Monday, August 10, 2015


Cecil the lion is seen at Hwange National Parks

Photograph: Handout/Reuters 


                                                                                    Zbigniew Herbert


     Bears are divided into brown and white, also paws, head and

trunk. They have nice snouts, and small eyes. They like greedi-

ness very much. They don't want to go to school, but sleeping in

the forest — that, yes, very much. When they don't have any

honey, they clutch their heads in their hands and are so sad, so

sad, that I don't know. Children who love Winnie-the-Pooh

would give them anything, but a hunter walks in the forest and

aims with his rifle between that pair of small eyes.


     He is all black, but has an electric tail. When he sleeps in the

sun he is the blackest thing one can imagine. Even in his sleep

he catches frightened mice. One can see this in the little claws

that are growing from his paws. He is terribly nice and naughty.

He picks birds off the trees before they are ripe.


     At the very corner of this old map is a country I long for. It is

the country of apples, hills, lazy rivers, sour wine, and love. Un-

fortunately a huge spider has spun its web over it, and with

sticky saliva has closed the toll gates of dreams.

     It is always like that: an angel with a fiery sword, a spider,

and conscience.


     — I've got you, said the wolf, and yawned. The sheep turned

its teary eyes toward him.  — Do you have to eat me? It is really


     — Unfortunately I must. This is how it happens in all the

fables: Once upon a time a naughty sheep left its mother. In the

forest it met a bad wolf who. . .

     — Excuse me, this is not a forest, but my owner's farm. I did

not leave my mother. I am an orphan. My mother was also eaten

by a wolf.

      — It doesn't matter. After your death the authors of edifying

tales will look after you. They will add a background, motives,

and a oral. Don't hold it against me. You have no idea how silly

it is to be a bad wolf. Were it not for Aesop, we would sit on our

hind legs and gaze at the sunset. I like to do this very much.

     Yes, yes dear children. The wolf ate the sheep, and then

licked his lips. Don't follow the wolf, dear children. Don't sac-

rifice yourselves for the moral.


     A path runs barefoot to the forest. Inside are many trees, a

cuckoo, Hansel and Gretel, and other small animals. But there

are no dwarfs, because they have left. When it gets dark and owl

closes the forest with a big key, for if a car sneaked in it would

really do a lot of harm.


     When the honey, fruit and flowery tablecloth were whisked

from the table in one sweep, it flew off with a start. Entangled in

the suffocating smoke of the curtains, it buzzed for a long time.

At last it reached the window. It beat its weakening body repeat-

edly against the cold, solid air of the pane. In the last flutter of its

wings drowsed the faith that the body's unrest can awaken a

wind carrying us to longed-for worlds.

     You who stood under the window of your beloved, who saw

your happiness in a shop window — do you know how to take

away the sting of this death?


     Once there was breath on these window panes, the fragrance

of a roast, the same face in the mirror. Now it is a museum. The

flora of the floors has been exterminated, the chests emptied,

rooms flooded with wax. For entire days and nights they kept

the windows open. Mice avoid this infected house.

     The bed is neatly made. But no one wants to spend even a

single night here.

     Between  his wardrobe, his bed and his table — the white

frontier of absence, precise as the cast of a hand.


Zbigniew Herbert
Elegy for the Departure
translated from the Polish by
John and Bogdana Carpenter
Ecco Press 1999