I – How to Survive with the Aid of Literature.
Astride a Play to Tiflis.
If someone asked me what I deserve, I would say in all honesty before God that I deserve hard labor.
Not because of Tiflis, however; I did not do anything wrong in Tiflis. Because of Vladikavkaz.
I was living out my last days in Vladikavkaz, and the terrible specter of hunger, (Cliché! Cliché!… “terrible specter”… However, I don’t give a damn! These memoirs will never be published!) as I was saying, the terrible specter of hunger knocked at the door of my modest apartment which I had obtained with a permit. And right after the specter knocked Attorney Genzulaev, a pure soul with a brush mustache and an inspired face.
We talked, and here I include a stenographic record:
“What are you so down in the mouth about?” (Genzulaev)
“Apparently, I’m doomed to die of starvation in this crummy Vladikavkaz of yours…”
“There’s no question about that. Vladikavkaz is a crummy city. I doubt there’s a crummier city anywhere in the world. But why do you have to starve to death?”
“There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve exhausted all possibilities. The Subdepartment of the Arts has no money, so they can’t pay any salaries. I won’t be making any more introductory speeches before plays. I had a feuilleton printed in the local Vladikavkaz newspaper for which I received 1,250 rubles and a promise that they would turn me over to the special department1 Secret police.2 if another one like it ever appeared in print.”
“Why?” (Genzulaev was alarmed. Understandably, if they wanted to turn me over to the special department, I must be suspect.)
“For my mocking tone.”
“Oh, rubbish. They just don’t understand anything about feuilletons here. I’ll tell you what…”
And here is what Genzulaev did. He incited me to write a revolutionary play with him about native life. I’m slandering Genzulaev here. He pushed me and, because of my youth and inexperience, I agreed. What does Genzulaev know about the writing of plays? Nothing whatsoever, it was plain to see. Right away he openly admits that he sincerely detests literature, and I myself hated literature, you better believe, even more than he did. But Genzulaev knows native life like the back of his hand, if, of course, you can call native life a combination of shishkebab houses, breakfasts against a backdrop of the most repulsive mountains in the world, daggers of inferior steel, sinewy horses, taverns, and disgusting music that wrenches the soul.
Therefore, I will write the play and Genzulaev will add the local color.
“Only idiots would buy this play.”
“We’re the idiots if we don’t manage to sell this play.”
We wrote it in seven-and-a-half days, thus spending half a day more than was necessary to create the world. Despite this, it turned out even worse than the world.
I can say one thing: if there is ever a competition to see who can write the most stupid, untalented, and presumptuous play, ours will receive first prize (however, several plays from 1921-26 now come to mind, and I begin to have my doubts…), well, if not first prize, certainly second or third.
In short, after writing this play I am forever stigmatized, and naturally I can only hope that the play will molder in the bowels of the local Subdepartment of the Arts. As for the receipt, the devil take it, it can stay there. It was two hundred thousand rubles. One hundred for me. One hundred for Genzulaev. The play ran for three nights (a record), and the authors were called on stage. Genzulaev came out and took a bow, laying his hand against his clavicle. Then I came out and made faces for a long time so that I would be unrecognizable in the photograph (which was taken from below with magnesium). Due to these faces a rumor spread throughout the town that I was brilliant but mad. It was annoying, especially because the faces were totally unnecessary, since the photographer who took our picture was requisitioned and assigned to the theater, so nothing came out on the photograph but a shotgun, the inscription, “Glory to…” and a blurred streak.
I ate up seven thousand in two days and decided to use the remaining ninety-three to leave Vladikavkaz
Why? Why Tiflis of all places? For the life of me, I do not now recall. However, I remember I was told that:
1) in Tiflis all the stores are open,
2) in Tiflis there is wine,
3) in Tiflis it is very hot and the fruit is cheap,
4) in Tiflis there are many newspapers, etc.., etc.
I decided to go. First, I packed my things. I took all my worldly possessions: a blanket, some under-clothes, and a Primus stove.
In 1921 things were not quite the same as in 1924. To be more precise, it was impossible to just pack up and go wherever you wanted! Apparently, those who were in charge of civilian travel reasoned something like this:
“If everyone started traveling, then where would we be?”
Therefore, a permit was required. I immediately submitted an application to the appropriate authorities, and where it asked, “What is the purpose of your trip?” I wrote with pride, “I am going to Tiflis for the production of my revolutionary play.”
In all of Vladikavkaz there was only one person who did not know me by sight, and it happened to be the gallant young fellow with the pistol on his hip who stood as if nailed to the spot by the table where permits for travel to Tiflis were issued.
When my turn came to receive a permit and I reached out to take it, the young man started to give it to me, but then stopped and said in an authoritative, high-pitched voice, “What is the purpose of your trip?”
“The production of my revolutionary play.”
Then the young man sealed the permit in an envelope and handed both me and the envelope over to someone with a rifle, saying, “Take him to the special department.”
The young man did not answer.
A very bright sun (the only good thing in Vladikavkaz) beamed down on me as I walked along the road with the man carrying the rifle to my left. He decided to strike up a conversation with me and said, We’re going to be passing through the bazaar now, but don’t even think about escaping. Nothing good will come of it.”
“Even if you begged me to do it, I wouldn’t,” I replied in all honesty.
Then I offered him a cigarette.
Smoking companionably, we arrived at the special department. As we crossed the courtyard, I fleetingly recalled all my crimes. There were three.
1) In 1907 I was given one ruble and 50 kopecks to buy Kraevich’s Physics but spent it at the cinema.
2) In 1913 I got married against the wishes of my mother.
3) In 1921 I wrote that celebrated feuilleton.
The play? But that play could hardly be called criminal, could it? Quite the contrary.
For the information of those who have never been inside the special department, it is a large room with a rug on the floor, a huge desk of unbelievable proportions, eight telephones of different designs with green, orange, and gray cords attached, and behind the desk, a small man in military uniform with a very pleasant face.
The luxuriant crowns of the chestnut trees could be seen through the open windows. Upon seeing me, the man sitting at the desk attempted to change the pleasant expression on his face to an unfriendly an unpleasant one, but was only partially successful.
He took a photograph out of the desk drawer and began scrutinizing both it and me in turn.
“Oh, no. That’s not me,” I hurriedly announced. “You could have shaved off the mustache,” Mr. pleasant responded thoughtfully.
“Yes, but if you look closely,” I said, “the guy in the picture has hair the color of black shoe polish and is about forty-five. I am blond and twenty-eight.”
“Dye?” the small man asked with uncertainty.
“But what about the bald spot? And besides look closely at the nose. I beg you to take a good look at the nose.”
The small man peered at my nose. He was over-come with despair.
“I believe you. There’s no resemblance.”
There was a pause, and a ray of sunlight sprang up in the inkwell.
“Are you an accountant?”
Pause. The crowns of the chestnuts. The stucco ceiling. Cupids.
“What is the purpose of your trip to Tiflis? Answer immediately without thinking,” the small man said in a rush.
“To stage my revolutionary play,” I answered in a rush.
The small man opened his mouth, but recoiled and was completely radiated by the sun.
“You write plays?”
“Yes, I have to.”
“No kidding. Was the play you wrote a good one?”
There was something in his voice that would have touched any heart but mine. I repeat, I deserve hard labor. Looking away, I said:
“Yes, a good one.”
Yes. Yes. Yes. This was my fourth crime, the worst one of all. If I had wanted to remain pure before the special department, I should have answered: “No it’s not a good play. It’s junk. I just really want to go to Tiflis.”
I looked at the toes of my worn-out boots and did not speak. I came to myself when the small man handed me a cigarette and my travel permit.
He said to the guy with the rifle, “Show the writer to the door.”
The special department! I must forget about it! You see, now I have confessed. I have shed the guilt I have carried for three years. What I committed in the special department was, for me, worse than sabotage, counter-revolution or abuse of power.
But I must forget it!!!
II – Eternal Wanderers
People say that in 1924 it was easy to travel from Vladikavkaz to Tiflis; you simply hire a car in Vladikavkaz and drive along the remarkably scenic Georgian Military Highway. It is only two hundred and ten versts.3 A Russian unit of distance, in this case equal to about 6.5 miles.4 However in Vladikavkaz in 1921 the word “hire,” sounded like a word from a foreign language.
In order to travel you had to go with your blanket and Primus stove to the station and then walk along the tracks, peering into the innumerable freight cars. Wiping the sweat from my brow, on track seven I saw a man with a fan-shaped beard standing in slippers by an open freight car. He was rinsing out a kettle and repeating the vile word, “Baku.”
“Take me with you,” I requested.
“No,” replied the man with the beard.
“Please, so I can stage my revolutionary play,” I said.
The bearded man carried the kettle up a plank and into the freight car. I sat on my blanket beside the hot rails and lit a cigarette. A stifling, intense heat filled the spaces between the freight cars, and I quenched my thirst at the faucet by the tracks. Then I sat down again and felt the scorching heat radiated by the freight car. The bearded man stuck his head out.
“What’s your play about?” he asked.
I unrolled my blanket and took out my play.
“You wrote it yourself?” the proprietor of the freight car asked dubiously.
“Never heard of him.”
“I really need to leave.”
“Well, I’m expecting two more, but if they don’t show up, perhaps I’ll take you. Only don’t have any designs on the plank bed. Don’t think that just because you wrote a play you can try anything funny. it’s a long journey, and as a matter of fact, we ourselves are from the Political Education Committee.”
“I won’t try anything funny,” I said, feeling a breath of hope in the searing heat. “I can sleep on the floor.”
Sitting down on the plank bed, the beard said “Don’t you have any food?”
“I have a little money.”
The bearded man thought for a moment.
“I’ll tell you what… you can share our food on the journey. But you’ll have to help with our railway newspaper. Can you write something for our paper?”
“Anything you want,” I assured him as I took possession of my ration and bit into the upper crust.
“Even feuilletons?” he asked, and the look on his face made it obvious that he thought me a liar.
“Feuilletons are my specialty.”
Three faces appeared out of the shadows of the plank bed, along with bare feet. They all looked at me.
“Fyodor! There’s room for one more on the plank bed. That son-of-a-bitch Stepanov isn’t coming,” the feet said in a bass voice. “I’ll make room for Comrade Feuilletonist.”
“Okay, make room for him,” bearded Fyodor said in confusion. “What feuilleton are you going to write?”
“The Eternal Wanderers.”
“How will it begin?” asked a voice from the plank bed. “Come over here and have some tea with us.” “Sounds good—Eternal Wanderers,” responded Fyodor, taking off his boots. “You should have said you wrote feuilletons to start with, instead of sitting on the tracks for two hours. Welcome aboard.”
A vast and wondrous evening replaces the scorching day in Vladikavkaz. The evening’s edge is the bluish mountains. They are shrouded in evening mist. The plain forms the bottom of the cup. And along the bottom, jolting slightly, wheels began to turn. Eternal Wanderers. Farewell forever, Genzulaev! Farewell, Vladikavkaz!
Agit-train in one of Dziga Vertov‘s famous documentaries
In March I received an invitation to appear at IdiotFest, the second most prestigious event on the entire Idiot circuit. I called my mother.
─Don’t you remember, Mom? It was in San Diego last year. I was an alternate.
─Oh, right. Of course. Congratulations, honey. That’s wonderful.
─I have a solo performance the first night. On one of the side platforms. Then, the last morning, I’m supposed to participate in a workshop on fluids.
─I bet they probably heard about what I did at the Canadian Summit.
─I’m sure they did. You got a lot of attention for that. Listen, I wish your father and I─
─Don’t worry about that, Mom. Indianapolis is quite a haul from California, and tickets aren’t cheap. I need to start looking for bargains myself.
─They’re not paying for your travel?
─No, just a discounted room at the main hotel.
─I’m only performing on a side platform, Mom. I’m not exactly Maury Benjamin.
─There’s only one Maury Benjamin. Still, I’m sure you’ll do great.
─This could be a really big break for me. If I make a good impression there, I got a great chance of winding up at the Gathering in December.
─Did you tell Michelle?
─Will you? What about the girls?
I counted fourteen people gathered around the small, wooden platform, including a friend of mine from high school who lives in town. We had talked about going out for a beer afterward. I blamed the weather. Fucking rain. At 6:30 there were still probably two-hundred visitors snaking around the lobby waiting to check in. I tried not to think about it.
I opened with some incoherent bellowing, my mouth still dry. After moving to the floor and yanking out a fistful of hair, I began my slobbering sequence. This was the first time I was using an oil capsule in public. I had no trouble bursting it, but I had some difficulty determining the rate of its drainage. In the solitude of my apartment, I had trained myself to gauge the size of the capsule’s rupture by concentrating on the strength of the oil’s flavor in my mouth. Once that was clear, I would decide how much saliva to mix with the oil in order to create a plausible degree of viscosity. I used a rosemary infusion. With a crowd this small, and with this kind of professional lighting, the oil was probably unnecessary. But it would have been foolish to pass up an opportunity to try it out in front of an actual audience. Plus, I could ask my friend about it later.
As I prepared to return upright, I noticed the assistant to the impresario standing against the back wall, nearly hidden in shadow. Somehow, I had missed her entrance. She contacted me with the initial invitation. Called me out of the blue and proceeded to compliment me throughout the conversation, she even made reference to the fact that I craft my own dental prosthesis. They had done their research. Maybe she had come to this room to check on the sound and the lighting, or to record the turnout, or just to get a feel for the overall atmosphere here on the first night. Maybe she just wanted to enjoy my work, to catch the act of that up and coming guy who refuses to order his hideously yellow buckteeth out of Chauncey’s Idiologue. Still, I couldn’t ignore the possibility that she had arrived primarily to judge me. To decide whether or not I deserved this platform, to consider whether or not I would be invited to return next year, to estimate the potential long-term commercial appeal of my idiot, to ask herself if she hadn’t made a mistake by bringing me here in the first place.
By now I was standing back up, moving into my bluster. The snot, thick and generous thanks to the air travel, bubbled out of my left nostril and ran onto my lips. But then, for the first time ever in the middle of an actual performance, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision. As I heaved my shoulders and used my forearm to spread the phlegm across my right cheek, I found myself focused on the assistant to the impresario. Like more than a few idiots, I had considered the route of the moron and the fool as well. And despite the fact that I believed deep down my talent lie in idiocy, I was haunted by what might have been had I elected to become a moron. After all, even my manager would admit that the moron circuit had more than doubled in the last five years and was now threatening to surpass foolishness in overall market share. My manager didn’t try to hide this from me. But he insisted that none of this mattered. All you should do now is be an idiot. It’s all you can do. You are an idiot. It’s that simple. An enormously talented idiot. You’ve spent too much time, you’ve sacrificed too much to give up now. Could you have made it as a fool? Perhaps. If you had gone the moron route, would you be on magazine covers today? It’s not impossible. But you know what, your time is coming, I truly believe that. There’s no turning back. All you can do is go out there and do it. And be it. Be the perfect idiot. I’ll take care of the rest.
The assistant to the impresario shifted her weight and moved her clipboard from one hand to the other. My website had eight-thousand hits last week. In April I learned I had made it to the final round of a major fellowship and was encouraged to reapply next year. Plus, there were rumors of increased government funding. And I did still enjoy the actual appearances, when I always felt I had found my calling and been true to it. My manager knew I had started meditating, he knew I was reading some of the Buddhist masters. He was kind enough to resist taunting me for this, he understood that with everything I was going through there wasn’t any other way. The point of my craft, the goal in my eyes, was to empty myself into moments of absolute presence, such that all my practice and devotion could be translated into simple effortlessness.
A couple of high school kids got up and left the room, walking past a young woman at the edge of the third row who looked to be a professional photographer. The assistant to the impresario greeted an older man who, judging from his suit, likely worked for the hotel. I was finding it difficult to cry. Rather than fight it, I released an especially violent moan, which drew the faces of the audience back to the platform, and brought my attention to the closing urination. I made myself perfectly still, letting the drool and mucus run off my chin. Fixing my eyes on a random spot near the side of the room, far away from the assistant to the impresario, who remained visible only as the small yellow patch of her hair, the hair I recognized from her picture on IdiotFest’s website, I prepared to empty my bladder. The jock strap and tape had done their job, and the tip of my stretched-thin penis remained fixed high above my right thigh. I began to relax my entire body, starting simultaneously from the tips of my toes and the crown of my skull. My eyes closed as my feet sunk into the uneven heels of my orthopedic shoes. With arms hanging limp from my shoulders and with knees slightly buckled, I allowed my abdomen to relieve the pressure it had been forced to endure for the last three hours. I sensed a gradual shifting below my waist, and soon my pant leg grew heavy and warm. Visualizing the expanding contours of the darkness steadily covering the worn khaki on my thigh, I sought to limit the rate of flow. At around fifteen seconds I heard a faint gasp. At half a minute the room had grown perfectly silent. By the time I was done, a full minute later, by the time my right sock was drenched and a fair-sized puddle was likely glimmering as it spread out along the platform, I allowed myself to seek out the assistant to the impresario. She had tucked her clipboard under one of her arms and was leading the stunned audience in a round of applause that sounded like the work of much more than twenty-six hands.
The beer with my old high school friend was so-so. Naturally, he praised my performance, and his words seemed very sincere. Said he was blown away. He may have been willing to continue talking about my idiot much longer, but it didn’t feel right. So I asked him about his career, something to do with marketing or PR, or marketing and PR. We shared what little we knew about the other guys we used to hang out with almost twenty years ago. Laughed a little. Food was decent. Even though we left the hotel, I couldn’t help scanning the bar from time to time to check if I recognized anyone, or if anyone recognized me. He listed the other divorces he’d heard about. There were more than a few. I reminded myself to be thankful that he came out. Even told him I was grateful. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about my performance, but I couldn’t really talk about any my art if I wasn’t allowed to express what it meant to me to be both exceptional and overlooked, to be an obscure genius, to be a man nearly, but only nearly, capable of finding solace in the expression of his own unique vision. I tried not to hate myself and my life again, so I reminded myself that here I was in a pleasant bar in Indianapolis, where I had recently shared my authentic self with a dozen or so perfect and similarly grateful strangers. He insisted that he pay and we told each other to take care.
Then I found myself back in the lobby, which was crowded, though not quite bustling. I scanned a number of small lounges, places where four or five pieces of furniture had been assembled for casual encounters. There were a few faces I recognized, but no one I really knew. I could think of two options. Go to the bar and order a drink, sit by myself, look at the televised sports, perhaps find someone to talk to. Adults did things like this, including adults at IdiotFest. Or go to my room. Turn on the television. Try to read. Take a pill. Sleep eight to ten dreamless hours.
I took out my phone, called Michelle, and had this conversation over the cheery din of the people gathered around me:
─Hi. It’s David.
─It went pretty well.
─My performance. I think it went well.
─Yes, I know. That’s good.
─The audience was kind of small, but I made a big impression, I could tell.
─That’s great. I’m happy for you.
─How are things there?
─Can I talk to the girls?
─They’ve been asleep for over an hour. It’s past ten here.
─Right. Of course. They’re okay?
─Well, thanks again for taking them this weekend. I appreciate it.
─You know, I gave a really strong performance tonight. I know I did. It could mean something for me.
─That’s wonderful, David, it really is.
─ Someone from the organization saw it, and I could see that she was amazed.
─Great. Really, but look, I─
─No, I mean, I just want to say, and I know I’ve said this before, but if my day comes, and I don’t know if it ever will, but if it comes, I won’t forget about your support and everything, about all those years…
─I won’t. It’s important you know that. I’ll make it up.
─No, I don’t mean that. I’m not asking for… but to you and the girls, I will.
─I should go. It’s late.
─Will you give them a hug for me?
On my walk to the elevators I passed a circle of people that included Paul Drexel, who had recently been awarded a genius grant. He was the first idiot to restrict his work to video installations, narrative-driven pieces shot in public spaces. We had met a few years earlier at a regional event, I found him tedious.
I turned around to see the blond head of the assistant to the impresario. She was smiling and looking at me.
I smiled back. She extended her hand. Her other hand was still carrying the clipboard.
I know. Hi.
Her hand was small for her height, but her grip was firm.
─I really enjoyed your performance.
─Thanks. Thanks a lot.
─No, really. I was truly impressed.
─I had heard some good things─
─You did? From who?
─From a number of people. It’s our job to hear things.
─But I mean it, that was better than good. That was a lot better than good. I’m sorry we couldn’t get you a bigger crowd.
─Don’t worry about it. I’m glad you liked it. I felt like it went pretty well.
─I hope we can get you a better platform next year. I don’t know, maybe you could even perform a Center Piece on the first night.
─That would be amazing.
─I mean, I can’t promise anything like that. Obviously.
─But, but you’re ready for something like that. You are.
─Thanks. That’s really great to hear. From you especially.
Her phone rang. She said just a sec, pulled a device out of her pocket, answered the call, and turned a quarter-rotation away from me. Someone from the organization. She mentioned the name of a cable station, and then I realized I shouldn’t be trying to listen to her conversation. I started to back away when she raised her finger toward me and made a strange face. She may have been apologizing or making fun of whoever was on the other line. I think it meant I shouldn’t leave. So I didn’t. I looked at her body briefly, at her face, wondering if she was attractive. I don’t think she was beautiful, but there was something warm about her, something that made her look more inviting that her physical features all alone would suggest. Some kindness, perhaps.
She got off the phone.
─Sorry about that.
─No problem. Everything okay?
─Just more bullshit. Nothing new.
I nodded. She asked if I wanted to have a drink.
I hadn’t been with another woman since the divorce. Just two dates. Or one and a half dates. A little kissing with the second one, someone my brother knew from his company. I wanted it to happen, I didn’t want it to happen. I tried not to think about it.
Gretchen wanted it to happen.
I was grateful to her well before we got to the room. She had an easy confidence about her, was able to put me at ease as she let me know she was happy to be in charge. I didn’t know what to order, so she suggested a particular beer. I didn’t know what to ask her, so she told me about the organization, about what it’s like to work with the impresario. I didn’t know if I wanted a second, or a third, beer, so she ordered for both of us. I didn’t know what to talk about, so I let her talk. When she started asking questions, I answered them, telling her whatever she wanted to know about my past, my art, and my ex-wife. And then she said, while the bar was still filling up, would you like to come to my room. I didn’t know that people ever really said such things. I knew they must. But I wondered how common it was and how likely it was that I would ever be asked such a question. For fourteen years it hadn’t been much of a possibility. It was, all in all, not a bad question to be asked, and I was thankful for my beers, for the way they allowed my face to not respond very much at all.
We had sex. This outcome was clear to me the moment she used her card to let us into her room. I was surprised to be so sure of something so new, but there could be no doubt. She went to the bathroom, tried different lighting combinations, took off her earrings and placed them on a dresser. Then she kissed me. We must have had the exact same breath. I smelled nothing.
Soon we found our way to the bed and our way out of our clothes. Her body, if not altogether better than Michelle’s, was fresher. This was a younger woman, with a tattoo of a pear tree on her hip. It felt remarkably reassuring to be with someone who seemed to have so few compunctions.
Quite quickly I was inside her. I thought, in these words, which announced themselves loudly, so this is what it’s like inside another person. Another fit. I removed myself for a moment, concerned about the possibility of premature ejaculation.
─Yeah. It’s just the first time since.
She smiled generously. Raised her head to mine and kissed my check.
─Well, I expect you’ll enjoy this. I’m going to do my best.
She may have laughed. I returned to her and things accelerated rapidly. Much more than not, her prediction proved accurate. I found myself calling upon some of my training in order to postpone my orgasm, and after a time I sensed she was both extremely pleased with and fairly impressed by my self-control. After perhaps ten to fifteen minutes we knew somehow to pause for a moment. Or maybe she just decided to ask me a question:
─Did you. With Michelle, did you ever?
─Did you ever, you know?
─Pretend to be an idiot.
I looked at her.
─Did you ever have sex with her as an idiot?
─No. No. I didn’t.
─Did you want to? Ever?
─I don’t think it was ever much an option.
─But did you want to? Did you ever want to?
