I. There exist cities which are never ripe enough for death (Maybe you believe in endless civizilisations but I would avoid “never”. AND: Has there ever been a city ripe enough for death?). They are depopulated, though never (see above) totally deserted. They are easily recognizable. Corridors leading to nowhere, the earth furrowed with architectural scars, railway tracks winding and twisting aimlessly. People living in such places tend to avoid meeting the eye of a stranger, disconcerted by the symptoms of advancing decomposition. The world has been turned upside down, its entrails gurgling, the foundations for human settlements shaking in the underground realms.
Gone are alleys covered in blossom, parks with ornamented benches, greens and fountains. What used to be the key factor (a common, but not very nice term) determining the development of the city (the unnamed essence (Isn’t it a case where it is wery well named?) of progress) has eroded, dematerialized, lapsed into lethargy. As a result, the place I would like to tell you about has become a huge white dwarf absorbing all energy without letting any out (That’s a tautology. When you are absorbing all energy you can not let any out.) . Underground implosions squander all human efforts there. Gradually, with stubborn, systematic irrevocability, nature appears, sickly and deformed as its manifestations may be (Are they really deformed? Mutated?). The architectural organism is shrinking, heaving barely audible sighs. People’s thoughts gravitate towards the earth – the massive, ponderous mother, whose breathing is shallow and uneven. The soil is tired, sore. She’s exhausted from giving birth too frequently. Her body is mauled by the proximity of humans. Everything around is weak, distant, cringing. Slowly, it’s falling asleep. Those living in the City lack even the energy to curse the higher powers. Even the underground spirit of death is leaving, offended by their lack of faith.
A. The Sins.
The harbinger of Skarbek’s appearances is a mysterious, flickering light. It arouses fear among miners, heralding trouble. This is the sign that man has entered a territory inhabited by ghosts. An unpredictable, absurd or even sinister land. Any nonchalance or lax discipline may bear harsh consequences. In one of the tales, Skarbek appears with a foreman’s lamp casting an uncanny, supernatural light. The following day, a fatal accident occurrs on the spot where the apparition was seen. Similarly, the sight of an animal associated with Skarbek (In B. you say these animals ARE Skarbek), mainly a mouse or a rat, running away was consequently treated as a warning before an approaching catastrophe.
II. The country’s name, ‘Silesia’, is a sticky and warm sound. It might be associated with a thick secretion; mucus or saliva. A geographical amoeba with a pungent smell as well as a magical substance. The spit of the earth. (Spit is saliva.)
For the inhabitants of Silesian cities, the philosopher’s stone has a simple formula. It’s reduced to a black lump. To a sedimentary rock formed of remains of plants which died off millions of centuries ago. Dramatic events unfold here – economic transformations and mysteries of identity. History, geology and politics have intertwined for centuries. (This says nothing specific about this region.) People living here have always valued law and order. Once established, rules are hard to waive here. People from the City may rise their eyes eagerly to heaven, even though their hearts belong to the underground. The first primitive coal pits (But wasn’t it about the ores? Compare to III: “A new treasure was discovered.”) were built here as early as the 11th century. However, the real industrial boom started together with Prussian rule in 1763, after the seven years war had ended. During the industrial revolution, dreams of welfare and progress were based on black gold. A symbolic social construct was created around it in the communist era. However, this black gold demands the highest sacrifice – going under the ground and fraternizing with the realm of darkness, evoking fear and anxiety.
B. The Forces
The underground spirit may resort to some uncanny tricks. He may appear in the shape of a human being – an old man or a child – as well as an animal – a rat, a cat or even a horse. As a man, he has strange, red or green eyes glowing in the dark. He appears out of nowhere, materializing from the air, much to people’s astonishment.
According to one of the tales, a young miner once got slapped across the face by an invisible hand. This was supposed to be a punishment for his excessive swearing. As this warning didn’t make the man change his ways, the lord of the underground led him along a tunnel, from which he was never to return.
Some of the tales ascribe a power over time under the ground to him, as well. A miner wandered along a net of tunnels for seven years without sleeping, eating or even resting. In real time, however, it turned out to be a mere twenty-four hours. Another man, whom the guard of the underground had promised as much gold and silver as he could carry, spent a few hours in an underground treasury. When he got out, his family regarded this as a miracle. He was believed to have died under the ground many weeks ago.
III. The first temptation to introduce substantial changes in the City was felt eight centuries ago. Hope was buried under the ground. Deposits of silver and lead ores fired people’s imagination with visions of wealth. There survives a papal bull from the 12th century, listing the parish and fortifications of the City erected to defend the miners’ settlement. Deposits of these minerals were searched for by qualified dowsers. The earth was soon covered with thousands of small pits and shafts. In 1526, the City was given mining privileges. It was then that the industrial machinery was set in motion. After three centuries of toiling exploitation, the precious deposits dwindled. The City experienced the first invisible (hidden?) disaster.
This didn’t turn out to be the end of the industrial era, though. A new treasure was discovered (compare to: “The first primitive coal pits …” in II. Wasn’t it more about about having the use for so much coal for the steam machines etc. and not so much about “discovering”?) – coal seams, a gift from nature, deposited safely deep under the ground since the Paleozoic.
The beginnings were unimpressive. Coal mines resembled huge wells with long wooden ladders. Miners used to squeeze through narrow tunnels and extract the valuable rock with primitive tools, lying or kneeling. We may deduce from drawings exhibited in museums that coal had to be pulled along tunnels in wooden boxes attached to skids. It was pulled up the shafts in ordinary buckets with the help of a windlass. Only later was it poured onto carts, drawn by horses on rails. People couldn’t resist the temptations of progress. Progress was all that counted, adding instead of subtracting. Faith in eternal life with a light bulb and railway tracks. The look of the city changed: pompous buildings of coal mines towered over areas cruelly deprived of trees. New mine shafts and artificial mountains of coal dust were built.
The black ore was considered the fuel of the future. It was supposed to heat houses, accelerate production in china factories or distilleries or limestone works and make our everyday life easier. Nothing could undermine the faith put in modern mechanic conveniences. Lifts were installed to take robust men several hundred meters under the ground. Steam machines drawn by eight horses were built to drain the mine tunnels. Lamps with special indicators warning against high methane concentration were used. Progress was supposed to transform the City into a land of industrial miracles.
C. The Punishments
The spirit of underground treasures may have dealings with the devil. In one of the tales, a miner notices Skarbek, who has “hooves with horseshoes”. He spits and greets him with the traditional “God be with you”. The following morning, the man’s dead body is found.
The spirit of the underground is revengeful and quick-tempered.
It was said that in the shape of a man he got a job in one of the mines. He was given the hardest work and was cheated of his pay by a greedy and lazy foreman. He took cruel revenge: The ghost of the underground pushed the foreman into a deep shaft and disappeared.
One shouldn’t get too close to the underground spirit. There even existed a ‘manual’ teaching miners how to behave in the presence of Skarbek. “Food, light for his pipe or anything Skarbek might demand should be handed to him on a shovel or a pickaxe. One should never give him one’s whole hand, because the Spirit of the underground would tear the whole arm out.”
IV. The carefully written (was it? In which way? And if so – why is there no proper ending?) scenario of early capitalism has surprised everyone involved with its tragicomic turns. Mines and plants were built and pulled down, generations passed. A new millennium came. The idea of the Grand Finale was never implemented. That’s why some of the city-dwellers climb the smoldering slag heaps (these artificial mountains moved by the inner rhythm of biochemical processes will stay alive for many years) and search the sky for any signs of the apocalypse. They suffer from unfulfilled tragedy syndrome. The catastrophe struck so quietly that nobody fully believed (believes?) in it. The buildings are covered with a net of cracks. Every now and then, they gently shiver. It is then that the citizens are reminded of the abandoned body of the earth, which was supposed to feed them, guard them and provide technological progress. The unsteady pulse of the underground causes nervousness. The earth is feverish. Her breath is foul. Here and there, she spits heavy clouds of steam. People blame the garbage men for failing to collect the rubbish from streets and yards in time. (Because stuff from under the earth is coming out? What? How?) Wet earth smelled at dawn has the smell of an old man.
