A black and white illustration of a wildflower meadow.
Original illustration by Anne Le Guern
A pure little flower, consolation
Of a weary heart, of virginal kind.
And why are we mournful […]?
— Anonymous

When Wiktor dumps the first shovelful, the dirt falls on Michał’s stomach. Then more dirt flies, which reminds Michał of both his vacation at the seaside — he tossed sand on his dad, who was dazed by the beer and the bill for fried cod — and all the funerals he’s seen in his life.

“This is the Earth Trial, the simulation of a mass grave,” Wiktor says. “You are supposed to feel like grains planted in the soil: small and bland.”

Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground dies, itself remaineth alone. But if it dies, it bringeth forth much fruit, Michał thinks.

Donut, Klotz, and Mietas have already been buried. That leaves him and Trufer, who, as usual, hesitates.

“You already live like a corpse, Pumpkin. What’s the harm?” Wiktor asks.

Michał’s entire body disappears into the ground and Wiktor makes sure that the snorkel and goggles sit right, then carefully covers Michal’s face.

“Rest in peace for a bit, Father.”

It’s getting quite dark.

* * *

First came the itch, fiendish. When the faithful weren’t looking, Michał grinded discreetly against the altar, anxious. He took allergy medication and calcium, coated himself with a thick layer of the anti-fungal clotrimazole, and put on cotton underwear. He woke up in the middle of the night and scratched like crazy, then drifted off again. He dreamt that the Jesus statue in front of his church was gliding down the yellow, tongue-like slide at the Warszawianka water park. The momentum of the water ripped off Jesus’s barely-there swim trunks, which immediately sank to the bottom. As Jesus dove after them, Michał got a glimpse of his concrete buttocks flashing between two waves of blue water.

He was shattered by the godlessness of this dream. On the bed sheets he found traces of blood from his shredded crotch. Outside the window, March at its nastiest was hurling snow. Now Michał could actually see the statue of Jesus, standing with his back to him, facing the trams gliding back and forth along ul. Puławska.

The itching was just the beginning. Within hours, his groin turned green, then painlessly burst open and bloomed into a large turquoise-pink flower, sort of resembling an orchid. Each petal shimmered with fresh color, supple and shiny.

Once the flower emerged, the itch subsided.

* * *

A dirt’s-eye view changes a lot.
Michał is on the Quest of the Flowered Man because he desperately wants to get rid of an ailment, but does that mean anything considering that Wiktor might inadvertently sprinkle a clump of soil into his tube, where it could slide straight into his windpipe?

“Safety. First! If you start suffocating, give some signs, and I’ll help you get out,” Wiktor had said before burying them all. He forgot to add that the ground was too heavy to move under.

Dear Lord, let me get out of here and have McDonald’s fries one last time, Michał prays.

Hardly a lofty wish for a priest, but God doesn’t listen anyway. Since Michał’s grown a flower, the Lord hasn’t returned his calls. Michał suspects that the flower is a punishment for some grave sin, committed but not remembered. Probably not something like him thinking that maybe the pastor could brush his teeth. Or that pointless sermon about chastity and the feminine flower of virginity. Besides, no one heard him. The acoustics in the church — dedicated to another Michael, the Archangel — suck. Oh, the Archangel! If only he were here with his fiery sword, perfect for weeding out flowers.

* * *

When the flower appeared, Michał immediately tried to yank it out, but the pain was excruciating, as if the protuberance had nerves.

He pulled on his briefs and pants, but couldn’t manage to buckle up. He put on a cassock and settled into a chair for a test. The black gabardine draped over the flower like a pitched tent.

How could he conduct mass like this? He could ask the pastor for a few days off, say he has a cold. But at some point he would have to show his face at the altar.

He suspected that if he confessed the truth to his superior, he would end up with a failed exorcism and a transfer to another parish. After years of ministry and temptations, fortunately only related to adults, and after many long conversations with God, he felt like an extinct volcano.

The urologist thought otherwise. “This isn’t cancer, it’s a cry for help,” he declared. “You need to satisfy your desires more often.”

“But I don’t have desire,” Michał replied. He wanted to add that he’s a priest, but he felt ashamed. The doctor raised his bushy eyebrows. He looked like a surprised pubic mound.

“Well, then you really have a problem. You should see a psychiatrist.”

He didn’t go right away, no way. Michał ordered a bridal crinoline on Amazon, not too bulky. When tucked under his cassock, it lifted it just enough that the cassock didn’t wrap around his crotch.

And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me, Michał thought, as the flower held firm and even, to his despair, seemed to grow. There was something mocking in its pink and turquoise glow. He said masses, baptized children, blessed new marriages, and absolved husbands who cheated on their wives, tax frauds, pimps, perpetrators of beatings and robberies. So much nastiness, but not a peep about a flower sprouting on someone’s groin.

“This is unjust,” he cried out to God.

God is silent, like Michał’s mother. Feeling dejected, Michał thought about the Book of Job. He looked at the facade of the church, concluded that it would be a short fall. But when they were collecting him, they would see the crinoline and the flower. At Easter, he fantasized that it was him on the cross, with an extra nail hitting his crotch.

Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? For the first time since forever he felt desire: desire for death.

* * *

Underground, any thoughts of suicide seem ridiculous to Michał.
Not just because he suddenly very much wants to live. Even if he wanted to hasten death, he would have no way to do so, because he can’t move. He’s as helpless as a newborn baby or the paralyzed hero of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

A great method of eliminating insanity, this. Foolproof and fast. If he survives, he’ll tell the psychiatrist about it.

* * *

“I’d like to suggest thinking of it as a crack in the pavement from which a dandelion grows,” she said, when he finally came to her.

The office was located in Powiśle, on the tenth floor of a block of flats. Pictures of owls hung everywhere, eyeing Michał’s crotch.

“Come again?”

“You may have walked around Stara Ochota or Praga sometimes, even in the city center there are such places. A sort of stretch of nothing, seemingly a football field, but without a goal or a hoop, a little yard, but nothing there, some old cement, rubble. And weeds, grasses grow there. Someone decided that everything would be uniform, and here you go — some sturdy, disobedient seed turns out to be better adapted than this pitiful pavement.”

“You also think I should have sex?” he sighed.

“No. I think you should go to psychotherapy. You’ll look inward and after a few months, maybe years, you’ll begin to understand.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said, getting up from his chair. The psychiatrist tried to stop him, but he’d already ordered an Uber, and a few moments later he was sitting in the soundproof confessional, in front of which there was a large queue.

At least he could unburden somebody, he, the pitiful pavement.

That’s when he met Klotz, in the confessional — just a beefcake in a white tracksuit through the gaps in the grille. He swallowed hard, glad there was something separating him from the penitent, if only latticework.

“Father, is it a sin to go on such a trip?” asked Klotz, in a voice made for shouting “Legia rules!”

Grubby fingers slid a watercolor flyer under the grille — a turquoise-pink orchid. Under the picture: the inscription The Quest of the Flowered Man, and below it the time and place of the meeting.

Michał was covered in cold sweat. He wondered if it was Satan himself kneeling on the other side. Meanwhile, Klotz described how he blossomed and what he hadn’t tried. Internet forums suggested wearing a sackcloth, drinking weed killer, or tying a string around the flower to make it fall off. No luck.

Klotz added that the host is said to have overcome the bloom himself. Michał adjudged that such a trip was not a sin, but he must keep the flyer.

The meeting was held in an elementary school building, which was permeated with the rubbery smell of the gym mixed with something sticky. Michał recalled the hands of the kids who long ago gave him swirlies.

He came in an anonymous sweater, without a collar. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Klotz, who barely fit in the last desk under the window, bewitched by the plastic model of a cuboid. The rest were scattered around the classroom.

