The Mute Singer

Sculptor, painter, architect, and writer. STANISLAV SZUKALSKI was horn in Poland, came to the United States and lived in Chicago when he was in his twenties, then returned to Poland to work at his sculpture. He managed to escape the Siege of Warsaw and is now living in California.

STANISLAV SZUKALSKI

AUTUMN was the free-from-heavy-work season for the peasants. It was then that the pious folk would put on their best clothes and undertake long pilgrimages to the holy places.

On loot and in many wagons they journeyed to beg for the recovery of a sick child, the return of strength to an ailing wife, or the wiping away of the growing mist from the eyes of a grandfather.

For centuries, Geed-leh had been a renowned place of miracles and pilgrimages; thus, its wealth made it the largest village in Poland, boasting of three churches, a court, a jail, an apothecary, and a specially built repertory theater, besides the first iron-plow factory. Its importance was resentfully felt by the burghers of the nearby ancient town of Plavno. They had to come to pray in our churches or be ordered to jail by our court. Though not born there, I was raised in that village from the age of four.

The peasant pilgrims came annually in bands of hundreds or even thousands. Ostensibly starting with an unselfish errand, they smuggled through their prayers the extravagant hopes for themselves of attaining eternal lile. At the same time, like winter sparrows drawn by the droppings of barleyfattened horses, the beggars followed, hoping for a windfall, scheming to get enough food for another day.

Like turtles in mating season, the beggars crawled, limped, or staggered from all directions, leaving in the sandy roads bizarre imprints of their malformed feet and shriveled limbs. This was their harvest time, when the peasants’ frantic concern over the mere everyday ness was replaced by innate piety and the pilgrims’ hearts could be milked of a few pennies.

My father migrated to Africa, where he was drawn to the cause of the Boers against the British Empire, and later to the United States. The ocean between me and his elbow stymied all the swarm and a half of questions I would ask. Though there were a few close chums with whom to explore the forests, meadows, swamp holes, and two rivers, I was only seven years old and a stranger in this world. My craving to know more than I could see drew me to old people, who liked me because of my respectful manner. Chief among them was Prior Schmidt of the cloister. But, also, there were the beggars who seasonally crept to Geed-leh.

For a peasant to converse with a beggar would be as unprecedented as for his son to marry the heiress to a throne. Doubly so, it was improper and unheard of for a boy of a city family, living among peasants, to associate sympathetically with these outcasts. My mother, never swerved by the opinions of others, permitted those I befriended to sleep in our threshing shed and unused barn, for, “That will make a finer person of Stas!”

The chums disdained my beggar friends with their grimy hands and faces, but that filth did not repulse me. They told me such wonders about this strange world, their youth, and past respectabilities that I added a few years to my child’s life and surely learned more than my scornful chums.

AMONG the wretches who slept in our barn was a beggar called the Organist. He was the youngest of the beggars I met, and was not lame at all. This would make him the least likely person to earn his black bread by beggary, for the peasants would regard him as a loafer and their pennies would shy away from him. But he was afflicted. To all appearances he was possessed.

In his youth the Organist studied to be a priest. As all academic youth of Poland, he knew six languages. Though a brilliant scholar, his cynical disposition steered him away from his avowed goal. Being irksome to his superiors for posing uncomfortable questions, he found himself expelled. There was a common saying in the land, “Pity those who fail in their resolve to become priests, for they will never succeed in anything!”

After many attempts at other occupations, he finally became an organist at a provincial church. But he drank privately and unceremonially to his defeat until he always was only half himself, though never drunk. When playing under the rafters on the church organ, his fingers frivolously braided the sacred hymns with some notorious songs that slipped shockingly wicked words of sin into the minds of the assembly. So the high organ seat was taken from under him, and he was ousted from the church. Eventually he was obliged to beg, an occupation in which his adopted wife helped him.

How was he afflicted? He spoke painfully correct Polish, articulating each sound until it was a caricature and only remotely resembled ordinary speech. To those who understood, this denoted his peasant origin, but to the peasants it marked him as a freak. Being a wearisome show-off, a constant performer, he would lapse into excruciatingly fine French, Latin, or Greek, which were not understood by the populace. Hence there arose the persistent opinion that the beggar “spoke languages” that no God-fearing decent man would.

A diminutive person, long-haired, of pointed beard, and more French than a French hairdresser, he often plunged into a recitation of Cicero’s orations (as we were informed by the educated elders), spilling long passages from whatever flicked into his restless mind, entertaining us children. Occasionally, when an elderly Jew would chance by, the Organist would startle him with some appropriate Hebrew quotation from the Talmud, until the local Jewry insisted that he was one of them, but gone wrong. I often suspected him of being a serious man who, craving an audience, would make a fool of himself just to win attention.

The alcohol sank into him as if into a blotter without his ever losing control of his perpetual trifling and harmless clownery. In high moments of sinister impishness, he would walk gingerly, as though he were a stork lifting his feet high above the imaginary water, not to scare the minnows below; then suddenly he would swiftly run, as though he were a fly-chasing peewee, pirouetting agilely. Or, lowering his head like a ram, he would attempt to buck some of us.

While performing his histrionic obsessions, his hands acted out their own supporting roles of some insane, giant grasshoppers, knob-angular fingers violently pursuing their mating acrobatics. With the Don Quixote beard topping all his monumental posturings, he looked ridiculously impressive when, for example, he took the noble side of the Three Musketeers, posed a glorific gesture, then vanquished forevermore all the combined foes of Righteousness. On other occasions he would be a crouching spider, stroking his beard deliberately and wax-pointing his mustache, at the same time making a satanic prayer to his Spider God in the sly anticipation of entangling a bigoted bee. Indeed, he was a clown with a whole circus inside him. The elders of Geed-leh dismissed him as an annoying windbag, but we, the children, relished his antics.

There were other beggars coming to the holy place after the harvests, two or three dozen of them. Some were blind or lamed by arthritis, some born without hands or feet, still others merely too old and useless to be regarded as parents by their own children. The discarded centenarians in frail decrepitude attempted to toddle all alone aimlessly as if deserted babes. Lost in themselves, their eyes looking wide apart, they ceaselessly chewed the cud of their gone lives.

The Organist was the most noticeable character in this gallery of animated sweepings, but there was another whose personality detracted attention from him. He seldom came to Geed-leh and was popularly known as the Mute Singer. The nickname, though contradictory, was qualified since, owing to some anatomic cause whereby he had lost his voice (he formerly earned a living by singing with his guitar), he still mouthed the words he once sang audibly but now heard only in his bosom.

The Mute Singer stood erect among the beggars, slim and eagle-nosed. His face and hands were of tarnished copper, the beard and the mane on his head shone white like a steaming volcano. With silken hair glowing from cleanliness, he was the personification of all the mythologic divinities. The clothing he wore was no less properly patchy than that of the others, but his immaculate skin was rather a liability, according to the tactics of the mendicants’ fraternity.

On two successive mornings I saw him dressing on the bushy bank of the nearest river, which meant that he bathed daily, a secret I kept from the other beggars. On another morning I met him coming from the river. He waved to me, and I came. Touching the top of my head, he pointed to the nearest swamp hole and beckoned me to follow. There he picked two handfuls of snails, took out a pocket knife from his raggedy overcoat, and cut the snails into small pieces. I was afraid he was going to ask me to join him in eating this mess. But he cut a small willow twig, stripped it of leaves, and lopped off the thinnest end. He seated himself on the bank, looked at me, and patted the ground. I sat beside him, mystified.

LOOKING at me sideways, he smiled mysteriously, pointing a finger up as if to preface something that would surprise me. Then he rolled up his sleeve and, placing the palm of his hand just under the surface of the water, forcefully rubbed his thumb against the first finger and produced the most extraordinary sound, exactly like the croaking of a frog. He repeated this sound a dozen times, then, raising his hand to the surface, patted the water lightly until the ripples began to spread farther and farther away from him and reached the remote banks on all sides of the swamp hole. Then again he lowered his hand and repeated the croaking sounds under the water and the plopping sounds on top of it. I was puzzled, wondering what was supposed to come out of all this when suddenly I perceived that at the far and near banks of the great pond the grasses were stirring. I could not see what caused the encircling reeds to sway and tremble. He pointed to the growing, quivering circle around us. The stirrings were more and more agitated.

Suddenly it dawned on me. These were frogs, frogs and frogs rushing toward us in great splashsparking ribbons. They swam hurriedly, skipping the surface over and under as if stitching it with threads. They ducked under, then, emerging, would skip like flat pebbles over the glistening water, plopping onto it and making great rings. Each competed in speed, occasionally jumping on another to obstruct the other’s progress. They too, like the palm of the Mute Singer’s hand, plopped tumultuously, pushing, teasing noisily. From all directions they waded in long trails, catching the flakes of sunlight on their glistening backs, converging on us. So loud a babble of croaking was never heard by the ears of men, for they made the noise all at the same time. I was awestruck and trembling with excitement.

Though I was afraid to move, feeling I would frighten them in their progress, I whispered, “Even my father could not make such magic, nor could my teacher, or even Prior Schmidt!” To this he again pointed his finger up, prefacing another magic. Taking my hand and dipping it under the water, he showed me how to press my thumb against the first doubled-up finger to produce the croaking. He dramatically grimaced for my benefit, as if straining with all his might, so I would know that the fingers must rub very forcefully while gliding one against another. I tried. No sound came from under the water. I tried again, ripples spreading from my hand, but no sound came. He corrected my fingers’ position, and suddenly I shouted, “I did it! I did it!”

But my croaking was feeble. I sounded like a tadpole, a child frog. The frogs were now crowding around us in hundreds, just four feet away from our toes, pushing, shoving, jumping, massed into one quivering arch. There was no free place between them. Everywhere I saw hundreds of their heads with eyes popping above the water.

The Mute Singer picked up the willow twig and stuck a bit of snail meat on its tip. With this relish he began to tease the mouth of the nearest frog. The creature gobbled up the tidbit without fear or a thank-you. He placed another piece of snail on the twig, then another, and each time his guests ravenously gobbled the morsels, crowding still nearer to his hand.

Slowly he reached for my hand and, selecting one of my fingers, used it to stroke the bulging eye of a frog. She folded her eye into her head and purred raucously, humping her back the better to accommodate my caress. Immediately the other frogs began to crowd toward my hand, jealously proposing that I fondle them also.

Again he reached for my hand and, turning the palm of it under a yellow-white belly, slowly raised the frog up to my chest. She remained there, contented, looking at me with her ambergolden eyes, making herself as comfortable as a bird in a nest. The Mute Singer scooped out more frogs that let themselves be gently placed around my bare feet, dreamily purring. With the tip of his finger he fed them the snail meat bit by bit until there was none left. Yet they remained.

This was the most miraculous experience of my boyhood, and I was ecstatic in my wonderment. I kneeled at his side and threw my arms about his neck. In return he kissed my cheek, perhaps kindly amused.

Then he selected two long and flexible blades of swamp iris next to his feet, tied them at the top into a knot, and, picking up his guitar, passed the head of its neck under their loop, lightly raising the guitar so that there was a contact between the water and the instrument. To make me understand he pointed to the frogs, then to his ear. This was for their benefit. He began to strum the strings, playing not a melody but a succession of short sounds, akin to the frog calls. The long blades, caught by the head of the guitar, began to vibrate rapidly in the water, sending off thousands of barely perceptible ripples. The frogs suddenly became silent and motionless. The world became still. Only the little black frogs with red bellies sent their “Koom! Koom! Koom!" calls from the muddy bottom.

He placed my hand in the water and had me croak with my fingers. This was my accompaniment to his guitar frog-calling. It immediately started the hundreds of frogs croaking in a variety of voices, for among them there were grandfathers as well as children. There arose a deafening noise. Not one of them was silent, but they were transfixed, hypnotized. Not one eye blinked, not one paddle-foot stirred. The water became a glass plate. Nothing moved but the two blades of iris that trembled musically, yet the choir rose up to heaven like a column. The Mute Singer never had more rapt an audience.

