays her head back down. The boy turns around and runs back to the village.

In the afternoon, the girl is still lying in her pile. The delegated group of villagers doesn’t come closer. They talk quietly, and the boy hates the girl even more when he overhears them talking about what they should do, panicking about what not to do. Do what? No guns—there are no guns in the village. So should they set the rags on fire?

Or should they just leave her for the Szkops? Maybe for Herr Konduktor, who is a sadist and who never shoots right away but likes to throw his head back and close his eyes—as if absorbed by a beautiful aria in his head—waving his Bergmann in the air. The summer before, the boy watched another boy, not much older than him, kneel with his hands tied behind his back. They caught him with a pistol he had tried to bury in the forest. As he kneeled in front of Herr Konduktor, in a stinking puddle smelling of piss and fear, he closed his eyes and waved his head as if he, too, could hear the same beautiful song as his executioner. For a moment, their waving aligned and the air didn’t move as the world held its breath.

 Black and white illustration of a female figure with a beige background. She is facing forward and looking down, right arm wrapped around her crossed legs. There is dirt visible on her body and simple dress. Surrounding her is a border made from the figure of a boy, seen from above with his face at the bottom and his arms reaching up, wrapped in vines and covered in flies. Between his hands and above the girl’s head is a small glowing white ball.

Then paff paff paff.

Right now, the girl’s golden hair emerges from the rags. The boy thinks of flowers, his mother’s yellow dahlias in the old garden.

Her eyes move wildly, finally stopping on his face. She doesn’t smile, but her chest rises and falls softly when she sees him, as if he were the only thing familiar here.

He turns around and runs back to the village, the dog running after him, barking.

In the evening, the boy comes back with his mother. They stand and watch the pile that isn’t moving. The boy says to his mother that he wishes it would just end. The mother says it’s God’s will, and the boy wants to ask whose God—theirs or the girl’s—but he’s too old to ask stupid questions like that. None of this is his mother’s fault.

At night, the boy runs through the tall wet grass, which whips against his bare legs. All around him, there’s the tss-ing and whirring of insects and the occasional croaking of frogs. Somewhere in the distance, the honk of a horn slices the night in half, and the boy freezes mid-step when he hears it. It’s far enough but too close already.

When he reaches the train tracks, he says, “Dziewczyna!” and this time the pile of rags rustles quietly and the girl’s golden halo appears above it. He can’t see her face clearly in the dark, but he can sense that something is . . . smaller about her, as if she’d shrunk. He has an absurd image of the girl shedding her dirty skin and a new, fresh girl inside her sneaking out quietly toward the tall grass where no one can see or catch her. Not Dziewczyna, he reminds himself, Żydóweczka.

He walks up close, and this time he can make out her legs. There is something wrong with one of them; it reminds him of a splintered branch. He doesn’t stare, but he nods solemnly, acknowledging her predicament.

He throws her a small bundle prepared by his mother—bread that’s been blessed as if that could help. He passes the girl the water, and she drinks rapidly. She pours the last drops over her head, and she spreads some of it on her dirty face. He imagines her face marked, looking like Winnetou. He wishes he could share the joke with her, but then he feels the earlier hate wash over him; he has a sudden urge to kick the pile of rags. Instead, he tears the empty container out of her hands and leaves.

The next morning is shimmering with haze. Even the insects are quiet. The boy watches groups of villagers leave and come back from seeing the girl.

The boy can’t go back because he has to help his father prepare the sołtys’s old house for its new occupants, with their waxy faces and shiny boots.

It hasn’t been decided yet what to do with the girl, but the whole village is nervous, the women throwing rags at their children and men, the children pulling dogs’ tails, and, somewhere in the barn, the boy’s middle brother shoving himself inside the neighbour’s daughter, who whimpers but doesn’t try to push him off.

One group of villagers says the girl is sitting up and not speaking, just staring, probably cursing the onlookers. Some women have spat at her. The boy imagines everyone making the sign of the cross before walking away.

Later, the villagers talk about how the girl’s body is swarmed with black flies. She is no longer sitting up but, once in a while, she props herself up and her stare is still evil.

The talk of the fire buzzes all across the village now, like kindling that has started in everyone’s mouth, finally catching.

After everyone goes to bed, the boy sneaks out of the house. He has heard and seen enough: he has heard his mother cry and whisper, and he has seen the jerry can his middle brother has brought into the house, his father at the table with two neighbours, a bottle of oily, razor-sharp liquid in the middle of the table, their knuckles white and fists pounding on the wood.

