The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel

A Novel

Magdalena Zyzak

Henry Holt and Co.

Chapter I

In which our hero self-admires

Barnabas Pierkiel held his breath so as not to distort his reflection in a pan of water he had carried from his grandmother’s kitchen and laid on a more or less level stump. He murmured at his facial regularity and symmetry, a handsomeness, he felt, that was by no means superficial. So much mystery he witnessed in his own eyes that, at length, he conceded defeat. Let astronomers decipher it. He scanned the rest of his reflection and concluded he was graceful in his new and only suit, procured by way of skillful haggling at a discounted price from Kowalchyk the tailor. The jacket was a perfect fit (for whomever it had been made), “modified” to create a large torso and squared shoulders, as was the latest fashion. Above the lapels flared the wide collar of Barnabas’ cerulean shirt, which contrasted with the biscuit color of his hair, treated daily with an egg yolk shine-sustaining ointment.

Yes, what better entry to a man’s character than to observe him in a moment of acute self-contemplation. Do we dare charge Barnabas with empty vanity? Do we scold an avid art student for resting his admiring eye on Helen’s bust by Canova?

Barnabas’ favorite aspects of himself included his shins (long and straight), his lobes (of minimal flap), his nostrils (petite, shaped like pearls), and the singular springiness of his step. Barnabas was right to venerate Barnabas. This had not always been possible . . .

Unlike many of us, who are born either ugly or lovely and live and die thus, bearing through the decades our crooked shins, warty fingers, our odalisque figures and whatever else genetic fate has determined, Barnabas, in his early teenage years, had lost his beauty utterly. He’d only recently escaped what he considered his “tragic era,” in which so much suet had oozed from his pores he’d been convinced he’d contracted cloven hoof disease or dissaffected pig disease or some other countryside ailment.

At fourteen, his faunlike childhood body had turned disproportionate, his limbs in constant competition to outgrow each other. Then, at approximately fifteen and a half, like an overnight fungus, his head had become so large (relative to the rest) that he had gone to school with his grandmother’s shard of mirror tied to his brow to remind potential head-critics of their own hideousness. It was not long before a History of the Decline of Serfdom thrown by Burthold the bully shattered the family shard, which, due to economic factors in our young parliamentary democracy, was never to be replaced, thus Barnabas’ pan of water.

The “tragic era,” at its lowest point, encouraged Barnabas to try his luck at suicide. One postschool afternoon, young Barnabas inserted his enormous head into the oven, but there, instead of the dark void of eternity, in a swirl of smoky odors he at first mistook for the vapors of Hell, he found a roasted chicken. Looking at the lifeless bird, Barnabas experienced an unpleasant vision of his own body plucked of all hairs and displayed with its many disgraceful imperfections in an open coffin. Instead of lighting the coals, he sadly devoured a leg and went upstairs to brood.

A few weeks later, he turned seventeen and lovely. This is where my chronicle begins, with Barnabas staring at his bacon-greased reflection in the pan, recalling with embarrassment the years he’d spent in odious form; and yet, these had not been entirely without dividend, for they had bestowed a certain melancholy sensitivity of soul.

It’s true that when a young Scalvusian is sensitive and melancholy, he requires a certain quantity of drink. Among beer, mead, vodka, schnapps, and moonshine, who can say of which Barnabas had become most fond? This is not to say his introduction to liquor hadn’t happened in the cradle, where, as for most Scalvusian lads, a vodka-soaked twist of cloth substituted for a pacifier.

At last, with anguish, Barnabas looked away from his reflection. He considered the landscape. Odolechka was a cheerless little place. Deep in the secluded parts of Eastern Europe, the land about the village offered nothing more than fields and trees and tonnage of manure that seemed disproportionate to the rather scant number of scrawny cows. The scent became especially intense in spring, when the western wind blew from the pastures, a scent to which Barnabas, with his delicate senses, had, unlike his contemporaries, never become immune. He felt faint every spring, sometimes staying in bed for days with a vodka-soaked rag on his nose. He had developed an almost superstitious fear of feces. Indeed, he had once attempted to resist the tyranny of this very basic physiological obligation and, as leader and sole member of his protest movement, had avoided the outhouse for six days and nights. On the seventh day, the result had been so daunting that Barnabas had pushed this memory to the very corner of his nether unconscious, where it would remain alongside his failed suicide. He kept his pigpen very clean.

At this moment, probably for the first time in his life, Barnabas was not bothered by the Odolechkan stench. In fact, he was so nervous, his sense of smell had ceased to operate. He was, however, cognizant of an oily wetness harassing him from head to foot. With indignation, Barnabas realized this wasn’t dew, but that, simply and gracelessly, he was covered in sweat, not only due to nervousness (for he was about to do a thing requiring the total of his courage), but also as a direct consequence of the fact that his suit was wool, unsuitable for summer, and the only fabric Kowalchyk had agreed to spare at such a price.

Still, removing the jacket was out of the question—the way the lapels harmonized with the shirt’s collar, the manner in which the six buttons more or less aligned down his front, the grace with which the pads sat on his shoulders—this refined arrangement could not be forsaken. So Barnabas targeted a patch of dry grass and carefully lay on his back, attempting to reduce his bodily functions to a minimum.