─I guess I probably thought about it a few times.
─But did I want to?
She was stroking my back. We were on the thirty-fourth floor of a downtown hotel.
─Would you like to? Now?
I looked at her, at her nose and the way it lead to her mouth. Her features were a great deal more angular than Michelle’s. I touched her chin, which was smooth and red.
─Would you like me to?
─A little bit I would.
And so I did, a little. I watched her as she watched me, as I brought her such strange pleasure. It felt wonderful, mostly. I was good at this. The room seemed to grow perfectly quite except for me and the sound of our bodies, as if her attention silenced the circuits and pipes, the elevators and footsteps alive in this building, the late night traffic in the streets below. As I finished I thought, has Michelle been with another man yet? Was he kind to her? Did he invite her to be someone I discouraged her from being? Did it make him as happy as this Gretchen is right now?
I opened my eyes and found myself in a moment of pure uncertainty, with no idea where I was or even when I was in my life. I must have been dreaming just a second before, and my confusion led me to wonder if I still was. But I soon remembered. My head, near the edge of this bed, was pointing toward the outer wall. I tried to be completely still and listen for Gretchen’s breath, which was soon audible. The world outside was still dark, as dark as it ever got in the center of a city like this. I slowly left the bed. Once standing I looked back at her and a combination of red numbers on a digital clock that I had never before seen in a dark room in a strange hotel.
I walked to the window, pushed aside the curtains, and considered the view for a very, very long time. I was naked and unexpectedly calm, as if large parts of me remained asleep in that bed. The skyline was both unremarkable and interesting, as the traffic lights changed steadily even when there were no cars to direct. Though the rain had stopped at least three hours earlier, much of the city was still damp, and together the lights and the moisture created a pleasing effect. I felt truly alone, every bit as alone as I would have felt in my own room, twenty-nine flights below. This did not bother me. Eventually I turned away from the window, suddenly struck by an urge to wander the streets before dawn. I quietly found my clothes and shoes. While getting dressed I wondered what it would be like to be a source of pride for my family. I left Gretchen’s room, stepping carefully over the morning paper already waiting just outside her door.
The elevator stopped at the thirty-second floor. After the door slid open, Maury Benjamin stepped inside and pushed a button. I had only seen him in person three times since I first attended one of his shows over twenty years ago. I was visiting my older brother in New York, where he was going to school, and he and his friends dragged me to a performance. Idiocy was still a new art then, and, my brother told me on the way to the theater, Maury Benjamin was going to be its ambassador to the world.
In the twenty-plus years since I had only ever seen a few pictures of him out of character, and I was, in addition to the larger shock of being alone with him in this elevator, amazed by how conventionally he was dressed. A button-down blue Oxford, cuffless grey trousers, a herringbone sports jacket, a pair of plain penny loafers. He was holding a couple sections of that same newspaper under his arm, standing right next to me as the elevator resumed its descent.
He turned to me, studied my face.
─You look familiar to me, you know that?
I smiled, perfectly speechless. Not five minutes into that first show I was overcome with fear. As if the man on the stage were a source of heat, some out-of-control flame, as if by merely watching him I was exposing myself to great danger. But I experienced a weird joy, too, as if his performance were an invitation, a challenge to go forward into something I knew nothing about, nothing except its overwhelming authenticity. I decided that night, sitting right there in that crowded theater, this is what I will do with my life. He was responsible.
─I know! Of course. Look at this.
And he opened the Arts section of the local paper. And right there on the front page, right below the headline, “Idiots Invade Indy,” was a large, color picture of me from the end of yesterday’s performance.
─That’s quite a bit of piss, young man.
He laughed briefly.
─I mean, you must have been keeping some of that in your lungs. Unless you were smuggling it in a sack.
─Not me. Never.
─No, you look like the real deal to me. Must have hurt like hell, sitting on that bladder. That’s talent. And determination.
He turned back away from me and watched the elevator display the floors passing by in quick succession. Until he spoke again, without turning his head.
─You know what I did on my sixtieth birthday?
─About a month ago. 60. I moved my bowels in front of almost 4,000 people, some of whom had reportedly paid over $500 for the privilege to watch. Then, after a late lunch at the best restaurant in all of Manhattan, I was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. I gave the professors and donors a short speech, fresh out of crap as I was.
The elevator stopped just above the lobby, the display said 1R. The door behind us opened. Maury Benjamin started walking out.
─Oh, I eat all my meals in the kitchen. I don’t mind the performance, but I can’t stand the autograph hounds and all the other lunatics at these events.
I looked at him as he stood in the doorway.
─Say, you going to be at the Gathering?
─Not sure. I hope so. Haven’t heard back from them yet.
He pointed at the caption under the picture in the paper.
─Did they get your name right?
I read the caption.
─Yes. That’s me.
─I’ll put in a good word for you. But don’t think of it as a favor. Just curious to see all that piss in person. I myself was never much in the piss department.
Before I could thank him he turned and walked away, the door sliding closed a moment later. I got off at the lobby, only to see that it had started raining again. According to the clock above the reception desk, it was already late enough to call Michelle and the girls. But first I decided to a drink of water. Wanted to see if I could hold it until lunch.
When Markus Kellmer got home from work, he found a naked woman on his living-room carpet. Her dishevelled hair reminded him of the way he had drawn crows’ nests and tree tops as a child; her skin shone as if it were varnished, and when Markus turned her carefully onto her back to talk to her and maybe find out who she was and what she was doing in his flat, he realised she was dead.
He went straight to the window and drew the curtains. It was really far too early for that; outside it was still light. Spring had come a few days ago and the sun wouldn’t set for another hour, at about six. Not that many weeks ago it had vanished at about four, but since then the days had learnt to hold their brightness for longer and longer, and soon they would give way to the summer heat that was already ripening within them.
On these mild spring days, the rays of afternoon sun were always the first to greet Markus when he walked through the door of his flat. Shutting them out gave him a headache; it felt as if the room had a migraine. But he could hardly do otherwise: there was, after all, a dead woman lying on the floor of his flat. Around her mouth and nostrils, the skin looked as if someone had tried to strike matches against it. Markus lifted the corpse and set it in an armchair, but it fell straight out; its joints were like jelly, its body like a balloon filled with liquid. He tried once more, but again it didn’t stay in the chair; it tipped forward, like someone who suddenly has to vomit – and crashed head first onto the parquet. The crash brought Markus back to reality. He went straight to the stereo and switched it on. Music helped him think.
He couldn’t simply leave the corpse lying on the floor. Corpses changed; their surface was not as stable as that of living people. All they were really interested in was their own disintegration, and in order to disappear as completely as possible, they needed a base that was favourable to exchange, such as a forest floor or a swamp – something with which they could gradually become one. Here, of course, there was nothing of that nature, so he’d have to come up with something. He grabbed the remote control and turned up the volume.
It occurred to him that he had recently concealed a large model aeroplane behind his radiator. That had been when his parents were visiting the previous week, and he hadn’t wanted them to see the model. There was a lot of room behind the radiator, but was it enough to accommodate a grown woman? Markus fetched a tape measure and measured the corpse. Hard to say – he’d have to give it a try.
He struggled for over half an hour, but in the end the head and half the torso were still sticking out. Even so, it was a partial success. For a while, Markus just sat there, leaning against the doorframe and staring into space. What, he wondered, could the woman have died of? He had discovered no strangle marks or bruises. Whatever the cause of death, it seemed to have left her body unscathed. Perhaps she had been poisoned. Or died of natural causes. But she was still pretty young; Markus guessed that she was between twenty-five and thirty.
He got up and stretched. No, it wouldn’t do at all. The model plane had been safe behind the radiator, but the corpse would be spotted by anyone entering the room. He’d have to come up with some other hiding place.
Making a mental search of the various nooks and crannies of his flat, Markus dragged the corpse out from behind the radiator. Because she was naked, his impatient pulling and tugging left her damaged in places. The columns of the radiator cut into the pale skin as if it were butter. Only a little blood was spilled, though, because the heart had stopped beating; the blood vessels were no longer under pressure. Even so, a few ugly marks were left on the floor and radiator. Markus went in the bathroom and fetched a wet cloth to clean the columns. It was spring; if he left the bodily fluids to dry, the radiator would smell to high heaven when he turned the heating on again next winter.
Grabbing the corpse by the arms, he dragged it back into the front room. Again, it left some marks behind – long reddish trails this time. Shaking his head, he went back to the bathroom, fetched another cloth and set to scrubbing the floor. He really could be slow sometimes, positively dull-witted. To make sure nothing of the sort happened again, he wrapped the corpse in big towels from head to toe. That also made it much easier to pull across the parquet.
The music from the stereo fell silent, and a voice announced the Christian names of the double bass, percussion, and flute.
Markus left the swaddled corpse in the bath overnight. The next day he almost overslept because while dreaming he mistook the buzz of his alarm clock for the sad farewell croak of a frog aboard a small rocket that was being launched into a geostationary orbit around Earth. He had only just enough time for a light breakfast before catching the bus to work. In the late afternoon he returned home.
He noticed the smell as soon he walked in at the door. It wasn’t very strong, but it was there. He went in the bathroom. The corpse lay there like yesterday evening, except that on the towel covering its face, a stain had spread, vaguely reminiscent of a maple leaf.
It had been a tiring day at the office and usually Markus would have yielded to his urge for a hot bath, stretched out in the warm water, wiggled his toes, and drowned all the worries whirring around his head in the mountains of softly popping bubbles. Today he might just manage to go without his daily cleansing ritual, but there was no way this state of affairs could be accepted as a permanent solution. In fact, he was already beginning to feel nervous. He pulled the corpse out of the bath, rolled it into the next room, and rinsed out the tub with the shower. It wasn’t until he’d used up almost the entire bottle of bathroom cleaner that he felt he could face getting into the tub naked without feeling too disgusted.
But before having a bath, he set about putting the corpse in the half-empty wardrobe in his study. Odd that he hadn’t thought of it earlier. He had, after all, once stowed an entire set of rolled-up roller blinds in there – the white strings sticking out at the top had made them look like rods of dynamite. The corpse fitted nicely in the wardrobe, but every time Markus tried to close the door, it tipped out again, head first, and he had to catch it as she fell about his neck like a long-lost acquaintance. In the end he fixed her wrists to the inside with sticky tape. He also taped up the air vent at the bottom of the wardrobe thoroughly enough to leave him feeling that the whole thing could be left for at least a few days.
He had only been in the bathroom three minutes and was fiddling with the showerhead when he heard the bang. He turned off the water and listened. All was quiet, but it was no good pretending – he knew what had happened. Half naked, he left the bathroom and went back to his study.
The sight of the hideously contorted woman lying half in, half out of the wardrobe was so ridiculous that Markus let out a kind of roaring sneeze, triggered not by an overstimulated mucous membrane, but by an overstimulated imagination.
Before he could lift her up, he had to unfold her – yes, that’s right, unfold her, because she was – my God, not even a contortionist would have wanted to get into such a position. But it was a corpse, he told himself, nothing living. It wasn’t fair to apply the same standards.
Perhaps it would be better if he left the corpse as it was – a tangled muddle of arms and legs, and a body already bursting at the seams in several places. It was certainly easier to transport, but of course she took up more room than in her unfolded state.
The carpet in Markus’s living room was of the antique variety. It had been trodden by many generations, felt the patter of tiny feet give way to the heavy tread of age and responsibility, welcomed newlyweds and mourners. Its pattern had preoccupied twenty or more geometrically minded people. It had survived world wars and times of euphoria and inspired chaos. In short, it was not the kind of carpet you could simply shove a corpse under.
Markus knew that. He knew all that – and yet he could come up with no other solution. He had tried everything: the wardrobe, the radiator, the bath. Short of grabbing the corpse and flinging it legs over head over heels out of the window, he didn’t have a lot of alternatives. Besides, time was pressing.
He picked up the heavy carpet with both hands and used his feet to shove and kick the corpse onto the slightly paler floorboards underneath. Untouched by light and untrodden by people, these boards were without a doubt the most vulnerable and intimate part of the flat. It took him a while, but at last he had pushed the corpse into place and could spread the carpet over it. The thick, heavy weave smelled of shoe leather and the past. As it came down over the incongruous form, almost spiriting it away, Markus was suffused by a feeling of immense relief. He nearly clapped his hands.
The new carpeted mound looked a little like a three-dimensional model of a topographic map. By chance, the elevations of the corpse’s contours corresponded precisely with the concentric pattern in the carpet, so that the darkest areas were situated at the highest geographical point (one shoulder always stuck up slightly when the corpse was lying on its back). It was almost as if the whole thing had been arranged deliberately to help you get your bearings.
This solution was without a doubt the best so far. The only problem was navigating the steep sides of the corpse, because it was hard not to lose your footing on the raised carpet. So Markus fetched his big desk, which was never put to any meaningful use anyway, manoeuvring it from the study to the living room until it stood right over the carpeted mountain range. That would stop him from tripping at least. And although the desk wasn’t ideally positioned, here in the middle of the room, perhaps now he would sit at it more often and write more of those little literary efforts of his which flowed so steadily from his pen, but were – in view of their evident futility – an equally steady source of grief to him.
It didn’t look at all bad. A small mound in the middle of the room – and over it, a desk. If he didn’t manage to inundate the desk with pages of writing, he would simply spread a large cloth over it – one that reached to the floor.
So that’s that, thought Markus and went into the kitchen. His successful negotiation of the last two days’ ordeals definitely called for celebration. After staring distractedly at labels for a while, he decided on a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, its contents a dark red.
It wasn’t until he was back in the living room – where the desk, now the indisputable centrepiece, lent the room a whole new emotional focus – that he realised he was carrying two wine glasses. With every step he took, they clinked softly in his fingers, which he held loosely clasped about their thin glass necks.
*This story is taken from: Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes by Clemens J. Setz. © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2011.
‘From now on, I don’t want to know anything,’ said the man who no longer wanted to know anything.
‘I don’t want to know a thing.’
That’s easily said.
It is easily said.
And hardly had he said it, when the telephone began to ring.
And rather than ripping the wire out of the wall, which is what he should have done as he no longer wanted to know anything, the man picked up the receiver and said his name.
‘Hello,’ said the other person.
‘Hello,’ said the man.
‘Nice weather today,’ said the other person.
And the man didn’t say: ‘I don’t want to know.’ He even said: ‘Yes, you’re right, the weather’s very nice today.’
And then the other person said something else.
And the man said something else. Then he replaced the receiver in its cradle and felt very cross because now he knew the weather was nice.
And now he did rip the wire out of the wall and he shouted: ‘I don’t want to know that and I’m going to forget it.’
That’s easily said.
It is easily said.
Because the sun was shining through the window, and when the sun shines through the window, you know the weather is nice. The man closed the shutters, but now the sun shone through the cracks.
The man fetched paper, papered over the windowpanes, and sat in the dark.
He sat there for a long time, and when his wife came in and saw the papered-over windows she got a shock. ‘What’s all this?’ she asked.
‘It’s to keep the sun out,’ said the man.
‘But now you have no light,’ said the woman.
‘That’s a disadvantage,’ said the man, ‘but it’s for the best. I may have no light if I have no sun, but at least I don’t know the weather is nice.’
‘What do you have against nice weather?’ said the woman. ‘Nice weather makes you happy.’
‘I’ve nothing against nice weather,’ said the man. ‘I’ve nothing at all against the weather. But I don’t want to know what it’s like.’
‘Well, at least turn the light on,’ said the woman, and she was about to turn it on, but the man ripped the lamp from the ceiling and said: ‘I don’t want to know that either. I don’t want to know that you can turn the light on.’
When his wife heard that, she started to cry.
And the man said: ‘The thing is, you see, I no longer want to know anything.’
And because the woman didn’t understand, she stopped crying and left her husband in the dark.
And there he stayed for a very long time.
When the people who came to visit the woman asked after her husband, the woman told them: ‘The thing is, you see, he’s sitting in the dark and no longer wants to know anything.’
‘What doesn’t he want to know?’ asked the people, and the woman said: ‘Nothing. He no longer wants to know anything at all.
‘He no longer wants to know what he sees, such as what the weather’s like.
‘He no longer wants to know what he hears, such as what people say.
‘And he no longer wants to know what he knows, such as how you switch the light on.
‘That’s how it is, you see,’ said the woman.
‘Ah, so that’s how it is,’ said the people and they stopped coming to visit.
And the man sat in the dark.
And his wife brought him his food.
And she said: ‘Tell me something you don’t know anymore.’
And he said: ‘I still know everything.’ And he was very sad because he still knew everything.
When his wife heard that, she tried to comfort him and said: ‘But you don’t know what the weather’s like.’
‘I don’t know what it’s like,’ said the man, ‘but I still know what it can be like. I remember rainy days and sunny days.’
‘You’ll forget,’ said the woman.
And the man said:
‘That’s easily said.
‘It is easily said.’
And he stayed in the dark, and every day his wife brought him his food, and the man looked at his plate and said: ‘I know they’re potatoes, I know that’s meat, and I know that’s cauliflower – and it’s all no use; I’ll always know everything. And I know every word I say.’
And the next time his wife came, she said: ‘Tell me something you still know.’
And he said: ‘I know a lot more than I used to. Not only do I know what nice weather is like and what bad weather is like, I also know what it’s like when there’s no weather. And I know that even when it’s quite dark, it isn’t dark enough.’
‘But there are some things you don’t know,’ said his wife and was about to go when he held her back, and she said: ‘You don’t know how to say “nice weather” in Chinese.’ And she went out, closing the door behind her.
When the man heard that, he began to think. It was true he knew no Chinese, and it was no good saying: ‘I no longer want to know that either,’ because he hadn’t learnt any yet.
‘First I have to know what I don’t want to know,’ the man cried, and he tore open the window and opened the shutters, and outside the window it was raining and he looked out at the rain.
Then he walked into town to buy himself books about learning Chinese, and he came back and for weeks he pored over those books and drew Chinese characters on paper.
And when people came to visit the woman and asked after her husband, she said: ‘The thing is, you see, he’s learning Chinese now. That’s how it is, you see.’
And the people stopped coming to visit.
But it takes months and years to learn Chinese, and when at last the man had learnt all there was to learn, he said:
‘I still don’t know enough.
‘I have to know everything. Only then can I say that I no longer want to know any of it.
‘I have to know how wine tastes – bad wine and good wine.
‘And when I eat potatoes, I have to know how you grow them.
‘I have to know what the moon looks like, because although I can see it, that doesn’t mean I know what it looks like – and I have to know how to get there.
And I have to know the names of the animals, and what they look like and what they do and where they live.’
And he bought himself a book about rabbits and a book about chickens and a book about woodland animals and another about insects.
And then he bought himself a book about the Indian rhinoceros.
He was very taken with the Indian rhinoceros.
He went to the zoo and found it there, standing in a big cage and not moving.
And the man saw plainly that the rhinoceros was trying to think and trying to know something, and he saw what a lot of trouble that was giving the rhinoceros.
And whenever the rhinoceros had a thought, it was so pleased it went running off. Round and round the cage it went, two or three times, forgetting the thought as it went, and then it stopped and stood still for a long time – one hour, two hours – until the thought came back, and off it went again.
And because it always ran off a little too soon, it never really had any thoughts at all.
‘I’d like to be an Indian rhinoceros,’ said the man, ‘but I suppose it’s too late for that.’
Then he went home and thought about his rhinoceros.
He now spoke of nothing else.
‘My rhinoceros,’ he said, ‘thinks too slowly and runs off too soon, and that’s as it should be.’ And he forgot what it was he had wanted to know in order to no longer want to know it.
And his life continued much as before.
Only now he knew Chinese.
*This story is taken from: Kindergeschichten by Peter Bichsel. © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1997.
At home, in my flat, in the three neat and prettily decorated rooms belonging to me and nobody but me, lives a little child that torments me. We’re so attached by now that I can’t get rid of it. Yet I’d like to grab it, this small, far too light, almost vanishing child – I’d like to grab it and push it out the door or, even better, slam it against my white wall with all my strength, to see, to be quite sure that it smashes to pieces.
But I don’t have the heart. Since the child has been living with me, drinking from my cups, burrowing into the farthest corner of my bed, or sitting on my kitchen windowsill sipping milk, dangling its legs as it looks at me, only looks and says nothing, not a word of explanation, and I then – too often, I’m afraid it’s happened all too often, it may have been four or five times – I then yell at it out of sheer desperation, trying to get through to it by shouting, ‘Go, get out of here, leave me alone!’ as the child sits calmly and barely pulls a face, at most laughing quietly to itself – ever since then I’ve been tormenting myself and haven’t had the heart to throw this terrible child out of my flat. I have my reasons.
The child was suddenly there one day, crouching behind the living-room door. It twirled away incessantly at its shaggy black hair, which concealed large parts of the translucent skin of its face. I saw instantly that it needed help and I didn’t want to delay matters with unnecessary questions. It was trembling from top to toe and dressed in rags. I lifted it up, and the hands of that undernourished body immediately grabbed at my shoulders, the strength of its haggard limbs surprising me. The child’s big black eyes never left me for a second, staring, and for a moment I felt as though the child wanted to climb inside of me, but there was no time for further considerations or interrogations – the child had to be taken care of!
Really, I was afraid it might otherwise collapse before my very eyes, at any minute. Its tiny body was chilled, its shirt rubbed through at the shoulders, the skin beneath it raw, looking red and open. So I carried it into my bathroom, and all the while it looked at me without a word, tugging at a loose thread on the chest pocket of my shirt with its left forefinger and thumb.
I put it down on a stool and ran a bath. Steam rose, and the tiles misted over. The child had drawn up its knees, ducking its head down as it watched my preparations. A bath was necessary, though. I felt bad for its wounds, which must have stung terribly. I felt really sorry for it, I’d almost say it hurt me too — the sight of the child was hardly bearable. I avoided looking at it and afterwards hurried to treat the wounds with cream and bandages. The child should sleep now.
I made a bed for it, a cosy warm bed in the living room. As I spread the sheet I decided we’d have opportunity enough the next morning to discuss all the important questions. The child stood behind me all along, looking out from behind my leg, almost clutching it. I put the child to bed and tucked it in. Before I left the room, I made sure there was no cold draught coming from anywhere, walking across the room several times. There was certainly something pleasant to having company, I thought to myself, wondering whether the child needed more covers, perhaps even a hot-water bottle. But the child just sat there, pressed upright against the cold wall. ‘What’s the matter? Do you need anything else? Would you like to go to the bathroom again? You just have to say and I’ll try to help you with anything at all. But please, tell me what the matter is! Why are you staring like that, what’s the problem?’
The child went on sitting silently. A small smile formed around the corners of its mouth. Its eyes followed me, it closed its lids every second, minutes passing that way. I began to understand.
I understood that this child plainly looked down on my efforts. This little creature which had entrusted itself to me unbidden, which really had the cheek to take up my time and my flat – or rather, to occupy them, by dint of being such an apparently helpless creature — this creature was looking down on me and laughing at me. It wasn’t quite laughing with its face; that was only smiling. Inside, though, it was laughing at me, there was no doubt about that. The child was laughing with the disdain only mustered by a person who has always been treated with disdain. I walked out of the room as fast as I could, wishing it good night. But the child did not sleep.
The child never sleeps. It does nothing but stare.
I lay down in bed, turned off the light, and wanted to close my eyes and sleep, as I usually do at the end of each day. But I tossed from one side to the other, sweating and kicking off my covers. The blood whirled in my legs. I tried lying on my front, which I never otherwise do. I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. Then I looked to the side, and there was the child.
It was standing by my bed and looking down at me. I raised my head.
‘What’s the matter now? So you can’t sleep. But I need my sleep! You have to leave me alone, at least at night! You must see it’s impossible for me to close my eyes when you’re standing there looking down at me! What’s your intention? Tell me — it’s not a laughing matter! You’re laughing at my habit of going to bed so early and only sleeping on my back – am I right? Let me tell you, I don’t care a bit what you think about it! I’ve been entrusted with a responsible position and I have to get my rest so I don’t make any mistakes. Never! Never in my previous career, do you hear, in the fifteen years I’ve served the company, have I made even one major mistake, and I put that down to my healthy lifestyle, oh yes I do! That’s why I really have to sleep now.’
