The Ghost of Legnica Castle
By Peter Szuban
“Mowi się, że Polska jest martwa, wyczerpana, zniewolona, ale oto jej dowód na życie i triumf.”
It has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved, but here is the proof of her life and triumph.
I had recently taken the post of night watchman at the local Piast castle. It was a sudden appointment—the previous night watchman having unexpectedly resigned the week prior. I was never informed by my employer why my predecessor quit, although I now have my suspicions.
The castle was located at the top of a small hill on the outskirts of the village. It was a fairly old castle, having been constructed in the 13th century during the time of Henryk Brodaty, and having served as the residence of the Silesian branch of the Piast dynasty until 1675. Since then, it had undergone numerous renovations, yet its underlying Romanesque foundation—buried beneath a palimpsest of time—still remained.
Today, the castle was a marginally popular historical attraction for the touring set that, by day, functioned as a makeshift elementary school for the surrounding neighbourhoods. It was on account of this latter item that the group charged with the castle’s maintenance hired a night watchman; they wished to protect the profitable industry of the former from the youthful indiscretions of the latter. That is to say, they were especially wary of undisciplined students—particularly boys—visiting their own peculiar, witching hour vengeance upon the site of their daytime miseries. What my employer feared most, and I had no reason to question this, was the importunate expense of theft and vandalism.
As night watchman, my task was to keep vigil over the castle and to report any suspicious activities to the police. I could, if I desired, bring a dog or a cat or some other small pet for company, but none of the lights were to be turned on. Instead, I was to observe and keep quiet; sitting vigilant in the dark; a silent witness to the secrets of the night. I was not to move from my post, and under no circumstances was I to intervene in anything that happened under my watch; that duty, my employer assured me, rested with the police.
During the interview, I asked about the previous night watchman, and expressed surprise at his sudden departure. My employer deflected my questions, avoiding the topic of my predecessor. His grave and increasingly withdrawn demeanour indicated that I was not to press the matter further, and so I dropped it and took my leave.
Yet, I was still curious as to the fate of the man I was replacing. Having already successfully secured the position, I decided to take the opportunity to question several of the nearby neighbourhood residents about the castle and the previous night watchman. In this way, I hoped to ascertain any difficulties that my employer, for whatever queer reason, found it preferable to omit.
I walked the nearby streets and darted between the tall tenements in search of subjects to interview. I was lucky in that the weather was splendid that day, and that there were a great many people outside content to enjoy it. Accordingly, my task was made easy, and I had soon accumulated a formidable wealth of testimonies to the service of my purpose.
The results of my inquiries were all negative, that is to say, far from illuminating some ruinous crack in the castle wall. Not one of the residents had anything unusual to say about either my predecessor or the castle. By all accounts, my predecessor had been an upstanding fellow if a little reserved, and the castle was nothing but a schoolhouse and a curio for foreigners. There were no mysteries to be found there, and, frankly speaking, my predecessor must have had his own, idiosyncratic reasons for departing his post as suddenly as he did. There was, in short, nothing for me to worry about.
It was with an easy mind and a tired body that I made my way home after hearing the neighbourhood residents’ testimonies. I was pleased to start work the next evening, and I was confident in my ability to adjust my sleeping schedule to my new routine. This was to be my first bit of work since my retirement and I looked forward to being depended upon again. Moreover, I took pleasure in imagining the shock of all my friends when I told them about my new job, and I greedily anticipated all the tales I would have to tell with each story appropriately embellished for the requisite occasion. I was in the grips of recounting in my mind’s eye an exceptionally harrowing tale involving a fishing wire, a desiccated corpse, and an old boot when a very pale dark-haired little boy, hardly of school age, ambushed me as I crossed a road.
He stood like a gravestone at the very centre of the intersection, wearing a filthy white shirt, a frayed pair of denim-blue overalls, and an unfathomably blank expression. Even in the twilight, it was plain to see that one of his eyes—his left one—had a drooping eyelid, and that, on the whole, he was grossly unkempt and certainly uncared for. He made no noise nor movement as he looked at me; he simply stood, content to block my path.
At first, I took him for an apparition of my mind. I cursed my weak-mindedness and I blinked, only to find my efforts fruitless for the boy remained right where he was—as solid as ever. Slightly perturbed, I blinked again, and again, and again, and several more times besides, yet the recalcitrant scoundrel was still just as visible and just as stolid as before. In a fit of desperation, I turned all the way around and furiously rubbed my eyes, promising to get myself a long, good night’s rest once I got home. I then turned around with something of a theatrical flourish only to find that the boy was still there—exactly where he had been before.
I then realized that he must be a real, living boy and that I had made a right fool of myself in public—no doubt to the boy’s secret amusement. The boy, for his part, had made no outward sign of mirth. Instead, he persisted in his vacant stare and seemed utterly oblivious to my presence as well as to the world around him.
My humiliation and anger having ebbed somewhat as a consequence of the unresponsiveness of my sole audience member, I grew concerned for the boy’s well-being. There was, after all, something decidedly “off” about his demeanor. Therefore, I took it upon myself to ask the boy, as kindly as I could, what he was about standing around there like that and where were his parents: surely they must be worried if he had run off? He answered with silence, and his continued, unblinking gaze.
Frowning, I deigned to ask him again, a little louder this time, rationalizing that perhaps the boy had not heard me. His response was the same as to my first entreaty, and I seriously considered whether the boy was deaf. It would have, to a certain extent, explained his impassivity and strange behaviour. Certainly, it would have explained his seeming inability to hear my questions. If this was the case, there was nothing to be done; all attempts at communication would be but a wasted effort. There was no sense in parlaying with a deaf-mute idiot boy; he would have to find his own way in life just like the rest of us. So, I determined to call it quits and continue on my way.
I shrugged my shoulders and approached the boy with the intention of walking past him. However, as I drew near him, his gaze abruptly shifted. I halted in alarm. Those eyes, those empty, eerily lifeless eyes, were now fixed intently upon me! They stared directly into my own, and I felt paralyzed—like a criminal caught out in the very heat of a crime. I was pinned; I could not break free. I was lost as to how a boy—no, a human—could muster such a look! And it was made all the worse by the apparent youth of the gazer. What adult would expect such a horror from a child?
“What is the meaning of this impertinence?” I finally managed to ask. My fright had driven the hypothesis that the boy was deaf from my mind.
Which was for the best, for this time, the boy gave an audible reply.
“You can see them in the window,” he said in a ghastly murmur.
“Them. In the castle. You can seem them in the window, plotting. The other one went to look and turned out bad.”
“Other one? Do you mean the previous night watchman?” I asked, perturbed.
“He went, and looked, and didn’t come back.”
“Wait, what are you talking about? Explain yourself.”
“He didn’t come back; he got lost and was gone. He didn’t come back, he didn’t.”
“How do you know this? Are you, perhaps, a student at the school?”
“Y—yes. I am.”
The boy quivered and looked down at his shoes. I was relieved to find myself released from his gaze, but I could not help feeling surprised by this unexpected change in his demeanour. In contrast to my initial impression, he was less a terror now than a frightened creature. Was I wrong to have assessed him as I had? And what was I to make of the things he had said just now about the previous night watchman? It certainly contradicted what I had gathered earlier. I decided to try a different tack.
“Do the teachers know about this?”
“No. They don’t come for the teachers; they come only for us.”
“That’s no excuse for not informing the proper authorities, you know.”
“They—the teachers—don’t believe us. They think we’re making it up. They threaten to beat us if we don’t stop talking about it.”
“I’m not lying! They’re real. They exist. I’ve seen them—in the windows. Watching. They look just like old people, but they’re different. Hard to say how. But they’re plotting to get us!”
The boy heaved greatly from his sudden agitation.
As I observed his slender, wheezing frame, I could only think—how bizarre! Were there really people living inside the castle? If there were, they must be squatters or else my employer would have mentioned them. But then, was this the true reason that my employer needed a night watchman? And if so, why didn’t he just tell me outright? Why all this secrecy?
Perhaps—perhaps it had something to do with political intrigue; something related to all that Kaczyński ruckus earlier in the year. If that were the case, ‘they’ might refer to those youth protesters I’d heard about on the news; calling themselves freedom fighters or lovers of liberty or other such nonsense. And maybe it was for reasons of governmental secrecy in relation to these German-loving vandals that I was not to know the true purpose of my surveillance. It was possible that even my employer knew no better. Yes, that was most likely it.
My mind circled back to those protesters. Arrogant faces chanting asinine slogans—the very thought of them made my blood broil! They were no successors to Solidarity. What they really were was a generation of spoiled, entitled, narcissistic, no-good whiners that cared more for their American shopping malls and Japanese videogames than the welfare of their native homeland. What do they know about struggle and hardship—the humiliation of some drunk Russian soldier lording it over you with his money and his food and his power because he could; because he had a gun and could shoot you if he didn’t like the look of you; because everything about you and your people was merely a joke good for a laugh; because his country ran your country and he would never let you forget it; because no one would bat an eye over another dead, no-name Pole.
I wrenched myself away from my thoughts and returned my attention to the boy. He fidgeted under my gaze: his hands fretfully twisted and his feet anxiously crossed as if he were wound up like a spring. He nodded his head several times, then he looked up at me with beseeching eyes. He finished this movement with a full-bodied sigh. I could not fathom what he wanted.
I needed to know if the boy was lying or telling the truth, but I was unsure of how to proceed. At last, I decided to confront the boy directly.
“You have said a great many extraordinary things in your obfuscating way,” I said, “but how is it that I am to be assured by your exposition that you are not taking me for a proverbial ride? In all honesty, it would not be unheard-of for someone of your age and general disposition to play such a mean trick upon his elders. It would prove highly ingenuous of me to take you at your word alone. I wonder as to what proof—what moral collateral do you promise to give me to vouchsafe your testimony?”
In answer, the child remained silent and looked at his shoes again. I decided to rephrase my question.
“Out with it: why should I trust you?”
The boy looked up at me. To my astonishment, I discerned from his eyes that something secret, a dark, shadowy thought, had recently trespassed upon his brain and made itself master there. Only this, I later reasoned to myself, accounted for what he said next.
“They’ll get you, if you aren’t careful. They’ll try to lay fiendish traps for you. They’re not like us; they will do anything they can to catch you. Because they would like nothing better than to wring our necks.”
“What?” I exclaimed, but of course, it was too late. The little bastard had already run off.
I tried to pursue him, but he was much too quick, and he was soon gone; vanished between the alleys of dark, twisted streets. I was left doubled-over—panting—fuming—livid that the boy had got away. Yet, I was angrier still at myself for having allowed the boy, whom I now considered something of a devil, to have broken the pact of peace and tranquility that had hitherto reigned supreme over my brain. He had, in short order, sown the seeds of doubt, and I was put out by the whole business; I wished I had never met the boy.
Having regained my breath, and having thrice cursed the child for having vexed me so, I determined to cast those strange, gloomy utterances from the sacristy of my mind. And so, composing myself to the best of my abilities, and doing my utmost best to forget the entire episode, I turned back for the main road. It was well past dusk once I finally arrived home.
The next evening, I punctually arrived for my first nightshift at the castle.
My first few nights passed without incident—save for the strange behaviour of Szarik: the dog I brought with me for company. Szarik was my neighbour’s dog, a large, docile, black-and-tan German Shepherd with a long dark muzzle and round, sorrowful eyes who, unlike his heroic namesake, was quite resolutely a coward.
He jumped at every sound, sniffed at every shadow, and dashed for the nearest cover at every conceivable opportunity. There he would stay, his tail between his legs, shivering and whimpering into the depths of the night. Only once dawn broke over the horizon did Szarik abscond from his chosen post—for the express purpose of leaving the castle altogether and scurrying home.
At the time, I supposed him better than nothing, so I kept bringing him along—no doubt to his dismay. Looking back, I could have saved us both a great deal of frustration and anguish if I had not bothered bringing him at all. He proved a most useless companion throughout my time stationed at the castle.
During those first few nights, nothing of what the boy had said came to fruition. There was nothing to be spied in the windows, nothing to be glimpsed creeping in the courtyard; and, aside from Szarik’s pitiable snivelling, nothing to be heard throughout the castle. All remained as silent as a crypt, and I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. It was not until my second week at the castle that my troubles began.
That evening, I arrived at the castle just past nine as per usual. I navigated the deserted corridors and clambered up intermittent staircases until I reached my post in one of the upper chambers of the southeast tower. From this vantage point, I had a clear line of sight over the rest of the castle. If a light went on, or a window was broken into, or anything was out of joint, I would know it. I would then, as instructed by my employer, dutifully report the suspicious activity to the proper authorities.
However, on this particular evening I am embarrassed to admit that my vigilance was partially compromised. You see, I had had a greater difficulty adapting to my new work routine than I had previously anticipated and I had found it a considerable struggle to adjust my sleeping schedule. I was unused to resting in the glare of day, and I was even more disused to attentively sitting in the lone dark for hours on end. Consequently, early on in my castle watch, I was assailed by a ferocious drowsiness that, nod as I might, I could not conquer. At last, I was forced to submit myself to something of a light doze to satisfy the demands of my insistent foe.
I had only been reposing for a few, blissful minutes when I was suddenly ripped back into consciousness by an abrupt SNAP! Bewildered, I frantically rose, and looked about the dark wildly. I could see nothing in the corners, nor in the doorway, nor down the immediate hall. Yet, I swore that the sound had come from somewhere nearby, even from inside the chamber. My eyes settled upon the dark silhouette of a trembling Szarik. He was making not a peep, which was, in itself, most strange. Nevertheless, I convinced myself that Szarik must have somehow made the peculiar noise I had heard, that is, if I had not completely imagined it to begin with, and so satisfied I ventured to return to my seat when I espied a bright speck in the periphery of my vision.
I turned towards this bright speck, and saw, much to my astonishment, a light turned on in one of the windows of the castle’s parallel wing. I crowded the chamber window to get a better view, and to my even greater astonishment, I observed a smartly dressed elderly gentleman standing in the outer window’s illuminated frame.
He was only visible from his lower torso upwards. He wore a baize suit with a dark fedora that echoed the fashions of an earlier, simpler time. He had an impressive posture, and carried his hands respectfully folded before him. As for his face, it resembled something of an overripe turnip, with wisps of grey beard tendrilled from his chin to his chest and melancholy eyes shriveled with the weight of age and regret.
Something about his broken and bulbous nose reminded me of my deceased father. Indeed, if my father had not long since passed away I would have sworn it was him in that window looking so old, so tired, so defeated. My heart was nearly strangled by the thought! For he resembled one of the countless dour and sad old men who populate Jan Matejko’s paintings, and he seemed, just like them, destined to be forgotten; uncared-for, unwept-for, by the newest generation.
I was transfixed by this peculiar spectacle for several minutes before I realized that the elderly gentleman was looking straight at me. Dumbfounded, I recoiled from the window at least five paces, and crashed into a coffee table for good measure. I seethed in pain as Szarik whined into the darkness.
After I had regained my balance, and after I had righted the overturned coffee table, I crept back to the chamber window and observed the elderly gentleman anew from the safety of one of the window’s lower corners. It was a scene straight out of The Tenant! The elderly gentleman stood where he was and made no sudden movements; he had not reacted to my departure from the window. He merely gazed straight ahead—except for his pupils, which had followed me to my dark corner.
But that could not have been the case—or so I convinced myself at the time. I told myself, after an impromptu spasm of nerves, that the elderly gentleman’s pupils only seemed to be following me; as when an observer of an uncanny portrait acquires the distinct impression that the portrait’s eyes are following him around the room when of course it is nothing but nonsense to think so. In truth, it was only a trick of the light, and a testament to the skill of the craftsman. The effect was only a manifestation of the artist’s illusive creation and was not real. It was not real.
I snuck away from the window and edged towards the telephone. I had had enough of these pranksters—activists—terrorists—whatever they were supposed to be. I found it reprehensible, intolerable that they should be allowed to carry on like this; as if they could do anything they want; as if law and justice didn’t exist. Well, they would have all the opportunity in the world to explain themselves once the police arrived; I would make sure of that.
I dialed the Komisariat Policji in the dark. I was anxious of making a mistake, but I soon heard the automated voice and dial-tone that signified I had made the right call. After the preliminary operations and operator selections, my call was connected to a surly on-duty officer.
“Hello. Officer Petrovich speaking. How may I help you?”
“I would like to report a break-in,” I wheezed into the phone.
“Yes, someone is trespassing on my—on the premises. I can see them in the window as we speak.”
“What’s the address?”
“Plac Zamkowy Jeden. It’s the Piast castle at the edge of town.”
There was an unnaturally long pause before the officer responded.
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“No,” I answered, alarmed at the accusation. “I’m only informing you that there are intruders on the premises right now. The longer you wait—if you don’t send someone over soon, they’re going to escape.”
“Just who are you?”
“I’m the new night watchman appointed for the castle. I was instructed by my employer—"
“Look baranek, I don’t know what you’re playing at, but you’d better quit it.”
“I’m not playing at anything; I’m telling you the truth! There are intruders in the castle. You have to come right over—immediately—and do something about it.”
“I don’t have to do nothin’.”
“But you’re the police! You have to do something.”
“Listen, I’ve just about had enough out of you. Now you wanna keep playing your sick games, that’s fine by me. But if you call here again, I’ll personally come over and break both your legs. That’s a promise, capiche?”
With that, the phone went dead; he hung up on me. The only sound permeating the room was, as always, the sad whine of Szarik.
After I had cussed out the officer in every conceivable manner at my disposal, I put down the phone and returned to the window only to find that the light in the parallel window was out and that the elderly gentleman was, presumably, gone. In his place, there was an obliterating veil of gloom where the light had been. I could still distinguish the faint outline of the window, now no different from any of the other windows lining the parallel wing of the castle. Seeing that nothing else was to be done, I returned to my post.
The rest of the night passed without incident. Although more than once did a skulking shadow suggest the elderly gentleman’s imminent appearance in my chamber, and more than once did I start up with fright, there was neither sign nor hair of the infamous fellow for the entirety of that night. And so, I finished my nightwatch over the castle hardly the worse for wear, yet mentally very disturbed.
During the following day, unable to sleep, I attempted to contact my employer regarding the elderly gentleman and the surly officer only to discover that my employer had suddenly left the country. The automated voice that relayed this revelation informed me that my employer had taken a long overdue vacation, that he would return in one week hence, and that, in the meantime, all questions were to be directed to an email repository. Apparently, no one, not a soul, was available to substitute for my employer while he was gone. Hanging up my phone, I realized that I was in this alone.
Not knowing what else to do, I fretted the rest of the day away until nightfall came and I was scheduled to return to the castle. Ultimately, I decided to continue on at the castle, figuring that what had happened may have been a figment of my imagination and that it was irresponsible to give up after one strange night. I gathered my things, grabbed Szarik, who was unsurprisingly reluctant, and made my way towards the castle.
I arrived at the castle much as I had the previous night, and quickly found my path to my post. When I arrived, there was no one, no light in the window from yesterday. I began to relax, and soon found myself again beset by the forces of sleep. Fatigued as I was from the anxious day, and comforted by the absence of that infernal illumination, I again, I am ashamed to say, fell to the siege of sleep.
It was hours later when I awoke. This time, my awakening was gradual, and it took me several moments to realize that something was amiss. There was again a strange sound coming from somewhere nearby, yet now it was a continuous crunching that resembled the sounds of someone chomping potato chips in one’s ear. I thought it might be Szarik, but only for a moment. I looked over and managed to distinguish that mangy mutt cowering in his corner again. He was not chewing on anything, and no matter how fiercely his teeth chattered from fright, they would not have made a sound such as this.
Oh, how that sound rankled my blood—and it was everywhere! It was like handfuls of broken glass shoved in my ears! And it kept going and going and going; crunching and crunching and crunching, ad infinitum, with no end nor stop nor promise of cessation. Hell itself could not have been so unpleasant.
