Maria’s Life, or Mario
from the novel Darlings of Justice
by Yuri Andrukhovych
Translated from the Ukrainian by Vitaly Chernetsky
In all the years given to him Mario Pongratz committed only one murder. He would only have to face the responsibility for it at the heavenly court, and the details of that closed trial remain unknown—for understandable reasons. As for the earthly court, it was very open indeed and sentenced Mario Pongratz under a completely different article. However, this is not at all the beginning, but rather one of the endings of this story, and it looms somewhere far ahead, sometime in the 1890s.
But everything begins forty-plus years earlier, when the young Mario Pongratz, the son of Alojz and Veronica-Victoria, a native of either Dalmatia or Illyria, a novice merchant searching for his own fate and financial independence, severs forever the ties with the parental nest and sets out traveling. He lands in the town of Kolomea,
located somewhere in the far eastern backwoods of the empire, in the twenty-fourth year of his life. With him he has a rather large chest containing samples of colonial goods. Recently he became a salesman for a large firm headquartered in Vienna, with branch offices in Budapest, Bremen, and Amsterdam. The year is 1855; the young emperor Franz Joseph has just completed an inspection visit to the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria.
Mario Pongratz does not plan to stay in Kolomea long. For his lodging quarters, he chooses the small Hotel Oasis, significantly cleaner than its rivals, in the town’s Kuty suburb. He is in the only hotel room in town that has a bathtub; lying in it, you can puff on your cigar and look out at the bluish outline of nearby mountains through the southern window. On the second day he orders supper at the hotel tavern. Food and wine are brought to his table by a maid named Genowefa (although most call her Maria) Vitrakivna, an orphan from a half-extinguished family of minor nobility, educated at the boarding school run by the Sisters of St. Basil. A few years earlier, having come of age, she fled comet-like from the nuns’ protection and started taking care of her life quite independently, combining the daytime work as a maid with nighttime work of a somewhat different kind.
During supper Mario Pongratz allows himself a few frank glances in her direction. he even orders an additional half-carafe of wine in order to stay at the table longer and at least twice or thrice—secretly, or if it works, more openly—rest his eyes on the area where her waist transitions into her thighs. Having gone back up to his room, he cannot fall asleep for a long time and lies quietly with his eyes open. He recalls that he hasn’t made love for about a month and a half: the last time was quite accidental, with a rabbi’s daughter in Przemyśl. So, he figures, this excitement, which so brutally came to possess him, will not die down on its own. He has already decided to take care of it through a means to which, truth be told, he had to resort every now and then. And right around that time (or is he hearing things?) there comes a careful, or better put, trembling knock on the door, and a young woman’s voice, dried out from excitement, pours out some nonsense about clean towels for the morning. (At first she mistakenly says “for breakfast” but then corrects herself.) “Come in,” Mario Pongratz tells her, his throat also dry. For some reason he did not lock the door.
Sometime between five and six in the morning, again alone in his bed, although now the sheets are messed and tangled up as if at least ten intertwined bodies have been rolling around on them, not just two, he would smile and think about several things simultaneously.
That this gal knows how to do everything—and much better than many others.
That she not so much forgot, but did not want to take the money offered.
That all of his life (and he is already twenty-five!) he looked for someone just like that.
That her vagina has a barely perceptible taste of wild garlic, and that’s a definite plus.
That spring is coming.
That now he wouldn’t be getting out of this hole soon.
By hole he also meant Kolomea.
Later it sufficed three or four more dates, just as passionate as the initial one, for Mario Pongratz to finally work up the courage not only to not get out of this hole, but to settle there, offering “its finest decoration, Miss Maria” his manly (as in “man and wife,” legally) hand. Moreover, one did not need to ask for permission or blessing from anyone: the young woman lived without guardians and decided her fate herself. This was unusual and thrilling.
Above all else, Mario Pongratz liked being modern. He first heard this word, modernité, about a year ago, in Paris: a poet by the name of Baudelaire used it in his speech about the general tendencies of a new civilization. In reality the great poet painted it as a special form of extreme decline (décadence) and cloying degeneration (déchéance). But his criticism of the new times so stunned its listeners, his bombastic speech was so convincing that Mario Pongratz, as well as, truth be told, the overwhelming majority of the audience at that speech, forever succumbed to its magic. “How lucky we are,” noted Mario Pongratz with gratitude and excitement in his diary from the late fifties, “how lucky we are to arrive in this world and live in the time when prejudices and superstitions of all past eras are dying off! All those endlessly long millennia of human ripening were but a prologue, a prehistory of the just begun modernité!”
His relationship with Maria was modern and a bit daring. She responded with the same lack of inhibition—and this too was modern. On the fifth day of their acquaintance he moved into her small hut in the hotel’s backyard, thickly overgrown with woodbine.
No, of course they could not completely ignore the environment, especially since it was so provincial. Yes, they had to make some concessions—for the sake of conventions of civil law. A dowry was out of the question: what dowry could a poor orphan have? All of Maria’s possessions fit into an ancient chest, about a third smaller than the one with which her fiancé had been traveling up till now. Mario Pongratz was really moved to learn that his love saved there, among other nice trinkets, about a dozen dolls with which she had played as a child.
They were wed at the closest church, St. Michael’s, the ceremony performed by the influential Greek Catholic priest, Fr. Ivan Levytsky. He coughed a lot and could not finish a single line in the liturgy due to his cold-afflicted voice. The official witnesses were the owners of Oasis: a transplant from Bohemia and his Polish wife, a pious aging couple, half-blind, and with progressive views on certain things. By mutual agreement there was no wedding party, although Mario did pay for a dinner for four at that very tavern.
This was how Miss Maria of the Vitrak family lost her independence, delegating it to her now lawful husband, her new guardian and protector.
Their family life began in September, and already in November, just weeks before Christmas, when snow suddenly blew in from the mountains, they moved to a new residence on the second floor (then it was called the first) of a similarly brand-new apartment building erected by a Jewish realtor, Mr. Funkenstein, right in the city center, next to Market Square. Mario Pongratz’s commercial venture was doing increasingly better, and at times so well that he allowed himself not only a spacious residence with a fantastic tiled stove by Oleksa Bakhminsky, but also a separate office at another address. Additionally, he freed the young Mrs. Pongratz from round-the-clock hotel work which no longer corresponded to her status. It was then that he began sometimes calling her Wefa. Or, at times, Efa. But still, most often, Maria.
According to some alternative sources, this pertains to the year 1858 or even 1859, not 1856.
All right, modernity. You would surely ask, if Mario Pongratz was such an avid and zealous follower of the concept, how do we explain this Kolomea of his? Couldn’t such an ambitious, strong-willed young man find a place for himself in one of the great metropolises of his time? Business skills, striking erudition, fluency in seven languages, as well as an attractive appearance matched by good manners—would that not be sufficient to rise up the ladder of career and wealth somewhere in Vienna, Trieste, Prague, Lemberg, or at least Krakow? Could a county (or even a district) seat with the population of less than twenty thousand, with (only!) nine hotels, twenty fiacres, one (!) photographer, and one (!) barber could really feel like an adequate space for implementing the grand projects of modernité?
It turns out, yes.
The fact of the matter is, Mario Pongratz had a presentiment. He clearly and confidently foresaw how in the nearest coming years and decades something much grander would burst in here. For instance, the railway, which they had already begun building from Lemberg to Czernowitz. And what about oil extraction in Sloboda Rungurska and Pechenizhyn? Oil indisputably promised swift progress, rapid enrichment, and a geometric progression of population boom.
It may seem strange, but Mario Pongratz already in the 1860s foresaw what a local observer would report in the now still far away year 1890 in the pages of a popular Warsaw weekly: “Kolomea is a civilized place, perhaps far too much so. Like in some Levantine port, you hear the widest variety of languages—exotic, not Polish. Non-Slavic faces surround you everywhere. In restaurants and cafés, you perceive English accents, and the word business! business! resounds at every corner. Yes, this is what rules over people’s actions here, like a God and Master.”
The colonial goods to which Mario Pongratz tied his life were becoming increasingly fashionable. Systematic demand for cardamom, ambergris, paprika, and papaya became a sign of the new urban consciousness of a globalized world. From 1866 on, Mario Pongratz, primarily thanks to the railway, established their uninterrupted supply and forever trounced the few timid competitors. All of Kolomea knew that it was his Cayenne pepper that had the finest aroma, his Indian sesame, the purest oil, and his Ceylon tea caused unheard-of, incomparable intellectual efficiency. It was to Pongratz that virtually all the respected ladies of the household, as well as all the cooks, turned for lemons, pomegranates, saffron, cocoa, chicory, and coffee.
But it wasn’t just Kolomea and the environs; even in Czernowitz and Tarnopol his sales steadily climbed upward!
In 1867 he doubled the number of his stores, opening another one—in Mariahilf, somewhat far from the town center. In 1870 he doubled their number again, and in 1872 he tripled it. It was around this time that they started calling them at times cinnamon, and at times absinthe shops.
He opened one of them specially for his wife. It was, as he said, Maria’s toy.
He was in the fortieth year of his life. He answered the fleeting friends and acquaintances from various corners of the world with the same cheery German phrase, “Es geht uns gut.”
He wrote it out calligraphically on innumerable postcards of that era sometimes in emerald-greed, sometimes in light coral ink.
He didn’t stay in one place—and that also was an important element of his success. Business interests demanded constant mobility, frequent visits to the leading wholesalers who usually were based, along with their innumerable warehouses, at the major sea and river ports of Europe. So it wasn’t only Vienna or Pozsony, or, let’s say, Danzig and Stettin that became the destinations of his trips—Genoa, Antwerp, and Odessa were among them as well. He knew some neighborhoods of Hamburg better than those of Kolomea.
Nothing called him back home from distant travels as sweetly and as passionately as his wife’s warm body. Dedicating herself to home comforts and self-improvement (including through Oriental-style physical exercises), Mrs. Maria blossomed. She gradually got used to wealth, entertainment, and freethinking. She was attracted by exoticism and deviations. When her husband returned home from one of his trips, they would spend sixteen to twenty hours in bed, and would not close eyes even for a minute. This was modern. So was the fact that Maria not only fulfilled, gave herself, and yielded; with resoluteness rare for that era she simultaneously gave and received. Perhaps she was the first émancipée of that area.
She did not bear children. At first this was because Mario Pongratz skillfully practiced precautions and almost never came in the place that at the time was still considered the one specially assigned for this by nature. Later both of them understood: there was no need for them to use such precautions; no vinegar, lemon juice, droppers or pills—just because the impregnation would still not happen, as there are some insurmountable physiological reasons for this. For instance, as a doctor who was a close acquaintance of theirs, a nice kindhearted and cynical fellow, hypothesized, it could have happened that one of them—he, or she, or both—sometime long ago, in their early youth . . . Well, you understand. He used the phrase “something French.” No, really, everything’s wonderful, hunky-dory, tip-top with their organs and systems. But impregnations won’t happen for them.
