There is a dragon in Krakow that breathes fire if you stare at it long enough. It perches on a stone at the mouth of a cave, a river in front of it, a castle behind it, the sky quivering with bats at dusk. It’s a monument to a legend, and Krakow, Poland is a city rooted in legend, in history, in lore. A peasant boy outwits a dragon, and the dragon drinks the river dry, bursts, dies; a man imitates a horse and rider and frolics in the town square drunkenly for centuries; an unassuming trumpeter saves the city from invaders riding pigs. This last one is my favorite legend that permeates the city, and every hour on the hour, the city makes you remember it.
St. Mary’s Church is a beautiful church on the main town square, renowned for its altar carved in 1477 from linden, oak, and larch. It is the largest Gothic altarpiece in Europe and depicts the twelve Apostles mourning Mary’s death. The altar stands beneath walls of stained-glass scenes, and the ceiling of the church is a magnificent spread of gold and silver stars on a deep blue canvas more ornate and elaborate than the true sky could ever be in the country, in the desert, perhaps in outer space. A tall tower rises out of the church’s side and looms over the pigeons in the square, the statues, the tourists, the vendors selling amber, puppets, and bread.
I am here visiting Krakow again, showing Poland to my boyfriend for the first time, pointing out the dragon, pointing out the giant whalebone hanging in the castle, drinking currant vodka in the shadows of historic buildings, showing him the church. My family’s from Warsaw, but Krakow is dear to me. The cobbles, the larch trees, the lore—the city feels old and wise in a way reconstructed Polish cities never can.
For centuries, a trumpeter was stationed in the top of the tower of St. Mary’s Church to trumpet through the windows once in the morning to signify the opening of the city gates, and once in the evening, to signify their closing. He also played a special signal when he detected from his vantage point a fire or an invading force, warning people to lie low, to flee, to close the gates. Four times he would play each tune, once in each direction: to the south for the king, to the east for the city, to the north for the visitors, and to the west for luck.
Once, in the thirteenth century, Mongols invaded Krakow, the legend goes; they rode toward the city on pigs, flinging swords and firing arrows. The trumpeter saw the movement, sensed the danger, and began to trumpet in all four directions, warning the king, the townspeople, the visitors. But while he was playing the recognizable warning tune, while people began running into hiding and closing the gates, one of the invaders aimed high and silenced the alarm, piercing the trumpeter through the throat, cutting off the signal in the middle of a note. The city fell silent, then, but the trumpeter had accomplished his task. Krakow was saved, the invaders defeated, and a golden trumpet lay still on the floor of the spired tower.
Since then, a trumpeter plays the warning signal every hour on the hour from the tower of St. Mary’s Church, once to each of the four corners of the Earth. He cuts it off in the middle of the note, to commemorate the fallen trumpeter. Throngs stand still in the main town square, heads upturned toward the tower, where every hour they can see a tiny window open, a tiny golden globe emerge, and the warning signal played, now out of memory instead of fear.
On the side of the tower there’s an unobtrusive door, an old, heavy door behind an old, heavy chain. No one glances twice at it. We step across the chain, we walk up to the unobtrusive door, and we push a small black buzzer that crackles before a man’s voice says hello. I ask if we can come up. He quotes a very small fee and buzzes us in. Inside, it is dark, and stone steps spiral tightly upward. Soon, the stone is replaced with wood, and the spiral grows wider and more angular. We climb the 239 steep and rotting steps entirely alone. Every so often there’s a window, and each time Krakow falls farther and farther away, until we finally reach the top where it is brighter and windows line the walls of a very small, wooden enclosure. A rope hangs down the middle, attached to a bell. The trumpeter comes out of his office—a tiny, glassed-in room with a desk, maps on the wall, a radio—and shakes our hands. He is a kind, middle-aged man who asks us how the climb was.
The city hires several trumpeters, and they take 24-hour shifts, he says. They stay up here by themselves with the radio for company, tolling the bell every hour and playing the hejnal once in each direction, stopping in the middle of that fateful note. I ask if he gets lonely. He says yes, occasionally, but that being the trumpeter of Krakow is a great honor. I suppose that must outweigh the loneliness—recreating the legend 24 times a day, playing convincingly for the king, for the city, for guests, and for luck. I ask what the luck is for and he says you never know when you might need it. I say the original trumpeter didn’t seem to have much luck, and he says he supposes not, but it sure was lucky that the city had him.
The trumpeter looks at his watch, goes back into his office, and puts on a dark blue hat that matches his uniform and picks up his trumpet, plays a few haphazard notes. He asks if we’re ready, I say yes, and he tolls the hour. Then he opens the first window, the one that faces south, the castle, the town square. I look down at the tiny people who have already turned their heads expectantly toward the tower—Polish tourists, foreign tourists, a street musician, a man selling wooden flowers. The trumpeter plays through the window, and we stand right next to him and watch him play the hejnal I’ve heard so many times in my life but never so close or so loud or so far above the ground. Predictably and precisely he cuts off the note, he waves and closes the window. He turns to the next windows and plays again and again and again, and the melody, its broken note, winds its way over cobbles, the snaking river, the castle walls, the fire-breathing dragon, and it settles in the people. Of all the memories this city has, this memory has persisted. Like a strange, brassy heartbeat it surfaces and resurfaces, defining Krakow in all four directions and keeping the city adrift.
Iza Wojciechowska is a writer and translator living in Durham, NC. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, A Public Space, The Common, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere.