Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

When Belka had finished, we grabbed our bags from the bus and were assigned to the different wooden huts scattered around the camp grounds. I was in one with three other guys, Wojtek, Darek and Filip. They were nice boys, strangely immature and innocent. We shared two bunk beds, a table and two chairs. We went to have dinner in the canteen, served by an army of women in aprons and deflated paper bonnets, standing behind the counter as if someone had left them there many years earlier. A large lady with an immobile face served the tomato soup with rice, while an ageless-looking girl with reddish skin piled on beetroot mash and potatoes. I sat with Karolina and the boys from my hut. They spoke easily, joking and jesting. But I wasn’t really there. I looked around the canteen, across the long tables and through the tangled voices and ringing cutlery, until I spotted you: sitting at a table at the other end of the room, deep in conversation with a girl, your head turned towards her. In the stark white light of the canteen your black hair glistened, and there was something strangely focused about you, something light yet unyielding in your eyes that stirred both envy and desire in me. It was as if your presence already overpowered me, like a prophecy I was unable to read.

That night I lay awake in bed, the other guys fast asleep around me, the moon pouring in through the half-open curtain. Sharp memories knocked on the door of my consciousness, and what came to me was an old nightmare, one I had often dreamt as a child, one that had descended upon me with cruel frequency before and after Beniek’s departure.

In it I stood in an endless overgrown field. Everything was still, as if petrified, and an overbearing silence reigned. There was no one – not just near me or within earshot, but anywhere. With the inexplicable logic of dreams, I was certain that I was alone in this world, the last member of a forsaken race. I looked around and started to see rectangular stones reaching out of the grass. They were blank and smooth, and I knew they were tombstones. They were watching me. Their stillness made my heart race with panic; standing there was like an infinite fall. It all seemed so undeniably real, not like a dream but a premonition. I’d feel violated upon waking. Outside, in the darkness of the night, the branch of a chestnut tree would sway in the wind and scratch against my window like a monster demanding admission, and without thinking I’d get out of bed and tiptoe across the cool wooden floor to my mother’s room. We would sleep together, her enveloping me from behind with her arms around my tummy, her stale warm breath above my head, us breathing in unison, small and large, breathing in and out until the morning when the darkness would be gone and Granny would come to stir us, scolding us as we rubbed clusters of sleep from the corners of our eyes.

‘It isn’t right – you two, so close,’ she once said, waking us. ‘What’s to become of a man if he sleeps in the same bed as his lonely mother?’ Her voice took on a raspy tone that came directly from her spiky throat.

‘Mama, he had a bad dream. And he’s not a man. He’s still only a child,’ said my mother, hoisting herself up, taking her hands off me. My grandmother’s face remained bitter.

‘He’s growing up, MaƂgosia, even if you think he’s still a boy. And without a man in the house to show him the ropes, in this house of babas, who knows what kind of a soft man he will become?’

‘Could you please not make everything about men?’ cried my mother.

‘I’m not soft!’ I shouted, standing up in bed. ‘And Mama doesn’t need another man. I can take care of her.’

‘And when you go away and marry someone else?’ Granny asked, her voice becoming shrill and mean, as if imitating my own. ‘What will Mummy do then, huh? Will she be all alone?’

‘I will never get married,’ I said. ‘Never. I won’t ever leave Mama.’

‘See what I mean?’ said Granny, looking at my mother. ‘See what you’re turning the boy into? Abnormal.’

‘I’m not abnormal!’ I screamed, collapsing on the bed and clenching my fists around my mother’s duvet. Shame throbbed behind these words, a snake brushing past, underneath a blanket of leaves. Late some nights, when the growing unwanted desire stopped me from sleeping, I would yield to its current. I would let the hidden fantasies sweep me away, listen to their murmur, of the boys and their bodies, the hard forms of their whiteness, the smell of sweat and musk and skin. Moments from PE would flicker up: thighs in shorts and armpits in sleeveless tops; Henryk, the strongest boy in the class, on the leather-wrapped gymnastic rings, hanging above us all in the gymnasium, his biceps flexing, the dark hair of his armpits contrasting with his skin, precocious veins running all along his arms, the bulge in his short white shorts … Images from the changing rooms, the showers we took afterwards – water trickling down backs, along the cross of chests and into belly buttons, down to the strongholds of their cocks, which I would only dare glance at for a moment and imprint on to my mind despite myself.