They took this medical conclusion rather as a relief. To not have children was modern. Patriarchy was moving away—at least from the centers of civilization; it retreated to poor villages, into the thickets, the darkness, the filth, the boonies. Where innumerable thousands of wretches languished in the cold, swarming with parasites—and each of those thousands, as the latest statistics showed, corresponded to one rich person. Now it was only one thousand to one—and this was definitely progress.
It was modern to live for yourself. Egoism was modern—as they called it then, rational egoism. And so their attitude to life was egoistic: they ate and drank fancily; they took strolls in natural surroundings; visited mineral springs and salt mines at Carpathian resorts; read out loud to each other the latest French novels and the favorite excerpts from Darwin; noted on the margins of Sacher-Masoch all his absurdities and fabrications; never missed either theatrical or circus premieres; socialized with foreigners and Jews in the urban, and with the officers, in the garrison casino; played canasta, bridge, and thousand Schnapsen; sipped absinthe and smoked opium.
They grew to like rainy Sundays when one did not want to go anywhere and could silently look at the windows of the house on the opposite side of the street.
Not saying anything.
Never getting up.
Stopping time whenever they desired.
Mario Pongratz closely followed the technological progress and the various latest inventions. Already in the late fifties he organized for his wife and himself an educational and entertaining flight on a dirigible. (The flight took place above the Pokutian-Bukovynian ridge at the average height of up to a thousand meters, and there was, naturally, lots of coverage in the newspapers.) In 1864 Mario Pongratz purchased the just-patented player piano with some thirty popular tunes. In 1869, he bought a Sholes typewriter, as big as their desk.
He showered his wife with gifts and often, after spending the night with another random sinner somewhere in the midst of an extended commercial tour, he caught himself thinking with pleasure that back at home, all the same, it was better.
He never guessed that the reason for this was found inside him. Or more precisely, in his love. This was called happiness, and it would have been endless, and we would not have had a story.
But one night an eternity-tested Hamburg courtesan told him in a slightly breathy, deathly tired voice: “With years, you only get better. We, alas, do not.” Mario Pongratz had not a slightest doubt that by “you” she meant the stronger, and by “us,” the fair sex. Realizing this truth even caused him a dull pain in his chest. For the first time he got horrified by the thought that he and his wife were basically the same age.
From then on, this thought lodged itself inside him. No, one could not claim that it was consuming him. He had what (and who) to live for. But something like this settled somewhere deep down. He drove it away and pushed it back down. But he understood that with time, it would pop up ever more frequently and insistently.
The key chapter of the story takes place some two to three years after the nighttime Hamburg moment of truth. That summer Mario Pongratz set out, as he joked, on his first mountain expedition. This episode is rather obscure, and the motivations for Pongratz’s journey still haven’t found an unambiguous interpretation. He himself, it appears, destroyed at the end of his life all the corresponding notes in his diary.
Some versions suggest that Mario Pongratz set out to the Hutsuls first and foremost to hook them up on the so-called “merry tea” and to establish through them a customs-free supply channel to Banat and Transylvania.
Others, that simply time had come, the Hour had struck. That is, Mario Pongratz had to deliver to one of the molfars, the local shamans (whom he needed to find to begin with) a secret letter prepared centuries ago in Dalmatia, with a warning about a deathly threat that was coming for this molfar precisely then.
He did indeed make it to a molfar, at least to one of them. But, notably, not of his own free will. Covering the long and confusing Hutsul miles, Mario Pongratz moved from one settlement to another, as if conducting a sweep operation: Pechenizhyn, Yabluniv, Kosiv, Zhabie. Further came the lands where you’d “meet a bear sooner than a man,” where “they fix the horns on goats,” where “crawfish winter,” where “demon kicks you in the rib,” where “devil says goodnight”: Krasnyk, Dzembronia, Hryniava, Hromidne . . . It was on the outskirts of the latter (but what are the outskirts in those lands?) he was finally struck by thunder and lighting, drenched by an icy downpour that within minutes changed into a merciless hailstorm, and then just as swiftly, into thick snow (good God, in July!), and it grew as dark “as shooting in the eye” (at three in the afternoon), and Mario Pongratz said goodbye to his life, and devil said goodnight.
Good thing that he did not fall off his feet.
All right, let’s put it slightly differently. The only good thing was that he was caught by this neither somewhere on a mountaintop nor in a thick forest or a deep valley, but—what luck! —right by the fence of some well-off peasant’s home, about which he had no inkling and which he could not see through that snowy darkness. And through the door the man of the house heard cries for help. Or rather: the man of the house heard dogs barking in the entryway. Or still differently: he heard both cries and barking. And this man ran out of the house with a torch and with his servants, and tore out of darkness’s tight embrace something exhausted, snow-covered and blinded, and dragged it to his place.
But no matter how they tried to save the stranger: gave him horilka to drink, rubbed him with the same horilka, or with raspberry tea, or garlic, or with fierce Cayenne pepper bought at the fair in Kolomea—in an hour or two Mario Pongratz started to shiver and shake, convulse and contort, and he fell into fever like a stone into a river.
