It was the last day of our holiday in Poland. We’d already been to Malbork, home to the biggest medieval castle in the world, and the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s top-secret, high-security bunker when a place that called my attention popped up on the interactive Google map.
“The Hel Peninsula,” I said with amusement.
“Do you think it’s worth visiting? I asked Justyna, my wife.
“It’s just a peninsula. I’d rather go to Gdansk. I’ve always wanted to visit the Poseidon Fountain and the port. There is also the Amber Museum,” she answered.
“Just imagine,” I said dreamily as if she had not spoken.
“We could send our friends in Manchester a postcard saying: Greetings from Hel! And then tell everybody we’ve been to Hel and back.””
She was not amused. After all, she was Polish and used to puerile jokes about one of the prettiest holiday spots on the Baltic coast. For me, on the other hand, this was my first ever trip to Poland and even though I really loved the beauty of the country’s landscape and the warmth of its people, I was rather taken aback by the names of Polish cities and villages.
When Justyna or, anyone other Pole for that matter, pronounced a word, it sounded as if they were gargling drain cleaner and were simply trying to spit out the corrosive liquid. Don’t take me wrong! I really admired a nation whose citizens, including some as young as three, could fluently speak a language which, for me, was nothing but an unintelligible blend of sibilant consonants peppered here and there with a vowel.
But then, I’d never been one for languages and had to admit that even learning French had been a trial. And, from my relatively frequent visits to Ibiza as a computer science student a few years back, I should have learnt more than Otra cerveza, por favor. Which, I’d been told, meant: another beer, please but could very well have been: I’ve had too much to drink.
On our way to the coast, we passed a delightful city called Grudziądz which Justyna said used to be called Graudentium (you should have kept the name, I told her, but she scowled with disdain) by the Teutonic Knights who settled there in the 14th century. And a little town called Robin which really bowled me over because I felt like jumping out of the car and sticking a picture of Ben Affleck (the best man for the role!) in his Batman outfit on the road sign. Justyna got her nose completely out of joint and didn’t even let me slow down.
It took a good deal of begging and cajoling, but she finally agreed to accompany me to Hel.
“But I warn you, Bob! Just don’t! Don’t make any more stupid jokes about it, or you’ll really know what it means to be in hell!” she cautioned.
So instead of saying anything that might piss her off, I lunged into Trip Advisor to read reviews of the peninsula while Justyna floored the accelerator and zoomed along the highway to Hel.
I tried hard not to Bluetooth AC/DC’s song onto our radio (all the while humming silently: Hey satan, payin' my dues, look at me, I'm on the way to the promised land) knowing damn well that if I did, Justyna would quite likely U-turn with a screech of the tires and a stink of burning rubber and take us directly to the Chopin airport in Warsaw. Two days early. Believe me, I know my Polish wife.
While she drove concentrating on the road that was now covered with an inch of mushy snow, I discovered that the width of the peninsula varied from approximately 100 metres in the narrowest part to over 3 kilometres at the tip. And, since the peninsula was formed entirely of sand, it frequently got completely flooded in winter storms which was right now, as December sleet battered the car and everything around with needlepoint sharpness.
“If we are lucky,” I thought “the Hel Peninsula will turn into an island, and we will be stuck!”
I gritted my teeth not to blurt out something like Honey, I’d love to get stranded in Hel with you that would drive Justyna cocoa bananas, but one look at my serious-faced wife told me to keep my gob shut. So I just swallowed the chuckle wedged in my throat like a hard-boiled sweet and simply laughed inwardly.
It was well past noon when she finally stopped the car in front of what looked like an ancient tavern. The sign above the door said: Pod Zlota Wydma which Justyna explained meant Under the Golden Dune. It made a lot of sense because, despite the drizzle and the mist, I could see a mountain-sized heap of white sand with a few pines sticking accusing fingers at the sky behind the building.