The earth’s crust generates inaudible sounds which may be sensed with the pores of the skin, the smallest hairs, as an odd buzzing noise in one’s ears. The persistent and intrusive syndromes of the Unfulfilled End. The awkward itching somewhere inside the body. The gabble in the hallways. Whispers and grumbles. The old men’s hands getting sweaty for no apparent reason, children crying snuggled up against each other (covered with heavy blankets, just in case), women closing the shutters tight and leaving the dishes unwashed. Insects are flying low, forming chaotic circles, eating nothing. The City is waiting for what may never come at all. The ending credits.
D. The logic of the underground.Skarbek punishes people for not keeping their word. In one of the tales, the spirit of the underground takes the shape of an elegant man and helps a poor miner, an orphan, providing him with food and paying him additional money. He makes only one condition: the young man mustn’t reveal the identity of his benefactor. The demon’s kindness at the same time leads into temptation, a test of strong will. Obviously, the unwise miner finally answers his friends’ persistent questions and betrays the secret. The following day, he dies, hit by a lump of coal from an overhanging roof. The death penalty is the punishment for confirming the existence of the mysterious spirit. This is the logic of the underground realm.
V. Silesia. The local food is fatty, the humour is rough, the men’s hands are heavy and impatient. Everything is palpable, solid, clear-cut. Every aspect of life seems connected with coal mining. The work underground is monotonous, requires superhuman effort and strict rules. It’s dicing with death. It’s giving new commandments. It’s developing an exemplary work ethic. A coarse and quick-tempered life and death. The tunnels have been filled with sand or flooded (As far as I understood they fill the tunnels with sand AND water). Now you can only watch the erosion of human skin, bury old objects in the ground and desert the houses where cold dampness dwells. The Citizens glance at the earth under their feet, they can sense the trembling of the underground realm getting weaker – its ruins under the foundations of buildings, slag heaps and sickly woods. They know that the time has come when what belongs to the past should be returned to the earth. Every now and then, dreams of going underground are dreamt again. Dreams of unbelievably long ladders. Of simple solutions. Of living creatures and minerals coexisting in a symbiosis. Of the proximity of the underground which will absorb the City anew on one of the quiet and windless nights. So the City-dwellers are waiting for the great apocalypse, which seems to avoid them deliberately. Only small catastrophes, little misfortunes occur – nothing spectacular. What remains is waiting and moving in a peculiar, slow procession downwards – to the middle of the earth. Unhurriedly, in a stately manner, without haste. The instructions are simple. Hold your breath, block the stream of thoughts, erase memories. Proceed downwards. Let the pressure build in your veins, causing pain.
Here, surrounded by rocks and dust, you can lie in wait, transfixed.
E. The God’s servant
In many tales, in spite of his perversity, Skarbek is a creature devoted to God and demanding respect for His name. Skarbek helps people find coal seams or cut through hard rock. In a popular legend, he appears as a dwarf with a beard, forcing a miner to leave a chamber which is destroyed by an explosion a moment later. According to another tale, Skarbek punishes a miner who sneers at God and curses. A sophisticated punishment was administered for violating the underground rules – and even whistling could stir up anger in the underground spirit – Skarbek treated the poor wretch’s body as rope. “Skarbnik (“Skarbnik” is never mentioned before. How is he? Just another word for “Skarbek”?) approached him and, nobody knows how, pulled him through the rungs of the ladder so that the jeerer couldn’t free himself by any means. The wretched man could be released only after the ladder had been laboriously taken to pieces”.
Skarbek rewards for good deeds.
