Wioletta Greg is a Polish writer; she was born in a small village in 1974 in the Jurassic Highland of Poland. In 2006, she left Poland and moved to the UK. Between 1998–2012 she published six poetry volumes, as well as a novel, Swallowing Mercury, which spans her childhood and her experience of growing up in Communist Poland and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Her short stories and poems have been published in Asymptote, the Guardian, Litro Magazine, Poetry Wales, Wasafiri and The White Review. Her works have been translated into English, Catalan, French, Spanish and Welsh.
I’m a few years old and don’t know how to hide, how to protect myself. Everyone is stronger than me, they brandish their hands as though they’ll wrench out pieces of me and keep them for themselves. My father calls me a changeling, a horrid changeling—words I can’t quite understand, just like I don’t get why, over the break, after the parish fair, he beat me with his army belt until I started bleeding. Maybe I messed up, maybe I did something I wasn’t supposed to like scattering his bobbers, or maybe he did it out of a fear that he might have told me his secret while he was drunk? My grandma beats me just because—with a rag, a switch, anything she happens to run across—because of dementia, because of hypothyroidism. My teacher hits me on the knuckles with a ruler, or on the palms, because she hates her job. The boys stick their legs out to trip me, hit me with sticks, grope me in the boiler room at school, smash snow into my face on the playing field before our classes start because I’m just a little girl, defenseless. Only my grandpa, who must have killed people during the war, seems to have no intention of striking anybody now. He just takes his pickaxe, spade and shovel and goes and hides away in the quarry behind the barn, where—covered from head to toe in mud and dust—he spends hours extracting limestone. My mom, seething with resentment—over my father’s outbursts, over the tragic death of her beloved older sister, over her life—hits me the most, because of anything and everything I do that angers her. One afternoon she notices a louse on my collar and hits me so hard in the back that I stumble into the hot stove. I’m too young to understand and start to think that since I am a horrid changeling that means that my blood is sweet, which is why the lice are breeding in my hair, so I start cutting my hands with pieces of glass. My mom, believing these wounds are accidental, pours hydrogen peroxide on them, sometimes a salicylic acid solution with ethanol, which burns, and then she bandages me up and kisses me on the cheeks and rubs my shoulders, heats up some water, and scrubs my head for me in clouds of steam. Then she uses a thick comb to get the lice out of my hair and onto a newspaper, where she crushes them with her fingernail over the dignitaries’ bald heads. When she notices that I still have nits in my hair, that the combing has been insufficient, she takes the bike from the barn and rides four kilometers to the township, where there’s a pharmacy, where she buys a solution that stinks like the pesticide we use on potato beetles, and she smears it into my unruly hair, wraps my head up in a kerchief and tells me to sit in the attic wearing that uncomfortable turban for the rest of the day. My head itches and burns. I play hide-and-seek with the cat, draw pictures on the dusty floor with my fingers, put together a mosaic out of shards of broken mirror and look under the tarpaulin where there are earwigs scampering around, apples rotting, celadon oat sprouts coming up. Hanging on lines to dry are clothes that smell of Pollena and my grandma’s herbs: mint, sage and tansy. In bundles of poppy heads shades of green, violet and cerulean are gradually extinguished. Mother doves dive down into their hatchlings’ little throats.
Suddenly, from behind an empty barrel, thrust into my field of vision by a beam of light, bursting, belted by a red tape like a chamberlain, a sack of wheat’s appeared.
“Changeling, changeling!” whisper the poppy heads.
“Chay-chay ling, chay-chay ling,” repeat the mother doves.
I hop from one leg to the other, swaying, like a puppy deafened by a shovel, then I grab a metal rod and, remembering all the blows, all the beatings, all the times, the wrenching, the spanking, I pound the sack so long that finally the burlap bursts. Through the opening in it escapes a golden stream of grains.
From Accommodations, forthcoming from Transit Books