But according to other versions, there was no river, no stone, no fever. There wasn’t even snow in July. There was just a bolt of lightning—right into his chest (demon kicking in the ribs), two steps away from a homestead, right on the mountaintop. And so, Mario Pongratz lay there flat, his arms and legs spread wide, no speech, no breathing. But the man of the house told them to run get the molfar.
It is unknown whether the molfar showed up alone, or did an entire council of molfars gathered there. Again, it is also unknown what exactly is “there” and where it really is. But it was right there, in the Transition, spinning like a centrifuge between worlds—or then again, shyly shifting weight from one foot to another, as if in someone’s solemn Antechamber, with the noise of water streams, the ringing in his ears, the roaring of angels and molfar incantations—Mario Pongratz sold himself.
In the proposed selection he picked option number two. This generated a degree of surprise among the present intermediaries (for the molfars were intermediaries). Option number one, which Mario Pongratz rejected, foresaw the full stoppage of his physical aging up to the very moment of his death. “Let it not be me, let it be her,” Mario Pongratz apparently mumbled with his feverish dry lips.
He got what he asked for, but on one condition: she would never learn about this.
(Now a small side branch in this story. It is a story in its own right. But not this one—adjacent.
It turns out that Mario Pongratz was really timely in his expedition. That very summer and fall the Eastern Carpathians witnessed a trip through them by Adzio the Fanatic, a frightful serial killer. He in essence repeated the route Mario Pongratz took through Pechenizhyn and Yabluniv. Then, however, he set out for Zhabie not through Kosiv, but through Kosmach. Each stop on this route was marked by yet another bloody killing. Adzio the Fanatic used a butcher knife. His victims were exclusively men, mostly of older middle and fully older age, with controversial rumors swirling around them, along with legendary fame as healers, fortune tellers, and storm averters. However, the investigation reached this conclusion with a great delay—already after the fourth victim, sometime in October, secret councilor Otakar Židlička, the special investigator dispatched to the theater of events all the way from Lemberg, suddenly realized: in order to create a more or less expressive portrait of the murderer, one should first create a collective portrait of his victims. The disciple of the criminalist school of the great Leopold von Sacher (the father) thanked God for the epiphany. Despite this promising news Adzio the Fanatic managed to do his deed twice more, dispatching into pools of blood two more victims, from Burkut and Probiynivka. After that, special investigator Otakar Židlička cast away the last remaining doubts and, cutting off the butcher’s path towards the Romanian border, set up an ambush for him at the residence of the seventh molfar, not far from Hromidne. This was where Adzio the Fanatic was caught. The molfar was saved. The warning composed in Dalmatia hundreds of years ago came true and worked. Adzio the Fanatic turned out to be a former missionary monk who under the strong influence of what he called the “Heavenly Voice” decided to cleanse the Carpathians “from diabolical filth and shamanism.” The provincial court in Lemberg for a long time refused to proclaim him insane.)
Already in the mid-1870s some acquaintances from the Pongratz circle refer to Maria with increasing frequency as “Mr. Mario’s young wife.” The fact that in reality they had been married for two decades somehow erases itself from their consciousness and is taken into account less and less often. The reason could be that next to her husband, not quite old but still somewhat life-worn, Mrs. Maria indeed looks very young. In the von Kochanowski amateur company, which consistently and methodically plays Shakespeare, she increasingly gets the roles of Desdemona or Ophelia.
Yet another reason could stem from the Pongratz family fairly regularly refreshing their circle but never entering friendships that are somehow deeper and more long-lasting. It was a long time since next to them one could see anyone who would remember the days when they first tied their lives together.
To live for their own sake and to be in essence just one couple—as if in this world there really weren’t anyone worth getting closer to them. This is what had been and remained their fundamental principle.
For this there were not only ideological, but also pragmatically concrete foundations; this was both their strategy and their tactics. The fact is, in many of its episodes their life together strayed into risky and forbidden spaces. They continued willingly experimenting on their own bodies, consumed absinthe and hashish, and at the first opportunity engaged in risky roleplay. It probably wasn’t worth it sharing this with someone else. They were more than unanimous in this.
Mario Pongratz, who then reached the full blossom of a satyr, greatly enjoyed “corrupting” this “girl.” Mrs. Maria reciprocated the way only she knew how and could (Mario Pongratz confirmed this whenever he tried testing analogous approaches on occasion on other noticeably younger partners).
Outwardly everything continued just as attractively as before. Indeed, even more so. With years they only got better, acquired an increasingly unique flavor: he, big-boned, carved with wrinkles, going grey, artistically disheveled, favoring top hats and long scarves; she, lithe and inviting. On market days they would demonstratively step out to buy feta, juniper, and sweet cherries. In cafés they would order a double black or a mélange. In clubs they discussed Rimbaud’s Illuminations and initiated fundraising for opening public libraries. They visited the still sole photographer in town, time and again immortalizing themselves, masked and in sensuous poses.
In 1878 Mario Pongratz read in the newspaper that someone by the name of Eastman Goodwin invented flexible film rolls, thereby adding to the possible uses for improved celluloid that a few years earlier, in 1872, was patented by some John W. Hyatt. Mario Pongratz understood why he himself a year earlier ordered through installments the so-called magic lantern, a projector by Henry R. Hale. The gadget had long been waiting for this moment, half-unpacked and forgotten until a more opportune moment, on some shelf. But now all of it happily united into a new technological chain: the magic lantern, the improved celluloid, and film rolls.
From then on, the Pongratzes watched miles of pictures on film, purchased whenever they could. They projected them sometimes on a linen screen in the living room, sometimes simply on a wall, and sometimes on the curtains. At times they would organize viewings for a handful of pleasant and, as always, temporary friends. The guests were especially impressed by Predators of Africa and Vineyard Spraying in Canton de Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Once Mario Pongratz barely restrained himself from succumbing to the temptation to show the esteemed company the latest, just delivered by contraband from the British Isles, collection of Victorian pornography, Priestesses of Debauchery 6. Just another half a step—and he would have offered the guests all those unexpected angles.
The consequences were entirely unexpected.
In September 1880 His Majesty Emperor Franz Joseph conducts his third inspection trip to Galicia and Bukovina. The previous one, as you’d remember, took place a good twenty-five years earlier. The emperor is now fifty, he is in the prime of his life. Just a little more time, and he would approach the equator of his catastrophically long rule, and would also finally get himself a mistress in the milieu of Viennese actresses.
On his way from Lemberg to Czernowitz Franz-Joseph, to the envy of Stanislau, makes not just a symbolic but indeed a real stop in Kolomea. Here they have been long preparing for his visit. From the station to the pavilions of the First Ethnographic Exposition in Kurzweil Park, which for his sake is to be officially opened precisely today, the emperor moves in a majestic phaeton carriage, escorted by three hundred Hutsuls on horseback dressed in exotic holiday garb. The trembita horns relay the joyful news urbi et orbi. The chroniclers would long keep telling about two wedding processions, from Kosiv and Kryvorivnia, who greet His Majesty with festive braided bread and ask for his blessing for the young couples. The emperor showers the lucky ones with gold coins and expresses a wish for them to dance. The young couples dance the Hutsulka and then the Holubka.
The chroniclers would also write about the tiled stove by the earlier mentioned Bakhmatiuk-Bachmiński that Franz Joseph orders to be purchased for the highest price and shipped to the Schönbrunn Palace. The chroniclers would also write about other goods, mostly pottery. The emperor has already been told about the accomplishments and worldwide fame of the Kolomea pottery works.
But the chroniclers will miss one detail that is extremely important for this story.
The fact is, the Pongratzes could not have been absent from that exhibition. Already a month in advance they received a special invitation from one of the curators; this was Weigel, it seems. Just then he had briefly entered the circle of their closest acquaintances.
And so they stand in front of the emperor, this “powerful and sad demiurge,” as many years later a genius from Drohobych would describe him. Mario Pongratz politely takes off his hat, and Mrs. Maria curtsies. “The narrow and dull button-like eyes placed in the triangular deltas of wrinkles” stop on their faces. It is really hard to understand what’s in those eyes. The sideburns merging with the mustache, originating in the first half of the century, when they indeed were fashionable, are not yet “milky white” and do not resemble “wings of snow.” (This last comparison belongs to another genius, this time from Brody.)
“Your Majesty, Mario and Maria Pongratz, Kolomea townspeople,” the hero of this story introduces himself and his wife. The emperor is silent, but with a brief nod indicates that the information was received. “Your Majesty,” continues Mario Pongratz, “we also would like to ask for your kind blessing.” On the emperor’s face appears a shadow of something, perhaps of a question. “Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of our marriage,” explains Mario Pongratz. The emperor looks at them more closely, and now they can hear his moist voice. “Your marriage?” he asks with a bit of a surprise. “You, sir, I can believe. But the lady is still quite young. She looks just about twenty-five.” “Thank you for the compliment, Your Majesty,” Maria bows for the second time. “I will be forty-eight soon.” The emperor hesitates. If this is a joke (and this is obviously a joke), it isn’t funny. This absurd audience must be finished. “If you have anything to do with a twenty-fifth anniversary of someone’s marriage, it is likely as a daughter,” the emperor proclaims his judgment and walks on.
Already an hour later, at another exhibition, an industrial one organized by the Ruthenians, where he would drop quickly after visiting the Polish ethnographic one, the emperor would suddenly recall the doubtful couple. Having received from Fr. Levytsky, until shortly before a member of the Galician diet, who had been accompanying him, a confident assurance that townswoman Genowefa-Maria Pongratz is indeed not the daughter but the wife of Mario Pongratz, Franz Joseph the First orders to convey to them “a somewhat late greeting” and to award the married couple celebrating its silver jubilee a silver florin with his own imperial profile on the reverse.
The same evening Mario Pongratz notes in his diary: “Meeting the Most Serene Emperor. No serenity. Duration: eight seconds. The price of the question: a silver florin. FJI promptly departed for Czernowitz.”
In general, those very 1880s became the apotheosis of their absolute happiness. Profits grew, the goods sold in ever-higher quantities on ever-larger territory, capital accumulated and flowed into new projects, for instance a tobacco factory in Zabolotiv where they rolled true Havana cigars from genuine Cuban supplies. Meanwhile, Mario Pongratz had already relieved himself from a significant part of his business obligations, transferring them to several hired assistants. This enabled him to grant much more time to entertainment and travel. They now could sleep until noontime not only on holidays. Hanging out in clubs and at balls until dawn was now possible not only on Saturdays.
The joys of their existence were not in the least overshadowed by occasional minor annoyances, such as the increasingly audible whispering and gossip behind their backs. The more often they heard around them hissing like “how old is she that she can allow herself such a cleavage?”—the merrier was their attitude to it. Mario Pongratz did not want to think about aging and death. It sufficed for him to know that according to the option chosen, only he would grow old. He would also be the first to die. What was going to happen next to her he did not fully understand and, to be honest, chased this worry away if not with new erotic ideas, then at least with absinthe and cocaine.
The other side of the medal that had eternal youth on its face expressed itself in the various town young ones who started actively chasing after Maria. Some of these brats, without exaggeration, were young enough to be her sons. Mario Pongratz, even though he deeply enjoyed each burst of jealousy, had to be always ready, and this stressed him out. The greatest threat, naturally, came from the officers. Clergy came second, first and foremost Roman Catholic priests (Mario Pongratz called them lotharios in skirts). But one also could not afford neglecting various lesser worries, like English oil engineers and all those homegrown Hamlets, Othellos, and now also Romeos from the von Kochanowski company. Mario Pongratz tried to never leave Maria’s side in public places. To some extent this scared away and stopped many potential assailants.
Still, one had to avoid certain milieus and leave town for longer stretches of time. Although “had to” is not quite the right word. In fact, they set out traveling quite willingly. By then Mario Pongratz had substantially limited his business travel and switched to tourism. He succeeded in imparting to his wife his time-tested affection for high-speed trains, steamboats, comfortable hotels, extravagant landscapes. In modern world, temptations increasingly grew in number. They visited the most exotic restaurants, art galleries, and fashion boutiques. Occasionally they invited to their hotel suites the most expensive exotic dancers and escorts. At beaches, they shocked others by their laconic swimwear.
Venice, of course, was one of the first destinations (a dizzying pose in a gondola). Then Egypt and the pyramids (a three-day journey on camelback across the desert). Then they had a longer sojourn in Goa, where the Portuguese colonial administration frankly indulged the local opium and hashish subculture. In 1885 they discovered the very first nude beach in the world. That was on some Greek island that had been in essence bought out by the Germans and the Scandinavians. Judging by Mario Pongratz’s diary reflections, he and his wife did not really appreciate “the excessive amount of ugliness in human bodies.”
In 1886 a commuter rail line was launched from Kolomea’s town center to the oil-soaked Pechenizhyn. One could now start and finish round-the-world journeys at a station that was just a couple of steps from home. Having boarded at Market Square, the Pongratzes took the commuter line to the Kolomea train station, which was three stops away. There they changed to long-distance trains, and this time for lengthier stretches of time. They always traveled first class. Going via Stanislau, Lemberg, Przemyśl, and Krakow, they reached the German border. The crossing did not take much time: European governments of that era had already introduced visa-free travel for their citizens. For entering Germany, it even included Russian subjects.
This is how it also was in 1888. After Breslau, their train continued to Berlin, and from there on to Hamburg. There the rail journey ended. Then came an ocean liner of the Hamburg America Line. The final destination of that trip was New York. They stayed on the West Side, on Twenty-Third Street; the hotel was brand-new, a bit bohemian (they said Mark Twain had just left when they checked in), and was called Chelsea. They lived on the lucky ninth floor in the luxury suite number 99. That’s where it happened: Mario Pongratz, for a thousandth time grasping her in his arms and choking with gratitude, called her “my little one” a few times. For many decades, he got used to calling his wife many different ways, inventing for her dozens of names and epithets. But “my little one” never happened before. Nor did such sobs.
The difference became increasingly perceptible: her breasts shank again, her thighs narrowed. If not for the same barely perceptible scent of wild garlic between her thighs, this was almost no longer her. This did not give him peace for the rest of the day, and closer to the evening Mario Pongratz even joked, “You know, for the first time it had seemed to me that I was making love to a boy.”
Another half a year passed, and the last doubts had to be cast away. Maria’s physiological time, stopped by a magical force at the peak of her youth, now broke off, jumped off, tore off from the assigned point and rushed backwards. She was becoming not only younger, but also shorter. She still managed to play Juliet, but one evening they stopped admitting her to theatrical performances for adults. There remained only the circus, and only during the day. (Fortunately, the Vagabundo Circus that season stopped in their town the longest and seriously considered Kolomea as a permanent residence: at the time the town hosted no less than eight fairs.)
The casino, the clubs, the salons, and other attractions of public existence were out of the question. Out of the full spectrum of urban establishments only the cafés remained open for them, and even in this case the selection of drinks for Maria had to be radically curtailed. However, now they could for days discuss her favorite flavors of ice cream.
The molfar force hit a snag, that was obvious.
In the early 1890s Mario Pongratz decides to divest of all commercial interests and enter well-deserved retirement. The savings accumulated during his commercially successful life should suffice for calmly and comfortably living out the remainder of it. Selling all his assets brings him more than a five-figure sum, part of which goes for purchasing real estate. Moving from the town center to an imposing villa in the fashionable Vincent suburb is his final commercial venture. To hasten the deal, Mario Pongratz agrees to a preset design, and going against his personal tastes, accepts the version fairly popular then in the local middle-class milieu: a porch, and here another porch, a glassed-in veranda, nine rooms—four on each floor plus the tower, a steep Gothic roof, mansard-style windows, ceramic roof tiles (of course, from Wimmer). So the outsiders might be surprised not by the design, but by the location—basically at the edge of town, maximally removed from curious neighbors’ eyes. Here they would live unnoticed by others. Only the basic necessities would link then to the surrounding world.
One day soon after the move Mario Pongratz, coming home either from the bank or the post office, finds Maria mysteriously silent and tense. The maid’s whispers reveal that the lady again did it. This word could mean only one thing: the maid again found her mistress in the attic, where she time and again would pull out her old dolls from the old chest and sit with them for a long time. He feels a lump in his throat like never before. In the evening he holds her little hands (he does not allow himself any other touches anymore) and does not dare ask, “My sweet, why do you need those old dolls? They, like you and I, are at least sixty years old.” But he does not utter those words, and the next day orders several luxurious new dolls from Weisfisch’s, a store popular with Kolomea children. You should see her eyes when she is presented with those fairytale boxes.
Yes, the molfar made a mistake. And since he hid, he should also correct it. Let him again stop Maria’s time. And then again start it. But let it now be in the correct direction, according to the natural order of things. If he succeeded then, he should succeed now. One should go to him.
In the spring of 1895 Mario Pongratz, working with his old diaries, and partly from memory, reconstructs that Carpathian route. He remembers that out of all the Carpathian molfars only one was left, in Hromidne. Having entrusted his wife to the care of the maid and her gap-toothed hanger-on fiancé, Mario Pongratz sets out for his second mountain expedition. The trip causes him great difficulty; he gets exhausted quickly, often strays off the path, and time and again almost dies from irregular heart beat and fainting. On the seventh day of this unbearable journey, having reached the outskirts of Hromidne, he learns that the molfar (the last one) died some ten years ago. Supposedly he was found with a broken neck on the very bottom of the Peklo valley. His face had been pecked by ravens and crows, his eye sockets empty as well, but the tattoos on his back left no doubts.
Everything came clear—the name of the valley (which means “hell”), the time of molfar’s death. While he was alive, his will held back time. Once he fell into Peklo, everything jumped off the rails and rushed on.
Mario Pongratz would only reproach himself for being slow to guess it. He would finally figure out why now everything was like this. And how it should be understood. And that no one can help here. For this is how things are now. And as for how it would be further on, it’s better not to know.
The fall of the very same year, or perhaps the following one—the diary entries become increasingly infrequent—Mario Pongratz, for the umpteenth time catching the maid spying on, decisively fires her without a word of explanation.
There were, however, rumors that this may have been not the same maid, and not even the next one, but the third one. In any case the boyfriend was still the same, the gap-toothed hanger-on. Although perhaps, he too was not the same one—are look-alike types that few in number in this area? He shouted something and threatened Mario Pongratz with his bluish-pale fists, and then until dawn threw stones in the direction of their house, breaking in the process some half a dozen gas lights. At Leibovsky’s tavern there wasn’t a customer who did not hear from him about a lustful old man from Vincent who had apparently “corrupted a child.” These words—corrupted a child—made the eyes of many listeners sparkle with interest. They demanded details. The storyteller scattered them in all directions, spattering saliva on the collars and chins of those present.
A complaint had to reach law enforcement authorities sooner or later.
When the police courier delivered the summons to Mario Pongratz, he could not help noticing: the man of the house was extremely nervous and was anxious to get rid of him as fast as possible. One could indeed guess a presence of an underage girl in the house, the same courier, simultaneously an investigative agent, later reported to the inspector. According to his words, he did not see the girl but was able to sense a faint scent of wild garlic.
Mario Pongratz arrived to the questioning at the police station not alone. From their home to the well-known building at the intersection of Kraszewski and Romanowski streets (its unpleasant functionality can be judged from it housing not only the police, but also the prosecutor’s office, the court, and even the jail), by Kolomea standards, it was not too close, and it was worth considering a fiacre. But Mario Pongratz wanted to come over on his own feet. While they were walking, he got quite tired, strands of hair got out from underneath his black top hat and waved in the wind. His breathing got increasingly heavier, and his heart pounded ever closer to his throat. And there was ringing in his ears on top of that. Maria scurried next to him, holding him by the hand. Was she holding him, or hanging onto him?
“Who is this person to you?” the inspector asked after clarifying the initial formalities. “My legally wedded wife,” answered Mario Pongratz. The inspector did not waver. “In the name of the monarchy and His Majesty the Emperor I hereby arrest you”—and with these words, almost half the town police staff burst into his office. This measure was understandable and justified: the suspect was not a simple fellow.
Maria Pongratz did not let go of her husband’s hands even at the moment when handcuffs were placed on them. From the police station she was taken under special observation to a boarding school—naturally, the very same one where many years ago she had already spent one childhood.
The scandalous investigation progressed at an unheard-of pace. The indignation of the populace, nourished by the local and regional press, called for the immediate clearing of the case and exemplary sentencing of the “unprecedented monster.” Mario Pongratz, having at first declined the services of a defense attorney and declared that he would represent himself, suddenly realized the extent of his vulnerability. What use are all those papers like the Testimonium Baptismi from which it followed that his legally wedded wife Genowefa-Maria Vitrakivna, daughter of Johannes Peter Vitrak, a nobleman, and Anna Pelahia Vitrakova, née Lobodynska, was indeed baptized on 28 November A.D. 1832, from which in turn followed his wife’s more than adult age? And what use was the certificate of marriage of Mario Pongratz, a tradesman, and Genowefa-Maria Vitrakivna, a noblewoman, issued on 15 September A.D. 1855 by Fr. Ivan Levytsky, parish priest of St. Michael’s Church in Kolomea? What use there was this Testimonium Copulationis, if there wasn’t, there did not live, there did not exist a single living witness?
By then all of them had passed away, died, departed forever—the married couple, proprietors of the long neglected, closed, and demolished little hotel, and Fr. Levytsky, and all the passing acquaintances, temporary friends, partners in cards, in flirting, and in other nonsense, the closer girlfriends, the accidental companions, guests and habitués, and even John and Amalia MacIntosh, the Canadian couple from Sloboda Rungurska who were in the oil business and who never said no (the last partners with whom the Pongratzes organized swinger parties), had already left this world, the proof of which could be found in their tombs at the Roman Catholic cemetery.