I had meanwhile sat up in bed, hands on hips, to make my standpoint clear to the child once and for all. A car drove past the window, the headlights breaking on the blinds, falling into the room in strips, and briefly lighting up the child. In that light, I saw it also had its hands on its hips, its belly pushed forwards, rocking back and forth in a ridiculous manner, all, of that I am certain, to mock me in a mean and underhand way.
‘You think that’s particularly funny, am I right? You seem to be under the impression you’ll unsettle me, but you can’t! I have nothing to reproach myself with in the slightest and I haven’t the faintest reason to assume you might have the right to do so! It’s not at all the way you think, you see. I’m quite different to what you’re accusing me of. Just you wait! And now you go straight back to your bed in the living room while I make myself a cup of tea so I can get to sleep at last. Off to bed!’
I climbed out of bed and strode to the kitchen. The child leapt after me and latched onto my pyjama trousers, almost pulling them down as I walked. The next time I looked around I saw the child installed on the windowsill.
The child wouldn’t let me get a moment’s rest that night. We spent it together in the kitchen, stirring cups of tea, pacing the cramped hall, doing everything the same until it grew light, and beyond. The child never left my side for a minute.
Over the following days, I was introduced to all its heinous traits. There could be no thought of visitors; the child would not have stood for it. Something was deficient, so I thought, so each of its gazes said, in this child’s eyes, which were and still are set deep into its head, that thin skull. Its mouth was almost always gaping because the child was always hungry. It gobbled up everything it got its bony hands on. The child was never full, nor did it ever put on weight, although that was urgently necessary. I had no other option but to provide it with plenty to eat, and I went to great lengths to do so. I made it every meal I thought it might like, hoping to staunch its hunger. The child ate everything with haste. It sucked the meat from the bones, it licked the plates clean; there was never anything left over, and it was never enough. When I wasn’t looking, if I failed to pay attention for even a moment, it set about emptying the cupboards entirely. Once I came into the kitchen and there it sat, almost inside the bread bin. It lay in wait, and I could tell by its eyes, those holes full of black, that it wished it could leap onto me. Like a monkey, it wanted to jump onto my head and hold tight to me.
Since the child had been living with me and simply never left, I had asked myself over and over what must have happened to a child so starving for sustenance. I wondered what it could be that this child was lacking.
Why are you so starved, I asked, with only the best of intentions. The child didn’t answer. It merely gave a mocking smile, hunched up more than ever, and opened and closed its eyes. Over and over I asked it, and over and over I felt as though I – whom it had without a doubt been ridiculing from the very outset – I felt as though I were entirely to blame for the child’s state of starvation, as though it were therefore my foremost obligation, or rather my duty, to take care of this child.
‘Please, I’m concerned about you and I do have a right to know what caused all this. It’s your duty even to inform me of these matters. What are you laughing at now?’ I asked.
The child stood up on the windowsill and cruelly imitated my gestures, absolutely mortifying me. I put a hand to my forehead; it did likewise. I snorted; the child snorted. I had to check whether it was deliberately copying me, so I stood on my left leg as a test. Cautiously, its bushy eyebrows lowered and gathering the entire strength held in its stick-like body, the child raised its right leg until it stood only on the other. Then it laughed, looked at me full of pride, and expressed its joy, its triumph even, through a small high-pitched screech.
‘Don’t do that. Stop it!’
The child maintained its position, red-faced, for several minutes. It clenched its fists and seemed to expend its entire energy on standing on one leg, like I had before. I shook my head. Eventually it returned to a more normal position, also shaking its head, and gave me an evil glare. It glared so angrily that I had to take a step back, for that stare exuded all the child’s deficiency, stabbing at me. There was nothing I could do but remove myself, for I sensed at that moment that a child with such an horrific, evil deficiency in its body could not help climbing inside me to seek that which it needed to at least survive. I had to protect myself, but also protect the child. Really, otherwise it would have died on the spot.
After I removed myself for a while by locking myself in the bathroom, that evening the child refused the food I had made for it for the first time. It was nothing but a trick, though. Late that night, I caught it in a gap between the door and the kitchen cabinets. It was crouched down, eating a piece of raw meat it had taken out of my fridge. When it noticed me, it looked up out of its dark eyes, still hungry, it looked up at me as though I were a threat to its life, as though it wanted mine in exchange. Once again, I thought it wanted to get inside me through my eyes. I thought this child wanted to take over my life so as to be safe at last. I ran to my bedroom, lay down in bed, and pulled the cover over my head. The child’s presence was becoming more and more oppressive. Not only was it constantly following me, demanding my attention at all times, already back at my bedside to stare down at me, but this child — it even managed to only sleep when I watched over it, meaning all I’d ever do now was lie awake watching.
On that evening, you see, when I had pulled the cover up over me in a perplexed attempt to be alone at last, the child tugged at my head and tore the cover aside. I yelled at it, and I won’t deny that I lost my temper at that moment.
‘Get out of here! Go on! I need to sleep or I can’t do my work properly. Get out of my bedroom this instant!’
I yelled my concerns until I grew hoarse. The child watched me. It gazed silently out while I unburdened myself yelling. I yelled with my eyes closed, out of rage but also to escape the child’s stares. When I opened my eyes, still yelling, I saw that the child was lying on the floor, asleep. I instantly fell silent. I looked at it for a while. Then, quietly so as not to wake it, I picked it up and carried it to its bed. I lay it down between the sheets and stroked its small white forehead. It was asleep. Infinitely relieved and looking forward to my sleep, I turned around and went to my bedroom. After my first step I heard the child breathing behind me, standing barefoot on the floor. I took it back to bed, tucked it in, and sat on the edge of the mattress until it fell asleep. I don’t know how many times I took it back to bed that night, tucked it in, and sat by its side until it fell asleep. I didn’t count, because it was uncountable. I must have spent the entire night walking between the rooms, for as soon as I got up to leave the child and creep to my bed, there it was behind me again.
And so that night it emerged that the child could only sleep when I watched over it, alongside it, my eyes fixed on it, and that it had not had a moment’s sleep since it had been with me. What choice did I have but to watch over the child?
Really, otherwise it would be dead by now.
I drew my own conclusions. The child wasn’t putting on weight and could sleep only with my help. I decided to ask various doctors for advice. As the child refused to go with me (preferring to guard the kitchen and the supplies), I went alone and described the problem to the doctors. Exhausted, shadows across my white face, I sat on chairs in front of desks and said the words I’d prepared beforehand, knowing this was not an easy case and there was always a possibility the doctors might not understand me.
I said: ‘I’ve come to you because a child lives with me who’s worrying me a great deal. This child clearly has some very essential and urgent deficiency. It has trouble sleeping and it doesn’t put on weight, no matter how much it eats. Believe me, I’ve tried everything and gone to great pains. I’m afraid it might die. I’m very worried and I hope you can help me.’
Exhausted as I was, I whispered each syllable separately and leaned over the desks to the doctors, fearing a word might otherwise be lost. The doctors nodded and asked questions. They made notes, looking up at me as they wrote. They enquired about my eating and sleeping habits. At first I thought these were routine questions, but they went on asking unnecessary questions about my habits. To my mind, they paid far too little attention to the child, on whose behalf I had come after all. So I couldn’t help assuming they must be questioning my ability to take care of it adequately. One doctor, a very scruffy-looking doctor who hadn’t shaved for at least three days, whose white coat dangled unstarched from his shoulders with visible grey marks inside the collar, that doctor even wanted to send me to a convalescence home! Appalled and seeing no other way out, I beat my head on the desk, jumped up, and asked him:
‘What on earth are you thinking? Who’d take care of the child if I’m away convalescing and can’t be there? Please, you seem not to understand me! I’m not here for myself, I’m here because I’m so worried about the child!’
The doctor nodded and recommended I calm down. But I was enraged at his incapability to give competent advice, yes, I really wondered how this doctor could show up to work in such an unkempt state. So I left the surgery on the spot and hastened home through the rush hour to my child, full of anger over all my absolutely pointless medical consultations.
Just after I entered the flat, actually while I was unlocking the door, I knew something had happened. In the hall, I stumbled over an empty can after my first step; a can of mushrooms, as I established to my annoyance. Had it been only that one can I wouldn’t have made a fuss. But the entire hallway was littered with packaging, empty food packaging. In between were plates, cutlery strewn in the corners; the further I ventured, ever more incredulous, the more it got. The hurdle of piled-up rubbish was so high that I didn’t want to enter my bedroom. My heart beat, it beat me, my stomach cramping beneath it, and I had to – I dashed to the bathroom, stumbling. I saw that this room too was full of rubbish, tumbled over the toilet, and vomited. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the child sitting on the bathroom stool. Its eyes wide, its legs crossed in front of the belly it had clearly stuffed only moments before, I thought as my body shuddered. Having recovered slightly, panting on the edge of the bathtub, I walked past the child without a word and clambered over the mess to the kitchen. Only there was the full extent of the catastrophe visible. The cupboards were open, the empty packaging piled knee-high. The child had emptied all the shelves, had emptied everything down to the last reserves and eaten it all. Enough was enough. The child was acting like a bandit in my own home, destroying my supplies and leaving behind a chaos that had never existed and would never have existed had this appalling, evil child not insinuated itself inside my four walls. I ran around the flat cursing, even considering moving out entirely there and then. The child followed me mutely; I paid it no attention. I didn’t even look at it, only starting to clear up, as it was late in the day. After hours of working through the rubbish from room to room and cleaning every last nook and cranny, I finally managed to restore order. I collapsed onto my bed. The child stood next to me, twirling its black hair. I wouldn’t give it anything to eat that day, as punishment. I wasn’t going to give the child anything at all, not any more. I didn’t even say good night, merely pulling up my cover all for me and closing my eyes firmly. I actually considered sleep possible.
There was a dripping sound, I heard it quite clearly. I sat up and looked around. The child was still standing motionless in the same place at the head of my bed. Though I told myself not to, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I wanted to know where the dripping was coming from, hitting the ground faster than my heart beat inside me. And then I saw that it was coming from the child’s eyes. The child stood motionless, crying huge tears that dripped onto the floor. I swiftly turned aside and tried to sleep.
At daybreak I heard a new sound. It came from the front door. I leapt up, ran down the hall, and found the child reaching for the door handle. The child wanted to leave. Under its arm it held the pillow and sheet I had put on its bed. Its eyes were still dripping tears. I rushed over and took it in my arms, holding it then and still holding it now. For this child will stay my child forever. Wherever it might go to balance its deficiencies and eat its fill at last, it will never find what it’s looking for. It’s staying here. It won’t ever let me sleep and it will eat my food for ever.
With a leg–tossing military marching step (toes in, heels out, knees to the side, pelvis down), Stasik the mosquito wended his way home. He had asked the veterinarian, Akop the condor, to bandage the spot where the bedbug Mstislav bit him, since the bite throbbed so much that he couldn’t walk at all otherwise.
Naturally, Stasik the mosquito dreamed of a hot meal.
However, as he walked up to his house he heard the muffled cry of his mosquito wife Tomka (“That’s it, hold on, just a sec, just one more second, wait just a minute”) and the raspy reply: “I can’t.”
Stasik froze for a moment, but then he went into his house and saw Tomka pulling out Zoya the hyena’s beard, hair by hair (cosmetic facial cleansing).
On the issue of a hot meal, Tomka said in a rush, “Go to the swamp.”
“Go to the swamp” meant going to the swamp, picking, squashing, washing, cleaning, cutting, pouring, turning on, putting on, stirring and so on, and the food would only be ready in forty minutes, and it would probably be burnt and leave sand between his teeth.
Thanks for nothing.
Sighing bitterly while his wife shouted and Zoya the hyena growled in the background, Stasik got out the precious bottle from Auntie Lida the beetle, what they called “the bottle of last resort,” and drank down a dose of what was left.
He forgot about everything but Alla the pig’s swaying miniskirt.
Stasik wept and sang his favorite song: “Back there, where the sea of lights…” and swiftly flew out of his house towards the pigsty, forgetting all about his wounds.