It was so cold now that my frozen fingers could hardly hold my phone without dropping it onto the cobbled yard and breaking it into a thousand pieces. I was dying to get inside and get something hot to eat and a cup of tea. With a wedge of lemon, if possible, and two sugars. Not that sweetener crap for me.
I pressed the huge brass handle and pushed the door. The place not only looked old, but was... how should I put it, medieval and spooky although from the outside it appeared pleasant, rustic, and welcoming. Rounded wooden beams supported the second floor and the sagging ceiling, the stained-glass windows hardly let any light in but despite the air of decrepitude and abandonment, the place felt cosy thanks to the smells of beef stewing in a spicy sauce and mulled wine hanging temptingly above the counter littered with last night’s tankards and beers glasses.
Although there were several large and small tables arranged around the place, we were the only customers. Few people seemed to consider a trip to the Eastern European coast in the dead of the winter a good idea.
The man standing behind the counter looked old, as old as the tavern itself, which was at least a hundred years. Ginger hair hung in coils over his craggy face. An angry red scar stretched from just under his left ear to the upper lip. His eyes were of the watery blue that came with advanced age, and he rubbed them with the back of his hand as if to dry off unshed tears. There was something intriguing about him, perhaps because of the flaming hair and the bulbous nose. He could be an Irish leprechaun, but I quickly checked myself - we were in the wrong country and in the wrong century and instead settled on an unnamed Lovecraftian character.
Justyna said something to him which I hoped meant We want to eat right now and if possible, even sooner.
When he answered, his voice was soft and friendly.
“An English gentleman and his Polish wife,” he said in a halting but correct English and chuckled.
“You got yourself into a right pickle, young man,” he pointed at Justyna. The watery eyes twinkled mischievously.
Justyna shot him an angry glance, opened her mouth to retort something nasty but, considering his age, kept quiet.
Justyna ordered zurek, the humblest of all Polish soups, and at the same time the most exotic. Made of fermented rye, it was usually served in a hollowed-out bread loaf with smoked meat and slices of sausage and eggs halves floating on top. I’d had it before in my mother-in-law´s house and in Platzki, a little Polish restaurant Justyna and I used to frequent when we had first met. It was where I had been introduced to Poland’s cuisine, its complicated language and the indomitable nature and wry humour of its people. Including my wife´s.
While we were waiting for our food (unfortunately, I realised that my wife´s initial words to the innkeeper were not: we want to eat right now) I looked around the place. It was definitely better suited to another century, deep middle ages or even earlier. The walls were decorated with mounted boar heads and stuffed birds, most old and dusty, giving the place an even more ancient feel. Any time now I expected a Teutonic Knight in full armour, with a square helmet, the half-face guard shaped like a skull, enter, and ask for a glass of mulled wine and the way to the nearest crusade.
But it was not a knight who entered when the door sprang open but a young man, tall and lanky, wearing nothing but a blue shirt, a pair of tattered trousers and, despite the December cold, a pair of sandals. Blonde dreadlocks hung over his lean, tense face and his green eyes, set deep into the sockets, darted rapidly from the counter to the table where we were sitting, as if looking for someone. His gestures, just like the movements of his face muscles, were jerky, like those of a prowling alligator. He was muttering something incomprehensible that even for me, unversed in the language, did not sound Polish.
The commotion brought the tavern leprechaun back. One look at the sparsely dressed man and he was standing right next to him, talking to him comfortingly, holding his arm, guiding him to the kitchen by the elbow. I glanced at Justyna but she didn’t seem to be overly concerned and was still looking at her iPhone, probably checking accommodation for tonight.
A moment later, the innkeeper was back carrying a tray with two steaming bowls of soup, slices of thick brown bread, and mugs of steaming tea. With lemon wedges, as I wanted.
He put the food on the table and while he was doing it Justyna said something to him in gunfire rapid Polish. The man nodded then sat down at the opposite side of the table, remained quiet for a good five minutes as if some invisible wheels were turning in his head trying to find the correct words.
