Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski



The rain had stopped, and everything around us was quiet. The sun came out, faint and ready to disappear behind the horizon. We walked down the road with our thumbs stretched out, but no cars stopped for us. We walked and walked until the sun set, and we still hadn’t got anywhere. The fields around us were wet from the rain, not ideal for camping, and we didn’t know what to do. Finally we found a farm where a family agreed to put us up for the night. The farmer’s daughter showed us the barn, where they allowed us to sleep. She brought us bread and lard, which we devoured like wolves. Then we spread out our sleeping bags on the hay beside each other.

‘Goodnight,’ you said after you’d switched off your torch. You undressed without a trace of self-consciousness, your silhouette in the dark crawling into the sleeping bag next to mine. I could hear you breathe, like a gentle crashing of waves. And slowly, drop by drop, the rain started up again. It pattered on the roof like fingertips practising piano chords. We lay on our backs and listened, not saying a word. I sensed you near me, your body somehow animated despite its stillness. My heart was beating faster than the rain. Suddenly I wanted to be close to you, desperately so. I could feel the pull of your body, little strings drawing me towards you. But I couldn’t move. Heartbeats passed, light years of back and forth in my mind, and just when I began to think I would never have the courage, you shifted towards me and placed your head on my shoulder. My heart stopped. I didn’t dare breathe. Your head was heavy, like warm marble, and your hair brushed my cheek. I was paralysed by possibility, caught between the vertigo of fulfilment and the abyss of uncertainty. I thought of how rashly I’d acted with Beniek that night so many years earlier, at the dance, when the lights had gone out. How painful and unforeseeable the consequences had been. Despite that, I had just gathered the strength to think about what it would be like to touch my hand to your hair, that it was the only right thing to do, that now wasn’t then, when you whispered, ‘Goodnight, Ludzio’, and shifted away from me. It was the first time you had called me that, you’d changed my name affectionately. It made the void on my shoulder even more unbearable.

‘Goodnight,’ I replied weakly, turning around, regret washing over me. Your breathing became calm and steady. My mind raced like a crazed horse. The rain carried on through the night.

When I woke in the morning, I saw your body rising and falling peacefully with your breath. Through the cracks between the wooden boards, strips of light entered the barn, illuminating you. Your shoulder was covered in little freckles I had never noticed, random and beautiful like a constellation of stars.

I climbed out of the sleeping bag as quietly as I could, pulled on my T-shirt and shorts, slipped on my sandals and went out into the morning. It was a clear day and the sun was already up, soft and new like a freshly peeled egg. The air smelled green and yellow and deep, fertile brown. In the daylight the farmhouse was smaller than I remembered, only one storey high, made from dark wood with a steep roof of old brown tiles. It looked both ancient and fragile, as if it had stood in this place for ever but might easily be crushed. Just outside it, the farmer’s daughter was feeding a group of chickens. She was about fifteen, with a bright heart-shaped face and a timid childlike smile, and she was wearing a headscarf. She greeted me and invited us to breakfast.

‘We’re in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘Come and bring your friend.’

I went back to the barn and found you up, pulling your trousers over your tight, white briefs.

‘Hey,’ I said, aware of my forced voice.

You zipped up and turned around. ‘Hey.’ You looked almost shy, ran a hand through your hair.

‘Hungry?’ I asked.

‘Starving.’

We walked out of the barn and into the house. There was a dark corridor that smelled of must and soot and earth. Nothing seemed to be moving. A few beams of light revealed a world of dust specks floating in the air, and on the wall Jesus hung on a cross, muscles and ribs defined, naked but for his loincloth. We looked at each other for a moment, quizzically, suddenly close again in the dark. Down the creaking corridor we found the kitchen on the right, where the young girl stood by the stove over a pot of steaming milk. She’d taken off her headscarf and her long dark-blonde hair fell all the way down her back.

‘Come and have a seat,’ said an old woman by the table in the corner. ‘You must be hungry.’

We sat on wooden chairs that creaked under our weight. Everything felt as if it had been covered in dust, worn out by generations of use. The plates were chipped and glued back together, the motifs on the cups faded. Faint, pearly light came from a small window.