When Tomka the mosquito was tucking her fee into her boot and Zoya the hyena was looking at her smooth face with tears of joy, Stasik was flying around Alla the pig, who was lying comfortably without any miniskirt, and asking her questions in his high chirping voice: a) had she consorted with the bedbug Mstislav recently; and b) did she know that Mstislav had a nasty disease —tooth decay — that would require a bandage and frequent changes of dressing for a very long time?
But it fell on deaf ears, since Stasik wasn’t Alla the pig’s only guest. There was a big gang there already – the grown children of Domna Ivanovna the fly, for instance, who had already helped themselves generously and were barnstorming like they were on fire to the sound of their own inner rock n’ roll; and Afanasy the spider, who was giving a class in macramé in the corner, organized especially for the gathering.
The party was hopping, but Stasik the mosquito was lonely.
With a fidgety military marching step, knees out and pelvis down, but now even hungrier, he showed up at home ready for a fight. But instead he smelled the marvelous scent of a hot meal.
Tomka had cooked dinner, set the table and was waiting for him in her apron, like Penelope.
Stasik just about burst into tears.
Translated by Mark Baczoni
Sylvester Gács, a forester with the North Hungarian Forestry Service, patrolled the woods (every tree of which he knew by heart), doing the rounds of the pathways he himself had trodden out with growing restlessness. At forty-four, halfway between excitable young man just starting out and the vouchsafed reward of retirement, his energy was beginning to fade; he’d even had enough of his forest, and was more and more bored of the profession he loved. His melancholy took no particular form, but filled the long, lonely wanderings of his rounds with the most peculiar assortment of memories, ruminations, and speculation about the future. At first, he had chewed over these in silence, but with time had gotten into the habit of saying out loud whatever came into his head. Better to hear the sound of his own voice than the mute silence of the forest.
When someone so intensely alone starts talking to themselves, it’s not necessarily a sign of insanity, or eccentricity, even; all the more so if, like Sylvester, they’re merely expressing things floating up from the half-remembered past.
Once, for example, he stopped by an Austrian oak and stared at a pale yellow butterfly, the spitting image of the yellowing leaves everywhere around.
“When did I first see one of those?” he asked.
Not only the colour, but the shape and patterns of the butterfly’s wings matched perfectly the leaves of the oak. He would have been six or seven when he’d first seen such a creature.
“Look there,” said his father (also Sylvester and also a forester) “how perfect an example of mimicry that is. It’s called Katydid. It’s actually a cricket, but to protect itself, it’s dressed up as an oak leaf.”
“What about you, then, father?” the six or seven year-old Sylvester had asked.
“I’m a man dressed up as a forester,” his father smiled. “You too, my son, will be a forester, God willing, when you grow up.”
“And he was absolutely right, my wise old man,” Sylvester told the trees, continuing now on the well-trodden path. “Suffered so much before he died, in hospital in Miskolc, poor man…I suppose that means,” he added, “that he’s neither man nor forester any more.”
Stopping, he was lost in thought; something new had occurred to him.
“Who knows how all this works, really?” he asked. “If a yellowing leaf is really a cricket, and a forester is really a man, then maybe other things too are not what they seem – after all, every living thing tries to protect itself somehow…What about this stone?” he said, picking up a stone and flinging it away, “What about this trunk, or this bluebell, or the North Hungarian Forestry Service? What, really, is the whole world, anyway?”
He stopped once more, because that was a question he could not answer. He tore off a yellowing leaf and, casting his eye over it, examined the network of little capillaries running in their incomparably delicate, regular way off the main artery, asking loudly, almost angrily:
“What is real, then?”
He turned on his heels and headed back along the path all the way to the oak where he’d found the cricket dressed as a leaf. There it sat still. The forester watched it, and as he watched it, suddenly took fright. The thing his father had called Katydid all those years ago gave a wobble and then fell off the branch; slowly, just like a leaf, it meandered down into an ankle-deep pile of fallen leaves.
The Old Man and the Great Big Automobile
Translated by Judith Sollosy
The Following story may not be true, but stories that are not true deserve our attention, too, because it’s the way stories are told that’s enlightening. Anyone telling this particular story five years ago would have told it in the following way:
An old man is walking, ragged and barefooted, along the road from Balaton. After a while he starts waving his arm, because he sees a great big automobile come along. The great big automobile stops, and the driver opens the door.
“Why are you waving, Comrade?” he asks.
“Where are you headed?” the old man inquires.
“We’re heading up to Budapest, Comrade.”
“Would you kindly take me with you?” the old man asks.
“There’s no room in the car, Comrade,” the driver says, slams the door, and steps on the gas.
Now as the sun is shining, the blue lake is sparkling and we are exchanging many good stories with each other, this story, too, comes up again, but in a new guise:
An old man is walking, ragged and barefooted, along the road from Balaton, when a great big automobile comes along. The great big automobile stops and the driver opens the door.
“Are you headed for Budapest, old man?” he asks.
“Yes,” the old man says.
“Get in, old man, we’ll take you along,” the driver says with a friendly smile.
The old man goes over, sticks his head in the window, and asks:
“Have you got a radio?”
Both stories are good, but neither story is true. The truth is that the old man, ragged and barefooted, is walking along the road when there comes a great big automobile, but it never occurs to him to wave, nor does it ever occur to the driver to stop.
This is the true story. On the other hand, it is not as good as the other two.
Translated by Mark Baczoni
We’d had a very good catch. They said I’d brought them luck; they’d been hauling in catches of five, or four, or seven hundred kilos to Szemes for weeks now, whereas today – by old Muskát’s reckoning, they’d raked over thirty-five hundred kilos off the lake’s bed with the nets. Most of the men were still working away on the barge in the blinding glare of our floodlight, packing the fish in ice, sorting them according to type, quality and size.
We’d dropped anchor somewhere near Dörgicse, just beside the reeds. Thanks to them, the pools of light connecting the two boats had become almost a physical body; all the mosquitoes, moths, and other nocturnal insects on lake Balaton were in a frenzy, swirling in the band of light. I could barely move them away from me in the cabin on the bridge, though it had only a pale ship’s light in a brass and glass-domed housing.
Old Muskát had lain down beside me, spread a newspaper over his eyes, and was sleeping. He’d balled himself up so small that even on this impossibly narrow and short bunk, where two stick-thin men would barely have found room to sit, he was able to make room for me beside him. I lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke where the cloud of insects was thickest. I stared out into the sightless night; now and then a lighthouse in one or other of the harbours in Somogy winked back at me. It was all quiet now, only the waves lapping on the hull.
All at once, someone piped up behind me somewhere in the stern.
“Hey! Has anybody seen the star?”
“What star?” I asked after a small pause, there having been no answer.
“The paper, you know.”
I looked around. In front of the wheel was the compass in a battered wooden case; to the right and left of it, a shortish shelf. Old Muskát kept his pipe tobacco there, and besides that there were a few finger-smeared glasses, in case we got hold of some beer or wine. Then there were the papers: one of the big dailies, a technical journal, and Women’s Own, all of them creased to death and dog-eared. I did wonder at first why the fishermen subscribed to Women’s Own, there being strictly no women allowed on the boat; but then, perhaps that’s the reason.
I went through the pile of papers and called back:
“The Star’s not in here.”
“The devil take that Balog,” said the voice.
‘If he means the latest issue of The Star,’ I thought to myself, ‘there’s a story of mine in there, too.’ I ruminated on how such a hard-bit fisherman would react to my story…I was filled with happy daydreams. Who’d have thought that something one writes would find an audience here, in the light of a pale ship’s lamp beside the reeds somewhere below Dörgicse? This isn’t the most God-forsaken profession in the world after all, I told myself, and could hardly sit still with pleasure. I went out on deck. The night was cool, the reeds sighing softly but powerfully behind me. I was struck by the scent of fish soup. Two men huddled over a spirit stove had been making fish soup since midnight in the biggest enamel pot in Hungary.
This soup is the ancient right of every fisherman on the Balaton, and has been for centuries. I was there when they brought the fish for it over from the barge; I’m no expert, but it looked like they weren’t the worst of the catch. I watched them make it in the old Balaton way – without any fat, but with so many onions that not even two of them had managed to slice them up before the tiny flame had brought the enormous pan of water to the boil. And now, at the same time as the heavy footfall of the fishermen returning from the barge set the boat swaying gently, the smell of the fish soup suddenly spread all through the night, warming the heart like a woman’s laughter.
Either because of the smell, or because of something else, old Muskát woke up. He took a report on the catch, casting a grateful glance at me, the guest who’d brought them good fortune. There were comings and goings, plenty of clinking and the banging of mess tins meanwhile. Then a bold, jovial voice called:
“Ahoy there, colleagues! Which of you’s got The Star?”
‘Well, well,’ I thought, ‘another reader’.
“I do,” said someone in the bow.
“Who’re you then?”
“Well get a move on, Szabó.”
‘How badly he wants it’, I thought delightedly to myself as they brought old Muskát his soup on the bridge. He got his brought to him on a tray in a white porcelain bowl. He was the head fisherman there, the Captain, the lord and master. He was the old god of the Balaton, who knew where, when, and in what direction the fish would swarm, and could guide the fleet to the very spot.
A giant heaved himself down on the threshold of the cabin. Even sitting down, he blocked the door completely. You could only see out onto the boat through his rumpled hair, a stranger to the comb. He put his red mess tin full of soup down on the ground beside his wellies and cried,
“Where’s that Star, then, blast the lot of you!”
My skin started tingling, I confess. I’m passionate for literature, and I’ve met others who love it too. But never had I met such ardent fans of it as these storm-tossed sailors…Now, I could hear the cry all round: “The Star, The Star, where’s The Star?”
“Here it is,” said Szabó from the bow.
“Get on with it, then, before I knock your block off.”
So it was among the sailors outside when the tousled giant pulled himself aside from the doorway, letting pass a young, graceful lad. He entered the bridge with a mess tin brim-full of soup and handed it to me.
“Perhaps you’d like to join us, Comrade?”
“Thank you very much.”
“I’ll get you The Star as well,” he said.
“Don’t bother,” I replied. “I’ve read it.”
“We usually put it on our knees,” he said, bemused.
“Your knees?” I said, bemused in turn.
“So our trousers don’t get oily,” he told me.
“I see,” I said, taking the hot mess-tin by the handle and holding it suspended in mid-air, waiting for The Star.
It happened in Guadeloupe, the island that lies in the Pacific ocean. The volcano of Guadeloupe conspired to erupt at any moment.
Let the reader take shelter and wait, for what we are concerned with here isn’t an ordinary volcano but a woman, a Guadeloupian, a secretary by profession and utterly nervous.
Her boss’s success went to his head and sat there like a fat louse, as he ordered her to type, at once, in duplicate, to punch holes,to file; and bring coffee, instant, two sugars, that’s all, and not to make such a big deal out of it.
But Guadeloupe, well, she was fed up with being told all the time what to do, and her fues blew just like Bob Beamon in the thin air of Mexico City.
So that she and her nerves could spend a few moments in private, she shut the door to her room and went over to the corner, where a window, Swiss scenery and snow – in August – grew on a calendar. The plan rose to her head of its own accord, she didn’t have to open any drawer.
Underneath Switzerland stood the photocopying machine called Xerox. She lifted the lid, took a chair, climbed up and lay down on the glass. All kinds of limbs spilled over to the sides. She collected them and tidied them up, so that everything would fit in the format. She closed the lid on herself gently, like you close the lid on a coffin, or cover a baby. Then she pressed “ON” and closed her eyes real tight, so as not to be dazzled.
From closing her eyes so hard she fell asleep. From sleeping so soundly she didn’t hear the birth pangs of the machine creaking nor see herself being born. Her-self born from the Xerox was very much like herself; same secretary, same smile, what’s there to say? A carbon copy. Two hundred percent her.
Her eyes were already open, she was enveloped in the white reality around her – she was almost convinced that she was in paradise or at least in Switzerland, until she realized that the white was the top of the walls; the ceiling was so close, immediately she was swept by an urge to hit it with a kiss. Why not? Even an island sometimes longs to loosen it’s boundaries.
Her waist level had risen by a metre. Her knee peeped through the key hole. Her broad hips, one of the many Achilles’s heels she nurtured, had doubled as well. Luckily the Xerox magnifies everything in proportion and not the way it usually happens, that if something grows a little, right away its hang-ups develop in geometric progression, too.
The most accurate word to describe the woman who emerged from the Xerox would be: ֺmֺoֺnֺuֺmֺeֺnֺt.
All of this, everything that happened behind the closed door and must sound to you like a tedious lecture – didn’t take longer than a few seconds. Time is an amazing schizophrenic, time is manic. Time flew, and the door opened to welcome it.
Ah, what a laugh it would be, to look down on the situation: Her boss, terrified in his chair, as tiny as an out-of-control mini R.P.V., dwarfish, even if he were to overcome his paralysis and stand up, he would hardly tickle her ankle.
Anxiously, he watched those legs marching toward him. “Just don’t lose your nerve”, she repeated to herself, “Keep cool, walk slowly and softly, and hush, don’t awaken her compassion, lest the whole plan go down the drain.”
When she reached him she picked him up by his white collar which was already soaking wet with cold sweat. He cursed himself and wept in silence. Why did he have to be such a big spender and invest in sky and scenery, what was wrong with his last office, as if the sky only existed on floor forty-four. His feet drew little whirlpools in the air. He was positive that this was ֺiֺt.
But the secretary had other plans for him.
“Just you wait,” she said, “it’s not over yet.” He felt her hand, the one holding his neck, bringing him closer to her face, Looking at him eye to eye, like he used to do with his chihuahua when it was a puppy and left its poop on the carpet.
“Now,” she said, making her journey to the Xerox, “I’m going to make you ֺtֺhֺiֺs sֺmֺaֺlֺl.”
And so she did. It was very simple. All the buttons were already set, all she had to do was change the percentages from enlargement to reduction, and to press. Before she closed the lid on him she still managed to hear all kinds of voices promising her bonus shares, exclusive monopolies, compound interest, and other paired words which boast that if there are two of them, then they’ve got the world in their pocket. She tried to imagine to herself what it would feel like to have the world swelling in your pocket, like a prick. If I was a man, she said to herself, that’s probably what I would think. She didn’t know how to explain why she was suddenly very happy to be a woman and not a man.
She took a deep breath and pressed.
And she waited.
Until something emerged, something the size of a fountain pencil.
Miniscule fingers and a Lilliputian snout, a shining peeled pate. A sweet little dwarf, she almost duplicated a dozen. Luckily she stuck to the original plan. She turned away and sat down, overflowing the leatherarmchair, while he, a kinetic executive’s gadget, was placed among the papers on the desk, and regiments of words stood on the ramp of her tongue ready to jump, like paratroopers, into the unknown. Terrified, the eyes of the boss watched the hand, began to move, writhing towards him like an anaconda. He knew it was the end, that his life was about to turn into puree. Now, he thought, I’ll see it passing before my eyes.
And indeed this is what happened. All his miserable life passed before him frame by frame and it was definitely no thriller, he had to admit, all in all his life had been quite dull and dreary.
Apart from that there were all sorts of parts which did not find favour in his eyes or his ears. Whoever said that the movies were silent was either lying or dead – fact: the boss heard the barking of the chihuahua very clearly. He remembered how it peed joyfully in his honour every evening when he came home from work. And how, instead of being happy in return, he would shove the chihuahua’s gleaming nose into the puddle and say Fooi! And how the insulted chihuahua would nevertheless try to lick his cheek, and how he wouldn’t let it, even though it felt nice, because it wasn’t educational.
A warm wetness trickled down his cheek. He thought about his chihuahua, which would remain without him, who would look after it? He knew that he looked very unprofessional and even foolish crying, but it made no difference to him. By now he didn’t care about anything any more. His head emptied out of everything that was inside it (mainly figures and facts). If only a good fairy would show up here, he thought, one of those blonde ones with a wand and a wish, I would ask her to let me pet the chihuahua, one last time.
There was once a wise man who said “Everything is water”, and then another, even wiser, came along and said “Everything flows.” They were both right. The island of Guadeloupe was sunk up to the neck in the ocean, the boss streamed tears. And Guadeloupe the secretary? Something strange coneived within her, too.
A sweet torrent of spit flooded her mouth. Spit is no joke, nor words. All the nasty words she was about to pour onto the boss’s head dissolved in an instant. What’s happening here? She was alarmed. Was she losing control? whiTher the fantasies painted by her demonic desire; how she
would lie him on the desk and pull off his legs one after the other, and all his other limbs too, one by one, or – and this could be even more fun – force him to type her an apology in writing, by jumping from key to key.
What had gone wrong, that suddenly all these ideas did not seem so splendid?
She sat in the armchair, an overgrown secretary, sister to Og of Ashtaroth, choked with emotion, and how could she have guessed that her heart too had doubled itself. Suddenly she felt like cupping the boss in her hand and stroking him.
The boss’s closed eyes did not prevent him from looking into the cruel reality. He knew all too well that there are no good fairies. Neither in Guadaloupe nor at all. He dreamt that he was his own chihuahua, and how he was being stroked, and also that it was him stroking the chihuahua. Shivers of happiness shook him. Rivers of tenderness streamed through his body. Then he dreamt that he was gliding through the air, that he was being covered, and then there was a great, dazzling light, the kind that penetrates even closed eyes. Mommy, he thought in terror, this must be the light they talk about, the one you see at the end of the dark tunnel, before you… he didn’t want to say the word.
“You can open your eyes,” he heard a soft voice. He had no idea if he was in Paradise, hell, or limbo. Oh my God, he thought, I knew it, God’s a woman.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
It was the end of January, not long after the Christmas holidays, when the fat girl came to me. That winter I had started lending books to the children from the neighbourhood, who were supposed to collect and return them on a particular day of the week. Of course I knew most of them, but sometimes children who didn’t live in our street would come as well. And although the majority only stayed for as long as it took to exchange their books, there were a few who would sit down and start to read right there on the spot. Then I would sit at my desk and work, and the children sat at the little table by the bookshelves, and their presence was enjoyable and didn’t disturb me. The fat girl came on a Friday or Saturday, not on the lending day in any case. I was planning to go out, and was just taking a snack I had made myself into the room. I had had a visitor a little earlier, who must have forgotten to shut the front door. And so the fat girl appeared quite suddenly, just as I had set the tray down on my desk and turned round to fetch something from the kitchen. She was about twelve years old, wearing an old-fashioned loden coat and black knitted gaiters, and carrying a pair of ice skates on a strap. She looked familiar, though not very familiar, and because she had come in so quietly she had given me a fright.
‘Do I know you?’ I asked in surprise.
The fat girl said nothing. She just stood there and folded her hands over her round stomach and looked at me with eyes as light as water.
‘Would you like a book?’ I asked.
Again, the fat girl didn’t reply. But I wasn’t too surprised by that. I was used to the children being shy and having to help them. So I took out a few books and placed them in front of this unknown girl. Then I started filling out one of the cards on which I recorded the books I had lent out.
‘So, what’s your name?’ I asked.
‘They call me Fatty’, said the girl.
‘Shall I call you that as well?’ I asked.
‘I don’t care’, said the girl. She didn’t return my smile, and now I seem to remember that at that moment her face twisted in pain. But I took no notice.
‘When were you born?’ I went on.
‘In Aquarius’, the girl said calmly.
The response amused me and, half in fun, I wrote it down on the card. Then I turned back to the books.
‘Is there something specific you would like?’ I asked.
But then I saw that the strange girl’s eyes were not on the books at all, they were resting on the tray that held my tea and my sandwiches.
‘Perhaps you’d like something to eat’, I said quickly.
The girl nodded, and her look seemed rather hurt and surprised that this thought had only just occurred to me. She got to work, devouring one sandwich after another and doing so in a particular way that I only managed to describe to myself later. Then she sat still again and let her cold, languid eyes roam around the room, and there was something about her that filled me with resentment and loathing. Yes, it’s true: I had hated this child from the start. Everything about her had repelled me: her lethargic limbs, her fat pretty face, her way of speaking, which was at once somnolent and presumptuous. And although I had decided to forgo my walk for her sake, I was not at all kind to her, but cruel and cold.
Or could it be deemed a kindness that I then sat down at my desk, took up my work and said over my shoulder, ‘Read now’, although I knew very well that this unknown girl had no desire to read? And I sat there and wanted to write and got nothing done, because I had a strange, tormented feeling, like when you are supposed to guess something and have not guessed it, and as long as you have not guessed it, nothing can ever be the same. And I held out for a while, but not for very long, and then I turned round and began a conversation, and I could come up with only the most foolish of questions.
‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, said the girl.
‘Do you like going to school?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, said the girl.
‘So what do you like most?’
‘Sorry?’ said the girl.
‘What subject?’ I asked, desperately.
‘I don’t know’, said the girl.
‘German, maybe?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know’, said the girl.
I twirled my pencil between my fingers, and something began to grow inside me, a dread that was out of all proportion with the girl’s arrival.
‘Do you have friends?’ I asked, trembling.
‘Oh yes’, said the girl.
‘And I’m sure you have a best friend, don’t you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know’, said the girl, and sitting there in her hairy loden coat she looked like a fat caterpillar; she had eaten like a caterpillar, too, and like a caterpillar she now started sniffing around again.
You’re not getting anything else, I thought, filled with a strange vindictiveness. But then I went out all the same and fetched some bread and slices of sausage, and the girl stared at it with her dull face and then she started eating, like a caterpillar eats, slow and steady, as if driven by an inner compulsion, and I looked on, hostile and mute. For by now everything about the girl had begun to upset and anger me. What a silly white dress, what a ridiculous stand-up collar, I thought, when the girl had finished eating and unbuttoned her coat. I sat down to my work again, but then I heard the girl smacking her lips behind me, and this sound was like the slow lapping of a black pond somewhere in the forest, it made me conscious of everything dull and watery, everything heavy and brackish in human nature, and it angered me. What do you want from me? I thought. Go away, go away. And I wanted to push the child out of the room with my own hands, as you might drive away an annoying animal. But then I didn’t push her out of the room; I spoke to her again, and in the same cruel manner.
‘Are you going out on the ice now?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, said the fat girl.
‘Are you good at ice skating?’ I asked, gesturing to the skates that were still hanging over the girl’s arm.
‘My sister’s good’, said the girl, and once more an expression of pain and sadness appeared on her face, and once more I took no notice.
‘What does your sister look like?’ I asked. ‘Is she like you?’
‘Oh, no’, said the fat girl. ‘My sister is very thin and has black, curly hair. In summer, when we’re in the countryside, she gets up at night when a storm comes and sits on the edge of the upstairs balcony and sings.’
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘I stay in bed’, said the girl. ‘I’m afraid.’
‘Your sister’s not afraid, is she?’ I said.
‘No’, said the girl. ‘She’s never afraid. She jumps off the highest diving board, too. She dives in head-first, and then she swims a long way out…’
‘And what does your sister sing?’ I asked, curious.
‘She sings whatever she wants’, the fat girl said, sadly. ‘She makes up poems.’
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t do anything’, said the girl. And then she got up and said: ‘I have to go now.’ I held out my hand, and she put her fat fingers into it, and I don’t know exactly what I felt – something like an invitation to follow her, an inaudible, urgent call. ‘Do come again’, I said, but I didn’t mean it, and the girl said nothing and looked at me with her cool eyes. And then she was gone, and really I should have felt relieved. But the apartment door had hardly clicked shut when I was dashing out into the corridor too and putting on my coat. I hurried down the stairs and reached the street just as the girl disappeared round the next corner.
I have to see how this caterpillar ice skates, I thought. I have to see how this lump of lard moves on the ice. And I quickened my pace so as not to lose sight of her.
It had been early afternoon when the fat girl came into my room, and now dusk was falling. Although I had spent a few years in this town as a child, I didn’t really know my way around any more, and I was so intent on following the girl that soon I didn’t know where we were, and the streets and squares that appeared before me were entirely unfamiliar. I also noticed a sudden change in the air. It had been very cold, but now a thaw had definitely set in with such a force that the snow was already dripping from the roofs and large Föhn clouds were moving across the sky. We came to the outskirts of town, where the houses are surrounded by large gardens, and then there were no more houses, and then suddenly the girl disappeared, diving down an embankment. And where I had expected to see a skating rink, bright stalls and arc lamps and a glittering surface alive with screams and music, I was now confronted with a very different sight. Below me lay the lake whose banks I thought had all been built upon: it was quite solitary, surrounded by black woods, and it looked just as it had in my childhood.
I was so stirred by this unexpected scene that I almost lost sight of the girl. But then I saw her again, perching on the bank. She was trying to cross one leg over the other, holding the skate onto her foot with one hand while the other turned the key. She dropped the key a few times, and then the fat girl fell onto all fours and slid about on the ice, searching for it, looking like an outlandish toad. Moreover, it was getting darker and darker; the steamer jetty, stretching out across the ice just a few metres away from the girl, was a deep black above the huge surface of the lake. The ice had a silvery sheen, but not all over: here and there it was a little darker, and in these cloudy spots the thaw was setting in. Hurry up, I called out impatiently, and Fatty did actually start to hurry, but not at my urging; out there, beyond the end of the long steamer jetty, someone was waving and shouting, ‘Come on, Fatty’, someone who was skating in circles out there, a light, bright figure. It occurred to me that this must be the sister, the dancer, the storm singer, the girl after my own heart, and I was soon convinced that I had been drawn here purely by a desire to see this graceful creature. But at the same time I became aware of the danger the children were in. For now, all at once, there came this peculiar groan, this deep sigh that the lake seems to give before its skin of ice breaks. The sigh ran through the depths like an eerie lament, and I heard it, and the children did not.
No, of course they didn’t hear it. Otherwise Fatty, that fearful little thing, would not have started out, she would not have ventured further and further, sliding her feet scratchily, clumsily forward, and her sister out there would not have laughed and waved and spun like a ballerina on the tip of her skate, and then returned to her elegant figures of eight, and Fatty would have avoided the black patch from which she briefly shied away, only to then cross it after all, and her sister would not suddenly have stood up tall and skated off, away, away to one of the secluded little inlets.
I could see all this very well, since I had begun to walk out along the steamer jetty, further and further, putting one foot in front of the other. Although the planks were icy, I made better progress than the fat girl down below, and when I turned I could see her face, the expression at once dull and yearning. I could also see the cracks that were now appearing everywhere and from which, like froth from the lips of a person in a towering rage, a little foaming water spilled. And then of course I also saw the ice break beneath the fat girl. It broke in the spot where her sister had been dancing, just a few arms’ lengths from the end of the jetty.
I hasten to add that this crack was not a life-threatening one. The lake freezes in several layers, and the second was only a meter below the first and still entirely solid. All that happened was that Fatty was left standing in a metre of water – icy water, admittedly, and surrounded by crumbling sheets of ice – and if she only waded a few paces she would be able to reach the jetty and pull herself up, and I could help her. But at the same time I thought, she won’t manage that, and it did seem as though she wouldn’t, from the way she was standing there, scared to death, splashing clumsily about, with the water streaming around her and the ice shattering beneath her hands. Aquarius, I thought, now the water bearer is dragging her down, and I felt nothing at all, not even the slightest pity, and I did not stir.
But then Fatty suddenly lifted her head, and because night had really fallen now and the moon had appeared from behind the clouds I could see clearly that something in her face had changed. The features were the same and yet different, they had been torn open by passion and determination, as if now, in the face of death, they were drinking in all of life, all the glowing life in the world. Yes, I’m sure I believed that: that death was at hand and this was the end, and I leaned over the railings and looked into that white countenance below me, and like a mirror image it looked back out of the black flood. But then the fat girl made it to the wooden stilt. She reached out and began to haul herself up, cleverly grasping the nails and hooks that stuck out of the wood. Her body was too heavy, and her fingers bled, and she fell back, only to begin all over again. And it was a long battle, a terrible struggle for release and transformation, like I was watching the cracking of a shell or a cocoon, and at that point I might certainly have helped the girl, but by then I knew I no longer needed to help her – I had recognised her…
I don’t remember how I got home that evening. I only know that on our staircase I told a neighbour that one part of the lakeshore was still covered with meadows and black woods, and she told me, no, it wasn’t. And that I then found the papers on my desk all mixed up, and somewhere amongst them an old photograph of myself, in a white woollen dress with a stand-up collar, with light, watery eyes, and very fat.
*This story is taken from: Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden. Vierter Band. Die Erzählungen. © Insel Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1983.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
It was a Wednesday and time for my milk bath. But the light white liquid in angular packs – sucked from udders in farmyards, purloined from bovines, diversely digested from greenest grasses for calves, stirred and Pasteur’d and mechanically divested to dairies, then trucked off to supermarkets – that fluid was far insufficient to fill my tub. I fetched smetana and cream from the kitchen, and poured them on top of the nineteen litres coughed up by Melchior, the refrigerator. It looked like I’d have to buy more milk. But where? The shops were all shut. So the 24-hour garage? I had money to burn – spent weeks whiting walls and now had money in stacks. And so off I went.
But before I set out I prepared a headband.
My girlfriend Karen had dumped me four months ago, taking everything when she moved out: the sandwich maker, the high sleeper bed, Melchior’s predecessor… All but a fourteen-centimetre brass screw that had fastened the bed to the wall, which I now poked through the headband and wrapped with duct tape in such a fashion that the erstwhile harmless ‘Nike’ was replaced by a horn. I put it on my head, grabbed my parka and headed for the wide world.
O, and outside, there… lindens in blossom! Not a flake left of snow on the roofs of the cars, shining matte and mute in the light of the lamps, empty but unheavably heavy all along the pavement that bore me onwards – summer had come. Dashboards draped with tenderly devaluated tickets to reggae gigs, passenger seats peppered with polka-dot bikinis, flip-flops, snorkels, paper plates full of marble-cake crumbs, squashed cigarette boxes, back seats with deflated inflatables and bottles devoided of beer, glassy drunk-up lemonade and juices, all labelled summer meadowsome, proud possessors of hours to pluck apart like pulled pork.
Touched and sad that the party seemed to be over, I stared into the usually fast-moving feretories, these Snow Whitish glass coffins inhabited by a summer turned human. Had I been a prince I’d have kissed one awake. I’d have broken a pane and stolen a car. Had I been a thief I’d have driven away, even further down south, to the palm forest of Menorcan emotions opening up in my soul. I hearkened the swell of the long-distance traffic, saw ‘the lake’ above the roofs, saw the intentioned crystal polished by the sanding belt of streets heading heavenwards. O, how sad, how sublime, how momentous and momentless that evening was, and guileless, and how it brought itself forth, snorting and nostril-nudging quite quietly in the midst of the city! (The bobbing hazel branch, I mean.)
The garage was palpable from far off, a cancer of sticks, a pulsing of gas in hoses, a turning of tummies, a vomit of snakes into tanks, a fear written on faces that money might be tight, a cursing of sheikhs, a standing at lakes in which not one fish swam. A gentle wind tickled my nose, bristling with benzine. I sneezed. From far off I spotted, in blazers and screaming shirts, the dudes ducked behind their beat-booming, door-slamming rides, threatening each other with pump pistols, jamming nozzles in brightly glossed orifices, crowned clowns of competitive fuelling. Or perhaps it was just a succession of smoking and gas-guzzling nozzle-fiddlers, but the language here, in my memory, stacks everything up to a glistening simultaneity, assonance, and I want to let it roam free, want to let it let me, here in this last sentence, step through a gently sliding double glass door with the cry ‘There goes the last of the unicorns!’ at my back, into the bright.
It’s just like it always is. It’s like being pelted hard and bright with goods that are otherwise good. Hard and bright and hailing. A stoning or a cherrystone pillow fight, many against one, one small guy, no – gangly. The gangly guy who comes in holds his arms before his face to protect himself from the packets of crisps, boxes of cigarettes, cans of Red Bull, brochures of bosoms, bars of chocolate, bottles of wine, bottles of bubbly, bottles of beer, packets of chewing gum, racks of magazines, bags of wine gums, stares, snacks, slurpees and sweeties – all flying at him from all directions. His name is simply ‘Hannes’. He approaches the sales assistant. All he wants from her is a smile and maybe a kiss. And she, black-haired, made-up, brushing him off from the beginning, draws a barcode on his forehead with a pen (that’s not a lipstick), puts her infrared pistol to this chest before his brain that is a heart, and pulls the trigger. A laconic beep. Hannes learns he is worth no more than 95 cents, and before the eyes of the sales assistant, her identity revealed by her nametag just in time – ‘Carmen’ – he founders. Flounders, swallowed up by the ground.
And so there I stood, at the 24-hour garage, adorned in my attack plumage, and thought dark thoughts of my flat. How abandoned it seemed now. How distant and vacant and furnished only with Melchior and a single chair. And how very much my front-door key lay on that chair and how the three of them were whispering soundlessly about where I might be. Touched by this knowledge, I began to look around a little in the shop that was that of the 24-hour garage. I flicked through two or three of the mags. Bags of crisps proved rather rugged. I sniffed at the O of a Pringles tin and studied cans of fat and hydrates and ingredients with a wail. Tested windscreen wipers for intactity. Tried out a bouncing ball – until it fell to the Milky Ways, on the shelf below the counter. And then I knew once again what I was there for. I wanted milk!
O, they had milk! Well, not my favourite brand but at least seventeen litres – in the strongly – too strongly! – refrigerated 24-hour-garage refrigerator, so I envisaged myself, making virtue out of necessity, standing in the kitchen and boxing bubbling milk to beautiful bath foam… I asked a man with muscles rummaging in a transparent hemisphere filled with Red Bull cans to, as I put it, ‘do me a very sudden favour’. First he looked me in the eyes. Then at my horn. Then at my shoes. Then at my face. Then at its expression and then he said ‘Oh…’ and then ‘kaay…’ I led him over (to the refrigerator) and explained what and how. I held my arms out so that he could place the milk cartons – like logs – in the bend of my elbows, first clenching my debit card between my teeth. He loaded and loaded. His gold chain slid back and forth on his bullish neck, and his sweating was piggish.
Now and then I gave him a slight kick in the shin with my springy shoe-tips to drive him on, rammed my knee in his stomach area to encourage him to pile faster, gave him – impossible, loaded down as I was, and so didn’t give him – ‘a slap round the ear’ole’ to keep things moving. It was about five minutes until we were done. As he moved away from me, his face facing me, walking backwards, it seemed we had known each other for hours. I dismissed him with a kind of dignified nod.
Caro, so the sales assistant was called this time, had watched us labouring. We must have given the impression of two boy scouts volunteering to fetch wood on arriving in a mountain hut. That kind of thing – male concern for a fire, fetching wood, chopping wood, skilfully positioning wood in the flames – always goes down well with the lasciviously shivering women pressing their knees together all a-jitter, dressed in sexily utilitarian woolly shuddering jumpers, staring longingly at the embers and humming quietly to themselves, too shy to sing, too turned on to be silent. As I joined the queue I thought I made out the flickering reflection of flames and distant starlight on Caro’s brightening face.
Two Rizla purchasers were ahead of me. Then Caro reached for one of the packs from my wobbly mountain. She let it beep, counted up and then entered the algorithm times seventeen. When she told me the total, a horrendous sum, I raised my brows in complaint (my headband almost slipping off!) and then stretched my neck in her direction, complete with the head in whose mouth the card was clenched.
Caro removed the card from me with her fingertips, giving me an opportunity to say ‘Thank you’, and inserted it into the device’s slit. ‘Pin code please and then green to confirm,’ Caro said. I drew the milk more firmly to my chest and leaned forward. My horn sped down to the small, quietly beeping buttons. A receipt was printed. It and the card in my mouth, I left the 24-hour garage.
With my white freight I galloped through the night.
*This story is taken from: “Milchgesicht. Ein Bestiarium der Liebe” by Jan Snela © 2016 by J. G. Cotta’sche Buchhandlung Nachfolger GmbH, gegr. 1659, Stuttgart.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
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