Right now, the boy walks. The heat has not let up. Inside his shirt, the boy is carrying a boiled potato, and as he walks, he feels the sandy mushiness crumbling against his skin, mixing with his sweat. When he gets to the train tracks, he sees her shape glowing in the darkness. She is on top of the pile this time, and she is almost naked, save for underwear. The boy thinks of the girl in the barn, whimpering, and his middle brother, and he has to pause and rest his palms on his knees, hang his head low. The potato falls out of his shirt and lands in the dust. Startled, he reaches down for it and forces himself to look back at the girl again.

But she doesn’t seem to be in distress. Save for an abyss-dark wound in her leg, with a bit of white sticking out, she appears to be fine, her fragile form unlike anything the boy has ever seen before, like something unreal, celestial. There is a heady smell all around her, deep and vicious. The boy breathes through his mouth. He relaxes his eyes so that her chest blurs, so that he cannot quite make out what he desperately wants to look at. He passes her the mush mixed with dust—his eyes fixated somewhere above her head—and she scoops it out of his hand gingerly and puts bits of it in her mouth, but she can’t seem to swallow. She coughs a little, and the boy’s vision sharpens; he watches as crumbs fall onto her breasts, and this time he can’t look away. Her collarbones are like two twigs, the delicate fence of her ribs suspended from them, a smudge of her breasts barely there.

He forgot to bring the water; he is a very stupid boy.

The girl says something in her language, and her voice is a raspy whisper, different from the first time she spoke. He makes out one word, “Proszę,” and he says, “Please what? What?” feeling himself get angry, so angry that he stands up and walks away from her and her horrible stench.

He runs back through the rustling forest, back to the barn, where it’s cooler than inside his crowded house—full of women and their smell—and where he’s been sleeping with his dog at his side. He climbs onto the ledge and dives into a pile of hay, hands feeling for the box wrapped in rough linen. His mother’s jewellery first—he stops for a moment and rolls smooth, cool pearls between his forefinger and thumb, imagines deep, emerald-blue water, the sandy bottom of it decorated with rocks and orange coral and fat open shells gleaming in half darkness, and shimmering silver scales of fish, and a huge water turtle, like the illustration in his sister’s Hans Christian Andersen, except without a mermaid distracting from the scene.

Before leaving, he smooths his dog’s soft flat ears against his large bony head and kisses him on the nose, the way he does when nobody sees. He tells him to stay. The dog’s tail slaps little clouds of dust, and the boy holds a finger to his lips and shushes him; the dog lies down, big black eyes looking up with loving reproach.

The girl is lying down on the pile of rags, and she is still almost naked. She rises and watches him set the gun down on the ground. The boy comes closer and he passes her the water, and she raises the container to her lips. The boy watches her drink. There seems to be a large pearl stuck in his throat gathering his breath and tearing around its expanding form. The night is so hot, his shirt is stuck to his body.

The girl passes him the empty container. As she does, he grabs her hand gently and doesn’t let go. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do—a part of him wants to yank on her arm, pull her up to her feet, force her to stand up, to walk, to run, anything. Instead, he strokes her arm gently. It feels clammy and cool against his skin. She is still. The smell of her is overwhelming, but the boy tries to ignore its rotting sweetness. The girl lifts her head, and they look at each other as he keeps stroking her. He wants to touch her in other places. She is small but her stillness is large, and it reminds him of a patient animal, a dying cow perhaps.

He grabs one of the rags—it’s gummy, heavy with filth—and he wraps it around her. He gently pulls her hair out from the cape, and he drapes it over her shoulders. She shudders then, and for the first time her face crumples, and the boy sees her somewhere else entirely—at a wooden desk, her hair in tight plaits, her linen shirt clean, white, her face a sweet blush, strawberry lips, and she is writing in a notebook, and there’s a large open window, a breeze, a lilac bush bursting in with its wet smell, and the girl’s mother—or his mother—is somewhere in the house singing a soft melody: “I am the June night / Queen of jasmine / My signs are emerald and ruby / And my song is stronger than hunger.”

The song is wrong. It is not June; it is August.

Right now, the girl pulls her hand gently out of his. They wait. Listen to the frogs for a while.

The boy gets up and goes to where the Luger lies. Its handle is cool and smooth.

The boy walks back, stops a few feet away from the girl, and he closes his eyes the way he’s seen the sadist do. He tries to remember a song other than the one he’s imagined the girl’s mother sing—longing, echoing through the night—but he can’t.

Jowita Bydlowska
Jowita Bydlowska is the author of four books. Her new novel, Monster, comes out in the spring.
Kira Buro
Kira Buro (they/them) is a visual artist currently residing in so-called Vancouver.