Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk (Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

August 13, 2019 
The following is an excerpt from Olga Tokarczuk's novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Man Booker International prize for her novel Flights, and is one of Poland's most celebrated and beloved authors, earning the country's highest literary honor, the Nike. She has been translated into a dozen languages. Antonia Lloyd-Jones is the 2018 winner of the Transatlantyk Award for outstanding promoter of Polish literature abroad.

Prisons are built with stones of Law,
Brothels with bricks of Religion.

A thump, a distant bang, as if someone in the next room had clapped an inflated paper bag.

I sat up in bed with a terrible foreboding that something bad was happening, and that this noise might be a sentence on someone’s life. More of them followed, so I hurriedly started to dress, though not entirely conscious. I came to a halt in the middle of the room, tangled in my sweater, suddenly feeling helpless—what was I to do? As usual on such days the weather was beautiful; the weather god clearly favors hunters. The Sun was dazzlingly bright, it had only just risen, and still red from the effort, was casting long, sleepy shadows. I went outside, and again I felt as if my Little Girls were running out ahead of me, straight into the snow, thrilled that the day had come, showing their joy so openly and shamelessly that I was bound to be infected by it. I’d throw them a snowball, they’d take it as a green light for all sorts of high jinks and immediately be off on their chaotic chases, in which the pursuer  suddenly turns into the pursued, so the reason for the race changes from one second to the next, and finally their joy becomes so great that there’s no way to express it other than by running around the house like mad.

Again I felt tears on my cheeks—perhaps I should go and see Doctor Ali about it. He’s a dermatologist, but he knows about everything and understands it all. My eyes must be really sick.

As I strode toward the Samurai, I unhooked the shopping bag filled with ice from the plum tree and manually felt the weight of it. “Die kalte Teufelshand,” a distant memory came back to me from the past. Is it Faust? The cold fist of the devil. The Samurai started up first time, and, as if it knew my state of mind, obligingly set off across the snow. The spades and the spare wheel rattled in the back. It was hard to localize where the shots were coming from; they were bouncing off the wall of the forest, amplifying. I drove toward the Pass, and about two kilometers beyond the precipice I saw their cars—swanky jeeps and a small truck. There was a man standing by them, smoking a cigarette. I accelerated and drove straight past this encampment. The Samurai clearly knew what I was thinking, because it enthusiastically splashed wet snow in all directions. The man ran a few meters after me, waving his arms, probably trying to stop me. But I took no notice of him.

Then I saw them, walking in loose line formation. Twenty or thirty men in green uniforms, in army camouflage and those idiotic hats with feathers in them. I stopped my car and ran toward them. Soon I recognized several of them. And they saw me too. They looked at me in amazement and exchanged amused glances.

“What the hell is going on here?” I shouted.

One of them, a helper, came up to me. It was one of the two moustachioed men who’d come to fetch me on the day of Big Foot’s death. “Mrs. Duszejko, please don’t come any closer, it’s dangerous.

Please move away from here. We’re shooting.” I waved my hands in front of his face.

“No, it’s you who should get out of here. Otherwise I’ll call the Police.”

Another one detached himself from the line formation and came up to us; I didn’t know him. He was dressed in classic hunting gear, with a hat. The line of men moved on, pointing their shotguns ahead of them.

“There’s no need, madam,” he said politely. “The Police are already here.” He smiled patronizingly. Indeed, I could see the pot-bellied figure of the Commandant in the distance.

“What is it?” someone shouted.

“Nothing, it’s just the old lady from Luftzug. She wants to call the Police,” he said, with a note of irony in his voice.

I felt hatred toward him.

“Mrs. Duszejko, please don’t be foolish,” said Moustachio amicably. “We really are shooting here.”

“You’ve no right to shoot at living Creatures!” I shouted at the top of my voice. The wind tore the words from my mouth and carried them across the entire Plateau.

“It’s all right, please go home. We’re just shooting pheasants,” Moustachio reassured me, as if he didn’t understand my protest. The other man added in a sugary tone: “Don’t argue with her, she’s crazy.”