I rose with a start and gnashed my teeth in irritation. I looked about the chamber in a rage, scanning the dark for any sign of my abhorrent tormentor. But there was no one there, or, at least, no one I could see, except for Szarik and me. Soon, the sound faded of its own accord, and I was left standing alone in the darkened chamber.
It was a good five minutes after the noise had died away that I realized that the light in the parallel window was on again. I crept to the window as I had before and saw an elderly gentlewoman where the elderly gentleman had been. She was dressed in her Sunday best, and had a similar posture and demeanour to the elderly gentlemen. Her face, wrinkled and lined—gnarled like a misused babushka doll—was carved with care, while her hands were so thin and veined as to be translucent. On the whole, she resembled something of an onion worn out by thoughtlessness and neglect. She, too, seemed to be looking at me from her position behind the parallel window.
I shivered to look at her, but took no action. After all, the previous business with the elderly gentleman had come to naught, so perhaps this would too. Moreover, this could merely be a trick of the mind brought on by my irregular sleeping habits. Or perhaps I was, in fact, still sleeping, and this was merely a dream. No matter the cause, my employer and the police would be of no use in my current predicament. All I could do was sit and wait and observe.
So, I sat, I waited, I observed. Yet, throughout all my sitting, and waiting, and observing there was no change in the elderly gentlewoman. At first, I was uneasy, then annoyed, then bored, then finally, strangely at peace. Consequently, I had adjusted to this state of affairs when the light went out.
It did not go out immediately. Instead, it went out slowly, as if it were film burning in a projector. The window’s light slowly fizzled into an orange glow before being devoured by the dark. I stared at the dark spot for several moments without comprehending what had happened, then shuddered as if stricken by a chill. The light and elderly gentlewoman were gone, and I was alone again.
Nothing else surprising happened for the duration of the night. Soon, it was morning, and I dutifully finished my shift and returned home.
At home, instead of sleeping away my fatigue, I reflected upon the night. I had no manner of accounting for what had happened to the light in the parallel window aside from it being a dream or hallucination. The former seemed unlikely as I did not remember awakening from a sleep before I returned home, and the latter was not impossible but frankly frightened me. Worse, I could not get the images of the elderly gentleman and gentlewoman out of my mind. Their floating torsos and heads seemed to spring to life before me; they haunted every corridor, and occupied every corner, and caused me to nearly leap out of my seat on more than one occasion. I dared not look into any mirror for fear their faces would reappear there—floating beside mine. The very thought made my forehead sweat.
No—I could not go on like this; I could not live on in such perpetual distress. I would not allow a bunch of hooligans, or a bunch of terrorists, or even my own mind to get the better of me. I was determined to get to the bottom of this matter once and for all. No one, not even my brain, would make a fool out of me.
So I determined: the following night, I would keep my vigil as before, and keep a wary eye out for the parallel window. This time, sleep would not take me. Should the light come on again and bring with it its uninvited guests, I was resolved to break my night watchman vow and leave my chamber to investigate the suspicious room myself. Only then would I know if what I had witnessed was real or no. Only then would I discover the secret, if any, of the people in the window.
Once night began to fall and all grew quiet in the village, I headed back to the castle. I made my way through the castle as before, and as soon as I was back in the tower chamber with Szarik fretfully at my heels, I turned instinctively to the parallel window. This time, the light was already on, so I crept closer to get a better look at the figure. It was, and I was frankly surprised by this--the elderly gentleman again.
What a stroke of luck—this was my chance! This was my opportunity—perhaps my one opportunity—to sally forth from my chamber, make my way to the parallel window room, and ambush my observer. I would catch whomever or whatever it was in the act and finally come to a resolution. I would, to put it bluntly, finally grasp the truth irrespective of the attendant consequences.
Thus resolved, I lighted a candle and walked away from the window and towards the door, only to be halted by a groveling Szarik. He lowered his snout in dejected submission and prostrated himself before my feet with his tail lowered in absolute surrender. Even in the dim glow of the candlelight, I could make out his two sorrowful eyes pleading with me to reconsider my scheme. But, I was not to be diverted.
I shoved Szarik out of the way, and continued towards the door. He sniveled, and leapt after me, but I kicked him away, and swore at him profusely. Shouting, I ordered him to remain in the chamber until I returned, and promptly shut the chamber door behind me. I imagined that following our brief scuffle he curled up in his corner and wept.
I felt the queasy recognition of breaching a sacrosanct law as I stepped out of the chamber, but I held to my self-ordained mission. I trudged through the deserted corridors with candle in hand and tried not think about what may lurk in wait for me in the dark. Yet try as I might, I could not rid myself of the distinct impression that something just beyond the halo of my candle was watching me; something that judged me for my insolence and was waiting to smite me for my disobedience. The thought of this punishment caused me no little sense of discomfiture, and it was made all the worse when the crunching sound from the previous night returned.
