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Have you ever visited a place and felt its atmosphere? Perhaps a cold chill at the back of your neck, a sense of déjà vu, or your mind circling back to a place you have long left? The debut short story from Polish writer Urszula Honek, White Nights, is akin to reading an account of a haunted place – one that is beautiful and devastating in equal measure.
The 13 haunting stories in White Nights feature well-drawn characters from a village in the Beskid Mountains, southern Poland. Though firmly categorizable as literary fiction, my eerie detector prickled at the dreamlike, latent danger threading through these interconnected chronicles. Throughout the reading, the text slipped from ethnographical archive to folk horror to a Lorca-esque play and back. Walking through the forest of characters and their symbol-laden discourse, the reader hears mercurial stories that resonate differently depending on the time of day.
Rather than straightforward rural literature, Honek invites us inside to sit with Beskid Niski’s villagers; her authorial voice given over to a cast of characters who share experiences across time. Their colloquial storytelling pulls the reader in, as if one has arrived mid-conversation. Yet Honek never judges her cast, choosing instead to present their deep longing, despair, and dreams as universal revelations from a microcosm that would otherwise remain unwitnessed. Her talent as a poet is evident here, as naturalism and lyricism are comfortable bedfellows in her prose. This gentle act of witnessing cushions weightier themes, with repeated observations exemplifying the villagers’ proximity and lending a conspiratorial air to the secrets shared with us. For example, three characters describe the same painting of a Polish hound with a pheasant in its mouth hanging above a bed – a still life seen through a window. The familiarity is such that a small boy recognizes, “Pani Owczarowa has one like that on her porch, but the birds have their eyes closed, they’re lying in front of the dog, and the dog’s smiling.” White Nights is a playful text in which motifs meld with the furniture and invite you to notice them. Honek’s biography names her as a dog lover and four-legged friends are peppered throughout. At the tail end of the collection, one character implores another: “You have to say goodbye to the dead, or they’ll follow you around like dogs,” this almost throwaway line takes on a darker meaning when recollecting earlier appearances.
While the prose is poetic, the text remains grounded in its distinct setting with the village of Beskid Niski being as much of a supporting character as the living and dead it houses. Throughout the reading, stone tape theory came to mind. This idea that suggests “environmental elements are capable of storing traces of human thoughts or emotions” that echo or repeat in similar circumstances. Something is in the air in Beskid Niski. Seasonal light governs more than an agricultural way of life, with Andrzej recalling: “All the mothers in Binarowa used to call to their children like that in the evenings, cos they knew that night changes the shape of all things and when something approaches the house in the dark, you never know if it might not be in human form.” This folkloric landscape is both alluring and menacing, one that people can disappear into readily. When questioned, a mother and father tell ineffectual police that: “It was nighttime when she went out. She wanted to see if the snow shone in the dark.”
The titular white nights give the village an eerie quality, a liminal luminosity never fully light or dark. This “strange yellow glow” changes how the villagers perceive themselves, as Henia casually shares: “the sun shines different; if you watch, you can see people’s shadows get longer, it’s easy to spot, take a look some time.” Another nameless character shares the illuminating quality that the light can bring: “It’s reminiscent of childhood, a rare experience, you get up in the morning, go for a walk and suddenly, for a moment, you see the world differently, the air is clearer.” Whereas for Andrzej, the darker months of limited sunlight hold an air of danger: “It was getting dark by four o’clock, not everyone can cope with that. The frozen snow crunches underfoot and you look behind you every now and then, if you dare. And if not, you just speed up to lose whoever’s following you.”
The dawn and dusk that dictate the landscape also permeate the characters’ dreams, which are populated by the deceased and the living. Hanna, one of a trio of sisters, recalls: “Ever since I was a child when darkness came and the cold crept in, rather than putting on a jumper, I would walk around bare-skinned to absorb it all.” Some, it seems, are more susceptible to the darkness that refuses to be governed even by the town’s 24-hour clock: “Those who have long held hands with death cannot have those hands cut off.” Yet these dark encounters, often with the deceased, are not always frightening. Holding hands suggests an intimacy with death, a certain kinship that only those in tune with the light can possess. Whether this is a gift or madness depends on who’s being asked. In “Zofia”, Hanna’s elder sister changes in the wake of their mother’s death, but the sisters “listened [to her] closely, because she’d said that Mother was calling us from there.” When they realise heeding her visions has dangerous consequences, they soon stop: “[it was] like she was going inwards, maybe someone else lived within her and only they knew her secrets?” The ‘there’ Zofia refers to is not too far from ‘here’ – and its proximity is nearing. Elsewhere, Andrzej dreams of the dead sitting around the table inside his home and, in the village he temporarily moves to, the blue light of the television and open doors beckon to wayward husbands and whoever else walks in the cold night. While few are fluent in the darkness’s liminal language, the connections to the other side hum beneath the surface: “Each [milk] churn has the name of its owner written on the side. Just like in the cemetery, we’ve all got someone in there.”
When several of the characters take leave of the village, Beskid Niski inevitably pulls them back. Despite the limited opportunities for education, marrying, and work, the characters are bound to this unforgiving place, neatly exemplified in an observation from Henia as she sees: “children playing at the crossroads. A large puddle has formed there, and a few ducks are slowly circling.” The stagnancy of Beskid Niski sticks to its inhabitants and “gets deep inside you and then you can scrub all your life but it won’t come out.” Yet this eerie betwixt nature is commonplace and passed down intergenerationally. In “The Little Bell,” Dorotea recalls the death of her husband to her granddaughter: “they were practically lifting me off the ground, I felt like I weighed nothing.” She drifts off as she tries to get her granddaughter to settle: “But now let’s sleep, and may we dream of nothing.” As the story – and potentially Dorotea’s life – closes, it feels as if this weightlessness peels the soul from its body. Elsewhere in “The Cliff,” we see a character’s interior monologue as she is determined to leave, crossing the road out of town in front of someone and musing: “if he didn’t see me, it’s as if I wasn’t there.” The opening story, “Permission to Land,” Andrzej reflects on the mentally ill and disabled in his village which, in my reading, brings them closer to this liminality: “That kind of illness is even worse than when you’ve lost a leg, cos you can’t see it, they’re just plodding along, but they feel like they’re flying above the above the earth.” The difference between witnessing and experiencing this weightless psychic state feels like only a matter of time for many of the residents of Beskid Niski, just as in life all of us are susceptible to entering the liminal space of illness. Heed the dead that speak through the living, Honek’s characters say without saying, as the longer you stay in the white nights, “a small dark blotch with gather in the corners in your eyes, and one day it will flood your vision” whether through dreams or waking life.
About the Author of White Nights
Urszula Honek (b. 1987) comes from Racławice near Gorlice. She is the author of three poetry books: Sporysz (Ergot, 2015), Pod wezwaniem (Dedicated to, 2018) and Zimowanie (Wintering, 2021) and a collection of short stories Białe noce (White nights, 2022). Her debut Sporysz got to the final of the K.I. Gałczyński Orfeusz Poetry Award (2016) and was shortlisted for the “Złoty Środek Poezji” National Literary Competition for the best book debut of 2015. Honek won the Grand Prix of the Rainer Maria Rilke Poetry Competition (2013), the Adam Włodek Award (2021) and the Stanisław Barańczak Award. In 2022, Zimowanie was shortlisted for the Gdynia Literary Award.