Because you’re a woman

Excerpt from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

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This is an excerpt from the book Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Several other men were standing outside the cottage smoking cigarettes. they bowed hesitantly, avoiding eye contact. The death of someone you know is enough to deprive anyone of self-confidence. They all had the same look on their faces – of ritual solemnity and formal ceremonial grief. They spoke to each other in muffled tones. Whoever had finished smoking went inside.

All of them, without exception, had moustaches. They stood gloomily around the folding couch where the body lay. Now and then the door opened and new men arrived, bringing snow and the metallic smell of frost into the room. Most of them were former state-farm workers, now on benefits, though occasionally employed to fell trees. Some of them had gone to work in England, but soon returned, scared of being in a foreign place. Or they doggedly ran small, unprofitable farms that were kept alive by subsidies from the European Union. There were only men in the cottage. The room was steamy with their breath, and now I could smell a faint whiff of ingested alcohol, tobacco and damp clothing. They were casting furtive, rapid glances at the body. I could hear sniffling, but I don’t know if it was just the cold, or if in fact tears had sprung to the eyes of these great big men, but finding no outlet there, were flowing into their noses. Oddball wasn’t there, or anyone else I knew.

One of the men took a handful of flat candles in little metal cups from his pocket and gave them to me with such an overt gesture that I automatically accepted them. Only after a lengthy pause did I realize what he had in mind. Ah, yes – I was to position the candles around the body and light them; things would become solemn and ceremonial. Maybe their flames would allow the tears to flow and soak into the bushy moustaches. And that would bring them all relief. So I bustled about with the candles, thinking that many of them must have the wrong idea about my involvement. They took me for the mistress of ceremonies, for the chief mourner, for once the candles were burning, they suddenly fell silent and fixed their sad gazes on me.

‘Please begin,’ a man whom I thought I knew from somewhere whispered to me.

I didn’t understand.

‘Please start singing.’

‘What am I to sing?’ I asked, genuinely alarmed. ‘I don’t know how to sing.’

‘Anything,’ he said, ‘best of all, “Eternal Rest”.’

‘Why me?’ I asked in an impatient whisper.

At this point the man standing closest to me replied firmly: ‘Because you’re a woman.’

Oh, I see. So that’s the order of the day. I didn’t know what my gender had to do with singing, but I wasn’t going to rebel against tradition at a time like this. ‘Eternal Rest’. I remembered that hymn from funerals I had attended in my childhood; as an adult I never went to them. But I’d forgotten the words. It turned out, however, that all I had to do was mumble the beginning and a whole chorus of deep voices instantly joined in with my feeble one, producing a hesitant polyphony which was out of tune but gathered strength with every repetition. and suddenly I felt relief myself, my voice gained confidence and soon I had remembered the simple words about the Perpetual Light that, as we believed, would enfold Big Foot as well.

We sang like that for about an hour, the same thing over and over, until the words ceased to have any meaning, as if they were pebbles in the sea, tossed eternally by the saves, until they were round and as alike as two grains of sand. It undoubtedly gave us respite, and the corpse lying there became more and more unreal, until it was just an excuse for this gathering of hard-working people on the windy Plateau. We sang about the real Light that exists somewhere far away, imperceptible for now, but that we shall behold as soon as we die. Now we can only see it through a pane of glass, or in a crooked mirror, but one day we shall stand face to face with it. And it will enfold us, for it is our mother, this Light, and we came from it. We even carry a particle of it within us, each of us, even Big Foot. So in fact death should please us. that’s what I was thinking as I sang, though in actual fact I have never believed in any personalized distribution of eternal Light. No Lord God is going to see to it, no celestial accountant. It would be hard for one individual to bear so much suffering, especially an omniscient one in my view they would collapse under the burden of all that pain, unless equipped in advance with some form of defence mechanism, as Mankind is. Only a piece of machinery could possibly carry all the world’s pain. Only a machine, simple, effective and just. But if everything were to happen mechanically, our prayers wouldn’t be needed.

When I went outside, I saw that the moustachioed men who had summoned the priest were now greeting him in front of the cottage. The priest hadn’t been able to drive all the way here – his car was stuck in a snowdrift, so they’d had to bring him here by tractor. Father Rustle (as I privately called him) brushed off his cassock, and gratefully jumped to the ground. Without looking at anyone, at a fast pace he went inside. He passed so close that his scent enveloped me – a mixture of eau de Cologne and smouldering fireplace.

I noticed that Oddball was extremely well organized. In his sheepskin work coat, like the master of ceremonies, he was pouring coffee from a large Chinese thermos into plastic cups and handing them out to the mourners. So there we stood outside the house, and drank hot, sweetened coffee.

The name of the book comes from William Blake’s prose work called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in a section called the Proverbs of Hell, you can read it here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

One of Poland’s most imaginative and lyrical writers, Olga Tokarczuk presents us with a detective story with a twist in DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD. After her two dogs go missing and members of the local hunting club are found murdered, teacher and animal rights activist Janina Duszejko becomes involved in the ensuing investigation. Part magic realism, part detective story, DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD is suspenseful and entertaining reimagining of the genre interwoven with poignant and insightful commentaries on our perceptions of madness, marginalised people and animal rights.

Copyright © 2009 by Olga Tokarczuk.

Translated by: Antonia Lloyd-Jones

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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