Dominik Tatarka


As you know, I was two and a half years old when the authorities sent my father to the war, to the eastern front.  Not a single photograph of him or letter from him was preserved.  At the time peasants didn't have their pictures taken, only the nobility did.  His contemporaries remembered him; they would stop me: Dominik, your father, now he was a real man!  We went to the market together, we plowed together.  My godfather told me how they used to go to market.  At the time it was great fun to go to market, to see cattle and friends there, to sit in the tavern and sell or buy things.  Back then farmers went to market the way we'd go to a coffeehouse.

            They knew the livestock by sight since god knows when.  They knew how a horse walked, they would look in the horse's mouth: the young horse has holes in its teeth, almost as deep as a kernel of corn, a hole that you could fit an oat seed into.  And the older the horse is, the more the holes close up, and an old horse doesn't have any holes in its teeth anymore.  You can tell an old horse by many such signs.  Every man who raises horses, works with them and rides them, knows those things about them.  Certain horses are tricky.  An obstinate one like that is supposed to carry a load, and all at once it rears up and won't pull anymore.  It's better to throw yourself to the ground.  Sometimes this characteristic is quite dangerous.  When a horse does this on the road, it's disastrous.

            So in my imagination, my father was a tall, strong man; in the winter he carted wood from the forest; in the summer he plowed, reaped, and had eight children.  Mother praised him; how loving he was; he never called her anything but "my sweet Zofia."  And my sisters recalled that he never forgot to bring some sweets or buns from the market.  In those days that was a real treat for us.

            I tried to draw him, and I tried to carve his picture in dry wood with a knife.  Mama told me that it wouldn't work, and said that I had drawn some kind of clown.  You have to do it like this, she said, but it just didn't work, that picture didn't exist and it was a disturbing moment: I want to know, I want to know what my father was like.

            Only now, now that I was seventy-two years old, lying in bed, my father came to me, outfitted with that kind of coat with a leather trim, dressed up for a journey, and he nodded his head somewhat - I was sorry that he was thirty-five and I was seventy-two, what a paradox that I was old and he was handsome, young.

            He reached into his pocket and handed me five beautiful little stones.  He says, take them and bite them apart.  I said: Father, why, you know I don't have teeth anymore.  But I took the stones.  One very strange stone, grey, sandstone, was streaked with three veins like three opaque white rivers.  I tried to bite it apart. . . and Father disappeared.

            I'm convinced, that I was shown a likeness, a real likeness, of how my father looked: his stature, face, hair, beard, mouth.  I told friends that I had dreamed this, about these pebbles, that I bit one of them apart.  And they said: well, clearly, clearly. . . it's an obelus.

            The Greeks, after death, put little coins into their mouths for the ferryman Charon in the underworld, so they could cross the river.  In other words this stone, which your father showed you, was such a symbol, a metaphorical picture of this obelus.

            Once in school the teacher asked when everyone had been born.  On that occasion, a report was being filed and the beginning of the school year was to be shifted based on birthdays.  And then half the class raised their hands to say that they were born in March.  I was born in March too.  And I figured out when they made me.  What things were like then.  It was June or July when they conceived me.  When hay was made and dried.  There are two beautiful months between two seasons of hard labor, between the spring work and the summer harvest.   I figured out that not only I, but half the class.  So I can judge that our fathers liked to make love more outdoors than at home.  And so I learned that they conceived me in the Long Meadows.  We dried hay and went on hayrides, said Mother.  I made the stacks and Father loaded them.  And as we were finishing the last one a storm flooded us out, and the rest of the hay was soaked.  You see how your father was so easygoing, he didn’t even finish that last haystack.  I guessed that he would rather make love than finish that last haystack.  Such is the conjecture of a childish, boyish mind.

            I always longed to have a man in the house.  A man who would speak and everyone would listen to him.  You can tell a farm without a farmer at first glance.  According to what?  There is a sort of disorder.  The farm wife sees something else, she sees her cattle, she sees her hens and her furniture, but she doesn’t see, let’s say, things that matter more to a man: there are holes in the roof, the axe isn’t in the right place, that table is wobbly.  You see a million things, from which you can judge: that one doesn’t have a man around.  And my mother sometimes was so overwhelmed with sadness: no, I don’t have a farmer.  Where is my husband. . .  Perhaps I perceived it a little differently, but I learned to perceive such spaces, such interiors.  It is something like a feminine element and a masculine element, which complement each other, which can create a harmonious, flourishing home.  Our home lacked this, and I feel that lack even today.

