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Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

by Olga Tokarczuk

Hardcover, 274 pages, Riverhead Books, List Price: $27 |

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Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead
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Olga Tokarczuk

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NPR Summary

When her neighbor turns up dead, and then other bodies turn up under strange circumstances, Janine, a recluse in a remote Polish village who prefers the company of animals over humans, inserts herself into the investigation, certain she knows whodunit.

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Excerpt: Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead

I.

Now Pay Attention

Once meek, and in a perilous path,

The just man kept his course along

The vale of death.

I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.

Had I examined the Ephemerides that evening to see what was happening in the sky, I wouldn't have gone to bed at all. Meanwhile I had fallen very fast asleep; I had helped myself with an infusion of hops, and I also took two valerian pills. So when I was woken in the middle of the Night by hammering on the door-violent, immoderate and thus ill-omened-I was unable to come round. I sprang up and stood by the bed, unsteadily, because my sleepy, shaky body couldn't make the leap from the innocence of sleep into wakefulness. I felt weak and began to reel, as if about to lose consciousness. Unfortunately this has been happening to me lately, and has to do with my Ailments. I had to sit down and tell myself several times: I'm at home, it's Night, someone's banging on the door; only then did I manage to control my nerves. As I searched for my slippers in the dark, I could hear that whoever had been banging was now walking around the house, muttering. Downstairs, in the cubbyhole for the electrical meters, I keep the pepper spray Dizzy gave me because of the poachers, and that was what now came to mind. In the darkness I managed to seek out the familiar, cold aerosol shape, and thus armed, I switched on the outside light, then looked at the porch through a small side window. There was a crunch of snow, and into my field of vision came my neighbor, whom I call Oddball. He was wrapping himself in the tails of the old sheepskin coat I'd sometimes seen him wearing as he worked outside the house. Below the coat I could see his striped pajamas and heavy hiking boots.

 

"Open up," he said.

 

With undisguised astonishment he cast a glance at my linen suit (I sleep in something the Professor and his wife wanted to throw away last summer, which reminds me of a fashion from the past and the days of my youth-thus I combine the Practical and the Sentimental) and without a by-your-leave he came inside.

"Please get dressed. Big Foot is dead."

For a while I was speechless with shock; without a word I put on my tall snow boots and the first fleece to hand from the coat rack. Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons.

"What do you mean, dead?" I finally asked, my throat tightening, as I opened the door, but Oddball didn't answer.

He generally doesn't say much. He must have Mercury in a reticent sign, I reckon it's in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square or maybe in opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde-that produces reserve.

We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air that reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Mankind, and for at least half the year it shows us how very hostile it is to us. The frost brutally assailed our cheeks, and clouds of white steam came streaming from our mouths. The porch light went out automatically and we walked across the crunching snow in total darkness, except for Oddball's headlamp, which pierced the pitch dark in one shifting spot, just in front of him, as I tripped along in the Murk behind him.

"Don't you have a flashlight?" he asked.

Of course I had one, but I wouldn't be able to tell where it was until morning. It's a feature of flashlights that they're only visible in the daytime.

 

Big Foot's cottage stood slightly out of the way, higher up than the other houses. It was one of three inhabited all year round. Only he, Oddball and I lived here without fear of the winter; all the other inhabitants had sealed their houses shut in October, drained the water from the pipes and gone back to the city.

 

Now we turned off the partly cleared road that runs across our hamlet and splits into paths leading to each of the houses. A path trodden in deep snow led to Big Foot's house, so narrow that you had to set one foot behind the other while trying to keep your balance.

 

"It won't be a pretty sight," warned Oddball, turning to face me, and briefly blinding me with his headlamp.

I wasn't expecting anything else. For a while he was silent, and then, as if to explain himself, he said: "I was alarmed by the light in his kitchen and the dog barking so plaintively. Didn't you hear it?"

No, I didn't. I was asleep, numbed by hops and valerian.

