Jadwiga found the apartment in Kraków through a chain of email exchanges, eventually contacting another Canadian who lived abroad. A single bedroom, wifi and utilities included, close to the sights. Much cheaper than a hotel and more reliable than a hostel.
She took a bus from the airport. The engine coughed through winding streets to the Nowa Huta suburb, architecture going from sleek modern to late baroque and at last to the Soviet style of concrete blocks in varying states of decay. The passengers chirped in Polish (which Jadwiga barely remembered and couldn’t really understand), or Ukrainian, or Italian, or English with a heavy Irish accent.
She arrived at the house and Lucas, who she’d only seen over Skype, came to the door and waved a cigarette. “Jadwiga, right? Let me show you your room.” He didn’t offer to take her bags and Jadwiga lugged them across the wood floors. A woman much younger than Lucas, snaggle-haired and wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt like a cassock, lay comatose on the living room couch. Eurovision sang unseen on the TV.
Jadwiga followed to the back door and across a courtyard sprinkled with old wire and bent bike frames, then up an iron staircase to the building beyond. Lucas fished a key out of his pocket and unlocked the door. He smiled.
The greasiness hadn’t come through over Skype, nor the tobacco-and-marijuana smell.
“Here you are. And the wifi password.” He handed her the key and a slip of paper.
She stepped in. There was a gas stove and a single power outlet, a bathroom with an ancient lion-footed tub, a bedroom that smelled like old piss. The ceilings were the colour of Lucas’s teeth. In the photos it had seemed more spacious. And cleaner.
“Your first cheque in a week,” he said, looking right at her, daring her to argue, but she was too tired. She just plunked her bags down and rubbed her eyes while Lucas explained that he’d replace the light bulb in the hallway in the next few days in a tone of voice that meant he never would. “You can come to our place for dinner tonight. Ewelina’s making bigos.”
Jadwiga politely declined. He gave her an appraising look before seeing himself out.
She took another look at the bed and decided she wasn’t sleeping there. The floor was good enough. Then she dug out the outlet converter and her laptop. That’s when she found out she could only pick up a wifi signal from either the balcony or a very small corner of the kitchen.
She sent an email to her mother: I’m here. I made it okay.
* * *
Two months ago, she’d come home from a long evening at Rutherford library working on her Master’s thesis. Themes of Creeping Isolation in Western Canadian Regional Poetry. She opened the door and saw a stack of suitcases. Isidor was cinching the last one.
They stared at each other for a very long time before he spoke.
“Sorry, Jadwiga. I can’t do this anymore.”
“I’m taking the iguana,” he said.
They hadn’t had a single argument before then, bought this place together, made plans to flee Edmonton after she finished her degree to live in Whitehorse or Yellowknife or someplace else wild and northerly.
The term wound to a close, days draining away in countless back-and-forths across the University of Alberta campus. At night she stared at the ceiling. She eventually sold the condo because she couldn’t afford it on a grad student’s budget alone, and after moving into a basement off Whyte Avenue she dyed her hair deep red and told her mom she was going to spend the summer in Poland because she wanted to know what it was like.
“It’s terrible,” her mother said, but by then Jadwiga had already bought the tickets using the money from the condo sale and was searching for a place to stay.
* * *
A white carriage went by on near-white stone. When it slowed, one of the horses took a shit, the bag round its hindquarters ballooning before the driver went to fetch it in a panic. Behind it, a man dressed in medieval armour posed for a photo with some Chinese tourists. Jadwiga took another bite from her pretzel, an “authentic” obwarzenek, which every street vendor in Kraków seemed to sell. Her gaze went back to the high spindle of St. Mary’s church and a sky dim with a hint of smog.
Alongside the swords and bugles and amber for sale at the sukiennice there were dragons: sculpted in stone and porcelain and plastic. The famed Kraków dragon who’d lived in a cave beneath the Wawel hill.
Her mother hadn’t told her that story because her mother was born in Moncton. Maybe Jadwiga’s father told it to her - tales for a wide-eyed three year old, only she couldn’t remember. He never stayed long, just gave her a name no one could pronounce (“It’s Yad-vee-ga!”) and then disappeared. He circled back for brief moments like a moth to light before a car accident snuffed him out.
No, she’d read the story in a battered guidebook she’d bought at a used bookstore in Edmonton: how King Krakus promised his daughter’s hand to any man who’d slay the insatiable dragon, and the cobbler Skuba left a sulphur-filled lamb’s corpse in front of the dragon’s cave. The dragon ate it and grew thirsty, mightily so, and he drank so deeply from the Vistula he exploded in a rain of blood.
It was hard to take a dragon like that seriously, but Jadwiga had appreciated the grotesqueness of its ending, so she’d given one of the vendors in the cloth hall a few złoty and got a dragon in return, its wings outspread and mouth snarling, “Kraków” chipped crookedly beneath its claws. She put it in her purse.
With the last of the pretzel gone she pulled the cheap sculpture out and turned it round in her hands, startling when the bells peeled from St. Mary’s. More bells joined. A cacophony of clashing bronze or brass, rising above the rumble of traffic.
