Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

The old woman looked us over shrewdly, curiously. ‘My husband is out,’ she said. ‘Help yourself.’ It dawned on me that she wasn’t so old after all and that she wasn’t the girl’s grandmother, but her mother.

We started to eat. There were cucumbers and radishes, a pot of honey and a hunk of bread. The daughter came over from the stove and poured the hot milk into our cups.

‘So you’re students,’ the mother said.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ you said through a bite of radish, looking more at ease than I felt. ‘Just finished our studies.’

She nodded, as if she was agreeing to something uncertain. ‘Married?’ she asked, looking at you.

‘No, ma’am,’ you said, shaking your head, smiling at her. ‘Not yet. Am still young.’

She laughed in her hoarse voice, revealing a set of missing front teeth. ‘And you?’ she said, turning to me.

I could feel myself blush. ‘No, ma’am.’ I took a sip of milk to hide my discomfort. My lips brushed against the floppy skin that had formed on top, sending a wave of nausea through my belly, and the liquid scalded the inside of my mouth. I tried to keep a straight face and reached for the bread.

She watched us eat with apparent satisfaction. ‘So you’re travelling. Know where you’re going?’

‘Just looking for a quiet spot,’ you said. ‘Can you recommend anywhere, ma’am?’

She looked out of the window, where nothing much of the outside could be seen, only a hazy green from the trees and a vague blue of the sky. ‘There is a place not far from here where we go and pick mushrooms in the autumn. Travellers don’t know about it. It’s pretty.’ Her eyes sparkled and in one moment I saw, really saw, that she had once been young. ‘I’ll tell you how to get there.’

After breakfast, we rolled up our sleeping bags and packed our things.

‘Just walk, about four miles straight through the forest from the Marianki junction,’ the woman said, standing by the entrance of the house. ‘You’ll know when you’ve arrived.’

‘Thank you. You’ve been very kind,’ I said.

She took my face in her solid waxy hands and kissed me drily on the cheek. ‘Come and see us on your way back. Have a good trip.’

In a nearby village we found a small truck going in the right direction. The driver was bringing a load of cherries up north, and the only space he had for us was in the back, in the mountains of fruit. We ate beyond hunger. Stuffing our faces, staining our hands, we spat the pits into the passing fields. The sky was infinite and light; it felt like we were flying through it. Almost every farm we passed had a stork’s nest on the roof, with the elegant creatures atop, resting or flying off to look for food after their long journey from Africa.

We drove without stopping. We passed people working their fields with their carts and horses, men and women and children with large wooden hoes. Wild flowers and high yellow fields met the blue sky, and then the land became flatter and the first cerkwie came into sight, the first Orthodox churches, black and small and mysterious with their bulbous domes. They signalled a different land, the beginning of the wild and unaccountable east, where kings used to hunt for bison and where the plains are infinite. The driver stopped at an almost invisible crossing, stuck his head through his window. ‘This is it, boys.’ We jumped off and found ourselves standing at the mouth of a pine forest.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

He nodded and wished us good luck, then drove off, leaving a cloud of dust behind. We looked at each other, hesitating.

‘Are we sure about this?’ I said, suddenly aware that it was just you and me again, nervous like on the first day I’d met you.

‘What else can we do?’ you said calmly, smiling. ‘Let’s go.’ You put your hand on my lower back and pushed me with you into the forest, sending a shock of warmth through my body.

There was a narrow path, just like the woman had said. We walked into the sea of pines. Inside it was cooler and darker than in the heat of the sun. Side by side we walked on a bed of dried needles the colour of cinnamon. The previous night floated on the surface of my mind like a buoy: the rain on the roof, the weight of your head on my shoulder. I tried to shake it off. You were wearing the same white linen shirt as the day before, dried overnight, cherry-stained, unbuttoned to reveal your collarbones, the dark halos of your nipples guessable beneath the fabric.