In a popular legend, a young miner is offered silver seams hidden in the mine as a token of appreciation for his diligence. A theme of gratitude for feeding a hungry mouse, a cat or a beggar which traditionally embody the underground spirit, runs through many other tales.
Skarbek enforces the mining laws: sleeping, throwing stones into shafts, whistling, swearing, abusing animals as well as working between twelve and one in the daytime and at night was strictly forbidden in mines.
VI. The pulse of the City under the City is getting weaker. It gives out the last sounds. Light dispels fears. Demons turn out to have familiar faces – weary, pale and rugged physiognomies of lost and confused people.
There remains a mysterious connection between life on the surface of the City and its underground reflection. The urban, industrial organism has its clone (But as you are telling the one is not just a copy of the other; they are connected) – a suffering physical representation. They form one body whose functioning is affected by the illness of one of its parts. The frail body on the surface is linked by an umbilical cord with the corpse shaken by convulsions underground. No invigorating ore flows in this organism’s veins anymore. Its twin is wasting away and losing strength. The City and its underground reflection function as two foetuses, growing together, drawing blood from one mother, touching one another in a wet dance of contractions and trembles. They’re predestined to share each malady and every smallest happiness. If one of them gets ill, the other suffers, too. If one laughs, the other’s stomach contracts blissfully. They are one body connected by an umbilical cord. They feed on one another’s secretions, using their bodies and building them anew. The twins of the industrial revolution. The unwanted (What was unwanted about them? At least in the beginning they were extremely wanted) bastards of count Friedrich Wilhelm Reden who wished for an industrial miracle. One of the twins is half dead, deformed and frail, he hasn’t seen light for years. The other knows that he cannot single-handedly fight the illness coming from the underground, which has been eating him away.
F. The Realm
Skarbek’s realm is a singular (what does that mean?) underground garden, where time flows at a different, unearthly pace. What is human and foreseeable, becomes ethereal, insubstantial, timeless (time is flowing or evering is standing still?).
A description of Skarbek’s uncanny underground domain appears in a legend where a young miner from the city of Z. gives an account of what he saw. According to his tale, Skarbek’s land was situated in an unused drift, destroyed by fire and a gas explosion. Warning signs were placed before the entrance. Not noticing them, the boy entered the dead tunnels. Several times he met the same group of silent miners, working steadily and persistently. He says: “I heard water dripping slowly but ceaselessly, dangerous cracks in the wooden props, and white fungi growing over rotting wood which were glowing unearthly, producing an uncanny impression”. Another tale, coming from the city of M., presents an account of a whole underground city with “beautiful streets and pretty houses”. However, the revealing of the secret underground splendor is a warning – the spirit of the underground (this time assuming a diabolical appearance) says (= Skarbek?) that if such a miner goes underground once again, a tragedy will strike him.
VII. Black Silesia is described (by whom? Why do you want to avoid to say “is an orthodox…”) as an orthodox land in its very essence. Heavy, industrial, traditional. And yet (You talk about different kind of traditions. Modernity as tradition and premodern traditions. The relation between them is not clear). there exists also a parallel Silesian country created by the strength of local tradition – a place relieved of the burden of reality, detached but at the same time ossified in the coarse, regional mythology. This world of dreams has emerged from an excess of tales and a lack of light. It is built upon oblique meanings, hints and allusions, whispers and the drip of water whose sounds are deformed by underground acoustics. It is a world on the edge of light and darkness. The realm of perverse subterranean gnomes, dwarves, unshapely hominids, ghosts of children mercilessly exploited in old mines, wandering in the labyrinths of narrow tunnels. This world doesn’t comply with any physical parameters of probability. This is a land where the rules of dead cities operate. All that can be heard is a strange grating sound, an inner noise of whispers and moans.
If there is black as well as white magic, there has to (If black and white magic do NOT exist, then there is no black and white Silesia? Why?) exist a black and a white Silesia. Both countries revolve around the same scenario of tragedy, catastrophe and fall.
