A story by Andrzej Chodacki
They set out early morning, before the heat of the day hit the earth. As they were reaching the edge of the parking lot the surroundings were still empty. In a brief moment a Slovak man appeared telling them they could not enter this way and that the parking was somewhere below. Ela reached out with a twenty Euros handing the money to the man and saying she had to stop right here. Why? Because the was noting above but a yellow marking. The Slovak guy looked inside the car where her husband was struggling with a seatbelt. Looking at her he handed back the money. “Do you have a phone on you?” he asked looking closely into her eyes. “Yes,” she answered helping Marek stand by the car.
The attendant nodded and left. Maybe he understood; her determination, her look, the drama. Marek stood tall, supporting himself with marching staffs. Something like a broken smile appeared on his face, otherwise pale and paper-like. He looked up at the trail fading into the forest. Somewhere, out there, an hour or so away, there still is the place marked with the celestial peace. He longed to get there so bad, to see once more that beautiful site. Elizabeth tried to talk him out of it many times; she knew eventually she would have to give in. He said, “The final wish.”
They both took on the stony trail; the weather seemed like it was going to be spectacular.
“It’s good,” she thought expecting that the way back would likely be in a medical chopper. She had it all arranged and paid for. She was not even sure if they would get to the falls but she had no doubt he would be in no shape to make it back on his own. So far they were alone on the trail, walking it very slowly. Marek frequently wiped his face off with a handkerchief and he had to break every few dozens of steps. He looked like in the old days which passed, just a bit more pale maybe, and lighter; and the hair, of course. The rich hair-do, which his barber envied for so long, just stayed on the pillow one morning. It was after the third chemo; he went to sleep and once he woke up, he was practically bald. That day she cried for many hours; he just kept quiet. He was picking up the hair from the pillow, putting in in a plastic bag, carefully trying to get the last tiny ones stuck in the material. She watched him do that, crushed and hiding her face in her palms. He threw the bag in the trashcan and asked for a cloth. It was then, as she was tightening the cloth on his head, that he told her first they had to go back to Slovakia. It was as if she knew the therapy was not working. At first she agreed without a word but soon after, seeing how quickly he was losing strength, she began to doubt. She tried to come up with excuses for her hesitation, saying it was due to lack of time but then one evening when she was changing one of the medicated band aids on his back and Marek mentioned Slovakia again, it hit her that her husband was dying. That was when the words “the final wish” resounded. She dropped everything and took him South.
The Mlynická Valley was opening its green arms to them slowly. They marched very slowly as after an hour they still had not reached the open space out the forest. Marek was beat already and the sun was not even up yet. The trees gave pleasant shadows but in just about a moment they were about to get across the mountain chains where the trail was steep, layered with stones and the creek filled up by recent storms was forcing itself against the human feet, trying to let out the excess waters onto the valleys below. Even before they set out early in the morning, Marek forced himself into drinking three nutri-drinks. He used to have just the regular ones to revitalize and strengthen up. Now every morning he tried to have at least one protein nutri-shake. When Ela saw three empty containers this morning, she knew her husband was arming himself for a tough battle that day. At this point the illness seemed to be taking a toll on his every – however uncertain – step, like a professional fighter who with a smirk on the face takes down the amateur opponent.
The creek murmured pleasantly on the right. They detoured from the track for a moment just to cool off their hands in the waters. In the older days they used to challenge each other who could hold their hands longer in the ice water. She smiled at that thought, wiping her husband’s forehead with a cold rag. They were silent; in fact they had been silent since they entered the trail, just like that day when Marek returned home with the diagnosis. He used to complain that his hospital did not have a good radiologist. Now it would only take a mediocre one to notice the metastases; they were everywhere by now. He sat in the cafeteria with no expression on his face, holding the scans in his hand. The damn piece of paper which was like a death sentence awaiting its delayed execution. His friends from the unit wasted no time and the start of his therapy was almost instant. From each trip he was returning home the same as he was the first day when the word “cancer” appeared in the house. He sat quietly and drifted away – into himself. After a month, a few good days happened. During those days he kept organizing the papers, with some anxiety mixed with excitement he showed her some works of his poet friends that he had not yet made the time to read.
“Look, Ela,” he kept saying, “How beautifully he wrote here.” It was as if he was trying to make up for the time lost and live the time still ahead of him but with the full control of his senses.