Daydreaming Barnabas did often and well. Some in the village claimed dreaming was what he did best, but I consider such opinions regular slander. Lazy Barnabas was not. On the contrary, he was eager to help, whether to carry buckets of water for some local maiden, to guard someone’s flock, even to labor at the mill. It happened that work disliked Barnabas, though. Inevitably, the water spilled, a sheep eloped with man or wolf, the flour contained more dust than grain. This again was not due to ineptness, but that Barnabas was overwhelmed by lofty thoughts and thus unable to stay focused on mundanities.


An affinity for the extraordinary, an air about the boy of having been designed for more than peasant toils, went as far back as infancy. One harvest afternoon, his mother (who, sadly, not long after that harvest, had perished, it was said, of acute incomprehension after being shown into the private back room of the tavern to identify the corpse of Barnabas’ father, who had stripped nude with his drinking partners to play what later were reported as “men’s games,” which, harmlessly enough, began with Olek the carpenter drinking a liter of vodka from Boleswav Pierkiel’s boot, but then escalated into Kazhimiezh the shepherd cutting off his own big toe with Olek’s hand-cranked spinning saw. At this point, the archived police report maintains, Boleswav, not to be bested, grabbed the still-spinning saw, and shouting, “Watch this, then!” swung it at himself, to the detriment of the connection between head and neck. “It’s funny,” says the testimony of Kazhimiezh in the report, “when he was young, he once put on his sister’s underwear. But he died like a man.”) had left the cottage door ajar, and Barnabas had crawled into the fields.

The boy settled himself in the wheat, where he lay for hours without a sound. The field was reaped that day, but he, by some miracle, remained unscathed. Later that night, a magpie warped and quorked until Barnabas’ mother, frenzied with worry, rushed out to scream at it and there, in a patch of skipped-over wheat, found her child placidly eating a clod of soil. The incident was puzzling, as no other patch had survived the scythes and, besides, the Pierkiel clan had always been afflicted by ill luck, the details of which will be gruelingly unveiled in the pages ahead.

After Barnabas’ orphaning, his care devolved upon his grandmother, one of the few Pierkiels in the last six hundred years to achieve old age. She belonged to that strain of ox-strong women, nearly gone from our modern world, known for carrying anything from hefty men to blocks of plaster. As if in compensation for this unusual vigor, Grandmother Pierkiel was endowed with negligible imagination and no tolerance for daydreaming or other ascensions of the soul. Indeed, her soul was so prosaic that, regardless of whether or not it existed, it neither ever rose nor even snored.


Now on this summer day in 1939, our hero watched the clouds. He gained no insight. He sat up, spat, and said, “For her, I would invade Siberia, or at the very least the northern part of Bukovina. I would publicly admit that I and Yurek are first cousins. I would give up beer, mead, vodka, schnapps, and moonshine, or, at the very least, beer, mead, vodka, and schnapps.” For her? He certainly was not referring to his grandmother.

He vigorously scratched his chest and brushed his shoulders. How much longer could he postpone the encounter? A coward, was he? His great contempt for the unromantic, for his dreary village and livelihood, demanded he indulge in paperback legends. Would Rudolf Vasilenko sit and wait for destiny to yank him off his quaking glutes? Wouldn’t Vasilenko confidently stride forth and punch Fortune in the kidney? (For those who have not heard of Vasilenko, and I would not be surprised if that includes everyone who’s not Scalvusian, he was a prewar agitator, a corporeal human, also the protagonist of six or seven sixth-rate novels, something of a bolshevik, famous for robbing banks, escaping capture, and dispensing money to Scalvusia’s poor.)

Barnabas reached into his trouser pocket, felt the lacy keepsake, and his heart waltzed. He had found the dear item a few days ago dangling from a rosebush behind her house. Initially, he thought she’d left it there for him to find. Alas, he had been forced to remind himself that, as of yet, she didn’t know of his existence.

He groped the brassiere from his pocket and pressed it to his face. What a seraglio of whiffs and emanations enveloped his senses—mystifying molasses, hints of hidden coves and pirate ports and cloves and peppers—a gaseous ambrosia so omnipotent that he became disoriented, also mildly nauseated.

Despite appearances, Barnabas’ fascination with the garment was not chiefly prurient. He affixed to it a soaring, spiritual significance. During the day, it traveled in his pocket or, sometimes, when he was alone, wrapped around his wrist. At night, he wore it as a sleeping mask, its cup capacious enough to obscure his face. Two nights ago, his grandmother, discovering him in this intimate disguise, had shrieked, “Dirty!” fled back to her cot, and, the next morning, denied having entered his vestibule at all.

He stroked the brassiere once more, returned it to his trousers, patted his pocket, and set off down the path between the fields. He might have gone on horseback, but he wasn’t yet committed to an audible approach. What if, for some unforeseeable reason, it turned out best he not be seen or heard? He walked and whistled and, in the minutes it took him to cross Duzhashvina Creek, a wheat field, then a cabbage field, his cheerfulness increased tenfold. In mere minutes, she would know his worth, his plans, his adoration.

The most direct route to her house was not the route an older man might choose. A gully full of stinging nettles halted Barnabas. He dimly remembered, or thought he remembered, his feebleminded cousin Yurek looming over his cradle with nettles in hand . . . Barnabas banished early sorrows with a haughty stomp. He hurtled through the nettles like a Draguvite to battle. Little did he know the scale of the events these minor wounds inaugurated. For how can we ever foresee the outcomes of our exploits? Unfortunate feasters, unable to peep at the bottom of the broth cup clasped in our own hands! Poor Barnabas.


Copyright © 2013 by Magdalena Zyzak