The Pongratzes outlived them all and became the representatives of an extinct populace. They had no witnesses. It was they who could serve as witnesses for everyone and everything.
There only remained His Majesty the Emperor Franz Joseph I. But he kept far too great a distance and it is doubtful he remembered much if anything, overburdened by worries of statewide importance. And his silver florin could not serve as material evidence.
Meanwhile, the prosecution had no problem with witnesses and evidence. The maids alone, together with their gap-toothed hangers-on, were worth a lot! And the so-called neighbors, the street gawkers, ordinary passersby, coachmen, janitors, butlers, mailmen, custodians, cleaners and other representative of the people! How much they could tell!
The newspaper opinion-makers joined this chorus. Sensational reports about the “Vincent suburb monster” were published all through the fall by Gazeta Kołomyjska, Jüdisches Wochenblatt, and even by Ruskaia Rada. The latter, sparkling with all its old-fashioned orthography, demanded “not a trial, but the ultimate judgment of the crimes of the ungodly deviant!”
The district judge issued a search warrant, and here things began to flow like from a horn of plenty. What treasures did they find in that cluttered villa! Exotic powders, pipes for smoking opium, and opium too, as well as peyote, thujone, cinnamon, cardamom, water pipes and other implements of doubtful and doubtless use, as well as latex, ambergris, disposable syringes (unused), cigars from Havana and Santo Domingo, Swedish matches, sparklers, scented candles, crab sticks, whalebone, Malabar rosin, stacks of forbidden incunabula, Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (in the original!), albums of stamps with mildly indecent content and, most importantly, an entire collection of Victorian pornography film rolls!
There was enough material evidence of cynical and pathological corruption of minors for an entire limited-access museum.
The final heavy weight tipping the scales in favor of prosecution came in the conclusion of a special independent medical-pedagogical commission, which as a result of its comprehensive qualified examination of “the deaf-mute person” that the suspect “persists calling ‘his legally wedded wife Maria Pongratz’” established the true age of the examined female as between nine and eleven years, ergo, the assertions of the suspect, Mr. Pongratz, that his “legally wedded wife Maria” was allegedly born in 1832 were to be considered not truthful and intentionally deceptive.
The only extenuating circumstance was that, according to the conclusions of the same commission, “a detailed inspection of the examinee’s hymen demonstrated it being intact and untouched.” But this nuance could not keep alive the hope for the suspect’s innocence. The court agreed that there existed countless other ways of corruption.
In his last word the defendant asked for at least one last chance to see “the one at whose side I spent more than forty (!) years of legal marriage.” The court did not satisfy his request. While agreeing that Genowefa-Maria Pongratz-Vitrakivna, the legal wife of the defendant, is not an invented person, that is, that she really did exist, the court established that she “could have died of consumption” during the stay in the United States in 1888, after which the defendant returned to the place of his prior residence alone and “with noticeable mental disturbances.”
Additionally, the court refused to take into account the defendant’s testimony about a “molfar spell” but came to the conclusion that a psychiatric evaluation was warranted. Modernité, so admired by Mario Pongratz, turned to him its other side—the know-it-all attitude and skepticism. Some one hundred twenty years earlier any self-respecting judge would have listened to his sincere confession about Carpathian sorcerers with utmost attention. But the Middle Ages with all their molfars, witches, and court torture finally let go of the judicial process and stayed far behind. Outside the nineteenth century was coming to a close, and humanity had not yet known a more perfect era.
However, the ambitious attorney newly assigned to the defense decided to grasp at the psychiatric straw and the next spring won the appeal at the District Higher Court in Lemberg. The molfars, truth be told, did not play a decisive role in the experts’ conclusions, although they were repeatedly mentioned. The main emphasis was made on the hallucinative syndrome deriving from the “systematic abuse of narcotic and stimulating substances,” and also on the “examinee’s natural predisposition to brutal violation of accepted social norms.” In the summer they decided to move Mario Pongratz from Ramler’s jail in Kolomea to the famous Kulparkiv clinic in Lemberg. The attorney was greatly proud of this victory. From now on his charge was to expect calming stability, hydrotherapy, and gradual decline.
They transported him not quite like a criminal and not quite like a psychiatric patient. The man they escorted behaved politely and reservedly. At the Stanyslaviv train station where the two mighty maybe hospital orderlies, maybe prison guards were to transfer him from the police carriage to a special train car, Mario Pongratz seized the moment. He took advantage of the train running fifteen minutes late and, to pass the time more pleasantly, treated both guards to expensive cigars from his old supplies. While they were lighting them, gratefully coughing and puffing, a station employee came by, reminding both powerful-looking guys that this was a train platform where there was no smoking. The guards did not obey and reached for their work papers. While they, with an air of importance, searched for those papers and then took them out, the train approached. Mario Pongratz, for the last moment sensing the former lightness in his body, managed to make a sufficiently large step onto the tracks right in front of the locomotive.
Another such occasion might not have presented itself. On the other side, Maria and the angels were already waiting for him.
Translator’s Note: In this text, names of cities and major towns are given in their official nineteenth-century version. Hence Kolomyia is rendered as Kolomea, L’viv as Lemberg, etc.
Photo cover by Michaela Kostkova