At that point I felt a surge of Anger, genuine, not to say Divine Anger. It flooded me from inside in a burning-hot wave. This energy made me feel great, as if it were lifting me off the ground, a mini Big Bang within the universe of my body. There was fire burning within me, like a neutron star. I sprang forward and pushed the Man in the silly hat so hard that he fell onto the snow, completely taken by surprise. And when Moustachio rushed to his aid, I attacked him too, hitting him on the shoulder with all my might. He groaned with pain. I am not a feeble girl.

The beam of the flashlight glided on, toward the undergrowth, and shortly after I heard his cry.

“Hey, hey, woman, is that the way to behave?” His mouth was twisted in pain as he tried to catch me by the hands.

Just then the Man who’d been standing by the cars ran up from behind—he’d clearly driven after me—and grabbed me in a vise-like grip.

“I’ll escort you to your car,” he said into my ear, but that wasn’t his plan at all; instead he pulled me backward, making me fall over.

Moustachio tried to help me to my feet, but I pushed him away in disgust. I didn’t have a chance.

“Don’t upset yourself, madam. We’re within the law.”

That’s what he said: “within the law.” I brushed off the snow and headed for my car. Trembling with anger, I kept stumbling. Meanwhile the line of hunters had disappeared into the low brushwood, young willows on boggy terrain. Soon after that I heard shots again; they were shooting at the Birds. I got into the car and sat still, with my hands on the steering wheel, but it was a while before I was capable of moving.

I drove home, weeping out of helplessness. My hands were shaking, and now I knew this would end badly. With a sigh of relief, the Samurai stopped outside the house, as if it were on my side in everything. I pressed my face against the steering wheel. The horn responded sadly, like a summons. Like a cry of mourning.


My Ailments appear treacherously; I never know when they’re coming. And then something happens inside my body, my bones begin to ache. It’s an unpleasant ache, sickening—that’s the word I’d use. It continues incessantly, it doesn’t stop for hours, sometimes days on end. There’s no hiding from this pain, there are no pills or injections for it. It must hurt, just as a river must flow and fire must burn. It spitefully reminds me that I consist of physical particles, which are slipping away by the second. Perhaps one could get used to it? Learn to live with it, just as people live in the cities of Auschwitz or Hiroshima, without ever thinking about what happened there in the past. They simply live their lives.

But after these pains in my bones come pains in my stomach, intestine, liver, everything we have inside, without cease. Glucose is capable of soothing it for a while, so I always carry a small bottle of it in my pocket. I never know when an Attack will occur, or when I will feel worse. Sometimes it’s as if I’m composed of nothing but symptoms of illness, I am a phantom built out of pain. Whenever I find it hard to know what to do with myself, I imagine I have a zip fastener in my belly, from my neck to my groin, and that I’m slowly undoing it, from top to bottom. And then I pull my arms out of my arms, my legs out of my legs, and take my head off my head. As I extract myself from my own body, it falls off me like old clothes. Underneath them I’m finer, soft, almost transparent. I have a body like a Jellyfish, white, milky, phosphorescent.

This fantasy is the only thing capable of bringing me relief. Oh yes, then I am free.

Toward the end of the week, on Friday, I asked Dizzy to come later than usual, for I was feeling sick enough to have decided to go to the doctor.

I sat in the queue in the waiting room and remembered how I had met Doctor Ali.

Last year, the Sun had burned me again. I must have looked rather pitiful, because the terrified nurses on reception took me straight into the ward. They told me to wait there, and as I was hungry, I fetched some biscuits sprinkled with coconut out of my bag and tucked into them. Shortly after, the doctor appeared. He was pale brown, like a walnut. He looked at me and said: “I like coconut baskets too.”

That made me warm to him at once. He turned out to have a special Characteristic—like many people who have learned Polish in adult life, he swapped some words for completely different ones.

“I’ll soon see what’s wailing you,” he said this time.