"Where is she now, the Dog?"

"I took her away from here-she's at my place, I fed her and she seemed to calm down."

Another moment of silence.

"He always put out the light and went to bed early to save money, but this time it continued to burn. A bright streak against the snow. Visible from my bedroom window. So I went over there, thinking he might have got drunk or was doing the dog harm, for it to be howling like that."

We passed a tumbledown barn and moments later Oddball's flashlight fetched out of the darkness two pairs of shining eyes, pale green and fluorescent.

"Look, Deer," I said in a raised whisper, grabbing him by the coat sleeve. "They've come so close to the house. Aren't they afraid?"

The Deer were standing in the snow almost up to their bellies. They gazed at us calmly, as if we had caught them in the middle of performing a ritual whose meaning we couldn't fathom. It was dark, so I couldn't tell if they were the same Young Ladies who had come here from the Czech Republic in the autumn, or some new ones. And in fact why only two? That time there had been at least four of them.

"Go home," I said to the Deer, and started waving my arms. They twitched, but didn't move. They calmly stared after us, all the way to the front door. A shiver ran through me.

Meanwhile Oddball was stamping his feet to shake the snow off his boots outside the neglected cottage. The small windows were sealed with plastic and cardboard, and the wooden door was covered with black tar paper.

The walls in the hall were stacked with firewood for the stove, logs of uneven size. The interior was nasty, dirty and neglected. Throughout there was a smell of damp, of wood and earth-moist and voracious. The stink of smoke, years old, had settled on the walls in a greasy layer.

The door into the kitchen was ajar, and at once I saw Big Foot's body lying on the floor. Almost as soon as my gaze landed on him, it leaped away. It was a while before I could look over there again. It was a dreadful sight.

He was lying twisted in a bizarre position, with his hands to his neck, as if struggling to pull off a collar that was pinching him. Gradually I went closer, as if hypnotized. I saw his open eyes fixed on a point somewhere under the table. His dirty vest was ripped at the throat. It looked as if the body had turned on itself, lost the fight and been killed. It made me feel cold with Horror-the blood froze in my veins and I felt as if it had withdrawn deep inside my body. Only yesterday I had seen this body alive.

"My God," I mumbled, "what happened?"

Oddball shrugged.

"I can't get through to the Police, it's the Czech network again."

I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and tapped out the number I knew from the television-997-and soon after an automated Czech voice responded. That's what happens here. The signal wanders, with no regard for the national borders. Sometimes the dividing line between operators parks itself in my kitchen for hours on end, and occasionally it has stopped by Oddball's house or on the terrace for several days. Its capricious nature is hard to predict.

"You should have gone higher up the hill behind the house," I belatedly advised him.

"He'll be stiff as a board before they get here," said Oddball in a tone that I particularly disliked in him-as if he had all the answers. He took off his sheepskin coat and hung it on the back of a chair. "We can't leave him like that, he looks ghastly. He was our neighbor, after all."

As I looked at Big Foot's poor, twisted body I found it hard to believe that only yesterday I'd been afraid of this Person. I disliked him. To say I disliked him might be putting it too mildly. Instead I should say that I found him repulsive, horrible. In fact I didn't even regard him as a human Being. Now he was lying on the stained floor in his dirty underwear, small and skinny, limp and harmless. Just a piece of matter, which some unimaginable processes had reduced to a fragile object, separated from everything else. It made me feel sad, horrified, for even someone as foul as he was did not deserve death. Who on earth does? The same fate awaits me too, and Oddball, and the Deer outside; one day we shall all be nothing more than corpses.

I glanced at Oddball, in the hope of some consolation, but he was already busy making the rumpled bed, a shakedown on a dilapidated folding couch, so I did my best to comfort myself. And then it occurred to me that in a way Big Foot's death might be a good thing. It had freed him from the mess that was his life. And it had freed other living Creatures from him. Oh yes, suddenly I realized what a good thing death can be, how just and fair, like a disinfectant, or a vacuum cleaner. I admit that's what I thought, and that's what I still think now.

