A Fairy Tale
by Andrzej Bursa
My buddy, slow-witted and malicious like a hundred mules, brings in his steel chessboard and asks: Wanna play?
Ha, ha—I'm familiar with this trick. I know that as we play, my chess-pieces will become white-hot. With the third move they already sizzle on contact and char the epidermis. But I play—of course I do.
Check, en garde, check. I lose two knights and a rook, and my fingers smoke like a factory. I try to shift a pawn with my fingernail, but having encountered my partner's ironic glance I desist. After all, my partner is magnanimous.—You'll lose your queen, he warns. Take back that move.
In this way my torture is intensified.
When he takes a second rook, I feel like giving up and putting an end to this idiotic ordeal. But he showed up, didn't he. And so grimacing with pain once again I make some fatal move.—Hee hee, cackles my slow-witted pal.—Just as in life. He can't come up with a better joke. This is the end now. With one last burn I move the king to a place of irrevocable checkmate.
My pal cackles and rakes in his chess set.
At that point I cry:—Now for a re-match.
A Fairy Tale
Once upon a time when the Emperor wasn't in a good mood a man rubbed him the wrong way. The Emperor ordered him to be beheaded. But the Emperor didn't have time. He only said:
—Report every hour to my chambers and remind me that in the very near future I have to chop off your head.
And so the man presented himself. At first he took it hard. He pondered the insignificance of existence and the constraints imposed upon the individual, and the dependence on the temperamental whims of a dull-witted bigwig. But then he got used to it. He became a cross for the officials to bear. Tons of work to be done, petitioners faint in line, and yet this man keeps showing up.
—Good day. The Emperor ordered me to remind you that in the near future he has to chop off my head. Goodbye.
And so it went every hour.
Promptly at two minutes to twelve this man burst out of the café called "The Ministerial" (he didn't frequent any others) in order to hastily deliver the little formula. Each Saturday night at eleven o'clock, slightly tottering on his legs after quickly downing a bottle in a bar called "Ambassador's Paradise" (he didn't frequent any other), the man showed up in chambers and announced incoherently:
—The Emperor ordered me to remind...so that…about it...that in the near future he has to chop off my head.
At four in the morning the man hopped off his cot which had been set up in the hallway of the royal chambers (he didn't sleep anywhere else), and in a sleepy voice he awakened the dozing secretary who was on duty:
—The Emperor ordered me... etc.
One day, after twenty years went by, this man happened to encounter the now-elderly Emperor in his chambers.
—And what does this man want? asked the Emperor.
—He reports that Your Excellency has ordered his head to be chopped off, said the secretary.
—Well then chop it off, the Emperor angrily snorted.
And so they chopped it off.
(Translated from Polish by Kevin Christianson and Halina Ablamowicz)
As one Polish critic observed, Andrzej Bursa (1932-1957) "was born a poet, a myth, a legend." During his brief life Bursa published 37 poems and a novel as well as saw one of his plays staged at Tadeusz Kantor's famed Cricot II theatre in Kraków. Bursa's adolescence and adulthood coincide with the darkest years of modern Polish history——from the Nazi occupation and ravages of World War II to the subsequent Soviet occupation and Communist era. Cynical, disillusioned, Bursa bitterly mocks a world of false values and empty promises, a world in which integrity and compassion are lacking. In 1957 at age 25 Bursa died of congenital heart failure. Yet the rebellious spirit of his work continues to attract young Polish readers. In 1967, in recognition of the poet’s talent, the Kraków literary group "Barabus" established in Bursa’s name an annual poetry prize for young poets.
Dr. Kevin Christianson is Professor of English at Tennessee Tech University where he teaches American literature and creative writing. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. His poems and translations have appeared in
New Letters, The Formalist, The Minnesota Review, The Sarmatian Review, Guernica, Home Planet News, Arabesques (Algeria),
Passport: The Arkansas Review of Literary Translation, The London Magazine (UK), and Metamorphoses. In 2007-2008 he will be a Fulbright lecturer at Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin Poland.
Dr. Halina Ablamowicz is Associate Professor of Speech Communication at Tennessee Tech University. She holds a Ph.D.
in Speech Communication from the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale as well as degrees in Russian philology from the
University of Wroclaw and the Moscow Pedagogical University. Her articles on phenomenology and the semiotics of shame
have appeared in The Journal of Phenomenological Psychology and The American Journal of Semiotics, and have been translated
into Portuguese for use in Brazilian university courses on existential psychology and phenomenology.
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story copyright by author's estate all rights reserved
translation copyright 2007 by Kevin Christianson and Halina Ablamowicz all rights reserved