This Man treated my Ailments very thoroughly, and not just the ones affecting my skin. His dark face was always calm. Taking his time, he would tell me convoluted anecdotes while carefully checking my pulse and blood pressure. Oh yes, he certainly went far beyond  the duties of a dermatologist. Ali, who came from the Middle East, had very traditional, reliable methods for curing skin diseases—he’d tell the ladies at the pharmacy to prepare some unusually elaborate ointments and lotions, time-consuming to make and including many ingredients. I guessed the local pharmacists didn’t like him for this reason. His mixtures had startling colors and shocking smells. Perhaps he believed that the cure for an allergic rash had to be just as spectacular as the rash itself.

It’s strange that fate brought us together again many years after that unfortunate exam.

Today he closely examined the bruises on my arms as well. “How did this happen?”

I made light of the matter. Just a small knock has always been enough to give me a red mark for a month. He also looked down my throat, felt my lymph nodes and listened to my lungs.

“Would you please give me something to anesthetize me?” I said. “There must be some sort of drugs. I’d like that. To stop me from feeling anything, or worrying, to let me sleep. Is that possible?”

He started writing out the prescriptions. He contemplated each one at length, chewing the tip of his pen; finally he handed me a whole wad of them, and each medicine was to be made to order.


I returned home late. It had been dark for a long time now, and since yesterday a foehn wind had been blowing, so the snow was melting rapidly, and dreadful sleet was falling. Luckily the stove had not gone out. Dizzy was late too, for once again it was impossible to drive up our road because of the softened, slippery snow. He left his little Fiat where the asphalt ended and came on foot, soaked through and frozen to the marrow.

Dizzy, official name Dionizy, showed up at my house every Friday, and as he came straight from work, I would make dinner that day. As I am alone the rest of the week, I make a large pot of soup on Sunday, and heat it up daily until Thursday, when I eat dry provisions from the kitchen cupboard, or a pizza Margherita in town.

Dizzy has a nasty allergy, so I can’t give free rein to my culinary imagination. I have to cook for him without using dairy products, nuts, peppers, eggs or wheat, which greatly limits our menu. Especially as we don’t eat meat. Sometimes, when he’d been recklessly tempted by something unsuitable for him, his skin would be covered in an itchy rash, and little blisters filled with water. Then he’d start to scratch uncontrollably, and the scratched skin would change into festering wounds. So it was better not to experiment. Even Ali and his mixtures weren’t capable of calming Dizzy’s allergy. Its nature was mysterious and perfidious—the symptoms varied. No one had ever managed to catch it in the act with any test.

From his tatty backpack Dizzy pulled an exercise book and a battery of colored pens, at which he cast impatient glances throughout our meal; then, once we’d eaten every last scrap and were sipping black tea (the only kind that finds favor with us), he reported on what he had managed to do that week. Dizzy was translating Blake. Or so he had decided, and  until  now  he  had  been  rigorously  pursuing his aim.

Once, long ago, he had been my pupil. Now he had reached the age of thirty, but in fact he was no different in any way from the Dizzy who had accidentally locked himself in the lavatory during his secondary-school graduation English exam, as a result of which he had failed it. He’d been too embarrassed to call for help. He’d always been slight, boyish, or even girlish, with small hands and soft hair.

It’s strange that fate brought us together again many years after that unfortunate exam, here in the marketplace in town. I saw him one day as I was coming out of the post office. He was on his way to collect a book he had ordered via the Internet. Unfortunately, I must have changed a lot, because he didn’t instantly recognize me, but stared at me with his mouth open, blinking.

“Is it you?” he finally whispered, sounding surprised.


“What are you doing here?”

“I live near here. What about you?”

“So do I, Mrs. Duszejko.”

Then we spontaneously threw ourselves into each other’s arms. It turned out that while working in Wrocław as an IT specialist for the Police, he’d failed to avoid some reorganization and restructuring. He’d been offered a job in the provinces, and even guaranteed temporary accommodation at a hostel until he found himself a proper apartment. But Dizzy hadn’t found one, and was still living at the local workers’ hostel, a vast, ugly, concrete block where all the noisy tour groups stopped on their way to the Czech Republic, and businesses held their team-building events, with drunken parties until dawn. Dizzy had a large room in there, with a vestibule and a shared kitchen upstairs.

Now he was working on The Book of Urizen, which seemed to me far harder than the earlier ones, Proverbs of Hell and the Songs of Innocence, with which I had devotedly helped him. In fact I hadn’t found it easy, for I couldn’t make head or tail of the beautiful, dramatic images that Blake conjured up in words. Did he really think like that? What was he describing? Where is that? Where is it happening, and when? Is it a fable or a myth?—I kept asking Dizzy these questions.

“It’s happening all the time and everywhere,” he’d say with a gleam in his eye.


Once he’d finished a passage, he’d solemnly read each line to me and wait for my comments. Sometimes I felt that I was only understanding the individual words, but failing to grasp their meaning. I wasn’t entirely sure how to help him. I didn’t like poetry; all the poems ever written seemed to me unnecessarily complicated and unclear. I couldn’t understand why these revelations weren’t recorded properly—in prose. Then Dizzy would lose patience and become exasperated. I liked teasing him this way.

Lying in the shallow well there was a body, head down, twisted.

I don’t think I was particularly helpful to him. He was far better than I was, his intelligence was faster, digital, I’d say; mine remained analog. He cottoned on quickly and was able to look at a translated sentence from a completely different angle, to leave aside unnecessary attachment to a word, but to bounce off it and come back with something completely new and beautiful. I always passed him the salt cellar, because I have a Theory that salt is very good for the transmission of nerve impulses across the synapses. And he learned to plunge a saliva-coated finger into it, and then lick off the salt. I had forgotten most of my English by now; swallowing the entire Wieliczka salt mine couldn’t have helped me, and besides, I soon found such laborious work boring. I was at a complete loss.

How does one translate a rhyme that small children might use to start a game, instead of constantly reciting “Eeny meeny miny moe”:

Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born 
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.

This is Blake’s most famous verse. It’s impossible to translate it into Polish without losing the rhythm, rhyme and childlike brevity. Dizzy tried many times, and it was like solving a charade.

Now he’d had his soup; it warmed him so much his cheeks were flushed. His hair was full of static electricity from his hat, and he had a funny little halo around his head.

That evening we found it hard to focus on translation. I was tired and feeling very anxious. I couldn’t think.

“What’s wrong with you? You’re absentminded today,” said Dizzy. I agreed with him. The pains were weaker but hadn’t entirely left me. The weather was awful, windy and rainy. When the foehn wind blows it’s hard to concentrate.

“What Demon hath form’d this abominable void?” asked Dizzy.

Blake suited the mood that evening: we felt as if the sky had sunk very low over the Earth, and hadn’t left much space or much air for living Creatures to survive. Low, dark clouds had been scudding  across the sky all day, and now, late in the evening, they were rubbing their wet bellies against the hills.

I tried persuading him to stay the Night, as he sometimes did— then I would make up a bed for him on the sofa in my small study, switch on the electric heater and leave the door open to the room where I slept—so that we could hear each other’s breathing. But today he couldn’t. Sleepily rubbing his brow, he explained that the police station was switching to a new computer system; I didn’t really want to know the details, what mattered was that he had a lot of work to do as a result. He had to be on-site early in the morning. And there were the slushy roads to negotiate.

“How will you get there?” I fretted. “Once I reach the asphalt I’ll be fine.”

I didn’t like the idea of him going. I threw on two fleeces and a hat. We both had yellow rubber raincoats, making us look like dwarves. Under his coat, Dizzy wore a flimsy jacket that hung on him loosely; although we had tried to dry his boots on the radiator, they were still soaking wet. I walked with him to the dirt road, and I would have been happy to escort him to his car. But he didn’t want me to. We said goodbye on the dirt road, and I was already heading for home when he shouted after me.

He was pointing toward the Pass. Something was shining over there, feebly. Strange.

I turned back.

“What can it be?” he asked. I shrugged.

“Maybe someone’s prowling over there with a flashlight?”

“Come on, let’s check.” He grabbed me by the hand and pulled me along, like a boy scout on the trail of a mystery.

“Now, at Night? Don’t be silly, it’s wet over there,” I said, surprised by his obstinacy. “Perhaps Oddball lost a flashlight and it’s lying over there, shining.”

“That’s not a flashlight,” said Dizzy, and headed off.

I tried to stop him. I grabbed his hand, but all that was left in mine was his glove.

“Dionizy, no, let’s not go there. Please.”

Something must have taken possession of him, because he didn’t react at all.

“I’m staying here,” I said, trying to blackmail him.

“Fine, you go home, I’ll go and check on my own. Maybe something’s happened. Off you go.”

“Dizzy!” I shouted angrily. He didn’t answer.

So I went after him, shining a light for us, picking out of the darkness clear patches in which every color had vanished. The clouds were so low that one could hook onto them and let oneself be carried away to a distant land, to the south, to warmer climes. There one could jump down straight into the olive groves, or at least the vineyards in Moravia, where delicious green wine is made. Meanwhile our  feet were getting bogged down in the semi-liquid slush, as the rain tried to push its way under our hoods and slap us in the face repeatedly.

Finally we saw it.

In the Pass stood a car, a large off-road vehicle. All the doors were open, and a feeble inside light was shining. I remained a few meters away, afraid to approach it; I felt as if I were going to burst into tears at any moment like a child, out of fear and nervous strain. Dizzy took the flashlight from me and slowly approached the car. He lit up the interior. The car was empty. On the backseat lay a black briefcase, and there were some shopping bags too, maybe full of groceries.

“You  know what,” said Dizzy quietly, dragging out each syllable. “I recognize this car. It’s our Commandant’s Toyota.”

Now he was sweeping the area immediately surrounding the car with the flashlight beam. It was standing at a point where the road turned left. On the right-hand side there was dense brushwood; before the war there had been a house and a windmill here. Now there were some overgrown ruins and a large walnut tree, to which the Squirrels came running in autumn from all over the neighborhood.

“Look,” I said, “look what’s on the snow!”

The flashlight picked out some strange tracks—masses of round spots the size of coins; they were absolutely everywhere, all around the car and on the road. And there were also the prints of men’s boots with thick, ridged soles. They were clearly visible because the snow was melting and dark water was seeping into every footprint.

“Those are hoofprints,” I said, kneeling and closely examining the small, round marks. “They’re deer prints. Do you see?”

But Dizzy was looking the other way, toward a spot where the soggy snow had been trodden down, stamped completely  flat. The beam of the flashlight glided on, toward the undergrowth, and shortly after I heard his cry. He was leaning over the top of an old well standing among the bushes, beside the road.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” he repeated mechanically, which threw me right off balance. Obviously no god was going to come and put things to rights.

“My God, there’s someone here,” he whined.

Lying in the shallow well there was a body, head down, twisted. Behind an arm, part of the face was visible, horrible, covered in blood, with its eyes open. A pair of boots were sticking up, hefty ones, with thick soles. The well had been filled in years ago and was shallow, just a pit. I myself had once covered it with branches to stop the Dentist’s Sheep from falling in.

Dizzy kneeled down and touched the boots helplessly, stroking their uppers.

“Don’t touch,” I whispered.

My heart was thumping like mad. I felt as if any moment now the bloodstained head would turn toward us, the whites of the eyes would shine through the streams of caked blood, the lips would move and utter a word, and then the whole of this burly body would slowly scramble up again, come back to life, enraged by its own death, furious, and seize me by the throat.

“Perhaps he’s still alive,” said Dizzy mournfully. I prayed that he was not.

There we stood, chilled to the bone and stricken with horror. Dizzy was trembling as if having a fit; I was worried about him. His teeth were chattering. We embraced each other, and Dizzy began to weep.

Water was pouring from the sky and streaming from the ground—it felt as if the earth were a vast sponge saturated in cold water.