* * *
It was early enough in the season there were no line-ups at the Wawel castle’s attractions: the armoury, the palace, the cathedral. Bright baroque and medieval buildings clustered inside a ring of walls and towers. Jadwiga’s namesake lived here in the fourteenth century, the queen crowned as a king (that was after the dragon was slain).
Signs in Polish with comically poor English translations told Jadwiga where she was. She declined paying a tour guide, instead discovering garden nooks and forgotten cannons on her own.
Eventually she strolled down the wide path by the Vistula to the cave’s mouth. A metal statue stood guard there - a dragon perched on a stone, its head bent back, an erratic kerosene flame spouting up from its snout to amuse the children. That moment, the area was mercifully empty. The only sound was the gentle drift of conversation from above and whispering water from the riverbank.
She crumpled up her ticket and went into the cave.
* * *
Jadwiga passed lamp-lit limestone and bricked-up corridors as she moved from one chamber to another.
The guidebook hadn’t mentioned you could get lost here. It was supposed to be crowded, but she didn’t see anyone. She ambled through dim tunnels where ghostly faces stared from the stones. A heartbeat swelled through the caverns, shivered the walls, and something huffed steadily, in and out. Instead of cold rock, she found herself inside a stomach, slick and warm.
A teenage guide found her sitting on the ground with her head against her knees. When he touched her shoulder, she didn’t recognize where she was or how she’d got there.
* * *
It was late when Jadwiga returned to Nowa Huta after those several lost hours in the cave. She put the dragon figurine on the kitchen table and fell into the bed. As her sleep deepened the air changed; smelled like brimstone. Scales whispered across her skin, their sharp edges drawing and smearing blood. Coils twisted around her before sliding away, and she dared not open her eyes.
In the morning, the pewter dragon regarded her from the nightstand. Jadwiga rubbed her eyes and reached out for it, but the little wings flexed and the dragon flew out the window, leaving its perch behind.
Jadwiga sat up and pressed her fingers to her skull. There were some blueberry-filled buns in the fridge. Jadwiga ate one for breakfast before taking a shower and heading back into the old city.
* * *
This time, she went under the Thieves’ Tower and down the staircase in the old Austrian well; the guidebook’s way. It wasn’t the same cave. Just three linked chambers, dull and dark and infused with tourist’s chatter.
On her return she found Lucas waiting for her by the stairs, sunglasses on and grease in his hair. He followed her inside and watched her write the cheque before tucking it into his shirt pocket. “My woman insisted.” He winked. “Come for kolacje tonight, we’ll make it up to you.”
Kolacje, like before-bed dessert, except here you usually ate bread and meats and cheese instead of sweets. She said, “Okay” and then wondered why.
It was awkward, like she’d expected. The white tablecloth was singed and the cold sausage didn’t suit the warm vodka. Both Lucas and Jadwiga were vague about their occupations. Business. Stocks. Lucas was likewise nebulous about why he’d left Canada, and she wondered if Lucas was his real name (he’d had her make the cheque out to Ewelina Szymborska).
All those concerns floated away in a haze of żubrówka. When it became too much, Jadwiga mumbled, “I have to go. Thank you for this, for giving me a place to stay,” and lurched for the courtyard.
When she got back to her own tiny apartment, the pewter dragon was waiting for her on the counter, still separate its old perch.
You’re drunk, Jadwiga thought. She kept thinking that when she picked it up, when it crawled up her arm and settled on her shoulder.
* * *
The PKP train had rattled out of the communist era. Uncomfortable blue seats, soot-streaked windows, frayed curtains and creaking compartment doors. Another sign with tiny cracked English warned Jadwiga not to use the toilet when the train was moving. As she found out, that was because the toilet opened directly to the rails below. There was a sink, but no water from the tap. The paper towel dispenser hung creaking from a single screw, which made her glad she’d bought a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer.
Back in the compartment, a young woman plied her smartphone, an old woman knit, a man slept. And Jadwiga, she held her handbag close to her stomach and tried not to think of the dragon dwelling in there.
She wanted to see the country, see the other palace at Warszawa and the great brick castle at Malbork. She’d entered Wieliczka salt mines, walked the stone tunnels filled with statues and glimmering walls, a haunting vastness - and yet still no match for that one afternoon spent in the tiny caves beneath the Wawel.
There were surely other places like that here. But as the train advanced, the dragon remained a statue. Kraków faded, replaced by an endless parade of towns and villages, one bleeding into another.
* * *
The distances on Poland were slight compared to the broad expanses of Canada; trains shuttled from the coast and back to the feet of the Carpathians, from the western border to the east, the journeys lasting a day, two at most. For those two weeks Jadwiga learned to sleep on the train, how to speak Polish from memory instead of flipping through a phrasebook, finally able to form sounds to the extent that others could understand her. The words stubbornly resisted her English tongue, and yet there was some charm to their resistance.