Big Foot was my neighbor, our houses were only half a kilometer apart, yet I rarely had anything to do with him. Fortunately. Instead I used to see him from afar-his diminutive, wiry figure, always a little unsteady, would move across the landscape. As he went along, he'd mumble to himself, and sometimes the windy acoustics of the Plateau would bring me snippets of this essentially simple, unvarying monologue. His vocabulary mainly consisted of curses, onto which he tacked some proper nouns.

 

He knew every scrap of this terrain, for it seems he was born here and never went further than Kodzko. He knew the forest well-what parts of it he could use to earn money, what he could sell and to whom. Mushrooms, blueberries, stolen timber, brushwood for kindling, snares, the annual off-road vehicle rally, hunting. The forest nurtured this little goblin. Thus he should have respected the forest, but he did not. One August, when there was a drought, he set an entire blueberry patch ablaze. I called the fire brigade, but not much could be saved. I never found out why he did it. In summer he would wander about with a saw, cutting down trees full of sap. When I politely admonished him, though finding it hard to restrain my Anger, he replied in the simplest terms: "Get lost, you old crone." But more crudely than that. He was always up to a bit of stealing, filching, fiddling, to make himself extra cash; when the summer residents left a flashlight or a pair of pruning shears in the yard, Big Foot would instantly nose out an opportunity to swipe these items, which he could then sell off in town. In my view he should have received several Punishments by now, or even been sent to prison. I don't know how he got away with it all. Perhaps there were some angels watching over him; sometimes they turn up on the wrong side.

I also knew that he poached by every possible means. He treated the forest like his own personal farm-everything there belonged to him. He was the pillaging type.

He caused me many a sleepless Night. I would lie awake out of helplessness. Several times I called the Police-when the telephone was finally answered, my report would be received politely, but nothing else would happen. Big Foot would go on his usual rounds, with a bunch of snares on his arm, emitting ominous shouts. Like a small, evil sprite, malevolent and unpredictable. He was always slightly drunk, and maybe that prompted his spiteful mood. He'd go about muttering and striking the tree trunks with a stick, as if to push them out of his way; he seemed to have been born in a state of mild intoxication. Many a time I followed in his tracks and gathered up the primitive wire traps he'd set for Animals, the nooses tied to young trees bent in such a way that the snared Animal would be catapulted up to hang in midair. Sometimes I found dead Animals-Hares, Badgers and Deer.

"We must shift him onto the couch," said Oddball.

I didn't like this idea. I didn't like having to touch him.

"I think we should wait for the Police," I said. But Oddball had already made space on the folding couch and was rolling up the sleeves of his sweater. He gave me a piercing look with those pale eyes of his.

"You wouldn't want to be found like that, would you? In such a state. It's inhuman."

Oh yes, the human body is most definitely inhuman. Especially a dead one.

Wasn't it a sinister paradox that now we had to deal with Big Foot's body, that he'd left us this final trouble? Us, his neighbors whom he'd never respected, never liked, and never cared about?

To my mind, Death should be followed by the annihilation of matter. That would be the best solution for the body. Like this, annihilated bodies would go straight back into the black holes whence they came. The Souls would travel at the speed of light into the light. If such a thing as the Soul exists.

Overcoming tremendous resistance, I did as Oddball asked. We took hold of the body by the legs and arms and shifted it onto the couch. To my surprise I found that it was heavy, not entirely inert, but stubbornly stiff instead, like starched bed linen that has just been through the mangle. I also saw his socks, or what was on his feet in their place-dirty rags, foot wrappings made from a sheet torn into strips, now gray and stained. I don't know why, but the sight of those wrappings hit me so hard in the chest, in the diaphragm, in my entire body, that I could no longer contain my sobbing. Oddball cast me a cold, fleeting glance, with distinct reproach.