A young university student named Jurek, with no particular ambitions or talents, finds himself with nothing to do. After his doting aunt asks the young man to perform a small chore, he decides to kill her for no good reason other than, perhaps, boredom. Killing Auntie follows Jurek as he seeks to dispose of the corpse—a task more difficult than one might imagine—and then falls in love with a girl he meets on a train. Can he tell her what he’s done? Will that ruin everything?
“I’m convinced—simply—that we are all guilty,” says Jurek, and his adventures with nearsighted relatives, false-toothed grandmothers, meat grinders, and love-making lynxes shed light on how an entire society becomes involved in the murder and disposal of dear old Auntie. This is a short comedic masterpiece that combines elements of Dostoevsky, Sartre, Kafka, and Heller, coming together in the end to produce an unforgettable tale of murder and—just maybe—redemption.
Excerpt from Killing Auntie
I left home in the afternoon, at four. After a few steps I stopped. I needed a purpose. Nothing came to mind. I resumed my walk like a condemned man, resigned to aimless wandering around the town. I went out for these long and exhausting walks almost every day. But always made sure I had a purpose. Chores, visits. Never did any of that, of course. After all, I had nothing to do, no one to visit. But the purpose was there, even though I knew it was a sham.
Today for the first time I realized I had no purpose. I went out without a reason. Those purposeless, lonely walks were murderous. I knew that. In summer, when I walked through woods, fields or overgrown riverbanks, they at least had some justification. They didn’t tire me so much. Absorbed into the landscape, becoming part of it, I didn’t have to think. I could rest. But in winter the town brought no calm. I ambled around, stopping in front of old archways and shop windows full of cellophane displays but found no solace in either. I appreciated – and understood – the charms of architecture and of the city lights yet saw no point in contemplating them. I longed for a purpose like a sick man longing for a cure. Held hostage by my own nature, I suffered terribly.
I walked slowly and with difficulty. The downy snow, which had fallen during the day, lay on the pavement like heaps of manna. I waded through them. The interminable circling of the streets was wearing me out. I knew that, overcome by exhaustion, I would soon reach a point when I would think of returning home with pleasure and, barely standing, rejoice at the sight of my window. But it was no consolation. I knew too, that back at home, resting on my bed, I would reach for the mirror and look at myself. For a long time.
I examined my face several times a day, every day, looking for signs of maturity, or old age. But the face remained stubbornly young. Nine years of youth lay before me like an endless fallow field unfit for farming. On top of that all my limbs were in perfect order and I was in rude health. There was no salvation. Aimless wandering in bad weather was no fun. Return home was impossible. The thought that I could spend the rest of the afternoon and the evening poring over reading for my university classes barred my way. There was only the street, which ruled out any surprises.
In my wandering I could never keep away from the center. All the excuses could be found within the surrounding boulevards. Today I hadn’t dared to break my habit. Yet the main streets and squares tired me with their noise and crowds. I turned surreptitiously into a narrow, almost empty street close to the main thoroughfare. I found myself in the middle of a labyrinth of old streets bordering on the center yet completely isolated from it. By the gates hung bells on wires. There was snow on the backs of the crabs, unicorns and little bears carved over the pediments. The labyrinth wasn’t big. I could cross it both ways in ten minutes. So I walked as slowly as I could, trying to keep my strides short, resisting the temptation to stop. I reached the stone wall of the Capuchin monastery. I knew that in a few seconds I’d come to a small square by the river. From there I could see the tarmac alley which I’d have to take as my return route. The prospect made me want to stop several times and run the other way. But the route led through the streets I knew by heart; there was no point in running away from the tarmac alley straight back into the embrace of a noisy road.
When I got to the end of the wall I stopped for a moment’s rest, like a swimmer about to plunge back into the water. I looked to one side. Two stone angels wearing snowy hats stood guarding the small gate in front of a church. The courtyard before the little church was an oasis of peace. Over the surrounding wall, below street level, tree branches from the orchard on the other side were sticking out. They were covered in snow. I was long hardened to all kinds of soppiness and so was able to look calmly at the relief on the walls and trees growing in the cloister, which I had known so well since childhood.
From the door leading into the enclosure a bearded monk came out with a broad wooden shovel and began to clear the snow. He didn’t pay any attention to me but I felt awkward. I stepped out of his way and began to study the relief on the wall. The monk kept shoveling the snow, panting laboriously. The longer we were alone the more awkward I felt. In the end I reached the point of no return. Slowly, I approached the gate and entered the church. I took a quiet pew at the back. I was not alone. Three elderly women knelt in front of me, two in the pew, one on the stone floor. Above the altar flickered a little flame like a small red heart. Next to the side altar shone a luminous entrance to a small cavern. Inside it, behind a strong grille, lay the golden arm of a 17th century hero.
Once I knew well a legend about the hero who bequeathed his golden arm, a gift from the king, to the Capuchin order. Today some details were missing from memory. Hiding in the pew I took for myself the role of an observer. A banal and thankless role: there was nothing to observe here. From the sacristy emerged a surpliced monk with a stole over his neck. Briskly he crossed the floor and shut himself in the confessional. I didn’t see his face well but with a beard and a high brow he seemed to me beautiful. He was tall, broad-shouldered, not young. The trellis on the confessional door closed, the stole was hung outside. I thought that at this hour it was unlikely anyone would come to confession. By the altar I spotted the same monk who was sweeping the snow. He was performing some strange ritual which involved a lot of kneeling. It was high time for me to leave; I just didn’t feel like it. In the empty church (the three women being gone), facing the mute expectation of the priest-confessor, I felt I had found my role. I got up and walked up to the confessional, knelt and knocked. For a fleeting moment I felt fear and stage fright but didn’t back down. Something rustled inside the confessional and the priest welcomed me with a Latin formula. I took a deep breath and recited back:
“I last came to confession more or less six – no – seven years ago.”
“Why so long, my son?”
“I lost faith.”
“What else, my son?”
The priest’s voice was weary and passionless. My blasphemous confession didn’t make much impression on him. I was crestfallen. I hesitated. I didn’t know what to say. Desperately I was trying to remember the formulae from school confessions.
“Since then… since then I offended the Lord with many sins…”
“Confess them, my son.”
“I was…” I hesitated again, “I was disobedient with my superiors… I lied, and then bore false witness against my brother…”
I was getting hopelessly confused.
“What else, my son?”
I frowned and after some thought whispered triumphantly:
“I sinned against the sixth commandment.”
The priest stirred in his seat.
“Oh, no, not that many,” I sighed regretfully.
“What else, my son?”
I couldn’t sense in my confessor’s voice any concern. Feverishly I was looking for words with which I could reveal to him the full horror of my inner life, which should terrify a holy man. In vain. The priest was already whispering the final formula. In a moment I would hear him knock on the confessional and walk away defeated. I quickly pressed my lips to the wooden lattice and whispered earnestly:
“Father… holy father,” I corrected myself, “I concealed one sin.”
The priest leaned to the lattice. I lowered my voice.
“I concealed a terrible sin…” I went for a dramatic pause and then whispered emphatically:
“I killed a human being.”
Ah, no more indifferent “What else, my son?” now. The priest was panting. After a moment’s silence he asked in an unnaturally loud voice:
“Oh, my son… It’s a terrible sin, terrible…”
The priest was lost for words. Now that he was lost for words I was cold and to the point.
“How did it happen?”
In the priest’s voice, apart from a hellish, almost unchristian curiosity, I detected a note of enthusiasm.
“Holy father,” I whispered gravely, “’tis unfitting to speak about.”
“In confession one has to tell everything, everything,” he insisted pleadingly.
I decided to be succinct.
“Ok then. I killed her with a hammer.”
“Hammer… Oh my son, it’s a terrible sin, a grave sin…”
“Holy father, more important than the gate of Hades is my soul,” I replied courteously.
The priest fell silent for a while and then asked:
“Had your aunt wronged you in any way?”
“So why did you kill her?”
I hung my head.
“Were you led to it by the repulsive jingle of gold?”
The priest was trying to rise to his role. I felt grateful.
“No, Father, to the contrary.”
“Why to the contrary?”
“Killing my aunt, I deprived myself of my main means of support. She gave me board and lodging.”
“So why did you do it?”
“I’m a murderer, Father.”
The priest fell silent again. And after a while:
“How old are you, my son?”
“Oh, twenty one… Was it… was it your first time?”
“First what, Father?”
“Had you killed before?”
“No, Father. I would have confessed, wouldn’t I?”
“True. Oh my son, repent your deed and cry over your soul.”
“I can’t repent, Father.”
“Why, my son?”
