excerpt > Robert Rient > Witness
My first memory is a fire that went up in a flash. It’s a frightening memory, and the fear will return later. And my mom, who didn’t know about the fire yet, went out in front of the house, glad that at the neighbors’ it’s also dark. At six the power was out probably due to the November wind. My dad, who had brought back some cabbage, didn’t know about it. They lit candles. They shredded the cabbage and threw it in a metal tub. Me and my brother, who also didn’t know anything about the fire, climbed into the tub onto the shredded cabbage to press it. We giggled. Once a year you get to stomp cabbage barefoot.
For dinner there’s rice with thawed-out strawberries and cream. Mama carries two plates in her hand. She carries two plates and a candle and calls out to her parents, calls out to them like this, “Food, grandma. Grandpa, food!” Grandma just came back from the store. She sticks the receipts in a notebook. In those days everything was on paper receipts and balancing the budget was done daily. Mama leaves the plates and goes back. She sees a light through the door with rippled glass that leads to the upstairs and she thinks that maybe the power’s already come back on. She opens the door. Just then the fire flares up.
Afterwards each of us will hear countless times: You were lucky it was in the evening and not at night. Because sometimes you manage to sleep through a fire.
Mama and grandma run to the nearest neighbor a little more than 200 yards away. They had to call the fire department.
“Why did the both of you run?”
Mama turns around and sees that the flames had gone through the shingles on the roof. In the attic there was hay for the cows that had to last all winter. Grandpa says there was five tons of hay. The paper and illegal printing press had been removed from the attic a few months earlier. Now beneath the wooden ceiling there was just hay, a recently bought aluminum radiator, and a circuit breaker. The first spark must’ve jumped there, as determined by the Polish National Insurance. A wire inside the circuit overheated.
In the Jelenia Góra News the next day they wrote that there was a big power surge and that in some houses the television sets busted, lightbulbs cracked. But despite all that, people held on to their own view—that we had intentionally started the fire in order to get the insurance money. And that the greenbacks flew through the air from Brooklyn. The firemen had for sure been looking for these dollars instead of putting out the fire.
I bolt and almost succeed in getting away. Nobody knows where I’m running to, only that I’m running from the fire. My brother catches up with me and then my mom. She snatches me up and the three of us go back to the burning house. From now on I’ll remember only these few minutes. But I will remember.
They sit me down in an armchair carried from the burning house. They cover me with blankets. It’s November 4, 1984, and it had just gotten dark. As I’d like to remember it, there had to have been almost twenty blankets. But I know I’m exaggerating. And I can’t move. I watch the house burn.
In her hands mom is holding a hose connected to the faucet. She stands on the other side of the door with rippled glass and sprays water on the stairs that lead to the second floor. Chips of cheap paint from the wood paneling are falling on her hands and face. Somewhere they must’ve exposed the electrical wires because every now and then I feel a tingle on my hands.
Meanwhile dad had managed to fall down several times. To this day he has the marks of those accidents on his shins—from shelves, bookcases, cabinets. Running on slippery linoleum to the window and back. Everything he grabs he throws outside.
“I’ll just have to clean it!” mom shouts and throws back through the window what dad had thrown out.
“The house is on fire!” he replies.
For a moment she’s still throwing clothes and blankets into the burning house. Then she stops.
I see this clearly. I’m sitting in the armchair. I’m four years old and I see it all.
I really like this story. We often repeat it during family gatherings. And still, even as I’m running and almost make it to the neighbors’, my brother catches me. But most of all, how mom is throwing blankets and clothes—good, unburned blankets and clothes—back into our burning house.
More and more people show up. Some line up and pass various things from hand to hand, things from the house. Others stand next to me and watch. Grandpa remembers how he rescued a couple of car tires and a leather bag. He handed them to someone. Neither tires nor bag were ever found. It was dark. The firefighters had warned us.
At this point my parents aren’t thinking about documents, only shouting that the house was on fire. They’ll talk about this for a long time, that they should’ve first taken the documents. A few months later I’ll get a used black briefcase that you can lock with a code. It’ll lay under my bed or next to my desk in order to be close at hand if I need to make a run for it. It needs to fit what would be impossible to go on living without. In grade school there’ll be letters, magnetic stripe cards, almost four hundred of them. And the most important notebook, the one with a gray cover and my poetry. In high school I’ll wear out the inside pocket from one side where I’ll keep my porno mags. Until now only me and God knew about this. Later, still more letters, newspapers, and a Bible will make an appearance in it. . .
Robert Rient is a journalist and a psychologist. Witness was published in Poland in May 2015 and quickly became a bestseller there. A film adaptation directed by Borys Lankosz is currently in production. Translator Frank Garrett holds a PhD in philosophy and literary theory and is based in Dallas. Learn more about Witness.
$16 paperback. $9 ebook.
Distributed by Ingram Publisher Services. Available at local bookstores and online sellers.