G. The Bestiary
Skarbek is not the only mysterious being present in the tales of the City. The tales are inhabited by a whole menagerie of creatures whose fate is inextricably linked with that of the living – projections of human fears, anxieties and hopes. Many tales and stories feature wandering souls in the form of mysterious lights (świetliki) who cannot find peace as their fate is a punishment for wrong deeds. They may only be redeemed by a good word, prayer, a Christian greeting. The city-dwellers talk about will o’ the wisps – the souls of children who weren’t baptized and absolved of the original sin, thus condemning them to a never-ending wandering across the world. The legends also describe Utopiec, a hideous creature dwelling in water and dragging people into the depths of rivers and lakes. Sometimes he takes the shape a colorful ribbon lying on the surface. He puts up his stall with baubles on the river and lures foolish people. Utopiec ties the uncut umbilical cord round his wretched victims’ necks, mainly prying, small children of whom he envies their earthly joys.
Compared with other beings from the City’s legends, Skarbek remains the most ambiguous. He is believed to be the source and cause of both good and evil doings under the ground. His name itself has an interesting etymology. Researchers trace it back to the old Slavonic word skarb (troska) meaning both ‘care’ and ‘trouble’ (But isn’t “skarb” the word for “treasure”?) which may have given rise to a double interpretation of the name: one seeing Skarbek as a caring creature and another, making him responsible for getting people into trouble.
VIII. There exist prophecies like mirror reflections (Do you mean reflections or inversions?). The left side is a negative of the right. What is divine is placed at the top and what is diabolical – at the bottom. The general rule was established centuries ago – the deeper we go underground, the closer to Hell we get. The higher we rise to the clouds, the easier it is to experience the delights of Heaven. The underground realm has nevertheless aroused curiosity. The bones of dinosaurs, fossilized ferns, ammonites, valuable ores. A world preserved, dormant, impossible to revive. Underground museums without any visitors. Remains and bones. Excavations. Long corridors leading nowhere, caves and streams. Stalactites and stalagmites. The world of shadows and organic waste which took the form of minerals.
The core of the earth consists of boiling magma, so the people of the City saw with their mind’s eye images of big cauldrons, devil’s dances, the groaning of the tortured damned. The work in the mines’ tunnels, several hundred meters under the ground resulted in getting closer to the abyss and, consequently, creating a new underground Bestiary full of dwarves, gnomes, kobolds and skarbniks. They are unusual creatures (unusual ghosts? In comparison to whom?), coming from a world governed by its own inner, incomprehensible logic. They are insolent, unruly, often jealous of the earth’s secrets which might have been unwisely wrested from them by men. The image of an underground creature began to take a more distinct shape. The figure of the king of miners’ souls, the guard of the mines’ secrets, the mythical dwarf guide appeared more and more frequently in legends. That is how Skarbek, the herald of the fall, was born.
Going under the ground, one has to consider the possibility of being punished for upsetting the eternal order. The City and its underground are governed by different laws. Gold transported to the surface of the earth turns into coal. Figures dissolve into thin air, undergoing a transformation. Time is stretched or shrunken. The laws of physics are suspended, allowing the mysterious creature to exist and not to exist at the same time. (I do not see the connection between the last paragraph and the following sentence/ paragraph.)
The guard of the underground realm (=Skarbek?) has foretold the City’s fall.
Although the tales of dwarfs bustling around mine tunnels have fallen into oblivion, the curse hasn’t died. Some chapters of this (which?) story have been definitively finished. Some will remain unconcluded for the forthcoming centuries.
There has not been enough faith left in a final ending. (See my remark to the first sentence) Such being the case, the people of the City may initiate the process of falling all over again (What does that mean?) curing the past with the future or pretending that the end is a new beginning.
Gliwice – Berlin – Bytom
April – May 2005
I would like to thank Karolina Brongiel for the source materials and Anna Niesterowicz for discovering the country of Silesia.