“I’m a hardened sinner.”
“Oh, my son…” the priest was hopelessly confused. “Oh, my son, cry over your soul…”
But then the curiosity won the upper hand.
“But you had to have a motive. Why did you kill?”
“I don’t know, Father.”
“You are not… sick, are you?”
“So why, my son? Why?”
“I sought peace in crime.”
“You can find peace only in prayer.”
“I’m too young to waste my days on prayers.”
“But, son…” the priest got irritated. “There are so many other sins…” he stopped abruptly. “ After a while he started again: “Are you feeling weak and abandoned?”
“Oh I am, Father.”
“Then repent your sin and cry with me. Difficult years of prison, provided you spend them in remorse and penitence, will atone for your crime.”
“I’ve no intention of going to prison.”
“How have you managed to hide your crime?”
“I haven’t. I’ve done it only this morning.”
“What have you done with the corpse?”
“For now it’s in my kitchen. I’ll try to get rid of it.”
“How…” he bit his tongue, apparently realizing the question was not quite in keeping with his work as a confessor.
“I’ve got a plan.”
“I don’t want to know. Do you repent of your sin, my son?”
“I can’t, Father.”
“Repent, my son,” he was pleading with me tearfully. “Or you’ll go to hell.”
“Is it horrible, Father?”
“Oh, son!” cried out the priest, grateful for my question.
And he began to paint the picture. The way he was doing it told me he was just a catechist. But his picture of hell surpassed all the best religion lessons I could remember from childhood. My confessor was inspired. Throughout his life he had been unleashing the horrors of hell to scare small-time sinners for their pranks played on teachers, their masturbation or laziness, to have his efforts rewarded with today’s confession. The grand vision of inferno painted for the benefit of such an extraordinary criminal was the sweet fruit that fell into his lap in an empty chair, out of the blue, on an afternoon one could expect nothing from. Necessity breeds inventors, necessity breeds heroes. Today I learned that necessity – or rather need – breeds artists. I had seen many reproductions of Old Masters depicting hell but none had come close to my confessor’s tirade. That was real hell. Seething, blazing, putrid. I easily forgave my confessor some catechetic naivety for the sweeping power of his vision.
The church was empty again. The monk had put out all the lights except for the little red lamp. There were only two of us, the hero’s golden arm, and hell. At last the priest ran out of breath.
“My son,” he pleaded, “repent your crime.”
“I can’t, father.”
“Then I can’t give you absolution.”
It all began to turn nasty.
“Then I’ll walk away with hell in my heart.”
I got up to my feet, as if ready to leave. The priest rustled hurriedly inside the confessional.
“No, son, don’t go away.” He lowered his voice and I heard in his words a playful note.
“If you can find in yourself perfect remorse, the most pleasing to the Lord, an imperfect one will be enough… Think of all the horrors of hell and fear the deed which condemns you to such torture. That will be enough.”
The priest’s voice was so sympathetic I was ready to express my imperfect remorse. Still, I held back. Showing an imperfect remorse would give my confessor a paltry satisfaction. This extraordinary confession would have a very cheap and trivial epilogue in a common criminal’s fear of chains and fire. So I said:
“Father, an imperfect remorse will not atone for such a crime before the Lord.”
The priest was delighted.
“My son,” he said, “words like these suffice for a remorse.”
“It’s not worth much, though.”
“Son, I am crying for your soul,” whispered the priest, “I truly am.”
He felt his inspiration was waning but still could not let go of me. The confession got stuck in a dead end. I pitied the priest. Anxiously, I started looking for a way out of the impasse. In the end I suggested:
“My crime is still fresh today. I’m still breathing blood. But tomorrow, or in a few days’ time, if God lets me live that long, perhaps the grace of remorse will come to me.”
“Come tomorrow then, my son,” advised hurriedly the priest. “In the afternoon, or in the evening. Between four and six. I’ll be waiting every day.”
The priest sounded excited and joyous. He appreciated the chance I gave him. Today’s confession will be more than just a beautiful moment in his life. It will open a difficult, glorious path to the salvation of a murderer, a path full of terrible mysteries. I had elevated my cleric to the level of a missionary converting cannibals, of a Saint Hieronymus taming a lion. He was pleased like a child, and it pleased me too. When I rose from my knees, the priest reminded me once more:
“So, between four and six, four and six pm.”
His voice trembled with the anxiety of a parting lover.