Every day a new place harbouring a tale of a dragon or a basilisk or some other monster. Jadwiga didn’t meet them. The dragon stayed in her purse and she started to think she’d dreamed it all.
She would often wander away from tour groups, onto rambling paths through manor houses or along the shore of the Baltic or on the wide green field of Grunwald where the knights of Poland and Germany fought. She sat on the grass a long time and watched the shadow of the twin-swords monument ripple over the hills.
Every aspect of Poland seemed to drown in the thick sludge of history, the entire landscape inscribed and re-inscribed. She could sink into it if she stayed still enough.
These times she was glad to be away from Edmonton and thoughts of Isidor, glad to be away from Lucas and Ewelina too, glad to be unattached and drifting. Yet a part of her longed for Kraków even more strongly than she yearned for home. She’d never felt an attachment to a place like that before.
Jadwiga roughened. The need to find magic places like the Kraków cave made her stop caring about shampoo and lipstick until her hair browned to its old colour and her rumpled clothes became mottled by sweat stains and frayed edges. She was able to live out from her backpack now; she’d bought a sleeping bag, a rope and a tarp and could sleep in the woods under the stars.
* * *
A laminated map guided her back to Kraków; she’d bought it at a small bookstore when she decided to walk the last few days back along the Jura Krakowska-Częstachowska. Small castles often lay off the roads, tucked beyond overgrown paths, free from tourists or restoration programs. On the second night of her hike she slept beneath a ragged wall that once defended some szlachciz from the Tatars.
At midnight Jadwiga woke, realizing the ground was throbbing. It wasn’t the ground. Moonlight glinted back from the scales of the dragon wrapped around her, its bulk gently heaving, its insides radiating a sulphurous heat. She gazed past its claws and neck to the head lying snugly on the grass. Twin trails of smoke rose from its nostrils. Its multitude of horns shone ghostly white.
Jadwiga stroked the dragon’s flank, trembling all the while. The scales felt featherlike, not sharp at all, and when the dragon let out a snort, Jadwiga smiled.
“You’ve grown,” she whispered, settling back against the dragon and looking up to the stars. “But you probably don’t understand me, do you?”
The dragon stirred, muscles contracting with enough force to push Jadwiga away. She shrieked, scrambled up to her knees as those scales rippled with shifting shadow and stars. Its eyes snapped open, snake eyes lit by a bright ring of rainbow light, then its head came swinging back to examine her, to treat her to a blast of heat and a rotting meat smell. The jaws parted, revealing rows of blue-tinged teeth and yellow ooze, and a red, red tongue that flexed as it let out a roar. Jadwiga rocked back from the force of it; covered her face as sparks whipped around her and made her hair curl. When she chanced to look again, the backs of her hands were covered in soot and her fingers left trails on her otherwise blackened face.
And there it was, achingly beautiful, yet terrifying, so terrifying. The dragon reared up and beat its wings, rising up into the night like an enormous hummingbird.
“Wait!” Jadwiga called. “Czekaj na mnie!”
It didn’t wait for her. Instead, a jet of flame tore open the darkness, curling against the castle walls and lighting the hills, before the dragon sped off across the face of the moon.
When she checked her bag, the pewter dragon was gone.
* * *
The next morning her cell phone rang her awake.
“Is that you, Jadwiga?”
If she’d heard his voice before, her insides would have gone cold and her heart would have started thumping quicker than a tap dancer’s feet. Now, she felt nothing.
“How’d you get this number?” she demanded.
“Your mom told me.”
“You’re in Poland? You really went there?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m in Poland.”
Silence on the other end for a moment. “Listen, I made a mistake. Such a big mistake.”
“Jadwiga, I think I’m still in love you.”
Silence on her end, for a moment. Then she started giggling. Then she started laughing, uncontrollably, so hard her belly hurt.
“What? What’s so funny?” Isidor asked. His voice small and hurt and embarrassed.
She calmed down just enough to speak. “You know what happened to me last night, Iz? I saw a dragon fly up in the sky and torch a castle.”
“A dragon. Fuck off. Go masturbate with a blender. Just don’t call me again.”
And she hung up.
* * *
Her laptop was still in the room at Nowa Huta; Jadwiga had fully expected that she wouldn’t find it there and hadn’t cared. Nothing, in fact, was stolen, and when she came in through the courtyard Ewelina came out looking genuinely concerned. “You were away longer than you said you would be. We thought something had happened to you.”
“A lot happened to me,” Jadwiga said. “I’m okay.”
She had a shower and changed into a dress before heading back into the old city. It looked different now, familiar and part of her. Jadwiga walked back to the cave under the Wawel hill, wondering what she’d do when she got back to Edmonton.
And if the dragon would follow her there.
Michal Wojcik was born in Poland, raised in the Yukon territory, and educated in Edmonton and Montreal. He has an MA in history from McGill University, where he studied witchcraft trials, medieval necromancers, and, occasionally, 17th-century texts about enchanted wheels of cheese. Follow him on his blog, One Last Sketch.
Art by Vincent Sammy.