Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)
From FLIGHTS by Olga Tokarczuk. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Olga Tokarczuk.
The air-conditioned taxi took them to their hotel; there, Karen, the professor’s younger wife, skillfully oversaw the unloading of their baggage, collected information from the organizers of the cruise at reception, got the keys, and then, accepting help from a solicitous porter— for this was no easy task— took her husband up to the second floor, to their room. There she carefully arranged him in their bed, loosened his scarf, and took his shoes off for him. Instantly he was asleep.
And they were in Athens! She was happy, she went up to the window and struggled for a second with its ingenious latch. Athens in April. Spring at full tilt, leaves feverishly clambering into space. The dust had risen already outside, but it wasn’t yet severe; and the noise, of course: ever- present. She shut the window.
In the bathroom Karen tousled her short gray hair and got into the shower. Inside it she felt all her tension washing away with the soap, pooling at her feet, then escaping for all eternity down the drain.
Nothing to get worked up about, she reminded herself, deep down. All of our bodies must conform to the world. There is no other way.
“We’re nearing the finish line,” she said aloud, standing still under the stream of warm water. And because somehow she couldn’t help thinking in images— which, she thought, had almost certainly been a hindrance to her academic career— she saw something like an ancient Greek gymnasium with its characteristic starting block, raised on cables, and its runners, her husband and herself, trotting awkwardly toward the finish line, although they’d only just taken off.
She wrapped a fluffy towel around herself and applied moisturizer, thoroughly, to her face, neck, and chest. The familiar scent of the cream soothed her fully now, so she lay down for a moment on the made bed beside her husband, and fell asleep without realizing.
Over dinner, which they ate downstairs, in the restaurant (sole and broccoli for him, for her a feta salad), the professor asked her if they’d brought his notebooks, books, outlines, until finally among those ordinary questions there came the one that sooner or later had to arrive, revealing the latest situation on the front:
“My dear, where are we right now?”
She reacted calmly. She explained in a few simple sentences.
“Ah, of course,” he said happily. “I’m ever so slightly discombobulated.”
She ordered herself a bottle of retsina and looked around the restaurant. Mostly wealthy tourists, Americans, Germans, Brits, and also those who had lost— n the free flow of money, which they let guide them— any and all defining traits. They were simply attractive, healthy, moving with unsummoned ease from language to language.
At the table next to theirs, for example, sat a pleasant group, people who might have been a little younger than she was, happy fifty-somethings, hale and flushed. Three men and two women in fits of laughter, the waiter bringing them another bottle of Greek wine— Karen had no doubt she would have fit in. It occurred to her that she could leave her husband, who just then was scraping apart the pale corpse of his fish with a trembling fork. She could grab her retsina and as naturally as a dandelion seed fall onto a chair at that next table, catching on to the final chords of those people’s laughter, chiming in with her own smooth alto.
Of course she did not do so. She got to gathering up the broccoli from the placemat, which had jumped ship from the professor’s plate, offended at his incompetence.
“Gods in heaven,” she snapped, calling over the waiter to request some herbal tea. Then, turning back to him: “Can I help you?”
“I draw the line at being fed,” he said, and with redoubled strength went back to hacking at his fish.
Jennifer Croft is a 2018–19 Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library and translator of Olga Tokarczuk’s FLIGHTS, which was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Translated Literature. She is also the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell, and National Endowment for the Arts grants and fellowships, as well as the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation, the 2018 Found in Translation Award, the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, and a Tin House Scholarship for her novel Homesick, originally written in Spanish. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Granta, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa.