A woman remains suspiciously calm in the face of her stepdaughter’s violent death in Cezary Łazarewicz’s reimagining of a 1931 murder.
Brzuchowice, night of Wednesday to Thursday, December 30–31, 1931
It hurtles out of the darkness, flying straight at him. It’s small and bursts with color. The engineer’s clouded mind tells him it’s a hummingbird. He saw one like it in some book. Maybe in Trzaska, Evert, and Michalski’s encyclopedia? It has turquoise feathers, an orange beak, and a little black tail.
But how has it ended up in Galicia, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, in the middle of a snowy, freezing winter? Even he—an architectural engineer—knows hummingbirds live in the rainforests of South America. He wonders as he peers at his large, wrinkled palm, from which the bird picks up a seed, then flies up to his mouth, trying to push it under his salt-and-pepper mustache.
And then its turquoise feathers turn gray, its beak curls, its claws sharpen, its head and body swell. It’s no longer a hummingbird but a vulture. Its ashen wings are so huge they obscure the sky. It drives its sharp talons into the engineer’s chest and tries to slash through his aorta with its hooked beak. Before the blood comes gushing out, the scream of a fourteen-year-old boy comes blasting into the dream. It’s Staś—the engineer’s son. Howls and wails emanate from his room. The words are not yet comprehensible, but the engineer knows what they mean: Staś is calling for help.
“I thought he’d gotten sick, fallen, injured himself, that I had to save him,” the engineer writes later.
He leaps out of bed and runs, but the murk in the doorway of the next room stops him short. This room belongs to Rita, his life partner and mother of their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Romusia, who tonight is sleeping in a crib beside the engineer.
The dark is tempered slightly by the light reflecting off the December snow from a bulb at the nearby military police outpost. In Rita’s room the engineer can make out an indistinct outline of gray against the large porch windows. This is an important detail, which he will later be questioned about by investigators, lawyers, judges, journalists. He will never be able to precisely describe it. Once he says it was a black mass by the porch door; another time, a hunched figure squeezed between the bed and the dressing table.
“I didn’t think it could be her,” he writes later. “The blackness of the night, emphasized by the blackness of that indistinct shape straight through my door, made me realize I’d need to examine the boy in the light.”
He retreats to the nightstand by his bed and, hands trembling, lights a candle in a candlestick so clumsily that he knocks over a glass of water. (The broken glass will be yet another important detail in the pyramid of circumstantial evidence later constructed.)
He runs barefoot with the little flame through Rita’s room to the dining room with the large table and fireplace.
Staś’s divan bed is on the right, pushed into the alcove under the window. The boy is walking barefoot around the room, wailing:
“Lu-sia’s been mur-dered. Mur-derrrred. Muuuuur-derrrrrred.”
Elżbieta, known as Lusia, is Staś’s seventeen-year-old sister. She sleeps in a pink room behind glass doors. Her clothes are stuffed into an enormous dark-wood wardrobe standing to the right of the entrance. Despite the cold, a vent in the venetian window is open. Beneath the window stands a table. Ski gloves lie on top of it. The skis lean against the wall.
In the right corner is a desk heaped with school texts and notebooks. It’s winter vacation, so the girl hasn’t opened them.
Small paintings hang on the wall: landscapes and flowers.
On the left stands the bed. Heavy, steel, and flush against the wall. Beneath it, a vanity box and a large leather suitcase.
Before going to sleep Lusia laid her rings, the strap with her key, and an unfinished book on her nightstand, where the engineer now places the candlestick. Only in the candlelight does he notice his daughter’s bloodied face. She lies motionless, on her back, with a pillow thrown onto her legs. Her right leg is extended, her left slightly drawn up. Her right arm and clenched fist are thrown behind her head, her left arm lies at her side. In the faint light he cannot yet tell the whole mattress is soaked with blood; crimson drips onto the wood floor, forming a puddle under the bed. Later, a medical expert summoned from Lwów—Dr. Dawidowicz—will describe the scene more precisely.
It’s still the middle of the night. The forty-eight-year-old architectural engineer Henryk Zaremba stands at his daughter’s bed, takes her hand, touches her bloodied forehead and shouts to Staś, standing behind him:
“The doctor! Water!”
Their maid Marcelina Tobiaszówna brings water.
Zaremba wets some rags and uses them to wipe off his daughter’s bloodied face. Staś bends her arms back, tries artificial respiration.
Rita, whom Zaremba observes out of the corner of his eye, doesn’t come near the bed. She stands in the alcove in the foyer. She’s wearing a heavy brown fur with a collar and green slippers. She watches from afar, as if afraid to come into Lusia’s room.
“At the time it didn’t even occur to me to notice her face,” he writes later. The only thing that nags at him is that fur, since he and Staś are still barefoot in long nightshirts, and there she is wrapped up and in slippers.
“At times like this is there any room for womanly modesty?” he wonders. “Must you put on a fur when someone shouts ‘murder'?"
When he comes across her a moment later in the dining room, Rita avoids his gaze, but she is warmhearted. She throws her arms around his neck and strokes his head, trying to still his quivering body.
“Henryk, darling,” she whispers in his ear. “I’m worried about you. Try to calm down. What’s been done can’t be undone.”
Henryk darling doesn’t reply.
“How easy to say ‘it’s done.’ Easy for her, not for a father. I couldn’t go back to bed, could I?” he writes later.
He tells her to fetch the doctor.
Forty-five-year-old Dr. Ludwik Csala is a specialist in internal and pediatric medicine. He is the Zarembas’ neighbor. He lives in a redbrick house on the opposite side of Marszałkowska Street. Rita knows him a little, because two years ago she called at his house when Romusia was sick. Rita turns on her heel and goes out. She doesn’t take the shortest route beside Lusia’s room, but instead passes through the dining room, her room, and the small porch. By walking the length of the building to reach the gate, she adds a considerable distance. Why? This is one of the questions for which she will soon need to provide a convincing answer.
The gate is locked. She goes back. The second exit is on the opposite end of the garden, next to the cottage where the gardener Józef Kamiński and his wife Rozalia live. Rita knocks on the window to wake him up.
“Mr. Kamiński,” she shouts, “get up, something terrible’s happened!” She asks him to open the back gate for her, but the sleepy gardener discovers the key that always hangs nearby has disappeared.
Rita returns to the villa, takes the spare key from the nail in the kitchen, and runs with it back to the main gate.
Dr. Csala’s house looks like it’s under construction. The windows in the south part are boarded up. A painted metal sign on the gate says to enter from the direction of the cross erected nearby.
It’s nearly one in the morning. Dr. Csala isn’t asleep. Already in bed, he hears a commotion from outside. The noise is his neighbor asking for help, he learns thanks to the cart driver, who comes into his bedroom.
“Why she didn’t run straight to me, that I don’t know,” he says later. Dr. Csala dresses, then he and the driver head for the villa. The gardener is standing in front of the gate. He’s holding a baying dog by the collar so it doesn’t jump at them.
The doctor sees Zaremba by the girl’s bed, murmuring.
“Save her, doctor.”
Dr. Csala goes up to the bed, takes her by the hand, tries to find a pulse. He places an ear to her chest, then looks straight at the engineer’s pained face.
He says: “I’m afraid there’s no saving a corpse.”
From Stitched Up: The Gorgonowa Case. © Cezary Łazarewicz. Translation © 2019 by Sean Gasper Bye. Forthcoming 2022 from Open Letter Books. By arrangement with Open Letter Books. All rights reserved.