It grew louder as I walked—that is, it grew louder as I neared the parallel window’s room. At first, I had hoped that my mind had been merely playing a trick on me; that the sound was merely an exaggeration of my footfall; that it was not, after all, the same sound from yester night. But much to my dismay, I soon discovered that the crunching sound in no way corresponded to my footsteps; that it continued on in its ineluctable course irrespective of all other influences; that in its relentless chomping it promised to dog my footsteps to the ends of time. So, having no other recourse of action, and loathing the failure and shame of a cowardly sprint back to my chamber, I decided to continue onward while doing my utmost to disregard that pernicious, damnable sound. In this, I was only partially successful: its successive increases in volume as I approached my ultimate destination were simply impossible for me to ignore. It filled—and I do not use this phrase lightly—my heart with infinite dread.
And so, I crept and I crept and I crept, until, finally, I turned a corner and, at long last, faced what I determined to be the parallel window room’s door. The door loomed up at me; it was old and worn, with light streaming out from underneath. It was like some sullen entrance of an aged crypt too infrequently visited; its inhabitants unjustly forsaken by their wayward heirs. I shivered at the look of it, and had nearly decided to turn around and head back to my chamber, when I saw those culpable elderly faces in my mind’s eye and recalled my purpose. So, I steadied myself the best I could, and promised myself that no matter what lay beyond the door I would not flee; I would not allow them the satisfaction.
Summoning what courage remained to me while drawing a deep, heavy breath, I walked towards the door and placed one of my palms on one of its cool wood panels. To my surprise, it felt no different from any other wooden door panel in the castle. I took another draught of courage from this. Then, having thus braced myself, and drawing another large breath, I thrust back the door and forced my way inside.
Upon entering the room, the crunching sound immediately ceased. This, in itself, was a major shock, but it was not nearly as shocking as what I found in the room. There was, and it took me a few moments to register this, no one there.
It was a nondescript room: hardly distinguishable, in fact, from the chamber in which I had spent all my previous nights in the castle. I looked about the room for any signs of habitation, or signs of destruction, or signs of anything, really—anything unusual at all—but I could find none. To the best of my observations, there was nothing out of the ordinary to be found anywhere in the chamber; it was determinedly, and irrevocably, an unremarkable room.
I set down the candle and scratched my head in frustration. Had I simply imagined the elderly gentleman and gentlewoman by some trick of the light? But, then, why was the light in this room on? Had I, by some inconceivable course of action that was accompanied by memory loss, turned the light on myself? If so, why? Had I really grown that mad?
Disturbed, and still scratching my head, I walked over to an empty chair with the intention of sitting down and contemplating the matter further. I had nearly reached the chair when suddenly something bright and luminous sparked to life in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw, through the room’s window, a light coming from another window in the castle. Even from a distance I could tell—and squinted to make sure—that there were two figures standing in the other window.
Startled, I rushed closer to the room’s window. It was—yes, yes it most definitely was—it was them! It was the elderly gentleman and gentlewoman! They were both in the window, and they both looked exactly the same as before. Together, they made a much rougher and far more frayed pair than the farmer couple in that famous American painting. It was truly a horror to be seen.
Bewildered, I stared at the couple for a good solid minute before I realized what chamber they were in. It was the lookout chamber in the tower—it was my chamber in the castle! As if struck by lightning, I bolted from the room.
Panic ceded to outrage which ceded to indignation, and in a temper worthy of the Furies who pursued Orestes to the ends of Greece, I charged through the castle corridors in pursuit of my elusive quarry. I was as the legendary winged hussar roaring across the battlefield! My wrath was that of Achilles, and there was no river god to dissuade me from my murderous progress. I was angry; I was furious; I was boiling all over; I was in such an incensed state that the very castle walls seemed to pulsate with my rage. How dare they invade my private space! Those brutes, those scoundrels, those—those—those whatever they were! They had no honour! Vengeance would be mine, and I would permit nothing to stop me in achieving it.
So, I swiftly traversed the castle. True, it was dark, and I had forgotten the candle back in the other room, but that was no matter. The crunching sound had returned, this time accompanied by the bizarre, distant echo of Mongolian cries, and its increasing volume guided me to my journey’s end like the tune of the Pied Piper. I passed through the castle as if in a dream.
I followed the dark path. I turned another corner, and marched up another flight of stairs. Down another corridor I went, and the tower’s lookout chamber door materialized before my eyes. But, no light filtered through from underneath the door—something I noticed, but thought nothing of. I marched right on through the door and breached the room. The sound ceased, and I halted at the chamber’s opening. All was dark inside; I could not see a thing.
“Show yourselves!” I yelled into the dark, hardly knowing what I was saying. “Show yourselves now or I won’t hesitate to strike you down!”
Nothing moved, nor stirred within the chamber. All was silent as the grave, and there was no indication that anyone or anything had heard my cry. Worse, it was as if I stood at the entranceway of a vast sepulchre, and my voice had only echoed into its cavernous depths deep below the earth. In spite of my determination from before, and in spite of my zealous traversal of the castle, I hesitated and grew afraid.
Yes, I grew afraid—I was afraid. My fear radiated from the back of my skull and travelled throughout my entire body. Each cell that it touched, each cell that it managed to possess—to pass through only to pass through again into the next, softened my stance and desiccated my resolve. It urged me to let go of my nascent grudge, to withdraw, to leave this place, and to leave it without looking back—lest some great calamity befall me as retribution for my insolence. It insisted that I retreat, to hell with duties and obligations, and let the dark chamber keep its dark secrets. Let it lie. There was no need to disturb the dragon that slumbers there. After all, no one would really know I had lost my nerve and abandoned my post; no one, that is, but me.