The last to enter was a gray-haired, disheveled guy wearing what looked like a potato sack with holes for his head and hands. He was barefoot. He introduced himself as Wiktor, plugged the computer into the overhead projector, and began his presentation.

If someone had told Michał that in a few days he would entrust this gentleman to bury him in the ground, he would only cross himself.

“A flower needs four elements to live: earth, water, air — specifically carbon dioxide — and fire, or the sun,” Wiktor said. “Hence, the four trials: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. The last one is the most important. First we go one cycle of earth-water-air, to see how the flowers react. Then we either take another whack at it, or choose the program individually. You may associate this with steroid treatments or chemotherapy, and rightly so — it’s not done for pleasure. And, well, you know — a flower is nature, so everything is done in nature. Outdoors. Questions?”

“I thought we were going to score some fine asses,” Mietas said, half jokingly, but not really.

“You want a woman to cure you? One already gave birth to you, and fed you, and is still supposed to do your manscaping? This is a trip for men, not boys, Sweetcakes. Survival school,” Witkor replies.

“And how do you know it works?” asks Trufer, who was thin as a shoelace and wearing a T-shirt with a crossed-out syringe. At the time, Michał believed he was anti-heroin, not anti-vax.

Without warning, Wiktor lifted his shamanic sackcloth, under which his dick dangled au naturel.

“Do you see any petals here? Stamens?”

Michał was startled and banged his flower against the desktop. The dudes looked away in disgust.

Wiktor changed the slide of the presentation. On the white wall of the classroom: a hairy crotch with a turquoise-pink orchid. Above, Wiktor’s face.

“Any more questions?” He outlined the flower with a red pointer. “This is a photo from last year. Anyone want to show their flower?”

Michał ran out of the room, almost crashing into Wiktor.

At the rectory he took a shower. He wanted to wash the flowers, the dicks, the men, and the foulness out of his head.

Heresy, he thought.

The prospect of the trip flowed briskly down the drain. He had his crinoline after all. But when he bent down to wash his foot, he noticed a new bud in his crotch.

* * *

Underground, he feels a lightness over his heart, as if suddenly surrounded by someone’s warm presence. A moment later, the blackness is penetrated by luminous rays.

My grace is sufficient for thee; for my power is made perfect in infirmity.”

God, do you forgive me? Michal thinks. A tear runs down his cheek and stops at the edge of his goggles.

Then something hits him in the chest and the shape of Wiktor’s disheveled head emerges from the light.

“Okay, we’re pulling Father out,” he shouts, raising the shovel. Michał’s embraced by hands, many hands.

* * *

As he walked with his backpack to the parking lot near the Palace of Culture, he thought, I could’ve just signed up for therapy. From afar he recognized Klotz, Donut, and Wiktor. Trufer and Mietas were already sitting on the bus. They set off and everything familiar, intersection after intersection, began to move away from them. What remained were fields, meadows, forests, and rocks. A whole lot of nothing, making them ask themselves the same question: Why me?

* * *

Wiktor doesn’t address such topics. He teaches them things their fathers didn’t: how to pitch a tent, make a fire, and climb over rocks. He gives them the basics of meditation and talks about the inner fire of Tummo: It’s thanks to this technique that Wim Hof, aka the Iceman, swam fifty-seven and a half meters under the ice and ran a half-marathon barefoot in the snow.

“You want to treat your flowers as a metaphor? I’m not standing in your way. But little comes of it.”

The Tummo meditation is a prelude to the Water Trial, walking up to your waist through an icy river.

When they finally do it, Michał’s heart nearly freezes from the cold, and Klotz is carried away by the current. They find him a kilometer away in the reeds, unconscious, and his flower has shrunk by half.

They examine their flowers every week. Wiktor has a tape measure with him, and a chromatometer to measure the color of the petals. Michał’s flower always reacts poorly to the Trials. Maybe it turns more flesh-colored than pink for a while, but that’s it.

“One sturdy bastard,” Wiktor notes. “Don’t worry about anything, Sunshine, we’ll beat the motherfucker.”

* * *

They sit by the fire and roast chunks of Spam on sticks. Mietas takes out a flask of Jack Daniels and metal tumblers from his backpack and passes them around. Donut twists a spliff.

“Steroids are there to bypass genetics,” he says. “For some it’s an eighteen-inch bicep, and for others it’s fourteen. You want to get bigger, you take vitamin S, do your cycles. One dude in Russia injects oil into his biceps to grow bigger.”

“And you did those cycles until you blossomed,” says Mietas, not without satisfaction. Donut’s big and beautiful. Everyone wants to be like Donut. Thankfully, he has the same pussy-flower like everyone else.

“I’m gonna kick the shit out of this cycle of the elements,” Trufer says, after citing evidence for the flatness of the earth. He explains how he came to bloom and admits that he caught his son in an unambiguous situation with a friend who was supposedly just coming to play PlayStation. He packed the son off and told him to move in with his friend, since he liked him so much.

“My own son!” Trufer groans. “It blew my mind.”

“You kicked your son out of the house?!” Mietas fumes.

“I’m not proud of it.”

“Dude, freeze your dick off in the stream all you want, it won’t help any,” says Donut.

“Call him,” Klotz says. “Before you get fucked up. Right, Father?”

“Indeed,” Michał replies.

He never had to say who he was; they knew his voice. Klotz snatches Trufer’s phone and dials his son’s number. “There’s no reception,” Wiktor says. “And for conversations like this, Buttercups, it’s better to prepare. You’ll end up telling him about UFOs instead of apologizing.”

“Then tell us what this Fire Trial is all about,” Mietas says.

“You’ll see,” Wiktor replies. “Patience.”

“This is the Fire Trial,” giggles Klotz. He pours vodka into a glass, lights it, blows it out, and drinks it.

“No, this is the Fire Trial!” Donut snatches the lighter from him, lies down on the ground, his legs tucked up as if to give birth, and farts into the flame. It ignites. And so do his pants.

“Fuck me,” Donut shrieks, ripping them off along with his underwear. His flower glistens in the flames of the bonfire.

This is where Michał blacks out.

The buzzing wakes him. The sound is like a fork jabbed into the liquid yolk of a swollen brain. Michał is definitely naked and frozen, and the hair on his legs is covered with dew. The campfire has gone out. Everyone except Wiktor is bare-assed, and snoring. And the bees are buzzing, interested in the colorful flowers. Michał picks up Donut’s lighter and puts it in the pocket of his ash-stained pants, quickly sets up the tent, squeezes into his sleeping bag, and slumbers on.

As the days go by, Michał’s muscles are less sore and his corns heal. He learns to remove ticks with one flick of his fingernail and to ignore mosquitoes. He can’t remember the last time he had so much exercise, can’t remember if he ever felt part of a group. At the seminary he mostly prayed and at St. Michael’s the parish priest got on his nerves. After God stopped talking to him, the church became a community of people who were meaningless to him.

And then there was nature. When they arrived at the site, they had walked through fields of rapeseed, and lilacs were in bloom. Suddenly, fig trees, palm trees, and bougainvilleas — flowers whose purple made him dizzy — were all around. The sky took on a Mediterranean hue.

He can’t remember if he ever delighted in nature.

Flowers had never been for guys, just like the color pink, glitter, sequins, and crying. But maybe he had changed from that breathing, and from lying in the ground, and from climbing and looking at the world from a rock, which Wiktor called the Air Trial.

The snag is that his own flower, despite various efforts, is holding strong; it even seems to have swelled. Michał doesn’t know if it’s the canned goods, but he feels bloated as well, and he sometimes gets sick, especially in the morning.

“I don’t think it’s going well,” he finally tells Wiktor.

“Let me see.”

Wiktor examines the flower carefully, takes it between two fingers and lets it drop. Then he looks at Michał’s abdomen.

“You’re in a bit of a pickle, Padre,” he sighs. “We can try a second Earth Trial, we’ll bury you deeper. Or you can do the rock a couple more times, or the stream. But the thing with flowers is that some give fruit outside, like bananas, and others inside.”

Wiktor thinks for a surprisingly long time.

“I think you’re a serious outlier. A real case study. But if it’s like I think it is, then first, the flower stays, because that’s how the fruit will come out. The fruit of thy womb, is it? The name’s probably patented by your organization. You won’t have an abortion, will you, Father? It would be a faux pas if you did.”

“Abortion?” Michał whimpers. He’d like to add more, but the words crumble in his mouth.

Wiktor hugs him tightly.

“You’ll be fine. Maybe they’ll even declare you a saint someday.” Locked in the musky bubble of Wiktor’s arms, Michał begins to sob.

* * *

Out of due diligence, they do two more Water Trials, then bury him four yards underground. But the morning sickness only intensifies. Maybe Wiktor tricked me and I’m just poisoned? he hopes, but after a few days his breasts enlarge and milk starts leaking from them.

“They need to know,” Wiktor says.

That evening they sit by the fire again and Donut’s joint makes its round to Michał — according to his modest knowledge of procreation, even something like this can harm the baby.

“I can’t. I’m pregnant,” he says.

Silence falls, throbbing with crickets. Wiktor repeats everything he has already told Michał.

“You should know that this is probably the result of cross-pollination. When you were lying naked by the fire, the bees flew in. Half of the genetic material came from one of you.”

Silence falls.

“Will you take a paternity test?” Mietas asks, half-joking, but also not.

“Oh, come on,” Michał sighs. “And then what, Mietas? We’ll live together in the rectory and raise this child?”

The laughter that answers him is multiplied by relief.

“Father, this will be our camp child. We’ll take him to games,” says a delighted Klotz.

“Or her,” Mietas adds. “What a woman it would be, borne from a priest!”

“You can become a YouTuber. A priest as a single parent; it’ll go viral,” Donut adds.

Michał laughs like the others, but everything inside him is shrinking. Trufer is the only one with parenting experience, and he just congratulates Michał and sits quietly for the rest of the evening. Later, Michał lies down, nauseated. He listens through the tarp — jokes, laughter, hollers. It feels to him that he has ceased to exist. He never wanted to have children. And unlike a flower, a child can’t be hidden under a crinoline. What will he do? Since he makes up sermons, maybe — an advertising agency? Media? Besides, being pregnant requires regular checkups, taking vitamins or something, and all he knows how to do is sit in the wilderness and watch dudes climb rocks and plunge into icy streams. And just when he started liking it, someone treated him like a vessel.

Over the next few days, everyone behaves differently. They walk much slower, they have to wait for him. Donut carries his backpack.

“Wiktor, I’m just a burden,” he says, frustrated.

“On the contrary. You’re helping,” he hears, but Wiktor doesn’t explain what he means.

* * *

The feeling comes to everyone separately but communicates roughly the same thing — you actually have nothing to go back to. To the porn-addled computer? Or the gym? To the conspiracy theories? To getting the shit kicked out of you in defense of a club’s reputation? As the flowers fade and disappear, the meaning fades too. Every night, they dream of the fire that will consume their Warsaw apartments. It devours dumbwaiters, anti-vax posters, an inflatable doll with its mouth hanging open, and Ultras scarves.

It would be good to start all over again. To find some sense.

“Listen, it can’t be like this,” Klotz finally says. Michał’s already asleep, and the rest, as they do every week, are measuring their flowers by the fire. “One of us is the father of his child. Where’s the honor, gentlemen? You can’t leave a friend like that. He won’t ask for it, but a lot of things are needed. Dough, diaper changes, help at the birth, I don’t know, crap, whatever else.”

“Nights. Feeding. Teething. Colic. Rashes,” says Trufer. “Vaccinations. Clothing. Shoes. Choosing a kindergarten. Choosing a school?”

“Someone needs to move in with the Father. Obviously, no funny stuff. But this can’t be done remotely.”

Mietas, Trufer, and Donut nod their heads in silence.

They look at each other and feel that something’s changed, but they don’t know what yet.

The next morning, Klotz wakes up first and watches the dawn, then meditates the Tummo in front of Michał’s tent. He wants to tell him what they’ve decided, so that he’ll stop worrying. Pride is growing in Klotz. A morning piss showed him that he’s almost okay down there, maybe just a little turquoise. He feels like he’s Klotz again. Or maybe not even Klotz — just Olek. Such a nice, noble name. Everything’s on track. Maybe that guy from Ultras Enigma, whom he beat almost to death, will even get off the respirator. Klotz basks in his newfound nobility, but after an hour of sitting by Michał’s tent, he starts to get impatient. He peeks inside.

There’s only an empty sleeping bag and a piece of paper with the words: “Don’t look for me, I can handle it.”

* * *

After several hours of walking toward the highway where he wanted to hitchhike to Warsaw, Michał encounters mountains instead. He must have gone the wrong way. He didn’t take a tent and it’s getting cold. There’s no food either. He drinks the last sip of water and lies down to sleep on the bare ground. Wiktor taught them resourcefulness, but he also promised that the flower would disappear. He knows for sure he won’t find any food in his pocket, but nevertheless he puts his hand in there — and comes across Donut’s lighter.

And he remembers that he never passed the Fire Trial.

* * *

“He’s going to do something to himself, I’m telling you,” Trufer shouts.
“Well, move your fucking ass then,” Mietas shouts back. He has already packed up two tents, his and Michał’s.

Wiktor never loses his cool, but now even he’s starting to behave chaotically. They don’t even know if they’ve chosen the right direction. Only after a few hours do they find a cross hanging on a branch. They continue along the same road until dusk falls. They too reach the mountains.

And then it seems that what’s ahead of them in the valley is the most ordinary campfire. But the longer they look, the more clearly they see that the speck of light is moving.

They run as fast as they can. Their bodies have undergone many trials, they’ve accumulated enormous strength, and now it’s finally coming in handy. Once there, they don’t hesitate for even a second. They fly into the fire to put it out with their bodies, since these bodies, men’s bodies, are all they have.

As Wiktor said, the Fire Trial is paramount.

* * *

And when the fire disappears, the Presence appears.
Michał feels a cold heaviness, as if he were underground again. He doesn’t have the strength to move, even to think. This time, however, he can fall asleep. He dreams of the Warszawianka water park, a block from St. Michael the Archangel. He sits at the top of the yellow, tongue-like slide holding the hand of a girl in a floral bathing suit. He smiles at her and they start down. On the way, they take a deep breath — and then with a splash, plunge into the water.

This translation was supported with a grant from the Sample Translations ©POLAND program from the Polish Book Institute.

Katarzyna Szaulińska

Katarzyna Szaulińska was born in Kołobrzeg in 1987. She is the author of Kryptodom (Biuro Literackie, 2023), Czarna ręka, zsiadłe mleko (Filtry, 2022), which has been nominated for the Nike Award, Poland’s most prestigious literary prize, and Druga Osoba (2020), a recipient of Biuro Literackie’s first-book award. She is also the author of a comic book about depression entitled Czarne fale/Murky Waves and the one-woman show Córcia [Baby girl], which was staged at the Warsaw Theatre. She lives in Warsaw, where she works as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist.

Mark Tardi

Mark Tardi is a writer and translator whose recent awards include a 2023 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowship. He is the author of three books, most recently The Circus of Trust (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017), and his translations of The Squatters’ Gift by Robert Rybicki (Dalkey Archive Press) and Faith in Strangers by Katarzyna Szaulińska (Toad Press/Veliz Books) were published in 2021. Viscera: Eight Voices from Poland is forthcoming from Litmus Press in 2024. He is on faculty at the University of Łódź.