“The man you’ve just seen is our Stan or Stanislaw,” he said finally.
“He was not always like that, you know. Crazy like. Bonkers. It happened suddenly, about eight years ago,” he said it very quietly, almost casually.
“Stan was a university student. Archaeology or anthropology, one of them fancy things that don’t really get you a proper job. Since he was a kid, he’d always been interested in local legends, especially the one about the Fern Flower,” he refilled our mugs with more tea.
“The Fern Flower?” Justyna asked with undisguised interest between sips of tea.
“Yes, the Fern Flower. The legend says that each St. John´s night, right behind this very tavern, a goodhearted man or woman can find the fern flower that blooms only on that night and only for a few seconds. As you might know, ferns reproduce by spores and don’t have flowers. But if one is lucky, and tries really hard, he will find the flower and it will reveal him a secret that one but he can know lest he is struck by a terrible curse. Our Stan was so obsessed with the legend that he visited the pinewood on the dune behind the tavern year after year.”
“If there is anyone who can find it, it will be me,” he told everyone in the village.
“And when I learn the truth, I will do everything in my power to make the world a better place.”
The old man paused for effect.
“There was no telling him that happiness is temporary, that it burns out as quickly as a candle wick but that tragedy can last forever. He was stubborn and set on
getting his own way,” he looked at a distant spot on the ceiling as if looking for inspiration.
“It was some eight years ago when Stan came back from Warsaw, two days before St. John’s night. He got ready for his trip, convinced that this time the secret would be his. That night, he walked to the wood early and sat down to watch. The fern flower is supposed to glow in the dark, so he didn’t even dare to use his phone in case he missed the moment it burst into bloom.”
I have finished eating the soup and drank all the tea and was listening attentively. It was more than I bargained for! The unplanned trip to Hel came with a spooky story. I gazed at Justyna who was a mesmerised as I was.
“To cut a long story short…” the tavern-keeper continued.
“Stan did not come back in the morning, and he didn’t appear in the village for the following week. Celina, his mother, reported him missing, but the cops ignored her. Stan was known for his odd ways and even called in a floater which turned out to be a department store dummy. And anyway, everyone knows that students come and go but hardly ever let anybody know where and for how long.”
“When he finally turned up, he was a changed man. A little less of a wreck than he is now. His eyes were bloodshot. Half of his face was paralysed, he drooled and could barely talk.”
I saw Justyna’s hand curl into a fist, a habit she had when she was nervous or scared and grabbed it to steady it in my own palm. It was icy cold but gradually her fingers relaxed.
“The police took him to hospital in Gdansk, to try to find out if he could remember anything and could tell them about his experience. I think it was two or three weeks later when he was already back in the village that he spoke for the first time - if you could call his gibberish speaking. And from what we could understand he said he’d seen the fern flower and that it revealed him its secret.”
My eyes were nearly popping out.
“What was the secret?” I shouted.
“What did Stan see? What did he tell you?”
The old man stared at me for a long time then pointed to my wife.
“She knows…” he said.
I turned back to face Justyna who was biting her lips which were nearly bloodless, one hand clutching the edge of the table for stability, the other clasped to her chest seemingly in agony.
“I can’t…” her voice was barely a squeak.
“Come on, tell me! How do you know??? What did Stan say?” I was desperate and unable to focus on anything apart from her contorted face.
“He said…” she muttered and took a deep breath.
“He said… a holiday in Hel always comes with a little bit of fright,” she let out and began to laugh hysterically.
I looked at her with bewilderment, then at the Polish leprechaun and saw tears spring out of his blue eyes. They were tears of amusement. The old man was laughing hard and long. And so was Justyna. They were both laughing at me.
“I told you, young man. When you married a Polish woman, you got yourself into a right pickle,” he said and wiped his cheeks with the back of his wrinkled hand.