ONCE or twice I asked the Mute Singer to sleep in our barn with the other beggars, but he declined politely. No one knew where he spent the nights. Except when playing before the cloister, he evidently avoided the beggars’ company.

The pilgrim audience was drawn to him involuntarily by the marvelous harmonies. To the crowding peasants he obviously was not a beggar, for he did not fawn but rather bestowed an unmethefore experience upon them. Everyone who deigned to notice him felt a deep respect for him. Before him lay a turtle shell instead of an extended hand. The small coins were not dropped or thrown into his shell, as they were into the cups of the others, but placed there respectfully, almost apologetically. For each gift he bowed his head and smiled graciously, impersonally, not to the givers but to all the listeners. He would repeatedly empty the shellfuls of coins into the vast pockets of his patchy overcoat, whereas at the end of the day the bottoms of the tin cups of other beggars would be barely covered with pennies.

The other mendicants were not envious. The pilgrims were drawn to him as were the frogs of the swamp, and the beggars accepted it. But, besides the inexplicable, there was a real and earthly reason for their consent. Though they would quarrel among themselves for the choicest stations before the cloister, somehow they nursed no resentment toward the Mute Singer wherever he chose to sit. In fact, as did the pilgrims from distant borders of the land, so did the beggars gaze at him with unstinted affection, though for different reason.

It was because throughout the day the Mute Singer scanned the whole motley crescent of beggars before the portals of the cloister, observing their beggarly events. Those he noticed most were the ones who did not attract the pilgrims. Then, when the sun sank into the marshes, as did the pious visitors into the peasant cottages for the night lodgings, he would empty the turtle shell of the last hoard of coins, raise it above his glowing mane, and knock on it with a pebble.

At this signal there would be an unexpectedly spry commotion as the beggars, grunting, rising, shuffling, bobbing on their stumps, rocking around like hurrying seals, or swinging forth on their crutches, gathered around him, waiting.

Very ceremoniously he would take from an inside pocket of his tattered overcoat the cleanest white handkerchief imaginable and straighten it on the ground before him. Onto it he would scoop from the cavernous pockets his whole day’s harvest of money, spreading it before their unbelieving eyes like sweet honey upon a pancake.

After this, he would nod to the least favored of the day. They would eagerly come forth and politely pour all the pennies caught on the bottoms of their tin cups, adding their eager all to his majestic heap of coins. As they stooped, without ever holding back a single penny to themselves, they would also place one pebble each into the turtle shell. One after another would come when he nodded his head and smiled shyly. When they were finished, he would count the combined treasure and divide it into as many small piles as there were pebbles, excluding himself from the division. He would straighten up, then tune the guitar carefully. There would be a breathless silence. The Mute Singer would bend over the instrument, praying. All would double down, like tassels of millet, helping him in his silent prayer.

Then he would raise his head and strike a few glorious chords with all the violence he could borrow, just to clear the skies and to recall the elders from their as yet incomplete departure from this heartbreak earth.

They sat around in hushed solemnity, for this was the end of an exhausting day of silently endured degradation, when the Mute Singer would, oh, so gently, place again upon their scrawny shoulders the mantle of human dignity.

This was a concert dedicated solely to these gray lumps of clay, only faintly resembling forgotten people. He mutely sang, as he played, but one legend. After a few stanzas, when the end was nearing, he would signal them to get ready. Then they hurriedly cleared their throats, grumbled, coughed, squeaked, and wheezed, and all joined in singing the finale.

If you were there and closed your eyes to hear better, the concert suddenly was taken over from the angels by the croaking frogs and cawing crows. The pathetic, cacophonous bedlam broke your heart. And yet the concert was a singular success. For the Mute Singer touched off deep stirrings in these derelicts, so that they sobbed, until many a lizard-skinned hand wiped the tiny rivulets of tears from their cracked faces. He broke the dam of concealed griefs, and there was heard the combined sigh, as of dry leaves, in gratitude for taking part in this sacrament of belonging.

