Stefan Grabiński is another European writer unknown to me but on the strength of this story, I’d certainly like to see more of his work.
‘The White Wyrak is a first-person narrative with something of the flavour of a folktale, the account of a young journeyman chimney sweep working for Master Kalina, and a strange encounter with the supernatural. Yet, reading past the surface of the story, one has the sense that there is something else going on, something not fully articulated.
Take Kalina, for example. The journeyman describes him as ‘literate and intelligent’, having ‘seen a lot of the world’ (148). What that means precisely is unclear, but even stripping away the narrator’s evident hero-worship, we have a sense of there being more to Kalina than at first meets the eye. ‘He was a bit of a philosopher, and books he really liked’ (148); this suggests a tension between knowledge passed down through storytelling – much is made of the evenings spent by the fire at Kalina’s, talking – and written knowledge; the narrator notes that Kalina ‘apparently even wanted to put out a gazette for chimney sweepers’ (148). One lingers a moment on that ‘even’, hearing the note of incredulity in the narrator’s voice. Fortunately, this is tempered by his faith; no atheist, Kalina. Besides Kalina, the narrator is close to Jozek Biedrom and Antarek, two very different young men, one good-hearted, the other melancholic and shy.
It is Antarek who pays most attention to Kalina’s stories. ‘[I]n each story one could detect some deeper thought hidden behind all those words’ (149), but what they are the narrator never says, noting only that ‘one was still young and foolish them, and took from these stories only what amused one, for a laugh’ nothing but ‘tales and balderdash’, the narrator says (149).
It is Antarek who vanishes first, having gone to clean a smoking chimney at an old brewery. His absence is marked, there is a search, but it is only belatedly that Kalina remembers where Antarek has gone, but there is no sign of him. ‘He left so imperceptibly that we didn’t even know when’, says the man whom Kalina meets. And still the chimney smokes. The next day, Biedron returns to clean the chimney and also vanishes. By now Kalina suspects ‘evil spirits’ and refuses to let the narrator go after the missing men until the next day, when the two of them set out to resolve the mystery.
The old brewery has a history. It has been disused for many years – the last brewer went bankrupt and hanged himself – and the people living in it now do so for little rent. Old chimneys, ‘heavily packed with soot’, and for the first time Kalina shows fear. He is afraid of soot:
[S]oot is treacherous, my boy, soot lays dormant inside dark smoke chambers and stuffy furnaces, and it lies in wait – for an opportunity. Something vindictive resides in soot, something evil lurks there. You never know what will emerge from it, or when. (150)
For all that Kalina is a man of faith and a philosopher, alongside this lies another more atavistic set of beliefs deriving from his craft and his experience of that. But there is also something else in play. Kalina, seeing it as his responsibility, is determined to climb the chimney himself, but the narrator, possessed by ‘[a] mad stubbornness and a desire to uncover the truth’ insists on taking the job himself. Going back to folktale conventions, he will be the third person to climb the chimney, and the third person, as we know, is the one who succeeds. He is also, if obliquely, demonstrating that he is no longer a journeyman but a master, taking control of the situation while Kalina is left to keep watch.
The creature the narrator encounters in the chimney is mysterious to say the least – ‘art monkey, part large frog’ (151), clutching the body of the hapless Biedron while he sucks the juices from him. There is a sketchiness about the creature, as though the narrator has no real context for it. It is so alien he can only look at it and describe it rather than respond to its presence on a deeper level. And it is surprisingly easily killed – one blow is all it takes. When Kalina and the narrator drag it from the chimney, it transforms, melting and contracting, suddenly transforming into ‘a large mass of soot – glittering and black like tar’ (152), the source of evil, as Kalina predicted.
What makes this story weird is not easy to determine. There is an oddness about Kalina’s responses that doesn’t quite make sense. The wyrak itself somehow doesn’t quite make sense; it’s just there, and that is perhaps the strangest thing of all. We learn nothing about its history, very little about its habits, it is just there, in the chimney, preying on unwary chimney sweeps unprepared for its presence. And oddest of all, perhaps, is Kalina’s response to the narrator’s experience: ‘The White Wyrak. That was him. I had a feeling it would be him’ (152). So much is left unsaid in that series of statements. A whole other story is poised, ready to be unpacked, and never is.
A note about the picture: ‘wyrak’ turns out to be the Polish for tarsier. I’m not suggesting there was a monstrous white tarsier up the chimney, but I’m certainly intrigued by the similarity of the huge staring eyes.