“Rite of Spring” is an essay from Andrzej Stasiuk‘s Dukla, translated from the original Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Dalkey Archive Press late last year (see NC’s review here). Short, precise and lyrical, “Rite of Spring” captures Stasiuk’s clear-eyed view of his landscapes—brilliantly alive and cruel. As often the case in Dukla, Stasiuk meditates on image, light, and color to produce stunning insights and metaphors. “Rite of Spring” comes near the end of Dukla, and is part of a series of short essays on nature and its dominance.
Rite of Spring
When the frogs come out from beneath the earth and set off in search of standing water, it’s a sign that winter has grown weak. White tongues of snow still lie in dark gullies, but their days are numbered. The streams are bursting with water, its animated, monotonous sound can be heard even through the walls of the house. Of the four elements, only earth has no voice of its own.
But this was supposed to be about the frogs, not the elements. So then, they crawl out of their hiding places and make their way to ditches and puddles, to stagnant, warmer water. Their bodies look like clods of glistening clay. If the day is sunny the meadow comes to life: dozens, hundreds of frogs moving up the slope. Actually it can barely be seen, for the color of their skin matches the dull hue of last year’s grass. The eye catches only light and motion. They’re still cold and half asleep, so they hop slowly, with long rests between bursts of effort. When the sun is shining at a particular angle, their journey is a series of brief flashes. They light up and go out again like will-o’-the-wisps in the middle of the day. But even now they join into pairs. Frogs’ blood, as everyone knows, has the same temperature as the rest of the world, so as they push through patches of shadow on a clear but frost-sprinkled early morning, it’s quite possible that red ice is flowing in their veins. Yet even now, one is seeking another, and they cling to each other in their strange two-headed, eight-legged way that makes Tosia call out: “Look! One frog’s carrying the other one!”
All this is happening in a roadside ditch. The sun warms the water all day long, it’s only in the late afternoon that the leafless willows cast an irregular network of shadows. There’s no outflow here, it’s sheltered from the wind, no stream runs into it, yet the surface of the water is dense with life. It’s like the back of a great snake: it shimmers and coruscates, reflecting the light; the cold gleam slithers, melts away, divides, and does not come to a rest even for a moment.
To begin with it’s only the frogs. Some are dark brown, almost black, with tiger stripes on their pale yellow legs. Others are bigger, the color of dusty fired clay—the ones in the water turn slightly red, take on warmer tones, and you can tell they’re made of flesh.
Pairs join into foursomes, lone frogs adhere to couples, then there are eights, dozens, frog-balls appear with untold numbers of legs. They look like bizarre animals from the beginning of time, when the familiar forms of life had not yet been established, and the material expression of existence was still an experiment.
Soon frogspawn appears. At first it’s clear as condensed water, then there’s more and more of it and it acquires a luminous dark blue sheen. The water disappears completely, the inert shapeless substance reaches all the way to the bottom of the ditch, and when the frogs are startled by the shadow of an approaching human they dive in clumsily and only with effort. The substance, slimy and mercuric in its weight and its inertness, pushes them back to the surface. All this is accompanied by a sound that recalls an underwater rumbling of the belly.
When everything is over, the sky remains blue across its whole breadth. The surface of the water is equally still. The frogs have left, all that remains is the spawn and the bodies of those that didn’t survive. They float up on their backs, they have white bellies, while pale pink filaments of intestine unravel from their mouths like some delicate species of water plant. This is the sign that spring has now arrived.
— Andrzej Stasiuk from his book Dukla, translated by Bill Johnston