I stared into the shadowy abyss and thought I heard a furtive movement. It was like the onset of stifled laughter—a snicker in the dark. I was astounded by this sound—was that a human’s silhouette—was there someone lurking in the chamber after all? But then, who were they—they must be laughing at me! Laughing at me standing in this doorway like an idiot, mouth no doubt agape, too fearful of a little dark to even take a step inside. Well, if they thought I would just run away so they could have their joke—they would be the ones mistaken! I’d show them; I would not permit them to make a fool out of me.
So, I stepped into the chamber and turned on the light. Immediately, everything in the chamber was illuminated. There was no one there.
Indeed, there was no one there—but, there was a strange lump in the centre of the chamber. It was highly irregular in its shape—dipping here and elevating there—and seemed to be composed of materials that strongly resembled a gallimaufry of blood and fur. Something or someone had torn at it, ripped it up and strangled it, maybe even set upon it with a single pair of bare hands. With growing unease, I was strongly reminded of the shadow of a beast now mangled beyond recognition. It was as if a wanton boy had killed a fly for his sport and left the mutilated specimen on the floor. That is, if the wanton boy had killed a dog.
A dog. A dog. It was a dog—brutalized beyond recognition. A horrid sight! Its black-and-tan fur tattered; its body rent with rivulets of its own blood; its listless, sorrowful eyes emptied of life. Oh, those eyes! Those eyes! They haunt me to this very day. Those eyes were angled so grotesquely beneath the caved-in cranium that domed the wreckage of its body that it took all my resources and fortitude not to vomit. I could not stand the sight for long. I had to look away.
And yet, my gaze was wrenched back to the gory spectacle by a wretched thought. Horror gripped my heart at the onset of a realization. It was a realization all too slow in coming in that silent chamber. Yet, when it came it had the ferocity of a stroke of lighting to the skull.
The strange lump was Szarik. Or at least, what was left of him.
But no—it couldn’t be. Why would anyone—anything do this? He was a coward, sure, but he was harmless. He wouldn’t hurt anyone.
I approached the corpse in disbelief. Tears welled in my eyes. I could not believe that—no—it wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. This wasn’t Szarik—it couldn’t be. It must be another trick of the castle; another illusion played by some malicious entity or my own senses. Yes, that was it. It couldn’t be Szarik. It couldn’t.
I stood over the corpse. I gazed at its mangled frame—intently searching for the tell-tale sign of its identity. Upon closer inspection, I would surely confirm the lump as not Szarik. I knew that I was—that I must discover evidence supporting this no-doubt-true fact. Because Szarik must have escaped the chamber somehow. Because it had to have happened. Because—because I knew Szarik had. That was all.
So, I knelt by the corpse. I was adamant in verifying that it was not Szarik’s. Yet, as I examined the corpse, I noticed there was something on my hands. Baffled, I looked at them only to discover that they were both covered in blood—the very blood that ran from the corpse! I had not, in any way, touched the corpse, nor could the blood have dripped upon my hands, and yet my hands were rank with the stuff. They were positively drenched in it.
With immense trepidation I stared at my hands, then at the corpse, then at my own hands again; willing myself to understand what had happened. But, before I could comprehend the meaning of this vision—really, before I could comprehend much of anything at all—the lights went out, and all of the chamber was plunged back into darkness.
What happened next—I could hardly fathom, let alone describe. I could only conjecture that I had reached out into the abyss, and now, something terrible, something invisible, something uncannily frightful, had reached back and seized me by the throat. It was as if I had been paralyzed. I could not move.
“So, the prodigal son has returned after all,” wheezed an old man’s voice in the dark that set my hair on end. “Pity he took such little thought of his father.”
“Look what he did,” hissed another voice. “Look what your son did!”
“Why, I would just die from shame if my own son behaved this way,” intoned a woman’s voice. “Truly disgraceful.”
“A foolish son is a grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him,” whined yet another old voice—this one belonging to another woman. “Is it then such a surprise that he should disappoint us thus? We must remember: he was always such a failure in everything he tried to accomplish.”
“Humph. He never tried anything,” said the first voice. “He never tried anything with full vigour. He always set himself up to fail; expecting the world to take care of him. He was always such a lazy boy; such a disappointment. Spare the rod, spoil the child. That’s what they always say. We should have disciplined him better.”
“Oh my, oh my, oh my,” rang out another voice like a pair of iron bells.
“Yes, he could have used a good thrashing from a male hand,” confirmed the second woman’s voice. “Yes indeed.”
Faces, old, horrid, gnarled faces, emerged from the dark. They seemed to glide through the room. They were each illuminated by ghastly candles, and they crowded around the chamber. All were looking intently at me.
In the middle—that is, right in front of me—I recognized the elderly gentleman and gentlewoman. They stood in the centre of the crowd and were dressed as before. With horror, I realized that they were the very mirror image of my father and mother.