To the boys and girls I insisted that the Mute Singer was not a mere human but God Himself, disguised as a beggar, wishing to see for Himself, without eavesdropping on the confessionals, how humans behave when out of church. The children laughed at me, repeating their parents’ scorn of my suspicion. My arguments that the man only pretended muteness because he was a foreigner from heaven and therefore did not know Polish, that he cared not for money for he had no stomach and felt no hunger, could not undo their parents’ verdict about me.

“If he is what you say, he wouldn’t be a beggar but a priest or our teacher, and he could fill a whole wheelbarrow with money and diamonds and candy and — and with his magic,” one of them decided, and all the others would join in.

“What about the miracle of the frogs?” I argued. “Did he not make magic at the swamp pond? If he wished, he could make the frogs speak Polish. He could have the nightingales build their nests right next to the little sculpture of the Virgin in the cloister. He could, if he chose, make — make — ” But no one, no one would believe that he was God disguised.

One late afternoon, while multitudes milled around the cloister, there began pouring in another stream of new arrivals, crushing into the ancient edifice. The Dominican prior greeted them, sprinkling the dusty pilgrims with holy water. From each side of the doorway the beggars formed a long hedge of exposed withered shin shanks, twisted arms, and flown-out eyes, screaming then red awfulness at the crumbling hearts of the repentant sinners, ecstatically entering the famed shrine of miracles.

With two chums I gazed admiringly at the strangely beautiful costumes of our distant countryfolk. There was a tumultuous hubbub of hymns entoned by the newcomers, whispered prayers of those lost in themselves, and the shouted entreaties of the beggars, trying to outdo each other. The babble of the mendicants penetrated one’s ears like sharp nails.

I had brought two ripe pears from our orchard: one for the Organist; the other I placed by the turtle shell. It had just been emptied, and I picked it up to see its geometric dome as the Mute Singer smiled and patted my head.

”Oh, what a beautiful shrine it would make for our frogs in the swamp,” I ventured. He raised his eyebrows in surprise at such an idea and turned to his instrument as the pilgrims emerged from the church. He started to play, and in an instant a large audience gathered, listening and marveling or whispering about his voiceless singing. The pennies poured into his turtle carapace, and he thanked all the people, bowing and smiling.

Suddenly his fingers fumbled, striking the wrong strings, twanging out of tune. He threw his arms into the air. The guitar slipped from his hands, tracing a flipping arch and vaulting onto the cobblestones, shattering to pieces. The audience rushed toward him as he turned bright yellow and desperately gasped for breath. The Organist caught him as he fell to the ground, holding the Mute’s beautiful head on his lap, helplessly.

He played no more. The audience thinned away with the setting sun. We remained alone with the sympathetic beggars who repeated a whispered diagnosis, that his heart was too big for the Mute’s body. A while later, with the help of the Organist and his woman, we raised the Mute Singer on his feet and very, very slowly made our way to mother’s empty barn.

There the man with the too-big heart lay on the soft straw with his head on the crazy-quilt overcoat, rolled for a pillow. I told my mother that we had a sick man there, but she assured me that he would be better and gave me some porridge with bacon for him.

The Organist kneeled at the side of the sick man and, seeing me in the doorway with the dish of food, said, “It is too late for any repast, my dear boy. The Mute is not hungry anymore, except perhaps for some spiritual food, though surely medical help could revive him. However, no doctor would ever come to save a beggar. As laymen we can only offer our pious wishes and hope.”

The Mute Singer lay there, barely breathing. I stood at the side, holding his hand. He was unconscious, but once in a while he would return to us for another breath, slow and deep, half opening his eyes to smile lamely, apologetically. Like a swarming bee looking for a new home, his soul wandered off to be late in returning. As from the bottom of the seas, it came back to brighten his beautiful face with the white foam on a wave.

He returned from the abyss, looked at me, feebly raising his forearm to point to the turtle shell hanging on the wall beside him and touching me. The Organist said, “Stas, the turtle shell is for you!” But I did not understand. Then the Mute pointed to his chest a few times, made the sign of the cross toward the rafters, then to the Organist.

“He would have me bestow the Last Sacrament,” the Organist explained to me.