“We’ll catch pneumonia,” said Dizzy, sniveling.

“Come away from there. Let’s go and see Oddball, he’ll know what to do. Let’s get away from here. Let’s not stop here,” I suggested.

We headed back, clinging to each other clumsily like wounded soldiers. I could feel my head burning with sudden, anxious thoughts, I could almost see them steaming in the rain, changing into a white cloud and joining the black ones. As we walked along, slipping on the sodden ground, words came to my lips that I urgently wanted to share with Dizzy. I longed to say them aloud, but for the moment I couldn’t bring them out. They were eluding me. I didn’t know where to start.

“Jesus Christ,” sobbed Dizzy. “It’s the Commandant, I saw his face. It was him.”

I had always cared about Dizzy very much, and I didn’t want him to take me for a lunatic. Not him. Once we had reached Oddball’s house, I plucked up my courage and decided to go ahead and tell him what I was thinking.

“Dizzy,” I said, “it’s Animals taking revenge on people.”

Dizzy always believes me but this time he wasn’t listening at all.

“It’s not as strange as it sounds,” I continued. “Animals are strong and wise. We don’t realize how clever they are. There was a time when Animals were tried in court. Some were even convicted.”

“What are you saying? What are you saying?” he gibbered vacantly.

“I once read about some Rats that were sued for causing a lot of damage, but the case was deferred  because they never showed up for the hearings. Finally the court appointed them a defense lawyer.”

“Christ, what are you on about?”

“I think it was in France, in the sixteenth century,” I carried on. “I don’t know how it ended and whether they were convicted.”

Suddenly he stopped, gripped me tightly by the arms, and shook me. “You’re in shock. What on earth are you on about?”

I knew very well what I was saying. I decided to check the facts as soon as I had the chance.


Oddball loomed from behind the fence wearing a head-lamp. In its light his face looked weird and cadaverous.

“What’s happened? Why are you walking about at night?” he asked in the tone of a sentry.

“The Commandant’s over there, he’s dead. By his car,” said Dizzy, his teeth chattering, and pointed behind him.

Oddball opened his mouth and moved his lips without making a sound. I was starting to think he really had lost the power of speech, but after a long pause he said: “I saw that great big car of his today.

It was bound to end like that. He was driving under the influence. Have you called the Police?”

“Must we?” I asked, with Dizzy’s agitation in mind. “You’ve found a body. You’re witnesses.”

He went over to the phone, and soon after we heard him calmly reporting a man’s death.

“I’m not going back there,” I said, and I knew Dizzy wouldn’t either. “He’s lying in a well. Feet up. Head down. Covered in blood. There are footprints everywhere. Tiny ones, like deer hooves,” gabbled Dizzy.

“There’ll be a fuss because it’s a policeman,” said Oddball drily. “I hope you didn’t tread on the prints. You probably watch crime films, don’t you?”

We went into his warm, bright kitchen, while he waited for the Police outside. We didn’t exchange another word. We sat on the chairs like wax figures, motionless. My thoughts were racing like those heavy rain clouds.

The Police arrived in a jeep about an hour later. Last to get out of the car was Black Coat.

“Oh, hello, Dad, yes, I thought you’d be here,” he said sarcastically, and poor Oddball was extremely embarrassed.

Black Coat greeted the three of us with a soldierly handshake, as if we were boy scouts and he were our team leader. We had just done a good deed, and he was thanking us. Though he cast a suspicious glance at Dizzy and asked: “Don’t we know each other?”

“Yes, but only by sight. I work at the police station.”

“He’s my friend. He comes to see me on Fridays, because we’re translating Blake together,” I hastened to explain.

He looked at me with distaste and politely asked us to get into the police car with him. When we reached the Pass, the policemen cordoned off the area around the well with plastic tape and switched on floodlights. It was raining, and in the brilliant light the raindrops became long silver threads, like angel hair on a Christmas tree.


From Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Olga Tokarczuk. Translation copyright © 2018 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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