“He seems to have realized something,” said a voice from the left.
“Oh finally, finally he realizes something. Took him long enough—didn’t even recognize his own father and mother! What a cipa!”
“Where’s the belt? I’ll teach the menda how to behave!”
“Such vile behaviour! A stain upon his poor family, a stain upon poor Poland!”
“He who sires a fool does so to his sorrow, and the father of a fool has no joy,” quoted my father.
“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother,” quoted my mother.
“And for our only son to have turned out like this,” sighed my father and mother in unison. “What in all heaven above did we do to deserve it?”
“Silence! Who gave you permission speak?”
“What an insolent little gówno!”
I attempted to rise, but my legs were not up to the task. I fell, and tears, along with the futility of it all, descended upon me like death.
“Where are your manners? Where are your manners?”
“He doesn’t have any. He’s more Russian than Polish, don’t you know? Doesn’t give a damn for his family, or his country.”
“Or his church.”
“Where did we go wrong?” said my father, shaking his head.
“What a disgrace,” said my mother.
“So, this is how the younger generation honours its elders. A pity.”
“See how he treats his only father and mother? Abandons them, forgets them, doesn’t even recognize them.”
“Quiet! Or we’ll wash your mouth out with soap!”
“And give you a good caning!”
“Why, I think he’s crying, but that’s no shock; he’s not a real mężczyna anyway. Not even man enough to face up to his faults. No wonder no woman ever married him. He’s a disgrace.”
“A disgrace. A disgrace,” chanted several voices in unison.
“And no grandchildren. No family at all.”
“The name dies with him, it seems.”
“Where are my grandchildren?” asked my mother. “Where are my wnuki?”
“What a pity. His parents put in all that work—for nothing. He really is a cipa isn’t he?”
“You are a failure and a disgrace,” said my father.
“You are a disappointment,” said my mother.
“Better he was never born,” roared the voices.
“Better he was dead.”
“No! No! No! No! No!” I yelled over the competing whirlwind of voices. They had all begun to approach me. They circled round me like a vise grip, and their demonic faces howled at me in malignant derision. I raised my arms over my head and pleaded with them for mercy.
“Discipline! Discipline the traitorous sinner! Discipline him!” they all yelled. “Teach him what it means to dishonour his father and mother. Teach him what it means to betray his country!”
Something caught in my throat, and I spit it out into my bloodstained hands. By the glow of the candles I could see it was a tooth.
“A tooth! A tooth!” they all screeched.
It was all too much. Consigning my duty, my life, my parents all to hell, I tore out of the chamber on all fours and barrelled through the castle. I dropped the tooth as I ran. I could still hear their taunting chants and jeers as I careered down corridors and stairs, but I paid them no more heed; it was all over now. Bursting out of the castle, I flew into the street and stumbled across a hill.
What happened after that—I do not remember. I was running, running, and everything suddenly swerved, and all went black.
And I was lost, alone in the darkness.
To be sure, whatever haunted the castle did not kill me. When I awoke the next day, sprawled in the castle parking lot, you can surmise how relieved I felt to be alive, and how inexorable my determination was to leave my position at the castle for good. Whether real or imagined, my parent’s spectres, and what I now recognized to be the phantoms of my dearly departed extended family, had frightened me well beyond my wits. It was more than I could ever possibly bear, and I was determined to get as far away from them as I physically could.
I was done being a night watchman; I was done living in Poland for that matter; and, I was insistent on getting my affairs in order—that very day, if possible.
So, I stretched my aching back and limbs (for a parking lot made a poor bed) and hurried home. Upon arriving home, I grabbed my valise and began throwing everything about. Books, toiletries, clothes, cutlery; I would cram all I could into the valise and leave the rest for whomever next lived in this damned place. I would start anew; I would start again.
A quick glance at the phone stirred the faint echo of obligation. I fondled the tender space in my mouth where the molar had been with my tongue. I had to give notice. So I lurched over to the phone and dialed my employer. I left a message on his answering machine announcing my resignation. I told the machine that I regrettably resigned my post as night watchman at Legnica Castle; that this job, as it turned out, was not for me, and that I wished him good fortune in finding a suitable replacement.
I hung up the phone and examined my hands; they were caked in a kind of rust. I took up the phone again.
I called a stunned realtor and ordered him to sell my house as soon as possible—the sooner the better—and for a loss if need be. I just wanted it gone, I told him.
When he asked me where I would go—where I would live now--
“Canada,” I said, saying the first thing that sprung to mind, and hung up the phone.
Yes, Canada, I thought, looking around at my half-strewn-about belongings. Canada would do just as fine as any place.
And with that, I packed my things and got ready to go.
Baranek: Diminutive of “ram” or “sheep.” Suggestive of the more insulting baranie. Slang for “idiot” or “dumbass.”
Capiche: (Italian) Slang for “do you understand?”
Gówno: “Nothing” or “nobody.”
Menda: “Louse” or “creep.”
Plac Zamkowy Jeden: Castle Square One.
Peter Szuban is a Canadian author of fiction, poetry, and critical prose. He is working towards a Master of Information degree, and divides his time between writing and the library. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.