She stared at him as he rested on the large stone by the creek. Their eyes met for a moment. He smiled at her but she turned away to prevent herself from bursting into tears. He got up and began to walk again, uphill, supporting himself with staffs. She dragged behind him, now feeling even weaker than he himself was. They came out into the middle of some gorge full of life from the strong rays of the morning sun. The path surrounded by the mountain pine was going uphill; then detoured towards the edge of the whispering creek. There was not much shadow but Marek was not resting now as frequently as at the beginning. He watched his step carefully as he was moving forward, methodically, step by step, yard by yard, as if suddenly empowered by some invisible force.
“The most beautiful place on earth,” he used to say about the place from the day they got here for the first time. They then sat at the shore of the lake and listened to the overwhelming silence. Two mountain peaks, Satan and Zadná Bašta, were bending from the East, from South-West the Szczyrbskie, Medium and Large Solisko peaks were throwing the soothing shadows of their own. Over the valley, the clouds formed incredible constellations, as if hanging on the strings attached to the ground they created magnificent circles over their heads. Far away below, the surface of the Szczyrbskie lake kept twinkling. Very few tourists came to this paradise on earth in order to disappear on the trail surrounding the Solisko. But Ela and Marek did not envy them or the sight of their walking away into the mountains. They sat on the colorful mosses where they felt they’ve reached their destination, the piece of the Garden of Eden in the midst of the Tatra Mountains. Back then, he forgot to take his camera but he did not regret, saying he held these amazing sights in his heart like treasures. As she recalled those moments she started to choke up, thinking this might be their last escapade into the mountains together, the last moments together, the last everything.
She now felt more the mixture of shame and guilt filling her with anxiety, even more so now as she realized that for most of their lives she felt the essential value of her life was work. That and, of course, the husband, children, the home. But she had all that and did not have to worry about love, some sense of belonging or her place in the world, so she worried about work. When one day her company collapsed, Marek went out of his way to find her some occupation. Foreign language practice, place in a newly opened medical facility; he even gave her rides to the patients so she could feel that she was needed because she helped others. But none of that was enough and she fell in her lethargic depression, isolating herself from everything and everyone. It was his illness that brought her back alert. She painfully realized that love is a fragile gift given to her only for the time being. That time was about to come to end. In light of everything that was happening, watching her husband slipping away, her desire for work was merely a laughable detail. Now, when her whole world was crumbling, the collapse of its part as minuscule as her ambition caused her to, at best, smirk with irony.
The path was easy now. They were heading towards the Satan peak as on the left, amid the mountain pines, the spiky peaks of Soliska proudly dominated. The air was like crystal. Contrast between the colors of the sky and that of the mountain stones could make one feel dizzy, as if too much beauty at once was storming into one’s lungs with each breath. Far ahead of them, the view of the Stok falls opened up in front of them.
“It is still so far away,” she said looking anxiously at her husband. “We’ll make it there,” he responded as if he was trying to calm her down and not to interrupt the strenuous march.
The sound of the staffs gave rhythm to the journey on the stony trail. The Mlynicky Creek got louder again, now stronger but still responsible, self-contained within its path. After few minutes they reach a small pond just by the falls. Marek sat down on mosses, visibly relieved and struggling for air. Ela ran to the pond and dipped the rag in the water so she could cool off his forehead again. Once he rested a little, they looked up to the falls. Visible on the left were the shapes of the mountain chains, the obstacles which Marek would most likely not overcome. They seemed both to have understood that they might not reach their dream destination and the very heart of their journey.
“We will not make it there today,” she said cautiously. “That’s alright,” Marek quietly responded while laying down on the mosses, “Here is beautiful as well.” She sat next to him and he – not without a difficultly – raised his head and placed in on her curled up legs. He could not tell anymore whether it was the clouds alone or the whole world swirling above him.
“You know, there was the time I wanted to go there,” he started with a weak voice looking ahead at the trail leading to the Szczyrbski peak.
“Go where?” she asked following his eyes.
“There, up there, to the mountains, and just ahead,” he quietly continued, “But when I was thinking about that, so many things kept me down here in the valleys,” he was pausing every time he tried to catch more air.
“And now, when there is nothing holding me back, I no longer have strength,” he added and closed his eyes.
“You will, one day you still will go there,” she gently caressed his bald head, carefully so that no tear fell down on it. “You will see, one day you will still go there.”
The tourists making their way down the Mlynická Valley witnessed the unusual site in the Tatra Mountains, as the red chopper hanging over the pond was receiving a man laying on the stretcher. On the ground, next to the loud machine, a woman stood helping lift the stretcher to the chopper’s open door. Her hands stayed up high even as the stretcher was already above the ground; the wind from the wings of the machine running through her long black hair all over, and squeezing the tears back into her eyes. That was her husband setting out on his last journey, to the mountains, and via the path from which there was no return.
From the Polish language translated by Xavier Ksawery Swiecki.