            My father left me a little wooden hay-wagon which he had carved by hand.  It, too, was proof that he was a skillful man who had all the tools you could think of.  It was a medium-large children's wagon, the kind children could ride on for fun.  I lost the back of the wagon and only the front remained.  And I loved to wander around with the front of that wagon.  I used to go along the main road, and often along that road came the brewery's horses, carrying large barrels of beer from the Bytča brewery all the way to Puchov.  I sat on the handle and pulled the front of my wagon along behind me.  Two wheels, a handle, and an axle.  My legs got cut all over, but I was driving a brewer's wagon.  And I had a marvelous feeling that I was driving who knows where.  A wagon-driver going to Považská Bystrica came and stopped where he usually stopped, at the iron-monger's or at the tavern, and there the driver noticed that a little boy was driving along with him, picked me up and carried me into the iron-monger's and asked the old lady there, don't you want this little boy?  Well, yes, certainly.  So that housewife put me into the tub, washed me in warm water, and gave me a piece of fruit cake.  I fell asleep instantly and when the driver came back, he took me to Mother.  The front of that wagon was like an inheritance left to me by my father.

            My father loved horses.  Once he sold a horse which was suitable for the plow and worked well with it, and he bought a real gentleman's horse, harnessed to a buggy.  He sat Mother and the children inside and people were pleased that a farmer was riding around like that.  It seems that Mother reproached him for philandering.  This is my husband, whom I married; I run a farm with him, and I'm to be faithful to him till the end.  I have children, cattle, and everything with him.  At that time, divorces in such peasant marriages were the exception.  To have children was actually a blessing.  Children were a help on the farm from a young age.  When they were young they could raise geese, they had their duties, but they weren't just taken as something useful.  Children were simply a blessing.

            And Mother was like Father; she told me: You know, Dominik, whenever I as much as pause in the doorway with your father, I get pregnant.  So every one and a half years a child came into the world.  Father saw my little sister, the youngest, only for a moment; between one train and another he stopped, kissed her and went on. . .

            When Father went off to the front, he wanted to clear up all his debts; he didn't want to leave such a burden on Mother.  He sold the oxen and the steer and paid off his debt at the tavern.  A year or two later that deceitful tavern-keeper said: the farmer owed me such and such an amount.  Mother burst into tears.  Good Lord in heaven, certainly my farmer paid and settled everything, and you gave him a receipt.

            She thought it over for some time, checked the sacks, lit a candle and started to pray to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of those who are looking for something.  And it dawned on her that the receipt had to be in the waistcoat pocket of the suit Father was wearing when he went to pay off the debts.  His suit, his coats and his trousers had already been torn into rags.  We wore them as raincoats.  But where was that waistcoat?  True, the waistcoat was of no use.  But from some impulse, she had stuffed it between the lathes on the truss, and in the waistcoat was the receipt.  Thus from the last rags of that tattered waistcoat I had some idea how my father was dressed when he left for the last time.

            From early childhood I was actually the man of the house.  Since I was a young boy I had been considered, among all the women, the representative of the farm.  My mother was proud of me when our farm was introduced, for example, at the firemen's ball.  The firemen's ball was also a collection by the fire brigade, for a fire engine.  And every proper farmer came and made a donation by buying a ticket.  Since I was, say, ten or twelve years old, I brought a lot of money: thirty crowns.  This is from Tatarka.  So they accepted me: yes, Dominik, yes, thank you very much.  The male member of the Tatarka household has brought a donation.

            A request came again for the church bells, for this or that.  And Mother: Go, take this, and I took our donation for the church bells.  I wanted to please her.  To hear her appreciation: you're my dear little boy, you did well.  You fed the geese, you brought clover, you brought it for us.

            Since I was the only male in the house, I reaped and plowed, although I was going to school at the same time.  It was time to reap, but they had taken everything away from us, I didn't have a scythe or even a rake.  So I went to a shop and bought the last scythe that they had, which no one wanted anymore, because they had looked through the scythes thoroughly, testing their hardness.  Well, I got such an awfully hard scythe, that was hard to sharpen. 

I placed it on a "babka," that is, a round piece of iron set in wood.  You had to sharpen exactly on the edge of the scythe, about three millimeters, that way you also planed it, everywhere equally.  I'd seen how to do this since I was little.  I sharpened the scythe up wonderfully, put it on the cradle with those little handles and the scythe reaped for me, how it worked for me, as if it were sweeping.     

            And Mother followed, gathering the stalks behind me: Oh, Dominik, Dominik, like this, like this.  I reaped my little patch, one-two-three.  And as early as at ten we were on our way back and Mother greeted everyone we passed, saying: Lord, help you, Lord, help you.  Yes and everywhere they greeted us and said: So come and help.  That was unusual, to return from the fields at ten.

            So we went to help.  And the neighbors wanted to trick me, lanky student that I was, and so they put me between two of the best reapers, expecting that I would fall behind.  But my scythe cut so well that it was always swishing just behind their heels.  So I had the honor of being the number-one mower.  That was the greatest honor that you could receive in the village: to be the best mower and to also have the most skillful woman to gather behind you.  Often I helped the neighbors where my first love grew up.  And so Mother was proud.

            We teamed up.  They gave, or allocated, us an old mare which didn't know how to pull very well.  We had a little horse and the neighbor another one, so we harnessed them together and in the spring worked as a pair.  They carted lumber from the forest.


    Translated by Charles Sabatos