“What?” protested his adopted wife. “A Godless man like you? That would be sinful! You will offend God and go right off to hell. You ain’t a priest.”

“Stas.” He turned to me. “Fetch me a small piece of bread, but be quiet and do not alarm your mother!” Before I started, he added, after a hesitation, “Stas, and a bit of butter, but — wait—” He held his arm suspended in the air, obviously in a quandary over some further wish.

“This is the last favor any man will do for the Mute, and my first opportunity to officiate as a priest. This is a spiritual emergency, and I am in filthy rags. I must be fit for the occasion; I simply must have a white shirt.”

“But, Sir Organist, my father is in America, and my shirts are too small for you! There are no large shirts in our home.” And I ran out of the barn.

On my way back I happened to glance in the dark toward the synagogue next to our house. I saw the washing hung by the rabbi’s wife on the line. Climbing over the fence to the rabbi’s house, I picked off the line the finest linen shirt.

As I reappeared in the barn the Organist’s eyes popped from disbelief. “A beautiful, crisply white shirt!” he exclaimed. “Now I can officiate with proper dignity and decorum.” So saying, he turned to the Mute Singer. “You shall have the Last Sacrament! Not that I am the proper person, but no multitude of theologians is drawing lots for the privilege of expediting you to a better world.

“The poor fellow must be attended as a Christian, even though I shall do the ceremony in the rabbi’s shirt instead of a proper vestment. However, Stas should also have brought me a tallith from the synagogue, which would be more politic, for before the Germans, then the Italians misappropriated it for their own, heaven was originally the kingdom of Jehveh. I think this shirt may tip the scale in the Mute’s favor when he comes to the gates.”

While talking, he took off the upper rags and gingerly got into the glowing shirt, leaving it outside his pants so it hung to his knees, then gave me the candle to hold while he bent over the Mute.

“Hear me, my brother! Open your eyes if you can, that you may behold the sign of the cross made over you. We will dispense with the Last Confession, first, because you have no sins on your ledger; second, who am I to have the temerity to ask of you such self-revelations, you, who, as Stas says, have come perhaps from heaven?

“Your face shows that you are somehow in a hurry, so here is your Last Communion, a beggar’s Communion of black bread.”

So saying, he pressed the Mute Singer’s chin down and plucked a pinch of bread from my hand, then scooped a bit of butter with his long, dirty thumbnail and dabbed it over the black wafer, placing it on the silent tongue.

The dying man looked sleepily at the Organist and smiled faintly. He frailly raised his forearm, clasped my small hand, tightening it slowly as a drowning man would a blade of grass.

“Brother, I’ve added some butter to the bread, for your tongue is slower now and not glib enough to defend you, for who knows, you might be asked for references. It will butter your way through the gates of heaven.”

But the Mute Singer did not hear his assurances, for by then his eyes had set and had slowly tucked under the eyelids, while his breath wandered off, forgetting to return. With it his soul slipped away from his lips like a bird from a cage. It probably sat up on a rafter, preening its feathers, free at last of human flesh, refusing to be coaxed from its perch; then fluttered away out of the barn, out of this world.

Yet, in my child’s mind I could not comprehend how it could be that, while his soud was out of his body and in another world, his cooling hand was gently tightening around mine and tears ran down his cheeks.

That night I dreamed that I saw his soul swoosh down from the rafter as a white mist, floating over the length of Geed-leh. It made its way toward the cloister. It floated along the wall of the right tower like the blue smoke from a snuffed candle, up, up, up!

On reaching the top of the tower, where crows and the church bells sleep together, it took the form of a man. It was the Mute Singer again. Immediately there appeared two angels who fell to their knees before him, kissing his hands, while he bent over them, tenderly stroking their heads. They rose and took him under the elbows, oh, so very respectfully, to steady his ethereal body against the night breezes. As they floated by the weathervane rooster atop the steeple, they neared a small object awaiting them in the black air. As one of the angels reached for it, I suddenly recognized it. This was the Mute Singer’s guitar.

When I woke in the morning I was clutching to my chest the beautiful polished turtle shell.