Here and Now
The choice is always left to us.
The choice is always left behind us.
We move forward, we hurry, but have we enough courage to interrupt our moving, to stop, subduing our fear, and to turn our back to the danger or the luck which are always in front of us, while turning our face to our choice, which always, forever, inexorable and invisible, is left to us – and behind us?!
For a naked sword
Is the only word.
“With what?” the taverner’s face turned red.
“With songs,” repeated Peter Sliadek, stunned with his own impudence. “I’ll pay with songs.”
The taverner walked among the tables. Fat, stout, he was moving with a waddle, reminding a loaded wagon at the Kichora road. Arms like hams. If he slaps you on your ear with this...
“A bowl of sauerkraut,” drawled Jas Misiur pensively, looking around his tavern as if he had seen it for the first time. “Two bowls. Full over the brim. Five black sausages fried in honey. Pork liver with caraway seed. Three mugs of beer. The red one, odd-even...”
“Four. Four mugs.” Peter Sliadek always considered himself an honest man.
“Aha, four. And a bed. So, odd-even, with songs?!”
A morning was making its way through the narrow windows. A kitten was playing on the floor with pink sun feathers – hunting, murmuring. Then, having forgotten its play at once, began to wash itself, its shaggy tongue flitting. Peter envied the kitten. It is fed for purring...
“In the evening people will come,” he said, scarcely believing his own words. “I’ll sing. They’ll give me groshes. Many. And I’ll pay.”
“Why didn’t you gather some yesterday?”
“Yesterday there were no people.”
“And today there will be?”
“Today there will be.”
He badly wanted to get up. But he understood: a vagrant, skinny as a stick, would look ludicrous near Misiur, fat from ham-eating. A pole near a barn. A carp near a full grown cat-fish. He would decide I want to run away...
“If you’re about to hit me,” in Peter Sliadek’s voice there was heard dull, habitual despair, “then do it. You’ll feel better. Just not on the ear. To become deaf for me – worse than death. And don’t touch my music.”
He pushed slightly with his leg his “music” – an old, shabby lute wrapped into a motley rag – farther behind the table.
“Like I need your songs...” the taverner muttered. “Like I need your groshes...”
“Today is Saturday. People will come...”
“Like I need your ears...”
Peter felt sudden cramps in his belly. Yesterday it was a Friday evening. And – an empty tavern. Except for a frontier guard, a company officer according to the cords on his uniform, who had come from Rahovez with a lady. His wife, apparently. They were given the best room upstairs. Now the noble pair was sitting by the window, eating pancakes with honey and sour cream for breakfast. The lady was listening to the conversation, if one could call so Jas Misiur’s fair claims and Peter’s counterproposals. The lady was smiling, kindly, with sympathy. Maybe if he were to be beaten she would demand to stop it.
Or she would not.
Ladies, they have a weakness for shows.
Rather, he could count on the mercy of another guest – a tall man wrapped in a cloak. A staff with a knob, standing bored near the wall, showed its owner was a mage. Mages don’t like violence. So it’s said... Peter couldn’t recall who said so and why. Maybe he just badly wanted mages not to like violence. For them to intervene, to protect, to save. He knew this ill feature in him: to devise something and to believe in it at once as if it were gospel truth.
The taverner came closer. Peter shut his eyes, waiting. Just not on the ear. His left ear had been hard of hearing through the winter after the affair in Legnitz.
He couldn’t refrain from getting up. When you stand up it’s easier to bear it.
“Like I need your groshes...” repeated Jas Misiur. “A fool you are. A trouble-doer. A troubadour, odd-even... Sit down.”
Without opening his eyes Peter sat down on the bench again.
“My daughter says: leave the tavern. That is, odd-even, you sell it and move to us, to Rahovez. To nurse the grandchildren. In the evenings you’ll be walking along the quay – with a cane, like an honest citizen. Not you’ll be pouring wine, but someone else will be for you. That’s true: I have a money-box, some savings, my son-in-law is of a high rank, he’ll help... Enough for the rest of my life. But without my tavern I’m... Well, tell me, a goose of passage you are, who am I without my tavern?”
The kitten rubbed itself against Peter’s leg, and the vagrant nearly jumped up. He thought someone was already beating him. It’s the worst thing – at the legs with boots. With a wooden sole, too! After that the road is like hell.
“Sit, noodle. With his songs... What sort of songs?”
“There are merry ones. Bawdy ones, if you need. For ferrymen.” Under his eyelashes there reigned plausible darkness. There swarmed unrealisable hopes, promising to become realised. “Rafters like bawdiness. Dances: ovenzek, kozeryika... Then there are noble ones: about knights, about vows. I can sing a ballade about the battle of Osobloga. I’ve composed it myself...”
He wanted very much to make an impression on them. After all, today was the sixth anniversary of the battle.
“Composed, he did,” the taverner laughed, and there echoed a deep snicker from the side. The officer, apparently. “He posed, posed and composed. Magpies chirred for him, odd-even...”
Peter felt insulted. He opened his left eye: “That’s for somebody else – magpies. And I’ve seen everything. I was in the Home Guard, on the slope. I had a spear – a big one. With jags. They had given spears to all of us.”
“Don’t,” said the officer suddenly. “Jas, not about Osobloga. Leave the guy alone. I’ll pay for him.”
“He’ll pay,” the taverner’s bass crackled with a strange, a bit impudent smirk. “He’ll pay me, odd-even... Make me happy for the rest of my life. Walking along the Rahovez quay with a cane I’ll be: tap-tap, tap-tap...”
Peter Sliadek wondered silently at Jas Misiur’s courage. A plain taverner – yet he isn’t afraid to talk this way to a frontier guard... It looked as if he wouldn’t be beaten up. To ask for some porridge? Maybe he’ll show a bit of generousity... Cooked buckwheat, with lard...
However, instead of buckwheat Peter decided to get insulted for good and all.
“It’s a good ballade. Very good. I’ve done my best. When I sing it, everyone asks to repeat. And clap their hands. Here, this is about the Stooped Knight, how he was fighting over Siegfried of Maintz...”
Tapping with his heels and diligently thumping the rhythm on the table edge, Peter began in full voice:
“Having leaned against a trunk,
On en’my’s shade he trod,
Dying like a day,
To life returning like a night,
And the thinnest skin layer
There on his back burnt,
Between the spine and the tree
It was tearing apart.”
The officer’s laughter was an answer to him. The lady echoed sonorously, clapping her hands clothed in travel gloves. The taverner Jas was droning like a bell. Even the lanky mage deigned to smile with the corner of his mouth. The kitten, scared, leaped away to the stairs, bent its back and hissed.
“Hey, wife! Porridge for the singer! With goose cracklings! Why, you did amuse us, odd-even...”
“Have you really been at Osobloga?” asked the officer suddenly, getting up. In his bird-like, piercing eyes there was a question much more serious than it could seem at first glance. Only that Peter couldn’t understand why the officer gave such importance to this. “Don’t you be afraid, answer honestly. If you lie, I won’t punish you. Have you?!”
“With a spear on a slope?”
“With a spear.”
“Whose standard was there to the left of you?”
“The prince’s. Of Razimir of Opolie.”
“Why, you don’t lie... And what where the thoughts?”
“Whose? The prince’s?!”
“Then. On the slope.”
Peter felt irresistible need to answer the truth. This happened to him rarely and almost always ended with beating. “I felt pity. That I’m on the slope, and they are on the other shore. The Stooped Knight, and Jendrich Dry Storm, and everyone. Were I in their place... I couldn’t see well. But I was looking... I’ve been there, honestly. We were driven through the ford afterwards.”
“Yes,” Peter Sliadek frowned gloomily. “My spear... In his belly, running; and he made “hah” and died. The rest I don’t remember.”
“Tell the boy, Jas,” nodded the officer, staring straight at the taverner. “I see your tongue’s dancing in your mouth. You want to, so tell him. We’ll wait upstairs. When Seingalt arrives, let somebody announce us.”
The stairs creaked under his feet.
The taverner was looking at the floor for a long time. Then he raised his eyes at the tall mage. The mage nodded subtly. Peter was nervous: he didn’t understand what was happening, and odd things always threatened to turn to bad ones. To snatch his lute and escape?
Were it not for the promised porridge that had appeared in front of him, Peter would have escaped.
But the porridge... with goose cracklings!..
“Eat, noodle. Look at him – trod on the enemy’s shade, odd-even... You saw yourself – the tavern’s empty. Today it will be empty, and tomorrow too. People know when father Misiur doesn’t want to see nobody. And then you turn up. I looked at you: skinny, ribs stick out, only the eyes burn. I think – all right, I’ll feed him. It’ll go on my account in heaven. Like this chicken you were,” the taverner nodded at the mage, and Peter wondered once more at Jas’ odd courage. And also at the strange comparison.
Nothing in common!
“Only that you disturbed me, lad. Troubled my soul. Well, listen. If there’s not enough porridge, I’ll tell to bring some more...”